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A Long Way To Go

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[Derek is 10, Stiles is 4]

There's a small boy in the liquor section of the store. He's standing in front of a rack of wine bottles, his body mostly hidden from the view of a passer-by behind a stack of boxes that haven't been put away yet, and he is poking a bottle with his finger curiously. His head is tilted to the right and his mouth is slightly open.

Not even Derek would have noticed him if his sensitive werewolf ears hadn't picked up on the boy's heartbeat by accident. Now, watching the child from a distance, he wonders why the boy is here, and whether he's waiting for someone or if he's lost. It is more likely that he's gotten lost, Derek thinks and strains his ears to listen for evidence, but he doesn't hear anyone in the store running around, worried, calling out a name and looking for a child frantically, so maybe not.

The boy wraps his chubby hands around the bottleneck, and Derek realizes that the boy is about to pull the bottle out of the rack. He also notices that the boy's grip around the bottle isn't firm enough, and in his mind Derek can already see how things are going to play out. The boy will pull the bottle out, the bottle will slip between his fingers because the child won't expect the sudden weight, and gravitation will take over. The bottle will fall and break into a million sharp pieces. There will be shards everywhere and blood, and the child will be crying, hurt and bloody ...

The boy tugs on the bottleneck.

Derek moves faster than his parents allow him to when he's in town and catches the bottle in the nick of time, the back of his hand nearly touching the floor.

The child blinks and big brown eyes turn towards Derek.

"Are you stupid?" Derek asks, and he knows that he's unfair because his younger siblings have pulled stuff like that as well. Small children just don't think about the consequences of their actions, his mother always explains.

"Give it to me," the boy says and flaps his hand impatiently. "Give it to me."

"No. Bottles aren't playthings for small children," Derek says with all the dignity and wisdom of a ten-year-old.

"I'm not small," the boy huffs, drawing his brows together and raising his chin.

"Oh, yes, you are."

"I'm not."

Derek shakes his head, decides that talking to that child is useless and straightens up.

"Give it to me, please?" the boy asks hopefully, eyes fastened on the bottle again.

Without a word Derek puts the bottle on a higher shelf where it doesn't belong, but at least the boy won't be able to reach it. However, the boy just pouts for a second, and then he looks at the lower shelf, which he can reach, and the many bottles that are still right there.

Quickly Derek steps between the child and the shelf. "Where are your parents?"

The boy shrugs and tries to step around Derek. Derek glowers at him, but the boy doesn't seem to be particularly intimidated.

Derek wants to bare his fangs, wants to growl and demand respect because young ones have to respect and obey their elders, everyone in a pack knows that. What's wrong with humans that they don't understand something that simple?

He doesn't show his teeth, though. His father has made it very clear that they are never to show their wolf-side around humans, and Derek knows better than to disobey his father. He'll just have to get the boy back to his pack in a different way if the boy doesn't answer properly.

Derek takes the boy's shoulders with his hands, drawing him closer, pushes his nose to the boy's neck and inhales deeply. There's the boy's scent, human and clean and individual, somewhat interesting, but there's also another scent clinging to the boy's skin, very faint and female and grown-up. Derek assumes that it must be the mother's scent and that she must be the one the child is with.

"... tickles," the boy giggles, and Derek pulls back. He sniffs the air, and he believes that he can pick up on the female's scent in the store even if it's faint and distant. But it isn't necessary anymore anyway because the sounds of quick steps and an increased heartbeat tell him that the boy's mother is apparently looking for her wayward son already.

"Come," Derek says to the boy. "Let's go find your mother."

The boy crosses his arms and frowns up at Derek. "Don't go with strangers." His pronunciation of the last word is a little wrangled and it sounds like something that he has been told plenty of times.

Exasperation rises in Derek. "Oh, come on," he says impatiently. "Don't you want to go to your mom?"

"Mommy," the boy repeats thoughtfully and he smiles suddenly, his eyes delighted. "I want to go to Mommy." And just like that, the boy must have forgotten about his previous words because he grabs Derek's hand and looks expectantly up at him.

The sudden contact startles Derek.

Humans are really, really weird.

He shakes the thought away and makes a few steps, already knowing that the boy's mother is close, and indeed, she rounds the corner a second later.

"Mommy!" The boy lets go of Derek's hand immediately and runs towards his mother, throwing his small body into her arms.

"Oh, thank God," the woman breathes, kneeling on the floor and hugging the child tightly, and she's whispering words to her son, which Derek could understand if he tried, but he doesn't because these two are not part of his pack. Derek has already done more than necessary and Uncle Peter will call for him any moment. He needs to go and pay for the milk.

Derek turns around and starts to walk away, but the woman calls after him, "Hey!"

Derek stops and hears the sound of the woman's flip-flops on the floor. With an internal sigh he turns again and meets her eyes, which look just like her son's in color and shape.

"I wanted to thank you. You looked out for my son, didn't you?"

Derek shrugs, itching to get away.

"What's your name?" the woman asks.

Derek knows and dislikes that particular question. People always ask it when what they really want to know is who his parents are. Usually it means that he's in trouble.

Derek shoves his left hand into his pocket and clenches it into a fist. "Derek Hale."

The woman smiles. "Thank you, Derek. Again," she adds with a somewhat awkward laugh. "It's nice to meet you. I'm Mrs. Stilinski -"

"Derek." Derek's ears pick up on his uncle's voice and he knows that Uncle Peter is waiting for him outside.

The woman is still talking. As a human she hasn't heard anything. "- and this is my s-"

"I have to go," Derek interrupts and walks to the cashier quickly, money already in his hand.

"Bye, Derek," the boy says. Derek ignores it and waits impatiently to pay for the milk.

"You know you have to stay by my side. You can't just walk around on your own."

Derek blinks, surprised that his ears are still tuned in to their voices even though the woman and her son are walking towards the meat isle in the opposite direction.

"But, Mommy," the child whines, "you were talking with Scott's mom and Scott wasn't here and it was so boring. Boring."

"Still -"

"And now Derek is my friend, too."

Derek almost turns around to stare at the boy because of the conviction in his voice, but then it's his turn and he can finally pay and get out of the store where Uncle Peter is waiting for him in the car patiently, shielded from the pouring rain.

