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The first time Stiles and Derek saw each other dates back far enough that neither of them can really remember. Though Derek is a solid four years older than Stiles, even he reports that the memory of meeting tiny little baby Stiles is as fuzzy as an old television that doesn't work anymore. Stiles always thought that was so unfair, that they met too young and that who they were to each other was realized so early on. Other people get to meet in their teens or twenties or thirties (or even older), get to live their entire lives dating other people, waiting, wondering, to finally come upon that person. They get to experience freedom, for a while. Even if it's tinged with the fantasy of a forever, it's still better off. Stiles has always thought that.

Either way, Stiles was a baby, and Derek was a toddler. It's a story that's been told again and again by their parents and other extended family members – at various forced get togethers. Around the dinner table, out getting ice cream, standing in line waiting to go into a movie, on Thanksgiving day. The Stilinskis and the Hales all standing around, the adults aww'ing and laughing as they recall the exact details of the great reveal.

In a grocery store. Derek and Stiles first met in a grocery store. How romantic is that? It's even less romantic when one considers it was in the diaper aisle – because, again, Stiles was a fucking baby. Apparently, Derek caught sight of Stiles cradled in his mother's arms as she stared down at the different prices for different brands, pointed a chubby toddler finger in Stiles' direction, and announced, “that's my soulmate.” So the story goes.

Here's the thing. It might be irrefutable fact that Stiles and Derek are soulmates. It would be idiotic and stupid for Stiles to try and deny that he doesn't feel something in regards to Derek, and that Derek doesn't feel something in regards to Stiles. Stiles has never felt the same type of tug towards anyone else that he feels towards Derek, on the rare occasion when the guy isn't being an unbelievable dickwagon, and he highly doubts that he ever will. Fact of the matter is, Derek is it for him.

And that's the entire problem. Because, really and truly, no exaggeration and no holding back, Stiles does not like Derek Hale. He didn't when he was a kid, and he doesn't now. Oh, my God, does he ever not like that motherfucker. Hate feels like a strong word (that's half to do with the fact that every time he used to say as much, his father would take him aside and give him a talking to – so he started to learn to keep that thought, true as it might have been from time to time, to himself), but Christ on a cracker, they do not get along.

The first time the two of them noticed that things weren't exactly going well in the strictest sense, was when Stiles picked up a building block and lobbed it directly into Derek's cranium. True, he was two years old and threw blocks at anyone who dared to touch his carefully planned out towers, but when he threw that block at Derek...there was true malice, there. At two years old, he transcended the normal level of mental processing for that age. Something about Derek has always led Stiles to sort of transcend – in a myriad of different ways. Transcend sanity, transcend anger, transcend fucking fighting.

Stiles threw the block at Derek, Stiles' father laughed nervously and carted Stiles away to play with something else, and Talia Hale pressed an ice pack to her crying son's temple. It wouldn't be the last time that Stiles would attack Derek in cold blood. Not by a long shot.

Stiles doesn't even blame himself for the transgressions, doesn't even blame Derek, really. The people he blames for the sheer number of incidents that have transpired between he and Derek, are their parents. Who have unflinchingly tried to get them to love each other – not like, not tolerate, but love each other – for as long as Stiles has been alive, basically. In a way, maybe it's understandable. As far as anyone is concerned, they're soulmates. That means that, when push comes to shove, no matter what happens, they're meant to be together. Point blank. End of discussion. So it never mattered to Claudia or Talia that Stiles would slap at Derek with his tiny hands for touching his things, and it never mattered that Derek would shove Stiles head first into walls at every possible opportunity – they were determined. Still are, as a matter of fact.

Years and years of the same shit. Every Thanksgiving, there the Stilinskis are at the Hale house. There's Stiles sitting at his place with the turkey name card, and there's Derek sitting directly across from him refusing to make eye contact. When Derek was fourteen and Stiles was ten, Derek slapped Stiles face first into the bowl of mashed potatoes (ruining the entire dish for everyone, by the by), and then spent the rest of the day moping at the table, refusing to eat anything, while Stiles fantasized vividly about gauging a fork through his nostrils. Happy, happy times. Some real soulmate quality moments.

When they were kids, of course things were just ridiculous. Of course there were fist fights, names called, hissy fits, tantrums, dragging of feet as they both got carted out and forced to interact with one another, because they were kids who didn't like each other. The whole soulmate bit might've just been the cherry on top. Everything was so infantile and asinine, it amazes Stiles to this day that their parents never just gave up. Stiles would have, if he were in their place. How many times can a person stand there watching their kid punch another in the face before realizing that maybe it's time to throw in the towel?

