Derek feels every bump in the dirt road from his seat in the bed of the red pickup; he bounces uncomfortably every time a tire hits a rock or pothole. The ride jostles his leg until there’s a dull throbbing deep inside, and no matter how he shifts, the pain doesn’t ease. He can’t complain, though; beggars can’t be choosers, and a free ride is a free ride.
A thin haze of dust hangs around the truck as it travels down the empty roads. The wide fields roll by for miles, a numbing sort of beauty in the unchanging landscape. Tall mountains rise in the far distance, and the only thing breaking up the monotony of the scenery is the errant herd of cattle or group of horses. Wyoming ranch land looks like the ranch land Derek’s worked all over the west. When he was a kid, the vistas took his breath away, the way he could stare at golden fields and green pastures and see for miles. Now, Derek tries to forget the memories. He just keeps his head down and does the next job that’ll keep him fed.
Derek’s covered in dust and grime by the time the truck rolls to a stop at an intersection. The driver leans his head out of the window. “Hey fella, this as far as I can take you unless you’re heading up Cheyenne way.”
Derek grabs his bundle and carefully climbs over the tailgate, making sure to keep pressure off his left leg. “Thanks,” he grunts as he slings the bundle over his shoulder. The driver tips his hat and drives away, leaving Derek standing alone in the middle of nowhere Wyoming.
The sun is high overhead, beating down against Derek’s neck as he stares at the intersection. The driver turned right towards Cheyenne, the trail of dust still visible in the distance, so Derek walks straight ahead.
Stiles runs down the stairs, tripping on the last step and tumbling into the kitchen, barely catching his balance before he face plants. The sheriff doesn’t hide his snicker.
“Sorry, sorry,” Stiles starts as he crosses the kitchen to grab two of the muffins Ethel from the station sent home with his dad the day before. “I know I overslept.”
“I told you so.” The sheriff pours Stiles a cup of coffee and hands it over. Stiles forgets about the muffins in favor of downing the lukewarm coffee. “You always oversleep when you go to Scott’s.”
“I hadn’t seen him in a week,” Stiles complains. “And you know, he’s going to college in a few months, all the way in California, Dad, and then who knows when I’ll see him again.”
The sheriff sighs. “I know this, Stiles. Have I said anything about it?”
“You just did!”
“I just said I told you so,” the sheriff replies. “That’s hardly chewing you out.”
Stiles opens his mouth to argue, but well, his dad had a point. Dammit. “Well. Yeah.”
His dad nods, eyes twinkling with amusement over the rim of his coffee mug. After he finishes the coffee, he sets it in the sink. “I need you to check the chicken coop. Parrish said Isaac came running and screaming from it this morning because there was a snake in there.”
“What a wuss,” Stiles snorts, grabbing his two muffins and stuffing one in his mouth as he walks over to his work boots by the door. They’re caked with mud, straw, and god knows what else.
“Need I remind you about the rattlesnake incident of ’09?” the sheriff asks.
“Cold, Dad,” Stiles says. His dad smirks as he walks over to the gun cabinet and unlocks it to remove his sidearm. He holsters it as Stiles shoves his feet in his boots. “You promised to never speak of that again.”
“It was a rattlesnake!” Stiles exclaims, waving his arms around and sending crumbs flying through the air. “You don’t mess with rattlesnakes. Tough ol’ grown men are scared of rattlers.”
The sheriff claps Stiles on the shoulder. “Most grown men don’t piss themselves.”
“Whose side are you on, anyway?” Stiles glares at his dad. The sheriff squeezes Stiles’ shoulder and heads out of the door.
“Love you, too, Dad,” Stiles calls as he follows him out to the porch. “Be careful.” The sheriff waves as he gets into his cruiser.
Stiles takes off behind the house, down a dusty lane towards the barn. The Beacon Hills Ranch extends all around him, the pastures full of cows and a few horses. The ranch had belonged to his mother’s family. It had started out as small plot of land with a few cows after the gold rush in the late 1800s, and over the last century had grown into a large cattle ranch, though now a lot smaller than it was a decade or two ago. After his mother died, his father had contemplated selling it, but neither of them could bear to part with it. His mother had loved this ranch almost as much as she loved Stiles and his father.
As Stiles nears the old barn that’s in serious need of repairs, he sees Boyd’s truck parked just outside beside Parrish’s. Stiles ignores the chicken coops in favor of visiting with the ranch hands. The heat is stifling as soon as he steps inside, his plaid shirt already sticking to his skin. The heavy scent of animals and dung hangs in the air, and it’s so familiar Stiles barely notices it. He spies Parrish, Boyd, and Isaac in the back.
“Hey,” Stiles greets as he approaches, and they all nod and bid him good morning. Isaac steps to the side so he can join their circle. “I hear you had quite a scare this morning.”
Isaac runs a hand over his face. “I hate snakes.”
“I heard you were running out of there like a baby, all screaming and crying.”
“I was not crying,” Isaac snaps. Stiles just laughs.
“Did you kill the snake?” Stiles asks.
“I did,” Parrish says.
“He cut off the head and the chicken eggs were still in there.” Isaac shudders. “Whole chicken eggs. It was disgusting.”
Parrish smiles. “Isaac here was looking a little green around the gills.”
“You’re never gonna get used to working on a ranch, are you?” Boyd asks. “It’s been two years, man.”
“I know,” Isaac says. “I just…hate snakes.” Isaac had come to work at the ranch when they were looking for cheap labor a few years ago. Isaac and Stiles had been in all the same classes, and Isaac and Scott were good friends, so Scott suggested Isaac for the job. In all honesty, Isaac was a terrible ranch hand. He was squeamish and too soft hearted for much of what happened on the ranch, especially a cattle ranch. But he was a hard worker, and best of all, he worked for nearly nothing in return for room and board. After the sheriff had noticed Isaac’s bruises again and again, he had gotten the law involved, and when Isaac’s dad went to jail, the sheriff took Isaac in. He lived in a small guest house on the other side of the main horse pasture. Parrish had been working for the sheriff for a few years now, signing on after he graduated from the local agricultural college, and the sheriff had hired Boyd when no one else in town would. They were the only workers the ranch had, aside from Stiles, and Stiles had no problem admitting that they were severely understaffed. Severely understaffed. He’d like to have a day off occasionally.
What Stiles did have a problem admitting was the actual financial state of the ranch. If they didn’t turn things around soon, he knew they were going to have to sell the ranch. It’s one of the main reasons Stiles wasn’t going to college. They couldn’t afford it, and his dad needed him here on the ranch.
While Parrish and Boyd go to check on the cattle being readied to send to slaughter and Isaac tends to a pregnant heifer, Stiles goes to check the wire of the chicken coop. By the time he finishes, it’s midday, his shirt is soaked, and his hands are bleeding in places. But the coop is only one of many chores that needs doing around the ranch.
He looks out at the fields as he cracks his back. A part of him hates the ranch, but there’s a larger part of him that loves this place despite all the problems and the never-ending hard work, the same part of him that sees his mother in every field, in every fence post, in every horse that gallops across the horizon.
Derek gets run out of the first town he stops in because a guy with a large truck and an even larger hat accuses him of hitting on his wife. Truth is, Derek had been sitting at the one bar in town, minding his business and eating a badly cooked hamburger when the wife had thrown herself at him. He manages to get out of the bar with only a cuff on the chin and a gnawing hunger. He walks five miles before he’s able to hitch a ride to the next town, but regretfully no one has any work to offer him, so he eats a dinner of jerky and five-day old bread under a tree since he spent his last five bucks on the burger he didn’t even get to finish. Despite the fact that his leg is killing him, he walks down the empty road, hoping for a truck to drive by and pick him up.
The next two days are filled with more walking and no work. An elderly lady takes pity on him when she sees him asking around town for odd jobs and invites him to her home and feeds him a plate of fried chicken, biscuits, and collards. It’s the best meal he’s had in weeks, and he feels slightly guilty for taking thirds. She doesn’t seem to care, though. She’s obviously lonely, and Derek lets her talk while he eats. Usually he hates when people talk to him, but she reminds him of someone, and her inane chatter is soothing in an odd way. In the greater scheme of things, it isn’t a bad price for a free home cooked meal.
Two days later he buys a postcard at a general store for a dime. Aside from Laura’s address, he leaves it blank like he always does. He doesn’t have anything to say; just wants her to know he’s still alive. He hitches a ride after he drops it in the mailbox and eats the rest of his jerky and bread in the bed of the truck alongside the bags of hayseed, and tries not to think of how hungry he will be if he doesn’t find work.
The sun has been down for a few hours, the air already cool enough that Derek’s shivering. The worn denim jacket he’s wearing does little to cut the chill. His leg is killing him; he’s put more miles on it in the last few days than he has in awhile, and he’s paying for it. It had healed up nicely and usually only gives him trouble when he overworks it or the weather was bad, but he’s pretty sure that walking miles and miles every day isn’t something his physical therapist would have approved. He grits his teeth though, and travels on.
He’s not really interested in sleeping out in the open tonight, praying a coyote doesn’t get him. Up ahead, he sees a house with a few lights still burning. It’s the first house he’s passed in over ten miles, just open spaces with the distant lowing of cows since the last town. He’s not naïve to think that knocking on the door would yield him a place to stay, but a barn, empty tool shed, or even silo might give him a place to crash for a few hours. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Derek finds a closed metal gate and climbs over it with some difficulty. The ranch doesn’t have the highest fence security, just some barbed wire and a cattle grid to keep the cows from escaping. As silently as possible, he makes his way down the dirt lane, his eyes so used to the dark that he can make out the path.
When he nears the house, he starts winding towards the barn he can see in the distance. Someone is still awake in the house; Derek can see the flickering colors from a television in an upstairs bedroom. The barn, however, is dark and empty. It’s kind of run down, and the door creaks when he cracks it enough to slip through.
The smell inside is strong, but the barn is warm, and Derek knows he can’t go much farther on his leg. He passes stalls containing horses, and reaches out to pet one who’s ventured out to see the nightly visitor. Three empty stalls stand in the back of the barn, and Derek steps into the last one. The hay smells clean, so Derek drops his bundle and then follows it down. He splays out on his back and just breathes, his heart beating in his ears and his leg throbbing. It hasn’t been in this much pain in a long time, and Derek knows he’s overdone it.
He doesn’t dwell on it though. He settles his bundle behind his head and shifts until he’s more comfortable, the tension leaving his body as he sinks into the hay.
Derek falls asleep within seconds.
Stiles yawns as he makes his way towards the barn. He hates getting up so early, but if he was honest, he’d say this was his favorite time of the day. The whole world is quiet as it wakes up, the air smelling fresh and slightly damp with dew. The sky is a beautiful hue, purples giving way to pinks and oranges. Even a few stars can still be seen scattered above. He lifts his head to take it all in as he walks across the yard.
The barn door groans when Stiles opens it, and yeah, add that to the never ending list of things needing repairs. Barn door is so low on their list of priorities, though, that Stiles doesn’t even bother remembering it.
The horses start neighing and moving in their stalls when they see Stiles. “Morning to y’all, too,” Stiles says as he goes to the feed bag. He dips the cup inside and then carries it over to dump into the first stall’s bucket. Blossom digs right in, and Stiles pets her nose lightly. He does the same thing with the other four horses before walking towards the back of the barn to grab a basket to collect the morning’s eggs.
But before he gets there, he stops dead in his tracks. There is a man. There is a man asleep in the barn. As silently as possible, Stiles moves closer to the stall door to peek over the side and get a better look at the trespasser. The man is lying on his side, his face mostly buried in his arms. His clothes are dirty, his shoes worn, his skin coated in dust and grime. Stiles can’t get a good look at his face, but there’s a dark scruff covering it.
Stiles backs away just as silently, back past the horses still digging into their buckets, and out the thankfully still open barn door. As soon as he clears the door, he breaks into a run, sprinting across the yard and up the back steps.
“Dad!” he yells as he bursts into the kitchen. The sheriff nearly drops his coffee he’s so startled. His brow creases as Stiles starts pointing behind him. “Dad, there’s a man in the barn!”
“What?” the sheriff exclaims. He sets down his coffee and immediately grabs the rifle from the top of the gun cabinet. “Did he hurt you?”
Stiles shakes his head. “He’s asleep in one of the stalls.”
The sheriff nods his head as he asks, “Did he have any weapons?”
Stiles shakes his head again. “Not that I saw.”
“What did you see?”
“Dirty guy, probably late thirties, early forties, beat up clothes, small pack.”
The sheriff frowns. “Damn vagrants. I’ll deal with him.” He exits the house, and when Stiles follows, turns around and points. “No.”
“I found him!” Stiles exclaims.
The sheriff looks between Stiles and the barn before huffing in annoyance. “Fine, but stay behind me.”
“Awesome. We’re gonna catch ourselves a vagrant!” When the sheriff glares at Stiles, Stiles amends, “I mean, I will watch silently and not interfere at all.” The sheriff rolls his eyes and turns his gaze ahead.
The man is still asleep in the same position when they approach the stall. The sheriff lifts the rifle and points it before shouting, “Hey! You! Up!”
The man jumps like he’s been shot, sitting straight up and looking around in confused fear. Stiles is surprised to discover that the man is much younger than he originally thought. He’s older than Stiles, but not by much, and looks even younger as he cowers in the hay like a frightened animal. The man turns his head from side to side as the confusion clears, and when he spies the sheriff pointing a gun at him, crouches back against the wall of the barn like he’s trying to make himself as small as possible. Stiles doesn’t think the man seems like a criminal, and he can tell in the set of his father’s shoulders that he doesn’t think so either.
“What are you doing in my barn?” The man doesn’t respond, just continues staring at the gun. Stiles notices that now that the initial fear and confusion has passed, he’s kind of glaring angrily at the barrel pointing at him. But maybe that’s just the eyebrows. “What business do you have on my ranch? Thinking about stealing something, huh?”
“Um, I don’t think someone thinking about stealing something would fall – ah, okay, yeah shutting up.” Stiles mimes zipping his lips as his dad gives him a look over his shoulder. The man is staring up at Stiles like he’s insane.
“I suggest you answer me, young man. I’m Sheriff Stilinski, and you’re trespassing on private property.”
The man heaves a defeated sigh. “I just needed a place to sleep,” he replies quietly. “This was the first house I’d passed in ten miles.”
“That’d be because we live in the middle of nowhere,” Stiles pipes up, and the man glances at him again with a look of disbelief.
The sheriff sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose as he shakes his head. “Stiles, what did I say?”
“I hardly think the vagrant is going to hurt us.” The man’s face goes dark at the comment, and Stiles wonders if he’s stepped over the line.
But the sheriff turns towards the man and tilts his head as he studies him. “I can’t argue with you there. Looks like a good wind could just knock him over. Son,” he directs towards the man still sitting in the hay, “when’s the last time you had a proper meal? Or a proper night’s sleep?”
“Dad, what are you doing?” Stiles whispers, though not very quietly.
“Being the sheriff!”
“Whoa, Sheriff, I know I trespassed, and I’m real sorry. I didn’t expect to sleep so long and meant to be gone before the sun came up. Don’t arrest me. I’ll just get going.” The man struggles as he pushes himself up.
“You’ll do no such thing,” the sheriff says. The man looks somewhere between wanting to murder the sheriff and wanting to cry. “You’ll go right inside and get you some breakfast and a cup of coffee.”
“What?” the man asks at the same time as Stiles.
“You heard me. Now go before I change my mind.”
The man glances between them before grabbing his pack and exiting the stall. He walks ahead of them out of the barn, and Stiles notices the slight limp in his gait.
“What are you doing?” Stiles asks as they follow behind. “Breakfast?”
“Stiles, did you see him? He’s younger than Parrish. He looks like he’s been rode hard and put up wet. Now, as the sheriff of these parts, it’s my job to protect people. This is me, protecting people.”
Stiles frowns. “He could still kill us in our sleep.”
“It’s breakfast, Stiles. I hardly think he’s going to attack an armed officer of the law.”
“How can you know that? You know nothing about him!”
“You were the one defending him earlier.”
“I was not!” Stiles exclaims.
“You said no one would steal things if they had fallen asleep in the barn.”
“I didn’t mean invite him in for freaking breakfast!”
The sheriff stops right before they get to the porch. Stiles can see the man standing awkwardly in the kitchen through the window. “He’s not that much older than you, Stiles. If for some reason you were down on your luck with no place to sleep, I’d hope someone would be kind enough to offer you a hot meal before you were on your way.” He runs a hand down his face as he turns to look through the window. “Besides, it’s what your mother would have done.”
Damn him, Stiles thinks. He can’t argue with that logic, because his father is right. His mom would have cooked the biggest breakfast the man had ever seen and then packed him enough food for the next week.
“Fine,” Stiles finally relents. “I’ll cook him breakfast.”
The sheriff claps Stiles on the shoulder before going ahead.
Inside the kitchen, the man hovers awkwardly before the sheriff takes pity on him and pulls out a chair at the dining room table. He walks into the dining room, sits down, and looks around uncomfortably, poised on the chair like he’s ready to bolt at a moment’s notice.
“What’s your name?” the sheriff asks, sitting a cup of coffee by the man’s elbow.
The man clears his throat, then replies, “Derek.”
“Derek,” the sheriff says with a nod. “What brings you to these parts?” Stiles glances over his shoulder as he scrambles the eggs. Derek stares at his coffee mug and doesn’t answer. “It’s not a difficult question, son.”
“I’ve been looking for work,” Derek answers into his cup. Stiles turns back to the stove with the feeling that something is just off about Derek. He can’t pinpoint what it is, but it’s there.
“What kind of work do you do?” his dad asks.
“Anything,” Derek replies. “Mostly ranch hand work, but I’ve done just about everything.”
The sheriff nods. The dining room is quiet as Stiles finishes up breakfast and piles everything onto three plates. He carries them through the door, sitting a pile of eggs, bacon, and toast in front of Derek. Derek’s eyes go wide, which Stiles finds odd because he just quickly threw together some stuff. It’s not like he’s serving the famous Stilinski breakfast bread. Stiles sets his own plate down before placing one in front of the sheriff.
The sheriff frowns at the plate. “Stiles.”
“Don’t start,” Stiles says as he drops into his chair. “Scrambled egg whites, one piece of wheat toast, tomatoes and avocado, and a pear. A delicious breakfast. He thinks I’ll suddenly let him eat breakfast and forget about…“ Stiles trails off when he turns to Derek, who’s shoveling food into his mouth. Stiles knows it’s rude to stare, but he hasn’t seen someone eat like that since Boyd and Isaac competed in the town’s pie eating contest last summer.
Derek looks up when he notices the lag in conversation, and his ears pink as he sits up and sheepishly wipes his mouth. “I apologize,” he says quietly. “He doesn’t let you have bacon, sir?” Derek asks more loudly.
The sheriff tears his eyes from Derek and pokes the avocado on his plate. “Stiles, how many times do I have to tell you I hate avocado?” He glances at Derek. “He’s always trying to make me eat this healthy stuff.”
“Because the doctor told him he couldn’t eat the fatty stuff!” Stiles exclaims. “Plus, dude, avocado is good. I don’t know why you hate it.”
“I like it, too,” Derek says. “I tend to like it with pineapple or mixed in a smoothie. Or even in a salad.”
The sheriff looks thoughtfully at the green blob on his plate. “That doesn’t sound too bad. Maybe I’ll try that.”
“What?” Stiles exclaims. He turns to Derek, his mouth hanging open. “What are you, some kind of drifting sorcerer? What spell did you just put on my dad that made him willingly agree to eat avocado?”
Derek gives Stiles a small smile, and wow, that transformed his face completely. Stiles stares for a beat too long before turning to his dad and pointing his fork.
“I’m totally holding you to this. Tonight there will be some kind of magical voodoo avocado dish that you will eat with no complaints.”
“If I’m eating it tonight, I’m not eating it now.”
Stiles sighs and turns to Derek, shaking his head. “I can’t win with him.”
Derek looks away from Stiles quickly, his eyes focusing on his now clean plate. Stiles glances at his own plate, still piled with food, and suddenly doesn’t feel very hungry. He pushes the plate across the table, and Derek stares at it for a moment. Stiles thinks he might not take it until Derek slowly pulls it towards himself and shovels eggs into his mouth.
Stiles tries not to watch him eat, but he can’t seem to stop, especially when he notices the slight upturn of Derek’s lips.
Derek clears away the plates when Stiles walks outside with the sheriff. Stiles glances over his shoulder, where he can see Derek through the open back door, and leans against the police cruiser as the sheriff opens the door.
“Want me to kick him out?” Stiles asks.
The sheriff watches Derek thoughtfully through the open door. “That kid’s damn near starved and exhausted.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
“Pack him some food, send him on his way,” the sheriff says with a sigh. “I don’t have the money to pay anyone for work.”
“Plus, pretty sure he’s a murderer,” Stiles says. At his father’s look of disbelief, Stiles adds, “Did you see the way he murdered that breakfast? Felony levels right there.”
“Give him food that won’t go bad,” the sheriff says as he shuts the door of the cruiser. He rolls down the window. “Be careful, though. Text Parrish or Boyd, let them know you have a guest.”
“Have a good day at work,” Stiles says, pushing off the car and waving as his dad backs up and starts down the long dirt driveway.
When Stiles reenters the house, he isn’t quite prepared for what he sees. Derek at the sink, washing the dishes. He can’t even get Parrish, Boyd, and Isaac to wash the dishes, and he has to threaten Scott. Yet Derek’s washing dishes like it’s normal to help out in the kitchen.
“Hey, what are you doing?” Stiles exclaims, stepping further into the kitchen. Derek glares at him, elbow deep in suds.
“What does it look like?”
“Whoa, that is no way to act towards your host,” Stiles says, sidling up beside Derek and grabbing a dishtowel. “Tone down the glare, dude. I still haven’t ruled out violent criminal for you.”
“Tone down the dumb questions.”
Stiles opens his mouth to retort, but instead he throws his head back and laughs. Derek looks at him like he’s nuts before turning back to the dishes. When the laughter subsides, Stiles studies Derek carefully.
It’s hard to get a good look at him because he’s got about ten layers of dirt and grime on him, and if Stiles is honest, Derek smells. He guesses that’s natural since the guy has been on the road for who knows how long, but still. He’s dirty, he’s hungry, and he smells.
These are things Stiles can’t ignore. His dad told him to send Derek on his way, and rationally Stiles knows he should, but maybe he’s got too much of his mother in him. Derek obviously needs some help, and Stiles, well, maybe Stiles can at least let him get a bath or feed him lunch or something.
Stiles rambles while he dries the dishes Derek washes. Derek doesn’t say a word, but that doesn’t bother Stiles. He keeps it light – nothing that would give Derek too much information in case he’s some psychopath (though he’s inside his house, so that might be giving him enough information, but whatever. If Derek is a psychopath, maybe he’s lulling Stiles into a false sense of security). Mainly he talks about the horses, the barn, the snake that Parrish caught and scared Isaac with yesterday.
When they finish, Derek grabs his dirty bundle sitting by the door and starts to walk out the door without a word.
“Wait!” Stiles exclaims. Derek turns around, eyebrows raised. “Um, I have a few chores I need to do, like get the eggs from the chickens which are totally gonna be gross and covered in chicken shit and maybe broken, but that’s beside the point.” Derek shifts impatiently, and Stiles notices the grimace of pain when he puts pressure on his left leg. “You don’t have to leave just yet. I mean, the ranch hands will be in soon for lunch, so we’ll have plenty of food, well if Boyd doesn’t eat it all, and the bathroom’s upstairs, and you kinda look like you could use a bath. Kinda smell like it, too.”
Derek glares at him, and Stiles just smiles. They stay locked in a quasi-staring contest until Derek sighs. “Fine.”
Stiles smiles even wider and claps his hands together. “Great! Um, come upstairs, I’ll show you where everything is.”
Stiles leads Derek up the narrow stairs to the second floor of the old farmhouse. He lets Derek use his bathroom instead of his father’s because technically his dad said to send Derek on his way. Stiles will let Derek use his bathtub, send him away, and then Clorox the bathtub after Derek’s gone.
He shows Derek where the soap, shampoo, and towels are, and then apologizes for not having an extra toothbrush. “I’ll be down in the chicken coop, then around the farm. Make yourself at home, help yourself to the food and the TV in the living room when you’re done,” Stiles says as Derek stands in the middle of the bathroom with his arms crossed over his chest. “Just, please, don’t steal anything.”
Derek glares, and Stiles figures that’s probably the only response he’s going to get.
“Derek?” Stiles calls when he comes back into the house a few hours later. He checks the living room, but finds no trace that Derek has been in there. The remote is still sitting where his father had left it last night. He makes his way upstairs, a sinking feeling in his stomach. And that doesn’t make any sense, because why should he care if some random drifter has gone on his way?
After checking the bathroom, Stiles sticks his head into his bedroom and notices a lump on the middle of the bed, bare feet hanging over the edge. He tiptoes over to the side of the bed and looks down at the sleeping man. Without ten pounds of grime and sound asleep, Derek just looks so…different. His face is relaxed, young and missing the weariness he’d worn earlier. Derek hadn’t put on the long-sleeved plaid shirt he’d been wearing earlier, so he’s only in his undershirt, and Stiles’ eyes sweep over Derek’s arms and shoulders, the lean, strong chords of muscle, the narrow taper of his waist. His eyes linger on Derek’s forearms, and he notices scars across his back and arms, and Stiles wonders how he got them. His gaze continues traveling downward, across the worn jeans until he gets to Derek’s bare feet.
Something in Stiles’ chest flips, and he turns away.
On his way out of the room, he sees Derek’s bundle and boots propped by the door. Stiles glances back over his shoulder to where Derek is still sound asleep. The clothes Derek’s wearing now are dirty, and Stiles kicks himself for not offering him clean ones. The least he can do now is throw his clothes in the wash while Derek sleeps.
He takes the bundle downstairs, holding it away from him because it’s covered in all sorts of unidentifiable stains and smells about as bad as Derek had. In the laundry room, he places the pack on the top of the dryer and opens it. There’s not much inside: another pair of threadbare jeans, two ragged button ups, two pairs of socks with holes in them, a faded pair of boxer briefs. It all smells of body odor, sweat, and must, and Stiles crinkles his nose as he throws them inside the washer. He gives the bag a once over and decides to wash it along with the clothes. Before he tosses it in, he finishes unpacking it. Two pieces of jerky and a piece of moldy bread that immediately goes in the trash. A beat up paperback novel. The pouches yield a few more personal items. A pocket watch with a wolf engraved on the top, a locket with a broken clasp and two barely recognizable photographs inside.
But the most interesting thing Stiles finds is a small leather wallet. It’s devoid of any identification or money; the only things inside are two pictures. On the left side is a picture of a family, and Stiles easily finds a young Derek among the four other people. He looks happy surrounded by people Stiles guesses are his parents and two sisters. The other side houses a picture of a horse, and a beaut at that. A large, black Andalusian. Derek’s sitting on top of her, smiling at the camera.
Stiles stares at the photos, and then feels like he’s looking at something too private, too personal. Derek is a stranger, and Stiles shouldn’t be snooping. He starts the wash, adding an extra bit of soap just because, and then sets the items on the side table in the living room.
While the clothes wash, Stiles does a few chores around the house. After the cycle finishes, he washes the clothes again because he’s pretty sure nothing could get those clothes clean on the first wash. Parrish, Boyd, and Isaac come inside for lunch, and Stiles sets aside Derek’s lunch because he’s still asleep on Stiles’ bed. Stiles checks on him twice, just to make sure he’s still breathing. The last thing he wants is some stranger dying in his bed.
Derek comes to slowly, the weight of sleep disorienting him. His surroundings don’t feel familiar, and he doesn’t know where he is. The weirdest thing about it all is that he’s lying on a bed, and Derek can’t remember the last time he slept on a bed.
He sits up suddenly, taking in his surroundings groggily. The morning comes back to him – the barn, the gun pointed in his face, a meal, Stiles. Derek rolls over and sits on the edge of the unfamiliar bed, running a hand down his face. He shouldn’t have fallen asleep on the kid’s bed, but he’d gotten out of the shower, and he was just so damn exhausted. He had only planned on resting for a few minutes, but apparently his body had other plans.
Derek pushes himself up, body stiff with sleep. But he feels more refreshed than he had earlier, his leg not protesting as much as he walks over to the door to put on his boots. He’s well worn out his welcome.
As he stuffs his feet in his boots, he realizes with a start his pack is not where he left it. Derek panics; those are his only possessions in the entire world. As the initial panic subsides, his face hardens into an angry scowl while he gets an idea of what happened to it.
Derek stomps down the stairs, following the sound of bustling in the kitchen. Derek walks through the kitchen to the small laundry room, where Stiles is humming to himself in front of the washer and dryer, folding Derek’s underwear.
“What are you doing?” Derek growls.
Stiles turns with a start, hand over his heart like Derek scared him. “Shit, dude. Warn a guy. Did you sleep okay? You were like passed out up there. I managed to save some lunch for you, despite Parrish and Boyd’s insistence that they were starving. I hid it in the oven, which they would never think to look in.”
Derek breathes slowly through his nose, trying to remain calm. It’s not working very well. “What. Are you. Doing?”
Stiles’ face scrunches in confusion. “I’m folding your laundry.”
Derek steps forward and snatches the clothes from Stiles’ hands. “You had no right.”
Stiles stares at him in shock. Derek grabs the backpack, opens it as he searches for his things, needing to find the leather wallet. “Where is it?” he mutters to himself. Louder, he barks, “Where are my things?”
“In the living room.” Derek glares at Stiles, who is now backed against the wall as he watches Derek fearfully, and grabs his clothes. He stuffs them unceremoniously into the back pack before stomping through the kitchen. He sees the small pile that contains everything he owns, and shoves the items on top of the clothes before storming out of the house without a word.
He seethes as he rushes down the dirt driveway, and doesn’t look back.
Derek stews for three miles. Stiles had no right to go through his things, to touch his personal belongings. It didn’t matter the reason; there were boundaries.
As he hits the four mile mark, Derek realizes that maybe he reacted too harshly. Obviously Stiles’ biggest problem was that he didn’t understand boundaries, otherwise he wouldn’t have forced Derek into the shower, washed his clothes, folded his fucking socks. It hadn’t taken Derek long to realize that the Sheriff and Stiles didn’t have a mean bone in their bodies; they were good people, just trying to help.
But Derek isn’t a charity case, goddammit. He doesn’t need handouts, and he sure as hell doesn’t need some speckled-face teen with a severe case of verbal diarrhea doing his damn laundry. He doesn’t need them handing out food to him, or giving him their portions, just because they feel sorry for him. Derek can take care of himself, he works for his food or he doesn’t eat. End of story.
But the longer he walks, and the louder his growling stomach gets, the more Derek realizes maybe he was hasty in his reaction to Stiles. Derek’s not the best with people, and it’s been a long time since he’s interacted with anyone outside of a work place, save the nice old lady here and there. Stiles wasn’t an old lady, and it’s been so long since someone has been nice to Derek. Even longer since someone acted like they cared.
Fuck, Stiles was folding his underwear, and Derek had snapped at him.
Derek sighs. It’s for the best, after all. Derek has nothing to offer anyone, and Stiles needs to learn to keep his fucking hands off other people’s stuff.
Derek shifts his pack on his shoulder and ignores the gnawing in his stomach.
Derek is a few miles outside of the next town when he hears a car approaching. He doesn’t bother throwing out his thumb; the last few cars have sped by without so much as a glance in his direction. So, he’s more than surprised when the car slows beside him. Even more so when he sees the car and driver.
The sheriff from this morning in his squad car. A flare of panic rises in Derek’s chest when the window rolls down and the sheriff stares at him from behind mirrored aviators.
“I didn’t steal anything, and I didn’t hurt him, whatever he told you,” Derek snaps, defenses immediately up.
“I didn’t think you did either of those things,” the sheriff states.
“What do you want?”
“Where are you heading?” Derek shrugs. He doesn’t know where he’s heading; he doesn’t even know where he’s been. “Want a ride?”
“I’m sure you’ve got better things to do than pick up vagrants.” Derek almost spits the last word, thinks about Stiles calling him that just this morning. That word still makes his hackles rise.
The sheriff sighs. “Son, please get in the car.”
Derek stops and spins to face the sheriff, and the sheriff puts the car in park. “What do you want?” he asks again. “You fed me, Stiles let me shower, he even washed my damn clothes, and sorry to break it to you, but I’m all out of accepting charity today.”
“I know who you are,” the sheriff says, and Derek feels like the earth has been yanked out from underneath him. His eyes dart around in panic, looking for the quickest way to escape. There’s nothing but empty road and golden fields surrounding them. The sheriff takes off his sunglasses and sets them on the dashboard. “Derek Hale, rodeo star, four time horse show world champion. Co-owner of the successful Triskele Ranch in Montana with your sister, Laura, who apparently still lives there.”
“Former rodeo star,” Derek bites out.
The sheriff nods. “Read about the accident, too.” His eyes sweep down to Derek’s leg. “Explains the limp.”
“Why do you even care?” Derek asks slowly, voice barely a whisper.
“I tend to take a special interest into people who share my table,” the sheriff explains. “Besides, my son has taken a liking to you.”
“Your son is too trusting.”
The sheriff pulls a face. “Actually, he’s not. That’s the funny thing. Stiles doesn’t like many people. But for some reason, he took to you. I noticed it at breakfast, even before I got home and discovered he’d let you sleep in his bed most of the day.” Derek feels his cheeks heat up, and he looks away hastily.
“Son, I know someone running when I see it. It ain’t none of my business – “
“Sure as hell made it your business,” Derek grumbles, which causes the sheriff’s mouth to form a hard line.
“I can’t pay you, I don’t have the money,” the sheriff starts, “but I can offer you a roof over your head, a bed to sleep in, and warm meals every day.”
Derek stares at him, uncomprehending. The sheriff waits, and after a few silent moments, Derek finally speaks. “What?”
“We could use an able set of hands around the ranch,” the sheriff says. “And you could use somewhere more permanent.”
“You’re offering me a job?” Derek manages, his voice hoarse.
The sheriff nods. “And a place to live, if you want it.”
Derek turns away from the sheriff’s concerned gaze, which reminds him so much of his own father that it makes him ache. It’s been years since someone looked at him like that, and Derek finds himself having trouble breathing.
The sheriff doesn’t push as Derek thinks it over. Part of him feels hopeful, and the part of him that’s been running for too long screams that he should keep his feet moving down the dusty road. His stomach gives another low growl, and Derek sighs.
“Fine.” He walks over to the passenger side and slides into the front seat, stuffing his pack in the floorboard by his feet.
“Good,” the sheriff nods as he turns the car around and starts driving back towards the ranch.
“Don’t tell Stiles who I am,” Derek says.
The sheriff replies, “Not my story to tell.”
The sheriff doesn’t drive Derek to the house, but to a small building along the tree line. A porch covers the entire front, and inside is one room and a tiny bathroom in the corner with a shower and a toilet. The room is only furnished with an ancient stove and a dusty cot.
“This will have to do for tonight,” the sheriff says as he gives Derek an apologetic smile. “I didn’t quite expect to have a guest.”
“It’s more than I usually have,” Derek states, setting his pack on the cot as he looks around. Despite the size and the dust, it actually feels cozy and warm.
“The ranch used to be a lot bigger,” the sheriff explains, “with a lot more employees. This cabin hasn’t been used in decades. Tomorrow, we’ll try and find you a bed.”
“That’s not necessary – “
The sheriff puts up a hand. “Derek, the least I can do is get you a decent bed.”
Derek nods and swallows. “Thank you,” he forces out. The sheriff smiles, and then he leaves Derek alone.
Derek’s tired, but his mind and body are too wired to sleep, so he steps out onto the porch and sits in the weather-worn rocker. From his perch, he can see the barn and the Stilinski household across the fields, a light flickering in the second floor window.
He drags his eyes away and stares at the stars instead.
Derek wakes to an incessant pounding on the front door. He pushes himself up and stumbles barefoot across the wooden floors before wrenching the door open with a scowl. Stiles is standing on the other side, grinning. He laughs quietly when he takes in Derek’s appearance.
“Morning, sleepyhead,” Stiles greets brightly.
Derek slams the door in his face.
“That is no way to treat your boss,” Stiles says as he opens the door and enters the cabin. Derek glares at him as he goes to the bathroom and closes the door behind him.
“You’re not my boss,” Derek calls out as he relieves himself. When he exits the bathroom, he notices that Stiles has brought him breakfast in a Tupperware container and a beverage in an insulated travel mug.
“Technically not your boss, but I’m the boss’s son, so that counts for something.” Stiles pulls the top off the container and Derek’s nose is assaulted by the delicious scent of cinnamon. “The special Stilinski bread. My family’s secret recipe. I figured what better way to welcome you than by this.” Stiles looks almost nervous when he hands the container to Derek.
Derek takes it and sits on the edge of the cot. The bread has been cut into thin slices, so much inside that Derek guesses Stiles gave him the whole loaf. His mouth waters at the scents, and he lifts a piece and takes a bite. The bread isn’t as sweet as he expected; it’s light, tastes of banana, pumpkin, and spices, and then as a surprise, chocolate chips. Derek closes his eyes and hums contently.
This may be the best thing he’s ever eaten.
After he’s nearly swallowed the first piece whole and is licking the crumbs from his fingers, he opens his eyes to see Stiles staring at him. He looks pleased. “You like it?”
“It’s good,” Derek says, but Stiles’ face indicates he knows Derek thinks it’s delicious. “You didn’t have to do this.”
Stiles shrugs, picks at a hangnail as he leans against the stove. “Dad told me he gave you a job, well, a place to stay, I guess, because you’re not being paid. He also told me you were promised meals, which is my job. So this is me, feeding you.”
“I can cook,” Derek points out, nodding towards the stove behind Stiles. Stiles looks at the thing with dismay.
“Are you crazy? You’d probably burn down the whole farm if you tried.”
Derek flinches like he’s been hit, and immediately loses his appetite. He tosses the container on the bed and yanks his shirt off the nail he’d hung it on the night before.
“Dude, I didn’t mean to insult your culinary skills, it’s just – “
“Out,” Derek orders, pointing to the door. He ignores the way Stiles’ face falls before he schools his features into something more along the lines of annoyed and aloof.
“There’s coffee in there if you want it,” Stiles says on his way to the door. “Parrish wants to meet you at the barn in twenty minutes.”
And with that, Stiles exits the cabin, leaving Derek standing in the middle of the empty room with memories of flame and smoke.
Derek’s at the barn exactly twenty minutes later, where a thin blonde man’s waiting for him. “Derek?” he says as Derek approaches, then sticks out his hand. “Jordan Parrish. I oversee all the operations at the ranch.” Derek nods and follows Parrish towards a truck where two other men await. “This is Boyd and Isaac.”
Parrish spends the morning showing Derek around the ranch. The place is huge, and Derek can tell that once it had been a thriving operation. As it stands now, they’re barely a ranch at all. Five horses, boarding for two others, a small group of cattle, some various other livestock. Nothing like the neighboring ranches Derek has passed, or ones he’s worked for around the state. Derek knows the place will maybe stay afloat another year or two before it inevitably goes under.
Boyd works mostly with the cattle, while Isaac seems to do odd jobs, like carpentry and keeping the fields. Parrish works half of the day from an office, where he sells cattle, eggs, and other products that the ranch sends to local markets, and the other half he does whatever he needs to be done.
“The sheriff said he thinks you might be good with horses,” Parrish says as he leads Derek to the horse pasture. Derek’s eyes go from horse to horse grazing, and a familiar mixture of loss and excitement flows through him.
“I’m not sure that’s the best idea,” Derek replies.
Parrish studies him carefully. “That’s really what needs the most attention,” he explains. “Stiles works with them now, but he’s not very experienced. I could get you working on some of the repairs – “
“That sounds great.” Derek turns and walks away from the horses, ignoring the itch in his fingers and the ache in his chest.
Derek works all day outside, the hot sun beating on his neck and shoulders. It feels good to be working, to be doing something productive instead of drifting from place to place in hope of work. He refuses Parrish’s invitation to take lunch with the others inside the Stilinski’s kitchen, choosing instead to go back to his cabin and eat a few more pieces of Stiles’ bread and drink some of the now-cold coffee. Then he returns to the fence he’d been mending.
Isaac takes pity on him and brings him a hamburger around eight p.m. “I know you didn’t go eat with Stiles and his dad,” he says, leaning against the support beam on the porch. “You can, you know. They’re good people.”
Derek nods, but doesn’t reply.
“They took me in, too,” Isaac continues. Derek knows the kid’s just trying to be amiable, but Derek really has no interest in making friends. He just wants to work, eat, sleep, and be left alone. “My dad beat me, used to rough me up real good. I went to school with Stiles, and they took me in, no questions.”
Derek pushes himself in the rocking chair, eyes focused on the fields.
“Give them a chance,” Isaac says as he takes the few steps down onto the ground. “Think about it, at least.” Then, he leaves Derek alone.
Derek eats the hamburger, drinks a glass of water, and goes to bed not long after the sun goes down.
Derek manages to avoid the ranch hands around lunch time so he doesn’t have to refuse to eat in the house with them. Derek can easily see that they are a tight unit, that the sheriff and Stiles treat Parrish, Boyd, and Isaac like family.
Derek had a family. It didn’t work out well the first time, and he has no interest in trying again. He wants to work and be left alone.
During the lunch break, he finds himself inside the barn, despite the heaviness in his chest. Two horses are in there, and Derek walks up to the closest. The mare is smaller than the others, with a patchwork of white and tan coloring and a blonde mane. Derek reaches out and pets the side of her face, and she leans into his touch, searching for food.
“Don’t have anything for you, girl,” Derek says quietly. The horse snuffles a bit, but doesn’t move away from Derek’s attention.
“Her name is Buttercup,” a voice says behind him. Derek doesn’t need to turn around to know it’s Stiles.
“She’s a beauty,” Derek states before dropping his hand and turning. He crosses his hands over his chest, waiting for whatever Stiles will undoubtedly say to him.
“Brought you lunch,” Stiles says, lifting his hand holding a white plastic bag. Derek reaches out for it, but Stiles pulls it out of reach at the last moment. Derek glowers, and Stiles glares right back. “I’m not some softie like Isaac. I’m not going to give into whatever this pouty, brooding bullshit is.”
Derek feels like punching Stiles, and tries to make that known with his expression. Stiles rolls his eyes.
“Look, if you want to eat, you can come eat with the rest of us. Otherwise, you’re on your own. I’m not going to bring you lunch and dinner like I’m your servant, and Isaac’s not going to do it anymore, either.” Stiles levels a gaze at Derek as he hands over the bag. “We won’t bite, Derek. We’re pretty tight around here, mainly because there’s only the four of us, not counting Dad. If you’re gonna be living here, you should be part of that.”
Derek turns away from him and walks deeper into the barn.
“I thought you didn’t like horses.”
“I never said that.” Derek opens the bag to find a fancy-looking sandwich with turkey, avocado, sprouts, tomato, and cucumber, an apple, a bag of chips, and a bottle of water. He sits on a hay bale, unwraps the sandwich, and takes a huge bite.
“Parrish said you refused to help with the horses.” Derek doesn’t say anything. “I could really use the help. I know a lot about horses – my mom was an award winning horse competitor – but I haven’t exactly had any formal training. Or any training really, at least in years.”
Derek lifts his eyes. He’d wondered where Stiles’ mother was, because there had been no trace of a woman anywhere. Derek thinks he can guess what happened to her based on Stiles’ phrasing. Stiles is standing by the other horse, a larger dark brown one, feeding him an apple. Stiles looks at the horse with such adoration that Derek has to avert his gaze.
“Is it about the black Andalusian?” Stiles asks quietly. Derek’s stomach flips, his appetite suddenly gone. He stares up at Stiles’ back in surprise. “The one in the photo.”
Derek shoves his food into the bag and storms towards the exit. “That is none of your business,” he snaps as he passes Stiles. He seethes all the way to his cabin, pacing the inside of the room for ten minutes just trying to calm down. He downs half the bottle of water and sets aside the rest of his lunch for later. He’s pretty sure he couldn’t eat now if he tried.
Derek gets into a routine. He mends fences, pig pens, and gates around the ranch, working until he’s exhausted from sun up to sun down. Stiles doesn’t try to talk to him anymore; Isaac brings him prepared meals twice a day, with a smile and some mild conversation. After a few days, Derek finds himself enjoying Isaac’s company and looking forward to his evening visits.
The first time Derek tells him to stay awhile, Isaac’s face lights up. Derek still doesn’t speak much, lets Isaac fill the quiet night with stories of the ranch, of growing up, of him, Scott, and Stiles in school. Some nights they just sit in silence and listen to the sounds of the ranch falling asleep.
Derek forgot how it felt to have a friend, and he’s surprised the day he first thinks of Isaac as one. It feels uncomfortable until Isaac laughs and Derek finds himself laughing along with him. It’s been years since he laughed with someone, and it eases some of the knot in his chest.
The morning is hot, the sun not even halfway up in the sky. The humidity is so thick it presses against Derek’s skin, causing him to be covered in sweat already. His thin plaid button up is soaked, and he takes it off even though it’s not yet midday. He uses it to wipe away the sweat from his neck and face before laying it on a barrel.
Derek’s behind the barn, splashing his face with water from a bore, when he hears a yelp and then the neighing of a horse. He rushes around the barn and skids to a halt before the fence surrounding the grazing pasture. Stiles is pushing himself to his feet from where he’d been sprawled in the grass. Bullet, the large Pinto horse, is rearing back, neighing and kicking out with his front legs.
Derek hefts himself over the fence as Stiles stands with his palms facing Bullet although his gaze is on the ground. Derek wants to shout for the stupid damn kid to move away from the horse, but he doesn’t want to spook Bullet anymore than he is.
“Don’t come any closer,” Stiles yells as Derek approaches. He jerks his head up and looks at Derek in a panic before glancing at Bullet and then back to the ground. “Fuck.”
“Stiles, move out of the way!” Derek says.
“There’s a rattlesnake,” Stiles says, and now that Derek is closer, he can tell that Stiles is frozen to the spot in terror. Bullet stomps his hooves down dangerously close to Stiles’ body, and Derek flinches. Then, Bullet races away deeper into the field. Now that the horse is gone, Derek can hear the distinct sound of the snake’s tail, and as he slowly approaches, can see it curled only a few feet away from Stiles.
“I really don’t want to get bit by a rattlesnake,” Stiles rambles, his voice trembling as his eyes stay glued on the agitated snake.
“You’re not gonna get bitten,” Derek says calmly. He’s dealt with his share of snakes over the years, though rattlers are the worst. If Stiles remains calm, maybe Derek can get him out of here. “Trust me.”
“I barely know you!” Stiles exclaims in a panic, and the increased pitch of his voice riles the snake up.
“Keep your voice down,” Derek says. He inches closer to Stiles, keeping an eye on the snake. Stiles is close enough that if the rattlesnake decides attack, it might make contact with him. At least Stiles is wearing large work boots and jeans.
When Derek finally stands behind Stiles, he places a hand on Stiles’ shoulder. Stiles looks at Derek, and Derek gives his shoulder a little squeeze. “Are we gonna make a run for it now?”
“No.” Stiles’ eyes grow wide and he opens his mouth to argue, but Derek speaks first. “If you make any sudden movements, it may strike. Just stay here until it thinks the threat has passed.”
“Derek,” Stiles whispers as his eyes fall back on the snake that is still coiled and shaking its tail, “I’m terrified of snakes.”
“I grew up on a ranch, and I’m terrified of snakes. Does that make me less of a man?”
“No,” Derek rubs his thumb in small circles along the column of Stiles’ neck. “Fear doesn’t make you less of a man.”
“Are you just trying to make me feel better?”
“Maybe.” Derek quirks the side of his mouth when Stiles glances at him. “Doesn’t make it any less true.”
Derek notices that Stiles is starting to look a bit pale and clammy, and the last thing he needs is Stiles freaking out completely. Slowly, he inches himself between Stiles and the snake. He can already tell the snake is starting to mellow, the coiled position not as tight as before. After a few moments, he’s got himself blocking Stiles’ body completely, his hand still on Stiles’ arm to hold him in place.
Stiles rests his forehead on Derek’s shoulder, and Derek stiffens immediately. People don’t touch him; he hasn’t even had sex in over three years. But Stiles is pressed against his back, so close that Derek can feel every tremble, every warm breath against his damp skin. It sends a shiver through him.
The rattlesnake finally slithers away through the overgrown grass, but Derek doesn’t move. He’s frozen on the spot like Stiles, tingling from every point of connection between him and the body behind him. Derek closes his eyes, and for a moment, lets himself enjoy the feel of Stiles’ body against his own.
But Derek doesn’t stay like that long. He opens his eyes, rattlesnake already out of vision. “It’s gone.”