Friend ...

Derek rolls his eyes and climbs into the car. Small children think that everything is easy. The boy has really no idea. Derek doesn't do friends outside the pack.

*

[Derek is 13, Stiles is 7]

It's evening, close to sunset, and Derek is running through the woods with Laura when he picks up on the scent.

Humans. Two. Male. Young ones. Close.

Too close.

Tonight is the night of the full moon, and Derek can't wait for it, but now humans are in their territory. He looks at his sister and Laura exchanges a glance with him. She seems worried and is already shifting back into an entirely human body.

"We gotta find them and make them leave," Laura says.

Derek grits his teeth. His body is screaming for him to remain wolf and to run and hunt with the pack. But Derek knows that Laura is right and he forces himself to change back into human as well and follows her.

"They must be children," Laura says, her nose wrinkled. "What are they doing here without adult supervision?"

Derek growls instead of answering. The scents are getting stronger and one of them smells somewhat familiar, but Derek can't place it. It isn't the scent of one of his classmates and Derek is pretty sure that it isn't the scent of anyone from school at all, and outside of school he doesn't really know anyone who isn't pack.

He frowns, confused to be unable to place the scent, but then they're almost there and a voice is saying, "Are you sure we're on the right track?"

"C'mon, Scott, I read that -"

"What are you doing here?" Laura interrupts, and both boys flinch, their heads whipping around towards her, seconds after Derek comes to stand next to his sister.

They are small, with unruly hair, one dark, the other a shade lighter. The dark haired one - Scott, Derek reminds himself - ducks his head, his heart beating fast and loud. The other boy stares at Derek and Laura with big, brown eyes - and they, too, are weirdly familiar. And although Scott and the other boy are standing close together, their scents mixing, Derek knows that it's the other boy's scent he knows from somewhere he can't remember, not Scott's.

"We're looking for a flower. My mom's birthday is -" not-Scott says, and his heartbeat is fast. A little fear, but mostly curiosity.

"This is private property," Laura snaps.

Scott hunches his shoulders, and the other boy looks a little more uncomfortable, but he still dares to talk back, saying, "It's just a forest. We aren't doing anything -"

"Private property," Laura repeats sharply. "Do you know what that means, boy? And do you know that illegal entry of someone else's property is a crime?"

Derek doubts that the children know that. The boys look like they are less than ten years old.

"My dad's a cop," the boy says defiantly.

"Stiles," Scott hisses, tugging at his friend's sleeve. "Stop it." But despite the intense smell of fear that is clinging to Scott, he's staying right next to Stiles, not backing away or leaving his friend alone.

"He is," Stiles insists and looks at Scott. "He used those words when we played hide-and-seek last week and I climbed over the picket fence and hid in the Mahealani's garden and Danny's mom caught me. Dad said we can't just play everywhere because what we did was ... was ..." He licks his lips and frowns. "It was what she said." He points at Laura.

"So, we should leave then," Scott says. "Or my dad's gonna get angry."

The smell of fear thickens.

"Yes, you should," Laura says. "And if you leave now, we won't tell your parents."

Scott looks at Stiles, but Stiles looks pleadingly at Laura. "Please, can't we just -"

"No!" Derek barks, and both Scott and Stiles flinch and stare at him, paling. "You leave now and don't come back!"

Laura glances at him, and then she touches his wrist lightly, a warning.

Scott looks away hastily and pulls on Stiles's sleeve again, this time more emphatically.

Stiles's shoulders hunch and his lips twist unhappily, but although he narrows his eyes, he doesn't avert his gaze. "No need to shout," he says petulantly, but he retreats a step on Scott's insistence. "See, we're going. Happy?"

"Yes. Go."

They walk a few steps, almost stumbling over a root once or twice, and then it's Scott who turns around once more. "And you're not going to tell our parents, right?"

"No. Not if you leave," Laura says firmly, her fingers still curled around Derek's wrist.

Scott nods, smelling relieved and his heartbeat steadier than before, and together with Stiles he makes his way back to town. Stiles looks back over his shoulder once, but he doesn't argue, and it's only when they are out of sight and probably believe to be out of hearing, that Stiles says, "They weren't very nice people."

"Do you know who they are?" Scott sounds a little out of breath already, but they don't slow down, and that's a good thing because Derek can almost taste the moonlight although the moon isn't in sight yet.

"No. I'm gonna ask my dad ..."

"We should go back to the others," Laura says.

Derek nods and turns his attention and his senses back to his pack, away from those nosy kids. He's going to run tonight and when the morning comes, their scents will be gone and any trace of those boys will have disappeared. Derek won't have to think about them again, ever.

However, it still annoys him somewhat that he doesn't know why Stiles's eyes and scent had seemed familiar.

*

[Derek is 16, Stiles is 10]

Derek is waiting in front of the cinema, his hands sweaty and his heart beating a little too fast. It has only been weeks since the day he has met Kate for the first time and he still cannot believe that she has been willing to give him the time and day, let alone date him. Yet, he has been lucky because Kate does. She has smiled at him and told him that she thinks he's really interesting and so different from everyone else. She has wanted to get to know him.

Him!

Derek Hale. The quiet sixteen-year old boy who has no friends in school and never spends much time in town. It isn't like he's disliked in school or anything, just that he's invisible because he has never trusted anyone outside of the pack before. He's always sitting at lunch alone or with one of his siblings, and it's been a long time since anyone tried to be his friend.

But then he met Kate at the edge of the woods one day and everything changed.

She isn't just his friend, though, she's so much more and he trusts her. She's beautiful and smart and strong, and, yes, okay, she's a few years older, but Derek is convinced that age doesn't matter when it comes to love. And it has to be love because nowadays she's all he sees, she's all he wants to see and nothing in the world matters but Kate.

Derek smiles and wipes his hands on his jeans.

Maybe it's time for Kate to meet his family. All of his family that is and not just Laura because Laura has already met her once and decided that she cannot stand Kate.

But it's probably that Laura is just jealous because Derek is happy. Because Derek believes that he might have found a suitable mate in Kate.

"Your mate? That woman?" Laura had hissed when he'd mentioned it to her. "No way."