As they got older, matured, it became more about desperate avoidance. Stiles was sick and tired of fighting with Derek, sick of the back and forth, and by the time Stiles was entering high school and reaching that epiphany of maturity, Derek was busy at college and had other things to think about aside from his unwanted and annoying little soulmate. They just didn't – don't - want to be around each other.

Still, Thanksgiving every year, Christmas eve, New Year's eve, and the forced family outings. Still. Now, Derek sits across from Stiles and asks so how's school and Stiles answers boring and Derek says yeah. And that's that. Derek buys french fries from the concession stand at the bowling alley and holds the red and white bowl out to him without a word, Stiles takes a fry. And that's that. Stiles remembers Derek's favorite flavor of ice cream and orders it for him while he's in the bathroom, Derek says thanks when he returns, and that's that.

For some reason, this cold, distant behavior and attitude is even worse than the fighting, if the sad, disappointed looks their parents give them is anything to go by. But come on. At some point, enough has to be enough, and something has to go right on ahead and give. Stiles isn't saying that maybe he and Derek should just never speak or see each other again, because it simply isn't an option and he's always known that (always, always known that he has no options), but he is saying that maybe the adults should hurry up and butt the hell out before one of them literally tries to kill the other. Derek is twenty-two and done with college, job hunting, now, and Stiles is done with high school and trying to find his own college, and – it's just time.

Stiles thinks that it isn't fair. It wasn't fair when he got a girlfriend and his father treated her like some kind of interloper into their lives because she wasn't Derek, and it wasn't fair when he always had to invite Derek to his birthday parties even though Derek would inevitably wind up ruining it, and it wasn't fair when he watched all his friends get their soulmates and actually fall in love with them. It's just not fair. Not for him, and not for Derek.

Like a heartbeat that won't be heard, there's some distant, unseen something inside of both of them that recognizes the other – and is that enough? Will that ever be enough for them? They've never had control over it, and no one ever has. It's not something they chose. It's not as though the two of them have spent their entire lives just searching and searching and searching for that one person, only to find them, finally.

It doesn't feel like winning anything. It doesn't feel like reward, or like a finally. It feels like trapped.

So, no. It doesn't feel like enough.

**

“Derek comes back into town today.”

Stiles raises his eyes to the ceiling, wonders how it's even mentally possible that he hasn't gone insane yet, and spoons at his cereal. “Yup,” he says back. Because it's not like he hasn't been reminded of this exact fact nearly every single day for the past three weeks. He's known that Derek is coming back today ever since Derek called Stiles himself and told him as much – a phone conversation as awkward as any other they've ever had – has had it churning around in his head constantly no matter how much he's tried to forget about it.

That's the thing about Derek. He can't just be forgotten about. Maybe that's the soulmate bit, or maybe it's everyone constantly reminding him of his existence, but it doesn't matter either way. No matter what he does, there Derek is, in the back of his mind. Stiles knows it's the same for Derek, which explains away the fact that even though they barely seem to tolerate one another, their text thread that Stiles only just cleared a month ago is hundreds of texts long (what are you doing? - picked a school yet? - just saw a raccoon eating a hamburger out of a dumpster lmao.)

His father stirs sugar into his coffee, turning around and leaning back against the kitchen counter to fix Stiles with the typical talking about Derek facial expression. It's somewhere crossed between tired disappointment and anxious hopefulness. Stiles has grown to really hate that look. It never fails to make him feel guilty. Or like a failure, somehow. “Are you going to -”

“Don't pretend like you don't already have something planned,” Stiles interrupts mildly, even though he sort of feels like screaming at the top of his lungs. “So, yeah. Yeah, I'm going to see him.”

A thin smile crosses the Sheriff's face. “Tonight at seven.”

Stiles sighs through his nose. Tonight at seven. The number of times he's heard that simple phrase is mind blowing, so it's not like he has to ask what's going to happen tonight at seven. They'll drive up to the Hale house, get swarmed by the mammoth family, suffer a million and ten pleasantries, and then he and Derek will have to stand there making small talk for hours over appetizers and dinner and then up in Derek's bedroom when Talia shoos them with a suggestive wink. Good times. Really, really great.

Dreading it might be too small a phrase.