“Really?” Stiles asks, head lifting from Derek’s shoulder. “Did you kill it?”
Derek shoots Stiles an incredulous look over his shoulder. “You were here the entire time. When did I have time to kill it?”
“I don’t know!” Stiles runs a hand through his hair a few times as he paces. “I’m not gonna like, step on it, am I?”
Derek shakes his head. Truthfully, it could still be hanging around, but he’s not going to tell Stiles that. “It’s gone.”
“We should kill it. I can get Boyd to kill it. Or Parrish. They’re good at that kind of thing.”
“Rattlesnakes are protected,” Derek points out.
“Unless it’s a threat!” Stiles argues. “And that thing was threatening me!”
“It was scared. You and Bullet scared it, and think about how you’d feel with Bullet stomping around you.” Derek thinks about the flash of fear he’d felt when he’d thought Bullet was stomping around Stiles.
“Still needs to die,” Stiles grumbles.
“You should cut the field,” Derek says, “and probably cut down this brush. Rattlesnakes hang out in those kinds of places.”
“I know that,” Stiles says. “But it’s not like we have unlimited time to get everything done.” He turns around to head back, eyes glued to the ground. When he doesn’t feel Derek following him, he pauses and turns. “Thanks, for that.” Derek shrugs. “Thanks for not making fun of me.”
“Why would I make fun of you?”
Stiles goes red in the face. “For…acting like that.”
“Rattlesnakes are dangerous. You’d be stupid if you weren’t scared.”
“You weren’t scared.”
“I just don’t show it,” Derek says. “And one of us had to remain calm.” Stiles looks at Derek thoughtfully, then nods. “I need to go find Bullet and check on him.”
“Come to the house afterwards for lunch. There’ll be a special dessert surprise with your name on it.” Derek starts to refuse, but finds himself nodding instead. Stiles’ face lights up. “Lemon or chocolate?”
“Awesome.” Stiles walks back to the house, eyes on the overgrown grass until he’s climbed over the fence. Derek watches him until he’s inside the house, then goes to find the scared horse.
Derek comes to lunch later, after Boyd, Parrish, and Isaac have already returned to the fields. Stiles makes him a lemon cupcake with powdered sugar and zested lemon on top, and he steals a bite from it when Derek sits it on the plate to lick lemon cream off his fingers. Derek finds he doesn’t mind, and he doesn’t mind Stiles’ incessant prattle as he eats lunch.
The next day, Derek mows the horse pasture to an acceptable grazing length, and uses the brush hog to clear the small bushes and brush near where the rattlesnake was found.
“So, your dad just hired him?” Scott asks. They’re walking down Main Street in the nearest town, which is still a good twenty miles away from the ranch. The evening is hot even though the sun has nearly sunk beneath the horizon, and Stiles wipes his forehead with the back of his arm. “He’s a drifter. What if he like, robs you blind?”
Stiles shrugs. “I don’t think Derek’s like that.”
“How do you know? You just met him.”
“I don’t know, he just seems okay. Like, if he wasn’t a homeless vagrant he’d be a pretty normal guy.”
Scott eyes him closely. “You like him.” His gaze turns suspicious. “You don’t like anyone. Why this guy?”
“What?” Stiles feels his cheeks flush. “Are you seriously accusing me of liking someone? It has happened from time to time.” He bumps Scott’s shoulder. “I like you. That right there tells you I have bad taste.”
“Hey,” Scott laughs, shoving Stiles playfully. Stiles pushes back, knocking Scott out into the street. A sudden sadness overcomes him when he watches Scott scurry back onto the sidewalk as a pickup blares its horn.
“Outta the road, McCall!” the guy yells. Stiles snickers and loops an arm around Scott’s neck.
“Come on, buddy. You’re buying me popcorn at the movies.”
“Why am I buying?” Scott exclaims.
“Because you have a job and I’m broke.”
Scott rolls his eyes, but buys them popcorn and a soda anyway.
Stiles rolls down the windows as he drives back to the ranch after the movie. The night is so dark that Stiles can see every star in the sky, like ten thousand diamonds shining above him. As much as he wants to get out of Wyoming, move to a big city like Cheyenne, or heck, even San Francisco, he knows he would miss this, knows that the Wyoming country is in his bones.
Nights like this remind him of his mother. She loved to take him outside when he was a little boy, lay out with him on the grass away from the trees and stare up at the stars. She’d lift her arm and connect the stars like his connect-the-dots activity books. She’d tell him stories about crabs and big bears and hunters in the stars. He wouldn’t see any of it, but he’d listen anyway. Some nights they’d convince Stiles’ dad to come outside with them. Those were the nights his dad told stories, and they’d lie underneath the open sky for hours, his parents holding hands with Stiles between them.
Now he could pick out Orion, Ursa Major, and Cancer, along with other constellations she used to point out to him. Now he saw shapes and stories in the stars.
The wind from the open windows blow cool and pleasant against his skin. The night is perfect, and for some reason he feels melancholy. He knows the reason why; Scott leaves for college in three months. Ninety days doesn’t seem like nearly enough time. He tries to ignore the thoughts in the back of his mind that Scott will forget him, find new friends and a new life, leaving Stiles behind.
When Stiles pulls his Jeep into his driveway, he notices a dim light in the small cottage where Derek’s been staying. Without over thinking it, Stiles turns off the dirt and drives over the grass towards the cottage. Derek’s sitting in a rocking chair on the porch with a small kerosene lamp burning at his elbow.
“Hey,” Stiles says as he walks up.
He takes the porch steps quickly, squints down at Derek in the low light. Derek’s hands are moving over something, but Stiles can’t quite make it out. “What are you doing?”
“You can do that?” Stiles asks, bending down to take a closer look. Derek pauses his movements, and when Stiles lifts his eyes, he realizes with a start that they are remarkably close. He jerks back and takes the chair beside him instead. “Where’d you get the wood?”
“Found it in the barn,” Derek explains as he drags the tool against the block of wood. Stiles watches in amazement as Derek methodically shaves off layers of wood, the rhythm of his hands soothing and mesmerizing. “I also found this chip carving knife. I hope it’s okay that I took it?”
Stiles glances at Derek’s face, and he’s looking like maybe he made a mistake. “No, yeah, that’s great,” Stiles assures him. “I have no clue what that is, or why we have it. Someone in my mom’s family must have had the hobby.”
Derek nods, turns his gaze back towards the wood. “Did the ranch belong to your mother’s family?”
Stiles is honestly shocked at the question. Derek isn’t exactly the chatty type, despite how much Stiles has tried to engage him in conversation. Stiles knows nothing about Derek, and over the last weeks, Derek hasn’t asked any questions of his own. This, well, this is quite a development.
“Yes,” Stiles replies. “Been in her family for generations. She was an only child, so it got left to me and my dad. We were gonna sell it, but…”
“You couldn’t,” Derek whispers quietly. He lifts his eyes and meets Stiles’ briefly before they flick back down. Stiles stares at him open-mouthed.
“Yeah,” Stiles replies lamely.
“I figured,” Derek says a few minutes later, “that the ranch wasn’t your dad’s thing.”
Stiles groans. “Is it that obvious?”
Derek chuckles quietly. Stiles thinks it’s the first time he’s heard Derek approach anything near a laugh. It’s an odd sound, but Stiles finds he doesn’t mind it. “Well, your dad is the sheriff. If it was his thing, he’d be working it fifteen hours a day.”
“That’s probably our biggest problem,” Stiles sighs. He slumps back into the rocking chair. He’s no fool. He knows what’s going to happen to the ranch. “We’ll probably lose it in the next few years,” Stiles finds himself telling Derek. Derek listens, eyes on the wood and hands never slowing. “I think Dad knows it, too, but he’s too proud to admit it. I’ve given a lot of reasons for why I’m not going to college, but I think the truth is that I didn’t want to leave it if we’re going to lose it.”
Derek looks up at Stiles, hands stilling momentarily. “It could turn around.”
“You don’t have to lie to me to make me feel better.”
“I’m not,” Derek says. “It’s not so far gone that it’s over. I’ve worked for ranches worse off than this, and I’ve seen them come around.” He shrugs and turns back to his whittling. “It could happen.”
“We wouldn’t be that lucky,” Stiles says. He pushes himself back and forth at a fast pace in the rocker. It makes his head spin, but he feels like all the stress and tension beneath his skin is going to make him burst. “Parrish will find another job, no problem. But Isaac will be homeless like me and Dad, and no one will hire him because he’s a terrible ranch hand. And hell, no one hired Boyd the first time around, so it probably won’t be different the second time.”
“You’re quite pessimistic,” Derek says.
Stiles laughs. “That’s funny coming from you.”
“You don’t have a reason to be that pessimistic.”
“And you do?” Derek shrugs and just keeps on whittling. Stiles says, “You don’t know anything. My mom died, our ranch sucks, I have no life, I’m not going to college, I’m still a virgin for fuck’s sake.”
Derek glances up with a frown. “You don’t realize how good you have it.”
“Oh god, not one of those ‘there are so many people worse off than you’ lectures. That’s so afterschool special.”
Derek sits up and glares annoyed at Stiles. “You have your dad, friends who care about you, a ranch that is worth making work, and your whole life ahead of you. Excuse me if I don’t take part in your pity party.”
Stiles angrily gets up from the rocker. “That’s because you’re too busy wallowing in your own pity party.” He storms off the porch and jumps in the Jeep. When he glances at Derek before he drives off, he sees that Derek has just gone back to his whittling. That just pisses Stiles off more.
Stiles kinda hates Derek. Because Derek is broody and rude and doesn’t eat with them in the kitchen, which means Stiles has to fix a separate plate for Derek that Isaac takes to him, because apparently Derek and Isaac were buddies.
Good fucking job, Isaac.
Every time Stiles tries to talk to Derek, one of them ends up storming off angrily.
After lunch, Stiles is putting together a sandwich for Derek when he hears whispering and snickering. He glances over his shoulder to see Parrish, Boyd, and Isaac staring at him and laughing. “What?”
Parrish and Boyd exchange a look, and Stiles rolls his eyes before turning back to the sandwich. He’s definitely not in the mood for their bullshit today. He wraps the sandwich in plastic wrap, and places it into a paper bag with an orange, some crackers, and a cookie. He sets the bag by Isaac’s elbow.
“You’re such a good wife, Stiles,” Parrish states, and all three men explode into laughter.
“I’m not a fucking wife,” Stiles spats, shoving Parrish as he walks by. “Someone’s gotta feed all y’all, and I sure a fuck don’t see anyone else stepping up to help in the kitchen.”
“Whoa, Stiles, we were just joking,” Isaac says apologetically while Parrish and Boyd still snicker.
“You know, screw all of you,” Stiles explodes, anger pouring out of him uncontrollably. Parrish and Boyd are sober now, and all three are looking at him in shock. “I cook three fucking meals every damn day for everyone. No one offers to make sandwiches one day, even though you’d have to be a fucking idiot to screw up a sandwich. And no one sure as hell offers to do the dishes after they’re done. I know you all have ‘important jobs’ on the farm,” he emphasizes with a shake of his hands, “but I have jobs, too. And it’s not waiting on you three.” He storms towards the door. “So don’t fucking call me a wife again.”
“Stiles, we didn’t – “ Parrish starts.
“Whatever.” Stiles walks out of the back door and slams it behind him.
He’s not exactly sure why he just exploded on the guys. He’s just frustrated with everything. The last thing he wants is to have them make fun of him for making Derek a sandwich. Though, Derek can start getting his own fucking food. Stiles is ten thousand percent done.
Instead of attending to the chores he needs to do, he goes into the barn and saddles up Buttercup. He needs to ride fast and ride hard. Nothing clears his mind better.
Stiles gallops past Isaac on his way towards the fields, the ones that lead to the trails through the woods. He wishes he could just keep riding, jump the fence and not stop until sundown, maybe not even then. It’s one of those days where the ranch feels like it’s suffocating him, cutting off all his air before he’s even had a chance to live.
Once Stiles hits the tree line, he slows Buttercup to a trot. She’s his favorite horse, was just a colt when his mom was still alive and competing. She had let Stiles help pick her out, and then gave him the honor of naming her. He picked Buttercup because his mother’s favorite flowers were daffodils, and they always used to go hunting for buttercups in the spring.
The ride has already dispelled some of the tension in his body. As he trots along the shaded well-worn trails, he feels more at peace than he has in days. He leads Buttercup down the winding paths, deeper into the woods towards his favorite watering hole. The day is hot, even under the shade of the trees, and he knows Buttercup won’t mind the rest and the water.
The small manmade lake lies just past the tree line of the woods. A dock leads out into the water, a weather worn plastic chair sitting at the edge. A small fishing boat is docked next to it. Stiles has spent countless hours in this lake fishing with his father. Parrish, Boyd, Isaac, and he sometimes come out here to fish, and even Scott joins them on occasion. They swim out here during the summer, but Stiles is the one that comes here as often as he can.
Stiles dismounts and leads Buttercup over to the water. She starts drinking, and he pets her mane a few times as she finishes. Then, he leads her to a tree and ties her lead to it just in case she decides to wander off.
Stiles walks along the right edge of the shore, towards an outcropping of rocks underneath some trees. He climbs on top of the rocks and just sits there, staring out at the water.
He remains there for close to an hour, lost in his thoughts, until someone says, “Shouldn’t you be working?”
The voice startles Stiles, causing him to jump and squeak. He glances over to find Derek standing by the rocks, baseball cap shading his face, jeans dirty and his long sleeve plaid shirt wet and sticking to his muscles.
“Shouldn’t you?” Stiles replies, his heart rabbiting in his chest. “Instead of scaring the bejeezus out of people.”
Derek chuckles quietly and climbs up on the rocks, sitting on the space beside Stiles. He unbuttons the cuffs of his sleeves and rolls them up before tugging at his shirt to cool himself. “I didn’t realize speaking was so terrifying.”
“It is when it’s coming from you.”
Derek raises a single brow and has the nerve to look amused. “Do you still think I’m a murderer?”
“I haven’t ruled it out.”
“Look,” Stiles starts, “I didn’t come out here to listen to you point out my faults or make fun of me or anything else. I’m done with every fucking body today, so just don’t.”
Derek shrugs and unscrews the top from his water bottle. Stiles watches out of the corner of his eye, the long line of Derek’s neck and the pulsing of his Adam’s apple as he swallows. When he finishes, he offers the bottle to Stiles. Stiles takes a sip before handing it back.
“Why are you done with every fucking body today?” Derek asks.
“Just pissed at the guys,” Stiles says.
“Isaac mentioned that you yelled at them.”
“They deserved it.”
“I’m sure they did.”
“Don’t patronize me.”
“I’m not patronizing you,” Derek says softly.
Stiles sighs and runs a hand over his face. “Can you do me a favor?” Derek shrugs. “Can you start coming to get your own meals?”
Derek doesn’t respond immediately, and Stiles is just about to give it up as futile when Derek says, “Okay.”
“Thanks,” Stiles says. “They accused me of being your wife. They’re assholes, but still. The least you can do when I make your meals is come get them in person.”
“Whatever you want, honey.”
Stiles groans and pushes Derek gently. “Was that a joke? Because first, wow, I didn’t know you were capable of human interaction much less jokes. Second, that was terrible.”
“Obviously I’m out of practice.”
Stiles glances at Derek, and there’s a bit of a smirk around his mouth. Stiles laughs. “Ohmigod, two for two! Are you feeling okay? Do you have heatstroke?”
“I’ll start coming to get the food,” Derek says.
“You can eat with us, too, you know. I know you and Isaac are now bffs or whatever, but Parrish and Boyd are really awesome, when you know, they’re not being dicks. Like today.”
Derek leans forward, wrapping his arms around his knees and linking his fingers together. “I’m not good with people.”
“Wow, I’d never have known.” Derek frowns and seems to turn in on himself, and Stiles feels a pang of regret. “That was a dickish thing to say,” he says. “You’re actually talking to me for the first time ever, and I’m being a complete dick. Please, continue. I’ll try to keep the overdramatic, sarcastic comments to a minimum.”
Derek sits there for a moment, eyes focused on the glistening lake. “This is the longest I’ve stayed in one place in almost three years.”
Derek nods. “I haven’t really talked to anyone outside of what was necessary during that time. I’m – “
“Out of practice?” Stiles finishes in an attempt to lighten Derek’s mood. It earns him a small smile that makes Stiles’ heart flip in his chest. “Why? I mean, why not settle down somewhere? Don’t you have a family?”
“Not anymore,” Derek says, voice barely a whisper.
Stiles nods and chews on his lip. “Okay, fair enough. Why here then?”
Derek takes a deep breath before turning to look at Stiles. “I’m not sure.”
“I know why,” Stiles says, because he’s a master at ruining moods and he just can’t handle the way Derek’s looking at him. Derek watches him in amused interest. “My awesome cooking skills. Just couldn’t stay away.”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
“Hey, I’m a great cook,” Stiles argues.
“I’m not disagreeing with you,” Derek says with a small laugh and a shake of his head. “Actually, your cooking tastes a lot like my mom’s used to.” There’s a small smile on his lips and a faraway look in his eyes. Stiles doesn’t know what to say to that, but he counts it as a victory.
“I should get back to work,” Derek says a few minutes later as he gets up from the rock.
“Me, too,” Stiles says. “I can only hide out and sulk for so long.” He follows Derek along the edge of the lake towards the trailhead. “How did you know about this place?”
“Found it one day when I was trying to get a layout of the land,” Derek explains.
“This is my favorite place in the world,” Stiles says.
“It’s nice.” Derek points to the boat. “Are there fish out there?”
“Yep, lots of them,” Stiles says. “When they built it, they made it so that a small river fed into it, so there’s a constant cycle of fish coming in.” Derek stares at the boat as they near it, and Stiles blurts, “Hey, why don’t we go fishing sometime?”
Derek glances over his shoulder and says, “Okay.”
Stiles grins so hard it feels like his face is going to split in two.
When they approach Buttercup, Derek goes up to her and pets her gently. Stiles hangs back and watches him. Derek’s face lights up when he touches the horse and leans in to quietly murmur to her. He’s smiling softly, his body relaxed. “Why don’t you want to work with the horses?” Stiles asks. Derek immediately stiffens and steps away from Buttercup. “It’s obvious how much you love them.”
Derek turns and starts to walk away, so Stiles jogs up behind him. He reaches out and grabs Derek’s arm, preventing him from going further. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Derek,” Stiles says, pushing at Derek’s arm until he turns to face him. “I know something obviously happened to you. The leg, the drifting, and everything else. You don’t have to tell me anything. I just, well,” Stiles scratches the side of face awkwardly, “I just want you to know that I’m here. If you want to talk. I know you have Isaac and stuff, but in case you ever – “
“Thank you,” Derek says quietly. Stiles is shocked that Derek actually seems to mean it.
“Think about working with the horses,” Stiles says as he unties the lead from around the tree. “I’d love to learn more, and you seem like you’d know your stuff.” Derek gives Stiles a stiff nod, and then Stiles sticks a foot into his stirrup to mount. He halts. “Want a lift back to the house?” Derek shakes his head. “All right. I’ll see you later then.” Stiles hoists himself into the saddle and nudges Buttercup into a trot. As he heads down the trail, he calls out behind him, “Dinner’s at 6:30 sharp. Don’t be late!”
Stiles has three places set at the table and has just sat down with the sheriff and Isaac to eat dinner when they hear a knock on the back door. “It’s open,” the sheriff calls. The door squeaks and strains as it’s opened, and then Derek appears in the dining room doorway a moment later.
“You’re late,” Stiles says, though he really wants to leap up and dance around the dining room. It’s taking all his willpower not to grin. “I said 6:30 sharp.”
“Stiles, fix the boy a plate,” the sheriff says with a sigh.
“I can do it,” Derek says. “If you’ll tell me where the plates are.”
“Top left cabinet,” Stiles instructs. They eat in silence while Derek moves around the kitchen, fixing his plate. He takes the empty chair beside Isaac and across from Stiles, his plate piled high with food. Stiles ducks his head because he can’t keep the smile off his face.
“I was telling the boys about the arrest we made up in the next county,” the sheriff tells Derek, and then continues talking like usual. Derek even offers something to the conversation once.
After dinner, Derek immediately starts clearing the dishes from the table. Stiles watches in wonder as Isaac joins in to help while the sheriff goes into the living room and turns on the TV. Stiles fills the sink with water and suds and is just about to start washing when Derek says, “I can do that.”
“It’s okay, I usually wash.”
“What kind of husband would I be otherwise?” Derek said with a smirk. Stiles laughs because Derek has made a joke – even if it was the same joke as before. Then Stiles realizes that they have a thing, him and Derek. This is their joke. At least for today.
“Well, honey, that’s so sweet that you want to wash after I cooked the food.”
“You’re such a good wife,” Derek says as he starts washing plates.
“What in the hell are you two talking about?” Isaac asks from behind them.
Stiles glances at Derek before glancing back at Isaac. “Inside joke.”
“O...kay,” Isaac says with a shake of his head. He puts away the condiments before saying goodnight.
Stiles leans against the counter and picks at his cuticles as Derek washes the dishes. “Thanks for coming to dinner,” he says.
“You told me to,” Derek replies. “You were pretty adamant about it.”
“Yeah, well, I appreciate it all the same.”
“It was…nice,” Derek says carefully.
“Nice,” Stiles says flatly. “That sounds not so nice.” Derek doesn’t respond, just rinses some pans. “Come on, Derek. Talk to me! You’re living here now, and now you came to dinner! I know it’s asking a lot – like today you made like three jokes and came to dinner, and now I’m expecting you to talk, but I’m a greedy dick, what can I say?”
Derek turn to him, amused. “Are you always like this?”
Stiles nods, lip between his teeth. “Pretty much, yeah.”
“Dinner was good,” Derek says.
Stiles shakes his head. “You’re hopeless, really.” He stays beside Derek while he finishes the dishes, rambling about nothing. Stiles isn’t stupid; Derek told him himself that he’d been alone for over three years. Stiles figures that Derek’s probably trying to get used to people again, and well, he knows he’s not the easiest person to be around for those that are used to people.
But Derek is there, in his kitchen, washing dishes and not telling Stiles to shut up as he talks. Derek isn’t responding to anything, but occasionally he nods or hums a response. Stiles takes it as progress.
When Derek finishes, he stands awkwardly in the middle of the kitchen.
“Thanks for help with the dishes,” Stiles says. He feels about as awkward as Derek appears. “You’re my new favorite ranch hand.”
“You’re easy,” Derek replies.
“Hey,” Stiles exclaims, “You just did more than the other three have done the entire time they’ve worked here. I get tired, too, you know.”
“Thanks for dinner,” Derek says as he heads towards the back door.
“No problem.” Stiles rests a hand against the doorframe as he watches Derek walk down the back steps. “Hey, make sure you show up tomorrow. None of this one time dinner stuff.”
“Good night, Stiles,” Derek calls over his shoulder.
Stiles grins as he watches Derek walks across the yard and into the darkness. Inside, he joins his dad on the couch. When the program cuts to commercial, Stiles says, “We need to figure out a way to give Derek some money.”
“What?” the sheriff grunts.
“Derek has one shirt and two pair of threadbare jeans,” Stiles explains. “He had two shirts until he snagged one on a nail the other day and ripped it. He needs some better clothes, and some good work boots. Those boots he has are beat up and barely holding together.”
The sheriff studies Stiles carefully. “Why do you care?”
“I don’t,” Stiles denies, and at the sheriff’s dubious expression, says, “I mean, I care a little. He’s working for us now, and living here, and well, he needs a few things.”
The sheriff stares at Stiles for a beat more before nodding his head. “Okay. You can just take him shopping.”
“He wouldn’t take the money.”
“How do you know?”
“Does Derek seem like the kind of guy who will take charity?” Stiles asks. “The dude has been homeless and drifting for like three years.”
The sheriff runs a hand over his face. “Well, I can’t very well start paying him every week.”
“We’ll think of a reason to give him money,” Stiles says staring at the television. “Cause he needs to stop looking like a drifter. He’s got a home now.”
Derek is out by the road working on repairing the fence surrounding the Stilinski property when the sun comes up. He’d woken up early, and instead of reading like he usually does, he decided to get an early start to the day. He’d surveyed the fence the day before, and he’d found so many defects in it that he’s surprised the ranch had any livestock left. Derek has made it his new mission to reinforce all the weak spots.
“You’re out here early.” Derek turns around to see the sheriff idling in his cruiser. “You know you don’t gotta earn your place here. You’ve already got one.”
“I know that, sir,” Derek says, standing up and wiping his hands on his jeans. “This fence is shot. I wanna fix it before any of the cattle or horses figure it out.”
The sheriff sighs, and Derek can see the weariness in his face and the set of his shoulders. “Guess it’s a testament to how little livestock we actually have.”
“It’s an easy fix,” Derek says. “I’ll have it done in a day, two tops.”
“There’s no rush, son,” the sheriff says. “Though I do appreciate it. Parrish tells me you’ve done some much needed projects around here. Seems you’re quite the worker.” Derek flushes with pride, but keeps his expression schooled. “We had a little extra from the meat we sold at the state farmer’s market this week. I thought you deserved a well-earned bonus.” The sheriff holds an envelope out the window.
Derek shakes his head. “Sir, I can’t possibly – “
“Don’t argue, Derek. You’ve worked hard, and I heard you saved Stiles from a rattlesnake a few weeks ago. That poor boy is terrified of rattlesnakes. I’ve been terrified he’d get bitten since he was a kid. I owe you a lot more than what’s in this envelope for that.”
Derek considers refusing the envelope. He knows they didn’t make any extra from the meat they sold – at least not enough that they should be giving it to Derek. But he needs a few things, like some shirts since he tore one last week and is now down to one. And his boots are so worn he’s got blisters on his feet. He guesses he can appreciate that the sheriff is pretending to give him the money for work instead of just handing it over.
“Thank you.” Derek takes the envelope and gives the sheriff a nod.
“Seems like my instinct was right about you. Glad I hired you before someone else could snag you up. Keep up the good work.” With a final wave, the sheriff drives away down the dusty road.
Derek glances in the envelope. There’s not much in there, but he can get what he needs and maybe save a little for the next pair of boots or work jeans he’ll need.
He loses count of how long he’s been outside as he works. The sun is high overhead and he’s soaked his one good shirt completely when he hears a vehicle coming to a stop behind him. He glances over his shoulder and sees that it’s Stiles. Stiles leans across the front seat of his Jeep and rolls down the passenger side window.
“Ready for a break?”
“Not really,” Derek says. “What time is it?”
Derek glances at the sky. He hadn’t realized he had been working that long. But now that he’s stopped and knows that it’s near lunch time, his stomach has started growling.
“I’m going into town,” Stiles says. “Wanna join?” Derek glances at the fence, but before he can say anything, Stiles says, “Don’t say no. I’ll take you to lunch at my favorite place, my treat. Plus, you haven’t been off this farm since you got here.”
“Staying in one place has its virtues,” Derek states.
“I’ll return you to the fence, I promise. I’ll even guarantee it will be here when you get back. Come on.” Stiles opens the passenger door, and Derek finds himself hooking his tools on his belt and climbing into the Jeep. Stiles grins widely when he closes the door. “Awesome.”
Derek rolls his eyes, but can’t help when he huffs a laugh. He’s pretty sure Stiles is in on it with his father; first, the sheriff gives him money, now Stiles is offering to take him into town? But Derek can hardly refuse. He can’t remember the last time someone was so pleased that he got into the car with them.
The town closest to the Stilinski ranch is just like every other Wyoming town Derek has passed through. It was small, without even a Wal-mart or proper grocery store. There is one main block where everything is located: the general store, the supermarket, the doctor’s office, the post office, sheriff’s station, a tiny out-of-date theater, and a small restaurant.
Stiles parallel parks on the side of the street in front of the general store. “I’ve got to pick up a few things before lunch. You can do whatever you need to do.”
Derek nods and follows Stiles into the general store. He scans the store and quickly finds men’s apparel along the back wall. He picks up three long-sleeved plaid shirts for working on the ranch, and stares at a stack of Henleys.
“Yes,” Stiles says. Derek glances over at him with his brow furrowed. “Get the black, grey, and maroon. They’ll look nice on you.”
“Seems like a waste,” Derek says with a frown. “Why do I need three non-work shirts?”
Stiles laughs, but Derek just looks at him confusion. “Wait, you’re serious? Don’t you, I don’t know, want a life?”
Derek shrugs. “I have a life.”
“Dude, fixing fences is not a life. It’s not that exciting around here, but you could, I don’t know, go to the bar with Parrish, meet some hot woman, get some.” Stiles waggles his eyebrows and looks at Derek pointedly. “You might could have an exciting life.”
“Exciting is overrated,” Derek says as he finds the shirts in his size.
“Definitely not,” Stiles shakes his head. “Wait, how do you know that exciting is overrated?” Derek glances at Stiles, but doesn’t say anything. “I keep forgetting you had a life before homeless beggar.”
“I wasn’t a beggar,” Derek says.
“So, are you gonna tell me how you know about exciting?” Stiles prods.
“Come on, Derek! You won’t tell me anything! You have this total mysterious thing going on, which is kinda cool, but also frustrating as hell. Eventually I’m going to lose interest, or just decide you’re either lying, in the witness protection program, or a spy.”
Derek stares at Stiles in amusement. “Really?”
Stiles shrugs. “You’ve left me no choice.”
“I used to have a somewhat exciting life,” Derek says slowly. He hates thinking of those days, back when he’d thought the rodeo was more important than anything, and that sex and money and partying was all he needed. God, sometimes that life feels like it belonged to someone else.
“That’s it? That’s all I get?”
“I got the shirts, so stop your whining,” Derek retorts.
“You’re hopeless,” Stiles sighs. “And don’t get three of the same shirt. God, what is wrong with you?” Stiles puts two of the work shirts back and replaces them with different colors. He now has a green, blue, and red one.
“Do you want to pick out the rest of my clothes?” Derek asks flatly.
“If you continue sucking at it, yes.”
Stiles doesn’t say much about the work boots he picks out, or the new underwear, socks, and undershirts. He does, however, convince Derek to buy two new pair of jeans. Derek frowns as he watches the total go up with each new scanned item.
“Cheer up, sour face,” Stiles says, slapping Derek on the shoulder. “You’ve got a job now. I think you can afford to replace your raggedy clothes.”
“There’s nothing wrong with the clothes I have now,” Derek grumbles as he hands over almost all the cash the sheriff gave him.
“Oh really?” Stiles asks. He sticks his finger in a hole in the back of Derek’s shirt.
“What are you – how did that get there?” Derek asks, twisting around in an attempt to get a better look. “This shirt was fine. It’s still fine.”
“For working on fences, yes,” Stiles says, grabbing Derek’s shopping bags. “But now you have at least one shirt you can wear to dinner and look presentable.”
Stiles drops the bags off at the Jeep, then points to the small restaurant. “Lunch, my treat.”
“I need run another errand. I’ll meet you there in a minute,” Derek says. Stiles nods and crosses the street towards the restaurant.
Derek returns to the general store and buys a dime postcard that has a picture of a Wyoming mountain landscape on the front. He takes it down to the post office, places a stamp on it, and writes Laura’s address on the back. Otherwise, he leaves it blank. He stares at her name for a second too long before dropping it in the outgoing slot and exiting the post office.
Stiles is waiting for Derek at a table with a glass of water sitting at his spot. Derek gulps half of it down.
“So,” Stiles says, drumming his fingers on the table. “Who’s the postcard for?”
Derek runs a hand over his hair. What the hell was it with this kid? “You’re a nosy little shit, aren’t you?”
Stiles nods. “You are literally the most interesting thing to happen in years, Derek. Plus, under all the dust and mud, I’m a cop’s son.” He taps his temple.
Derek studies Stiles for a moment, wondering when he’s going to figure it out. Parrish, Boyd, and Isaac would never guess, but Stiles is different. Stiles sees when the others don’t; Stiles pays attention, and for some reason, he pays a lot of attention to Derek.
“And don’t lie,” Stiles says before Derek can figure out how to respond. “I’ll know if you’re lying, and that’ll just make me mad.”
“Do you ever mind your own business?” Derek asks.
“No, not really.”
The waitress saves Derek momentarily by taking their orders, but Stiles isn’t deterred by the interruption.
“My sister,” Derek blurts. “I sent it to my sister.”
That wasn’t the answer Stiles was expecting. His face scrunches, and Derek can tell he’s turning the information over in his mind.
“You have a sister,” Stiles says slowly, “yet you voluntarily chose to be homeless for three years.”
“Yes,” Derek replies.
“It’s a long story,” Derek says. “And I don’t feel like talking about it.”
“I will get it out of you one day, Derek,” Stiles says. “You can bet on that.”
Derek has no doubt Stiles will wear him down one day, and that thought scares the hell out of him.
“You should come out with us tonight,” Parrish says as they load bales of hay into the back of a truck. “Boyd and I go down to the bar sometimes. It’s not much, but we play pool, drink beer, shoot the shit. You should come with us.”
Derek grunts as he hefts a bale upon onto the truck bed. His arms are burning from exertion and he’s exhausted, but he says, “Yeah, okay.” Parrish looks surprised, but pleased.
When work is done for the day, Derek paces back and forth in his cabin. He stares at the clothes on the bed like they are diseased. He hasn’t been to a bar for social reasons in such a long time. He hasn’t had friends since the rodeo.
His hands are shaking when he reaches for the pair of jeans. After he slips them on, he stands by the bed, frozen and shirtless. He could just not go. He could say he doesn’t feel well or wants to turn in early. But Derek knows he can’t run forever. He hears Stiles’ voice in his head: “Don’t you want to have a life?” He’s stopped long enough to settle down at the ranch; maybe it’s time to take Stiles’ advice and get some sort of life.
Derek steps over to the mirror and looks at his reflection. He doesn’t remember the last time he really looked at himself. He looks years older than he should, he knows. His skin is tan from hours working outside, and there are lines around his eyes that shouldn’t be there. His face has a pinched, serious expression, and he’s almost forgotten what he looked like when he smiled.
He runs a hand over his scruff. It’s ungroomed, thicker in some places than others from quick, uneven shaves. His hair is longer than he liked to keep it in the past. Derek figures he’s neglected these things long enough, so he grabs his razor and the clippers from the shelf. It takes awhile, but when he’s done, his beard is trimmed and groomed, his hair shorter. He runs his fingers through it, spikes it a little in the front.
He stares into the mirror for a long time. It’s like a ghost looking back at him. He looks like himself again – his self from before - except now he’s older and kept the beard.
He goes with the black Henley and pulls it over his head. The clothes feel foreign on him, and he feels uncomfortable in his skin. But he knows this is a good thing.
He missed dinner during his moment of panic, so he walks across the field to the farmhouse in the distance. Derek can see Stiles and Isaac at the sink through the window in the back door, and doesn’t bother knocking before entering.
Stiles turns to look at him – and drops a cup. It clatters to the floor and rolls away, but Stiles isn’t paying it any attention. He’s gaping open-mouthed at Derek.
Derek shifts uneasily. It had been a long time, but he was pretty sure he didn’t mess his hair and beard up too much.
“What the – you look – when did you – are you a model?” Stiles babbles. Derek shoots him an unimpressed look. “Seriously. Were you a model before the drifting? Because I’m pretty sure you should be in GQ.”
“Put it back in your pants, Stiles,” Isaac drones from beside Stiles. Stiles’ face turns bright pink, and Derek can feel his neck heat up.
“I wanted to apologize for missing dinner,” Derek says.
“No big deal,” Stiles says. “There’s some leftovers in the fridge if you want.” He leans against the counter and crosses his arms over his chest. “Where are you going?”
“Out, with Parrish and Boyd.”
“Ugh, I want to go to the bar,” Stiles whines. “Why does everyone in this town have to know that I’m the sheriff’s son? Makes sneaking in so difficult.”
“That, and the fact that you look like you’re twelve,” Isaac says.
“Shut up, like you’re any better with your cherub butt face.”
“What in the hell is a cherub butt face?”
Something in Derek aches listening to their light bickering. They sound like brothers, and Derek thinks of his siblings. Maybe this was all a bad idea. The last thing he wanted to do was start dredging up old memories.
He shakes his head. He wants to go to the bar and have a nice time. He thinks he has earned a night off.
“Good night,” Derek says, heading for the door while Isaac and Stiles bicker.
“Hey Derek,” Stiles says, as Derek reaches for the doorknob, “I was totally right about the shirts.”
Derek is glad he has his back to Stiles; that way he can’t see the ghost of a smile on his lips.
The bar is loud and smoky. They’d been standing outside the bar when Derek remembered he didn’t have an ID, lost it a long time ago, but no one asks for it when he orders their third round. Derek has had four beers, and he’s feeling relaxed and half-drunk. However, the group of women at their table is making him uncomfortable. One, a short, stout blonde with a pretty smile, keeps leaning towards him. Every time she gets close, Derek recoils. There’s nothing wrong with her, but every time she gets close, Derek feels sick, like he’s crawling out of his skin.
No one’s touched him since Kate. This girl looks nothing like her, but each time she leans towards Derek or lays her hand on his arm, he sees Kate’s face and his skin crawls.
When the girls go to the bathroom, Boyd says, “Derek, man, what’s the matter? May is completely into you.”
“She’s cute,” Parrish says after draining his beer glass. “Every time she says something to you, you look at her like she smells like unpleasant livestock.”
Derek rubs his hands over his face. He knows he’s being rude, but he can’t get it together. His head is a mangled mess of drunken thoughts, insecurities, and memories he never wanted to think about again.
“I need to go home,” Derek says finally.
“You’ll have to find a ride,” Parrish says. “I’m taking Terry home, and I’m pretty sure Boyd has all night plans with Vickie.”
“That’s fine,” Derek says. He stands suddenly on unsteady legs and sways a bit. He grabs the edge of the table. “Can I borrow your cell phone?”
Boyd hands his over, and Derek calls the only person he knows. He calls Stiles.
“Boyd, man, I was sleeping. This better be important.”
“It’s Derek,” he says. “Can you or Isaac come to the bar and pick me up?”
“I’ll be there soon.” The call ends, and Derek hands the phone back Boyd. The room is too hot, too stuffy, and he’s feels like he’s smothering. He thinks if he can get out there soon, he might not have to see May again.
“I’m gonna go wait outside,” Derek says. He pulls out his wallet, but Boyd places a hand over his wrist.
“Don’t worry about it. We got it.”
“Thanks,” Derek says. He claps them both on the shoulder and makes his way towards the exit. Outside, he carefully lowers onto the concrete sidewalk and leans his back against the brick wall. He can hear the muffled sounds of music, voices, and laughter from inside the bar, but he closes his eyes and ignores it. The night is warm, and now that he’s outside, it feels comforting on his skin. He’s spent so much time outside over the last few years that sometimes he feels more at home out of doors than he does inside.
Tonight may have been the worst decision Derek has ever made. The beers have ripped open the gaping holes in his heart that he kept so carefully boarded up. The din of the bar, the sounds of laughter, reminds him so much of his rodeo days that he feels a longing he hadn’t felt in years. He remembers the murmur of the crowd as he waited for the gate to open so he could enter the arena. Remembers the rush of adrenaline as he held onto the bucking bronco, the feeling of total elation as he rode the bull.
God, he loved the rodeo more than anything. He rubbed his leg unconsciously, feeling the marred flesh beneath his jeans. That was the whole problem with his life. That was what led to him sitting in this very spot. He’d left his family despite their warnings and pleas, had gone on the road with Kate Argent and her whispers of fame and fortune without a look back. And he’d done it, too. Three time all-around world champion, youngest winner of the Triple Crown, and sponsors beating down his door. It was his dream come true. A beautiful woman on his arm, money, and titles.
He’d felt invincible.
But then his world had spectacularly fallen apart. He’d just won at the All American ProRodeo Finals when he got the call. A fire, his parents gone. Laura and Cora hadn’t been home, but everything else had burned to the ground.
Kate hadn’t gone to the funeral with him. He stood by stoically as they lowered two caskets into the ground; the last time he had seen them had been three years prior, when he’d angrily left to go on tour. He’d always thought he’d have time to make it right, be able to bring home trophies and ribbons and make his parents proud of him.
He’d never forgiven himself for that, and as he sits there on that hard sidewalk, he feels the pain of their loss just as strongly as that day in the cemetery.
Laura and Cora had begged him not to go back to the circuit, but he couldn’t be on the ranch, couldn’t be surrounded by the ghosts and soul-crushing guilt he felt every time he looked around. And Derek couldn’t handle staring at the house. The first time he’d seen it, half of it burned away, he vomited right there in the yard. He didn’t feel much better when he looked at it after that. The smell of burnt wood and ashes still hung in the air, making Derek sick to his stomach and unable to breathe. Kate hadn’t helped. She’d encouraged him to get back in the saddle and keep competing so he wouldn’t lose sponsors. Competing gave him just the distraction he needed.
He lost everything he had left when his horse, Triskele, broke his legs while competing, and Derek knows it had been his fault. He’d been careless and unfocused, and never should have been back in that saddle. He still remembers the moment Triskele went down, front legs buckling down and tossing them both into the dirt. He’d sat there stroking his neck, watching him snuffle into the dirt with his black mane spread out behind him, terrified his horse would leave him, too. Laura had been there, and Derek couldn’t go with her to see the vet about Triskele. He couldn’t watch them put his best friend down, so he left town without a word to Laura or a final goodbye to his horse. Derek had still competed, Kate’s voice still whispering in his ear. In his next competition, he’d gotten thrown from a bull almost the moment he’d sat on it, and the bull had trampled on his leg, shattering his femur.
Despite the excruciating pain, he’d known right then, while lying in the dirt, that his career was over. He’d had everything in his life taken from him.
He feels a single tear roll down his cheek and wipes it away hastily. There’s no reason for him to think of things he can’t change. This is his life now, a broken ranch hand with no family or friends.
He doesn’t know how much time passes before he hears footsteps falling on the concrete. “Derek?” He opens his eyes right as Stiles squats in front of him so they’re at eye level. In this shit show that was his life, Stiles’ face makes Derek not feel so alone anymore. He thinks he could drown in his eyes, stare at the curve of his lips forever.
God, he’s so fucking drunk.
“Come on, big guy,” Stiles says, grabbing Derek’s arm and slinging it over his shoulder. With some difficulty and a grunt, Stiles gets them to their feet. Derek sways a bit, leaning into Stiles’ touch. He’s warm, his arm steady around Derek’s waist. Derek finds that he craves the feeling, craves the feel of Stiles’ long fingers against the small of his back. “Think you can walk?”
Derek lifts his head from where it has lolled in front of him. He nods, and Stiles takes a few tentative steps away. Derek takes a breath and walks to the Jeep. Stiles doesn’t try to talk to him on the drive back to the ranch, just rolls down his window and sings along quietly to the radio.
When they stop moving, Derek reluctantly gets out of the Jeep and stumbles across the grass towards his cabin. He stops halfway there and turns his face to the sky. Stiles is standing right beside him, and he follows Derek’s line of vision.
“Do you ever just look up at the sky and…” Derek trails off, eyes connecting the dots between hundreds of stars.
“And what?” Stiles asks softly.
“And just look.”
“Yeah.” Derek slowly looks at Stiles, barely visible in the dark night. He can see tiny stars twinkling in Stiles’ eyes, and he thinks that Stiles might be like the sky. Open and endless and beautiful.
“Sometimes the sky is the only thing that makes sense,” Derek tells him.
To Derek’s surprise, Stiles grabs Derek’s hand and pulls him away from the cabin. He’s even more surprised when he doesn’t mind. Stiles leads him across the fields, holding on to Derek’s hand the whole time. He doesn’t think about where they are going, or the memories that had been drowning him earlier. He thinks about the weight of Stiles’ hand in his own, about how soft Stiles’ skin is despite years working on a ranch. He looks at where their hands are connected, then follows the long line up Stiles’ arm to the back of his head, pale neck in stark relief against dark hair. Derek relaxes into the moment, trusting wherever Stiles leads him.
For the first time in years, Derek allows himself to feel.
They end up in the barn, and Stiles finally drops Derek’s hand as he climbs a worn wooden ladder attached to a support beam. It’s unsettling how much Derek misses the touch as soon as it’s gone. His head is still swimming, but he’s sobered up enough that he can ascend the ladder without losing his footing. Stiles is waiting for him at the top, and grabs his hand to help hoist him onto the platform. When Derek sits back on his haunches, he glances around and sees that they’re in the hayloft.
Stiles crawls across the hay, the roof too low to do more than raise up on their knees, and opens the door. He sits up and dangles his legs off the side. When Derek settles beside him, his breath catches in his throat.
He can see the whole ranch from this vantage, and beyond; up above, twinkling in the sky, are thousands of white stars.
“This is my second favorite place on the ranch,” Stiles tells him. “I spend a lot of nights up here alone.”
“It’s beautiful.” Derek scoots close to the edge, the heels of his boots swinging against the side of the barn. He loses himself in the beauty around him, and it doesn’t feel so empty and endless with someone sitting beside him. He doesn’t feel so alone in the world.
“My mother,” Stiles starts, his voice unsteady so he has to clear his throat. “She used to tell me stories about the stars. We’d lay out there,” he lifts his hand and Derek follows his finger to an undetermined place in the field, “almost every night. She made up stories about hunters who lived alongside bears, and bears that looked over and protected small boys.” Derek recognized the pain in Stiles’ voice, but also the love and joy in a single memory.
“Where’s Ursa Major?” Derek asks.
Stiles grabs Derek’s hand, pushes his index finger into a point, and lifts his arm. He’s leaning close, his breath ghosting over Derek’s cheek. “Follow your finger. Do you see the Big Dipper?” Derek nods, though he’s not looking at the stars; his eyes are on Stiles’ face. “The Big Dipper is part of Ursa Major. Follow your fingers and you’ll see it.” Stiles moves Derek’s hand, connecting each star together. When he finally turns towards Derek, he pauses and blinks slowly, then lets go of Derek’s hand.
“I just see stars,” Derek says as he turns back to the sky.
“I used to,” Stiles says. “When my mom used to tell me stories, I just saw big dots as I listened to her voice. Ever since she died, I have tried to find her in the stars.”
Derek’s voice is unsteady when he speaks. “Have you found her?”
“I see her everywhere around the ranch.”
“How can you stay?” Derek asks, despite his better judgment. Stiles turns to him with that shrewd gaze, and Derek wonders just how deeply Stiles has seen beneath his walls, how deeply he’s dug himself into the dark crevices Derek tries to keep hidden.
“It’s all I have left of her,” he explains. “How could I leave? She loved this place more than anything.”
Derek’s family had barely been in the ground an hour before he ran away, unable to face the fields, the stables, the trees.
“I was surprised when I got your call,” Stiles says, obviously trying to lighten the mood. He taps his heels against the side of the barn. “I figured you’d end up in some lucky cowgirl’s bed.”
“No.” Derek shakes his head adamantly.
“Was she that bad?” Stiles asks.
“Do you hate sex and fun?”
Derek groans and rolls his eyes so hard his whole head goes with it. “She reminded me of someone.”
“Oh. Who someone?”
Stiles nods. “Bad breakup?”
“You could say that.” Derek remembers Kate coming to see him in the hospital, telling him it was over, that she wasn’t finished with her tour and he had to understand that her career came first. Derek hadn’t cared when she walked out that door. He’d been numb to everything. After everything he had lost, Kate was nothing.
“Did it have something to do with your leg?” Stiles asks. Derek glances down and doesn’t realize he had been unconsciously rubbing his leg. He drops his hand, and Stiles says, “You can tell me, you know.”
He means it, too. Derek knows he could tell Stiles, but that is a door he doesn’t want to open, not tonight. Tonight, Derek has done enough.
“Do you mind if I sit out here with you for awhile?” Stiles asks. Derek shrugs. “Good, because I wasn’t planning on going anywhere even if you said no.” Derek finds himself smiling as Stiles bumps his shoulder, and he doesn’t really mind when he stays close, his shoulder pressing comfortingly against Derek’s.
Stiles isn’t surprised when Derek doesn’t show up for breakfast. They’d stayed in the hayloft until almost 2 a.m. Derek hadn’t seemed drunk when they’d parted, but hangovers are evil, unpredictable creatures. He’d learned this on the many nights he and Scott had stolen his dad’s whiskey, or those nights they ended up at one of Jackson’s famous parties.
Boyd walks into breakfast with a smug grin on his face. Stiles rolls his eyes, but grins. “Somebody’s wearing their ‘I just got laid’ face.”
“Something you’d know nothing about,” Isaac quips through a mouthful of eggs.
“Like I’m the only virgin in the room, Isaac,” Stiles glares. That shuts him up. Isaac’s cheeks tinge pink and he grumbles into his plate.
“Who was it?” Stiles asks.
Boyd shrugs. “Name was Vickie. Lives out past the junction, I think. Didn’t really do much talking.”
“You never do much talking,” Stiles ribs as he sets a plate in front of Boyd.