"Why not? Did you see the way she moves? She's strong. She's smart. She's -"

"A suitable mate," Laura had interrupted, using that annoying superior tone of hers that Derek hated, "means that a person is compatible with you. That the person both challenges you and supports you and that you do the same for that person. A mate fits into the pack because a mate fits to you like two pieces of a puzzle fitting together. You grow together, you fight together, you laugh together, you live together. Finding and choosing a mate isn't just lust on first sight, no. It's both an instinct of compatibility and a steadfast love developed over time. That's how you find your mate."

"Kate is that."

"Oh, yeah? Because you've known her all that long ... Does she even support you?"

"Yes."

"Give me a sample. What does she do?"

"She ..." It had been difficult to think of something under Laura's critical gaze. "She doesn't mind being seen with me in town."

Laura had rolled her eyes. "I'm sure that's a real hardship. But let's pretend it counts. How do you support her? By not minding that people see you in town with her, perhaps?"

He'd growled then. "Very funny. I would support her in any way she wanted if she asked. I would do anything for her."

Laura had obviously wanted to say something to the last part, but apparently thought better of it. "But she doesn't ask?"

"No. She's strong."

Laura had looked at him like he was missing some crucial point, but he hadn't known what she'd meant, and he still doesn't know now that he's standing here, waiting for Kate's arrival impatiently because Kate has been out of town for the past ten days. Something of a family thing, she'd said when he'd asked and then she'd kissed him before he could say or ask anything else, and he hadn't really wanted to talk anymore anyway once their mouths had met in a kiss.

He still feels hot when he thinks of her body sliding against his, and he really doesn't understand Laura's problem.

"Does she challenge you then?" Laura had asked once. "Makes you more? Makes you stronger? Makes you understand the world and see it in a different light?"

He had flushed. "Oh, yes."

"Oh, please. I didn't mean it like that."

But no matter what Laura had said, Derek still doesn't know what she had been going on about. And he doesn't care because Laura is just his sister while Kate is -

Derek is startled out of his thoughts when someone rounds the corner at full speed and bumps into him. While Derek has been too lost in his thoughts to step aside in time, his reflexes still allow him to catch the other person at the elbows and hold the person up.

"Sorry, sorry," the boy says before ever looking up, and Derek, catching a whiff of his scent, recognizes him before he meets these brown eyes.

Stiles. The boy that walked into the woods on the night of a full moon years ago together with his friend whose name Derek has forgotten.

Stiles's mouth drops open when he, too, recognizes whom he has run into - and Derek knows that Stiles knows who Derek is because the stutter in the boy's heartbeat gives the moment of recognition away. However, whether Stiles remembers the incident three years ago or just knows about Derek and his family from the gossip in town is impossible to tell.

"... sorry?" Stiles says again.

Derek nods, but Stiles doesn't run off immediately. Instead he says, "It's just ... I'm late. Scott's -" Right, his friend's name was Scott. "- waiting for me and I wasn't looking and -" He keeps moving his eyes from Derek's face downwards and up again, looking more and more distressed.

Derek frowns and wonders why Stiles is still explaining himself. He apologized. He should already be on his way to his friend.

"- and I'll be more careful next time, I promise, and ... and I'm sorry, so -" He shrugs helplessly, and that shake moves Derek's arms, too.

That's when Derek realizes that he's still holding on to Stiles's arms, that he's never let him go.

Startled, he releases the boy and takes a step back, and he can smell relief rolling off of Stiles.

"Sorry. Again," Stiles says, more quietly this time, and then he runs off, disappearing down the street.

Derek doesn't waste another moment thinking about Stiles because Kate catches his eyes from afar. He quickly walks over to her and climbs into her car. He kisses her hello for long minutes, and when they finally part, Kate smirks at him. "Miss me?"

He should play coy, but Derek has never been good at that. "Yes, I did," he admits.

Kate smiles widely. He reads victory in the lines of her face and satisfaction in the pulse of her blood, and it's like happiness, he thinks because of course she would want him to miss her.

"When I was away, I thought about you a lot, Derek," Kate says. "You are very valuable to me."

This. This must be love.

"I want to know more about you," Kate says. "Everything you are ready to tell me, I really want to know."

There's no lie in her words, and Derek has never been happier in his life.

He takes her hand and smiles at her.

"How about I show you my place?"

She looks at him and he smells excitement from her, although she says coyly, "You never showed me before."

"Would you like to see it?" He knows the answer already.

"Yes," she breathes and kisses him hard.

She's so pleased and happy, more than he expected even in his most hopeful moments, and this is all he needs to know. This is true love. It cannot be anything else.

When his family dies in a fire only days later, he realizes that he'd been wrong all along, that he'd read Kate wrong all the time and that he'd lost everything because he had trusted someone outside his pack.

Derek vows to himself that he will never make the same mistake again.

*

[Derek is 19, Stiles is 13]

New York is loud and smelly because millions of people roam the streets every day. It's almost impossible to pick up on a single scent because so many are mixing on the streets.

After three years Derek is used to it and he even likes the anonymity it gives him. Almost no one ever remembers him or Laura here, no one knows anything about the Hale family and there's no gossip about their family because no one could ever give a shit about them. They aren't important to anyone, but each other, and Derek likes it that way. If he never sees or hears anything of Beacon Hills again, it will be too soon.

One day, however, when he's on his way back to their small apartment, his senses pick up on a familiar scent that reminds him of Beacon Hills, and Derek whirls around in the middle of the street because his first thought is, Danger. That's what his mind connects with Beacon Hills nowadays. His second thought, however, immediately following the first, is that the impression tastes a lot like grief, and the realization of it soothes Derek a little even before his eyes find the person that has startled his usual calm.

It's a boy, a teenager, obviously right in the beginning of the awkward process of losing baby fat and gaining gangly limbs that he is going to have problems to properly coordinate for a few years. Stiles. His hair has been buzzed short and he's wearing about six layers of shirts, most of them in dark colors, and black jeans. There's an unhappy twist to his mouth and the line of his shoulders is tense. Even from the distance Derek is able to make out the devastated look in the boy's eyes as he stares at nothing.

He looks lost and lonely.

Derek frowns and wonders what has put that kind of expression on Stiles's face.

He's grieving, obviously, mourning, Derek's nose tells him, but whom or what Derek doesn't know.