“I've heard he'll be in Beacon Hills for a while, here,” the spoon clinks against the sides of the mug and Stiles considers clinking his own into his bowl hard enough to break it. “I think he's going to take a job at his father's accounting firm.”

Guh. Stiles wants to yawn just hearing that. Why is Derek so god damn boring?

A few seconds of silence pass, with Stiles crunching on his cereal and the spoon still clinking. It's not like Stiles doesn't know what's about to come out of his father's mouth next, because he's heard it over and over and over again since the acceptance letters started coming in, so all he's really doing is bracing himself for it. Rehearsing the script and his response in his own head.

“You know,” the mug gets placed on the counter top so he can cross his arms over his chest and give Stiles the dadliest look possible, “if Derek is staying here, you might want to consider picking a school close by.”

Stiles has put up the charade of considering a near-by school by applying to the nearest university, then the second nearest university. Reality is, his first choice is on the east coast. He just hasn't divulged that information to anyone. Not Derek, and certainly not his father, whose eyes will bug out of his head once he catches wind of it. “Sure, yeah,” Stiles says, nodding. “Of course.”

It should be of course, is the thing. It really should be. For anyone else whose found their soulmate, God, that would be a definite. For Stiles, it's just something to avoid.

If Stiles really wanted to leave, his father wouldn't stop him. He'd just heave a giant sigh, shake his head sadly, and wonder quietly to himself where everything went wrong with Stiles' biology. Why is it that Stiles just doesn't like his soulmate, doesn't appear to even care that much about him? There's gotta be something wrong with him. Stiles has thought so, sometimes, and he knows that Derek has stayed awake wondering exactly the same thing. There's something off with them. They could spend their entire lives forcing it, screaming on the inside, or Stiles could leave. One of those just sounds like the better option, right?

The Hale house is as bright and friendly as it ever was – packed with people and food and energy, loud and welcoming, everyone always moving and talking and laughing. Stiles has always felt at home here, even when he was a kid and literally hated coming here with everything inside of him. It's sort of hard to not feel like he belongs in this house, even in spite of Derek.

Because while the rest of his family is so loud and outgoing, Stiles finds Derek leaning back against the divide between the kitchen and the dining room by himself, holding onto a red solo cup and looking somewhat melancholy. He's always like this. He has always been like this – to the point where Stiles has long suspected that he was adopted. He's just nothing like the rest of his family, at all.

Stiles runs his palms down the front of his jeans and exhales a sigh as he approaches Derek, who looks up with a blank expression on his face as soon as he catches sight of Stiles coming. Like always, Stiles can feel eyes on the back of his head, more and more swiveling to watch him the closer he gets to his soulmate.

It's the first time they've seen each other in person for four months. Stiles feels like there should be something there, like happy or excited or...something. When other people go for long periods of time without seeing their soulmates, they always say that seeing them again makes them feel complete and whole and new again. Stiles doesn't get that. Instead, all he can focus on is the room quieting like all the attention is being focused on this pathetic little reunion, and he hates the fact that Derek doesn't look at him with anything more than mild interest. Hazel eyes move quickly over Stiles' body, head to toe, as if checking him over for injury or change.

“Hey,” Stiles says once he's close enough. It's expected for both of them, so he opens up his arms and Derek does the same, walking forward until his chin is perched up on Derek's shoulder and his arms are wrapped around his mid section. They've hugged like this so many times (go on and give your soulmate a hug, Stilesdo I have to?) that it really doesn't feel weird. It just feels familiar and comfortable. Derek is a decent hugger, and he always smells nice. It's not bad. It's just not special, either.

When they pull apart, Derek holds the cup he has out to Stiles and swishes it around a bit so the liquid and ice inside jostle together with a slosh. Upon taking it, Stiles finds it to be Sprite – his favorite. Of course Derek knows that. “I'd have put vodka in it,” he says with a small smile, “but your dad would probably arrest me.”

Ah, but that hasn't stopped them before. They used to sneak alcohol all the fucking time at these god forsaken things, even before Derek was 21. It was really the only way to make it out with half their brains in tact, without picking up a chair and throwing it against a wall. Which Derek would one hundred percent do. Stiles has seen it before.

“Har har,” Stiles says back with an eye roll. Not like he hasn't heard that joke before. “How's it feel to be back in Beacon Thrills, anyway?”

Derek shrugs. “It's fine. Same as always.”

Stiles sips at his drink, standing a comfortable foot and a half away from Derek. “I hear you've already got a job playing with calculators all day.”