“Did Derek get home okay?” Boyd asks as he digs in.
“Yeah, I picked him up,” Stiles says casually. He doesn’t know why he suddenly feels embarrassed and exposed. He shakes the feeling before the guys can pick up on it.
“What’s wrong with Derek?” Isaac asks.
“Dunno,” Boyd says. “He got kinda drunk and then really weird last night. He really pissed off May. Almost caused me and Parrish to lose out on Terry and Vicki.”
“Just because he wasn’t interested in her?” Isaac says. “That’s stupid.”
“It’s not that he wasn’t interested,” Boyd continues. “It’s like even being near her was painful. He looked at her with this look of revulsion all night. And when she touched him? You’d have thought he’d gotten bitten by a rattlesnake.”
Stiles frowns as he pulls ingredients from the cabinets. He thinks about grabbing Derek’s hand as he led him towards the barn, taking his hand and drawing the outlines of constellations. Derek had leaned into him, and there had barely been any space between them. And Derek hadn’t tried to pull away.
Stiles knows he’s never sat like that with Isaac, or Boyd, or even Scott. Sure, they’ve piled into the cab of a truck, sat squished together on a couch too small, but he’d never taken their hands, or sat side by side pressed against each other in the dark.
His heart starts beating in his chest, and he flushes as he feels that same embarrassment and exposure he felt earlier. He pushes it from his mind and doesn’t worry about Derek. Instead, he starts mixing the ingredients for the famous Stilinski bread.
Parrish stumbles into the kitchen a few minutes later, eyes bloodshot and looking like hell. Boyd smirks and Isaac says, “Hey there, stud.” Stiles pours Parrish a cup of coffee.
“What time did you get to sleep?” Boyd asks.
“Uh,” Parrish grunts as he drains half the coffee. “3? 4?”
“Dumbass,” Boyd says with a shake of his head.
“You only got 1 or 2 hours of sleep. Great. Castrating is gonna go so well today,” Isaac says. “Can’t wait.”
After the ranch hands start work, Stiles leaves the bread in the oven and goes out to check the chicken coops for eggs. He feels Parrish’s pain. He’d fallen asleep around 2:30 and had woken at 5:30. The sun was barely cresting the horizon now, the morning damp and quiet. A few cows were lowing in the distance.
He gathers a basket of eggs, then takes them into the kitchen to wash. They have so many eggs right now that Stiles wants Parrish to take them to the market when he goes. It’s not a lot of money, but at least it’s something.
When the eggs are clean and put away, he takes the bread out of the oven. He lets it cool for a few minutes before taking it out of the pan and wrapping it in a towel. He walks to Derek’s cottage and knocks on the door. When he doesn’t hear a response, he pushes the door open and leaves the bundle on the small kitchen table.
Derek doesn’t show up for lunch, which doesn’t go unnoticed. Isaac says he saw him working on the fence at the far edge of the property when he’d been rounding up cattle. After lunch, Stiles saddles up Buttercup and rides to the far edge of the property. He spies Derek in the distance as he approaches, red plaid contrasting against the golden fields, a hat atop his head.
Stiles calls out when he nears, but Derek doesn’t look up. Stiles’ brow furrows in concern. “Derek, you okay?” he asks when he halts beside Derek.
Derek sighs and glances up at Stiles on the horse. The wide brim of the hat shades his face as he glares up at Stiles. “What do you want?”
Artwork by maichan
“Um,” Stiles says uncertainly. “You didn’t show up for breakfast or lunch.”
Derek turns back to the hole he’s repairing in the fence wire. “Wasn’t hungry.”
“I made you some of the famous Stilinski bread,” Stiles says, shifting the reins in his hands.
“Why?” Derek asks without turning.
“Thought it might be nice hangover food.” Stiles chews his lip, ignoring the heaviness in his chest. “I thought – “
“You thought what?” Derek snaps as he twists around.
“I thought you were past this asshole routine,” Stiles replies angrily. “I thought we were friends.”
Derek scoffs. “Why? Because you picked me up when I was drunk? Because I rode off my buzz with you? That doesn’t make us friends.”
“But I thought – “
“Well, you thought wrong.” He turns back to the fence post. “You’re just a naïve kid.”
Derek’s words cut Stiles deeper than anything anyone could have said to him. He grabs the reins, turns Buttercup around, and sets off at a gallop. He doesn’t know how Derek did it, but he managed to hit Stiles where he’s most vulnerable.
You’re just a naïve kid.
He knows Derek is right. That’s Stiles’ biggest problem. He’s a naïve kid going nowhere fast. Scott would be gone in two months, and everyone else he’d ever known with him. He’d still be trapped on the ranch, alone, while life passed him by.
He rides Buttercup fast and hard until he gathers his composure, and then slows her to a trot. He doesn’t even know why he’s upset. Who cares what some stupid drifter thinks of him? Derek is nothing.
But that doesn’t calm the ache in Stiles’ chest.
The group of calves are already in the separate pen adjacent to the barn by the time Stiles arrives. The mother cows are on the other side of the fence, their calves standing near them just inside. The head-gates are ready in case they need them, and Boyd has set out the banding tools on a bench.
Stiles hates this part. There are a lot of unpleasant things that happen on a ranch, but the castration part has always freaked him out.
Derek shows up about five minutes after Stiles. He doesn’t even look at Stiles, and Stiles feels like it’s a slap in the face. It sets his blood boiling.
“Surprised you even showed up,” Stiles says sarcastically. He knows he should probably stop talking, but he’s never been able to control his mouth. Derek doesn’t respond. “Not talking? Shocker.”
Boyd, Parrish, and Isaac look between Derek and Stiles uncomfortably. Stiles strides up to Derek and faces him. Derek still won’t look at him.
“Get out of my way,” Derek growls.
“Or what, Derek? What are you going to do?” Derek finally looks at him, and his gaze is cold and hard. Stiles isn’t deterred. “Why are you even here? Why haven’t you drifted on somewhere? That’s what you do, isn’t it? You run away. You’re nobody, Derek. A useless hobo with no last name whose family probably didn’t – “
Stiles’ words catch in his throat as he’s slammed into the side of the barn. The breath is knocked from him, and he inhales sharply. Derek is only a few inches from his face, his fist clenched in the front of Stiles’ shirt, eyes burning pure fury.
“You don’t know anything about me,” Derek seethes, his teeth bared.
Stiles hears Boyd, Parrish, and Isaac’s voices, but can’t make out what they’re saying above the rushing in his ears. Defiantly, he lifts his chin, refusing to back down. He’s pissed and kinda hates Derek.
“I know enough. You’re not worth anything. A broken drifter with no future, no friends, no family – “ Stiles flinches when Derek’s fist lands right beside his head on the barn wall, wood splintering from the force.
Before Stiles can react, Derek is hauled off him, and Boyd is standing between them. Parrish is rounding on Derek, yelling. “You need to calm the fuck down before I throw you out on your ass.”
“Tell ‘em, Parrish.”
Parrish rounds on Stiles and points his finger angrily. “And you shut your fucking mouth, Stiles.”
“Or what?” Stiles counters.
“You’re such an asshole,” Parrish says. “All of you, get to work. I don’t care what beef you’ve got with each other, you can beat the shit out of each other after we’re done working. We’ve got to get these cattle branded and banded. Now, go!”
Stiles moves as far away from Derek as he can. He helps Boyd with a calf in one of the head-gates, and is so angry and distracted that he doesn’t even make his usual jokes or get squeamish when they place the bands around the calves’ testicles.
“What’s wrong?” Scott asks as soon as Stiles climbs into his truck.
“Nothing,” Stiles says. “Drive.” Scott obeys, and doesn’t bring it up again until they are on the road. “I got into it with Derek,” Stiles admits.
Scott’s face shows his disapproval. “Told you that guy was bad news.”
“I’m beginning to buy into your murderer theory,” Stiles grumbles.
Stiles shrugs and picks at a nail. “I thought we were friends. Apparently I was wrong.”
“Ah, don’t worry about him,” Scott say, shooting Stiles a bright grin. “You have me!” Stiles returns the smile but doesn’t tell Scott that in a few months, he won’t have him anymore.
They go to the steakhouse in town and meet up with the rest of the group. Lydia, Jackson, Danny, Liam, Mason, Danielle, and Heather are already waiting for them. Being at dinner with his friends doesn’t help his mood. The only thing they talk about is college, who their roommate will be, what they’ll major in, what it’ll be like living in a new city.
Although Stiles is jealous, he’s never really wanted to go to college. He’s always known his future lay with the ranch, carrying on his mother’s legacy. Sure, he’s got dog-eared college brochures and applications stashed away in his room that no one knows about, and he’d talked to his dad about it at one time, and maybe he decided on a major once. But the reality was that they needed him on the ranch, and it wasn’t like Stiles’ dad could afford to send him to college even with financial aid. If things didn’t turn around, they wouldn’t have money to pay for anything.
Scott nudges him halfway through the meal and gives him a meaningful look. “You’re not still upset, are you?”
“Why are you upset?” Heather asks on his other side.
“No reason,” Stiles mumbles. “I’m fine, Scott.”
“I should go kick his ass,” Scott says.
“Like you could kick anyone’s ass, McCall,” Jackson says.
“Whose ass do you want to kick?” Danny asks.
“That drifter?” Jackson snorts. “That’s what you get for taking in trash.”
“He’s not trash,” Stiles says adamantly, surprised to find himself defending Derek.
Jackson rolls his eyes, not impressed. “We’ve had that type on our ranch before,” he explains. “They’re thieves, lazy, nothing but drunks looking for a good fight. We stopped hiring them. They’re not worth what we pay them.” Jackson’s family owned one of the most successful cattle ranches this side of Cheyenne. The Stilinski ranch wasn’t even in the same category; the Whittemore ranch made their ranch look like child’s play. And Jackson made sure to remind Stiles of that any time he had a chance. Jackson was an entitled asshole who had delusions of grandeur about joining the rodeo one day. Stiles knew it would never work because Jackson wouldn’t want to mess up his hair for that long.
“Derek’s not like that,” Stiles says.
“I thought you were mad at him,” Scott says.
“I am,” Stiles tells him. “Doesn’t mean he’s trash.”
Jackson rolls his eyes. “Whatever. Look, party in Danny’s field tonight. Sound good?” Everyone agrees, and Stiles finds himself trudging after them. Even the alcohol can’t lift his mood.
Stiles walks into the house midday to find his dad bent over the dining room table, glasses perched on his nose, papers strewn around him. “Hey, whatcha you doing?” He leans against the doorframe and downs half a bottle of water.
“Looking over the books,” the sheriff replies distractedly. “Parrish and I spoke this morning.”
“Why?” Stiles asks, dread pooling in his belly.
“There’s no money.” The sheriff looks up at Stiles, and he can see the stress and worry lines etched in his face. “Even with this herd of beef cattle almost ready to slaughter, that money won’t be enough to pull us out of debt.”
“What,” Stiles starts, then swallows. “What does that mean?”
The sheriff rubs his eyes. “I don’t know, Stiles. It looks like we might go under sooner than I had anticipated.”
“There has to be something we can do,” Stiles says. “We can’t…there’s not…Dad, this is our home. It’s…it’s Mom’s.”
“I know, Stiles,” the sheriff says wearily. “But I can’t just make money appear.”
Stiles leaves his dad at the table. When he returns from the bathroom, he sees a whiskey bottle and a full glass sitting by the sheriff’s elbow.
The sheriff skips dinner. Stiles doesn’t really felt like socializing either; he leaves Isaac’s dinner on the stove and eats upstairs in his bedroom, trying to lose himself in a movie. It just seems like things keep getting worse for him. And Stiles doesn’t know what to do. If the ranch goes under…he isn’t even sure what kind of job he could get.
He tries to fall asleep, but tosses and turns, mind obsessing about losing the ranch. Finally, he shucks the blankets from his body, stuffs his feet in old sneakers, pulls on the nearest hoodie, and walks outside. The night air is cool, and Stiles feels comforted as it stings his skin. It doesn’t feel as confined and suffocating outside, not with the stars overhead and the moon shining high in the sky.
He walks into the barn and climbs the old ladder. When his head crests the top, he’s surprised to find someone sitting in his spot. He knows who it is, and has a split second to decide if he’s going to stay or run away. The thought of tossing in his bed is the only thing that gets him to crawl towards the open door.
Stiles grunts as he scoots around so his legs are hanging off the edge of the barn. Derek remains still beside him, and Stiles wonders if he should speak. He’s still mad as hell, but he’s cooled enough that he thinks they can share the same space without Stiles pushing him off the edge of the barn. Plus, he has more important things to deal with tonight.
A few minutes later, Derek moves to get up, and Stiles reaches out to grab his arm before he realizes it. Derek stares down at the hand, and Stiles removes it awkwardly. “You don’t have to go.”
Derek doesn’t respond, but he doesn’t leave either.
They sit there in the silence for a long time. Stiles is so wrapped in his thoughts that it doesn’t even bother him that they’re not speaking. He leans against the edge of the barn and wraps his arms around himself tightly. His eyes trace the fields, the fence, each inch that he knows as well as his name. There’s no way he could leave this place. Losing the ranch would be like losing his mother all over again.
“My dad thinks we’re gonna go under,” Stiles says so quietly he’s not even sure Derek hears him. Stiles closes his eyes against the night, willing the tears away. Now that he’s verbalized it, it makes it real in a way that it wasn’t before.
Stiles startles when a hand lands on his shoulder. He glances over at Derek, who’s watching him. Derek squeezes his shoulder, and then drops his hand. Stiles stares at where Derek’s hand landed, the back of his palm and fingers brushing so lightly against the leg of Stiles’ pajama pants. In that moment, Stiles feels so overwhelmed with feelings he doesn’t understand, but the only thing he does understand is that he’s glad he’s not alone tonight.
Despite the fact that the ranch is now in serious financial trouble, life goes on like usual. Stiles thought things would change, that they would try some miracle financial stunt that would pull them out of trouble, but it doesn’t happen. They finish banding and branding cattle, and the herd of beef cattle are sent off to slaughter. Stiles cooks meals, the ranch hands joke, and Derek sits by quietly. His dad drinks more, works more at the station, and looks more and more haggard each time Stiles sees him.
But life goes on.
One afternoon, Parrish and Isaac drive down the dusty pathway towards the pasture. The horse trailer is hitched to the back of the truck, which immediately piques Stiles’ interest. He leaves the barn and jogs over to the fence.
Stiles stares in confusion when Parrish leads a horse from the trailer. The horse is large with a glossy black coat, black mane, and one white patch on its chest. The horse is fighting him, but Parrish manages to get it into the pasture. Isaac follows behind, leading another horse. That horse is smaller, calmer, with the obvious markings of a Pinto.
“Where’d they come from?” Stiles asks.
“Ranch a hundred miles east went under,” Parrish explains. “Buddy of mine worked there, told me they were trying to unload some of their livestock. I managed to snag these two beauts.”
“How did you afford this?” Stiles asks. “I thought we didn’t have any money.”
“They were cheap,” Parrish says. He frowns at the black horse, who gallops away. “That black mare is gonna be a problem.”
Parrish and Isaac leave the horses in the pasture and then drive the horse trailer to its usual parking spot. Stiles loads bales of hay into the back of the truck so that later Boyd can drive them to someone who bought them the other day. He’s sweating through his shirt, and keeps wiping his forehead with the damp sleeve. His muscles ache, but it’s an ache he doesn’t mind. It’s the ache of hard work, and at least it distracts him.
When he’s finished loading the hay, he walks back into the barn. Through the far door, he spies Derek in the pasture with the horses. Stiles leans against the wall in the shade of the barn and watches.
Derek holds something in his hand, and the Pinto eats it while Derek scratches her neck. He leans close, and Stiles can barely see his lips moving. He knew Derek loved horses, even without seeing the photo he carried around with him. Stiles has never seen Derek look as happy and relaxed as he does standing with that mare.
The mare trots off, and Derek turns his attention to the black horse. The horse walks around the pasture, exploring. Derek walks along behind it, keeping a short distance but following its every step. Stiles has never seen anyone interact with a horse that way, and he’s intrigued.
As he watches, he notices that Derek carries himself differently than usual. Derek always walks around with his head down, like he wants everyone to ignore him just like he ignores them. But now, the set of his shoulders and the way he walks commands respect, and Stiles can feel him exuding confidence even from this distance.
Stiles finds he likes this Derek. He wants to know why Derek is so comfortable with horses, wants to peel him apart and put him back together until he figures out why he’s ended up alone on their ranch.
He knows in that instant, while he watches Derek interact with the horse, that Derek doesn’t belong here. He belongs on his own ranch, running free with his horses.
The next day, Stiles goes to the barn to feed the horses and finds Derek in the pasture with the black mare. He’s doing the same thing as the other day, just walking around near the horse without interacting. Stiles doesn’t know how long he watches him, doesn’t exit the barn until Derek hops over the wooden fence and walks away.
This happens almost every day. Stiles finds Derek outside with the mare at various times a day, just walking around the pasture. The horse doesn’t seem to mind Derek, yet whenever Parrish or Isaac tries to go near it, it puts up a fight and runs away.
One day, Stiles is working on the hale baler, fixing a part that broke - again - when he sees movement in his periphery. The black mare is in the pasture again, and Derek is walking with her. Stiles watches for a few moments before turning back to the baler.
When he glances back at the pasture, his mouth drops open. The mare is standing still, and Derek is scratching its neck. Stiles smiles despite himself. Parrish hasn’t even been able to get near it, but Derek has somehow started to train it.
Stiles finishes with the hale baler, has it working (for now), and walks into the barn to return the tools. As soon as he enters, he sees Derek standing inside a stall, grooming the mare. Stiles stops in the doorway and just stares. Derek’s back is to him, and he’s removed his long-sleeved shirt so that he’s only wearing a thin, sweaty white tank top. Stiles’ eyes trace over Derek’s toned shoulders and down the slope of his back, notices the way Derek’s jeans hug his ass.
Quickly, he goes to the small storage room off to the side and replaces the tools. Afterwards, he takes the rag out of his back pocket as he walks over to the stall and wipes his face. Derek drags the bristle brush across the mare’s neck in long methodical strokes. The horse stands there without resisting. “You’re a secret horse whisperer,” Stiles says. He replaces the rag and leans his elbows on the stall door.
“She was just scared and hard-headed,” Derek replies.
“Well, if anyone knows hard-headed…” Stiles jokes. Derek glances at him and gives him a half-hearted glare, but it lacks any real heat. Stiles counts that as a win. “What were you doing with her?”
“Heeding,” Derek replies.
Stiles creases his brows. “I’m unfamiliar with that.”
“It’s how we always trained our horses,” Derek says. Stiles bites his lip to keep from saying anything stupid. He kinda wants to scream and shout and grin until his face breaks. Derek just revealed something personal about himself, even used the word our. Stiles just nods, because he can’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t ruin the moment.
He watches as Derek moves from the mare’s neck to her back. She’s dirty, probably from a combination of her previous owner’s ranch going under and no one being able to get near her for the past week. Derek’s hands are swift, agile, and gentle as he works over her, and Stiles is mesmerized by the way they work. His hands are rough and dirty, smeared with dirt and mud, dirt caked around his fingernails.
Derek’s forearms are tan, the muscles in his arms shifting as he grooms the horse. Derek’s undershirt is nearly see-through from sweat, and sweat clings to his biceps, shoulders, and neck. Stiles tracks a rivulet as it rolls from Derek’s temple towards his jaw.
Stiles doesn’t quite know what to do with the moment. They’re quiet; Stiles doesn’t mind and Derek seems content to have him watch. It feels intimate, like a stolen moment Stiles wasn’t supposed to see, Derek hidden away in a stall with the horse. Derek shows more care and gentleness in these moments than Stiles thought him capable of.
“She’s your horse now,” Stiles says as Derek brushes dirt from her back. Derek’s hands still and he looks at Stiles carefully.
“She’s Parrish’s horse, the ranch’s horse.”
“You’re part of the ranch,” Stiles says, “and Parrish can’t get within ten feet of the horse. She’s starting to trust you. You’re the only one who’s going to be able to ride her.”
Derek sets the brush down and steps closer to the mare. He scratches her neck with one hand as he grabs an apple with another and holds it out for her. After she eats it from his hand, Derek pets her face. “Are you sure?”
Stiles watches Derek’s face closely. It’s filled with excitement he’s trying to hide, but also a bit of hesitation. The most striking thing is that his face is filled with hope. Now more than ever, Stiles wants to figure out what made Derek like he is. And there is no way he’s crushing that glimmer of hope, not after he’s watched Derek look so defeated and lost for the last few months. Derek has looked more at home in the last few weeks with the horse than he has since he set foot on the ranch.
Stiles would fight Parrish to hell and back over that horse.
“Yep,” Stiles says. “All yours.” After a few moments, he asks, “So, are you gonna keep her name or change it?”
“I don’t even know her name,” Derek says. He’s now dragging a soft brush over her face.
“Then choose one,” Stiles says. “She’s your horse, you determine what suits her.”
Derek brushes her face as he looks at her. A small, private smile comes over his face, and Stiles feels something tug at his chest.
“You chose a name,” he says with a smile. “What is it?”
That isn’t the name Stiles expected. “Why Talia?”
Derek reaches out a hand and strokes the mare’s neck gently. “It was my mother’s name.”
Stiles feels an overwhelming wave of emotions. He knows the sound in Derek’s voice; he understands too well why he chose the name.
With that simple sentence, Stiles just learned a great deal about Derek. It didn’t explain everything, but it was enough to start to put pieces together.
Stiles saddles up Buttercup after he finishes a chunk of his chores and takes her into the smallest pen. He set up various obstacles around the pen earlier, a few barrels at either end and a low bar in the center. It had been awhile since he had the time to ride Buttercup like this, but he just needs to today. He feels the ache in his bones, the pull of the horse and the saddle.
Artwork by maichan
He starts by easing Buttercup into a trot around the pen. The space isn’t big enough to do much, but he gets to a decent speed as he circles along the fence. When he feels they’re warmed up enough, he maneuvers Buttercup into the correct position and then signals her. He leads her quickly around the barrels, feels the dip of the horse as they turn tightly around the obstacles.
His blood sings in his veins and he feels alive.
He remembers watching his mother do this for hours as she practiced, remembers sitting up on a horse as she took him in gentle loops around the barrels when he was barely five. He remembers days sitting in the stands with his dad as they watched his mom perform. He could never understand how it was physically possible for her and the horse to move like they did. They were one fluid motion. Stiles will never forget how beautiful she was when she competed, never forget the look on her face after she finished. It was the closest to Heaven that he’d ever seen.
He slows Buttercup to a trot and takes her for a few loops around the pen before jumping her over the low bar. The bar is lower than what the kids use, but Stiles has never really learned how to jump. He just jumps the low bars and pretends it was something impressive.
When he turns Buttercup around, he sees Derek walking towards him from the right field. His face flushes at the thought that Derek saw him fooling around. Stiles knows he looks ridiculous.
“That wasn’t half-bad,” Derek says as he approaches. He lifts his leg and rests one foot on the lower rung, and bends forward and rests his forearms on the wooden fence.
Stiles trots over towards the fence. “You saw that, huh?” He scratches the back of his neck awkwardly. “No one was supposed to see that.” Especially you, he silently adds.
Derek’s eyes look behind him to the obstacles set up. “Is that what you want to do?”
Stiles shrugs and stares down at the reins in his hand. “I dunno, maybe,” he mumbles as he twirls the straps around his wrist and then unwinds them again.
“Does there have to be a reason?” Stiles asks, finally looking at Derek. Derek shrugs. “My mother was a champion horse competitor.”
Derek nods, and Stiles turns the horse around and starts towards the gate to the large pasture. “Hey Stiles,” Derek calls out after him. Stiles pauses and glances over his shoulder. “I’ll train you.”
Stiles stares in shock as Derek turns and walks away.
Derek sits on his front porch, listening to the owls as he whittles a piece of wood. He pushes himself gently in the rocking chair, the night air warm around him. It’s a perfect night.
Artwork by geeky-sova
He can’t stop thinking about Stiles. He had tried so hard to get the kid out of his brain, but Stiles has wriggled himself beneath Derek’s walls and won’t budge. Derek had tried so hard to fight his feelings, and he knew he’d taken it too far. He’d shut Stiles out and pushed him away, but Stiles just kept coming back. It’s like he couldn’t take a hint – and the scary thing is, Derek felt relieved when he didn’t.
He’d hit Stiles at his most vulnerable spots, because it wasn’t hard to read Stiles. Derek remembers feeling suffocated by their ranch in Montana, but he’d had he rodeo to look forward, and Stiles, well, Stiles has nothing. And for some reason, Stiles has turned his attention to Derek. He tried so hard to push Stiles away, because Derek knows that he’s broken and bad news. Stiles doesn’t need to get involved in this shit show that is his life.
But more than trying to protect Stiles, he was trying to protect himself. He doesn’t think he will be able to handle it when Stiles comes into his own and leaves Derek far, far behind.
Derek sets the knife on his thigh and flexes his hand. He isn’t even sure what he’s going to make. The piece of wood right now is too large for most of what he usually makes. He likes making small, intricate figurines and pendants, loves how precise the movements have to be and how every stroke counts.
A vague moment out of the corner of his eye catches his attention, and Derek notices a figure approaching in the distance, but it’s too dark to make out any features. As soon as the figure nears the porch, Isaac’s features start to become visible. Derek gives Isaac a smile, and Isaac smiles tentatively back.
“Hey,” Isaac says as he walks up the few steps. “Mind if I join?”
Derek points to the other rocking chair, and Isaac sits down. Isaac picks up the chisel and piece of wood he left beside the rocking chair the last time he visited and starts whittling. Isaac had watched him for a few weeks before he asked Derek to teach him, and Derek did what his grandfather had done for him. Handed him a block of wood and a pocketknife and talked him through the basics. Isaac still wasn’t very good, but it had taken years before Derek had made anything worthwhile. His mother had displayed every bad figure Derek had ever whittled. They had been collecting dust on the shelves when Derek had left home, and he guesses they were still on the shelves when the house burned to the ground. He knows his mother never would have gotten rid of them.
“I hear that new mare is yours,” Isaac says conversationally. Derek nods as he slices away a thin sliver of wood. “Parrish put up a fight.”
“Oh?” Derek asks. He hadn’t heard about that. He knew Stiles was supposed to talk to Parrish, but didn’t know he’d done it.
“Yep. Stiles and Parrish got into a huge fight over it. Boyd had to intervene.”
“Parrish can have the horse if it means that much to him,” Derek says, though just thought makes his chest tighten.
“Stiles is not having that,” Isaac says with a dry laugh. “You should have seen him. He told Parrish if he was half the horse trainer you were, he’d be able to approach the horse without it freaking out. I thought Parrish’s head was gonna explode.”
Derek frowns. “Stiles shouldn’t have said that. It has nothing to do with Parrish’s ability.” Derek doesn’t know why he was drawn to that horse. Maybe because she reminded him of Triskele, and the wound was healed enough to go near another horse again. Derek hadn’t been sure he would ever be able to get on a horse again, not after losing Triskele the way he did. But something about being on this ranch, about his time here…everything doesn’t hurt as much as it used to.
Isaac looks at Derek closely. “Stiles has a very high opinion of you.”
“I don’t know why.”
“Especially after you shoved him into the barn,” Isaac says.
Derek sighs. “That should have never happened.”
“You two definitely rub each other the wrong way,” Isaac says way too casually. Derek glances at him; Isaac is staring at the stick of wood with concentration.
“If you have something to say, Isaac, spit it out,” Derek snaps, much too harshly.
Isaac’s hands still, but he doesn’t look at Derek. “I – It’s…” He shakes his head. “Nothing.”
Derek frowns as he goes back to his project. He doesn’t really care if people know he enjoys men and women equally. He’d kept it a secret on the rodeo, because that wasn’t something you wanted to advertise. He’d met a few guys he’d fooled around with, even when he’d been with Kate, but they’d had a code to never speak of it. Since he left the rodeo…nothing mattered anymore. He sure as hell didn’t care if some backwards redneck asshole didn’t like where he stuck his dick.
But he liked this ranch, he liked the people – all of them. He hadn’t figured out how they would react if they found out that Derek also liked men, and worse, how they would react if they knew Derek was falling for the boss’s son.
For now, he’d keep it to himself. He wasn’t quite ready to leave yet.
Derek wonders what exactly he was thinking when he offered to train Stiles. He hasn’t trained anyone for years, and doesn’t even know if he remembers anything. He knows he’s selfish. He just wants to be near Stiles and put that look on his face that he gets anytime he talks about horses.
Stiles leads Buttercup into the pasture Derek had decided to use as the training arena for now. Stiles looks excited, a huge grin on his face and his eyes bright. Derek can’t help but smile.
“This the horse you want to compete with?” Derek asks when Stiles approaches.
Stiles looks at the horse then back at Derek, brows pinched in confusion. “Is there something wrong with Buttercup?”
Derek shakes his head. “You just need to be sure she’s the horse you want to train with, that she’ll be the best horse to compete with.”
Stiles reaches out and pets her pale yellow neck. “Yeah. My mom started training her before she died. But it’s been awhile.”
Derek nods and walks around the horse, inspecting it. When he’s satisfied, he tells Stiles to get into the saddle. “I just want to see what you can do, your form, that kind of stuff.” Derek stands in the middle of the arena as Stiles takes Buttercup through walks, trots, and lopes. His form is decent, but Derek can instantly tell that Stiles has never had any formal training. Yet Derek can’t help but think of how beautiful Stiles is up on that horse, moving gracefully and instinctually with every step and shift of Buttercup’s gait, his hair blowing as he picks up speed. Stiles may not be trained, but he’s got horses in his blood.
Derek misses his family so much in that moment it almost overwhelms him. Stiles reminds him a lot of Cora, a free-spirited rider who could ride a horse before she could walk.
“How’d I do, teach?” Stiles asks with a wide grin when he trots over. Derek rolls his eyes.
“Fine. There’s a few things we need to work on in your form, but it won’t take long.” Derek looks around the size of the arena thoughtfully. “What exactly do you want to do in the competition?”
Stiles shrugs. “My mom did it all. I haven’t really thought about what I would like to do. Never really thought I’d get the chance.”
Derek thinks back to what he saw when Stiles was in the small pen the other day and thinks he knows what he might be good at. “How about Western pleasure, Trail class, and Western riding? You know what those are, right?”
Stiles scoffs, offended. “What do you think?”
Derek raises an eyebrow. “Are you sure you’re ready for this?”
Stiles smirks. “Oh yeah.”
Two hours later, Stiles limps over to Derek from where he’d let Buttercup into the larger field. “I think I’m dying,” Stiles says.
Now, it’s Derek’s turn to smirk. “Thought you could handle it.”
“I can, I just…fuck.” Stiles reaches between his thighs and rubs. “Owowowow.” Derek places a hand on Stiles’ shoulder and squeezes. “Want some lunch? If I can make it to the house?”
Derek nods and follows Stiles inside. They trained through the normal lunch time, so the kitchen is empty when they enter. Stiles quickly throws them together some sandwiches, and they talk about horse shows while they eat. When they’re done, Stiles grabs the biscuits from the night before and a jar from the refrigerator. Derek lifts an eyebrow in amusement as he watches Stiles slather jam onto the biscuit.
“Don’t mock,” Stiles says as he pushes the jam across the table. “Best jam you’ll ever eat.”
“Doubtful,” Derek says, remembering strawberry preserves on Sunday afternoons. He spreads some of the blackberry jam on his biscuit, but is distracted when Stiles starts to moan. He looks up to where Stiles has his eyes closed, face slack as he chews and makes noises that shouldn’t be doing things to Derek.
“This is heaven. It’s like an orgasm in your mouth.” He takes another bite, and Derek can only stare. There’s a bit of jam on Stiles’ bottom lip and chin, and jam sliding down his wrist. When Stiles opens his eyes, Derek quickly shoves the knife back in the jar and puts more on his biscuit. “Just wait until you eat it.”
Stiles watches him as he takes his first bite. The sweetness bursts on his tongue, and he can’t help but nod. “That’s good,” he says.
Stiles grins. “Told you.” He lifts his wrist and licks the sticky line of jam from his skin, and Derek’s brain nearly short circuits. He feels his cheeks heat up, and doesn’t miss the blush on Stiles’ cheeks.
“Still not the best I’ve ever eaten,” Derek announces when he’s finishes. Stiles looks scandalized.
“This has won first place at the county fair like twenty years in a row,” Stiles explains.
Derek shrugs. “I’ve tasted better.”
“I don’t believe you,” Stiles says, crossing his arms over his chest.
Derek just shrugs again, smile tugging at his lips. “I think I’ll live.”
That evening, Derek is finishing up cutting the front lawn when Parrish comes walking up. Derek turns off the tractor and hops down. He hadn’t been avoiding Parrish all day, but he hadn’t gone looking for him, either.
“We need to talk,” Parrish says, and Derek leans against the tractor tire with his arms crossed. “Stiles told me about the black mare.”
“I didn’t mean to step on anyone’s toes,” Derek says.
“I know that. Stiles also told me she’s yours now.” Derek holds Parrish’s eyes and doesn’t back down. Parrish studies him closely, and Derek waits patiently. “Does that mean you’re gonna start working with the horses?”
Derek shrugs. “Maybe.”
Parrish nods. “With you around, we might just be able to keep this place afloat.”
Derek’s brows furrow. “What are you talking about?”
“I bought those horses for a reason,” Parrish says. “I had this idea to try and generate some income for the ranch. I thought about boarding horses and also giving lessons.”
“That’s actually a good idea,” Derek says. “I’ve seen a lot of ranches make decent money from stuff like that. If you can get the customer base.”
“I actually had an idea about that, too,” Parrish says with a smirk.
That’s how Derek finds himself at the bar on ladies night, dressed in Parrish’s tightest jeans, a tight black Henley, and motorcycle boots. “Shouldn’t I be dressed like a cowboy?” Derek had asked when he looked at Boyd and Parrish, both wearing their cowboy boots, cowboy hats, and large belt buckles. Plus, he wasn’t sure how he felt about wearing someone else’s jeans, but his only two pair were mud-stained and ragged.
“Nope,” Boyd replied. “Two cowboys are enough. You get to be the variety.”
So, Derek is standing on the stage at the bar, trying to fade into the background behind Boyd and Parrish. Parrish is giving a spiel about how the ranch is now offering riding lessons with any of the three instructors they see, and how ladies get a discount on their first few lessons.
Derek feels like a piece of meat, but he knows it’s a good strategy. And the ranch desperately needs the money.
Derek can’t get off the stage fast enough when Parrish has finished talking, and he heads directly to the bar and orders a beer. His hands are shaking, and his heart is pounding in his ears. The last time he had been in front of a crowd of people had been when he was on the rodeo, that night he rode the bull that ended his career. He grips the edge of the bar and takes a few deep breaths to keep from panicking.
“Hey, are you okay?” Derek is shocked out of his thoughts by the voice. He glances over to find Stiles looking at him worriedly. His eyes dart between Derek’s face and hands, like he can see every tremor in Derek’s limbs.
“What are you doing here?” Derek asks. “You’re underage.”
Stiles rolls his eyes. “I’m 18. And I’m not drinking. Isaac knows the guy at the front door, so it wasn’t hard to sneak in.” He grins smugly, and Derek rolls his eyes, but can’t stop the slight smile playing at the corners of his mouth. He feels some of the tension recede. But then Stiles’ face grows more serious and he steps closer. “Seriously, are you okay? I saw you up on stage. You looked like you were about to throw up, and you looked worse when you came back over here.”
“Crowds make you nervous?” Stiles asks.
“Something like that,” Derek replies before taking a pull from his beer.
“Are you ever going to answer me straight?”
“Probably not,” Derek teases.
“Such an asshole,” Stiles mumbles, but he’s laughing.
“So what happens if you get arrested?” Derek asks. “Your dad is the sheriff, so does he lose his job?”
Stiles groans. “Are you always such a stick in the mud? Let me guess, you did everything right when you were young, never disobeyed your parents ever, right?”
Derek gets a flash of screaming at his parents as he storms out of the house, following Kate. He hears his father’s voice demanding that he come back, hears his mother asking him not to leave. It must reflect on his face because Stiles looks awkward. “No,” Derek says. “I didn’t do anything right.”
They stand there in uncomfortable silence until Stiles breaks it. “Okay, now that I’ve made everything extremely awkward – “
“Stiles, you didn’t – “
“It’s my responsibility to make you feel better. Come on.” Stiles grabs Derek’s hand and drags him onto the dance floor, right in the middle of the line dance. Stiles joins in automatically, going through the moves with practiced ease. Derek stands there with his arms crossed, not moving, and glaring at Stiles. Stiles mock glares at him, still dancing. “Loosen up, Derek!” Stiles yells over the music. “I know you know the dance.”
Derek sighs and finally gives in, falling into step beside Stiles. Stiles’ face lights up as Derek starts dancing with him. A few women around them step closer, definitely interested in the two of them. But Derek barely notices them. He watches Stiles, who’s mocking the dance by adding stupid little movements. He looks ridiculous, but he’s laughing, and Derek can’t help but laugh, too.
After three songs, Stiles says he’s gonna go outside for some air, so Derek buys them both waters and meets him around the corner of the building. Derek finds Stiles balanced precariously where he’s sitting on a metal railing. Derek hands him the water and leans back beside him.
“You know,” Stiles says after he downs half the bottle, “that may be the first time I’ve ever seen you having fun.”
Derek thinks about giving Stiles a sarcastic reply, but he wants to be truthful instead. “I think it’s the first time I’ve had fun in a long time.”
Stiles glances at Derek with an unreadable look on his face. “Really?” Derek nods, and Stiles just shines like Derek told him he’d won a million bucks. Derek thinks that Stiles shouldn’t care that much about making him happy, but he’s having a great night and wants to hold on to the fantasy for a little while longer.
A slow song comes on inside the bar, the music floating out through the cracked windows. Derek doesn’t recognize the song, but he sways his upper body along to the smooth beat anyway. Stiles hops down off the railing and crowds into Derek’s space. He looks at Derek, his eyes never wavering though Derek can see the uncertainty there. “Dance with me,” he finally says.
Derek’s breath catches in his throat. He’s not sure this moment is real, and he’s not sure if Stiles fully understands what he’s doing. If Derek was a better man, he’d walk away before this goes any further, but he’s always been selfish. He takes a step towards Stiles, their bodies mere inches apart, the tension nearly crackling as Derek forces himself not to reach out and touch. Derek waits for Stiles to make the next move, because he knows exactly what he wants; it’s Stiles who has to decide.
Stiles rests his hands lightly on Derek’s biceps, his face a complicated mix of emotions. Derek can almost see the thoughts whirring through Stiles’ mind, and he wishes he could ask him what he’s thinking, but he’s afraid one false move will spook him and ruin the moment.
Derek gently places his hands on Stiles’ hips, and that’s all Stiles needs to start swaying. Derek knows they probably look like an awkward couple at a seventh grade dance, but it doesn’t feel like that. Derek’s hands burn where they hold Stiles, and his skin tingles from Stiles’ touch despite the layer of cloth between them. His eyes are locked on Stiles’, and he can’t look away. The uncertainty is still written all over Stiles’ face, but with each second that passes, it starts to fade away.
He hasn’t let someone touch him like this since Kate, since the accident, and with just one touch from Stiles, Derek feels places in him open that he thought had burned out with the fire. He wants this; he needs this.
Somehow, without even trying, Stiles has taken the dried out and burnt shell of a man he was and breathed life back into him.
It scares the hell out of Derek. But as he looks into Stiles’ wide eyes, he doesn’t feel so alone. For the first time, he thinks that maybe there’s something left for him after all.
“Stiles!” Isaac yells from the front of the building.
They jerk apart, so quickly that Stiles stumbles backwards and almost falls to the ground. Derek tries to look nonchalant when Isaac rounds the corner and peers at them both suspiciously. If Isaac hadn’t known something was going on before now, Derek’s pretty sure this has just confirmed it.
“What are you doing?” Isaac asks, narrowing his eyes.
“Getting some air, yep,” Stiles says too quickly, biting his lower lip as he nods his head. Derek tries not to groan and roll his eyes. Stealth is obviously not Stiles’ strength.
“Riiiiight,” Isaac says. “We gotta go. One of your dad’s deputies just came in, and we’re dead if he catches us.”
“Shit!” Stiles exclaims as he hurries over to Isaac. He glances back at Derek and looks at a loss for words. “I’ll, um, see you later,” he says before running off after Isaac.
Derek slumps back against the railing and runs a hand over his face. He was a fucking idiot and didn’t have a clue what he was doing anymore.
Pushing himself off the railing, he walks back into the bar and orders a shot of whiskey. He downs it quickly, wincing at the burn in his chest.
“Excuse me?” a quiet voice says to his side. He glances over to see a mousy blonde girl standing nervously beside him. She’s dressed in baggy clothes like she’s trying to hide her body, and her wide brown eyes look sad. Derek thinks she might be pretty if she had an ounce of confidence.
“Yes?” Derek says. He sits on the stool and indicates the one beside him. The girl looks surprised before she climbs onto it. “What’s your name?”
“Erica,” she replies quietly.
“I’m Derek,” he says, giving her a small smile. “What can I do for you, Erica?”
“I…I want to learn how to ride horses,” she says. Her voice is so quiet it’s barely audible in the din of the bar.
“Really?” Derek grins. “That’s great. Did Parrish’s spiel sell you on it?”
She smiles, and it transforms her face. Derek takes an instant liking to her. “I’m not sure I can ride,” she says, her face falling.
“Why? Anyone can learn to ride.”
“I have epilepsy,” she says.
“Oh,” Derek says. At his response, she looks on the verge of tears. “Hey,” he says gently as he leans forward and places a hand on her shoulder. “That’s okay. You can still ride.”
“Really?” Her face lights up, and Derek smiles.
“Yep. We’ll need to talk about your condition a bit before we start, so I can know what to be aware of and how to approach certain things, but I’ve known ribbon winning competitors who had epilepsy.”
“Really? My doctor said it might not be a good idea.”
“How about this,” Derek says, grabbing a napkin and the pen lying on top of his receipt from the whiskey. “Think about it, research it online, and if you’re still interested, this is the address of the ranch. I’ll teach you.”
Erica clutches the napkin in her hand and walks away smiling. Derek watches her walk away, and thinks Laura would have loved training her.
“Anyone going into town today?” Derek asks at breakfast a few days later.
“I think Stiles said something about needing to pick up groceries,” Isaac says with a pointed look at Stiles.
Stiles’ face scrunches in confusion, his spoon halfway to his mouth. “No, I didn’t.”
“Pretty sure you did,” Isaac argues.
“Pretty sure you’re an assface.”
“Pretty sure you’re an idiot.”
“Weak, Isaac. Weak.”
Isaac rolls his eyes and turns to Derek. “Stiles can take you.”
“What the hell is wrong with you this morning?” Stiles asks. “I don’t mind taking him, but what the hell?”
“You said you needed groceries.”
“I’m not even going to talk to you right now because you’re ridiculous.” Stiles rolls his eyes as he slurps his milk from the bowl. Isaac turns to Derek and raises his eyebrows, like he’s trying to silently communicate with him. Derek turns away and refuses to look at him.
“You don’t have to Stiles,” Derek says.
Stiles holds out a hand and shakes his head, milk spilling from where he’s finishing drinking it and onto his shirt. “It’s not a problem,” Stiles says, wiping his chin with the sleeve of his plaid shirt. “But you should really get a license. It’s just weird you don’t have one.”
Derek hasn’t had an ID since he threw it away in a trashcan outside of Billings when he got out of the hospital. He didn’t want to chance anyone figuring out who he was.
He hasn’t really spoken to Stiles since the bar, save when they trained, but that was just business. He doesn’t want to say anything in case Stiles changed his mind or had second thoughts. It’s okay if he did; Derek’s decided that having Stiles in his life is enough. He doesn’t deserve more than that, hasn’t done anything to deserve Stiles in the first place.
The ride to town isn’t awkward like Derek had expected it to be. Stiles chats about training, the hay baler that broke again, and the few women who had come by to sign up for horse lessons. He’s a nonstop ball of chatter, but Derek doesn’t mind. They roll the windows down, and the hot summer air blows against his face as Stiles talks. It’s a pleasant ride, and Derek feels happy.
“So,” Stiles says as they turn onto the main street in town, “What do you need to do in town?”
“I need to go by a mailbox and to the general store,” Derek says.
“Another postcard to your sister?” Stiles asks. Derek nods. “Why do you send her postcards? Like, is it a thing between the two of you? Does she collect postcards or something?”
Derek stares at the dash as Stiles parks the Jeep in a spot. “I haven’t talked to her in over three years,” Derek says. “I send them to let her know I’m still alive.”
“Oh,” Stiles says. “Wow.” Derek looks at him, and he’s scrutinizing Derek but remains quiet.
Derek gets out of the Jeep, his leg protesting a little. His leg hasn’t bothered him as much since he settled on the Stilinski ranch and stopped walking on it. Some nights it bothers him if the day’s work is too strenuous, but most of the time he barely notices it. The limp has even improved. But it has been bothering him for a few days now, and he thinks it means bad weather is moving in.
Stiles follows him inside the general store, where Derek goes directly to the fruit. He places a bunch of strawberries into the basket, and then goes to buy sugar and pectin.
“What are you doing?” Stiles asks.
“I’m gonna make you the best preserves you’ve ever eaten,” Derek says as he moves on towards the back in search of jars.
“What?” Stiles exclaims. “You can make jam?”
“Technically, I’m making preserves,” Derek says, handing Stiles the basket as he picks a pallet of jars off the shelf.
“How do you know how to do this?” Stiles asks. “How are you even going to make the stuff?”
“You own all the equipment,” Derek tells him. “I found it stored in the attic.”
“When did you go to my attic?”
Derek glances at him sheepishly. “Yesterday. I hope that was okay.”
“Dude, I don’t think either me or my dad have been in the attic in years. I don’t even know where we got the equipment from. My mom didn’t make jam.”
“Maybe your grandmother,” Derek says as he carries his items towards the front counter. “Someone whittled in your family and you didn’t know.”
“And now you spend almost every night whittling,” Stiles says. Derek glances at him, surprised that Stiles knows that, and Stiles’ cheeks color. Derek thinks it’s cute and turns away before he does or says something stupid.
When they get to the counter, Derek grabs the first postcard he sees and drops it on top of the pile.
“I’ve got this,” Stiles says, pulling out his wallet when the cashier totals the order.
“Stiles, you don’t – “
“Dude, you’re making me jam. Because I challenged your palette, so really, this is all my fault anyway.” Stiles hands over his debit card before Derek can argue.
Derek borrows a pen from the cashier and hastily writes down Laura’s name and address on the back of the postcard. He places the stamp he bought in the corner and follows Stiles out of the general store. He walks down the street and drops the postcard into the mailbox, and then crosses the street and helps Stiles finish putting all their items in the back of the Jeep.
“You’re taking the afternoon off,” Stiles announces at lunch the next day. Derek glances at him questioningly. “We’re going out.”
“Where are we going?” Derek asks.
“To the rodeo,” Parrish states as he wipes his mouth. Derek feels his heart drop to his feet. “It’s at the state fairgrounds, about twenty miles away.”
“Plus Jackson’s competing,” Stiles says, sharing a laugh with Isaac.
“We hope he falls flat on his face, the dick,” Isaac says.
The whirring in Derek’s ears gets louder, and he doesn’t realize someone is talking to him until Boyd’s hand lands on his shoulder. “You in?” Boyd asks, though he’s looking at Derek with concern.
“I think I’ll pass,” Derek manages to get out.
“You can’t pass!” Stiles exclaims, his arms flailing everywhere. “I forbid it!” Derek looks at him incredulously. “I mean, yes, I can’t actually forbid you to do anything, but everyone’s going, and Derek, you need to get out and do something, man! Come on!”
“He’s right, you know,” Boyd says quietly.
Derek’s still trying to calm his pounding heart while looking at Stiles, who’s openly pleading with his whole face. “Fine,” Derek finally gives in. Stiles grins widely as he claps his hands, and Derek knows he only agreed because of Stiles.
He just hopes this doesn’t turn out to be a disaster.
Derek rides with Stiles, Isaac, and Scott to the fairgrounds. The sun has started going down, and he stares out the window at the twilight. He doesn’t say anything on the ride, but the others don’t seem to notice. They’re too busy mocking that Jackson guy to pay Derek any attention. Which is good, because Derek is panicking.
He wishes he never had agreed to this. He’s not sure how he’s going to react to being back at the rodeo, even a small one like this. Derek’s hands are shaking and his leg is throbbing by the time they park in the grassy field.
Derek follows behind them at a slower pace, his heart pounding faster and faster with each step towards the gates. Boyd falls into step beside him when they near the gate, and he gives him a long look. “You okay?” he asks.