He doesn't care, either, Derek reminds himself. He doesn't know this kid, has met him twice in his life, and Stiles isn't pack. Derek doesn't care about anyone who isn't pack, at least not about their opinion of him or their emotional health. Derek should just go home and wait for Laura, the only living person in this world that matters.

But he must have missed Beacon Hills, his former home, somewhat more than he has been admitting to himself for the past three years because Derek cannot manage to tear himself from the spot and start walking away quite yet.

Or maybe it's the fact that the sight of Stiles brings back memories of the fateful day when he brought that woman to the house of his family and became responsible for their deaths because he was the one who had trusted that woman and placed her approval above his family's safety.

Derek's fingers curl into a tight fist and he focuses on breathing, very careful to keep the wolf under control. He cannot lose it.

Then, suddenly, Stiles's expression changes. He straightens his body and pastes a smile on his face. It's too bright, too sudden, and not real at all; Derek recognizes an artificial smile that is used for the sake of someone else when he sees it. And even if he hadn't seen the way Stiles had looked only seconds ago, the haunting grief and sorrow in Stiles's scent would still give him away to a werewolf.

But he isn't meeting a werewolf, so maybe Stiles can convince that person that he's fine.

Derek recognizes the man that joins Stiles as someone from the Beacon Hills Police Department. His mother knew him. Mr. Stilinski, Derek's mind adds helpfully, who's most likely Stiles's father - and Stiles must be some kind of nickname because no one in their right mind would name a child Stiles Stilinski. Derek also remembers that before the fire happened Mr. Stilinski had been one of the candidates for the position of the sheriff of Beacon Hills.

Derek doesn't know if he'd been elected or not, but he does know that the same thick cloud of sorrow that is clinging to Stiles is surrounding Mr. Stilinski. Derek cannot pick Mr. Stilinski's scent out of the masses of people around them like Stiles's, but his pained emotions are written in the lines of Mr. Stilinski's face and in the way he's holding himself anyway.

"Sorry for the wait, son," Mr. Stilinski says to Stiles, who waves the apology away quickly.

"Never mind, Dad. It's interesting here. So many people, and have you heard some of the stuff they are talking about?"

"Please tell me you haven't eavesdropped," Mr. Stilinski pleads, slinging his arm around his son's shoulders and starting to steer him forward. He's a little more relaxed now, less overwhelmed by sorrow, mostly because some of it has been replaced by something that looks like resigned, weary acceptance of his son's antics.

Stiles turns wide, innocent eyes on him and says, "I would never, Dad. So, listen, I was thinking. When we're back home, Scott and I could ..."

Derek doesn't find out what Stiles was thinking because Stiles and his father walk down to the subway station and the incoming train drowns Stiles's voice out.

Slowly Derek's fingers uncurl and he exhales in relief. Whatever has brought Stiles and his father to New York, it doesn't matter. Apparently they are going back to Beacon Hills soon. It makes it easier for Derek to breathe because he doesn't want anyone from his past in New York, doesn't want to have a constant reminder of something he cannot forget anyway.

He really doesn't know why he thinks that he would have seen Stiles or his father ever again if they had stayed in New York because it's more likely that they would have been swallowed by the masses of people than him running into them ever again. New York is huge, he wouldn't have had to worry.

Determined Derek puts it all out of his mind and walks back to the apartment he shares with Laura - his sister, his Alpha, his pack, his home.

Beacon Hills and its inhabitants are nothing more than a memory nowadays, nothing but a persistent ghost that keeps haunting him, and it will never again be more. Derek has no plans on ever returning to Beacon Hills.

*

[Derek is 22, Stiles is 16]

Their old house is still in ruins.

Their ...

But that's wrong, isn't it? There isn't them anymore, there's just Derek, and Derek is alone in the world now. Laura is dead, has been killed and cut into halves by hunters, and Derek has nothing to lose, nothing to gain. All that's left for him is to take revenge on whoever is responsible for Laura's death and for the fact that he had to bury the upper half of her body alone.

He will find them. And he will kill them.

He breathes, staring down at the earth that is hiding the remains of his sister, and he can hardly think. His sister, his Alpha, his pack, his home - all gone, all lost.

He's lost.

What is he supposed to do now? Where should he start? What can he do?

His mind doesn't work properly, too chaotic and messed up, and it's almost a relief when he gets distracted by a scent in the distance.

Stiles, he knows instantly even after all these years, but Stiles has a companion, and Derek knows that scent, too. It's the other boy, the friend he's always mentioning - Scott, Derek remembers after a moment -, but ...

Wait! What's that?

Derek sniffs the air and goose bumps break out all over his skin.

There's something wrong with Scott's scent. Stiles's scent is still the same, individual and human, but Scott's has something else mixed into, something different, something ...

Something wolfish.

Derek pales because he knows what this means, and he quickly walks towards them, careful not to make a sound. He hears their voices, now, and Stiles is saying something about lycanthropy, and Derek's heart stops before he realizes that Stiles has been joking. Scott seems to appreciate the joke little, though, and they keep looking for something.

An inhaler.

Derek reaches into his pocket and touches the one he has found. Scott's it seems to be, not a link to whoever killed Laura.

Stiles notices Derek first, the familiar brown eyes widening, and he slaps Scott's shoulder. Scott looks around, sees Derek and stands up, staring at Derek. Stiles looks a little more uncomfortable in his skin, but Derek doesn't have the time to try and read his expression or his scent. Scott is more important because Derek can smell it, see it, feel it.

Scott is a werewolf. He has been bitten and obviously has no idea what has happened or what he has become.

That's ... dangerous.

Also, apparently it has happened the night before, and it wasn't Derek or Laura, so it means that another werewolf is in town. An Alpha.

That's even worse.

The whole thing has become a lot more complicated within a few seconds, and Derek doesn't like it one bit.

"What are you doing here?" he asks briskly, walking towards them. "Huh? This is private property." It pains him to remember that he had had exactly this conversation with them once upon a time already, only last time Laura had been with him and their family had been alive.

Derek's chest constricts painfully, making it impossible for him to focus properly on the boys' heartbeats or scents.

"Ah." Stiles looks uncomfortable. "Sorry, man, we didn't know."