With a bit of a narrowed eye, Derek nods his head. “It's good money,” and Stiles can't identify the tone he's using – maybe annoyed, or maybe like he's trying to convince Stiles of something. “I'll probably be getting my own place before the summer ends.”

Stiles raises his eyebrows like neat, and looks away for a moment to scan across the room. Everyone else has more or less gone back to their own conversations and stopped staring at the two socially awkward soulmates floundering to have any kind of connection whatsoever beyond small talk. These conversations with Derek are always so painful, because, even though they've known each other for literal forever, and know each other on a deep, primal level, they can't talk to each other.

Too much to say, and not enough at the same time. Things they refuse to acknowledge floating in between them. Unspoken and spoken simultaneously. It's difficult, and Stiles hates it. He honest to God sometimes hates talking to Derek.

Bringing Stiles' attention back to him, Derek clears his throat. His eyes are elsewhere, now, glancing down at the floor before he picks a corner of the ceiling to eyeball with a level of fascination usually only given to ancient artifacts in museums. “I heard you broke up with your boyfriend.”

Stiles dating other people has always been frowned upon by pretty much everyone he knows – Scott, Lydia, his father, the Hales, and anyone who knows about he and Derek (and, really, everyone in town knows about them. It's hard to not hear about the two teenage soulmate boys trying to beat the shit out of each other in the middle of the park.) It might seem amazing that anyone would be willing to date him, considering he's as good as married off already and as good as off the market altogether. But other people who haven't met their soulmates yet just wanna screw around with someone, have fun and have sex with a person they're not going to feel any attachment to. And it is fun. It's nice. Until it isn't so much, anymore. Until months pass and Stiles knows it's never going to go anywhere. That it just can't.

Derek's slept with a couple of people, himself. He knows how it is.

“Found his soulmate,” Stiles says honestly. He can't help but let his face burn a little bit in shame – as though he has something to be ashamed about. As though the fact that his ex-boyfriend's soulmate wasn't him. That the soulmate Stiles has isn't the one he wants, at all. “Sort of killed the vibe.”

Derek nods his head, gives Stiles an indiscernible look, and then doesn't say anything else for five minutes. Stiles stands next to him and drinks until he's got nothing but ice, one hand in his pocket, feeling like he's crawling out of his skin. It's not like he can just leave Derek's side to talk to anyone else, and it's not like he has anywhere else to go. So stand there, he does. The awkwardness is literally murdering him on the inside.

"I've been saving money to get the Jeep fixed,” Stiles finally pipes up when he can't stand it any longer, and Derek turns to look at him with his eyebrows raised.

“Fixed?” A smile crosses his face. “Nothing could fix that thing.”

“Getting it back up to the point where it runs,” Stiles amends a little hotly, shaking his head. “It's taken me, like, six months of burger flipping to get the money, so don't knock it, asshole.”

Another bout of silence passes, and for a moment Stiles genuinely considers vanishing to the bathroom, locking the door behind him, and pretending like he has explosive diarrhea just to get out of this fucking situation. Just to buy himself some time before dinner, when there's food and something else to focus on besides how much the two of them can't be normal soulmates or even really normal people.

Luckily, Derek speaks before it comes to that. “You ever thought that you could have asked me for the money?”

Stiles frowns when he turns back to look into Derek's eyes, furrowing his brow. Because, no, no he never thought about that. Not even for ten seconds. Sure, the Hales are loaded and he's always known that that's probably at least one luckily thing about winding up as Derek's soulmate but – he's never once thought about actually just taking any of their money before. Why would he?

“I'd have paid for it,” Derek goes on, like it's not a big deal. “I still will, if you -”

“No,” Stiles interrupts, shaking his head firmly. “That's not – I have the money already? So...”

Derek frowns right back at him, like he's genuinely put out that Stiles isn't letting him pay for something that Stiles doesn't need him paying for. “It wouldn't be a problem.”

A dozen different responses run through Stiles' head all at once. Things like it kinda would be for me, though and I don't want your fucking money and quit pretending like any of this is fucking normal or that we are or that we even know each other at all. None of those would be okay. Stiles used to fight with Derek all the time, and it exhausted him, and made everyone else uncomfortable and sad. It always makes people sad when Stiles and Derek don't get along.

So, instead, he just shakes his head and smiles falsely. “That's nice, but no thanks.”