“Fine,” Derek says.
“You don’t look fine,” Boyd says. “We can go back.”
Derek glances at Stiles at the ticket counter, looking around and finally spotting Derek. He waves an extra ticket excitedly in his hand. “I’m fine.”
Boyd doesn’t look like he believes him, but he remains quiet. Derek takes a deep breath, grabs the ticket from Stiles, and enters the rodeo.
The moment he steps inside, Derek’s bombarded with sense memories, from the smell of the livestock and the beer to the sound of the crowds and the harsh brightness of the lights overhead. He looks around at the familiar scene, and it doesn’t feel quite like he thought he would. Yes, he feels a bone-deep sadness and feeling of loss, but there’s something more surprising laced underneath it.
He missed this.
“You doing okay, big guy?” Stiles asks, hanging back and moving close so Derek can hear his lowered voice over the crowd. Stiles is so close that Derek can feel his arms and hands brushing against him.
“I’m fine,” Derek snaps. “I wish everyone would stop asking.”
Stiles rolls his eyes. “Fine, whatever.” Stiles starts to storm away, but Derek reaches out and grabs his arm. Stiles turns around, obviously not pleased. “What?”
Derek stands there uncomfortably. He wants to tell Stiles something, offer some explanation, but the words get stuck in his throat. “It’s not – I’m – ugh.” Derek runs a hand over his face. “Look, it’s not you. It’s just…” He looks around, wishing he could just get it out and tell Stiles everything.
“Come on,” Stiles says, more gently than Derek expected. He wraps his fingers around Derek’s wrist and tugs him forward. “The guys are waiting.” Stiles squeezes his wrist and gives him a smile before leading him towards the stands.
Derek takes a deep breath and focuses on the feeling of Stiles’ touch on his skin.
Derek sits between Stiles and Isaac. He finds watching the rodeo isn’t as difficult as he expected. He finds he actually enjoys the steer wrestling and some of the roping events. He tries not to think of Triskele during the events, but it’s pointless, and his heart aches. But it’s not as bad as he anticipated. During the barrel racing, Stiles leans over and asks, “Think I’ll be that good one day?”
“You’re already that good,” Derek says, then teases, “But she’s not good so…” Stiles shoves him, pushing him into Isaac, but they’re both laughing and Derek feels lighter than he has all day.
“Jackson’s about to go on,” a small redhead says from the row in front of them. “His event is next.”
“What’s his event?” Derek leans over and asks.
“Bull riding,” Stiles replies. “I hope the bull throws him off as soon as it’s out of the gate.”
Derek glances over to where he knows the bulls are waiting in the chutes, and sees one of the riders preparing to mount the bull. Suddenly, the lights are too bright, the world threatening to tilt on its axis. The sounds of the rodeo whir in his ears, and everything sounds like it’s through cotton.
“My money’s on 2 seconds,” Isaac says.
“I have 3,” Scott pipes up.
“I’m still betting on 1 or under,” Stiles states.
Derek stands up suddenly, and Stiles and Isaac glance at him strangely. “Gotta take a piss,” he lies as he starts towards the aisle. He can’t be here right now, can’t face that bull again.
“Don’t take too long!” Stiles calls after him. “You’ll miss the best part!”
Derek is breathing heavily by the time he exits the stands. He leans against a post and collects himself. It’s not the same bull, he tells himself as he rubs at his aching leg. But it doesn’t matter. He thought he could face it, thought he could deal with it. He’d watched everything else without any problems, but the thought of that bull…
This was stupid. He should never have come here. His feelings for Stiles have got him all fucked in the head. He walks to the concession stand, thinking he can grab a soda and wait out the rest of the rodeo out there. Maybe he’ll go check out the petting zoo.
“Derek? Derek Hale?”
Derek stills, his adrenaline immediately shooting up. Fuck, fuck, such a bad bad idea… He turns, and when his eyes land on the two men nearing him, he feels like the ground has been yanked from beneath his feet.
“Holy shit, it is you!” Ennis grins widely and claps Derek on the arm. “You son of a bitch, how ya been? Ain’t nobody heard nothing from you since your tousle with that bull. We thought you were dead!”
Derek kinda wishes he were dead right now. Ennis had been one of Derek’s top competitions back when he was on the circuit. He’d beaten Derek the first few years he competed, but then he’d ended up second after Derek one year, and third another. He was a damn fine bull rider.
Standing beside him, wearing a black cowboy and his signature sunglasses, was Deucalion, better known on the rodeo circuit as The Duke. Deucalion was a legend, one of the best riders in all of the West, with more titles than almost anyone. He’d helped train Derek back when he was just a kid, had been good friends with his parents.
Seeing them made Derek want to throw up.
“Hello Derek,” Duke says, nodding his head. “Glad to see you looking well.”
Derek nods, and Ennis says, “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Just passing through,” Derek lies. “What about y’all?”
“Scouting out new talent,” Ennis replies. “I’m still competing, but I’m also helping Duke train some new blood.”
“I’m sorry about your parents,” Duke says suddenly, and Derek just stares stoically at him. “Talia was a dear friend.” Derek nods, not completely trusting his voice right now.
A cheer comes from the audience, and Ennis says, “Sounds like the fun’s starting, so we gotta get back.”
“It was good seeing you, Derek,” Duke says, holding out his hand. Derek shakes it and nods at the man. “Take care. Say hello to your sisters for me.” Derek watches them walk towards the stands, his head swimming.
He can’t be here right now. This was a mistake; he was not ready for this.
Without looking back, Derek walks out of the front gate and towards the road. The sun has gone down, and the night is dark, but Derek is used to walking along these dusty roads alone.
Stiles cheers as another rider stays on the bull for almost 8 seconds. This one was close, made it over 6 seconds before being thrown off. He yells along with his friends, grinning as the guy gets up and the rodeo clowns chase the bull back into the chute.
Stiles cranes his neck and glances at the aisle beyond the crowd. Derek had been gone for awhile. Even if he’d had to wait in line and then decided to grab a beer or nachos, he should be back by now. Preferably with nachos that Stiles could eat.
He watches two more people compete, and then he starts to get a bit worried. Derek’s been gone for like half an hour. Stiles frowns at the crowd and wonders if maybe he’d pushed Derek too hard when he’d suggested coming. Derek had obviously not wanted to join them. Sometimes, it was so easy to forget that Derek has been essentially homeless and alone for the past three years.
“Where are you going?” Scott asks when Stiles gets up.
“To find Derek,” Stiles replies, crawling over Isaac and Boyd to get out. He accidentally elbows Boyd in the face, which causes him to huff in irritation. “Sorry, sorry.”
“You can’t leave now!” Scott exclaims. “We haven’t seen Jackson get thrown from the bull!”
“Hey!” Lydia snaps, whipping her red hair around.
“I’ll be right back,” Stiles says, stumbling as he trips over Isaac’s leg that he’s pretty sure Isaac moved on purpose to trip him.
“I’m sure he’s fine, Stiles,” Parrish says, moving his beer out of the way before Stiles knocks it with one of his limbs.
“Yeah, me too,” Stiles says. “Still wanna make sure though.”
“I’ll come with,” Scott says, standing up, but Stiles holds up his hand.
“Stay put, buddy. I’ll be right back.”
Stiles walks along the aisle, towards the back of the stands. His eyes scan the arena, looking for any trace of Derek. It’s easy to look for the guys without cowboy hats, and even easier to look for Derek’s plain black shirt over the camo and plaid.
Stiles checks the bathrooms, the concession stand, and the ticket booth. No trace of Derek. He combs every part of the arena behind the stands, but doesn’t see him. He walks through the stands, just in case Derek happened to see someone he knew and was sitting with them. Stiles knew it was a stretch, but he was running out of options. The last place he looks is back where everyone is sitting, but there are two conspicuous empty seats between Scott and Isaac.
Stiles walks back towards the concession area and tries not to panic. No one would abduct a fully grown man – he thinks – and if they tried, he’s pretty sure Derek could take them despite the limp. The man has biceps from God.
It hits Stiles like a ton of bricks, right there in that moment. He should have seen it earlier, should have realized it from the hundred other things that weren’t normal, but it’s this moment, standing by the concession stand which reeks of cheap, stale beer while his friends were having fun. It’s worrying because he knows that something isn’t right, that this isn’t Derek. It’s thinking about those biceps and wanting – no, needing to know what they feel like under his fingertips that Stiles finally realizes something that’s been there for awhile now.
He’s fallen for Derek. And he’s fallen hard.
“I have to find him,” Stiles mutters to himself. Deep in his gut, he knows something is wrong. He doesn’t know why or how, but he knows Derek wouldn’t just leave him otherwise.
He cases the arena again, but comes up short, so he takes a moment to think like Derek. It doesn’t take long to figure out what Derek would have done. Stiles exits the arena, shoots Scott a text, gets in his Jeep, and takes the road back towards the ranch. Although Derek has stayed put for the last few months, Stiles is pretty sure his first instinct is flight.
Stiles drives slowly down the road, thankful there was only one road back towards the ranch. Derek couldn’t have gotten very far on foot. It’s been less than an hour, and with his leg, the fastest he can probably go is a little over 3 miles per hour.
Relief floods through Stiles when his headlights finally catch the silhouette of a figure walking in the distance. Even from this distance, Stiles knows it’s Derek, recognizes the sweep of his shoulders and the slight limp.
When he slows beside Derek, he leans over and rolls down the window. “Get in,” Stiles says.
Derek’s shoulders slump, and he hesitates, but finally opens the door. He has some difficulty getting into the Jeep, and Stiles watches with a frown. When Derek’s finally inside the vehicle, Stiles starts driving towards home.
Stiles doesn’t say anything. He’s not sure what to say. He knows Derek well enough to know that if he asked, he would be met with vague answers if he got an answer at all. So, instead, Stiles just drives.
“How did Jackson do?” Derek asks after a few miles.
Stiles had actually forgotten about Jackson. “I don’t know,” he says. “I left before he went on.”
With Derek in the passenger seat beside him, Stiles’ realization is so much more pronounced. How had he not realized these feelings before? He can barely sit there. His skin is buzzing with pent up energy, and his hands just want to reach between the short distance and touch. Just having Derek so close makes his skin flush and tingle.
Stiles’ mind whirls with thoughts. This was different than with Lydia. Lydia was always unobtainable, but Derek…he thinks back to the night outside the bar, the feeling of Derek’s hands heavy on his waist, his face so close. Thinks about Derek saving him from the rattlesnake, offering to make him jam, teaching him how to ride. Stiles isn’t sure, but he feels like there may be something real between them.
Stiles knows this should bother him more than it does. Derek is a man. Men don’t date men in these parts, and if they did, no one ever talked about it. Stiles had never thought about it, hadn’t considered it an option until now. He isn’t sure what’s going on with himself yet; he just knows that he needs Derek more than he’s needed anything before.
When they’re close to home, Stiles asks quietly, “Do you want to talk about it?”
“No.” Stiles glances over and sees that Derek has his forehead pressed against the glass of the window, his eyes closed. Before he can stop himself, he breaches the distance between them and lays a hand on Derek’s arm. He feels Derek tense for a moment before relaxing. Stiles squeezes Derek’s arm and doesn’t remove his hand, and after a few moments, Derek lifts his hand and rests it on top of Stiles’.
Stiles’ heart almost stops when he feels Derek’s thumb brush across his wrist, leaving fire in its wake.
As soon as Stiles gets home, he pulls out his laptop. Now that he’s leapt headfirst into whatever this is with Derek, Stiles needs answers. And he thinks he may have enough clues to give him a few.
He pulls up Google and types in Derek Hale. He’s really hoping that Hale is Derek’s last name and that Laura Hale isn’t his sister’s married name. When Derek had filled out the postcard, Stiles had not-so-subtly glanced at what he was writing. He was nosy, and his curiosity had gotten the best of him. He’d learned two things from that postcard: Derek’s sister’s name was Laura Hale, and he was most likely from Montana. It wasn’t much, but it was more than Derek had ever revealed to him.
When the search page brings up the results, Stiles is shocked to see a long list, all featuring the name Derek Hale.
The links read things like, “Derek Hale wins world championship” and “Derek Hale is the youngest rider to win the Triple Crown.” But the most important thing that Stiles’ eyes land on is a headline that reads, “Derek Hale thrown off bull and severely injured.” Stiles’ mouth falls open, and his heart pounds in his ears.
He clicks on a link and begins to read. Fuck, how did he not see this earlier? So much made sense now.
Derek used to be in the rodeo.
And more than that, he was damn good. Until he got into an accident that ended his career. At least that explains tonight, Stiles thinks to himself. He immediately feels like an ass dragging Derek to the rodeo. Obviously it was something painful for him, but how was Stiles supposed to know? And Derek came along willingly, so…
Stiles clicks on a few more links, some from when Derek was still competing extolling his talents. There are promo shots of Derek mixed in with ones from competitions or behind the scenes. Stiles stares at the pictures for a long time. It’s obviously the same man, but Derek looks so different now. This younger Derek is happy, grinning, his face with less lines and weariness. What happened to Derek transformed him, and Stiles wants to run to the cottage, crawl into bed with him, and hold him until the sun comes up.
Instead, he clicks on a Youtube video. It shows Derek’s championship bull ride. Stiles can easily see how fantastic he is. He holds on to the bull like it’s nothing, like he’s made on the bull. He watches a few more videos from different competitions, avoiding the one he really wants to watch. There are two: “Derek Hale’s horse goes down” and “Rodeo star Derek Hale injured by bull – WARNING! VIOLENT!”
Stiles stares at the links for a few minutes, heart racing. He’s pretty sure most of whatever made Derek drift homeless and alone for three years is contained in these videos. He knows he probably shouldn’t watch them out of respect for Derek, but he can’t help his curiosity. He clicks on the first link and doesn’t breathe.
The video shows a standard rodeo riding event. It starts with Derek’s face, his name and stats at the bottom. He’s listed as 1st in the world, and Stiles smiles despite himself. Who knew that the surly, silent drifter in his barn had been a world champion? But one look at Derek’s face, and Stiles can tell something has changed. He doesn’t know what, but this isn’t the same happy guy from the other videos. There’s a sadness and blankness on his face. Stiles recognizes it as the same look he sometimes sees on Derek now.
The event starts, and Derek does everything right – until something changes, and his horse goes down, taking Derek down onto the dirt with it. Stiles can barely watch – Derek’s face is hard to take. He’s ignoring everyone around him, instead concentrating on the horse, his face red and twisted in agony. He looks like his world has ended.
Stiles remembers the day he met Derek, the picture he had in his wallet. A younger Derek – this rodeo Derek – on a large, black horse. This horse. The one Derek is kneeling over in the video.
Stiles clicks out of the video, hastily wiping his eyes. It’s only his morbid curiosity and need to understand Derek that has him click on the next one. He holds his breath as the video starts, the footage showing Derek inside a chute, sitting on top of a bull. When the camera gets a shot of Derek’s face, Stiles immediately sees a blankness in Derek’s eyes. Stiles doesn’t have to be familiar with the rodeo to know that riding in that condition is a bad idea. Although Stiles knows the way this will end, he can’t stop his heart from pounding the moment the buzzer sounds and the chute opens.
This is nothing like the previous videos of Derek riding the bull. The bull tosses Derek around like a ragdoll, throwing him in just a few seconds. The next part happens in a flash. Derek crashes in the dust, not unlike hundreds of other bull riders, but he doesn’t move in time and the rodeo clowns are too slow. The bull continues thrashing around, maddened and out of control, and then one of the hooves steps on Derek’s leg multiple times.
Stiles doesn’t hear what the announcers say; he can only see the look of anguish on Derek’s face. He quickly clicks out of the window and closes his eyes, but the image is burned onto the back of his eyelids. Pushing the laptop aside, he rolls onto his side and curls into a ball.
Stiles can’t process everything he’s learned in the last half hour. He tries to fall asleep, but his mind just keeps whirring, the image of Derek getting trampled by the bull playing over and over.
Stiles feels like hell. He didn’t sleep, and he snaps at everyone at breakfast. He slams Isaac’s plate down in front of him when he makes some rude comment about disappearing after Derek last night. The plate hits the table so hard that eggs fall off the plate, and his toast slides onto the floor. Stiles ignores Isaac’s protests and storms out the back door, leaving the ranch hands to deal with their own breakfast.
He saddles up Buttercup, bypasses the trails, and rides into one of the fields. There are countless chores that need to be done, but Stiles has too much on his mind to work today. He couldn’t work if he tried.
Derek’s absence at breakfast hadn’t gone unnoticed by anyone. Stiles doesn’t blame him. He still feels like an ass for encouraging Derek to go last night. And why Derek had gone to the rodeo in the first place…well, Stiles isn’t sure he wants to think about the answer to that question.
Stiles holds on to the reins as Buttercup gallops through the open fields. The wind ruffles his hair and cools the sweat on his neck. He wants to just ride forever, away from everything. The open Wyoming sky isn’t enough space for him to think.
He feels like his entire life has been flipped upside down in one moment. He’s so confused and disoriented that nothing feels real. Derek was in the rodeo. He was famous, a world champion. But now he was a broken drifter that Stiles somehow ended up falling for. And he was a man. A fact that Stiles is still trying to wrap his head around.
Stiles slows Buttercup to a trot. He takes a few deep breaths and tries to calm his pounding heart.
He has feelings for Derek. Confusing, surprising, unfamiliar feelings. This can end a hundred bad ways, but despite everything, something about it feels right. He’d seen a side of Derek in the last few weeks, a side he didn’t show to anyone else, one that Stiles hadn’t thought possible when he’d first met Derek. And after watching the videos last night, Stiles recognizes it as the real Derek, the one who had been there before he’d left his old life behind.
After Stiles doesn’t know how many miles, he decides that his feelings are inconsequential. Derek is a drifter, someone he barely knows. Besides, despite everything, Stiles doubts Derek would ever want him in the same way. Someone like Stiles is the last thing someone like Derek needed.
Stiles doesn’t see Derek until they meet for training the next day. He hadn’t shown up for dinner, which thankfully the ranch hands didn’t comment on. After Stiles’ actions that morning, they left Stiles alone at dinner, and Stiles didn’t mind. He stared at his plate, just pushing food around, his mind a thousand miles away.
Stiles wasn’t sure Derek was going to show. He kept half-expecting to find the cabin empty and Derek long gone, but thankfully, Derek was still there. When he walks to the small training area, he looks grumpy and closed-off, but he’s there, which is more than Stiles could hope for.
“You okay?” Stiles asks as Derek approaches.
“Fine,” Derek snaps. Stiles doesn’t ask again.
Training helps take Stiles’ mind off everything temporarily, and when he’s finished, he’s sweaty and exhausted. But he feels better than he has in two days. When Stiles drops down from the saddle, Derek is no longer in the arena. Stiles stares with a frown at Derek’s retreating back. Finally, he sighs, then leads Buttercup into the barn to brush her down.
Inside the barn, where he’s cleaning Buttercup’s hooves, Stiles hears footsteps approaching. He glances up, hoping that it’s Derek. Instead, he finds his father coming towards him, still in his uniform.
“What’s up, Pop?” Stiles asks as he straightens. He pats Buttercup affectionately on the rump.
“You okay, kid?” The sheriff looks at him with concern, and Stiles curses himself. “You’ve seemed kinda…off.” The last thing he wanted was to worry his father, or for his father to ask him a bunch of questions.
“Fine,” Stiles lies. “A-okay. Handy dandy.”
The sheriff shoots him a dubious, albeit amused, look, then steps up to the stall. He rests his forearms on the edge. “I see you’ve been spending a lot of time training with Derek.” Stiles’ heart begins pounding in his chest, and he’s pretty sure it’s beating hard enough for his father to notice. He is not ready to have a discussion with his dad about liking men, especially dirty yet handsome drifting men with shady pasts they found in their barn.
“Yep,” Stiles nods, popping the “p” at the end.
“Do you really think that’s such a good idea?” The sheriff looks at Stiles with a mixture of fatherly concern and parental disapproval. Stiles feels like he’s about to have a panic attack.
“I think it’s okay?” Stiles replies, not sure how he should be answering these questions.
“I’m not so sure,” the sheriff goes on, shifting his eyes towards Buttercup. “Horses are dangerous. You know this better than anyone.”
Oh. Oh. So, this is what the conversation was about. This wasn’t about Derek at all; this was about his mother.
“That’s not fair, Dad,” Stiles says, voice low.
“It’s the truth,” the sheriff says. “You know if your mother hadn’t – “
“This is nothing like what happened to Mom,” Stiles interrupts.
“Her condition was more than likely caused by multiple horse accidents – “
“The doctors couldn’t prove that.”
“And the doctor warned her to stay off the horses when she got diagnosed – “
“You know as well as I do she wouldn’t stop riding for anything.”
“And it got her killed!” the sheriff exclaims vehemently. Stiles flinches, surprised at his father’s outburst. His dad’s face is red, a clear indication he’s losing his composure, something Stiles knows rarely happened. They stare at each other for a few heated moments before his father says, “The same thing’s gonna happen to you.”
Stiles shakes his head. “It’s not.”
“You’re not half as good as she was,” the sheriff states.
Stiles feels the sting deep, and he can’t tell if his father is trying to hurt him or just being brutally honest. Stiles doesn’t know if it matters.
The sheriff sighs and slumps his shoulders. “You’re an adult,” he says quietly. “I can’t stop you, but I still think it’s a mistake. I can’t see you get hurt by those animals, too.”
“That’s not fair,” Stiles says, hand reaching automatically out to pet Buttercup’s neck.
“It’s all so dangerous,” the sheriff says again with a deep frown. “You can get thrown from it all. Horses, bulls –you can’t control a wild animal.” He looks at Buttercup, then at Stiles’ hand still on her neck.
Bull. His father said bull. He knows his dad didn’t like the rodeo, so does that mean what Stiles thinks it meant?
Stiles pushes that aside for now. “You know how much I love this, Dad,” he says. “I’ve always loved it. Mom was teaching me before she…”
“I didn’t agree with it then, and I don’t agree with it now.”
“Derek is a really good teacher.”
“I can’t believe he agreed to train you,” the sheriff mumbles.
“It makes me happy, Dad. In a way nothing has in a long time.”
“You don’t have time for this,” the sheriff exclaims. “We don’t have time for this. You know the ranch is a few months from going under. We’re not just gonna lose your mother’s family’s land, but all the horses, too. Including Buttercup.”
The blood drains from Stiles’ face. He hadn’t thought about that. But he squares his shoulders and says, “We can save the ranch, Dad. And I can do this. I gave up going to college, I gave up all my friends, but I’m not giving this up.”
The sheriff shakes his head, but doesn’t respond. He turns to walk towards the exit. As Stiles stares after his retreating back, he calls out, “Mom would have understood.” He father pauses for a moment before finally exiting the barn.
Stiles picks up the grooming brush and hurls it towards the far wall. It crashes into it with a loud crack, causing Buttercup to whinny and shift uneasily in the stall. He’s angry at his father, angry at his mother for dying, angry they’re going to lose the ranch, and angry at his situation. He kicks the stall door, and Buttercup pushes against the door uneasily. Stiles unlatches it and lets her out, and she runs from the barn, out into the pasture.
“Kicking things isn’t going to change anything.” Stiles glances up to find Derek standing on the other side of the stall wall, watching him closely.
“Feels fucking great though.” He kicks the stall again, but the steam is gone. Now his toe just throbs. He glances at Derek and snaps, “What do you want?”
Derek reaches forward to open the stall door, and Stiles walks out. “Walked past the barn on my way to load the hay for tomorrow’s delivery, and I heard raised voices.”
“You heard that, huh?” Stiles asks, and Derek nods. Stiles sighs and slumps against the side of the stall. “Maybe he’s right.”
“That I’m being foolish. I’m not good like my mom. It was like she was born on the top of a horse. She rode a horse better than she walked. I’m just an imposter.”
“You’re not an imposter,” Derek says gently. “It’s in your blood.”
“I think it skipped a generation,” he says petulantly.
“My, uh, my mother also rode horses,” Derek starts. Stiles can’t keep his mouth from opening in surprise. The last thing he expected was Derek to talk about his family. Stiles hopes Derek continues, hopes Derek will trust him enough to share something with him. “She did jumping competitions. She was like your mother. Looked like she was born to ride a horse.” Stiles smiles, heart speeding up at Derek’s words. He wants to reach out and touch Derek, offer him support, comfort, encouragement – something.
Stiles just needs to touch Derek.
“My younger sister, uh Cora, she. Um, she’s like my mother was. She rides with the most grace I’ve ever seen. She could ride a horse before she could walk.” Derek’s face is flush, and he looks flustered. Stiles wonders just how hard it was for him to get those words out.
“Sounds nice,” Stiles says for a lack of something better. He wants to ask a million questions, but is afraid of pushing Derek too far. “Does she compete?”
Derek nods. “Nationally ranked. She’s competed and placed internationally, too.” Stiles doesn’t miss the look of pride on Derek’s face. He leans back against the stall wall across from Stiles, crosses his arms. “I was never as good.”
“You’re like ridiculously good,” Stiles argues.
“You’ve barely seen me ride,” Derek says with a wry grin. He taps his leg. “Can’t quite do what I used to.”
“If I haven’t seen your best, your sister must be really good, then.”
“You may not be as good as your mother,” Derek says, “but you’re still good.”
Stiles gives him a soft smile. “Thank you,” he says quietly.
They stare at each other for a few heavy moments, neither looking away. Stiles feels Derek’s eyes all the way to his toes, feels a tingling in his limbs and a prickling in the back of his neck. But Derek pushes himself off the stall and looks away, and then it’s over. Stiles feels breathless, wondering if he imagined the look of longing in Derek’s eyes.
“I need to get back to work,” Derek says as he walks towards the barn entrance. But he halts and faces Stiles again. “Hey Stiles?” Stiles glances up from where he was staring dazed at his work boots. He lifts his eyebrows. “Even if your dad is right about you not being as good as your mom, it doesn’t matter. If you love it, keep riding. No matter what. There’s no point to anything else otherwise.”
Stiles watches as Derek limps out of the barn, wondering just how much of that was from Derek’s own experience.
Derek still feels the heat from Stiles’ gaze burning his skin. This is not supposed to be happening. Stiles is off-limits. He’s the boss’s son, and…it just can’t happen. Derek can’t let himself start to hope that Stiles feels anything more than a passing fancy.
He loads the bales of hay, still thinking about Stiles. He can’t believe he talked about his family – he hasn’t spoken to anyone about them, and suddenly he’s talking about his mother and Cora. It was like his mouth acted of its own accord, revealing things to Stiles that Derek has kept buried and hidden for years.
But it wasn’t just anyone. It was Stiles. And Derek wants to tell Stiles everything, lay himself bare so Stiles can see everything, every scar, crack, and tear.
After dinner, Derek sits in the rocking chair, block of wood between his hands. He methodically runs the chisel over it, shaving it down to a reasonable size. He’s figured out what he’s going to do with it, just hopes it’s still as good of an idea when he’s finished as it seems now.
He’s surprised when Boyd shows up a few hours later. It’s late, the moon high and clouds obscuring part of the sky. Derek feels the clouds deep in his leg, knows it will rain tomorrow or the next day. Boyd walks up the stairs and points to the empty chair. Derek nods, and Boyd sits down.
They sit in silence for a long time. Derek likes that Boyd appreciates quiet like he does, doesn’t feel the need to fill the space with senseless chatter. Isaac is quiet sometimes, but sometimes he tells Derek stories in his soft voice that don’t bother Derek so bad. And Stiles, well everything about Stiles is loud and chaotic. He a cacophony of sounds, but every note sounds right to Derek’s ears.
“Isaac tells me you been teaching him how to whittle,” Boyd finally says. Derek nods as he shaves away a piece of wood. “I’d be afraid he’d slice his finger off.”
Derek smiles. “That sounds more like Stiles,” he says. “Isaac’s good with a pocketknife. He has steady hands.”
“Looks like something I might like to try one day.”
“I’d be happy to teach you,” Derek says.
“What happened the other night?” Boyd asks. Derek raises his eyes and stares at him in the darkness, the whites of his eyes barely visible. It doesn’t feel as invasive as it should. Derek’s not sure that says more about him or Boyd.
Derek shrugs in response and keeps his hands moving over the block.
“Isaac says Stiles took you home.” Derek nods, slices away a piece of wood. “That’s the second time Stiles has taken you home when you’ve bowed out of something.”
“Beats walking,” Derek says, keeping his eyes on his work. He’s not exactly sure what Boyd is getting at, but he doesn’t like it. At least Boyd is being more direct than Isaac.
“Stiles is a good guy,” Boyd says. “A little much at times. Took me a long time to take to him. I think he started calling me his friend the moment I started working here.” Derek smiles at that. Sounds familiar. “He ain’t had it easy,” Boyd continues, speaking slow and unhurried. “None of us have, you included, I’d wager.” Derek makes a low noise of agreement. “He deserves to be happy. I’d hate to see him get hurt.”
That causes Derek to pause. It’d be difficult to miss the threat in Boyd’s words.
“I agree,” Derek replies.
They lapse back into silence for awhile. Then Boyd speaks again. “I’m not as dumb or unobservant as the others,” he states. “Last night confirmed it, though I’d suspected for awhile. The leg, your knowledge. You’re a rodeo guy.”
Derek freezes. He’s glad it’s dark, glad Boyd can’t see the terror on his face.
When he doesn’t say anything, Boyd sighs. “I ain’t being nosy. I just want you to know you got friends here, Derek. You don’t have to run anymore.” He stands, claps Derek on the shoulder, and squeezes. Then he walks off the porch and disappears into the night.
Derek stays out on the porch, whittling long after he should have been in bed, Boyd’s words still ringing in his ears.
Derek’s out past the barn, digging post holes near the back pasture, when Parrish slows his pickup truck beside him. “Hey Derek, you got a visitor.”
“What?” Derek exclaims, gripping the handles of the hole diggers so tightly he’s surprised they don’t shatter.
“Says she’s interesting in riding lessons.” Parrish smirks. “That’s what they all say. She’s waiting by the barn.” With that, he drives away.
Derek leaves the hole diggers stuck in the ground, and wipes his sweaty face with the rag in his back pocket as he walks to the barn. His shirt is stuck to him, his sleeves rolled to his elbows, and his jeans covered in dirt. If this is a potential customer, Derek wishes he looked more presentable.
When he rounds the edge of the barn, he sees Erica standing in the shade, looking around nervously. A smile spreads across Derek’s face. “Hey Erica,” he greets.
She turns to him in surprise. “You remembered my name,” she says.
“Of course I remembered your name.” He holds a hand out for her, and she shakes it tentatively. “What can I do for you?”
“I’m here to sign up for riding lessons.”
Derek gives her a wide smile. “That’s great.”
“My doctor said it was okay,” Erica explains, “as long as I’m not alone and watch for my aura.”
Derek nods. “Come on, let’s go into the house and we’ll get the paperwork together, and you can tell me the specifics of your condition.”
Derek puts Erica on a horse when they’ve finished discussing the details. He gives her this first lesson for free, despite her already promised discounted rate advertised at the bar. She was Derek’s first student, and well, Derek felt an immediate connection to her.
Erica comes for lessons three times a week. On the third day that week, Derek spies Stiles, Isaac, and Boyd watching them from the back porch of the house. Derek doesn’t tell Erica, because he’s pretty sure she’d get self-conscious if she knew three guys were watching her.
When they finish the lesson, Erica gives Derek a quick, shy hug before walking to her car. Derek stares after her, surprised that the fact that she hugged him doesn’t bother him.
At dinner, Isaac’s the first to say something. “Nice girlfriend you got there, Derek.”
“Lay off, Isaac,” Derek warns.
“See? Already protective of her.”
“She’s not my girlfriend,” Derek says. “She’s just a student.”
“Parrish has got like three students already!” Derek points out.
“And probably wants to fuck them all,” Isaac says.
“Hey!” Parrish exclaims. “I am a professional. I would never sleep with one of my trainees.” Stiles, Isaac, and Boyd all look at him in disbelief. “However,” Parrish continues, and the guys start mumbling, “if one of them should want to engage in amorous activities once her lessons are over, who am I to say no?” Parrish grins at them, and the others groan.
“That sounds more like Parrish,” Boyd says.
“I saw her hug you,” Stiles says. Derek glances at him, and he’s nonchalantly spearing green beans. “You don’t see me hugging you at the end of our training sessions.”
“Jealous?” Isaac mutters, and Stiles elbows him hard in the ribs. Isaac gasps and bends over, holding his side and cursing.
Derek shrugs and tries not to blush under everyone’s gaze. “She’s sweet. She’s just really excited to be riding horses.”
“Sure she is,” Stiles says, shoving his fork in his mouth.
“She’s cute,” Boyd says. “What’s her name?”
“Erica.” Boyd nods and takes a bite of food.
“It’s a good thing Derek’s got an enthusiastic student,” Parrish says. “We might just build ourselves a training business, after all.”
The others move the conversation to something else, and Derek keeps his eyes on Stiles. Stiles talks to the others, but he’s irritable, a frown creasing his brows.
Derek is on a trail ride with Erica, trotting along behind her as he watches her closely. She hasn’t had any problems yet, but they’re riding longer, faster, and harder today. Erica had explained that she can see an aura and taste copper before an episode, so Derek knows she’ll let him know if anything happens. But he feels fiercely protective over her already, so he keeps his eyes on her.
She turns around and smiles at him, her blonde hair flowing behind her. She’s transformed these last few weeks. There’s a different, confident air about her that wasn’t there before. She seems to be coming out of her shell a little, at least around him. Derek grins at her.
“Think I could race you and win one day?” Erica asks.
“Maybe,” Derek replies.
“I think we’re evenly matched,” she calls over her shoulder. “My epilepsy and your leg.”
“Except your epilepsy doesn’t interfere with your riding,” Derek says. “You’d smoke me.” She throws her head back and laughs.
The trail leads them to the pond, so they dismount and lead the horses to the pond to drink. Derek strokes Talia’s flank, and Erica does the same to her horse. Talia still didn’t like anyone else to handle her, but she had learned to trust Derek, so Derek had no problem riding her now. After the horses finish drinking, they grab on to the leads and walk towards a shady spot and tie the leads to a tree. Then Derek leads Erica over to the rickety dock and sits on the edge. Erica takes off her shoes and dips her toes in the water.
“This place is really pretty,” she says.
“It is,” Derek says. “Stiles said it’s his favorite place on the ranch.”
Erica looks at him, then says, “Stiles was in my class at school.”
“Really?” Derek asks. “He didn’t say he knew you.”
“He doesn’t,” Erica says. She looks down at her hands in her lap. “I didn’t really talk to the people in my class. A lot of them made fun of me.” Derek frowns, knows that Erica would make an easy target for teenagers, but he can’t imagine anyone wanting to hurt her. Just the thought enrages him.
“Did Stiles?” Derek asks.
She shakes her head. “He didn’t. We had a class together once. He and Scott McCall were always very nice to me.” She pauses, then says, “I had the hugest crush on him.” She laughs, her cheeks pink. “He was always in love with Lydia Martin. He never even knew my name.” Derek doesn’t know what to say, so he idly brushes some trash off the dock beside him.
They sit there for a little while longer, making small talk and enjoying the summer breeze. Derek turns when he hears the approaching sound of a horse trotting. Stiles comes into the clearing from the trail atop Buttercup. He doesn’t look happy when he sees Derek and Erica sitting on the dock.
“Hey Stiles,” Derek calls out, smiling warmly at him.
“What are you doing?”
“Taking a break from riding,” Derek replies. Stiles walks Buttercup over, and still doesn’t look happy. Derek wonders if Stiles knows his feelings are etched all over his face. “This was Erica’s first long ride.”
“How was it?” Stiles asks Erica.
“It was great,” she responds shyly. “Derek is a really good teacher.”
“Yeah, he is,” Stiles agrees.
Erica looks between them, then asks Stiles, “Is he teaching you, too?” Stiles nods. “But you’re really good on a horse.”
That seems to soften Stiles a bit, and Derek tries not to roll his eyes and smile at the same time.
“I wanted to get ready to compete,” Stiles tells her. Erica looks impressed.
She says, “Derek said this is your favorite place. It’s really beautiful.”
Stiles glances at Derek quickly. “Yes, I love it here.”
An uncomfortable silence falls over them, so Stiles points over his shoulder. “I, uh, need to get back to work.” He turns to Erica. “Enjoy the rest of your lesson.” Then he turns Buttercup around and disappears back down the path.
Derek watches after him, wondering if Stiles had come out here just to check up on him and Erica. He finds it as endearing as he finds it annoying.
They get back to the house around dinnertime. After Erica gets through brushing her horse down, Derek asks, “Do you want to stay for dinner?” Her response makes her look like a deer in the headlights. “You don’t have to, but I’m sure everyone would enjoy meeting you. And I think you’d like everyone.”
She bites her lip, but then nods.
Derek leads her into the house, then directs her into the bathroom to wash up. This gives Derek enough time to go into the dining room and threaten the guys.
“Hey,” Derek says, lowering his voice as he approaches the table. Isaac and Boyd are already sitting down, and Stiles is at the stove, pouring food from pans into bowls. “I asked Erica to stay for dinner, so don’t be assholes, okay?”
Derek doesn’t miss the way Stiles’ shoulders tense. Isaac says, “Inviting the girlfriend for dinner.”
Boyd shoves Isaac as Derek says, “She’s not my girlfriend.”
A few moments later, Erica steps nervously into the doorway. She looks like she wants to bolt. Derek’s about to say something when Boyd says, “Hey Erica. You can sit here.” He points to the empty spot between his and Derek’s chairs as he stands. He disappears into the dining room and returns with an extra chair. Erica hesitantly sits down, looking supremely uncomfortable. Boyd starts talking to her, and she looks down at her plate, nodding and responding in quiet tones.
Derek turns his attention to Stiles, who’s sitting bowls on the table. He doesn’t know why Stiles is still acting like this. How could Stiles even think he was into Erica? Why does Stiles even care? Better yet, why does he care that Stiles is jealous? Derek isn’t planning on doing anything with Stiles, Erica, or anyone else.
But Derek just can’t handle the look on Stiles’ face. He knows he’s so far gone, it’s ridiculous.
A few minutes into dinner, Derek extends his leg and gently taps his foot against Stiles’ ankle. Stiles glances at him in surprise, and Derek gives him a smile. “Biscuits are good,” he says.
Pink colors Stiles’ cheeks, and he says, “Thanks.”
Stiles smiles into his plate, and runs the toe of his boot against the back of Derek’s calf. Derek ignores the screaming in his head telling him this is a bad idea; he presses his leg closer against Stiles’. He tries to pay attention to what Isaac is saying and not get distracted as Stiles repositions his leg so his ankle is cradled by Derek’s.
They stay like that through the rest of dinner.
After dinner, Isaac , Derek, and Parrish do the dishes while Boyd escorts Erica outside. Derek doesn’t know what they’re doing, and they don’t seem to care about anyone else; he smiles after them. Stiles makes the sheriff a plate of leftovers to take with him to work the next night when he works the night shift again.
Parrish and Isaac say goodnight after the dishes are finished, leaving Stiles and Derek alone in the kitchen.
“Erica seems nice,” Stiles says. He’s sitting at the table and scratches his nail along the lines in the wood.
“She is,” Derek says. He leans back against the counter. “Boyd seems pretty taken with her.” Stiles lifts his eyes and looks at Derek. “She seems to like him, too.”
“Does that bother you?” Stiles asks.
Derek shakes his head. “Told y’all she wasn’t my girlfriend.” He crosses his arms over his chest. “Not really my type.”
“Oh.” Stiles casts his eyes back at the table, cheeks flushing.
“What do you have planned for tonight?” Derek asks.
Stiles shrugs. “Nothing.”
“Want to make preserves?” Stiles smiles and nods.
Stiles turns on the radio, to a local classic rock station, as Derek starts cutting the tops off the strawberries. They work side by side quietly. Derek notices every time Stiles’ arm brushes against his as they move around.
“Now what do we do?” Stiles asks after they have a mound of strawberries washed, cut, and crushed. Derek has just finished placing the jars into the canner.
“I’ll teach you.” Derek sits a large pot on the stove. “Come here.” He beckons Stiles over in front of the stove and stands behind him. He walks Stiles through the next steps. “Keep stirring,” Derek tells Stiles as the mixture boils.
“Like this?” Stiles asks, holding a wooden spoon.
“Yes.” Derek shifts closer so he can look over Stiles’ shoulder, so close that his chest is pressed against Stiles’ back. Stiles relaxes into Derek, until he is leaning all his weight into Derek and Derek is supporting them both. Derek resists the urge to lift his hands and rest them on Stiles’ waist, which feels like the natural thing to do. Derek closes his eyes, marvels at the way Stiles’ body feels against him. It doesn’t repulse him; instead he yearns for it, for the solid feel of hard muscle and bone against him, soft skin beneath his fingers. Stiles feels comforting and safe, and that scares Derek the most.
“Now add in the sugar,” Derek says into Stiles’ ear, voice low. Stiles moves away from Derek just long enough to pick up the sugar and pour it into the pot. Something settles in Derek’s chest the moment Stiles is fitted back against him. “Now stir.”
As Derek leads Stiles through the next few steps, he turns his head and inhales. Stiles smells like sweat and earth, like wild horses galloping through golden fields, like the moment after a rodeo win, like the open Montana sky. He smells like everything Derek has ever loved, fresh and full of life instead of stale and long forgotten.
As Stiles stirs the boiling strawberries, Derek drags his nose along Stiles’ hairline. He hears the slight catch in Stiles’ breath, and lightly trails the tip against the soft skin of Stiles’ temple. Derek wants to lean forward and kiss the pale of his cheek, the sensitive skin behind his ear. He feels his body respond to being so close to Stiles, feelings stirring deep within himself that he hasn’t experienced in a long time.
Derek drags his scruff against Stiles’ cheek briefly before moving his head and saying, “It’s ready for the jars now.” His voice is deep and husky and unsteady.
“Okay,” Stiles says, breathless.
Artwork by geeky-sova
Reluctantly, Derek pulls away from Stiles and crosses over to the canner. His hands are shaking as he uses tongs to remove the jars from the canner and place them on the counter. He can still feel the heat from Stiles’ body, the comforting weight against him.
He instructs Stiles to start filling the jars. After Stiles fills them, he wipes them down and then puts them into the boiling water in the canner. They work in silence; Derek feels awkward, lightheaded, and disoriented, and he knows there’s no getting that moment back tonight.
Probably just as well. Derek’s on a quickly spiraling path where Stiles is concerned.
“When can we eat them?” Stiles asks when Derek starts removing them from the canner and placing them on the counter.
“They need to cool overnight. We can check them in the morning to make sure they sealed, then we’ll put one in the refrigerator and eat it tomorrow with lunch or dinner.” He looks at Stiles, and just looking at Stiles makes him feel nervous. “If you make some more of your biscuits, it’ll be perfect.”
Stiles smiles. “It’s the least I can do after you made me jam.”
“You made it. I just supervised,” Derek says.
“Well, you’re a good jam making teacher, too,” Stiles says.
“Thanks.” Derek stands there awkwardly in the kitchen, staring at Stiles. Finally, he clears his throat. “I should get to bed.”
Stiles follows as Derek walks to the back door. Derek pauses after he opens the door and glances back at Stiles. “Good night.”
Derek closes the door and jogs across the back porch and down the steps, heart racing. As he walks to his cabin, he notices Erica’s car still in the driveway. It’s still early, but obviously Erica and Boyd are hitting it off. Good for her, he thinks.
Inside the cabin, Derek paces back and forth, trying to shake some of the tension. He feels coiled and ready to spring, agitated as he circles the small space. Derek usually spends his nights sleeping or purposefully pushing out the world. It’s been a long time since he’s felt impatient, since he’s allowed himself to feel and want, since he’s needed something so bad it makes his body physically ache.
But he needs Stiles, and it’s terrifying. A part of Derek screams for him to run, to leave everything behind and hit the road and never look back. But Derek knows he could never do that; he could never leave Stiles behind. Not now.
Derek drops to the edge of his bed with a sigh. His cock is half-hard in his jeans, and it’s been so long since he’s gotten hard because of another person. Not since Kate. He palms himself through the restricting cloth, feeling guilty for thinking about Stiles laid out beneath him, about his mouth all over Stiles’ skin.
Derek lies back on the bed and undoes the fly on his jeans, allowing his cock to pop free. He strokes it lazily as he thinks about Stiles, feels it swell in his hand. He closes his eyes and enjoys the feel of touching himself, is surprised at the curl of desire he feels when he imagines Stiles wrapping his fingers around his cock instead.
He chokes out a half-formed moan when he comes, and he drops his hand to the bed and just stares at the ceiling as his pounding heart slowly settles.
Stiles feels almost shy when he sees Derek at breakfast. Luckily, he’s able to concentrate on Boyd, who’s now the subject of Isaac and Parrish’s ridicule.
“Get it, Boyd!” Parrish yells when Boyd enters the kitchen. Stiles joins Parrish and Isaac catcalling Boyd as he sits down.
“Fuck off,” Boyd states.
“Someone stayed up too late fucking the cute blonde,” Parrish says.
Boyd surprises everyone by leaning close to Parrish and saying in a low and deadly voice, “Don’t you ever speak about her that way again.”
The whole kitchen goes silent. Boyd glares at Parrish while Parrish stares at him in shock.
Unsurprisingly, Stiles is the one to break the silence. “Well, I don’t think anyone saw that coming.” Everyone glances at Stiles, and he shrugs. “Who knew it was a woman who’d make Boyd break from his usual collected demeanor.”
“I’m sorry, man,” Parrish says guiltily. “I was just fucking around. If I’d have known, I wouldn’t…I didn’t mean no disrespect.”
“Now you know,” Boyd says, reaching for the syrup. “It wasn’t like that. Erica’s different.”
Parrish looks around like he has his tail tucked between his legs. Stiles doesn’t the miss the way Derek hides his laugh. That makes him laugh for some reason.
“So, Boyd stole your girlfriend, Derek,” Isaac says. “Low blow, Boyd.”
“There’s a duel at sundown,” Derek deadpans. “I’m bringing my pistols.”
The table bursts into laughter, and the morning goes on like normal, the tension forgotten.
After breakfast, Stiles places a jar of preserves into the refrigerator as Derek checks the seals, and then boxes them up and places them in the pantry. He gives Stiles a small, tentative smile before exiting the house. Stiles finds himself grinning after Derek like an idiot.
The morning drags. Stiles can only think of lunch, of how he wants to make biscuits and share the preserves with Derek. He tries to come up with a way to keep it from the ranch hands, doesn’t want to share the preserves with them, too. The preserves feel special, like the first jar should belong only to Stiles and Derek.
He places the pan of biscuits into the oven just as the ranch hands loudly enter the kitchen. The moment Derek enters, his eyes land on the oven before he gives Stiles a private smile. It causes a thrill to run down Stiles’ spine.
Stiles doesn’t imagine that Derek creates excuses to hang around the house after lunch until the others have left to get back to work. He had taken the biscuits out of the oven earlier, and they’re cool enough to eat when Derek comes to stand self-consciously in the doorway.
“Real smooth,” Stiles teases. “Not sure you were obvious enough about sticking around for biscuits.”
“Thought Isaac was never going to leave,” Derek says as he opens the refrigerator to take out the preserves.
“He thought he was going to score a fresh biscuit.” Stiles sets two plates with a biscuit on the table followed by a knife. They both take seats, and Derek removes the ring and pops the lid. He lifts the jar to his nose and inhales.
“Smell,” Derek says, holding the jar under Stiles’ nose. Stiles breathes in, and his mouth starts watering. “Delicious, right?”
“Don’t get so cocky,” Stiles says. “Still not convinced it’s the best jam or preserves ever.”
Derek smirks as he hands the jar to Stiles. “You first.”
Stiles cuts his biscuit open with a knife, and then uses the knife to scoop a large amount of preserves onto the bread. He sets the jar in front of Derek, but Derek doesn’t touch it. He’s watching Stiles eagerly. “You’re gonna watch?” Stiles picks up his biscuit. “That’s not creepy or anything. And totally no pressure.”
Derek rolls his eyes, a smile tugging at his lips. “Just eat, Stiles.”
“So grumpy,” Stiles mumbles, then takes a bite. The preserves burst sweet and tart on his tongue, the strawberries rich and perfect. Stiles closes his eyes as he hums his approval. “Oh god, Derek,” he says as he swallows. “I wanted to prove you wrong, but this is fucking delicious.” Stiles opens his eyes, and Derek’s beaming. Though it’s the truth, it would have been worth saying just to see that look on Derek’s face.
Stiles takes another bite as Derek fixes his own biscuit. Derek smiles when he takes his first bite.
“Are they like you hoped?”
Derek nods as he swallows. “Perfect.”
“Whose recipe?” Stiles asks casually.