"Yeah. We were just ... looking for something that ..." Scott says haltingly, his voice trailing off. When Derek lifts his eyebrows, Scott adds nervously, "Forget it."

Derek loses patience with them because somewhere deep inside he's aching. They are intruders, and yet Scott isn't just that anymore. Scott is like Derek now, and Derek really doesn't know what this means or how he feels about it. He cannot figure it out. At least, not right now. Not here. Not in front of them. He needs to be alone and think about it.

He chucks the inhaler at Scott, and Scott catches it automatically, looking stunned when he realizes what it is. Derek doesn't wait for him to ask any questions. Without another word he turns and walks away, still feeling Stiles's eyes on his back even when Scott is already turning away and suggesting that they leave.

"Dude," Stiles says. "That was Derek Hale. You remember, right? He's only like a few years older than us."

It surprises Derek a little that this is the first thing that comes to Stiles's mind. His age. Not the fire, the deaths, or just the fact that his family had mostly stayed away from other people for as long as they had lived. Derek really doesn't know what to do with that tidbit of information about Stiles. He starts to regret that he hadn't been in the mental frame to read him and Scott and their emotions properly.

"Remember what?" Apparently, his age isn't enough information for Scott.

"His family. They all burned in a fire -"

Immediately and consciously, Derek tunes out their voices and quickens his steps because he doesn't want to hear any of it. He needs to think and figure out what to do now and how to proceed from here.

*

[Derek is 27, Stiles is 21]

"He's out in the woods," Lydia says without looking up from her study book when Derek climbs out of his car. She's stretched out on the porch, a green marker in her hand, and Derek can't see her expression. He ignores the words and walks towards the house. When he steps past her, Lydia tilts her head towards him and smirks. "He's out in the woods," she repeats, "all alone, wearing a red hoodie and probably waiting for the big, bad wolf to come and get him."

She's enjoying this far too much, and Derek wonders if she's decided to sit here for the sole purpose of saying those words. He sends her a look that isn't quite a glare because glares almost never work on her and walks into the house.

He hears Danny and Isaac's laughter first, a comfortable and happy sound from upstairs, but it is Allison and Scott he sees first, cuddling on the couch and looking for the entire world like they are still in the first phase of being madly in love when the world is reduced to the two of them. Derek knows for a fact that they've had their fair share of troubles over the years, but they have proved him and his predictions wrong. They are still going strong, stronger with every day, and even Allison's parents don't glare all that much at Scott nowadays.

"Hi, Derek," Allison chirps, her head on Scott's shoulder. Scott nuzzles Allison's hair and raises a hand lazily in greeting. "How was New York?" Allison adds.

"Loud."

Allison giggles, perhaps because Scott's fingers are digging into her side, and grabs Scott's hand, lacing their fingers together.

"How did it go?" Boyd calls, and Derek leaves Scott and Allison to their love fest to check on the others.

He finds Boyd together with Erica and Jackson in the next room, fighting over the controllers of the WiFi. Boyd is mostly baiting them for his own amusement because Jackson is still as competitive as he'd been when Derek first met him, and Erica simply loves to use her body and strength. She enjoys the feeling of healthiness and control because she will never forget the time when she had been different. They stop, though, when Derek enters the room, and he surveys with satisfaction that they are happy and healthy.

"It went reasonably well."

"You know," Erica says, rolling over on the floor, "we would have come along. It's spring break. Not even Lydia or Danny would have complained about missing school."

"You shut your mouth," Jackson says, kicking her shin, but there isn't any force behind it. Erica gets along splendidly with the two most important people in Jackson's life most of the time, only her view regarding the importance of a proper education is different from theirs. Jackson knows this, and Derek is glad that he has grown up and lost some of the aggressions and insecurities that have driven Jackson for most of his life.

"Grumpy, it's not my fault that your on-and-off girlfriend and BFF are both more interested in college than goofing around with you."

"Yeah, that's why you have to put up with us. Must be a real hardship for you," Boyd smirks.

Jackson responds something, but Derek's ears are drawn to the quiet voices upstairs when his name is mentioned.

"Derek's back already? Should we go say Hi?" Danny asks. Derek focuses on him, lets his hearing pick up on his heartbeat and is reassured that Danny is fine. Danny has always been the most easy-going of them. Patient, intelligent and friendly with a self-confidence that had never been faked, and Derek is glad that Danny never changed.

"Well, I'm comfortable right now, but let's ask anyway," Isaac responds before he says without raising his voice, "Hi, Derek. You need us downstairs?"

It's the ease in his voice that reassures Derek the most, that and the missing dread and urgency that has clung to Isaac for so long even after he'd been turned and his abusive father had been killed. Now Isaac isn't scared anymore and he has learned to trust the pack.

"No," Derek says quietly, knowing that Isaac's werewolf hearing will pick up on it easily and that Isaac will relay his words to Danny. "It's fine. Nothing happened and you two keep doing what you were doing. I still have someone to check up on."

"He's out," Erica intones very loudly, and Jackson, Boyd, Lydia and even Scott and Allison join in when they hear Erica's voice, "in the woods. All alone. Wearing a red hoodie. Waiting for the big, bad wolf to come and get him."

Derek glares at Erica, Jackson and Boyd and tells everyone, "Just so you know, I like Isaac and Danny best of you lot."

He hears Isaac repeating his words to Danny, laughing, and Danny says dryly, "Yes, sure he does."

Isaac laughs harder, and Derek decides that he hates everyone. He turns away from Erica, Boyd and Jackson, who at least are easily distracted and restart their fight over the WiFi controllers, and walks past Allison and Scott. Allison is hiding her face in Scott's chest, but her shoulders are shaking from suppressed laughter, and Scott has this telling expression on his face. The one that says that Scott might not be entirely comfortable with the way things are, but he'll be fine with them as long as everyone he cares about is happy.

Derek ignores them and leaves the house.

"I'm sorry," Lydia says, sounding entirely unapologetically, "I didn't know we were still pretending that it isn't Stiles you're always looking for first."

"I just came back. Of course, I'm checking up on the pack. He's part of the pack."

"Yes, and that's all he is." Lydia rolls her eyes. "If only one of you grew a pair of balls ..."

Derek growls. "How are things with Jackson this week, Lydia?"