It's incredible, really incredible, how much Stiles feels like he really can't be himself around Derek. This, right now? Fake smiles and small talk and no thanks? This isn't Stiles, at all. He wishes he could say that this isn't Derek, either, but honestly, Stiles isn't sure what is Derek. It would be nice if this sullen, graceless asshole weren't the real Derek, but he can't say he's ever seen a different Derek to compare it to.

It's awkward, uncomfortable, forced, a thousand other negative descriptors. It makes Stiles feel, bizarrely, like crying. That's not a new feeling where Derek is concerned. Because, and he'd ever admit it out loud...

...it makes him sad, too, when he can't get along with Derek.

Like Derek just can't sense Stiles' mood, he keeps going. He always, always keeps going whenever Stiles is seconds away from snapping. It's like a special talent of his. “You can ask me to pay for things,” Stiles palms his face, looks away, tries to calm down. “I really don't mind. You're – you're my soulmate -” and the stuttering makes it sound like he's not entirely sure that that's the truth, “...and I'm happy to do it. I've already talked to your father about paying for Beacon, so -”

“Wait -” Stiles cuts him off right then and there, swiveling his eyes back around to glare in his direction. “What?”

Derek blinks at him. “I offered to pay for half of your tuition.”

He must have absolutely no fucking idea what kind of bomb he just dropped on Stiles. Absolutely no fucking clue, if the wide-eyed innocent look he's giving Stiles is anything to go by. “He told you I'm going to Beacon?” Also known as the school literally ten miles away from the fucking Hale house. The absolute last place that Stiles would ever choose to go – so he can, what? Live at home in his old bedroom, still? Or, maybe his father would like it if he moved in with Derek, since their house is closer, after all.

“Yeah,” Derek says carefully, maybe finally catching on to the fact that something is wrong, here. “Aren't you?”

Stiles shakes his head, once, and then again, and again. Too many things to focus on at once, and he doesn't even know where to fucking begin. Any and all hopes of staying calm and reining himself in have gone completely out the fucking window. “I'm not going to Beacon. All right?”

“All right,” Derek agrees, in a clipped tone. “I'll pay for it, either way.”

There it goes. The last of Stiles' self control. Well, maybe not the absolute last of it, because he does manage to restrain himself from throwing the ice cubes left in his cup straight into Derek's fucking face. Instead, he turns around, scans the room, finds his father fifteen or so feet away, and starts making his way over with intent.

“Stiles -” Derek grabs onto Stiles' shoulder, and Stiles shrugs his hand away. “Stiles!”

Stiles is running on a completely different frequency, but it's one he recognizes very, very well. It's the same level of anger he always manages to reach whenever his father does something like this, whenever Derek enables his father to do something like this, to just – take away his fucking choices, as if the universe hasn't already done that enough al-fucking-ready. It's infuriating.

Once his father is within earshot, standing there talking to Talia without a care in the world, Stiles is shouting. “So you've just gone ahead and decided for me that I'm going to Beacon?”

Derek is clomping behind him, putting his hand on Stiles' shoulder again as if he's going to try and pull him away – but it just rests there. A source of warmth and gentle pressure on his skin. His father gives him a tight smile, glancing nervously around the room, because, in a display that's been seen many a time before, Stiles is making a scene at the Hale house.

“We can talk about this at home, Stiles,” he says evenly, glancing up at Derek before looking back to Stiles. “Now isn't the -”

“I'm not going there,” Stiles hisses. “And why are you two -” he slaps Derek's hand off of him and then motions between him and the Sheriff with a vindictive finger jab, “sitting around talking about my life behind my back?”

“It wasn't like that,” Derek tries, and Stiles' father nods in agreement. “Calm down, Stiles, you're being ridiculous.”

Oh, how many times Stiles has been forced to listen to Derek utter some variation of that same thing. You're being ridiculous, you're overreacting, you're making a scene, you're taking it too seriously, you need to relax, it's not that big of a deal, Stiles. “It was exactly like that,” Stiles contests in a low, dangerous tone of voice. One that Derek recognizes good and well, because instantly, his own eyebrows are drawing down in frustration, like he's ready to shout right back at Stiles if he fucking starts. “It was exactly like that. I cannot fucking believe that you would go and make that kind of decision without -”

“Stiles,” it's snapped loud enough that Stiles can't help but close his mouth and look away, chastised. “If you can't calm down, we'll leave.”

“Great,” he growls back, already stalking through the crowd of anxious and shifty-eyed looking Hales towards the front door. “Dream come fucking true.”