“My mother’s,” Derek tells him. “She’d make some every summer. We’d eat it every Sunday morning when she cooked breakfast.”
They eat in comfortable silence. When Stiles makes his second biscuit, he fills it too full of preserves, and it oozes out of the side. A large glob slides down his wrist and he leans down to lick it off. He glances across the table and finds Derek watching him, expression unreadable. Stiles doesn’t look away as he finishes licking the rest of the preserves from his skin.
After they finish, Stiles says, “Thank you for sharing this with me.”
Derek nods. “There’s no one else I’d rather share it with.”
Stiles makes himself busy putting everything away to keep from falling apart.
Stiles doesn’t feel like working. They all had been busting their asses the last few weeks, trying to fix up the ranch. With the new riding lessons – six new pupils in all, three for Parrish, two for Boyd, and one for Derek – they were trying to make the ranch more aesthetically pleasing and appropriate for a serious lessons.
They were well on their way to becoming an actual business, and Stiles knew this could save the ranch.
But today, Stiles is restless. He doesn’t want to finish painting the barn or help Isaac clear out one of the pastures to make a larger and nicer training arena. He wants to ride, and he wants to be with Derek. So, he saddles up Buttercup, then tries to lead Talia to the barn to do the same. She bucks and resists when Stiles grabs her reins, so Stiles decides to leave that to Derek. The horse is as grumpy and obstinate as he is.
Stiles finds Derek under an old carport, cutting a large piece of wood with a circular saw. Stiles hangs back until Derek is finished, then approaches the work bench.
“What are you doing?” Stiles asks.
“Your dad asked me to make a new sign for the ranch,” Derek explains. He wipes his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt. “I’m cutting the shape, then I’m going to carve it and stain it.”
“That’s awesome,” Stiles says. “That thing has been up since before I was born.”
“So, what’s up?”
“Take a break and come riding with me,” Stiles rushes. He feels bad for suggesting that Derek abandon his work, but he’s selfish and wants to blow everything off to be with Derek today. Derek looks like he’s about to say no, so Stiles says, “Please? I need a break, and I bet you could use one, too.”
Derek sighs, but unplugs the saw and puts it away.
After Derek saddles Talia, they start riding through one of the back fields towards the woods. They urge the horses into a gallop, and Stiles laughs with delight as he and Derek race through the fields side by side. It feels so freeing to be out in the open like this, on the back of a horse with Derek at his side.
Stiles takes a moment to glance over at Derek, and his heart catches in his chest. Derek is angled forward slightly, his hands holding the reins as his thighs grip the saddle. His hair blows lightly in the wind, and his face looks peaceful. He’s so beautiful that Stiles aches.
They slow the horses after a bit and let them walk at a leisurely pace side by side. There sun disappears behind the gathering clouds, and Stiles frowns up at the sky. He hopes the storm holds off, because he doesn’t want this to end just yet. They’ve barely been out here half an hour.
The first raindrop falls, and Derek and Stiles glance at each other. Stiles shrugs, figures a few raindrops isn’t anything to worry about. But then the bottom falls out.
“Shit!” Derek exclaims.
“Follow me!” Stiles yells over the pouring rain. He squeezes Buttercup with his heels and gallops towards the far end of the property. They’re closer to the edge than they are the house, and Stiles’ clothes are already wet. Plus, there’s lightening streaking the sky in the distance, and he’d like to be inside when that comes closer instead of out in the open.
A few minutes later, they come upon a small shed and quickly dismount. The horses run off, but they don’t pay any attention as they rush inside. The shed is dusty and obviously untouched for a long time. It’s small, without a lot of room for Stiles and Derek to move around. There are some discarded tools and an old lawn mower along one wall, but it’s dry. The rain pelts loudly against the tin of the roof.
Stiles is standing in front of Derek in the small space, and he laughs. The whole situation is ridiculous. Derek’s grinning, his eyes bright, and he looks decades younger. They’re both soaking wet, their clothes sticking to their bodies. Derek’s hair is matted flat on his head, and his wet eyelashes look like stars. Rivulets of water roll down his cheeks and disappear into his beard. Stiles reaches up and wipes away a drop of water beneath Derek’s eye with his thumb.
They hold each other’s gaze for a few breathless moments, until Derek looks away and swipes at a cobweb. “What is this?”
“Old shed. Scott and I used to play here when we were kids. I don’t think anyone has been in here in years.” Stiles wipes water from his forehead where it’s dripping into his eyes. “There’s tons of old sheds all over the ranch.”
They both glance out the dirty window beside them. The rain is so hard that they can’t see the trees beyond. A loud clap of thunder booms overhead, followed a few minutes later by a flash of lightening. Stiles takes a step towards Derek. Derek raises an eyebrow when Stiles glances at him, embarrassed. “I don’t like storms,” Stiles says quietly. “They make me nervous.”
Derek lifts his arms and rests them lightly on Stiles’ biceps. “I’ll keep you safe.”
The look in Derek’s eyes makes Stiles’ heart skip. He looks so earnest, so caring, and there’s no mistaking the heat in his gaze. It doesn’t help slow Stiles’ already racing heart. He can’t believe that Derek is looking at him like this, that he is someone Derek would want to protect. They’re both breathing heavily, the sound audible even over the rain pelting the roof, their eyes never wavering. Suddenly, Stiles leans forward. His lips brush clumsily against Derek’s in his eagerness, and he curses to himself at his lack of finesse. He shuffles closer and lifts his free hand to Derek’s cheek as he tries again. This time the kiss is more secure, albeit chaste, as he covers Derek’s mouth.
“Stiles,” Derek breathes, his name a half a moan and half a sigh. “We can’t.”
“Why not?” Stiles says against Derek’s mouth, his lips brushing Derek’s with each word as he refuses to move away. His eyes are squeezed shut, and he can feel Derek’s warm breath ghosting against his lips. Thunder cracks overhead. “Don’t tell me you don’t want this, too.”
“You’re too young,” Derek starts, “I don’t want to lose my job, and I’m a mess you don’t want.”
“I want you, Derek,” Stiles says, trying to make Derek believe his words. “You’re not a mess. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” Stiles opens his eyes and finds Derek’s eyes staring wide back at him. This close, Stiles can see individual flakes of gold in their depths.
“Stiles,” Derek says, like he’s giving in, and then his fingers are sliding into the back of Stiles’ wet hair as he pulls their faces together. The kiss is hungry and urgent, and Stiles claws at the front of Derek’s shirt. The stubble around Derek’s mouth scratches around Stiles’ mouth, and it clicks that Stiles is kissing a man and that man is Derek. His heart feels like it’s going to explode out of his chest.
Derek’s lips are chapped, but soft and warm, and Stiles can’t help himself when he extends his tongue to lick along the seam. Derek opens his mouth willingly, and Stiles slides his tongue into the wet heat. He feels it all the way down to his toes when Derek touches his tongue to his own, and goose bumps break out all over his skin. Stiles lifts his hands to Derek’s cheeks and rubs his hands against his beard.
When Derek breaks the kiss, Stiles sucks in a much needed breath, then moans when Derek kisses behind his ear. His lips are a soft tease as the stubble scratches the sensitive skin of his neck, and then he makes a small sound of surprise when Derek licks the already heated patch of skin. “Derek,” he says, his voice sounding unlike he’s ever heard it before. He’d be embarrassed about it if Derek hadn’t groaned in pleasure and Derek’s mouth wasn’t leaving a trail of kisses down the column of his neck. Stiles can only curl his fingers around Derek’s biceps and try not to let his legs give out.
Derek starts moving them backwards, and Stiles makes a small noise when his back gently hits the wall. Stiles drops his head back against the wood, the sound of the rain falling on the window beside his head loud in his ears. Derek starts kissing along his cheek, and then Stiles feels him smile against his skin.
“What?” Stiles asks, turning his head. He needs Derek’s mouth again right now.
Derek looks at him, and his eyes are dazed, his lips flush and full. Stiles leans forward and kisses them. “I’ve wanted to do that for so long,” Derek admits against his lips, “kiss the moles on your cheeks.”
“You’ve wanted to kiss me?” Stiles asks between kisses. His fingers have slid back into Derek’s damp hair, the other hand stroking Derek’s chest through the cold, wet shirt. Derek nips at Stiles’ lip before sliding his tongue back into his mouth. Stiles takes that as a yes.
By the time they break apart again, Stiles is shaking and half-hard. He’s never been kissed like that, like the other person needed to touch and feel every part of him. He’s had kisses from girls over the years, at school dances and in fields or when out with friends, but Stiles knows now those barely counted as kisses.
Derek kissed him like he was drowning, like Stiles was the only thing in the world.
Derek gives Stiles a small smile before pressing a sweet kiss to his mouth. Somehow, that kiss makes a curl of desire course through him that rivals the earlier kiss. Maybe Stiles is just overstimulated. He feels like every nerve in his body is on fire.
Derek looks around them, then sits on the floor with some difficulty. Derek glances up at Stiles when he’s settled, and nods towards the empty spot beside him. Stiles sits beside him, close enough that they are nearly sharing the same space. He watches as he starts massaging his thigh.
“Your leg hurting?” Stiles asks.
Derek nods. “The storm bothers it.”
“I’m sure riding horses didn’t help,” Stiles frowns. “I’m sorry. You should have said no.”
Derek looks over at Stiles. “I didn’t want to say no.”
Stiles flushes. Derek keeps rubbing his leg, and after a few minutes, Stiles asks, “Are you ever going to tell me how you got hurt?”
Derek stares intently at his thigh, and Stiles rests his head against Derek’s shoulder and patiently waits. Finally, Derek says, “There’s a lot you don’t know about me.”
“I’ve figured that much out.” Then, Stiles glances out the window at the rain that doesn’t look like it’s going to let up anytime soon. “I think we have some time.”
Derek sighs, then turns to kiss Stiles’ forehead. The small gesture makes Stiles giddy. “I don’t even know where to begin.”
“With whatever you feel comfortable with.”
“I haven’t talked about this, any of it, since it happened,” Derek explains. He wrings his hands in his lap nervously, and although Stiles knows all of this, he hangs on to every word. “I was in an accident. Before I…started drifting, I was in the rodeo.” Derek keeps his eyes locked on his knees. “I was good. Very good. Some stuff happened, and I lost my edge, and I got thrown off a bull. The bull shattered my leg, and it ended my career.” His hand rubs his thigh in a habitual motion. “Been drifting ever since.”
Derek finally turns to look at him. There’s so much pain in his eyes, and fear about Stiles’ reaction. Knowing all this did little to prepare Stiles for hearing it from Derek’s own mouth.
Stiles doesn’t know what to say, so he reaches out and covers the hand on Derek’s leg with his own. Derek doesn’t move for a moment, then he flips his hand over and threads their fingers together. Stiles’ heart starts racing in his chest, and he swallows.
“Sorry I dragged you to the rodeo the other day,” Stiles whispers. His voice is barely audible over the rain ringing hollow against the tin roof.
“I knew what I was doing,” Derek replies.
“Why did you go?” Stiles has wondered about that since he’d found out about Derek and the rodeo.
Derek doesn’t answer right away. But then he says, “It’s not hard to figure out.”
Stiles flushes under Derek’s attention. He’s hyperaware of Derek’s thumb brushing against the inside of his wrist, and the chill from his wet hair and soaked clothes. “Kiss me again, Derek.”
Derek gently cups Stiles’ cheek, his eyes flicking down to Stiles’ mouth before he closes his eyes and kisses him. The kiss is slower this time, the urgency replaced with the need to explore and connect. After a few moments, Stiles breaks the kiss and crawls into Derek’s lap, straddling him lightly. “Is this going to hurt your leg?” Stiles asks. Derek’s looking up at him hungrily, and he shakes his head. Stiles settles on Derek’s lap, his arms wrapped around Derek’s neck as he leans down and reclaims his mouth. Derek’s hands slide along his back, and Stiles accepts that this is finally happening, that he is kissing Derek.
Stiles loses track of time as they kiss to the sound of the pouring rain and rolling thunder.
Stiles and Derek miss dinner, so there’s lukewarm pizza waiting for them on the stove when they arrive back at the house. Stiles had decided that the rain was a great reason to stay inside the shed and make out with Derek, and Derek hadn’t seemed to mind. When the rain started to thin, they finally tore themselves away from each other, though Derek pressed Stiles up against the door as they were leaving and they stood there kissing for another good ten minutes.
It was still raining when they walked back to the house, so their boots and clothes are soaked again. “Come on,” Stiles says as he unlaces his muddy boots by the back door. “I’ll get you some dry clothes.”
Derek follows Stiles upstairs in wet socks. Stiles stops by his dad’s room first. He rummages in some drawers, and then hands Derek a pile of clothes, some county sheriff’s department sweats in navy. Derek lifts his brows when he gets a look at them.
“I, uh, I think my clothes will be too small,” Stiles says. “Those might be a little big, but that’s better.” Derek nods and starts unbuttoning his shirt. Stiles’ eyes are drawn to his fingers making quick work of the buttons. “I’m gonna…go. Somewhere else. I mean, my room. I’ll be in my room. Yep.” Stiles makes a hasty exit before Derek can manage to remove any clothes. The last thing he needs to do is see Derek naked for the first time in his dad’s room. That is just wrong on so many levels.
Stiles changes into a dry pair of flannel pajama pants, t-shirt, and hoodie. He’s cold to the bone, shivering so badly his teeth are chattering. He’s looking for a pair of thick socks when he hears Derek enter. He glances over and tries not to laugh. Derek scowls.
The sweats are too big, and Derek looks uncomfortable in them. Stiles can’t help but think he looks adorable.
“I haven’t been in your room since that first morning,” Derek says, stepping further inside and looking around. Stiles suddenly feels self-conscious. He hasn’t cleaned in months, there are dirty socks and underwear strewn around the floor, and his walls are covered in movie posters and paintings of horses. Derek steps over to look at one of the paintings more closely as Stiles hops around while trying to pull on his socks.
“That’s nice,” Derek says, pointing to one by the bed.
“It was my mom’s,” Stiles says. “She collected horse pictures. She’d buy one at every craft fair we ever went to. After she died, we donated most of them, but I kept some of her favorites.”
Derek turns towards Stiles, and notices Stiles shivering. “You’re freezing,” he says quietly, reaching out to pull Stiles closer. He rubs his hands up and down Stiles’ arms, then takes his hands in his own. He lifts Stiles’ hands to his mouth and blows on them. He’s looking at Stiles over their hands, and Stiles feels himself blush. Then Derek lightly brushes his lips across Stiles’ knuckles.
“Come here,” Derek murmurs, pulling Stiles into his arms. He wraps his arms around Stiles’ body and holds him close. Stiles lets his eyes drift shut and relaxes in Derek’s arms. After a few minutes, Derek asks, “Warmer?”
“Mmmhmm,” Stiles says.
“Let’s go get some dinner.”
“Do we have to?” Stiles whines as Derek drops his arms and moves towards the door.
Downstairs, they lean up against the counter facing one another and eat pizza straight from the box. Stiles can’t keep the goofy grin off his face, and Derek’s face reflects his own feelings.
They’re arguing over who’s going to eat the last piece of pizza when Isaac comes into the kitchen. His eyes sweep over them, taking in how close they are and their attire. “Missed you at dinner.” Isaac goes over to the refrigerator and takes out a bottle of water. He spins around and leans against the refrigerator door and takes a sip as he eyes them. “Where were you?”
“Got caught in the rain,” Stiles says with a wave of his hand. He really wants to punch Isaac in his stupid complacent face right now.
“Uh-huh.” Isaac takes another sip as he watches them carefully.
“Do you need something, Isaac?” Stiles snaps. He flails his hand in Isaac’s direction. “Cause whatever this is you’re doing is creeping me out.”
Isaac smirks as he walks to the door. “Don’t stay up too late.” Stiles stares after him as he closes the door.
The moment the door is closed, Derek snorts. When Stiles glances at him, he sees that Derek has started eating the last piece of pizza. “Asshole!” Stiles exclaims, yanking the pizza from Derek’s hand and shoving as much as he could fit into his mouth.
“I was eating that,” Derek says, and Stiles can tell he’s trying to look angry and not smile.
Stiles tears off part of the piece and hands Derek the rest. “We’ll share,” Stiles says through his mouthful, and Derek snatches the pizza and shoves it all in his mouth. Stiles tries not to choke as he laughs.
Derek feels like he’s dreaming. This isn’t his life. His life is dirt roads and pain, not kisses behind the barn and Stiles’ smile. Derek keeps waiting to wake up, or for the other shoe to drop. But this is real. Stiles smiling at him as he rounds the corner of the barn is real.
Stiles comes up where Derek is filling a water bucket, turns off the water, and pushes Derek up against the barn. “Stiles, I’m trying to – “ Any protest Derek might have had is cut off by Stiles’ lips. Derek tries to push at Stiles – because he does have work to do – but the longer Stiles kisses him, the more helpless Derek becomes.
“I’m sweaty and disgusting,” Derek says when Stiles finally pulls away. “You should be working.”
“You’re fucking sexy.” He leans forward and kisses Derek again. “I just wanted to kiss you.”
“We made out for ten minutes after breakfast,” Derek says, smiling at the memory of pulling Stiles onto the living room couch and kissing him after the ranch hands had already gone to work. “You’re interfering with my work. You’re a bad influence.”
“Such a bad boy,” Stiles grins mischievously.
Derek captures his lips again, and gives in long enough to slide his tongue inside Stiles’ mouth. But then he pushes Stiles away more forcefully. “Work now. I have things I need to do.” He grabs Stiles by the shoulder and spins him around. “You do, too.”
“Fine. Such a spoil sport,” Stiles grumps as he makes his way towards the pasture, but not before he gives Derek another quick kiss.
Derek had tried so hard to deny his feelings and not give in to Stiles. He wanted Stiles more than anything in the world, but the risk had been too dire. Derek is still terrified this is all going to blow up in his face, but he’s helpless where Stiles is concerned.
The moment Stiles kissed him, it was like Derek had come alive again. He felt like something had cracked inside of him, and when Stiles looked into his eyes, Derek felt his heart beating for the first time since the fire. Every time Stiles’ beautiful eyes landed on him, he still wasn’t convinced that Stiles was looking at him. It had been a few days, and Derek feels like he is still shaking off the last three years.
Derek is terrified. He’s terrified this is all going to be taken from him again – the ranch, the ranch hands and the sheriff, Stiles. But for now, he’s trying to enjoy it.
The day passes with Derek’s mind whirling with thoughts of Stiles. He’s feels slightly intoxicated, like he can’t get enough of him. It’s hard to concentrate on his work, and the minutes seem to drag by. When the day is over, and Derek heads towards the house, he can’t keep the grin off his face at the thought of being with Stiles again.
It’s hard not to stare at Stiles, not to kiss him stupid when he looks so cute cooking at the stove. But the sheriff has joined them for dinner tonight, so Derek turns his attention to Boyd, who’s talking about asking Erica to the town dance.
“Town dance?” Derek asks.
“Annual dance held down at town hall,” Parrish explains. “It’s the social event of the season.”
“It sucks,” Isaac says.
“Isaac’s just mad because he’s never had a date,” Stiles says as he sits down to eat.
“Guess who else is going alone again this year?” Isaac starts. “Oh, that’d be you.”
“Scott’s my date. He’s always my date,” Stiles says.
“Tagging along with his girlfriend doesn’t count,” Isaac says.
“He doesn’t have a girlfriend.” Stiles sticks out his tongue. “I’m his only date this year.”
“I can set you up with someone, Derek.” Parrish points his fork at him. “You need to get out there. You need to socialize, have a little fun.”
“Think I’ll pass,” Derek says. He tries not to look at Stiles.
Suddenly, Stiles exclaims, “But you have to come.” He flails his arms around. “We’re all going. We go every year. Even Dad will be there.”
Derek glances at the sheriff, who grins at them. “I do put on my glad rags and go down to the dance.”
“Dad, no one calls them glad rags,” Stiles groans. “Get with the times.”
“Do you dance, sir?” Derek asks.
The sheriff takes a sip of his sweet tea, and nods as he swallows. “I’ve been known to cut a rug.”
Stiles drops his head back. “You’re hopeless.”
“You should come with us,” the sheriff says. “It’s quite the night.”
There is probably nothing Derek would rather not do, but he nods. “Okay.”
After dinner, Derek joins the sheriff, Boyd, and Parrish in a game of Spades. Halfway through the second game, he sees Stiles walk out of the front door. After that, all he can think about is following Stiles outside.
When the second game is over, Derek excuses himself. The sheriff, Boyd, and Parrish continue playing cards, and Derek walks outside. He crosses the yard, enters the barn, and climbs up the old steps to the hayloft. As he suspected, he finds Stiles sitting on the edge, legs hanging out of the hayloft door.
“Hoped you’d show,” Stiles says as Derek sits beside him. “You looked like you were having fun with Dad and the guys.”
“I was,” Derek nods.
“Good,” Stiles says, turning to smile at him. “I want you to feel like you belong here.”
“I think you’re starting to,” Stiles agrees.
Derek leans forward and kisses Stiles. The kiss is slow and sweet, and Derek feels safe and happy in this moment. Being near Stiles makes the blood rush in his ears and his hands tremble.
When they break the kiss, Derek leans back against the wall of the hayloft, motioning for Stiles to join him. Stiles crawls the short distance and curls up beside Derek. Derek wraps an arm around Stiles’ shoulders, and they stare out of the hayloft at the stars above. The moon is a tiny sliver in the sky, the stars shining brightly. Stiles grabs Derek’s hand and threads their fingers together.
“What are we, Derek?” Stiles asks awhile later. Derek pauses where he’s pressing kisses along Stiles’ jaw.
“What do you mean?”
“This. What are we? Are we together? Just fooling around?”
Derek lightly scratches his nails down Stiles’ arm. “Where’s this coming from?”
“What are we going to tell the ranch hands? My dad?” Stiles sighs. “Isaac’s already figured it out, I think. It won’t take long before Boyd does – “
“I think he already has,” Derek says, recalling the conversation they had on the porch.
“See? I want to know what to tell my dad.”
“What do you want us to be?” Derek asks.
“I’ve never really done this before, at all. With a girl or a guy.” Stiles lifts their entwined hand and stares at it. “I just want to be with you.”
“Then we’re together.”
“Is that what you want?”
Derek leans close and kisses Stiles’ ear. “I want whatever you’ll give me.”
Stiles turns his head and looks at Derek. “You have all of me.”
Derek leans forward and covers Stiles’ mouth, deepening the kiss. They shift around until Derek is pressing Stiles back down into the soft hay, and covering his body with his own. He lifts Stiles’ arm above his head and pushes it against the hay, then slides his fingers through Stiles’ and holds on tight.
“Hey,” Derek says when they finish a competition training session a few days later. “Look at this.” Derek hands Stiles the flier he printed off from the internet. Stiles leans against Buttercup’s side as he reads. His eyes go wide as he realizes what it is.
“Are you serious?” Stiles glances up at Derek, unsure. “Am I ready for a competition?”
Derek shrugs. “You said it’s your dream. It’s a small competition, perfect to try your hand.”
“So, you’re saying this is a shit competition you think I’d do well in?” Stiles says flatly.
“That’s not what I said,” Derek replies. “But the bigger competitions are expensive and filled with people who compete nationally and internationally.”
“Like your sister,” Stiles says.
Derek nods. “Exactly. You couldn’t compete alongside them even if you could qualify.”
Stiles chews on his lip as he reads and rereads the flier. “I don’t know.”
“Think about it,” Derek says. He gives Stiles a quick peck on the lips.
“Are you just telling me I should do it to get on my good side?” Stiles asks as they lead Buttercup and Talia to the barn to brush down.
“I wouldn’t do that,” Derek says. “If this is really your dream, you gotta start somewhere.”
“What about you, Derek?” Stiles asks. “What’s your dream?”
Derek doesn’t answer right away. He tries to come up with an answer as they tie the horses’ leads to the pegs just outside the barn and Stiles grabs the brushes.
“Well?” Stiles asks.
“I don’t have a dream,” Derek answers.
“That’s impossible. Everyone has a dream.”
“My dream got shattered,” Derek says. Stiles pauses his movements, then sets the brush down and wraps his arms around Derek’s waist. He just stands there, holding him.
“I’m sorry,” Stiles whispers.
Derek gives in and lets Stiles comfort him. It feels so nice to have someone else help take the weight, if only for a few moments.
“Come on,” Parrish says as he slows the truck in front of Derek. “We’re going to town.” Derek glances at the railing he’s putting up in the new training arena. “Forget work for now. We’re going to get clothes for the dance.”
“I have clothes.” Parrish frowns at him. “And I need to finish this.”
Parrish jerks his thumb over his shoulder. “Get in the back of the truck, Derek.” Derek sighs as he sets his tools down, climbs over the fence, then climbs into the bed of the truck. The climbing makes his leg start to hurt, so he rubs it as Parrish drives down the well-worn lanes.
Isaac’s already in the cab beside Parrish, so next Parrish finds Boyd with the cattle. He climbs in the front beside Isaac, and then Parrish picks up Stiles, who was working on the hay baler again. Stiles sits in the back of the truck beside Derek.
“Fucking hay baler,” Stiles groans as Parrish drives through the ranch, towards the road.
“Still broken?” Derek asks.
“Yes! I keep fixing it, and then it breaks a week later. We need a new one, but we can’t even afford an old used one at this point.” Stiles runs a hand through his hair in frustration. “Fucking hate this shit. If we were a proper ranch, we wouldn’t have to worry about shit like this because we’d have equipment that worked. Think Jackson ever has to worry about making their hay orders? No, fucking douchebag.”
“It’s not that bad,” Derek says. “I’ve seen ranches in worse states than yours.”
“Pity those guys,” Stiles says. “Can’t be worse off than we are.”
Derek frowns. He wishes there was something he could do, something to make Stiles feel better. Their ranch in Montana had never been in trouble, so he doesn’t know how Stiles feels. But he knows hopelessness better than anyone. He reaches out and quickly squeezes Stiles’ hand.
When he starts rubbing his leg again, Stiles asks, “Does your leg bother you a lot?”
“Sometimes,” Derek says. “Most days it’s just a dull ache. But I climbed over the fence and up into the truck. Wasn’t my best idea.”
“What helps it?”
“Pain relievers. Massaging it. Staying off it.”
Stiles scoots around until he’s facing Derek, and after a quick glance at the others in the cab of the truck, his hands join Derek’s on his thigh. Derek nearly moans at the relief. Stiles’ fingers are deft and firm as they press into the sore muscle. Each touch pushes painfully into the flesh, but it feels so good that Derek can only close his eyes and let Stiles continue.
There’s also a prickling sensation at the top of his spine. It feels wrong to have someone touching his leg, to let someone this close. This is more intimate than kissing Stiles, or letting Stiles slide his hands along his chest or crawl into his lap. This is Stiles touching the most vulnerable part of himself, and it feels uncomfortable. Derek opens his eyes, and Stiles is staring with dedicated concentration, his mouth a hard line as he methodically massages the muscle. He trusts Stiles, and he knows he can’t hide forever. Stiles has helped him realize that.
“That’s good,” Derek says after a few more moments. He’s breathless, a light sheen of sweat covering his forehead. His heart is racing in his chest. “Thank you.”
Parrish parks in front of the general store, so they file in, then split apart. Derek and Stiles go to the clothes, where they find Boyd.
“We need to buy you a new shirt,” Stiles says.
“I have shirts,” Derek replies. “You picked them out.”
“They’re not good enough for the dance.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my clothes.”
Boyd glances at him. “Mm-hmm.”
“You, too, Boyd?”
“See? Boyd agrees with me. He has good taste.”
“This is stupid,” Derek says. “I don’t know need new clothes. I have three shirts already.”
Stiles balks at him. “I’m not even going to dignify that with a reply.”
“It’s just a stupid dance.”
Stiles picks up a Bolero tie. “What do you think, Boyd? Think Derek could rock the look?”
Boyd smirks. Derek shakes his head and says, “Hell no.”
“Boyd, a little help here, please?”
Boyd claps Stiles on the shoulder. “You’re on your own.” He looks between them and adds, “You shouldn’t have too much trouble.”
“What does that mean?” Boyd just smirks again as he walks away. “What does that mean?” Stiles calls after him. He turns to Derek and points his finger. “You’re too obvious.”
Derek watches him, amused. “I’m not the one who wears my emotions on my face.”
“Do not,” Stiles replies distractedly as he tries to choose a shirt. “I’m the master of stealth.”
“Oh really? So, you weren’t jealous of Erica then?” Stiles turns his head slightly. “You didn’t ride out to the pond just to check up on us?” Derek crosses his arms over his chest and lifts his eyebrows.
“Nope, not at all. I don’t know what you’re talking about, Derek.”
“Here,” Stiles says, shoving a shirt at Derek. “Wipe that smug grin off your face and take the shirt.” Derek laughs as he takes the black button up Stiles places in his arms.
Parrish is outside the dressing room, modeling some fancy plaid shirt with pearl buttons and piping along the collar and pockets for Isaac. Derek notices the new snakeskin cowboy boots he’s trying on, too. He looks ridiculous. Derek rolls his eyes as he follows Stiles past them.
“See you got yourself a decent shirt, Derek,” Parrish calls out behind them.
“At least I don’t look like a rodeo clown,” Derek returns.
Stiles grabs a shopping basket and picks up a few groceries. They don’t speak, and Derek is content just to share Stiles’ company. Stiles pauses in front of the first aid section, and Derek idly glances around while Stiles picks up bottles and sets them back down. He’s startled out of his thoughts when Stiles pushes a bottle against his chest.
“What’s this?” Derek asks, looking down. It’s a bottle of Aleve.
“Pain relievers,” Stiles says. “For your leg.”
The thoughtful gesture touches Derek, and he’d kiss Stiles if he could.
When they’re in line at the register, Derek picks a postcard from the rack. After they’ve paid, Derek fills it out on the far edge of the counter. He writes Laura’s address, and then stares at the blank space, pen hovering with indecision.
“Why don’t you ever say anything to her?” Stiles asks, coming up and reading over Derek’s shoulder.
Derek tosses the pen down with more force than necessary. He drops the postcard in the mailbox, blank like always.
Derek’s sitting on his front porch, still working on whittling the large block of wood into shape, when he sees Stiles’ Jeep hastily back up in the driveway, the headlights leading the way out of the ranch and onto the road. He knows Stiles and Isaac are meeting up with Scott tonight.
Boyd joins Derek a little while later. They sit in silence, the only sounds the soft scrape of the chisel along the wood, Boyd’s rhythmic rocking, and the symphony of cicadas.
“What do you know about goats?” Derek asks, breaking the silence. “You ever worked with them?”
“Little bit,” Boyd says. “Last place I worked had some goats. Why?”
“Been thinking of operations I’ve seen on other ranches. I think the horse training business is gonna work out, but I’m thinking of other ways to make money.”
Boyd hums thoughtfully. “Goats can be useful livestock.”
“You can buy dairy does pretty cheap,” Derek says. “Couple of dairy does, maybe eventually buy a buck so we can breed them for meat.”
“Not a bad idea,” Boyd says. “Ain’t too many people sell goat’s milk around here. I bet we could drum up some interest. Might even be able to sell it in town or at the farmer’s market.” They’re quiet for a few minutes, and then Boyd says, “You should talk to Parrish about it. I think it could be lucrative.”
“You do it,” Derek says. “You’re in charge of livestock.”
“It’s your idea,” Boyd points out. “You deserve the credit.”
“Not looking for credit,” Derek replies.
“I know.” Boyd pauses, then says, “I bet Stiles will appreciate the idea. Might even help raise some money to replace the hay baler he’s always having trouble with.”
“Wouldn’t that be something?” Derek responds, glad it’s dark so Boyd can’t see his flushed cheeks.
Derek and Stiles are both busy the next couple days, and he only sees Stiles at meals. The ranch signed 4 new pupils – two women, an older man who saw their ad on Facebook, and a small boy – so they are all busy trying to finish the new training arenas. Stiles is gone both nights with his friends, who are all close to leaving for school.
Derek startles when Stiles appears at the porch one night after dinner. “I didn’t hear you,” Derek says, carefully setting the carving on the floor beside his rocking chair.
“See, told you I could be stealth,” Stiles grins. He walks over to the Derek’s chair and stares down at him hungrily before straddling his lap. He lays both palms flat against the wood behind Derek’s head, eyes flicking down to Derek’s mouth before his own tongue comes out to lick at his lips. Stiles leans down to kiss Derek, but when he does, the chair goes backwards, too. Stiles loses his balance and nearly topples out of the chair, but Derek catches him and holds him steady.
Stiles drops his head to Derek’s shoulder and groans, the chair still rocking back and forth. “How embarrassing,” Stiles mumbles against Derek’s shirt. “Can you maybe forget that happened?”
“Why?” Derek laughs quietly.
“That was humiliating. I was trying to be sexy, and then that happened.” Stiles lifts his head, a sheepish look on his face.
“That’s hardly something to get upset about,” Derek says, kissing Stiles’ cheek lightly.
“Easy for you to say,” Stiles grumbles.
“Though, I guess you could say that you rocked my world,” Derek jokes.
Stiles glances at him with a look of disbelief. Then he rolls his eyes and tries not to laugh. “That was the worst joke I have ever heard. So lame.” He punches Derek’s chest lightly. “Now you should be embarrassed.”
Derek chuckles as Stiles gets off his lap with little grace, stumbling when he gets to his feet. He looks abashed, but he takes Derek’s hand anyway and tugs him out of the chair. “Come on, rodeo boy. I think you have a bed that will be much more accommodating than that rocking chair.”
Derek lets Stiles lead him into the cabin, heart pounding at the thought of kissing him, of touching him, of having his body on top of his. Derek still hasn’t gotten used to that yet.
“You should decorate,” Stiles says as Derek closes the door. Derek comes up behind him, sliding his arms around Stiles’ waist and kissing the soft spot where his neck meets his shoulder. Stiles sighs in contentment as he leans back into Derek’s embrace.
“No point in decorating,” Derek murmurs before biting the skin gently. Stiles makes a soft sound of surprise.
“Don’t tell me you’re thinking of leaving.”
“No,” Derek says as tugs the collar of Stiles’ shirt aside and worries the exposed skin. “Not planning on leaving.”
“Good.” Stiles crawls onto the bed, and Derek follows him, unwilling to loosen his arms. Stiles stretches out, and Derek lies beside him. But then Stiles sits up again so he can unlace his boots, and then he unlaces and pulls Derek’s boots off, too. “Wouldn’t want to get mud on it,” Stiles says. “I like that I’m on your bed.”
“I’m glad you’re in my bed, too.” Derek kisses him again, and Stiles rolls him over onto his back before crawling on top of him. Stiles’ body is a warm weight on top of him, and he feels like he belongs right there, touching Derek from head to toe.
Derek loses track of how long they kiss. He finally gains enough courage to slide his hands under the back of Stiles’ shirt, and Stiles moans at the contact. Derek loves the feel of Stiles’ skin beneath his fingers, the smooth contours and soft planes. When they both end up on their sides, Derek takes advantage of the new position to explore Stiles’ stomach. His fingers drag through a thatch of thick hair on his lower belly, the coarseness of it against Derek’s knuckles making his cock throb even more than it already is. Then he slides his hand higher, until he brushes his thumb across the tight bud of Stiles’ nipple.
“Oh,” Stiles gasps in surprise, his body arching into Derek’s. Derek does it again, causing Stiles to break their kiss and drop his head back onto the pillow.
“Like that?” Derek asks, voice so low and husky he barely recognizes it.
“Yes,” Stiles breathes.
Derek props himself up on his elbow and removes his hand, immediately moving to unbutton Stiles’ shirt. He watches Stiles’ face intently, searching for any sign that he doesn’t want this. But Stiles’ face is slack and relaxed, his lips swollen pink, a gorgeous flush covering his skin. Derek leans forward and licks his blush from the top of his cheek down to the hollow of his throat.
Stiles’ hand comes up and slides into Derek’s hair. He scratches blunt nails along Derek’s scalp until Derek finishes the last button. Then, Derek spreads the plaid shirt open and pushes the undershirt up to Stiles’ armpits. Both of Stiles’ hands are in his hair now, and he’s gripping tightly as Derek leans down and flicks his tongue over the hard nipple.
Stiles moans something unintelligible as he arches into Derek’s mouth, and Derek closes his lips over the nipple and sucks on it gently. Stiles is tugging at his hair and babbling. Derek leaves the nipple, still wet with saliva, and moves on to the other, which causes a similar reaction.
He lets the bud fall from his lips as he nuzzles against the flat planes of Stiles’ belly, dropping kisses on the skin there before leaning up and tugging the shirt down and reclaiming Stiles’ mouth. Stiles attacks his mouth hungrily, rolling him onto his back as he crawls on top of Derek again.
Derek can feel Stiles’ erection pressing into his hip, his own cock hard and throbbing in his jeans. But Derek’s not ready for that, not yet. Right now he’s happy to keep Stiles in his arms, enjoying the hot press of their bodies as Stiles’ tongue maps his mouth.
Stiles leans against the kitchen counter and stares at the flier Derek gave him. Derek’s right – this is what he wanted. He wanted to compete, to follow his dream and his mother’s footsteps. But he doesn’t feel ready. Maybe he’ll never be ready, or maybe this is how everyone feels.
The sheriff comes into the back door then, and Stiles shoves the flier behind the fruit bowl. “Hey Dad,” Stiles greets as he makes his way to the microwave. He hits a few buttons on the microwave and heats up the meal he saved for his dad from dinner. “How was work?”
“Exhausting.” The sheriff sits down in a chair with a sigh. Stiles sits a glass of milk by his elbow, and the sheriff smiles at him. “How are you doing, kiddo? I feel like I haven’t seen you all summer. You boys’ve been busy.”
Stiles shrugs as he rests against the counter and listens for the microwave. “I’m fine.” The microwave dings, and Stiles removes the food, taking the empty seat beside his dad after setting the plate down.
The sheriff digs in. “Ranch looks great,” the sheriff says after a few moments. “I barely recognize the place.” He pauses, then adds, “It hasn’t looked this great since your mom was alive.” That makes Stiles alternately sad and happy. “I see you been spending a lot of time with Derek.”
Stiles nods, trying to keep it casual. “Yeah. He’s a cool dude.”
“That’s good. He needs friends,” the sheriff says. He takes a few more bites, then says, “But be careful. Derek has been through a lot. He’s pretty damaged.”
“I know,” Stiles responds. “He told me about being in the rodeo and the accident with the bull.”
“He did?” The sheriff looks surprised. Stiles shifts uncomfortably.
“Have you known all along?” Stiles asks to redirect the attention from himself.
“Stiles, do you really think I’d let someone work for me I hadn’t checked out?” The sheriff gives him a pointed look.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Derek asked me not to.” The sheriff takes a few more bites before saying, “Derek is a good kid. But he’s got a lot to work out.”
“I know,” Stiles replies quietly.
“How are you dealing with Scott leaving in a few weeks?” the sheriff asks.
“Fine.” The sheriff sees straight through Stiles’ lie, but doesn’t comment on it. Stiles is thankful for that.
The sheriff tidies up his dishes while Stiles goes into the living room to find them something to watch on TV. When the sheriff joins him, he’s holding the flier. Stiles silently curses.
“Nothing,” Stiles says.
“A horse competition? This is for you?” the sheriff exclaims.
Stiles shrugs. “Maybe? Derek gave it to me. He said I may be ready.”
The sheriff shakes his head. “Really, Stiles? You’re not content just training, but now you want to compete?”
“I’ve always wanted to compete,” Stiles says.
The sheriff halts at that, his expression dropping. “What? I didn’t know that.”
“You never asked,” Stiles says, “and you never liked to talk about that kind of stuff because of Mom.”
The sheriff sits wearily on the recliner and stares at the flier. “Is this really what you want to do? Horse competitions like your mother?”
Stiles shrugs again. “I don’t know. Maybe? I’ve always wanted to do it.”
“Why?” the sheriff asks, looking up at Stiles.
“Do you remember when we bought Buttercup?” Stiles asks him. The sheriff shakes his head. “I do,” Stiles continues with a smile. “Mom put me on top of her the day we brought her home. Buttercup just sat there as I wiggled around her back and pulled at her mane. I couldn’t sit still and poked and kicked and pulled at Buttercup. Mom just smiled and said, ‘She likes you, Stiles. She’s your horse. You can ride her anywhere.’ After that, she started teaching me how to do competition riding.”
“I didn’t know that,” the sheriff says.
“You were working a lot, I think,” Stiles says, “and you never seemed to care about the horses.”
“I didn’t,” the sheriff says sadly. “Never did. But I cared about your mom. And I care about you. You should have told me. We could have gotten you trained.”
Stiles gives him a dubious frown. “With what money? And you would have never agreed, not so close after she died.”
The sheriff wipes a hand over his face. “I hate this ranch as much as I love it,” he admits. “I never wanted to be a farmer, or rancher, or anything else. I just wanted to be a cop, marry your mother, and grow old with her.” He looks at Stiles, pain etched in the deep lines on his face. “If this is what you want, then fine. But promise me you’ll be safe. I can’t…” He doesn’t finish, but Stiles doesn’t need him to.
Overcome with emotion, he gets up and crosses the space to give his dad a hug.
“My dad is behind me going to the competition,” Stiles tells Derek the next day. They’re in the hayloft, wrapped around one another, Derek’s head on Stiles’ chest.
“Mmm,” Derek says. “That’s good.”
“He’s still not happy with it,” Stiles continues, fingers carding through Derek’s hair. “He hates horses.”
“He does realize he owns a horse ranch, right?”
“It was my mom’s,” Stiles replies. “I think he’s afraid I’m going to get hurt.”
“It’s a possibility,” Derek says. Stiles glances down at Derek’s jean-clad leg with a frown.
“What made you get on that bull?” Stiles asks.
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Explain it to me.”
“There’s nothing closer to feeling immortal than riding a bull,” Derek says. “Those 8 seconds, you’re a god. Time slows down and you don’t know anything except you and the bull. Anything could happen at any time. It’s a game of chance and skill, and the biggest rush you’ll ever get.”
“How can you think of it like that?” Stiles asks. “After what it did to you?”
“I can barely look at a bull now,” Derek admits. “But I still remember the euphoria. It’s like a drug.”
Stiles remembers the video, the emptiness in Derek’s eyes before getting on the bull. “Why did get on the bull that day? You didn’t even look like the same person as the other times.”
Derek pushes himself up onto his elbows and looks at Stiles, expression turning closed and cut off. “How do you know that?”
“YouTube,” Stiles explains. “I looked you up.”
“You shouldn’t have done that,” Derek says in a harsh tone. Stiles tries not to let it sting.
“I actually looked you up before you told me you were in the rodeo,” Stiles admits. Even in the dark, Stiles can see the flicker of panic over Derek’s face before it’s quickly covered by a hard mask.
“That’s impossible.” He shakes his head as he continues pushing himself all the way up. “How could you know?”
“I saw your last name when you filled out your sister’s postcard.” Derek turns away from Stiles and stares at the wall. Even from his profile, Stiles can see the glower. “Don’t do this, Derek,” Stiles pleads. “Don’t be mad and shut me out.”
“You had no right!” Derek yells.
“Yes I did!” Stiles yells back. “You didn’t tell me anything. Every time we got close, you pushed me back away again, which is exactly what you’re doing now!”
“You don’t know anything,” Derek snaps.
“Because you won’t tell me!”
Derek crosses his arms over his chest, and Stiles watches him angrily. After a few moments, Stiles softens. “I wasn’t trying to invade your privacy,” Stiles says quietly. “That night after the rodeo, I just had to know. I was too invested, and I needed to know.”
They sit in tense silence. Then Derek says, “I’ve got a lot of work to do tomorrow. I’m going to bed.”
“Derek,” Stiles calls out as he reaches for Derek’s arm, but Derek moves out of reach and crawls towards the ladder. “Don’t do this.” Stiles watches helplessly as Derek climbs down and out of sight, and then he listens to Derek’s fading footsteps as he exits the barn.
Stiles knows that he’s unbearable to be around. He doesn’t talk to anyone the next day unless they talk to him first, and then he just snaps. He’s angry at Derek, and he thinks this whole thing is stupid. After dinner, the third meal that day where Stiles and Derek don’t even look at each other, Isaac finds him in the living room. He drops down onto the couch and puts his feet up on the coffee table. Stiles kicks them off. He had blown off seeing Scott tonight because he didn’t feel like being around anyone, and he sure as hell doesn’t want to listen to Isaac’s shit.
“For fuck’s sake, talk to him,” Isaac says.
Stiles just keeps glaring at the television. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Like hell you don’t,” Isaac says. “Derek nearly took Parrish’s head off earlier today, and you’ve been a bright ball of fucking sunshine. Something happened. You had a fight, broke up, something.”
“Mind your own fucking business.” He’s angry to care about what Isaac is saying.
“You’re such an idiot,” Isaac groans. “Look, I’m only going to say this once, so don’t expect me to repeat it. I love you like a brother. I know you two have something going on. Fuck, you’d have to be blind not to. You two are so fuck-eyed for each other I want to barf. It’s totally cool, and I want you to be happy, and I like Derek a lot. But if Derek did something to you, I will hurt him.”
Stiles is…touched. He stares at Isaac for a few moments, and Isaac looks at the television, refusing to meet his eyes. “He didn’t do anything,” Stiles finally says. “We had a fight. That’s it.”
“If you need me to kick his ass, I will,” Isaac says. Then he grabs the remote and says, “I don’t care if you are upset, I’m not watching this shit,” before changing the channel.
Stiles hides his smile.
After Isaac leaves to go to his cabin, Stiles walks to Derek’s. Unsurprisingly, he finds Derek on the porch. But tonight he’s not whittling; he’s sitting in the rocking chair staring out into the fields. Stiles climbs the steps and leans against the support beam, crossing his arms over his chest.
“Thought you’d be with Scott,” Derek says.
“Didn’t feel like hanging out,” Stiles replies. “Not really in the mood. Can’t imagine why.” Derek grunts, and that just pisses Stiles off. “What is your problem?”
“I don’t have a problem.”
“Bullshit!” Stiles yells. His dad’s at work, so he’s not worried about him hearing. “You have a lot of problems, Derek.”
“Oh, well, you know me so well now, why don’t you tell me what my problems are,” Derek says.
“Yeah, fine. You’re closed off, secretive, stubborn, a pain in my ass, angry, frustrating.”
“Is that all?”
“You don’t trust me,” Stiles snaps. The pain of it hits him anew. His voice loses some of its steam, and he slumps back against the support beam. “You won’t let me in.”
Derek doesn’t respond, just stares stoically ahead. Stiles crosses the porch and leans down, bracing himself on the arms of the rocking chair. He’s in Derek’s face, but even this close, Derek refuses to look at him. Stiles inhales and smells alcohol. “Have you been drinking?”
Derek lifts his chin an inch in defiance. Stiles’ heart breaks at the same time he’s furious again.
“You don’t have to push everyone out, Derek,” Stiles says. “I know you’re hurting, but talk to me. That’s what I’m here for.”
Derek still refuses to meet his eyes, and Stiles doesn’t know why it hurts so bad. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, why he cares, or anything. And if Derek doesn’t care enough to even look at him, then fuck him.
Stiles pushes himself off the rocking chair and storms down the porch. He is so done.
He ignores the tightness in his chest as he marches to the pasture. He whistles, and Buttercup, Talia, and the other two horses come trotting up. Stiles opens the gate and leads Buttercup out, refastens the gate, then mounts Buttercup bareback. He nudges her and she takes off at a gallop towards the road.
Stiles tries to ignore the pain he feels as Buttercup gallops down the road. He doesn’t know why it hurts so bad, and why Derek refuses to talk to him. He thought they’d had something wonderful, something real, but apparently he was wrong. And that just makes the pain worse.
He slows Buttercup to a trot, and tries to clear his head. The moon is nowhere in sight, the stars bright overhead with only a few clouds. He doesn’t want to think about anything; instead he focuses on Buttercup and the dark road.
When he starts to tire, Stiles leads Buttercup towards the trail towards the pond. She knows the way, so he trusts her to maneuver. His mind keeps going back to Derek, the hard look on his face, the alcohol on his breath, the way he won’t even look him in the eyes. He wants to chip away every wall Derek has built and help him heal; he wants Derek to open himself enough that he can maybe feel as much about Stiles as Stiles feels about him.
But Stiles knows that’s a vain hope. Derek won’t let him in. The sooner Stiles understands that, the better off he knows he’ll be.
When they get to the pond, Stiles slides off Buttercup. Buttercup starts eating some grass, and Stiles goes over the hammock tied between two large oaks. He stares at the stars through the leaves, and tries to stop everything from crashing around him.
But it’s futile, and Stiles feels the weight of everything. He closes his eyes and gives in to the panic.