Lydia flashes him a grin. "Awesome."

"We're good," he hears Jackson's voice from afar, and that means it's true because Jackson is tuned in to Lydia's voice even while he's completely focused on his fight with Erica and Boyd. "Really, really good."

Derek never knows what's worse: The times when Lydia and Jackson are fighting and making everyone around them miserable, or the times when they are almost disgustingly happy together and ganging up to get what they want.

"And do you wanna know why that is, Derek?" Lydia asks innocently, tapping her marker against her book.

"No, not really." Derek starts walking away.

Lydia, as always, ignores what she doesn't want to hear. "It's because Jackson and I are working on it. Maybe it's always two steps forward, one step back with us, but at least we are moving forward and aren't pretending not to be in love just to avoid getting hurt now and then."

Derek pretends not to have heard any of it, which fools no one as he knows perfectly well, but at least it allows him to head off into the woods to search for Stiles. He picks up on his scent quickly the way he always does.

When Derek finds Stiles, he almost laughs because Stiles is exactly where he so often seemed to show up when Derek ran into him in the woods by accident. This time, however, he's relaxed, sitting on the ground, his back is against a tree, and his eyes are closed. He's indeed wearing a red hoodie; apparently that part hadn't been just a stupid joke of the pack.

Derek watches him for a moment and considers how much smaller Stiles was when he came here for the first time, stumbling through the woods together with Scott. Now he's grown up, a young man instead of a child, and more comfortable in his skin than he was as a teen when they met again.

For once Stiles is unaware of his presence. His heartbeat is steady and calm, and his body is relaxed, legs stretched out on the ground, but he isn't asleep.

Derek should probably leave him alone, now that he has checked up on the final member of his pack. It isn't like there is an emergency that would give him an urgent reason to demand Stiles's immediate attention.

He still wants it.

"What are you doing here?" he says loudly, keeping his voice as bland as possible and biting down on a grin.

Stiles's eyes snap open, focusing immediately on Derek. A smile blooms on Stiles's face and Derek hears the happy stutter of Stiles's heart that has become familiar as well.

Derek likes to pretend that he knows what it means. He isn't sure whether Stiles has realized it yet, though, and he might be reading too much into it anyway.

"This is private property," he adds before Stiles can open his mouth.

Stiles laughs out loud, and Derek adores the sound.

"I have the owner's permission to be here," Stiles says and gets to his feet. He doesn't walk towards Derek, though, but leans back against the tree. "He doesn't mind me being around as long as I walk his dogs and keep them fed and happy when he isn't home."

Dog jokes cannot be encouraged. Derek attempts to glare, but the effect is somewhat ruined because his heart isn't in the reprimand, and even if Stiles has put it flippantly, it actually is pretty much what he does: Taking care of the pack when Derek isn't around for one reason or another and sometimes even when Derek is around, coming up with new and improved ideas whenever they need anything and standing up to Derek on the behalf of the pack when Derek forgets that all of them are more human than wolf because they have been humans first and not been born as werewolves like he was - and some of the pack members aren't werewolves at all.

Stiles both supports and challenges Derek at every turn and every day, and that's the way it has been almost since the beginning a few years ago when Scott had been bitten and Stiles had chosen to stand by his best friend's side, come hell or high water.

Over the years, Derek and Stiles had had better times and worse times. They had sometimes been merely allies and sometimes friends, sometimes antagonists and sometimes even almost-pack. Eventually Scott had stopped hating Derek and Derek had stopped screwing things up just because he didn't know what he was doing and had no one to ask, and now they are finally pack. Stiles is pack. Stiles is with Derek.

Derek likes the sound of it.

"You're back," Stiles says, his smile softer now, and Derek realizes that he hasn't replied to Stiles's quip, too lost in his memories of the past five years. "I'm glad. The pack missed you."

The pack missed you.

If Derek has learned one thing after the fiasco with Kate Argent, it's that people can omit the truth and still not lie if they phrase their sentences carefully enough. Stiles, he has noticed over the past months - maybe even years -, has always been very careful when it comes to saying anything about his feelings regarding Derek.

Derek is pretty sure that Stiles's reason is pretty much the opposite of Kate's.

On the other hand, it is also possible that Stiles is completely unaware of what he's doing and it's only Derek's wishful thinking.

For a long time, Derek hasn't said anything about it because he has learned to trust Stiles with his life and his pack because if there is one thing Stiles is, it's that he's loyal and caring to default. Derek knows that Stiles would rather die before he let anything happen to anyone, let alone his friends, his family, his pack. He'd rather drown than let go and save only his own life. He almost did once.

But Derek has been gone for a week and he has spent more time than he'll ever admit on thinking about Stiles. He wants more.

"That so?" he asks and steps forward, a little closer, but still stays out of Stiles's personal space. "What about you, Stiles?"

Stiles's heart skips a beat, Derek hears it, and he feels the warmth of the blush that Stiles is somehow managing to suppress. He's become better at that over the years.

"Well, I certainly did not miss your sunglasses," Stiles says, rolling his eyes.

Derek allows his smile to show on his face and takes the glasses off. "Better?"

Most likely unaware of what he's doing, Stiles licks his lips.

Sometimes Derek thinks that Stiles exists solely to try his self-control.

Silence stretches between them, and Stiles begins to switch his weight from one foot to the other awkwardly. He still doesn't like standing motionless for long.

Derek had never expected to find it endearing. Yet, here he is and he does.

"You know, I was just thinking about the time when I went with Scott looking for his inhaler and we saw you here," Stiles says, apparently tired of the silence. "It was practically the beginning of everything. Okay, fine, Scott was bitten the night before, so that was the beginning actually, but the other day was when we met you and -"

"That wasn't the first time we met, though," Derek says without thinking, and Stiles's eyes widen a little. Derek feels something in Stiles he cannot place, something pleasant, and he wants to find out what it is. "The first time was many years earlier, but still in the same place. Or actually a little over there, but it's still close."

Stiles blinks at him and swallows. Derek tries not to stare at his throat.

"It was about fourteen years ago, I think. You were looking for a flower."

"You remember that?" Stiles looks at him in surprise. "It was for my mom's birthday." The grief is still there - and Derek knows that it always will -, but it's less overwhelming than it has been at times.