Derek doesn't call his name, doesn't try to stop him from leaving. If Stiles turned around, he'd probably just find him standing there with his arms crossed over his chest like he's barely restraining himself from getting into a physical fucking fight with Stiles right then and there. Other soulmates would never let a fight get this far. Other soulmates always talk it out, work through it, because they have to. They're willing to.

Derek just stands there, and Stiles just leaves.

“I'm sorry about this, Talia,” he hears his father say right as he's slamming the front door behind him. Everything about this just feels like it always did – it feels like he's got nowhere to run, no one to go to, no one that's actually on his side. He feels cornered, stuck. Claustrophobic and clammy in a box that he can't find his way out of.

“You are eighteen years old,” his father says as soon as he's inside the car beside a fuming Stiles. “I can't believe you'd embarrass me throwing a god damn temper tantrum like that!”

“Temper tantrum,” Stiles repeats with an eye roll. “Temper tantrum! You and fucking Derek were in cahoots with one another! Planning my entire life for me! I wouldn't be surprised if you didn't already have the fucking wedding date picked out, honestly. What's the venue, dad?”

The car starts, but he doesn't put it in drive. He grips the steering wheel, and grits his teeth in his son's direction, shaking his head. “What exactly is so abhorrent to you about going to Beacon University, Stiles?”

“I don't want to be here!”

Like it's the most absurd thing he's ever heard, he gapes at Stiles. “I told you, Derek is going to be here for as long as you'll be in school -”

“That's -” Stiles fists his hands into his hair, growls, and barely restrains himself from punching the dashboard. “That's exactly the point! I don't want to be around him! I hate him!”

“Oh, Stiles,” now, he puts it into drive. Like the conversation is over and done with now, like Stiles is just being stupid, silly. Childish. Not even worth the argument. “I thought we were through with this.”

It's honestly as though his father thinks he's delusional. Or, maybe, that he's just denying it, or doesn't understand himself how he feels, not yet. “Dad -”

“Why wouldn't you want to live in the same town as your soulmate, Stiles?”

Stiles feels hot tears prickling his vision as the woods surrounding the Hales' driveway fly past the window, the car picking up speed the closer they get to the interstate. “I don't love him.”

Without thinking about it, his father says, “you will.” That simple. “You will, and you'll be sorry if you keep pushing him away, like this.”

There's nothing else that Stiles can say, or do; not in this situation, and not in this conversation. There's never been a single thing that Stiles could really do. His entire life has been about waiting for that moment, for that moment when he will, and everything else after that doesn't really matter. It'll all get worked out. Everything will go exactly according to plan, as the universe intended, and nevermind the fact that Stiles feels like vomiting when he thinks about the fact that, one way or another, he'll marry Derek Hale.

His entire life decided for him, just like that.

**

Scott and Allison met each other in Autumn of their sophomore year of high school. Part of living in a world that raises its people to see each other as nothing more than the possibility of a forever is the constant ache of knowing that very few people are a forever. In fact, no one is, except for just one other person. It's scary sometimes when Stiles thinks about the billions of people walking around on the earth, how many miles the continents span, and there's only one person who's ever going to be able to understand you. Only one person who's ever going to want to stick around and see things through to the very end.

Stiles guesses he never knew what that was really like. The wondering.

But Scott – he wondered. Through long talks at sleepovers or parked out in the Jeep on the side of the road listening to music or during their shared lunch hour, Scott would wonder out loud if he were ever, ever going to meet his soulmate. He used to say that he was jealous of Stiles, because Stiles didn't understand the feeling of half. Up until that point, all Scott and millions upon millions of other people out there had only ever known what it's like to only be a part of a whole.

Some people never find their soulmates. That's too sad to think about, even worse to talk about, so Stiles doesn't. Again – it's not like he ever really had to think about it.

Luckily for Scott, he doesn't have to think about it very much, either, and hasn't since the first time he saw Allison when she walked through the door during homeroom. Like boom, all Scott's years of wondering were over in a flash of lightning, and he found who he was meant to. As many times as Stiles has asked Scott to explain to him in detail what it feels like to see your own soulmate for the very first time, Scott has never been able to put it into words.

It's like a hit that doesn't hurt. I don't know, man, I just can't even begin to explain it, you know? It was like I had been living only half-way, and when I saw her, I knew my life was starting.

**

“It cannot be that bad,” Scott says.

Stiles gives him a look from his spot on the couch in Scott's living room. “Oho. Scott.”