Stiles jerks awake when he feels a hand shaking him. He turns over, gets tangled in the hammock, and starts flailing. He ends up twisting around and falling onto the ground in a graceless heap. He hears laughing, and he looks up to see Scott staring down at him and laughing.
“I hate you,” Stiles says. Scott extends a hand and helps Stiles to his feet.
“Why are you sleeping out here?” Scott asks.
Stiles brushes off the back of his pants. “How did you find me?”
“Isaac called me. You weren’t at breakfast. Derek said he saw you last night on Buttercup, but Parrish found Buttercup in the front field grazing.” Scott looks at him with concern. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Stiles replies.
“Stiles,” Scott says.
“Let’s blow off work today and hang out,” Stiles suggests.
Scott look sat him like he’s crazy. “I have work with Deaton. We’re supposed to go look at some sick cattle.”
“It’s not like you don’t have a few sick days, Scotty,” Stiles says. “And it’s not like it matters if Deaton fires you.”
Scott frowns. “I can’t Stiles, I’m sorry.” He reaches out and places a hand on Stiles’ shoulder. “How about this? Day after tomorrow, I’m yours. We can play video games and pig out, and you can help me pack.”
Stiles nods. “Okay.”
They walk back to the house side by side on the trail. Scott rambles about going shopping with his mom in Cheyenne for dorm stuff and about a pig he helped Deaton with, and Stiles already misses him.
Scott leaves when they get to the house, so Stiles showers and then pours himself some cereal. He’s leaning against the counter, staring off into space as he chews, when the back door opens up. Derek walks in, covered in dirt and sweaty already.
They stare at each other for a few tense moments.
Derek walks over to the refrigerator to get a bottle of water. He opens it and chugs half of it before screwing the top back on and walking towards the door. When he gets to it, Derek pauses, then turns to face Stiles.
“Where were you?” he asks brusquely.
“Why do you care?” Stiles snaps.
“You need to be careful at night,” Derek says angrily. “There are rattlesnakes and coyotes that can spook a horse.”
“Don’t waste your time worrying about me,” Stiles replies icily.
A flicker of hurt crosses Derek’s face. He looks like he’s about to say something, but he rushes out the door and slams the door behind him. Stiles slumps against the counter, no longer hungry.
Stiles and Isaac are loading square bales of hay onto a trailer when an unfamiliar truck hauling a trailer drives down the driveway. Stiles pauses and wipes his forehead as he watches the truck. It stops near the house, and Parrish meets the driver. “What’s that?” Stiles asks.
“Dunno,” Isaac replies, lifting another bale with a grunt.
Stiles sees Parrish walk with the driver to the back of the trailer. After opening the trailer, the driver disappears inside, then walks down the ramp leading a goat. “What in the hell?” Stiles murmurs. He jumps down from the trailer and runs across the yard. When he approaches the truck, the driver is leading another goat from inside. “What’s this?” he asks, breathless.
“Our goats,” Parrish says, shooting Stiles a quizzical look. “Didn’t Derek tell you?”
“We bought four dairy does,” Parrish explains as the driver brings out another.
“Why?” Stiles asks.
“Derek thought it’d be a good way to generate some additional revenue. Sell goat milk, goat cheese, that kind of thing.” Parrish looks at Stiles. “I swear I thought he told you. He said some of the extra money could go towards a new hay baler.”
“He said that?” Stiles asks. Parrish nods. Stiles watches as Parrish, Boyd, and the driver place the goats into a pen, his head spinning. As he walks back to the trailer, he looks for Derek, sees the tractor he’s driving out in the field.
He tries to tamp down the flare of hope in his chest, but can’t. Derek convinced Parrish to buy goats so Stiles could save for a new hay baler. That might be one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for Stiles.
He finds himself grinning, and tries to repeat to himself that it means nothing.
Stiles makes biscuits for dinner. When he sets the basket on the table, Derek glances at him. Stiles purposefully doesn’t look at Derek.
Derek gets up from the table and returns a moment later with an unopened jar of strawberry preserves.
“Finally,” Isaac says, reaching for the jar. “I get to try some of this stuff I’ve heard so much about.” Before Isaac can open it, Boyd snatches it from his hands, grinning smugly.
“You made it, Stiles?” Parrish asks.
“It’s Derek’s recipe,” Stiles says. “He really made them. I just stirred.”
“I don’t care who made them,” Boyd says, mouth full. “This is damn good.”
Stiles smiles. When he looks in Derek’s direction, he catches Derek’s eye, and he quickly looks away. They finish the jar of preserves and all the biscuits by the end of dinner. When Stiles goes into the pantry to grab another jar to put in the refrigerator, Derek comes into the doorway.
“Biscuits were good,” he says.
“Thanks,” Stiles replies, gripping onto the jar tightly. When Derek turns away, Stiles calls out, “Hey Derek.” Derek turns and watches Stiles, face carefully guarded. “Thanks for the goats.”
Surprise is written all over Derek’s face, but he quickly covers it. “It’s nothing.” Then, Derek’s gone. Stiles sighs as he walks out of the pantry.
Stiles spends the next afternoon with Scott. They play video games, eat too many Cheetos, and yell at each other a lot as they shoot each other on screen. It’s the most fun Stiles has had in a long time.
After dinner, Stiles helps Scott pack for college. Scott talks excitedly about moving, going to college, things he hopes for. Stiles nods and listens and tries to be supportive, but inside he’s just sad. This is his best friend, the guy he’s grown up with. It’s hard to think he won’t be just down the road from Stiles soon.
Scott finds a photo album while packing, and Stiles gets distracted looking at it. There are photos of them in there from the time they were five up to now. Stiles flips through the album, which holds pictures of them at school events, birthday parties, and playing in Scott’s the backyard. There are some of them around the ranch, and even one of his mother.
Stiles closes the album and starts folding Scott’s clothes and placing them in a box.
When Stiles gets home, he thinks about going to bed, but he doesn’t want to be alone. He’s too sad and lonely, so he goes to Derek’s cabin. It’s almost midnight, and Derek’s not on the porch, so he’s probably asleep. Stiles knocks on the door anyway. “Derek, are you up?” Stiles asks. His hands are trembling, and he just needs…something. He’s not sure what.
Stiles stands on the porch for a few minutes, and just when he’s about to give up, Derek opens the door. He’s shirtless, his hair sleep mussed, and he’s wearing low-hanging pajama pants. But none of that matters. Derek opened the door.
He’s staring at Stiles in concern, and Stiles folds himself against Derek. He wraps his arms around Derek’s waist and presses his face into the crook of Derek’s neck. Derek’s warm and smells faintly like musk and soap. Derek doesn’t move for a few moments, but then he lifts his arms and wraps them around Stiles, and something in Stiles’ chest loosens.
This is what he needed. He needed Derek.
Stiles loses track of how long they stand there. But then he lifts his head and looks at Derek. Derek’s eyes are soft and unguarded, and Stiles sees nothing but pain, uncertainty, and affection in them. Derek lifts his hand and cups Stiles’ cheek, and Stiles leans into the touch.
Stiles steps further into the room and crosses to the bed. The bed is unmade where Derek had been sleeping. Stiles toes off his sneakers and crawls onto it fully clothed. Derek gets in behind him, spooning up against him and wrapping his arms around Stiles. He covers them with the blankets, and Stiles closes his eyes and concentrates on calming himself.
“What’s wrong?” Derek whispers.
“I helped Scott pack for college,” Stiles replies quietly. “It made it real. I helped my best friend pack up his stuff. He’s really going to leave me.”
“He’s not leaving you.”
“Feels like it.”
Derek places a soft kiss on the back of Stiles’ neck. Stiles covers Derek’s hands with his own and holds on to them tightly.
When Stiles has almost dozed off, Derek whispers, “I’m a mess that you don’t want, Stiles.”
Stiles can’t think of a reply. He turns his face towards the bed and kisses Derek’s bicep near his face. Stiles thinks they’re both messes, and maybe that’s the problem.
Stiles wakes up, warm and content with Derek’s arms still around him. He smiles as he blinks slowly, and feels Derek’s soft breathing against his neck. His bladder is full, but he doesn’t want to move. He doesn’t want to break this moment.
The night is still dark, but he can’t see a clock from his position. Stiles looks down at Derek’s hands, loose and relaxed in his sleep. It scares Stiles how much this feels perfect, how much he wants this beyond tonight. He kept waiting for a freakout because Derek is a man, but it never came. He doesn’t care. Derek is a complicated, frustrating asshole, but he’s one of the most amazing people Stiles has ever met. He’s thoughtful and caring, though he doesn’t want anyone to know it most of the time. He’s intelligent when it comes to handling a ranch, and from what Stiles has seen on the internet and from his and Erica’s sessions, he’s also a gifted rider. Derek would have blown the world away if he hadn’t shattered his leg.
But, Stiles thinks, if Derek wouldn’t have gotten injured, they may never have met. It’s fucked up that fate works that way. Now that Derek is in his life, he can’t imagine him not in it. He can’t imagine Derek deciding to leave them and move on to another ranch. Stiles knows it’s a possibility, knows that one day Derek might want to go home (though Stiles thinks about this as Derek’s home now). But he won’t think about Derek leaving right now. He’s got to face the fact that Scott is leaving him in a week, and right now he’s in Derek’s bed, and neither of them is going anywhere.
Stiles finally can’t hold it anymore, so he carefully scoots out from under Derek’s arms. Silently, he pads across the floor to the bathroom. The light overhead is attached to a chain, so he searches for it blindly. When he finally touches it and tugs, a single bulb illuminates the tiny room with soft light. There’s only a toilet, sink, and ancient, stained footed bathtub. He idly stares around as he relieves himself, notices there is hardly a trace of Derek in here. There’s a bottle of shampoo and conditioner, a bar of soap, and a razor. Nothing else.
Stiles frowns. He doesn’t like that there’s so little life in here, that there are only the barest traces that Derek even exists. It’s like Derek’s afraid of leaving an impression. A knot forms in Stiles’ stomach as he realizes what that means.
Impressions mean you’re real. Impressions mean you’ve left a trace, that you can’t disappear. Derek’s been a ghost for so long that Stiles thinks that Derek has forgotten how to live.
When Stiles returns to the main room, Derek is lying in bed, awake. Stiles sits tentatively on the edge of the bed, and Derek reaches out and grabs Stiles’ hand. “I thought you had left,” Derek says, voice heavy with sleep.
“Is that what you want?” Stiles asks. Derek shakes his head. “Why have you been such a dick?”
Derek sighs and closes his eyes, but he pats the bed with his free hand. Stiles stands up to take off his clothes before getting back under the blankets. He removes his jeans, hoodie, and t-shirt, leaving him just in his underwear. Then he settles back onto the bed facing Derek. There’s not much space between them, but Derek keeps holding on to Stiles’ hand between their bodies.
“I left home as soon as I was eighteen to join the rodeo,” Derek explains quietly. “I had been in the rodeo for awhile, competing since I could in high school competitions. I met a woman when I was seventeen, Kate. She was beautiful, Stiles, and strong, confident. I immediately fell in love with her. She also competed. Her entire family does horse competitions. She’s competed in Olympic show jumping since she was 16.
“My parents, they were furious,” Derek goes on. “They wanted me to wait until after college, or to go into horse jumping or Western saddle like my sisters. My mother didn’t want me to be in the rodeo like my dad. She was terrified I’d be hurt or worse.” Derek pauses, his face as open and vulnerable as Stiles has ever seen it. Stiles lifts one hand to Derek’s cheek and cups it gently. “But Kate had filled my head with all sorts of delusions of grandeur. Fame, fortune, the thrill of competition. Plus, she said she’d be by my side the whole way.”
“What happened?” Stiles asks.
“Kate was right. I was a natural, and I was the youngest rider to win the Triple Crown. I was good, Stiles, fucking good. I had million dollar sponsor deals, and a career most riders only dreamt of.”
“Sounds perfect,” Stiles says.
“It was, for awhile,” Derek says. “But I never saw my family. I was still so angry at them for not supporting me and trying to keep me from my dream. My sisters got to follow their dreams, but they wanted me to follow the same dream, and that’s not what I wanted.
“Then, one day, I was on the circuit, and I got a call. There had been a fire at our ranch. My parents…” Derek’s eyes start to water, and Stiles finds himself tearing up, too. He gently rubs his thumb along under Derek’s eye. “They were trapped inside. They died.”
Stiles is lost for words. There’s no way to respond to that. He knows that explains the change between Derek in the early videos and the last two Stiles watched. Derek had lost both of his parents. Stiles knows better than anyone the crippling loss of a parent. And he’d only lost his mom.
“I went home for the funeral, but I couldn’t stay there. My house was gone, my parents were gone, and I hadn’t talked to them in three years. My sisters tried to get me to stay home, but I didn’t listen. Plus, Kate kept telling me I’d lose points and sponsors if I didn’t keep competing. My sister, Laura, came with me to my next competition. She tried to get me not to compete, told me I wasn’t ready, that it was too soon, but I didn’t listen to her. I just needed to get my mind off what had happened.”
“That’s when your horse…” Stiles can’t finish, and Derek nods.
“Triskele. My world ended that day. I had lost my parents, then my best friend. Laura tried to get me to go to the vet with her, tried to get me to come home, but I left with Kate for the next city. That was the end of my career.”
“Why did you run?” Stiles asks.
“I didn’t even talk to my sisters after the accident. They didn’t know where I was during the physical therapy. Kate left me while I was still in the hospital. I couldn’t face my sisters after what I’d done to them and my parents. I had nothing left. It had been three years on the road, I was 21, washed up, with a bum leg. I just disappeared and never stopped moving.” He squeezes Stiles’ hand. “Until I met you.”
Derek takes his time answering. When he finally does, he says, “I don’t know. I’ve wanted to run a thousand times since I got here, but something always stops me.” Derek leans forward and brushes his lips gently across Stiles’. “That’s everything. I’m not sure I’ll ever be okay.”
“You’re not planning on leaving again, are you?” Stiles asks.
Derek shakes his head, and Stiles shifts closer. He wraps his arms around Derek, and when Derek rolls onto his back, he lays his head on Derek’s chest. He listens to the steady thump of Derek’s heart, trying to process everything Derek told him. He wants to make things better for Derek, give him a reason to live, give him a reason to stay. Because Stiles doesn’t want to think about his life without Derek in it anymore.
Derek wakes before Stiles. The sun is rising, the sky still a dark purple. Derek turns his head and sees Stiles asleep with his head on the pillow beside him. Derek takes in his slightly open mouth, the curve of his lips, his dark lashes fanning below his eyes. Stiles is beautiful. Derek never thought he’d meet anyone like Stiles, and he keeps pushing him away. Derek knows Stiles deserves better, knows that Stiles will figure that out someday. And the last thing Derek needs is another complication in his life. He doesn’t want to build a life again. He wants to ride out his existence in peace and protect himself from getting hurt again.
Stiles just won’t let him do that.
Derek gets out of bed quietly. He grabs one of his long-sleeved t-shirts from a shelf and pulls it on before walking out onto the porch. The morning is cold and crisp. Derek sits on the stoop and stares out over the golden pastures as the sun rises. By the time the door opens behind Derek, the sun has risen bright over the ranch and chased away the morning dew.
Stiles sits on the stoop beside him and lays his head on his shoulder, and Derek rests his head atop Stiles’. “How long have you been out here?” Stiles asks.
They sit in silence as they stare out at the morning. A few cows low in the distance, a couple of the cocks crow, and one of the goats bleats.
“I don’t think you’re a mess,” Stiles says from where his head still rests on Derek’s shoulder. “It wouldn’t matter if you were. I’d love you anyway.”
Stiles gets up and walks away without even looking at Derek. Derek is frozen on the steps, staring after him.
Stiles just told him he loved him. How is that even possible? Derek has done nothing to deserve anyone’s love, let alone Stiles’.
And Derek let him walk away.
Derek sits there on the porch, and realizes that he pushes everyone he loves away. His life is one self-destructive decision after another.
Derek tries to concentrate on his work, but he can’t. He keeps thinking about Stiles. Even Erica comments on his lack of focus during their lesson. Before lunch, Derek goes to the house early. He knows the other ranch hands always get to the kitchen at 11:30 on the dot, and he also knows that Stiles gets there half an hour early to prepare. So, Derek makes his way to the house around 11.
Stiles is at the counter, cutting vegetables for a salad. He glances over at Derek when he enters, surprised. “Hey,” he says, setting down the knife and wiping his hands on his khakis. “What’s up?”
Derek crosses the space between them, takes Stiles’ face between his hands, and kisses him. Stiles’ arms automatically go around his waist as he kisses him back hungrily. Derek pushes Stiles back against the counter as he opens his mouth and licks into Stiles’ mouth. There’s a voice in Derek’s brain screaming for him to run and leave, but Derek ignores it. This is what he wants, this beautiful, annoying, awkward guy in front of him, and Derek knows it’s time he stopped running and finally started living again.
“I love you,” Derek breathes when he breaks the kiss. “I love you, too, Stiles.”
“What?” Stiles replies dumbly. Derek looks at him, and his eyes are bright and his face flush. He looks hopeful and confused and shocked, and Derek kisses him again. “Are you serious?” Stiles asks when Derek pulls away.
“So serious,” Derek says.
They’re still wrapped around each other later when they hear someone clearing his throat behind them. They break apart, and Derek panics as he glances at the three ranch hands standing in front of them. Isaac’s rolling his eyes, Boyd’s got his arms crossed, and Parrish looks scandalized.
“What the hell?” Parrish exclaims. “What the hell are you two doing? Are you two a thing?”
Boyd and Isaac both turn to Parrish in disbelief. Boyd says, “Parrish, how in the hell are you so damn stupid?”
“They’ve been wanting to bone each other for months,” Isaac drawls, rolling his eyes again. “Thanks Derek, you distracted Stiles from making lunch and I’m starving.”
Stiles glances at Derek and grins. “Get your own lunch.” He grabs Derek’s hand and pulls him towards the back door.
“Dammit, Stiles!” Isaac yells as Parrish says, “They’re actually a thing? But that doesn’t make any sense!”
Derek follows Stiles out the door and across the yard to his cabin. “I’ll make us lunch later,” Stiles says as he kicks the door closed with his foot. He slides his arms around Derek’s neck. “You’re sure about this, Derek?”
Derek swallows as he nods his head. “I’m sure.”
Stiles smiles, and Derek realizes he’s never be so sure about anything in his entire life.
“Come on,” Stiles says, pulling Derek towards the barn later that night.
“This is a bad idea,” Derek says. “Night riding can be dangerous.”
Stiles rolls his eyes. “It’ll be fine. The horses know the trails. I’ve ridden Buttercup at night for years.”
“Talia doesn’t know the trails.”
“Ride one of the other horses.”
Derek relents, but saddles up Talia anyway. They take to the trails. It’s so dark they can barely see, but the horses have no problems making their way along the familiar paths. Derek can’t remember the last time he rode at night, probably some time with Laura and Cora. His mother and Laura had loved to ride under the full moons.
When they get into the clearing with the pond, Derek can’t see much better. But his eyes are starting to adjust, so he can see Stiles dismounting and tying Buttercup’s lead to a tree. After he does the same to Talia, he joins Stiles. Stiles takes his hand and leads him over to the pond. Derek can see a few stars reflected on the smooth surface and a waxing crescent moon.
“Let’s go swimming,” Stiles suggests.
“Now?” Derek exclaims.
“No, two weeks from now.” Stiles rolls his eyes as he bends down to pull off his boots.
“It’s dark, and we don’t have any extra clothes,” Derek argues, remembering his soaked clothes from the rainstorm and not wanting to repeat that uncomfortable experience any time soon.
Stiles grins as he grabs the hem of his shirt and pulls it over his head. He tosses it on the ground, leaving Derek staring slightly slack jawed at him. “We don’t need clothes.”
“Are you suggesting we – “ Derek trails off as Stiles starts unbuttoning his pants.
“Come on, Derek,” Stiles says. “Live a little.”
Derek watches in shock as Stiles pushes his jeans and underwear down, leaving him naked as he steps out of the legs. It is too dark to see much, but Derek can see the jiggle of Stiles’ soft cock and the dark mound of hair at the top when lifts his feet to pull off his socks.
Derek watches wide-eyed as Stiles runs up to him and gives him a brief kiss. Then, with a grin, he turns around and runs across the dock. Derek watches his ass, pale even in the dark night, until Stiles lets out a yell as he cannonballs into the lake. The water splashes loudly, sloshing up in short walls before the waves ripple across the surface. Stiles’ head breaks the surface a moment later. He’s laughing as he wipes water from his eyes.
“Derek! Don’t leave me alone and naked in the water!”
Derek starts unbuttoning his shirt, and Stiles yells in excitement. Derek’s fingers are shaking by the time he undoes the last button, and he pulls it off quickly and lets it drop to the ground. As he slowly undresses, Stiles swims idly on his back, a dark figure gliding through the water.
Derek hesitates before he takes off his jeans. No one has seen his leg since his physical therapist. He feels self-conscious about it, is scared of what Stiles will think about the marred and ugly flesh.
“You’re so slow, Derek,” Stiles yells from his back. “Get your sexy ass in this lake right now!”
Derek closes his eyes, repeats to himself that this is Stiles, and then pushes down his jeans and briefs. Immediately, he feels naked and exposed, and he’s immensely grateful for the cover of night. He’s not sure he could do this otherwise.
He walks slowly down the dock, unable to run like Stiles. He’s glad his leg isn’t bothering him tonight so his limp is barely noticeable and not drawing any more attention to his scars. Stiles is in the middle of the lake, treading water as he waits for Derek. When Derek gets to the end of the dock, he puts all his weight on his good leg, takes a calming breath, and leaps into the water.
The cold of the water shocks his body as he plunges beneath, but then it feels warm. He breaks the surface and tosses his hair, slinging water. He blinks, and sees that Stiles has swum just in front of him.
“What took you so long?” Stiles’ hair is flat and slicked back away from his face.
“I…” Derek feels extremely self-conscious. Though they’re both only visible from the shoulders up, he feels vulnerable.
“You know it doesn’t bother me, right?” Stiles asks quietly as he treads closer. They’re only inches apart, and Derek can make out the features on Stiles’ face. Stiles’ foot keeps brushing his as he moves his legs to stay afloat. “Your leg. I don’t care. It doesn’t change anything about you.”
“I’ve never shown it to anyone,” Derek explains quietly. “This is the first time I’ve been naked with another person since the accident.”
Stiles clasps his arms around Derek’s neck. “Then I feel special.”
“You are special.”
“So are you, Derek. I wish you knew that.” Stiles leans forward and kisses him softly. Derek’s hands go to Stiles’ waist as he deepens the kiss, and he almost forgets to stay afloat as he loses himself in Stiles’ mouth.
They kiss for a long time, until Stiles has moved so close that there’s no space between them. Derek’s shocked out of the kiss when he feels something hard bump into his hip and Stiles moans into his mouth.
“Sorry,” Stiles says, embarrassed. “I didn’t mean for that to happen.”
Derek grabs Stiles’ hips and fits their hips together, pressing his own aching erection against Stiles’ groin. “Should I be sorry, too?” Derek asks with a smile.
“What do you think?” Stiles rolls his hips against Derek, hard-on pushing against Derek as his eyes drooping shut slightly.
Derek leans back and never takes his eyes off Stiles as he swims backwards closer to the shore. He drops his feet and keeps moving until he can feel the bottom. Then he stands, water coming to his shoulders, as he waits for Stiles to join him.
When Stiles swims over, Derek reaches between them and wraps his fingers around Stiles’ cock. Stiles moans, his hands steadying himself on Derek’s hips. Derek watches the fluttering emotions on Stiles’ face in fascination as he slowly strokes along his shaft. Stiles is hot and hard in his hand, but he feels almost weightless under the water. The lake allows his hand to glide easily.
“Oh, oh, Derek,” Stiles babbles. Derek leans forward and kisses both his closed eyelids and then his cheeks before kissing Stiles’ mouth. The feel of Stiles’ tongue in his mouth combined with his cock in his hand makes Derek’s entire body feel alight, and he feels his own cock aching between his legs. Stiles is moaning into his mouth, his kisses sloppy and distracted, and Derek knows that he’s close.
He squeezes Stiles’ cock a little tighter, and drags his thumb across the head. It only takes a few more strokes before Stiles is shuddering against him, and Derek feels warmth on his hand. Stiles’ entire body slumps against him, and Derek holds him as he drops kisses on his wet cheeks and hair.
Stiles’ breathing is heavy, his exhales cool against Derek’s damp neck. Derek jerks with surprise when he feels long fingers gripping his cock. “This okay?” Stiles asks quietly, his head still on Derek’s shoulder.
“Yeah.” Derek swallows and nods. Stiles’ grip is clumsy and the angle is awkward, but Derek feels like his heart may actually pound of out his chest if it doesn’t leap out of his throat first. Being in the lake adds a different feel to the hand job, and it confuses Derek’s senses. Stiles is now placing little kisses on Derek’s neck and shoulder as he strokes his shaft, and Derek thinks he may come from that as easily as Stiles’ hand.
“Faster,” Derek whispers, and Stiles obeys, speeding his wrist up. Desire starts building low in his belly, and Derek holds his breath for a few long seconds before exhaling. With the exhale, Derek feels a sharp thrill shoot through him, and then he comes. Stiles keeps stroking him, and Derek stills his hand when it gets too sensitive.
Derek is trembling as Stiles kisses him. It has been so long since anyone has touched him, since he’s had sex, and he feels overwhelmed. “You okay?” Stiles asks quietly.
“I’m okay,” Derek nods.
“That wasn’t your first time, was it?” Stiles asks.
Derek shakes his head but says, “Felt like it though.”
They swim around the lake for awhile, laughing and splashing each other. Derek loves the sound of Stiles’ laugh, loves the ease with which it comes and the way it lights up his face. Although he was thankful for the darkness earlier, now he wishes it was lighter so he can see Stiles’ face.
When they decide to get out of the lake, Derek lifts himself out of the water with his arms and then sits on the dock. Stiles flops back on the dock, spread out like a starfish. “I’m just drying off,” Stiles says, so Derek lies back beside him. It’s cold lying naked in the night air, but the moment is perfect. Derek grabs Stiles’ hand, and they intertwine their fingers as they stare up at the stars.
“Hey,” Stiles says after dinner a few nights later. Derek’s about to walk out of the door, but halts. “I want to show you something.”
Derek watches as Stiles gets ingredients out of cabinets and the refrigerator. There’s flour, sugar, and fresh strawberries along with other common baking ingredients. Stiles places a large iron skillet on the stove and sprays it with cooking spray. “Since you taught me to make your mother’s preserves, I thought I’d teach you to make my mom’s strawberry skillet cobbler.”
“Okay,” Derek says with a smile. “Show me how to make it.” The cobbler consists of biscuits, so Stiles takes Derek through the steps of how to make his biscuits. “Are you sure you’re not giving away any trade secrets?” Derek asks.
“Maybe,” Stiles says as he combines flour and buttermilk. “So you should protect the secret Stilinski biscuit recipe with your life.”
“I thought you had famous Stilinski breakfast bread,” Derek says. “And lemon cupcakes.”
“My mom and grandma were good cooks,” Stiles says. “Lots of secret Stilinski recipes.” Stiles sticks his hands into the flour and shows Derek how to add butter pieces to it. Derek copies Stiles’ motions as Stiles adds a few more ingredients. He hands Derek a whisk, and Derek whisks the batter. “Now,” Stiles says, “knead it with your hands.” Derek starts kneading the bread, but Stiles reaches in front of Derek and covers his hands and starts moving his hands for him. “Not so hard. Yeah, that’s it.” Stiles keeps his hands on top of Derek’s, and Derek leans over and places a light kiss on Stiles’ neck.
They fold in cream cheese next, and then drop the balls of biscuit dough on top of the cobbler before placing it in the oven. After they wash their hands, they start to clean up the dishes. Stiles glances at Derek and laughs quietly. “You have,” he steps closer as he points to Derek’s beard, “flour in your beard.”
“Oh?” Derek reaches behind him, dips his finger in the flour, and then drags it across Stiles’ nose. “You have flour on your nose.”
Stiles puts his hand in the bowl and covers it in flour, then wipes his hand against Derek’s cheek. “You’re a messy cook, Derek.”
Derek laughs as he captures Stiles’ mouth. When he pulls away, there’s flour on Stiles’ mouth and cheek. Derek wipes it away with his thumb.
“This has to cook for 45 minutes,” Stiles says. “Come on.” He leads Derek to the couch, and they make out while the cobbler bakes. When the oven timer goes off, Stiles stumbles off the couch, hair sticking up, lips kiss swollen, flour smeared on his face and hair, and erection tenting his pants. Derek thinks that despite keeping their hands on top of each other’s clothes, Stiles looks debauched. He grins as he watches Stiles walk towards the kitchen.
“Oh, it’s perfect,” Stiles says as Derek joins him at the oven. The entire kitchen smells like strawberries and dough. Derek slides his arms around Stiles’ waist from behind and hooks his chin over Stiles’ shoulder. “Want a bite?” Stiles asks. He takes a fork and digs into the cobbler, making sure to get a piece of biscuit on it. He blows on it to cool, then feeds it to Derek.
“God, Stiles, this is amazing,” Derek says with his mouth full. He opens his mouth after swallowing. “Give me another bite.”
“Greedy,” Stiles says, visibly pleased. He takes a bite after Derek, humming in contentment. “Perfect.”
Derek kisses Stiles’ neck. “Thanks for sharing with me,” he whispers. Stiles turns his head and kisses Derek over his shoulder, his mouth tasting of strawberries.
Derek’s almost finished with the figure he’s whittling. He’s working on the detail after work one evening when Boyd comes to join him on the porch. Boyd pours them both glasses of fresh lemonade he’d made earlier, and he picks up a piece of wood he’s been practicing on. Isaac joins them an hour later, and picks up the elementary duck’s head he’s trying to whittle. Boyd is still working on learning how the wood grains work.
“Whatcha making?” Boyd asks.
“Nothing,” Derek replies.
“Liar,” Isaac says from where he’s sitting on the top step, back against the support beam. “You’ve been working on it for weeks.”
“It’s for Stiles,” Derek admits. He keeps his eyes trained on the intricate detailing on the figure and refuses to look at the others.
“That’s sweet,” Boyd says. Isaac snorts.
“Thought about making the sheriff something next,” Derek says. “A chair, a bench, something.”
“You can whittle that?” Isaac asks.
Derek shrugs. “You can do it by hand. Might see if I can find some woodworking tools around here somewhere.”
“You could sell this stuff in town, you know,” Boyd points out.
“Nah,” Derek says. “It’s a hobby. My grandpa used to sit on the porch every night and whittle. I used to sit with him. I just enjoy passing the time.”
“If we’re gonna start doing this every night,” Isaac says, “we need to at least get a radio or something.”
“Always complaining,” Boyd says.
Stiles returns from Scott’s a few hours later. When he joins them, he brings them all some of the skillet cobbler. He convinces them to stop whittling and play cards, so they use a piece of plywood on top of two concrete bricks as a table and play bridge until after eleven o’clock.
Stiles hangs around after Boyd and Isaac say goodnight and presses Derek against a support beam and kisses him goodnight for fifteen minutes, and only goes to bed when Derek pushes him away.
When Derek lies down and closes his eyes, he feels weird but can’t quite place why. Right before he drifts off, he realizes that for the first time in years, he’s happy.
A few nights later, Derek skips dinner. He spent the morning driving cattle into a different field with Boyd, then climbed all over stacks of hay bales to cover them for the approaching rain. Derek’s leg has given him fits since the night before because of the oncoming storm, so when he finally finishes covering the hay bales, he goes straight to his cabin. He soaks in a hot bath, which helps a bit, then takes two Aleve and lies in bed. He’s reading and listening to the radio when he hears a soft knock on the door. He stands up gingerly, pulls on his pajama pants, and answers the door. Stiles is standing on the other side, holding a covered plate and frowning.
“You weren’t at dinner,” Stiles says, “So I brought you food.”
“I seem to remember you telling me after we first met that you weren’t going to bring me dinner anymore,” Derek replies as he steps aside to let Stiles though the door.
“Yeah, you were being a dick then,” Stiles says as he toes off his sneakers. “I know something’s not right tonight.”
Derek leads Stiles over to the bed and takes the proffered plate Stiles holds out. Stiles sits across from him as he takes the aluminum foil off the plate and starts eating. “My leg is really bothering me.”
Stiles looks at him with concern. “Anything I can do?”
Derek shakes his head as he chews. “I took a bath, took some medicine, and am staying off it. I overdid it today, climbing and putting too much pressure on it. Plus, bad weather’s moving in.”
“How did you deal with it when you were drifting?”
“Just did.” Derek takes another bite.
Stiles crawls up and wedges himself in the small space between Derek and the wall. “I don’t like the idea of you drifting,” Stiles says, hand resting on Derek’s thigh. “I like you safe, warm, fed, and with me.”
Derek drops a light kiss on Stiles’ hair. “I prefer it that way, too.”
Stiles tells Derek about his day as Derek finishes dinner. The rain starts when Derek’s almost finished, large drops pelting loudly on the roof. Stiles gets up and opens the windows, and the sound of the pouring rain is soothing. “I love rain,” Derek says.
“My dad loves rain,” Stiles says. “He likes to sit outside when it rains and just watch it. I can never sit that still.”
Derek places the plate on the floor beside him, and scoots down on the bed. He opens his arms, and Stiles settles against him. He slowly runs his hands through Stiles’ hair as he enjoys the sound.
“This isn’t so bad,” Stiles says.
“I don’t think so.”
As they lay there, Stiles’ fingers start idly rubbing Derek’s thigh through his pajamas. Derek tries not to recoil from Stiles’ touch, forces himself to lie there and remember that it’s okay because it’s Stiles.
“Let me massage it,” Stiles says, fingers already kneading the sore muscle.
“Isn’t that what you’re doing?”
Stiles lifts his head and shoots Derek a flat look. “Take off your pajamas. Let me help, Derek.” Derek hesitates, and Stiles sits up and rubs a hand along Derek’s thigh. Derek knows Stiles can feel the knotted flesh and scar tissue, and it causes his heart to pound and a cold sweat to break out across his forehead. “Are you going to keep it hidden from me forever?”
Derek looks at Stiles, really looks at him. Stiles’ face is open and caring, concern and love etched in every line. This feels like a tipping point to Derek, like something he has to do for himself. If he doesn’t open up and trust Stiles, there’s no hope for them. Stiles deserves this. You deserve this, a voice whispers in the back of his head. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. Derek’s still not forgiven himself for all that he’s done, but maybe this is what he needs to move on with his life, to give himself to Stiles in a way he’s never given himself to anyone before. And with Stiles staring at him, his beautiful brown eyes patient and understanding, Derek wants to give Stiles everything.
Derek takes a deep breath and hooks his thumbs into the waistband of his pants. He lifts his hips and slowly pushes the pants down. He watches Stiles’ face, waiting for him to be disgusted and horrified. Stiles looks at Derek’s thigh, studies it for a few moments, and then bends down and kisses the worst knot of scar tissue.
“You’re beautiful,” Stiles says, flicking his eyes up to meet Derek’s. “I don’t know why you didn’t want me to see this. There’s not a part of you that I wouldn’t love.”
Derek reaches out and cups Stiles’ face as Stiles leans towards him and pushes their mouths together slowly. Derek wishes he could tell Stiles what he’s feeling, but it’s almost too much for him. He’s still terrified, but letting go with Stiles, letting down his defenses, takes a great weight from his shoulders.
Stiles sits back down as Derek relaxes against the pillow. Derek jumps at the first contact of Stiles’ hands against his flesh, but soon calms. Stiles is putting careful pressure on Derek’s leg, and it feels so good that Derek wants to cry. He loses track of how long Stiles’ hands work over his thigh, his body and mind loose in a way they haven’t been in a long time.
Derek doesn’t notice when Stiles’ hands start moving elsewhere, until Stiles’ hands cover his half-hard cock. Derek opens his eyes, feeling dazed and disoriented. “Enjoy that?” Stiles teases as he massages Derek’s cock to full hardness.
Derek watches as Stiles rubs his cock through his briefs, then leans down and starts mouthing at the shaft through the cotton. “Fuck,” Derek exhales, and Stiles takes that as encouragement. He tugs the band of Derek’s underwear down, freeing his cock. Stiles bends down and looks at Derek’s cock for a few long seconds before licking a long stripe up the side. Derek’s eyes drift shut as he feels Stiles’ tongue throughout his entire body. Stiles tongues along the head before he slides his mouth over the slit.
Derek cants his hips as he moans. Stiles’ mouth is hot, his tongue brushing against the head as Stiles bobs his head lower. Instinctively, Derek reaches out and grips Stiles’ hair and holds as Stiles sets up a slow rhythm. Derek lets go and gives himself over to Stiles’ mouth. Stiles doesn’t go down very far, but it doesn’t matter. Derek feels himself teetering on the edge.
“Stiles, I’m going to come,” Derek says as he tugs at Stiles’ hair. Stiles pulls off, his eyes wide and pupils blown, his lips red and wet. He stands on his knees, undoes the fly of his pants, and pulls out his cock. Carefully, he straddles Derek, knees placed on the bed on either side of him, and leans down to kiss him. Stiles manages to get their cocks into his grip and clumsily jacks them off. Derek squeezes his hand between their bodies to help as he slides his tongue into Stiles’ mouth. It’s odd feeling two different hands on his cock, and with Stiles rocking into his fist and dragging friction against his cock, it doesn’t take long until Derek is coming over their fists.
Stiles kisses him through his orgasm, his hand sliding faster in the come as Derek’s stutters and stalls. Derek drops his head back to the pillow and opens his eyes. The scene above him is perfect. Stiles has his eyes closed, his bottom lip between his teeth as he works his hand. His hair is sweaty and sticking in different directions, and his t-shirt is hanging down on one side to expose a tiny patch of collarbone. Derek stares at Stiles, taking in every flicker of emotion over his face. Then, Stiles’ eyes fly open, and he stares down at Derek, his eyes bright and unfocused, and Derek lunges up to kiss him. Stiles grunts into his mouth and comes.
Derek’s still kissing him when Stiles slumps on top of him, then lifts away, looks around, and wipes his hand on the back of his khakis. He wrinkles his nose at Derek. “Sticky,” he says before leaning down to kiss Derek again.
“Rag’s in the bathroom,” Derek mumbles against his lips.
“Are you trying to hint at something?” Stiles laughs as he pushes himself up. Derek thinks he looks delicious, pushing himself off the bed with his shirt rumpled up his torso, his pants open and pushed down his hips, wet with come, his soft cock hanging out. And it’s just for him. Derek can’t believe he’s this lucky.
“What?” Stiles asks self-consciously as he walks back into the room. He’s wiping off his cock and then tucks it back inside before he starts scrubbing at a wet spot on his pants with a grimace. He glances at Derek when he reaches the bed. “You’re starting to creep me out.”
“Why?” Derek asks with a laugh.
“You’re just looking at me all…” He waves a hand at Derek’s face. “Stupid and goofy and grinny.”
Derek lifts an eyebrow as he snatches the rag from Stiles’ hand. “Sorry.” He wipes the come from his lower abs and cock.
Stiles sheds his pants and t-shirt before crawling back onto the bed. “No,” Stiles says from all fours, “it’s not a bad thing. It’s just…” Stiles situates himself back beside Derek as Derek tosses the rag to the floor. “I’m not used to seeing you this happy.” He kisses Derek’s shoulder. “It’s a good thing. You should be happy.”
Derek wraps an arm around Stiles’ shoulder and pulls him close. They lay there together in each other’s arms as they listen to the rain. After Stiles nods off, they move under the blankets and Derek falls asleep with Stiles in his arms, his nose pressed into the back of Stiles’ neck.
Derek feels uncomfortable. He’s wearing the black button up shirt Stiles picked out for him in town, his one nice pair of jeans, and a belt and black motorcycle boots he borrowed from Isaac. He tries to make his hair look styled, but it just looks like it usually does. He groomed his beard, so he feels like at least that looks nice. But his tucked in shirt feels confining, and the overall aesthetic feels weird. He used to dress up all the time when he was on the rodeo, but now he just wants to put on his worn jeans with dirt stains and his favorite blue plaid work shirt with the hole under the arm.
He dabs on cologne he borrowed from Parrish, though he doesn’t know why. It’s not like he and Stiles can be together at this dance, and he’s not interested in appealing to any of the women. But everyone is treating this like a huge occasion, so Derek figures he should too.
Derek goes to the house in search of Stiles. Instead, he finds the sheriff, Parrish, and Boyd. Parrish is dressed in his cowboy finest, with shiny black cowboy boots, a black cowboy hat, and a large silver buckle. Boyd’s wearing dress jeans and a button up, but the sheriff is the most surprising. In all of Derek’s time at the ranch, he’s only seen the sheriff out of uniform a few times, and then he was wearing old jeans and t-shirts. Derek thinks the sheriff cleans up well in his boots, bolero tie, and cowboy hat.
Parrish and Boyd whistle when Derek enters the living room. The sheriff says, “Don’t you look nice, Derek?”
“So do you, sir,” Derek responds with a nod. He glances around. “Where are Stiles and Isaac?”
Parrish smirks as the sheriff says, “They went over to Scott’s to get ready. We’re meeting them at the dance.”
Derek nods, disappointed that Stiles isn’t here, but he follows the others to the sheriff’s department SUV. Boyd clasps him on the shoulder and says, “Don’t look so sad. You’ll see him soon.”
“Looking forward to seeing Erica?” Derek asks in an attempt to redirect.
Boyd nods. “She said she bought a new dress, but wouldn’t tell me anything about it. She said she wanted to look special, but I told her she was beautiful like she was.”
“Smooth,” Derek teases.
“Not if it’s the truth.” Boyd grins.
Derek hates the dance. It’s loud and there are so many people. Ten minutes barely pass before Derek drifts away from Parrish and the sheriff. They seem to know everyone in town, and Derek had spoken and shaken hands with more people than he was comfortable with. He knows he’s better; it doesn’t pain him to talk to people and he’s stopped recoiling from everyone’s touch. He’s grown comfortable around everyone at the ranch and yearns for Stiles’ hands every second of every day. But he is not emotionally ready for random strangers. Especially ones who keep asking him probing questions while touching his ass – and that happened more with the old ladies than the young ones. Parrish was totally playing it up. Derek wanted to bite everyone’s hands off.
The dance is held in a large barn-turned-gathering hall. It had been remodeled so there was a large dance floor filled with people, a small stage with a local country-western band, and a bar in the back. A large open door along the right wall leads out to a dining area with picnic tables and strings of twinkle lights hanging above.
Derek heads for the bar. He needs a drink if he’s going to make it through until Stiles gets here. At least when Stiles arrives, he can hide on the edge of Stiles’ group of friends.
He makes sure not to make eye contact with any of the women walking past trying to get his attention. The last thing he wants to do is encourage anyone. He’s finishing his beer and trying to disappear into the corner when a woman approaches. “Hey there, cowboy,” she says. She’s pretty, Derek knows. But he doesn’t care. Damn, where is Stiles? “You just gonna stand there and hold up that wall, or are you gonna buy me a drink?”
“Uh,” Derek stutters, unsure how to get out of this without being rude.
“There you are,” a female voice says. Derek and the woman turn sharply. Erica moves past the woman and hooks her arm through Derek’s arm. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere.” She leans in to kiss Derek’s cheek. The woman takes the hint and walks away.
Derek lets out a sigh of relief and Erica says, “You looked like you needed saving.”
Derek places a light kiss on Erica’s forehead. “You’re a lifesaver.”
“She was pretty,” Erica points out.
“Not as pretty as you,” Derek says, taking a few steps back so he can get a good look at Erica. Her dress is plain, too big, and sort of shapeless like she’s still trying to hide herself, but she curled her hair and is wearing a bit of mascara and a touch of red lipstick. The biggest difference Derek sees is her confidence. Erica’s preening under the attention, though her cheeks are burning, and she’s shining. He smiles at her, feeling a rush of affection for her. “Boyd’s a lucky man.”
“Do you think he’ll like it?” she asks, unsure. She spins in a circle. “I feel a bit uncomfortable.”
“Trying to steal my girl?” Boyd asks as he comes up to them a few moments later. Erica turns, and when she sees Boyd, her smile lights up her whole face.
“She’s saving me from uncomfortable situations,” Derek replies.
“He looked like he was contemplating stabbing himself with a plastic fork as a means of escape,” Erica says.
“Sounds like Derek,” Boyd says. But then he finally gets a good look at Erica, and Derek is forgotten. Derek stares out at the crowd to give them some privacy, though he smiles softly as Boyd leads her to the dance floor. Derek notices they get some dirty looks and whispers as they twirl around, but they don’t notice it. Derek hates the small town mentality, and knows that’s the reason he’s here hiding instead of entering at Stiles’ side.
Derek shakes off the melancholy and orders another beer.
Derek hears Stiles before he sees him. He hears him laugh, then the sound of his voice carrying over the din. Derek smiles to himself, feeling infinitely better just knowing Stiles is in the building. Derek finally leaves his hiding place in the corner and goes around the crowd to look for Stiles. He finds him talking to his dad, Scott, Isaac, and Lydia in the dining area.
“There he is!” Stiles grins when he approaches. Derek immediately notices how nice Stiles looks. He’s wearing a red and black plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled to his elbows, tucked in with a pair of jeans that hugs Stiles’ ass more snugly than any other pair of pants that he owns. Derek wants to rub his hands all over that ass in those jeans, shove his hands into the pockets, and then peel them off.
He realizes he’s not saying anything when everyone stares at him and Stiles giggles. “Hi,” Derek says awkwardly. Isaac rolls his eyes and looks like it pains him to stand in their vicinity.
“Good to see you out of that corner,” the sheriff says with an easy smile. “He disappeared almost as soon as we arrived and has been hiding ever since.”
“Derek doesn’t like crowds,” Stiles supplies.
“Or people,” Isaac adds, “or animals, or breathing, or fun, or – “
He stops when Stiles elbows him in the ribs. Stiles says, “He likes horses.”
The sheriff watches them with amusement. “Idiots,” he says fondly.
“Good to see you again, man,” Scott says, extending his hand. Derek shakes it with a nod.
Scott and Isaac go in search of food, Lydia drags Jackson onto the dance floor when he arrives, and the sheriff dances with a lady from the courthouse, which leaves Derek and Stiles alone.
“So,” Stiles says, hands shoved in his pockets as he rocks on his heels.
“So.” Derek smiles, and Stiles grins widely. Derek wants to kiss him so bad it physically hurts.
“You look fucking amazing,” Stiles blurts, waving a hand at Derek’s clothes. “No surprise there, but still. Told you that shirt was a good idea.”
Derek takes a careful step forward, making sure to keep enough space between them. He lowers his voice and says, “Those jeans are driving me wild.” The statement is worth the blush on Stiles’ cheeks. Derek can’t resist. “I want to get my hands all over them, then I want to get you out of them.”
“Then what the hell are we still doing here for?” Stiles exclaims. “Let’s go, right now. Screw the dance.”
“We can’t leave, you know that.”
“Not yet,” Stiles says. “But believe me, with that information, think I’ll be getting pretty sleepy real soon.”
Derek walks past Stiles and brushes his hand lightly, the brief touch causing his skin to tingle. He walks to the refreshment table and pours them both a cup of water. When he returns and hands it to Stiles, he asks, “So, what do you usually do at these things?”
Stiles shrugs as he sips. “Not much. Usually mess around with Scott and Isaac. One year we tried to spike the punch, but Dad kept catching us. There was one year that Scott, Isaac, and I bet that we could get a girl to dance with us first.”
“Who won?” Derek asks.
“It was a tie. No girl wanted to dance with any of us.” Derek laughs.
He and Stiles pass the next hour standing along the wall, with Stiles telling him stories about townspeople he knows while making fun of Isaac and Scott dancing with different girls. Scott joins them for awhile, and Derek watches him interact with Stiles. It makes Derek sad on Stiles’ behalf to know that Scott will be gone next week. He knows that other than the ranch hands, he’s really the only friend Stiles has. Just watching the two of them, Derek can tell there’s history and a level of comfort built on years of friendship.
The sheriff joins them awhile later, flushed and smiling. “You look like you’ve had fun with Ms. Johnson,” Stiles says, half-accusatory and half-teasing. “I’m pretty sure her hands were places I don’t want to think about, Dad.”
The sheriff frowns at Stiles. “Go be useful and get me some water.”
“Don’t think I don’t see what you’re doing there,” Stiles says, backing away. “Trying to distract me. It ain’t gonna work because – oh shit!” Stiles flails around as he trips over a chair, bumping into a dancing couple. Derek and the sheriff laugh as Stiles apologizes to the glaring couple and hastily retreats outside. Derek watches after him, smile lingering on his lips as he stares at Stiles’ ass.