"What did you give to her instead?"

"Other flowers. Scott's mom helped us find them the next day." Stiles looks away, and then he meets Derek's eyes again. "I remember bumping into you at a different time, too, before the whole werewolf business came up, you know. It was shortly before you left town."

Derek closes his eyes for a moment. "Yes. I was waiting for Kate back then."

Stiles makes an awkward face, clearly upset that he brought it up because Kate is even after all these years still a sore topic for everyone, especially for Derek and Allison. Derek simply shakes his head and says, "If we're already talking about it, I saw you in New York once by the way."

Stiles stares in disbelief. "What the -? I was in Beacon Hills the whole week. Ask Scott."

"No, I meant ... years ago. I saw you in New York with your father."

"Oh? Oh. I don't remember. Or rather, I remember that we drove to New York because Dad had some stuff to do there, but I don't remember you."

"You never saw me. I believe you were quite upset at the time, and even if I'd run you over - which I didn't, don't look like that -, you wouldn't have noticed."

Stiles ducks his head. "Yeah, I guess you're right. It ... it was only a few months after my mom died."

The slight change of their conversation in an attempt to lighten the mood definitely hasn't been Derek's best move if they are already back on sore topics. Apologetically, Derek says, "I didn't know back then. I figured it out later." After he had stuck around in Beacon Hills for over a year and watched Scott and Stiles to be precise, and, wow, that sounds like he is a real creeper, watching sixteen-year-old boys.

Stiles nods, his smile a little weak around the corners of his lips, but still genuine and not artificial. Still, Derek doesn't know what else to say now that they have successfully maneuvered their conversation into the most painful corner for Stiles.

However, Stiles must have thought of something else suddenly, because once again he meets Derek's eyes, and to Derek's surprise Stiles's face has lit up. "You know, maybe we even met once before all that," Stiles says.

Derek frowns at him, trying to recall anything, but nothing comes to his mind.

"Admittedly, I don't remember it, but my mom told me sometimes that she almost lost me in a store when I was four. She said that when she found me I was in the company of an older boy who must have kept me out of troubles. She told me your name ... I think ... I ... I haven't thought about that for years, though. Maybe I'm not remembering it correctly and it was someone else ..."

Derek can't stop staring at him because now the incident from years ago comes back to his mind. He had forgotten all about it, considered it irrelevant and never bothered to remember the name of the woman in the first place.

With a start he realizes that he had met Stiles's mother that day.

"She was wearing flip-flops," Derek says, feeling dazed. "It had been raining all day long, since the morning actually, but she was wearing flip-flops."

He blinks and becomes aware of Stiles's amazed eyes and slightly open mouth.

"That's ... she loved the rain, Derek. We used to run through the puddles together. And when Dad first met her, it was raining and she was wearing sandals. Whenever it was warm enough, she always wore sandals or flip-flops."

Derek doesn't know what to respond because saying, "She seemed nice," sounds too simplistic and meaningless, but it's all he can think except -

"You have her eyes."

It must have been the right thing to say because Stiles bestows his brightest smile on him, radiant and happy, and Derek's heart sings in response.

Oh, God, Derek is in too deep, too far gone, beyond the point of no return. No wonder that the pack is making fun of him.

"So, we met as children," Stiles says and his expression turns playful and silly. "Was I cute as a child?"

No. Yes. Maybe.

Derek doesn't know. He never thought about that child at all, never connected the little boy with Stiles.

"Tell me about it," Stiles insists, talking once again with his hands. "Did we talk? What did you do?"

"What did I do?" Derek looks at Stiles, considering it. He lifts his eyebrows. "Shall I give you a play-by-play, perhaps?"

Stiles's heart skips another beat - he probably hasn't expected for Derek to play along -, and there's the tip of his tongue again, wetting his lips and driving Derek insane.

"Sure, why not?"

"You were in the liquor section, perhaps trying to get drunk already at the tender age of four -"

"Hey! That's not true!"

Derek shrugs. "Maybe. Maybe not. Anyway, I decided that a small child shouldn't be all alone and I wanted to find the person you belonged to, so I put my hands on your shoulders -" He does it and Stiles's eyes open impossibly wider, a blush creeping into his cheeks. "- and tried to catch the scent of a grown-up on you." Derek leans forward, closer to Stiles's neck.

Stiles squeaks a little, arousal mixing into his scent. "Y-you couldn't do that from farther away? Don't you sniff at people all the time?"

Derek glances up at his face. "It wasn't like your mother had licked your face to stake her territory, and we were at a store that most inhabitants of Beacon Hills visit every day, and I was ten. What do you think?"

"I - I -" But Stiles doesn't say what he thinks because Derek pushes his nose to Stiles's neck and inhales deeply.

Oh. Oh!

Suddenly the memory is crystal clear. It's like everything clicks into place, memories slotting together, and all of a sudden tiny things that Derek never understood, but never bothered to truly think about for too long either, are starting to make sense.

He remembers it, Stiles's scent, human and individual and particular and now familiar too, and the feeling of interesting that Derek had already experienced the first time he had smelled at Stiles like that. When he had been ten years old, there had been nothing sexual about the moment, nothing arousing, nothing that would have clued Derek in, but apparently he had had some kind of instinctive awareness already back then that this little person in front of him might be compatible with him. He hadn't understood the impression he'd gotten because he'd been too young and thought that no one outside the pack could ever be of importance to him in any way. He had not yet understood his own instincts and cast the moment aside as meaningless.

But, nonetheless, he has remembered the scent subconsciously even if he had never been able to figure out why. He has remembered Stiles's scent, never forgotten it, and always picked up on it. He has been aware of it, of Stiles, on a subconscious level at all times since the moment they met whenever Stiles has been within Derek's radius.

When Stiles had first come to the woods, Derek had thought that he'd simply been annoyed by the human intruders and their impudence to walk on his pack's territory without permission, but now he realizes that he'd only lost his calm when Stiles had tried to insist on staying and looking for a flower. Something inside Derek had snapped, needing this human child to get out of harm's way before the full moon showed. Later he had recognized Stiles's scent and remembered his name even though he had been entirely infatuated with Kate at the time, and his hands had lingered, probably unconsciously wanting to keep the child around. Even in New York, in the midst of hundreds of people, Derek had picked up on Stiles's scent and watched and listened until Stiles and his father had been out of his reach, and all his reasoning why he would pick up on Stiles's scent above everyone else even in New York, he now realizes, hadn't really made sense.