“It can't be,” he insists, shaking his head. “He's your soulmate. Look. I know – I know about how much you genuinely dislike him sometimes -”

Sometimes,” Stiles air quotes around the word.

“-but sometimes, that's just how it is. You can't love someone all the time.”

“None of the time,” Stiles amends firmly. “Absolutely zero percent of the time. I have never, never once, liked him.”

Now, Scott is the one giving Stiles a look. “You know and I know that that is just not true, Stiles.”

Stiles sets his jaw and looks away. So, okay. That might not be completely and entirely true. But it's just so hard to tell when he's so mad at Derek, and he is mad almost ninety percent of the time. And it's not always fair to be mad at Derek, because for much of their issues, Derek really hasn't done anything wrong. Derek's never done much of anything really wrong. Except for maybe that time, all those years ago, when he pointed at Stiles in the grocery store and as good as selected him.

Even that wasn't his choice, though.

There have been times that Stiles has liked Derek, and he knows that for a fact. It's just that, at the moment, he doesn't want to think about those times. He wants to hold onto this righteous fury for as long as possible, and rant to his best friend. It's a little bit hard to shit-vent all over the biology of soulmates when your best friend doesn't see anything wrong with the entire system, though. Scott has proven that enough times through the use of eye rolls and uh huh, sure Stilesing his way through all his rants about Derek over the years throughout their friendship.

“There's a part of you that cares about him,” Scott insists. “I'm not trying to discount your feelings, because I do believe you really dislike him. But he's your soulmate.”

“Yeah,” Stiles feels like corporealizing that word just so he can beat the shit out of it in human form. “Sure, sure. Soulmate. Except, I don't even like the fucking dude.” Scott opens his mouth to protest, maybe to spew off another one of the zillion arguments he has in his arsenal about how soulmates work, but Stiles steam rolls right over him. “Sometimes that happens, y'know? Fate, circumstance, etcetera etcetera – it can be written in the stars all in flashing neon, but sometimes the language is confusing, right?” He picks at a loose thread on his jeans, hyper focuses on it. “It's not all black and white.”

Scott looks at him like he feels sorry for Stiles, feels so horribly sorry that Stiles genuinely believes that. And of course, he would. For him, it was black and white. When he met Allison, he just knew, the way that everyone knows that the sky is blue. It was simple, easy, like waking up after an entire life of sleeping. He and Allison get along, always have, and they love each other, always will. For Scptt, he can't imagine what it's like to not even be able to hold a fucking two second conversation with his soulmate without wanting to gauge the other's eyeballs out “Well – I mean -” he stutters for a moment, clearly uncomfortable. “...what does he think?”

Stiles snorts, rolls his eyes to the ceiling. “I would be surprised if Derek has had a single intelligent thought inside his bonehead at any point during his entire life.”

“Stiles.”

He throws his hands up. “I've never really asked, all right? It's not like he's standing outside my window throwing pebbles, Scott! I bet he feels the same as I do!” Never once has Stiles looked Derek dead in the eye and asked so, you like me? Love me? After the fifteenth time Derek pushed him into a wall when they were kids, he kind of started assuming that Derek just point blank hated him.

“That's so like you,” Scott huffs, but he has a fond smile on his face. “I don't worry about you, Stiles. I have never worried about you and Derek, because I know it'll all turn out fine.”

A glimmer of optimism is what Scott has always brought to the table – a sort of naivety that Stiles always found to be complementary to the fact that Stiles rides the negative wave out for as long as possible at all times. On this particular subject, however, it just feels stale. And Stiles doesn't believe it.

“You and Derek have a bond. It's a predisposition. Once you two pull your heads out of your asses, you'll see.” Not a word of it.

Stiles doesn't know why he and Derek can't make it work, and Scott and Stiles' father and the Hales and everyone else – they don't know why either. It's not exactly unheard of for soulmates to not get along at every single phase of their relationship, but it would be something for the history books if Stiles and Derek just never make it. From where Stiles is standing, it's really, really looking like that's where they're headed.

Maybe it terrifies him to think that. Allison and Scott do everything together, want to be together all the time, want to share their lives with one another. Yeah. It scares the shit out of Stiles to think that he'll never get to know what that's like.

And he wants.