“Good to see you out and enjoying yourself,” the sheriff says. Derek turns to the man. “I know you’ve had a tough time adjusting because of what you’ve been through. I’m glad to see you opening up more.”
Derek nods, at a loss for what to say.
The sheriff continues. “You seem to have gotten close with all the ranch hands. They’re good kids, all of them.” He pauses, then says, “Stiles seems pretty taken with you. I don’t think he’s left your side since he got here.”
At least Derek doesn’t flinch or run away. He remains very still and stares out at the dance floor. “Stiles has been very kind to me.”
“He’s got a good heart,” the sheriff says. “He gets that from his mom.”
“I don’t know, sir,” Derek responds, finally turning to look at him. “I think he gets it from you.”
The sheriff smiles and clasps Derek on the shoulder.
“Hey, hey,” Stiles says, returning with three cups of water. “This is never good if the two of you are smiling and stuff.”
“Thanks,” Derek says, and Stiles’ smile is blinding. As Stiles starts talking about some lady he ran into at the refreshment table, Derek doesn’t miss the looks the sheriff keeps giving the two of them. He tries not to panic and tells himself it’s in his head. And the sheriff has to find out one day, anyway.
Though it doesn’t make Derek feel any less nervous.
Stiles has been to this dance a hundred times. Okay, not a hundred, but at least ten or fifteen. But tonight is the best time he’s ever had at the dance, except that one time when he was thirteen and he and Scott spent all night hiding under the bleachers and stealing food. Tonight Derek is here, and even though they can’t dance on the dance floor, it feels like a significant night.
Stiles changed his clothes three times. He finally settled on his favorite red plaid button up, tucked in, with the sleeves rolled to the elbows. Unlike Isaac, who is wearing his favorite cowboy boots, Stiles just slips on his canvas shoes. He doesn’t do cowboy boots.
Nothing he might have worn could compare to Derek though. Stiles wanted to climb him like a tree when he saw him, but his dad was standing there, and hello awkward. But it’s hard to concentrate when Derek is around. He just wants to run his hands down that torso and put his hands all over those sinfully tight jeans.
Stiles keeps looking for excuses to leave the dance. He doesn’t want to be there. He mingled, said hello to the townspeople, and now he wants to disappear and spend the rest of the night with Derek.
When Stiles and Scott go to the bathroom, Stiles pulls Scott outside, away from everyone. “Do you have any condoms?”
Scott’s face breaks into a smile. “A condom? Really? Dude, that’s awesome!” He lifts his hand for a high five. Stiles stares at it before rolling his eyes and slapping his hand. Scott digs his hand into his pocket and hands Stiles a foil packet. Stiles knew Scott would have a condom. He and Isaac always bring them to the dance, just in case. Stiles has never bothered, because he knew he’d never be that lucky. Until tonight.
“Thanks, dude,” Stiles says. Because Stiles has plans. Or, he hopes he has plans. If he can ever leave the dance. And he’s pretty sure Derek doesn’t have a condom, since the guy has nothing.
“So, who’s the condom for?” Scott asks, grinning. “Who is she? Why haven’t I seen you dancing with her?”
“There’s no girl,” Stiles replies as he slips the condom in his pocket.
Scott’s face scrunches in confusion. “I don’t understand.”
Stiles should have thought this through. Getting the condom from Scott means that he probably has to tell Scott who the condom is for. Which is a conversation Stiles wasn’t quite ready to have tonight. Here. At the dance.
“Um…” Stiles runs a hand through his hair. “Look, Scotty, there’s something I kinda need to tell you.” Scott looks even more confused, but now curious. “There’s this thing, that happened. To me. With someone else.”
“Oh my god!” Scott exclaims. “You found a girlfriend.”
“Ssh!” Stiles says, glancing around. “I don’t have a girlfriend.”
“You’re hooking up? Man, why didn’t you tell me?”
“Scott, no. Look, listen.” Stiles takes Scott by the arms and looks him in the eye. “I, uh. I’m with Derek. Like romantically.”
The cycle of emotions that goes through Scott’s face would be amusing if Stiles wasn’t terrified that Scott would hate him or Derek or something. Stiles waits nervously until Scott’s face settles on confusion. “But he’s a drifter.”
“That’s your only objection?” Stiles heaves a sigh of relief. “Thank god. I thought you’d be upset because he’s a guy.”
Scott shrugs. “I don’t care, man, as long as you’re happy. But the dude is shady. He was homeless, Stiles.”
Stiles rolls his eyes. “Look, there’s a whole back story there that I don’t have time to get into but promise to tell you soon. Long story short, he was in the rodeo, so totally awesome before drifting.”
Scott nods, and Stiles can almost see the wheels in his head turning as he processes. “Hey,” Scott finally says. “Why didn’t you tell me before?”
Stiles halts at that. He doesn’t have a really good reason. “I didn’t know how to tell you.”
Scott looks hurt. “Did you really think I’d be mad or something?” Stiles shrugs. “Dude, you’re my best friend. That doesn’t change with who you’re sleeping with.”
Stiles pulls Scott into a tight hug. He’d be embarrassed if Scott wasn’t hugging him just as tightly.
Stiles goes in search of Derek again, and finds him sitting outside at a table by himself, an empty plate in front of him. Derek hasn’t spotted him yet, so Stiles hangs back and just watches him.
Derek is beautiful. It’s not just his looks – though anyone with eyes can see how attractive Derek is. His looks have changed a lot since Stiles found him in the barn that first morning. There aren’t dark circles under his eyes, he’s put on some weight, and he doesn’t have that emptiness about him he had before. But there’s something else about Derek, something Stiles can’t figure out, that lights Stiles up inside. Just being near Derek makes Stiles feel alive, like maybe his world isn’t so small and hopeless after all.
Derek looks awkward sitting there. He looks like he feels out of place, though Stiles feels that Derek belongs here in this small town in Wyoming. He hopes Derek feels like he belongs, too. Stiles can’t even think about what it’d be like if Derek decided to go back home to Montana.
Stiles finally steps towards Derek, and Derek looks up when he gets closer. Derek’s entire posture changes instantly; he relaxes his entire body, his frame not as rigid and hard as before. Stiles can’t help the feelings that overwhelm him, and it’s so sudden that it almost knocks him off his feet. He’s told Derek that he loves him, but in this moment he feels it in every bone of his body.
“Wondered where you disappeared to,” Derek says as Stiles leans against the table.
“Was hanging out with Scott,” Stiles says.
“You can go back to him,” Derek says. “I don’t mind.”
Stiles can see in every muscle of Derek’s body that he minds. The fact that he tells him to go anyway just adds to Stiles’ overwhelming weight. “I think I’m good here.” He smiles and Derek looks relieved. Stiles taps the side of the empty paper plate. “How was the cake?”
“Delicious. Would you like me to get you a piece?”
Stiles shakes his head. “I’m feeling kinda tired, actually. Thought about walking to the truck.”
Derek grins. “I think I’ll join you.”
They leave the dance and walk silently towards the parking lot. When they’re far enough away, Derek steps closer and grabs Stiles’ hand. “Been wanting to do that all night,” he says.
“I’m glad you came,” Stiles says, rubbing his thumb along Derek’s hand.
“I had fun.” Stiles looks at him dubiously. “No, it’s true. I had a good time. But the people were a little overwhelming at times.”
Stiles leans over and kisses Derek on his cheek. “I’m proud of you.”
When they get to the truck, Derek hooks his fingers into Stiles’ front pockets and tugs him close. He grins against his mouth before kissing him. Stiles wraps his arms around Derek’s neck as he opens his mouth and lets Derek’s tongue inside. Derek breaks the kiss suddenly and shoves his hand deeper into Stiles’ pocket. Stiles squeaks, and then Derek pulls out the foil wrapper. Stiles feels his entire face heat up.
“Well, this is interesting,” Derek says.
Derek glances at Stiles, eyebrow raised. “This is quite presumptuous of you, Stiles.” Stiles’ heart starts beating fast, and he’s freaking out. Oh god, he misread the signs, Derek’s not there yet, he – “I’m glad one of us was able to get one.”
“What?” Stiles asks, mouth hanging open.
Derek slips the condom back into Stiles’ pocket and kisses him softly. “You thought I wouldn’t want to have sex?”
“I just wanted it, just in case, but didn’t presume that you wanted to or anything,” Stiles stammers.
Derek mouths along his jaw. “I want to,” he whispers against Stiles’ ear, his breath hot and moist. It sends shivers down Stiles’ spine. “But right now,” Derek says, taking a step back. “I want to dance.”
“It’s a dance, isn’t it? I’d feel cheated if I didn’t get at least once dance.”
“We don’t have any music,” Stiles points out.
“We can use the radio in the truck.” Stiles unlocks the door and turns it onto auxiliary, rolls the window down, and turns the radio to a country station. A soft country ballad plays. “Perfect,” Derek says, reaching out and pulling Stiles into his arms.
Stiles settles his arms around Derek’s waist as Derek wraps his arms around Stiles’ neck. His fingers play with the hair on Stiles’ nape while they sway gently back and forth. Stiles rests his cheek against Derek’s, feeling the warmth of his skin and the prickle of his beard. Stiles doesn’t care that they’re alone in the parking lot instead of at the dance. This is better than any dance he could have had in the barn. He holds Derek close, his hands resting lightly on the small of his back. Derek’s body feels so strong and solid in his arms, and Stiles could stay like this forever.
“Do you remember our first dance?” Stiles says when the song changes to something faster. They’re still swaying slowly, dancing to their own soundtrack.
“Couldn’t forget it if I tried,” Derek responds, pulling back to look at Stiles. His thumbs rub circles into the chords of Stiles’ neck, and he lets his eyes drift closed for a moment. “I was so nervous that night.”
“I thought my heart was going to explode,” Stiles says. “I was terrified, and confused.”
Derek gives him a soft smile. “I could only hope that you wanted what I wanted.” Stiles kisses Derek, just a soft press of lips.
“This is better than that night,” Stiles says. “You’re still making my heart flutter, but I know when we break apart, it won’t be over.”
They dance for a long time, until they have to turn the truck off so the battery doesn’t run down. Afterwards, they sit in the truck bed in each other’s arms, kissing and looking at the stars.
They jump apart when they hear voices and footsteps growing near. Scott, Isaac, Lydia, and Jackson come up to the side of the truck. “Hey guys,” Stiles says, going for nonchalant and missing it by a mile. “What brings y’all out here?”
Isaac shakes his head, and Scott grins at them goofily. “You don’t have to pretend, Stiles. I’m cool with it.”
Stiles looks at Derek and then at the others. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Scott.”
Lydia rolls her eyes. “Stiles, we know you’re hooking up with Derek. Once again, I’m the last to know because no one tells me anything.”
Stiles glances at Jackson. “Well, aren’t you going to say anything? Mock me or something?”
“Stilinski, I don’t give a damn who you’re fucking. You could be fucking goats and it wouldn’t matter.”
“Thanks, Jackson,” Stiles says, grinning.
“We thought y’all had bailed and gone home,” Isaac says as he pulls down the tailgate for him and Scott to sit on. Lydia stares at it with distaste before finally giving in and sitting down.
“Dude, this was your ride home,” Stiles says. “I wasn’t going to leave you here.”
“I’d have left you,” Isaac says.
“You two can sit closer you know,” Scott says. Stiles glances at Derek, shrugs, and then scoots over. Derek drapes his arm across Stiles’ shoulders.
“Now, let’s make this a real party,” Isaac says, breaking out the liquor. It’s a bottle of cheap whiskey that he passes to Scott.
Stiles and Derek don’t partake as the others pass the bottle between them. Stiles knows what he wants to happen tonight, and he wants to be sober for it. They talk and laugh for the next hour, and Stiles enjoys watching Derek interact with his friends. Derek’s funny and talkative, and Stiles loves seeing him like this with people outside of the ranch hands.
After awhile, Isaac yawns loudly. “I think Scott and I are gonna cut out,” he says. “Don’t worry about taking me home. I’m a bit tired, and Scott and I are gonna play some video games, right?”
“Oh yeah!” Scott turns to Stiles excitedly. “You should totally come with us!”
“No,” Isaac says. “We only have two controllers.”
Scott looks at Isaac in confusion. “I have another controller.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Yes, it is. Stiles can’t come.” Isaac turns to Stiles. “You and Derek can drive home without me.”
“Oh!” Scott exclaims. “Yeah, we don’t want you to come with us. You’d hate the video game. Totally not your thing.” He shakes his head enthusiastically.
Stiles laughs as he rolls his eyes. His friends are idiots, he thinks fondly.
“Okay, fine. But who is taking you two home?” Stiles asks. “You’ve drunk most of the bottle.”
“I’ll do it,” Lydia says. “I don’t get drunk off cheap whiskey.” She flips her hair and walks away. Jackson, Scott, and Isaac follow her, yelling at each other and swaying on their feet.
“I like your friends,” Derek says before kissing Stiles’ temple.
“They like you, too.” Stiles pushes himself up and then hops over the side of the truck onto the ground. “Come on, time to go home.”
Derek walks to the tailgate and steps down carefully, then pushes the tailgate up. When they’re on the road, Derek rolls his window down, so Stiles does the same. Derek fiddles with the radio until he finds a classic rock station he likes, then he grabs Stiles’ hand. “Let’s drive around for awhile.”
“Really?” Stiles asks. He wants to go straight home. And get naked.
Derek squeezes his hand. “It’s a perfect night. I just want to drive around with you and listen to music.” Derek frowns and looks unsure. “Is that okay?”
“Hey.” Derek leans across the space between them and kisses Stiles’ cheek. “We’ve got plenty of time for that. There’s no rush. I’m enjoying being with you.”
“Well, when you put it like that.”
They drive around for almost an hour. They don’t talk, just listen to the radio and hold hands. Stiles keeps stealing glances at Derek. Derek’s got his head half out of the window, the wind ruffling his hair, and he looks happy.
Stiles knows Derek is right. There’s no rush. If they rushed, Stiles might have missed a moment as perfect as this.
Stiles is nervous. Despite the night being perfect, now that they’re in Derek’s cabin, he’s nervous. He stands in front of Derek in the middle of the room, and they just look at each other. Stiles’ heart is pounding in his ears, and it makes him feel slightly better that Derek looks as hesitant as he does. Stiles flicks his eyes to Derek’s mouth and licks his lips. Then, Derek moves forward and kisses Stiles, and his nerves start to calm.
Derek walks Stiles slowly back towards the bed, until Stiles’ thighs hit it and he falls back with a soft bounce. Derek stands above him, eyes intense and filled with lust as he starts unbuttoning his shirt. Stiles sits up, his fingers unsteady as he does the same. He watches Derek’s slow strip tease, distracted from his own buttons as the muscles of Derek’s torso are slowly revealed. He wants to feel Derek’s skin, so he abandons his own shirt as he reaches between the open flaps of Derek’s shirt. He presses his palms flat against Derek’s stomach and watches as Derek’s eyes drift shut. He slides his hands up Derek’s torso and flicks his thumbs over Derek’s nipples when he reaches them. Derek pushes into Stiles’ touch at that, his hand sliding into Stiles’ hair, and Stiles circles the buds with his thumb as Derek finishes unbuttoning the shirt with his free hand. Then, Stiles kisses across the flat of Derek’s belly, and nuzzles against his belly button. Stiles can see the outline of Derek’s hardening cock in his tight jeans, and he puts a hand over it and squeezes.
Derek tugs at Stiles’ hair gently, so he looks up. He bends down and kisses Stiles, tongue pushing into his mouth as Derek finishes unbuttoning Stiles’ shirt. Then, he pushes the shirt off Stiles’ shoulders. Stiles shudders at the feel of Derek’s hands smoothing against his skin, and he already feels goose bumps breaking out across his skin.
When his shirt is tossed onto the floor, Stiles falls back onto the bed. Derek leans down and covers one of Stiles’ nipples with his mouth. “Oh shit,” Stiles exclaims, his hands coming up to Derek’s hair. Stiles is lost in a haze of Derek’s mouth and hands for the next few minutes as they take their time undressing each other. They pause as each item of clothing is removed, mouths and hands exploring each newly uncovered piece of skin.
By the time that Stiles is naked and stretched out beside Derek on the bed, he’s trembling.
Stiles cups Derek’s jaw, rubbing his thumb along the stubble as he looks at Derek. The way he’s feeling is reflected in the depths of Derek’s eyes. “Are you okay?” Stiles asks. He reaches down to drag his fingers across the scarred flesh of Derek’s thigh.
Derek nods. “It doesn’t bother me with you anymore,” he says, eyes earnest and looking at Stiles with so much love and adoration. He drags the back of his fingers against Stiles’ cheek. “I’m completely comfortable with you.”
Stiles knows that’s probably the best compliment Derek could give him. He surges forward and kisses him, and Derek rolls over onto his back. Stiles moans when their cocks brush against one another, and he has to physically stop himself from rutting against Derek’s hip. That is not the goal of tonight.
Derek’s hands are soft and sure as they slide along his back. Stiles braces himself on his knees, his hips rocking of their own accord. “We might want to move on before I rub myself off on you,” Stiles mumbles against Derek’s mouth.
“Impatient,” Derek smiles.
“Dude, I’m a virgin and our dicks are touching and you’re hot as fuck,” Stiles says. “You can’t blame me.”
“So romantic,” Derek rolls his eyes.
Stiles drops kisses across Derek’s cheek, along his jaw, and down his neck. “I like that you’re secretly romantic,” Stiles says against Derek’s skin. “And to think, I was terrified of you when I first saw you.”
“I was a different person when you first saw me,” Derek says.
Stiles raises up on his elbows and pauses. He looks down into Derek’s face, at the flush on his cheeks and the bright color of his eyes. He lifts a hand and brushes the hair off Derek’s forehead. “I don’t think you were a different person,” Stiles says. “I think you were just lost.”
“I’m glad you found me,” Derek replies.
Stiles kisses him deeply then, his hands sliding along Derek’s arms until their fingers are intertwined. He holds Derek’s arms above his head as they kiss, Derek’s thumb rubbing a soothing circle on the inside of his wrist. “How are we doing this?” Stiles asks when they break.
“I want you to top,” Derek says.
“Really?” Stiles asks. Derek nods, and Stiles swallows. He can’t believe Derek wants him to top, and he’s suddenly nervous again.
Derek disengages their hands and cups Stiles’ cheek. “I love you, Stiles,” he says. “Don’t be nervous.”
Stiles nods, and then crawls off the bed. Derek looks after him like Stiles leaving is the saddest thing, and Stiles just smiles. “Hold on, gotta grab stuff.” He finds his jeans on the floor and digs in the pockets. First, he finds the condom packet, and then reaches into another pocket and finds the small bottle of lube he bought awhile ago at the Wal-Mart when he, Scott, and Isaac went into the city. He thought he’d just be using it to jerk off; he never imagined he’d be using it for this.
He tosses both on the bed, and Derek’s eyes grow wide at the bottle of lube. “What?” Stiles asks. “I came prepared.”
Derek smirks as Stiles crawls back onto the bed. “You totally thought you were getting laid tonight.”
“Hoping,” Stiles corrects. “I was hoping.”
Stiles kisses Derek as he coats his fingers and then slides one finger around Derek’s opening. His heart is pounding in his chest. He can’t believe this is happening, that he is about to do this. When he looks down into Derek’s face, he calms. Derek’s looking up at his with so much trust and need and want, and Stiles thinks it might be the sexiest thing he’s ever seen.
Derek is tight and hot around his finger. If it feels like this around his finger, Stiles can’t even imagine what it’s going to feel like around his dick. He watches the flutter of emotions across Derek’s expression as he fingers him. When it’s too much for Stiles, he leans down and kisses him.
Soon, he’s got three fingers twisting inside Derek, and Derek nods into their kiss. Stiles removes his fingers and Derek helps him roll on the condom, which is sexier than Stiles expects with Derek’s fingers lightly touching him. When Derek turns over onto his hands and knees, Stiles takes a moment to admire the line of his back, his legs, his ass. He kisses a path down Derek’s spine before he lines his cock with Derek and pushes inside.
Nothing could have prepared him for what it would feel like to be inside Derek. It’s the greatest feeling in the world. He barely can contain himself, and Stiles feels more emotional than he has ever in his life.
“Are you okay?” Derek asks. He glances over his shoulder and Stiles realizes he’s stopped moving. Derek covers the hand Stiles is using to steadying himself on the bed with his own.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m okay,” Stiles manages. He takes a few deep breaths, stops his limbs from shaking, and then starts rolling his hips.
Derek never thought this was possible. He never felt this way with Kate, or with any of his rodeo one-night stands. Sex was just sex, pure and simple. But this…this is heaven. Stiles is taking it slow, and Derek’s okay with that. It’s been nearly three years since he’s had sex with a guy, and it was painful and a bit uncomfortable when Stiles first entered him. But now, with Stiles pressed along his back, kissing along his shoulders as he rolls his hips, Derek can’t contain his moans.
Stiles is muttering endearments against his neck. “So beautiful, feel so good, Derek, I don’t ever want to stop, love you so much.” Each word shoots straight to Derek’s core, his cock hanging heavy between his legs.
But then he feels the familiar pain starting in his leg. No, he thinks and ignores it, instead focuses on the feeling of Stiles’ cock filling him. But it grows the longer he’s on his knees, and then it’s painful to even hold himself up. His cock softens, and he reaches back to stop Stiles.
“Hey, Stiles, stop,” he says, though it’s the last thing he wants. “My leg.”
“Oh shit,” Stiles pulls out immediately, and Derek feels empty and sad. He drops to the bed defeated and extends his leg out in front of him. He starts rubbing the thigh and knee, frowning and refusing to look at Stiles. “Hey,” Stiles says, placing a finger under Derek’s chin and lifting his gaze. Stiles’ face is so open and understanding that Derek can barely look at it. “It’s okay. You should have told me earlier.”
“I’m sorry,” Derek says.
“No reason to be,” Stiles says. He leans down and kisses Derek’s leg as he rubs his hands across it. Then, he looks up at Derek through his lashes.
Derek doesn’t know how he got this lucky.
“We can readjust,” Stiles says. “No problem.” His face scrunches in concentration, and Derek has to capture that pout in a kiss. When they break, Stiles says, “How about on our sides? I’d say on your back, but you’d have to bend your leg.”
“I love you,” Derek says, kissing Stiles again.
Derek lies on his side, Stiles pressed up behind him. Stiles takes Derek’s good leg and hooks it around his legs, then slowly enters him again. Derek’s cock is still soft, so he relaxes into the moment. Stiles sets up a gentle rhythm, his hands trailing all across Derek’s body as he kisses along Derek’s neck and behind his ear. It feels different in this position, but just as good. Stiles is gentle, his hands soothing sensually across spots Derek didn’t even know were sensitive as his lips find any bit of skin they can reach. Very soon, Derek’s cock is hard again. Each thrust pushes against Derek’s prostate, and it lights his entire body with sensation. It’s like every nerve, every cell is vibrating with energy, and Derek can’t contain it. Stiles’ cock is thick and hard inside him, making him feel full, complete for the first time in years. Stiles has filled all the empty places inside of him, and in this moment, Derek feels whole again, instead of a shell of who he once was.
Stiles reaches around him and smears the bead of precome with his thumb, and Derek bucks into his hand. Derek turns his head and catches Stiles’ mouth over his shoulder. Though the angle is slightly awkward, Stiles manages to speed up his thrusts. With Stiles’ hand on him and Stiles filling him, it doesn’t take long before Derek is moaning into Stiles’ mouth and coming over Stiles’ hand. Stiles thrusts a few more times before he pushes deeper inside and comes.
When Stiles pulls out, he pulls off the condom, ties it off, and reaches over to place it in the trashcan beside the nightstand. Then, he settles back onto the bed and curls against Derek’s side and kisses him. Derek feels spent and exhausted, but he’s happier than he’s been in a long time. He runs his hands through Stiles’ hair.
“That was…amazing,” Stiles says. He peppers kisses across Derek’s chest.
“Yes, it was,” Derek agrees, lazy smile on his face.
“You need to do that to me soon,” Stiles says, turning to prop his chin on Derek’s chest. “Would you want to?”
“Definitely.” Just the thought of fucking Stiles makes Derek’s cock stir with interest.
Stiles lays his head back on Derek’s chest and yawns. “I’m gonna sleep here. I hope that’s okay.”
“I would be sad if you left,” Derek says.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Stiles says sleepily, and Derek leans down and drops a kiss on his hair.
When they wake up, they rut against each other as they kiss. Afterwards, Stiles gets dressed while Derek just throws on pajama pants. He walks Stiles out to the porch, then kisses him, reluctant to let him go.
“I’m gonna go take a shower, then collect eggs, then breakfast,” Stiles says. “I’ll see you at breakfast?”
“Depends on what you’re making,” Derek teases, fingers hooked into the loops of Stiles’ jeans.
“I’m in a pretty great mood,” Stiles says with a wide grin, “I was thinking of making the famous Stilinski bread. Maybe top it with a little jam.”
“Sounds delicious. I’ll be there.” Derek kisses him, and the kiss is long and slow. Derek’s heart is still fluttering with the after effects of last night, and the only thing he wants to do is hold Stiles for the rest of the day. But they have responsibilities, so Derek finally lets Stiles go, and watches him as he walks across the early morning dew-covered ground.
The next few days go by in a flurry of hands and mouths. Stiles spends every night with Derek, making love and talking until they fall asleep. Stiles spends every afternoon and evening with Scott, trying not to count down the days until he leaves. Derek sits on the porch each evening with Isaac, whittling. He’s trying to finish his project, while Isaac begins whittling a very elementary looking duck.
The night before Scott leaves for college, the sheriff hosts a campfire in one of the fields. Derek sets chairs close together around where Parrish is building the fire. Derek meets Scott’s mom for the first time, and Stiles cooks a large pot of chili that they reheat over the fire. Erica also comes, along with Jackson and Lydia.
Derek sits between Stiles and Erica, and eats his chili silently as he listens to the others. They’re laughing and joking, and Melissa and the sheriff are sharing stories of Scott and Stiles from when they were younger.
“I almost had a heart attack,” Melissa laughs as she relates a story. “They were only out of our sights for a moment, but they had disappeared. I started panicking, because Scott was only six. But Claudia frowned and said, ‘This has Stiles written all over it. I know where he is.’ And she knew exactly where he was.”
“She could always find Stiles, no matter where he was,” the sheriff agrees. “He’d disappear like five times a day, and she’d always find him. At the pond, in the barn, under the house, in the chicken coop. Didn’t matter. Once we found him in the chicken coop, sitting on a bunch of eggs. When Claudia asked him what he was doing, he said, ‘They’re gonna get cold because the momma hen isn’t here! They’ll die!’ and started crying when she told him to get down.”
“Sounds like some idiotic thing Stilinski would do,” Jackson drawls.
“Shut it, Jackson.” Stiles tosses a chili bean from his bowl at Jackson’s head, but it hits Lydia instead. She looks murderous, but Scott and Stiles just burst out laughing. Then Stiles says, “Can we stop telling embarrassing stories about Stiles now? Please?”
“Indulge your old man,” the sheriff says with a sad smile.
“Where were Stiles and Scott?” Derek asks as he scoops more chili onto his spoon.
“Don’t encourage them, Derek,” Stiles groans, dropping his forehead to Derek’s arm. Derek tries to ignore the thoughtful look the sheriff gives them. “I can’t believe you’re telling this story, Mrs. McCall.”
“It was one of your mother’s favorites,” she replies. “Apparently, Stiles had gotten really attached to this horse they were boarding for a friend. He was convinced it was a flying horse or something.”
“Pegasus,” Stiles corrects. “I named it Pegasus because it could sprout wings.” Derek chuckles as he glances over at Stiles. Stiles catches his eyes and smiles.
“The horse was in one of the back fields,” Melissa continues. “So Claudia and I went to find them. Well, they ended up in the wrong field. And this one had a nasty old bull in it. We heard the screams, and took off running. There Stiles was, sprinting away, Scott trailing behind, with that bull chasing them.” Melissa laughs as she glances at the boys. “Stiles basically leapt over the fence, despite the fact that he was six. Scott was on the verge of an asthma attack and was struggling to climb over the fence.”
“And this jerk left me there!” Scott yells, pushing Stiles. Stiles laughs and pushes him back.
“Dude, I was six and scared out of my mind!”
“Claudia was furious!” Melissa remembers. “She grabbed Stiles by the neck of his shirt and dragged him back to the house, yelling at him.”
“She had quite a temper,” the sheriff adds.
“I should have known that day that Stiles would be trouble,” Melissa says, her voice warm with affection. “For the next twelve years, the two of them have gotten into one mess after another.”
“Hey!” Stiles exclaims, offended. “Half that was Scott’s fault.”
“Dude,” Scott snaps, punching Stiles’ arm. “It wasn’t me.”
“Uh, yes it was,” Stiles says. “Poison Ivy in the fourth grade? You. Chiggers in the fifth? You. Riding the cows in the sixth? You. Jenny Thompson in the eighth? You, Scott!”
“Who’s Jenny Thompson?” Derek asks.
Stiles glances around, like he’s just realized people are sitting around the fire. They’re all staring at him. “Oh, yeah, nobody. Nothing. Boring story.” Stiles nods in exaggeration. The sheriff rolls his eyes.
Melissa wipes at her eyes and smiles. “I’m gonna miss you so much.”
Scott groans. “Mom, not this again.”
“But my baby’s going to college.” She gets up and squishes his face between her hands.
“Mom,” he whines, trying to squirm from her grasp.
Derek watches Stiles’ face, and doesn’t miss the sad, lost look on it. But Stiles quickly covers it up. Derek nudges his foot with his toe, and Stiles looks over at him. Derek taps his ankle a few times, and Stiles smiles sadly at him.
They finish off the pot of chili, and Stiles and Scott disappear to the house for a bit and come back with large bags of marshmallows, bars of chocolate, and boxes of graham crackers. “S’mores!” Stiles yells as he throws a marshmallow at Jackson’s head.
“Stilinski, I swear to god I will end you,” Jackson growls, so Stiles throws another.
After the sheriff and Melissa eat their s’mores, they excuse themselves and leave the kids to finish their party. Everyone throws blankets on the ground, and when Stiles and Derek sit on theirs with Scott and Isaac, Derek crawls into Stiles’ lap. Stiles puts his arms around Derek’s waist and kisses him.
“God, your dad leaving doesn’t mean you get to be all gross,” Jackson groans. “I’m gonna vomit. Get a room.”
“Don’t listen to him, Stiles,” Lydia says. “He wouldn’t know romance if it hit him in the ass.” Jackson scoffs, and Stiles throws another marshmallow at him.
“Stilinski, I’m gonna kill you!” Jackson yells, but then Lydia throws a marshmallow at him, and everyone dissolves into laughter.
Derek settles between Stiles’ legs and leans back against Stiles as he makes a s’more. “That’s not enough chocolate, Derek,” Stiles says.
“Are you making this or am I?” Derek returns. “Shut up.”
“Ugh, you fail at s’mores,” Stiles mutters as Derek holds two sets of tongs over the fire.
“I think you mean I’m great at it,” Derek jokes.
“It’s so weird to see you like this,” Parrish says, staring at them. “You just seem so…normal.”
Derek huffs out a laugh as Stiles says, “What? You don’t think Derek’s normal?”
Parrish shrugs as he licks chocolate off his finger. “Just not used to seeing him talking and smiling.”
“It is kinda creepy,” Isaac says. “I’m thinking body snatcher.” Derek laughs and tosses a marshmallow at Isaac’s head. Isaac laughs, and says, “See? Derek’s throwing marshmallows like an actual fun human being. Must be the aliens.”
“Yes, we’re coming to take your planet,” Derek deadpans. “We’re here for the cattle.”
Stiles barks out a surprised laugh, then kisses Derek’s cheek. Derek looks at the people laughing and talking around the fire, and thinks of family for the first time in years. It doesn’t erase the loss of his own family, but it doesn’t feel like huge crushing guilt or bone-deep pain. Derek feels like he belongs here with these people, and with a surprising revelation, he realizes he loves them.
“You’re gonna burn it,” Stiles says, tugging at Derek’s wrist.
“Such a pain in the ass,” Derek teases, taking the s’mores out of the fire. He waits for them to cool, then holds one over his shoulder for Stiles to bite. When Stiles takes a bite, Derek pushes it against his face, getting marshmallow and chocolate on Stiles’ mouth and nose.
“Oh no you didn’t,” Stiles exclaims, laughing as he reaches for one of the s’mores. “This means war!” Stiles tries to grab one of the treats, but Derek holds it out of his reach. They start wrestling for it, and Derek ends up on his back with Stiles straddling him. Stiles takes the s’more that had dropped to the blanket and smushes it against Derek’s face, all the while laughing. Derek doesn’t try very hard to fight Stiles off.
After Stiles has smeared the two s’mores on Derek’s face, he sits up smugly as he looks down. “There.”
“Do you know how long it’s gonna take to get this marshmallow out of my beard?” Derek says, touching the sticky, drying mess. Stiles leans down and licks the marshmallow and chocolate from Derek’s cheek.
“Seriously, guys?” Isaac says. “Scott and I are literally sitting right here!” Stiles rolls off Derek, laughing, and keeps rolling until he’s on top of Scott and Isaac. “Get off, you idiot!” Isaac pushes Stiles, but he’s laughing as Stiles starfishes over his and Scott’s legs.
Derek takes the napkin Boyd hands him and tries to scrub the marshmallow from his beard as Stiles lays on Scott and Isaac, rambling about nothing. He smiles as he makes himself another s’more.
The next day, Scott leaves for college, and Derek and Stiles spend the afternoon in Derek’s cabin. Derek reads and holds Stiles as he cries. Stiles is depressed for a few days after that, and Derek gives him space. Some nights Stiles stays in the house and Derek doesn’t see him, and other nights Stiles and Derek fuck until they’re exhausted and sore and then Derek holds him until they fall asleep.
One afternoon, they drive to another county to buy condoms and lube. The first time they had made the journey, the day after they had sex the first time, Stiles had said, “My dad would know if I bought condoms in town.”
“He’s gotta find out one day,” Derek pointed out.
“No, he doesn’t,” Stiles argued. It’s something they’ve been fighting about for days. Derek wants to tell the sheriff because he feels guilty, but Stiles said he’d rather run his arm through a wood chipper. “And when he does find out, it won’t be through town gossip about the sheriff’s son buying condoms with the drifter.”
They stop by the general store in town on the way home to pick up a few groceries. Derek writes a postcard to Laura and leaves it blank like usual. “Are you ever going to say something to her?” Stiles asks as Derek drops it in the mailbox.
“What would I say?” Derek asks.
“Hello? I miss you? I love you? I’m alive?” Stiles lists off. “I know she’s gotta be going crazy, man.”
“I don’t want to talk about it, Stiles,” Derek says with finality. Stiles opens his mouth to protest, but Derek glares, and that’s the end of the conversation. Derek stares out the window on the way home, trying not to think of Laura and Cora.
A few days later, Derek is using a sledgehammer to break up rock in the area where they’re building the goat pen expansion. It’s late August and the sun is hot and he’s sweating through his shirt. The damp cloth is chafing under his arms, so he takes it and his undershirt off. The sun’s hot on his skin, but it feels better than before. He’s swinging the sledgehammer when he hears the sound of tires crunching on the dirt lane behind him. He lays the sledgehammer head on the ground and turns around. Stiles is jumping out of the cab of the truck, bottle of water in his hand.
“Thought you might be thirsty,” Stiles says. Derek wipes his forehead with the back of his arm, removes his work gloves, and takes the bottle gratefully. As he gulps it down, he notices Stiles’ eyes raking over his upper body.
“Like what you see?” Derek smirks.
Stiles nods and licks his lips. “Definitely.”
Derek rolls his eyes. “I’m sweaty and disgusting. And I smell.”
“Correction, you are sweaty and hot as fuck and smell like manliness.”
“You’re an idiot. A horny idiot.”
“Shut up, you can’t tell me you don’t want me to slide my hands all over your slick muscles right now.”
“You’ve been watching too much porn,” Derek tells him.
Stiles grabs the hat off Derek’s head and places it on his own. Derek raises his eyebrows in interest. “Like that, cowboy?” Stiles asks.
“Oh yeah,” Derek says, hooking his fingers in the belt loops of Stiles’ pants and yanking him closer. “Now you’re fucking sexy.”
“The hat do it for you?”
“Oh yeah.” He leans forward and kisses along Stiles’ jaw. “Why don’t you wear one? It’s hot.”
Stiles scoffs. “I don’t do cowboy hats or cowboy boots.”
“You were born on a ranch.”
“Just picked up the plaid habit.”
Derek pulls back and looks Stiles up and down. “I’d like to see you in nothing but that cowboy hat.”
Stiles’ cheeks heat up. “Well, I may have to rethink my stance on cowboy hats, then.”
“I’d like that.” Derek grins against Stiles’ mouth, and the kiss is sloppy and sweaty. Then, Derek pushes Stiles away. “Now I’ve got to get back to work.” Stiles places Derek’s hat back on his head and climbs into the truck. Then he tosses a granola bar at Derek’s head. Derek laughs. “Thanks.”
“Someone’s gotta look after you.” Then, Stiles gets into the truck and drives back towards the house.
When Derek finishes breaking up the rocks, he uses a post driver to set up the fence posts. Then, he places the tools in the back of the truck and drives to the barn. He’s putting away the sledgehammer when two arms snake around his waist and warm lips press against his neck. “Hey sexy,” Stiles whispers.
“Hey.” Derek looks over his shoulder and catches Stiles’ lips in a kiss. “Shouldn’t you be working?”
“Probably.” Stiles grabs Derek’s hand and leads him deeper into the barn, to an empty horse stall with clean hay.
“What are you doing?” Derek asks, although he already knows the answer. He knows Stiles well enough to know where this is going.
Stiles pulls his plaid shirt over his head, not bothering to undo the buttons, along with his undershirt, and tosses them both aside. Derek stares hungrily at Stiles’ bare chest and can’t help himself when he reaches forward and grips his hips. Stiles slides his hands along Derek’s slick chest, and Derek moans. “I think you know what I’m doing,” Stiles says, waggling his eyebrows. “A little roll in the hay.”
Derek groans. “You’re an idiot,” he says fondly.
“And you’re wearing too many clothes.”
Derek gives in and kisses Stiles as they finish undressing each other. When they make it to the hay, Stiles starts laughing, and Derek looks at him like he’s insane. He just keeps laughing, and picks a piece of straw out of Derek’s hair. Then, Stiles pushes Derek over onto his back and licks the sweat from his chest.
Stiles grabs a condom out of his jeans and opens the packet with his teeth. He rolls the condom onto Derek’s cock, and Derek raises his eyebrows in question. “My turn today,” Stiles grins as he grabs the bottle of lube. Derek isn’t really that surprised; he’s fucked Stiles as many times as Stiles has fucked him now. The night after they first had sex, Stiles had wanted Derek to do the same thing to him as he’d done the night before, and Derek gladly obliged.
Derek makes a move to get up, but Stiles pushes his shoulders back to the hay and shakes his head. “Nope, you lay right there.” Stiles straddles Derek’s lap, and it clicks.
“Fuck, Stiles,” Derek breathes. His cock jumps when Stiles touches it and holds it as he lowers himself. Derek moans as Stiles slides hot and tight around his cock, and the slack look of pleasure on Stiles’ face is almost enough to set Derek off. “Fuck.”
Stiles starts rolling his hips as he adjusts to the feeling. “Feel so full,” he babbles, “feel so good, Derek.” Derek wraps his hands around Stiles’ hips and holds him as Stiles lifts himself up in little motions and pushes back down. Derek bends one leg and uses it as leverage to thrust into Stiles. “Fuck,” Stiles moans, head thrown back. Derek thinks he’s so beautiful like this, riding his cock with his eyes closed, a bright flush running down his neck and chest.
Derek wraps his fingers around Stiles’ cock, and Stiles’ movements become erratic, like he can’t decide if he wants to fuck into Derek’s hand or sink down on his cock. He goes for something in between, a weird back and forth motion that makes Derek take pity on him and start stroking his cock. “Yes, Derek, yes please, please keep doing that,” Stiles says.
Derek sits up and wraps his other hand around Stiles’ body as he kisses him. Stiles rolls his hips, and they’re pressed together and Derek’s so deep inside Stiles. It feels slightly dirty, fucking like this on the floor of the barn, but it might be the hottest thing Derek’s ever done.
Stiles starts kissing and sucking on Derek’s neck, right on the spot that drives him crazy, and then he tugs the lobe of Derek’s ear between his teeth, and Derek comes with a shout. Stiles rides him through his orgasm, his hips never slowing as he kisses him. When Derek flops back against the hay, Stiles moves his hips in little circles as his hand joins Derek’s on his cock. It only takes a few strokes before Stiles pushes his hips into their hands and shoots come onto Derek’s belly and chest.
Stiles slumps down over Derek, and Derek kisses across his face as Stiles slowly moves off him. Derek pulls the condom off, ties it off, and sets it aside. Stiles rolls half on top of him to kiss him, and they stick together because of the sweat and come.
“This is kinda gross,” Derek laughs. He can smell Stiles’ come on his skin mixed with both their sweat, and it’s not exactly pleasant.
“Don’t care,” Stiles says, sitting up and running a hand through his damp hair. “That was hot as fuck.”
“It was,” Derek nods. “You’re hot as fuck.”
Stiles blushes and bites his lip. “I’m still not used to you saying that.”
“You should be,” Derek says, getting to his feet. His entire body is sore from the morning’s work and his back itches from the hay.
“You have hay stuck to your back,” Stiles says, stepping behind Derek and brushing it off. He drops kisses along Derek’s shoulders, and Derek turns, cups Stiles’ face, and kisses him.
“I love you,” Derek says.
“I love you, too,” Stiles replies.
Derek finds a rag to wipe the come from his torso as they get dressed, and Stiles picks up the condom so he can dispose of it in the house. Then Derek kisses him once again before exiting the barn to get back to work.
Boyd helps him put up the fence around the goat pen that afternoon, and while they’re working, he says, “You have a hickey on your neck.” Derek’s hand goes to his neck and he presses against it, feeling the dull ache. The fact that it’s there pleases him. “Might wanna tell Stiles to be more careful.”
“At least Erica doesn’t leave marks where you can see them.” Derek huffs, and as Boyd stands up, he brushes off his hands and says, “Oh yeah, you also have hay in your hair.”
Derek curses as Boyd laughs.
Stiles is watching television when his dad comes in from work. “Food’s in the oven,” Stiles calls out. He hears the sheriff unhook his belt and lay it on the table, and a few moments later, his dad comes into the living room and sits in his recliner. “Long day?”
“It was okay,” the sheriff replies.
Stiles makes small talk about his day as the sheriff eats. When he’s finished, Stiles brings him a lemon cupcake for dessert.
The sheriff is licking icing off his fingers when he says, “Stiles, we need to talk.”
“Whatever it is, Isaac did it, not me,” Stiles responds holding up his hands.
The sheriff rolls his eyes. “I’m serious.” He leans forward and places his elbows on his knees, and Stiles feels dread pooling in his stomach. He doesn’t know what his dad is going to say, but he’s got that serious face on, and that’s never good.
“What exactly is your relationship with Derek?”
Stiles feels like the couch has been yanked from beneath him. He has been avoiding this conversation, mainly because he never wanted to have it. Telling his dad he was into guys and involved with Derek? He’s just glad his dad’s gun is in the kitchen.
“Um, we’re friends,” Stiles says, nodding. “Great buddies.”
The sheriff pinches the bridge of his nose. “Stiles, you’re lying.”
“What? You don’t think Derek and I are great buddies?”
“No, I’m sure you are,” the sheriff responds, dropping his hand and looking at Stiles. “But that doesn’t quite explain why I’ve seen you leaving his cabin early in the morning multiple times over the last two weeks.”
Stiles’ face burns, and he suddenly can’t look his dad in the eye. He’s not quite sure how to respond to that.
“Stiles, I’m not an idiot,” he says. “I’ve seen the way Derek looks at you. He looks like you hung the moon.”
Stiles turns to his father then, surprised. “He does?”
The sheriff nods. “He does.” He sighs. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Are you mad? Or disappointed?”
The sheriff shakes his head. “No. I’m a little concerned, though.”
“Why?” Stiles asks defensively.
“I just want to make sure you’re ready for this relationship.”
“Dad, if it’s because he’s a guy – “
“It’s not that,” the sheriff interrupts. “Though I hope you’ve thought that through.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Stiles says, figuring there’s no use in denying it anymore. “I’d want to be with him no matter what.”
The sheriff’s gaze softens, but he still looks concerned. “Derek’s got a lot of baggage, son.”
“I know,” Stiles says. “Believe me, I know.”
“That’s a lot to take on. And he’s far from healed.”
“He’s a lot better,” Stiles argues.
The sheriff hums in agreement. “But he still has a lot to work through. You don’t just come back from that kind of grief in a few months.”
“He’s great, Dad,” Stiles says, hands shaking and face still burning. “Really great.”
“I know,” the sheriff replies, “Though I’m not exactly pleased at the thought of you spending the night with him.” Stiles blushes. “Be safe, okay, kid?”
“We use condoms!” Stiles exclaims, and instantly regrets it, because that was information his father did not need to know.
The sheriff drags a hand over his face. “Not quite what I meant, but good to know,” he says like it pains him. “I meant with your heart.”
“I trust Derek.”
“I know,” the sheriff says. “But still.”
Stiles nods. “Okay, Dad.”
When the sheriff goes up to bed, Stiles steals away to Derek’s cabin. Later, when they’re lying naked and tangled in the sheets, he tells Derek about the conversation.
“Was he mad?” Derek asks, running his fingers through Stiles’ hair.
“No,” Stiles says. “He’s just worried about me.”
“Told you that you should have told him earlier,” Derek says.
“I think he’s known for awhile,” Stiles says.
“You’re probably right.”
Stiles doesn’t respond as he stares out the open window.
“I’m nervous,” Stiles says. They’re at the regional horse competition, standing on the sidelines watching some of the contestants compete. Stiles’ event, Reining, is next. He feels uncomfortable in his competition attire. His plaid shirt and jeans are fine, but the cowboy boots feel awkward on his feet, and the chaps are heavy. “These people are a lot better than me.”
“You’ll do fine,” Derek says as he reaches out and takes Stiles’ hand.
The sheriff’s standing on the other side of Stiles. He’d decided to come see Stiles compete even though he still disapproves. He says, “Your mom was always nervous before she competed. But you’d never know it when she was out there.”
“How did you compete in this stuff?” Stiles says Derek, moving around awkwardly. “It feels like I’m wearing a billion extra pounds.”
Derek shrugs. “You get used to it.”
“This was a bad idea,” Stiles says. He feels like he’s going to throw up. He’s wanted this for so long, and now he’s not so sure. Just looking at the arena terrifies him.
“We can leave if you want,” Derek says gently. “I want you to do whatever makes you happy.”
“No,” Stiles shakes his head. “This has been my dream. I have to at least try.”
“You should go get Buttercup ready,” Derek says. “Your dad and I will be right over there in the stands.” He squeezes Stiles’ hand, and Stiles leans forward and kisses him. He doesn’t care that there are people around them; he needs the strength right now.
“Go get ‘em, kiddo,” the sheriff says, giving Stiles a hug. Then he and Derek walk away, leaving Stiles alone.
Get your head together, Stiles tells himself. This was his idea, what he’s wanted to do since he could remember. It’s what his mom had started training him for. He can do this.
He finds Buttercup and feeds her an apple before brushing her mane. “This is it, girl,” he says softly to her. “You and me, doing what we were destined to do.”
Stiles hands are shaking when he waits to begin. They’re calling out his and his horse’s names, and then he gets the signal to ride Buttercup into the arena. He takes a deep breath and focuses on everything Derek has taught him in the last few months. He goes through the reining patterns in his mind while he waits to begin. When the clock starts, Stiles and Buttercup flow together like one organism. They start with circles, then shift into the rundown and sliding stop. Each movement goes naturally to the other, until Stiles approaches the spin. He’s nervous. He knows it’s the most difficult movement, but a required part of the pattern. Buttercup starts pivoting on her hind leg, stopping at the correct spot before doing the same in the opposite direction. She overspins, but Stiles doesn’t care. They make it through the entire pattern, and he thinks he did okay.
When they stop, Buttercup stands there, patient as always, and Stiles looks into the stands to find his dad and Derek. They’re on their feet, clapping and yelling. He feels a bone-deep sadness that his mom is missing. But it’s weird, because Stiles feels like she’s there with him, like she was riding beside him. When he looks over, he can almost see her smiling at him from the back of her horse. Stiles’ score gets read, and it’s above average, which is more than Stiles could hope for. He nudges Buttercup and she trots out of the arena.