It's an instinct, he understands now, an unconscious awareness of someone who might be remarkably compatible with him. His wolfish side had recognized Stiles as an outstanding possibility long before Derek had started falling for Stiles because that hadn't happened in a single moment or at first sight - not even at the fifth first sight if he counts the number of their accidental meetings correctly.

It had taken months of interaction with Stiles before Derek had consciously started to trust Stiles even as far as he could throw him, even longer for them to become friends, and only after thousands of small moments of Stiles's critical snark and enthusiastic smiles and selflessly helping hands over years of acquaintanceship had Derek finally become aware of him on a deeper emotional and later also physical level. He had ignored his growing interest, though - once burned, twice shy, and Kate had burned him good - and had kept them resolutely in a just-friends zone despite of his werewolfish awareness of Stiles's equally growing attraction to him.

It hadn't helped Derek with his situation, though. As just-friends he had only gotten to know Stiles even better and he had fallen in love against his will and although he had fought it on every single step with claws and fangs because he had lost faith in love when he'd been sixteen.

Derek drops his forehead to Stiles's shoulder, suddenly exhausted. He's all too aware of Stiles's quickened heartbeat, of his proximity, and Derek wants. He just wants, and more than anything he wants it to be real, and the fact that he'd taken notice of Stiles's scent such a long time ago already makes him more hopeful that it will be real this time, but there's still that nagging doubt in the back of his mind. There's still the possibility that he's reading it all wrong. Again.

Kate Argent had been smart and strong and beautiful, and he'd liked the way she smelled. At the age of sixteen he had truly thought that she might feel the same and be a suitable mate. It's possible that she might have been if she had indeed shared his feelings instead of only conning him to kill his pack.

Fact is werewolves don't have a soulmate they recognize on first sight or hearing or smell. It isn't as simple as that. They have options, and with both their wolfish instincts and their human emotions they have to choose their mate for life among all the people that may be suitable for them in some way. They have to figure out themselves if they are truly compatible with their mate of choice, or rather, whether the one they want as their mate truly is their mate. Once chosen, truly chosen, marked and mated, there's no going back for a werewolf.

Stiles isn't the only person in the world whose scent ever caught Derek's attention. But he is the only one among them who truly knows Derek and matters to Derek.

But what if Derek is wrong again? What if he's reading too much into too little?

Stiles talks so much, yet he has never, not once, said anything about his feelings for Derek in years.

It isn't like Derek is afraid that Stiles might betray him like Kate did. He knows all too well that at worst Stiles would simply laugh the whole thing off, explain his body's reactions to Derek as physical attraction that doesn't go deeper and move past it like it never happened. But the idea of confessing his feelings and being refused, no matter how gently, is unacceptable for Derek. He simply cannot put his heart out there. He hasn't done it since Kate. Not once.

He just doesn't know anymore how to do it, how to take that particular leap of faith, not even when all of his senses are telling him that his chances seem to be good. Even the tiniest flicker of uncertainty is reason enough for Derek to keep his heart safely locked away. It's what he has done for eleven years, and some habits are hard to shake.

See, here's the thing: Right now, Stiles is just standing there, his back against the tree and Derek cornering him against it, still holding on to Stiles's shoulders like he did seventeen years ago, and Stiles's arms are hanging loose at his sides, not reaching out or touching back. He's neither drawing Derek closer nor trying to put distance between them, possibly because he doesn't want to do the wrong thing and make Derek pull away. Possibly. Because they have danced around it and never acknowledged it, Stiles might be waiting for clues now. Might be.

But who knows for certain?

Derek is stuck in uncertainty.

Lydia is right. They are stuck in an endless waltz, and apparently neither of them will risk changing the steps.

Derek closes his eyes tightly, almost desperate.

"My mom liked you, I think," Stiles says gently, eventually breaking the silence between them. He's always the one who does it, always the one who keeps everyone moving. "I'm really glad you met her."

Derek's fingers tighten a little, and he cannot take the uncertainty anymore.

"I -" he says and stops.

He feels Stiles turning his head in question, and Derek takes a deep breath - inhaling more of Stiles's scent - and pulls himself together. He lifts his head from Stiles's shoulder, but doesn't step back and doesn't release Stiles's shoulders either.

"I need you to say the words," Derek says finally, catching Stiles's gaze and holding it. "I need you to say it because I need to hear it. I need it to be the truth. I need to know it. Because with Kate ... she never said it, but she said enough stuff to make me believe it might be and let me draw conclusions, and I did and was wrong, and I can't. I can't. It cannot happen again, so ... I need you to say it." Derek thinks he has never been so incoherent before.

Stiles looks at him, suddenly pale instead of flushed, and he smells afraid, which would be funny in any other situation because it has been years since the last time Stiles had been scared when he was alone with Derek.

Maybe Derek has been too impatient. Maybe Stiles is not ready. Maybe ...

"I'm in love with you."

Maybe Stiles is a lot braver than Derek.

"I'm in love with you," Stiles repeats firmly, his voice just as quiet as the first time he said the words. "I have been in love exactly once before and it never went anywhere because Lydia never saw me in that way, and maybe that was better for Lydia and me anyway, but I know what I felt for her and it was real. This is real, too. I love you." There's nothing wrong about Stiles's scent, his heartbeat hides nothing from a werewolf's ears, and there isn't a single lie hidden in his words or eyes. Stiles is entirely genuine. "There it is. You can take it or leave it."

You can take it or leave it.

As if there's a question about it.

Derek leans in and kisses Stiles, his right hand moving to the back of Stiles's head to tilt his head for the best angle. Stiles wraps his arms around Derek and kisses back without hesitation, eager and with little finesse. And yet, it's so much better than any kiss before.

Because Stiles is right for Derek in every possible way and fits into Derek's life like he has been born for it. Now, Derek finally understands what Laura had tried to explain to him so many years ago.

For the first time in years Derek allows himself to get lost in someone because losing himself in Stiles means finally finding something more.