He hops off Buttercup’s back as soon as they’re in the waiting area. He pets her neck and rests his forehead against it. “We did it girl,” he says. But as he stands there with Buttercup, he doesn’t feel the sense of fulfillment he expected. He doesn’t feel much of anything. He straightens and looks at Buttercup, who snuffles around his hand searching for a treat.
Performing didn’t bring back his mom. It didn’t fill the hole inside of himself he’s felt since she died. As he feeds Buttercup a carrot, he realizes that he loves Buttercup and loves riding her more than anything in the world. He loves the ranch and the rickety barn with the squeaky door and the broken hay baler and the pond and the acres where he grew up running around with Scott and watching his mother ride.
He pauses and stares, mouth hanging open slightly.
He loves the ranch. He’s spent years hating that place, feeling suffocated by it, and yearning to get away. But something has changed. He doesn’t feel like the ranch is the end of the world anymore. Maybe he won’t go off to college like Scott, but he’ll be okay.
Stiles hears footsteps crunching on the gravel, and he looks over Buttercup’s back to see Derek and his dad approaching. Derek’s grinning at him, and even his dad looks proud. Yeah, he thinks, I’ll be okay.
Derek rushes up to him and wraps his arms around his waist, lifts him up, and twirls him around. Stiles laughs, and hits Derek’s shoulders. “Put me down,” Stiles laughs. “Before you hurt your leg.”
“I’m so proud of you!” Derek says. A few people eye them disapprovingly, but Stiles doesn’t care. He wraps his arms around Derek’s neck as Derek lowers him to the ground and kisses him. “You were great.”
“I was okay,” Stiles says.
“It was only your first competition,” Derek says. “You’ll do better next time.”
“There won’t be a next time,” Stiles says. Derek and his dad exchange a glance. “I did it. I fulfilled my dream and competed. But it’s not really my thing.” He reaches out and pats Buttercup’s rump affectionately. “I think I’d rather ride around the ranch and maybe help with the horse lessons.”
“You sure, kiddo?” the sheriff asks.
Stiles nods. “I’m sure.” He grabs Buttercup’s reins. “Come on, let’s go home.”
Derek glances towards the arena. “Don’t you want to see how you placed?”
Stiles shrugs. “Doesn’t really matter.”
They walk out of the side area of the arena, Stiles leading Buttercup. His dad comes up beside him and places a hand on his shoulder. “You looked good out there,” he says.
Stiles chest expands at the compliment. “Thanks, Dad.”
The sheriff squeezes Stiles’ shoulder. “You looked like your mom.” That makes the entire experience worth it.
Stiles walks into the house to cook lunch. He walks past the dining room and finds his dad sitting at the table, glasses perched on his nose, papers spread all around him. “Hey Dad,” Stiles says, leaning against the door frame. “Whatcha up to?”
“Nothing,” he responds distractedly.
Stiles walks over and looks nosily at the papers spread out. One in particular catches his attention, and he snatches it off the table.
“Stiles,” the sheriff starts, but Stiles cuts him off.
“You can’t be serious.” Stiles stares at the paper in disbelief. It’s a listing from a realty company. Of their ranch. He glances up at his dad accusingly. “You’re selling the ranch?” he yells.
“Stiles, calm down,” the sheriff says.
“Calm down?” Stiles exclaims. “When were you going to tell me?”
The sheriff sighs. “Son, we’ve talked about this. You knew this day was coming.”
“But things are looking up,” Stiles argues. “We’re starting the horse training business.”
“It’s not enough,” the sheriff says sadly.
“But we have goats now,” Stiles says helplessly.
The sheriff’s face scrunches in confusion. “That doesn’t mean anything.”
“IT MEANS EVERYTHING!” Stiles yells.
He has to get out of there. He can’t stay, not right now, knowing that his dad is selling their home.
Stiles rushes out of the door, his dad calling “Stiles!” after him. He runs across the yard and into the pasture where Buttercup is grazing with Talia and the other horses. He opens the gate and calls to her. She trots up, and he leads her out of the gate. Then, he climbs onto her bareback and nudges her into a gallop.
His head is spinning as tears form in his eyes and threaten to spill over. His breath is coming in short gasps, and he can’t think.
This can’t be happening. This cannot be happening.
Buttercup gallops down the lane, and he holds on to her mane and trusts her to take him anywhere from here. Up ahead, he sees Derek standing on the edge of the path, so he slows Buttercup and stops beside him.
“Hey,” Derek smiles, but when he gets a look at his face, he turns serious. “What’s wrong?”
“Get on,” Stiles nods behind him, and Derek climbs onto Buttercup without a second thought. Stiles waits until Derek is fitted against him, snug and warm, his arms tight around Stiles’ waist, before nudging Buttercup into another gallop. Even Derek’s arms around him can’t take away the pain in his chest. Derek’s lips brush against his neck and Stiles feels a tear roll down his cheek.
He slows Buttercup to a canter and leans back against Derek. They ride down the road, away from the ranch and town, towards the open sky.
“I wish I could just keep riding forever,” Stiles says. “Leave everything behind me.”
“No, you don’t,” Derek says softly.
“If I ran away, would you go with me?”
“Yes,” Derek answers without hesitation. Stiles cranes his neck to look over his shoulder in surprise. “I’d follow you anywhere.” Stiles kisses Derek then, and rests his forehead against Derek’s.
“My dad is selling the ranch,” Stiles whispers.
Derek doesn’t respond, just tightens his arms around Stiles. Stiles guesses there’s nothing to say. It won’t change anything.
They ride all afternoon, until the sun is going down. After Stiles brushes Buttercup down, feeds her a couple of carrots, and gives her the evening meal, he goes straight to Derek’s cabin. He can’t go back to the house right now, not yet. He can’t face his dad. The betrayal and heartbreak is too fresh.
Stiles sits on Derek’s bed, and Derek settles beside him. He has some wrapped up sandwiches he got from the house. “Do you want some dinner?”
Derek eats his sandwich, then strips down to his underwear and encourages Stiles to do the same. Then, Derek holds him and doesn’t try to tell him it’s going to be okay. Stiles is pretty sure Derek knows better than anyone that it’s never okay.
When Stiles leaves the cabin to make breakfast, he’s glad to see that his dad is gone to work already. He didn’t get much sleep, and he doesn’t want to see him yet. He doesn’t know what to say when he does.
He spends the morning in a fog. He can’t stop the ache in his chest when he thinks about leaving this place. It feels like losing his mom all over again.
That afternoon, he’s working on the barn door when Derek finds him. “I need you to come with me,” he says. Stiles doesn’t even turn, just keeps working on the hinge.
“I’m busy,” Stiles replies.
“It can wait.”
“I said I’m busy!” Stiles yells. Derek doesn’t respond or fight back. Instead he sits on the ground beside Stiles and leans against the barn.
“I know what you’re feeling,” Derek says quietly. “When I went back home to the funeral, half the house was burnt away. I had never thought much about it because it was my home, you know? I thought it’d always be there. But then it wasn’t. All I kept thinking about was the kitchen. The color of the cabinets, the way the floor looked, the nicks on the counter from where we had cut through stuff onto the counter over the years. I cried over a fucking kitchen. I still miss the kitchen so much it hurts sometimes.”
“It’s just a kitchen,” Stiles mutters, though he knows he’s being obstinate and an ass.
“And it’s just a house,” Derek says.
“It’s not just,” Stiles starts, tossing his wrench down onto the ground with more force than necessary. He stares at the dirt. “It’s not just a house.”
“I know,” Derek says.
Stiles wants to scream. He wants to make his dad understand that they can’t sell it, because it’s one of the only things they have left of his mom, of her family. It’s his childhood and his memories and everything he’s ever known and loved and his life. But he looked at the books this morning, and he knows they’re in debt. The money they’ve made the last few months hasn’t been enough.
“Come on,” Derek says, taking his time pushing himself to his feet. He holds out a hand. “I have a surprise.”
“Derek,” Stiles groans. “I’m not in the mood. Even if the surprise includes your dick.”
Derek raises his eyebrows, hand still outstretched. “Trust me.”
Stiles reluctantly takes Derek’s hand. Derek leads him around the barn to where Buttercup and Talia are waiting, already saddled and ready. Stiles climbs on Buttercup’s back and strokes her neck as he waits to follow Derek. Derek leads them towards the trail, and Stiles tries to lull his mind with the rhythm of Buttercup’s familiar gait.
They take the trail to the pond. When they get there, Derek turns Talia right and Stiles finally gets a view past him. Set up in a clearing near the dock is a picnic blanket, with a picnic basket on the edge of it.
“Did you do this?” Stiles asks, though he knows it’s a stupid question. Derek turns to him, blushing slightly, and nods.
Stiles tugs on Buttercup’s reins, then climbs off her back when she stops. He walks over to the blanket, still surprised. Derek stands beside him, hands stuffed into his pockets bashfully. Stiles turns and throws his arms around Derek. “Thank you,” he whispers against his neck. Derek wraps his arms around Stiles’ waist and just holds him for a long time.
They tie up the horses, who graze on the grass as Stiles and Derek eat a lunch of sandwiches, potato chips, and fruit. “Sorry it’s nothing creative,” Derek says. “Not like what you usually cook.”
“Are you kidding?” Stiles pops a chip into his mouth. “I could get used to someone else making lunch.” He smiles.
For dessert, Derek pulls out biscuits from yesterday’s dinner and a nearly empty jar of strawberry preserves. They spread it on the biscuits, and then they finish the rest of the jar, eating the preserves off knives. Some of it drips down onto Stiles’ hand and wrist, and Derek takes his arm and brings it to his mouth. He watches Stiles intently as he licks the preserves from his skin. Stiles barely breathes, the feeling of Derek’s tongue dragging against the inside of his wrist shooting straight to his cock. Stiles slides his fingers along Derek’s jaw and closes the distance between them to kiss him.
Stiles lays his head on Derek’s lap and closes his eyes as Derek combs his fingers through Stiles’ hair. He smiles, happy in this moment. He refuses to think of anything else and let it ruin it. This is exactly what he needed.
“This is the most romantic thing anyone has ever done for me,” Stiles says.
“You deserve to be romanced,” Derek replies.
Stiles opens his eyes and looks up at him. “Were you a romantic with Kate?”
Derek’s mouth is a hard line. “I tried to be. I thought the whole notion of running away together, against my parent’s wishes, and joining the rodeo was romantic.” He pauses, his face sad. “I bought her roses once, and set them up in our hotel room. I made everything perfect for a romantic night together. When she came in, she laughed and said, ‘Oh sweetie, how cute.’” Stiles covers Derek’s forearm with his hand and drags his thumb along it. “I was so embarrassed. I thought it was romantic. What did I know? I was eighteen, she was twenty-four.”
“That’s like us,” Stiles points out. “I’m eighteen, you’re twenty-four.”
“We’re nothing like Kate and me.”
Stiles rolls over and props himself on his elbows. “Right. Because if you had bought me flowers and planned a romantic night together, I’d love it,” he says. “No matter if I thought it was lame or not.”
“This is why I love you.”
Stiles shrugs and says, “Besides. I like lame.” He lifts his head and Derek meets him halfway for a kiss. “Plus, I like that you’re romantic. I don’t want you to stop.”
“I promise, I won’t.”
Derek grabs Stiles’ hand and leads him over to the small fishing boat anchored by the dock. There are two fishing poles, a tackle box, and a plastic container of worms waiting on the dock. Stiles grins. He hadn’t had much time for fishing this summer, so this is a treat.
They cast out and sit quietly as they wait for the fish to bite. Eventually, they grow bored and end up making out in the boat, fishing poles forgotten. They laugh when Derek gets a bite, and they throw the fish back in after Derek takes it from the hook.
When they get back on land, they end up on the blanket, undressed and kissing. Stiles clings to Derek as Derek fucks him, focusing on the feeling of Derek inside him and nothing else. He tells himself there’s nothing else in the world except the two of them, clinging to each other by the lake, and the sunshine on their skin.
He whispers, “I love you,” into Derek’s skin, his fingernails slipping through the sweat on Derek’s back. Derek’s mouth is hot on his skin, pressing open-mouthed kisses on his neck, his shoulder, his ear. Stiles doesn’t know where he ends and Derek begins, and he trembles as Derek rocks slow and smooth into him.
They go skinny dipping afterwards, and Derek watches as Stiles does cannonball after cannonball into the lake. Derek refuses to do cannonballs, but he makes it his mission to dunk Stiles underwater as many times as he can.
As they’re lying naked on the blanket and drying in the sun, Derek says, “I have something for you.”
“But you’ve already given me so much!”
Derek shakes his head as he reaches into the picnic basket. “This is a gift.” Stiles sits up excitedly and feels like an eager kid. Derek chuckles as he finds the small parcel wrapped in newspaper. “I hope you like it.”
Stiles opens it quickly, then carefully lifts it from the paper. It’s a small, intricately carved wolf. Stiles looks at him with his mouth open. “Derek, did you make this?” Derek nods, his cheeks heating up. “It’s amazing.” Stiles looks at him again. “And you did this for me?”
“I wanted to make you something,” Derek says. “I thought this would be perfect. The wolf is the symbol for our ranch. I just thought…” He trails off and shrugs.
“It’s perfect.” Stiles holds it close to his chest and kisses Derek. Then he looks back at the wolf and studies the detail carefully.
When they finally go back towards the house to get back to work, they ride side by side down the trail, holding hands and exchanging smiles. “Thank you for today,” Stiles says. “It was one of the best days of my life.”
Derek lifts Stiles’ hand to his mouth and brushes his lips across the knuckles. “Mine, too.”
When Stiles gets home, he immediately goes upstairs and sits on the edge of his bed, holding the wolf between his hands. He drags his thumb across lines etched into the wood, intricate detail of fur that was carved by Derek’s hand. Derek did this, just for him.
Stiles smiles as he sets the wolf on his nightstand, right beside his bed. Everything still hurts, but it doesn’t hurt so much anymore.
Derek follows Boyd out of the house, laughing. “I swear,” Parrish says. “She said that. I’m not lying.”
“I think you’re full of shit,” Isaac says from ahead of him. “You’re nothing but a bullshitter full of tall tales.”
“You’re just jealous,” Stiles yells from behind Derek.
Boyd stops suddenly as Parrish says, “Yes, may I help you?”
“Hi,” a woman’s voice says, and Derek feels all the blood drain from his face. “I’m looking for Derek Hale.”
“Who are you?” Parrish asks as Boyd and Isaac turn towards Derek. They move out of the way, and Derek has a clear line of sight. He almost faints when he sees her.
Laura. Laura is standing a few feet from him.
Stiles comes up from behind and grabs Derek’s arm in a steady hold. Derek’s just staring at Laura, frozen on the spot. She looks the same, in her jeans, cowboy boots, and t-shirt. Her hair falls long and dark around her shoulders, and a black cowboy hat sits on her head. She looks exactly like their mother.
She’s staring at him, too. No one is moving or saying anything. “Derek,” she finally says, taking a step forward.
“You’re Laura,” Stiles says. It’s a statement, not a question. “Derek’s sister.”
“Uh, yeah,” she says, glancing at Stiles briefly before looking back at Derek. She shakes her head and extends her hand. “Laura Hale.”
“Stiles Stilinski.” He shakes her hand with the one not holding Derek. Derek still hasn’t moved. He’s not sure he can move.
“Oh, Derek,” Laura cries, finally breaking and throwing her arms around him. Stiles lets him go, but stays right by his side as Laura clings to him, sobbing. “I thought I’d never see you again,” she whispers against his shoulder.
“We’re gonna, uh, go,” Isaac says, as the three ranch hands walk away, glancing back at Laura and Derek every few steps. Stiles doesn’t move.
Laura finally pulls back, her hands on Derek’s arms as she looks at him. “You’re grown up now.”
“What,” Derek starts, his voice thin and shaky. He clears his throat, takes a deep breath, and starts again. “What are you doing here?”
A flicker of raw pain crosses Laura’s face, but she schools her features quickly. “I came looking for you.”
“How?” Derek asks, his brain unable to process. His sister is here, on Stiles’ ranch. After so long.
Laura reaches around and pulls something out of her back pocket. It’s one of the postcards, worn around the edges. “The last few have had the same postmark.” Derek looks at her uncomprehending. She goes on. “You’ve never sent me postcards from the same place before. The last few months, they’ve all come from this town. So, I asked around, and the man at the general store recognized the postcard and your description.” She looks at him for a long time, her eyes sad. Then, she turns to Stiles. “Thank you for taking my brother in.”
“We were glad to,” Stiles says. “Though my dad almost shot him the first morning we saw him.” At Laura’s face, he adds, “He didn’t shoot him…obviously. We found him asleep in our barn. I thought he was a murderer.” Stiles runs a hand through his hair. “I’m sorry. This probably isn’t helping any. Why don’t we go inside and talk?”
“Good idea,” Laura says.
Stiles takes Derek’s hand and tugs. It acts as a catalyst to finally get Derek moving. Laura looks at their clasped hands and then at Derek in confusion. Derek follows Stiles on autopilot, his heart hammering in his chest.
Inside, they sit in the living room, and Stiles brings them lemonade in unmatched glasses. “So,” he says from where he’s standing by the couch near Derek. “I’m gonna leave you two alone.” Derek looks at him in a panic, and Stiles squeezes his shoulder. “I’ll be upstairs in my bedroom if you need me.”
Then Stiles exits the room, leaving Laura and Derek alone. Derek looks at her, and she’s studying him carefully.
“He’s cute,” Laura says. “And obviously cares about you.”
“He’s my boyfriend,” Derek says dumbly.
Laura smiles. “I figured that out.” She takes off her hat and sits it on the back of the chair and then leans forward to place her elbows on her knees. “Are you okay?”
“No,” Derek replies truthfully. Laura frowns. “I didn’t…I…” He doesn’t know what to say. His sister is sitting within reach, and he just wants to curl into a ball in the corner and block out everything.
“I’ve thought about what I would say when I found you a million times,” Laura says. “But now I can’t think of anything I wanted to say.”
That makes Derek feel slightly better. He asks, “How’s Cora?”
“She’s fine,” Laura says. “She’s home. She wanted to come with me, but I told her it might be better if I came alone. I…I didn’t know what I’d find to be honest.”
“Are you disappointed?” Derek asks.
“How could you ask that? Of course I’m not.”
Derek stares at a scuff on her boot, trying to get his thoughts together. Laura seems to understand, because she doesn’t push. He stares at that same spot, his mind whirling with years of guilt and unsaid words. He knew he’d have to face his family some day, he just didn’t expect it today. He thought he’d have time to prepare first.
Finally, Derek lifts his eyes, and doesn’t care that they’re damp. When Laura notices, her face softens. “I’m so sorry,” he whispers. “For everything.”
“Oh Derek,” she says, coming over to join him on the couch. She gathers him in her arms and holds him close. He remains stiff at first as she strokes his hair, but then he relaxes and wraps his arms around her waist. He hears her sniffle above him.
“It’s okay,” she says gently. “I’m just glad I found you.”
He wishes he could say more. He wants to unload everything onto her, tell her he’s sorry for running away with Kate Argent at eighteen, that he’s sorry the last time he’d seen their parents had been after a fight, that he’s sorry he left her and Cora alone after his parents died. He wants to tell her he couldn’t deal with it, and he’s still only barely able to think about it. He wants to tell her he still has nightmares about them a few times a week, but that it’s better since Stiles has started sleeping beside him. He wants to tell her about Stiles and Talia and Erica and the goats.
Instead, he lays with his head on her chest, and let’s Laura be a big sister to him.
Derek sits in the kitchen at the table while Laura helps Stiles prepare dinner. “Derek tells me you used to do equestrian competitions,” Stiles says.
Laura responds, “Yes. I haven’t for years, though. I mostly run the ranch and give lessons. Cora’s the real competitor. She made the cut to compete in the next Olympics.”
“She did?” Derek asks.
Laura turns to him with a smile. “Yes. She’s been training hard to get ready.”
“Does Kate still compete?” Derek asks quietly.
“No, but her niece Allison is also going to the Olympics. She’s friends with Cora. She does trick riding. Her specialty is archery from the back of a horse. She’s quite good.”
Derek frowns, and after a moment, Laura turns back to Stiles. “So, what do you do?”
“Cook,” he jokes. “My mom was also an award-winning rider. I thought I’d follow in her footsteps, so Derek taught me competition riding and I did one competition. It was enough to realize I don’t want to compete anymore.”
Laura looks at Derek sharply. “Derek taught you?”
Stiles nods. “He’s a great teacher. He’s been giving lessons here.”
Stiles nods. “It was his idea, actually.”
Laura looks at Derek thoughtfully as she continues talking to Stiles. Derek sits there, walls up and stuck in his own head. He’s numbed himself so he can make it through dinner.
After dinner, Laura and Derek sit on his porch, slowly rocking in the rocking chairs. “They’re all nice,” Laura says. “How long have you been here?”
“About five months.”
“How’s the leg?”
“It hurts sometimes.”
“Why didn’t you ever say anything on the postcards?” she asks.
“I didn’t know what to say.”
“You could have said anything,” Laura says.
“I let you know I was alive.”
“It wasn’t enough, Derek.” Derek stares straight ahead at the dark night. “You left me all alone to care for the ranch and Cora. You weren’t the only one who lost his parents. They were my parents, too.”
“Then why in the hell have you been so selfish the last three years?” she asks, voice rising.
Derek closes his eyes, takes a breath. “How could I go back? Or look at you and Cora?” he asks slowly. “I had barely talked to Mom or Dad in a year when they died. The last thing we did was fight. I fucking fought with them just weeks before they died. I hadn’t even been home in three years. How could I face any of that?”
Laura doesn’t respond, so Derek goes on. “Then Triskele, and my leg…I lost everything in a span of a month.”
“You didn’t lose everything,” Laura says angrily. “You had us.”
This time, Derek doesn’t say anything.
They sit in silence for a long time. Finally, Laura says, “I’ve got a hotel room in town. I should probably head out for the night.” They stand, and Derek stares at her awkwardly. “I want you to come back with me. Cora needs to see you, I need to see you. We’ve been apart too long.”
Derek looks around in the darkness at the ranch land sprawling all around him, the thought of leaving this place and going back threatening to suffocate him.
“This isn’t your home,” Laura says. “Your home is in Montana, Derek.” She gives him a hug and then disappears into the night. Derek stands there until he hears the car start and watches the taillights drive down of the driveway.
He’s lying on his back, staring at the ceiling, when Stiles lets himself into the cabin soon after Laura leaves. Derek feels the bed dip a few moments later, then Stiles fits himself against Derek’s side, head on Derek’s shoulder.
“She’s nice,” Stiles says. Derek nods. “How did your talk go?”
Derek doesn’t respond, just continues staring at the ceiling.
“Derek,” Stiles whispers. “Don’t do this.”
“Not tonight, Stiles,” Derek says. “Please.”
Stiles kisses Derek’s cheek and snuggles closer. “I’m sorry,” he says. “You can talk to me about any of this. I love you.”
Derek stares at the ceiling, unable to let go of the guilt and sadness consuming him until he feels like he can’t breathe.
Stiles falls asleep on his shoulder, and Derek’s eyes are still glued overhead.
Derek has fitful dreams of his parents, burning houses, bulls, and the sound of horses when they go down. He wakes before the sun comes up and doesn’t bother trying to go back to sleep.
He stares over at Stiles. He’s sleeping on his back, fingers curled into a loose fist resting against his cheek. His mouth is slightly open, his eyelashes dark against his skin. The feelings Derek has for Stiles scare him. He’s never felt like this about another person, this deep, almost painful love. Stiles is the best thing that’s ever happened to him – better than the rodeo, better than winning, better than all his sponsors and money, better than those eight seconds on a bull. The bull had made him feel invincible, but Stiles makes him feel like every day, every moment is worth living. All he wants to do is make Stiles smile, protect him and help him save his ranch so he can be happy and keep his family’s land. He wants to give Stiles a fraction of what he’s given him. But he knows he’s not good enough for Stiles, that he’s a whole bag of messed up that will probably never be right again.
But he knows Laura is right. He has to go home. He’s been running for so long, and it’s time that he faces his past. It’s finally caught up with him, and if he doesn’t face it now, he’ll be running his entire life.
When Stiles wakes up, Derek’s already dressed and sitting on the bed beside him. “You’re up early,” he says through a yawn. His hair is sleep-mussed and sticking up in various directions. He looks so perfect, and Derek knows he could wake up beside that image for the rest of his life. It makes this that much harder.
“We need to talk.”
Stiles sits up, rubbing his eyes. “Sounds serious.”
“Laura asked me to go back to Montana with her,” Derek starts. “So I am.”
“Okay,” Stiles says. “That’s good, right? You should go home, see Cora, your ranch, visit your parents’ graves.”
“I’m scared,” Derek says quietly.
Stiles scoots closer and rubs his hands flat along Derek’s thighs. “It’ll be okay.” He drops his forehead against Derek’s. “I’ll go with you if you want.”
Derek shakes his head. “You need to stay here. Try to get more business and work with Parrish to figure out a way to keep the ranch.”
“Are you sure?”
He has no belongings, so when Laura drives up in her car, Derek’s ready to go. He said goodbye to the ranch hands at breakfast, and now that Laura’s waiting and he’s standing on the front porch of the house with Stiles, he’s finding it hard to move.
Stiles wraps his arms around him and buries his face against his neck. “I love you, Derek,” he says.
“I love you, too,” Derek responds, holding him tightly.
“Come back to me soon, okay?” Stiles says. He’s looking at Derek with sad eyes, and Derek has to look away. He nods and then turns back to kiss Stiles goodbye. The kiss is desperate, and over way too soon.
Stiles remains on the porch while Derek gets in the car. Stiles gives a little wave as Laura drives away. As they turn out of the driveway onto the road, Derek feels like he’s leaving his heart behind.
They don’t say much for the first couple of hours. Then Laura talks. She tells him about things that have happened over the last few years, changes to the ranch, catching him up on what he’s missed.
Derek stares out the window and thinks about Stiles and strawberry preserves.
Derek grips the door handle as they drive through the ranch gates. Despite time, despite the fire, everything looks the same. His feelings are mixed as they draw closer to the house. The last time he’d been here, it was a burnt out shell. Now, it’s been rebuilt and looks mostly like it did before, except the shutters are a different color, and there’s a flower garden out front. The same internal structure, the same white paint covering the changes, making it seem like a snatched memory from Derek’s past. Somehow, it makes it worse. He knows it’s not the same. Half the people are missing, and the outside of the house is a façade covering the scars and wounds of their family.
Why should they cover it up and pretend when nothing will ever be the same?
When Laura turns off the car, she looks at Derek. “You okay?”
Derek nods. Then, he gets out of the car. He thought he’d feel differently being home again. He feels a sense of nostalgia and loss, and a whole lot of pain.
The front door opens and Cora walks out. She’s grown now, the same age as Stiles. She was twelve the last time he saw her, so the young woman approaching him is a stranger.
“Hey Cora,” Laura says as Cora gets closer.
Cora walks up to Derek and punches him in the nose.
“Cora!” Laura exclaims. Derek’s staring at her, stunned, his nose throbbing and the pain blinding.
“That was for leaving Mom and Dad,” she says angrily. Then she punches him again. “And that was for leaving after the funeral.” Derek feels the blood starting to trickle out of his nose, but he can’t do anything about it because he sees her rear her fist back again. But this time, he puts out his hand and catches the blow. “You’re a selfish prick, Derek.”
“Cora!” Laura yells. “We talked about this last night.”
“Well, I’m pissed!” Cora yells back.
“I deserve it,” Derek says, wiping his nose with the back of his hand. When he looks down, there’s a long streak of blood.
“Let’s get you a rag,” Laura says, glaring at Cora. “You get a fucking grip.” Cora huffs but follows them inside the house.
Derek sits in a chair and presses the rag to his nose to staunch the bleeding. Cora watches him, her anger dissipated. “I’m glad Laura found you.”
“Could have fooled me,” Derek says, and Cora quirks a smile.
“Consider them love taps.”
They wait in the kitchen until Derek’s nose stops bleeding, and Derek fills Cora in on where he’s been staying.
“Laura tells me you have a boyfriend,” Cora says, eyebrow raised. “I didn’t know you liked guys.”
“One of many things I discovered on the circuit,” Derek says.
“What’s he like?” Cora asks.
“Attractive, pretty eyes, good rider, sarcastic pain in the ass,” Derek says. “You’d like him.”
Cora talks about the Olympics as Derek’s nose stops flowing. It’s weird being back in the kitchen, and he’s glad to see they didn’t rebuild the inside exactly like it was before. Somehow, that makes it easier.
There’s still a formal, tense air to the conversation, their questions and responses stilted and lacking comfort or familiarity. Derek guesses it’s to be expected. Nothing about them is familiar to him, not anymore.
Laura stands and says, “I need to show you something.” She and Cora exchange a glance, and then Derek follows Laura outside.
She leads him to the long, newly painted horse barn. There are multiple horses, and people working around the ranch Derek has never seen. The whole place is nicer than the Stilinski ranch, obviously much more affluent. When Laura opens the barn door, Derek realizes he misses the sound of squeaking hinges.
“What are we doing?” Derek asks. There are horses in the stalls, a few he remembers from before and many new ones.
“This.” Laura stops in front of a horse stall, and Derek almost faints again for the second time in two days.
He shakes his head over and over, and feels like he’s going to through up. “It’s not possible.” He looks at Laura, then back at the large black horse. “He’s dead.”
At the sound of Derek’s voice, Triskele walks to the stall door and pushes his nose against Derek’s arm. Derek stares at the horse in shock, holding on to the door for support. “How?”
“I tried to tell you after it happened,” Laura says. “Kate kept answering the phone saying you didn’t want to talk to anyone. After you left the arena, I went to Deaton’s with Triskele, prepared to put him down. Deaton said his legs were severely fractured, but he asked me if I wanted to treat him instead of putting him down. I…I just couldn’t, not after seeing your face, not after Mom and Dad. I had to try. So, we took him home.”
Derek stares at Triskele, afraid to touch him in case that ends the dream.
“I tried to tell you, Derek,” Laura continues. “But then you got hurt, and I didn’t know where you were, and then I never heard from you again.” Laura reaches out and strokes Triskele’s neck. “It was hard as hell while he recovered. And expensive. We almost put him down a hundred times, but every time I got close…it felt like losing you all over again and I couldn’t. I knew how much he means to you, and I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of the last thing I had left of you.”
Still too shocked to process, Derek watches as Triskele pushes against his hand, looking for treats.
“You can’t ride him,” Laura tells him. “He can’t do much other than walk around the pasture. But he’s not in pain. He limps a bit.”
Finally, Derek reaches out and touches Triskele’s neck. “Like me.” He turns to Laura, speechless. “I don’t know what to say, Laura.” She smiles. “Thank you.”
She leaves him alone in the barn. Derek steps up to Triskele, rubs the sides of his face, and drops his forehead against the flat of Triskele’s face. He just closes his eyes as he holds on to his horse.
Triskele isn’t dead. Like Derek, Triskele survived being broken. He wasn’t his old self, he limped, but he was alive.
Derek stays there for the rest of the day, well into the night, unable to leave Triskele’s side.
Days turn into weeks. Derek doesn’t quite feel at home, but he can’t leave. Laura and Cora keep giving him these looks, like they expect him to bolt at any moment, so Derek stays. He feels he owes them that.
He tries to find a job for himself on them ranch. Laura and a few colleagues cover all the horse training, and they have numerous ranch hands that do odd jobs around the property. The ranch is in tip top shape, and there’s nothing for Derek to do. “Look at it like a vacation,” Laura says. “You’ve earned a little rest.”
But Derek can’t just sit around. When he sits, he thinks about his parents, Stiles, and his guilt threatens to drown him. He needs to stay busy, find something to take his mind of things and keep his hands busy. Spending the days whittling can only help so much.
A week after Derek has been back, he finds the head ranch hand, Hank. “I can do anything around a ranch,” Derek tells him. “Horses, cows, machines, building – I have worked on it all.”
“We don’t need your help, Mr. Hale,” Hank returns. “We got everything under control. We run a pretty smooth operation. Might be something that comes up in the fall for you.” He wipes his forehead with a rag. “Ms. Hale might have something for you. But my guys got this covered. You ain’t gotta worry about nothing.” He walks around the ranch, looking for something to do. A fence to mend, a hay baler to repair. But there’s nothing, and every time he asks if someone needs help, they smile and tell him no.
Derek knows it’s supposed to be a good thing that he doesn’t have to work. He’s the lost son returned home; he doesn’t have to work right now and he’s supposed to settle back into his life. He now has rodeo money and insurance money, enough that he probably won’t have to work much more the rest of his life.
But Derek doesn’t need money. He needs to feel needed, like he has a place, like he’s part of family.
He talks to Stiles every few days. When Derek has been in Montana for two weeks, Stiles asks, “When are you coming ho – back?” He hears Stiles’ almost slip, hears the pain in his voice. Derek keeps himself feeling neutral. He isn’t sure what he feels anymore. He is too confused and overwhelmed to process everything with no one to talk to. He spends most of his days alone in the field with Triskele. He spends the evenings listening to Laura and Cora talk, speaking when spoken to.
“I don’t know,” Derek responds.
There’s silence on the other end, then Stiles asks, “Are you coming back?”
“I don’t know,” he says again.
Stiles’ voice is broken and small when he says, “But you said you’d follow me anywhere.”
“That’s supposed to make me feel better when you just told me you may never see me again?” Stiles yells. Derek doesn’t say anything. He’s lost and out of place and feels the impulse to hit the road and not stop until he’s miles from here. Stiles says, “I think it’s better if you don’t call again.”
Stiles hangs up without another word.
Derek finds where Triskele is grazing and leads him slowly around the pasture. He tries not to think about Stiles’ voice, but it’s all that echoes in his head. He glances around the ranch, expects to see Isaac working on a fence nearby, looks for Boyd on a horse as he drives cattle into another field, listens for the crunch of gravel as Parrish drives by in his truck. Most of all, he wants to hear Stiles cursing as he works on the broken hay baler or watch him carrying eggs into the house in the early morning dawn.
But they’re not here. Instead, he’s surrounded by strangers who ignore him. He feels like Triskele, a broken useless pasture animal just existing from day to day.
Laura finds Derek on the front porch the next evening, whittling. She sits in the swing at the end of the porch and watches him.
“You’re just like Grandpa,” she says with a smile.
“I think I’m almost as good as him, too,” Derek says as he shaves off a piece of wood.
“Derek, are you happy here?”
He shrugs. “Sure.”
“You’re lying.” His hands still and he looks up at her. “I want my brother back. You’re here physically, but you’re not here.” She taps her temple. “Talk to me.”
Derek sets the block of wood to the side. “I love you and Cora,” he says. “I’ve really missed you.”
“We feel the same way.”
“But this is all really difficult for me,” he goes on. “Being back here.”
“Why?” she asks.
“I’m not sure.”
“Derek, we’re your family, this is your home.”
Dererk stares at the wood shavings on the ground and rubs his hands along his thighs absently. “Do you know what the last thing I said to Mom was?” he finally asks.
“We were on the phone, fighting about me coming home. I told her, ‘You’re trying to ruin my life, and I’m never coming home.’ The fire happened just over a month later.”
“You didn’t mean it,” Laura says, “and she knew that.”
“Still doesn’t change the fact that I said it. I don’t even remember the last thing I said to Dad because it had been so long since I’d talked to him.”
“They were proud of you, you know,” Laura says quietly. “Dad bragged on you all the time. ‘My son is a world class rodeo star. He did what I never could. He gets it from me and his mom.’ Mom kept a scrapbook with all the clippings she could find on you. She’d buy newspapers, magazines, print stuff from the internet. Every win, every write up, it’s all in a book.”
“I just wanted to ride,” Derek says. “It wasn’t just some foolhardy teenage bullshit. Sure, Kate convinced me to go with her, but I’d have found a way regardless. It was in my blood, and I needed it like oxygen. When I got hurt…” He shakes his head. “There was no reason to go on living.” He thinks about his mother, clipping blurbs about him despite him leaving and his hateful words to her.
“Cora’s like that,” Laura states. “I’ve never understood the compulsion, but nothing is more important to her than riding horses. I think Mom was like that, but not Dad. I think that’s why she could convince him to quit the circuit so easily.”
“I never understood why Cora’s dream was okay but mine wasn’t,” Derek says.
“Mom didn’t want you to get hurt,” Laura replies. “Seems she had a good reason.”
“I got hurt because my entire world had ended and I shouldn’t been on a bull,” Derek snaps. “It’s my own damn fault that I ruined myself.”
“Pretty sure Kate had something to do with that.”
“I’m still the one who got into that chute.”
They lapse into silence, the only sound the soft swoop of the swing as Laura pushes herself with her foot. “It’ll get easier,” Laura says. “We’re here for you, Derek. Anything you need.” She stands and places a hand on his shoulder when she passes. “You’re home.”
The next morning, Derek finds the scrapbook in an old chest. The edges are charred, the back pages too burnt to see anything, but much of it is intact. He takes it with him as he visits his his parents’ graves for the first time. He sits down on the grass between them and looks through the book. Laura hadn’t been kidding. He skims interviews he forgot he’d given and looks at write ups he’d never seen. His entire career saved within the pages of a charred scrapbook.
He sets it aside, stares at the headstones, and cries. He cries for a long time, until there’s nothing left but hiccups and a sore throat.
Then he talks to them. He tells them that he’s sorry, about his days on the rodeo, Kate, his injury, drifting. Then he tells them about Stiles and the ranch hands and the sheriff. “You’d like them,” he says with a smile. “And I think you’d love Stiles as much as I do.”
He wipes his eyes hastily and reads the names over and over. “I miss them,” Derek admits. “I miss their ranch, and Talia, the guys, and Stiles. God, I miss Stiles. It doesn’t feel the same being here. Too much has changed. It doesn’t feel like home, but a strange place where I don’t belong.” He tears at some grass and twirls a blade between his fingers.
“Cora’s still angry at me. She may never forgive me. I don’t think I deserve to be forgiven,” he tells the headstones.
He stays out there all day, saying things aloud he hasn’t had the courage to admit to himself over the years. When he’s done, he feels drained and exhausted, so he goes straight to bed.
The next day, he leads Triskele into the pasture. When he looks up and expects to see flat golden plains and a white farmhouse instead of mountains and a wooden house, Derek realizes that this isn’t home, not anymore.
Stiles ignores the knock on the door. He’s facing away from the door, staring out the window, but hears the door when it opens. A moment later, the bed dips and a hand covers his arm.
“Come on, kiddo,” his dad says. “You can’t spend another day in bed.”
“Yes, I can,” Stiles says.
“It’s just a few people coming to look at the property,” the sheriff says. “It’s not the end of the world.”
“Just feels like it,” Stiles says miserably.
The sheriff sighs. “You know this is best for Derek,” he says gently. “He should be with his sisters.”
“But what about me?” Stiles asks, tears forming again. He rubs his eyes, which are already sore from the last few days. At least the sheriff doesn’t tell him I told you so.
Stiles lies in bed after his dad leaves. He stares at the wooden wolf sitting on his nightstand, the only remaining thing that lets him know Derek was real instead of some dream. It’s been a week since they’ve talked, three weeks since he’s left, and Stiles misses him more than he thought possible.
Isaac brings Stiles lunch, but he leaves it on the nightstand untouched. He even ignores Scott’s call from California.
Scott’s gone, Derek is gone, and very soon, the ranch and Buttercup will be, too.
Stiles can’t think of a reason to get out of bed, so he doesn’t.
Stiles is in the living room, watching television with his dad, when they hear a knock on the door. They exchange a look. It’s early evening, but they aren’t expecting any guests, and the ranch hands have gone home for the night.
Stiles gets up to answer the door. When he opens it, he finds Derek on the other side, and grips the door for support. He feels a rush of confused feelings – relief, hope, anger, and hurt. “What are you doing here?” Stiles asks just as his dad comes into the hall.
“Hello, sir,” Derek says. “Can I come in?”
Stiles opens the door and steps aside as Derek enters the house. He stands there awkwardly until the sheriff leads them into the living room. Derek is in his house, he’s back within Stiles’ reach. The sheriff turns off the television and sits in his recliner while Derek takes the couch. Stiles remains standing. His limbs are vibrating, and he feels like he might flutter away.
“What are you doing here?” Stiles asks again. He can’t get his hopes up, can’t go through that again. Now that Derek’s here, he just wishes he’d leave again so his heart doesn’t break anymore.
“Um, I have a proposition,” Derek says. “I was wondering if I could invest in a share of your farm.”
Stiles is stunned into silence, his mouth hanging open. That’s not what he expected to hear.
The sheriff looks at Derek in confusion. “Son, I don’t understand.”
“So, now you want to take my ranch from me?” Stiles snaps, angry and lashing out. “You come back, play nice until you get the farm, then leave me brokenhearted and take my ranch?”
“I would never do that to you, Stiles,” Derek says.
“Wait a minute,” the sheriff says. “What the hell are you talking about, Derek? You want to buy the ranch?”
“Yes, sir,” Derek says. “Before I left, I’d gone over the books with Parrish a few times. I can buy a part of the farm, enough to keep you from having to sell, and then invest some money into finishing building things need for the goats and the horse training business.”
“Where are you getting this money from?” the sheriff asks. “Cause you’re not talking about a small sum.”
“It’s mine,” Derek explains. “Left over from the rodeo and from my part of my parents’ life insurance money.”
The sheriff huffs out an aggravated sigh and runs a hand over his face. He looks at Derek in disbelief. “Why? Why would you want to do that with your money?”
“Because you saved my life,” Derek says, looking the sheriff in the eye, “the day you came after me and offered me a job.”
No one says anything, and then the sheriff turns towards Stiles. Stiles waits without breathing as Derek also turns and finally looks at him. “And because you’re everything,” Derek says.
The sheriff watches the two of them before turning back to Derek. Stiles feels disappointed when Derek turns back to his dad. “And, sir, this is my home. If I’m still welcome here.”
“So, you’re back?” Stiles asks.
Derek nods. “If you’ll have me and Triskele.”
Stiles takes a few steps forward, and Derek stands. He waits as Stiles stares at him. His brain is going too fast, his entire body is trembling, and he can’t seem to sort his thoughts. But the one thing he can pick out is Derek is back Derek is back.
Stiles wraps Derek in a tight hug, and they both just hold on to each other for a long time. Finally, with his mouth pressed against Derek’s neck, Stiles says, “But if you ever fucking leave me again, I’ll kick your ass.”
Derek whispers, “I’m never leaving you again.”
“Are you absolutely sure, son?” the sheriff asks, coming up to them. “That’s a lot of money. It’s not something that should be done lightly.”
Stiles reluctantly lets Derek go, but doesn’t move away from him. Derek nods at the sheriff. “I’m sure.”
He holds out his hand to shake, but the sheriff pulls him into a hug. Stiles watches as his dad whispers, “Thank you.”
Stiles is stretched out behind Derek, pressed against Derek’s back, with his arms wrapped around his torso as they lie on a blanket in the hayloft naked together later. He can’t tear himself away from Derek, hasn’t been able to stop touching him since they got home, not even when they put Triskele into the barn.
“So, you have a driver’s license now,” Stiles says in amusement. “And an ID.”
Derek nods. “Now I can stop relying on you to drive me into town.”
“I never minded.”
“So,” Stiles says, drawing out the O as he drags his finger around Derek’s chest, “with all this money, any chance we can, I don’t know, get a new hay baler?”
Derek laughs, and Stiles thinks it’s the most beautiful sound in the world. “Already asking for stuff.”
“You said you wanted to invest in the ranch,” Stiles exclaims. “A new hay baler invests in my sanity!”
Derek pecks him on the lips. “I’ve already started pricing them.”
Stiles slaps Derek’s chest. “You have?” He kisses Derek excitedly. “I love you, you know that?” Derek just smiles.
A few moments later, Stiles asks, “What did Laura and Cora say?”
“They were upset,” Derek says. “But I think they understood.” He pauses and Stiles drags his fingers through the dark hair on Derek’s thigh. “They’re like strangers,” he goes on. “I want to get to know them again. And I hope one day they’ll forgive me.”
“They’ll forgive you,” Stiles says confidently. “They’re your sisters.”
“I walked out on them,” Derek says.
“You were grieving.”
“You can’t hold on to that guilt forever, Derek.”
“I don’t know if I can ever go back there,” Derek says, “not permanently. I’m not sure how often I can visit. It’s too painful.”
“Maybe one day.”
“There wasn’t a place for me. They learned to live without me and I just didn’t fit in there.”
“You belong here, with me,” Stiles says.
“Maybe that’s the thing now,” Derek says. “That used to be my home, but I’m not the Derek Hale that left there at 18. Even before I fell in love with you, this place felt like my home.”
“I’m just glad you found a home,” Stiles says, squeezing his arms tighter around Derek.
“I promised them I’d see them at least once every couple of weeks. I want to feel like they’re my sisters again.”
“Do I get to go home with you next time?” Stiles asks.
“I’m not going without you.”
“Good.” He kisses the back of Derek’s neck.
“Cora wants to meet you,” Derek continues. “She says she has to determine if you are worthy of her brother or not.”
“I’m terrified of her,” Stiles says. “If she gave you a bloody nose when she saw you, I’m terrified what she’ll do to me.”
“She doesn’t have six years of anger and disappointment pent up for you.”
“Hey,” Stiles says, forcing Derek to look at him. “It’s okay, you know. That you’re not okay. You’ll get there, I know you will.”
“I know,” Derek says with a smile.
Stiles rolls on top of Derek and kisses him. Things won’t be easy, and they’ve got a lot of work to do to the ranch, but they have a fighting chance now.
Stiles snuggles back down and holds Derek closer. Derek’s home, and Stiles gets to keep his home. He knows that’s the best he could wish for. Derek covers them with a blanket as they stare out through the hayloft door at the stars, listening to the quiet sounds of the sleeping ranch and the chorus of cicadas.
One year later
Stiles hangs up the phone as he pencils in the new customer under his name. They are almost full for the fall season. Boyd and Derek only have one slot left, Parrish has none, and Stiles has three. Sure, Stiles is only teaching the little kids and complete novices, unlike the other three who are teaching more advanced riders. Derek’s even starting a competition riding section this season. But Stiles loves passing his and his mother’s love of horses on to a new generation of riders. He smiles as he closes the appointment book.
Derek and Isaac come in for lunch, muddy and laughing. Derek immediately walks over to Stiles and kisses him. “You got me filthy, thanks,” Stiles frowns, though he goes in for another kiss.
“I sold all the goat milk and cheese in town,” Isaac says as he grabs a soda from the fridge.
“Awesome,” Stiles says.
“Leon at the general store told me to tell y’all that he’s getting the shipment of peaches in tomorrow.”
Stiles grins as he sets the sandwiches out for everyone. “Sweet. We can make those peach preserves this weekend.”
“Laura and Cora are coming this weekend,” Derek says as Boyd, Erica, and Parrish come into the house. Erica’s work clothes are as dirty as the boys. Leave it up to her to get right out in the mud and do something with the horses.
“Can we not make peach preserves when they’re here?” Stiles asks. “Does Cora hate peaches? She hates peaches, doesn’t she? She seems the type. I’m gonna text her and tell her she’s an idiot.”
“She doesn’t hate peaches,” Derek says with a roll of his eyes. “I just hope we’ll have time.”
“We’ll make time,” Stiles says with a shrug. He looks at the ranch hands. “Cookout Saturday night.” Everyone nods in agreement.
“Oh!” Stiles exclaims. “I talked to Scott this morning. He got a girlfriend. Her name’s Kira. He said he’s nervous about me meeting her when I go visit next month.”
“I need to get laid,” Isaac moans.
“You could always ask out Derek’s sister,” Parrish teases. “I know you have a crush on her.”
Derek glares at Parrish and then Isaac. “No.”
“Cora is hot.”
Derek’s glare intensifies. “She’s out of your league.”
“What are you trying to say?” Isaac exclaims.
Stiles listens to them bicker through the rest of lunch. He’s making his dad’s favorite for dinner, so he goes ahead and takes out the chicken to thaw. He kisses Derek for longer than necessary before leaving the house again.
But they don’t go straight to work. Instead, Derek and Stiles go into the pasture and find Buttercup and Talia. Stiles pets Triskele as he passes, and Derek gives him an apple and talks to him for a few moments as he pets his mane. Stiles preens when Talia just eyes him warily instead of bolting off as he passes. He speaks softly to Buttercup when he gets to her, then climbs onto her back and nudges her into a gallop. It doesn’t take long for Derek to catch up on the back of Talia.
They ride through the fields, their hair blowing in the wind. Stiles feels free as he moves as one with Buttercup through acres of the ranch, past streams and trees and herds of cattle with Derek at his side. Stiles looks out over the golden fields and green pastures, at his mother’s family’s land, at his and Derek’s land. He glances over at Derek, who looks beautiful and happy on the back of his black horse, catches his eyes, and smiles.