**

Derek Hale (11:50 PM) : I wouldn't force you to go to Beacon. You can go wherever you want
Derek Hale (11:51 PM) : I want you to
Me (11:59 PM) : I just don't understand why you were like going to my dad in some clandestine bullshit
Derek Hale (12:01 AM) : He came to me. He made it sound like that's what you wanted. I was just trying to do something for you. I'll pay wherever you want to go, I said that already, Stiles
Me (12:05 AM) : I want to go to New York
Derek Hale (12:15 AM) : Just to get away from me.
Me (12:16 AM) : Like you didn't go to LA just to get away from ME
Derek Hale (12:45 AM) : I thought you needed time

Time for what?

Stiles doesn't answer the text, and he doesn't even know what he'd say if he were to try - but he tosses that question around and around inside of his head. Derek has always been the type to drop one-liners like that with no explanation and no context whatsoever, and Stiles long ago gave up on trying to decipher any of it; but this particular brain puzzler from the guy is singularly baffling. Stiles guesses that he could just directly ask, but...

The thing about Stiles and Derek's relationship, if one could even call it that, is that they are both notorious for spewing out bullshit with no fucking backbone. They stand with each other and dance around every possible subject, subvert everything with small talk and useless nothings. Even in their gigantic text threads, they never actually say anything to each other. Sometimes Stiles thinks some of their problems could be solved if they actually tried to sit down and talk to each other, instead of bickering and ignoring each other all the time.

But, again. There's no backbone between them. Just half-truths and twenty-thousand leagues of awkward tension. Stiles won't ask. He never asks. Just like he's never looked Derek in the eyes and asked him what it is he thinks about this entire situation.

The text goes unanswered, and another possibility passes right over both of their heads.

**

When Stiles and Derek are both in town at the same time, typically they can only go a day or two at absolute most without seeing one another in some capacity. Either because Beacon Hills is a teeny tiny little hamlet and running into people just sort of happens, or because their parents are forcing them into a room together again, or because – well. Because they just have to see each other if they can. Another one of those things, like the texts, that both Stiles and Derek accept as part of their twisted, confusing relationship.

It's no surprise whatsoever when his co-worker sticks his head around the divide between the kitchen and the front of house to say, “your soulmate's asking for you out here, Stiles.”

Stiles wipes at his forehead with the back of his hand, knows that there'd be no use saying he's too busy, no use trying to hide back here among the grease and the burger buns. Derek's standing out there, so he has to go. With a huff, he pulls his apron off and tosses it onto the counter.

Beside him, Erica cackles quietly to herself as she chops up onions into a hefty pile on the cutting board. “Aren't you going to bring a burger to shove down his throat in the hopes that he'll choke to death?”

Stiles glares at her, but says nothing. It's no secret whatsoever that Stiles and Derek are the resident hate-sex couple – public fist fights and vicious name calling in the middle of shopping centers has a tendency to get around. Though, the fact that he and Derek have never even fucking kissed isn't exactly public knowledge. Everyone just sort of thinks that the two of them are either into some really kinky shit, or that they fight each other until the fighting turns into rough sex. It's probably better they all think that, right? Better than the truth of it.

Outside, Derek is standing off to the side with his arms crossed as he stares up at the menu with a scowl on his face. As if he's never seen a fucking hamburger with french fries before. Stiles has long mused how the universe could've fated Stiles to be with someone who can't eat fast food, who scowls at anything deep fried – who wakes up at five am to go jogging. It's like a fuckin' tragedy.

“Hey,” Stiles greets, opening up his arms like he always does. They hug, and at least here, no one stops to stare at them. Most people ignore them, because what's interesting about another pair of soulmates hugging it out in a public place? “What are you doing here?”

“I wanted to see where you worked,” Derek says as they pull apart. He scans his eyes over the menus again, the nasty looking brown and red booths, and frowns.

“It's not exatly the Hard Rock Cafe,” Stiles rubs his palms down his pants and feels like a walking grease stain, compared to Derek's carefully put together and freshly laundered outfit. “But I get time and a half on Saturdays, and my boss isn't a dick.”

Derek nods. Then he just stands there.

Christ, Stiles thinks to himself, shaking his head. No matter how many times he's forced to contend with Derek's taciturn behavior, it simply never fails to make him feel bizarrely uncomfortable and completely out of place. “So, this is it,” he says, holding his arms out. “Was there anything else?”

Derek locks eyes with him, before quickly skirting them away to glance sidelong at the ground. “I wanted to talk to you about the other night.”

Stiles glances behind him to check if there's a line or if the place is suddenly booming with business, making sure he won't be missed if he's gone for five or so minutes, and then turns back to point at the farthest booth off to the side behind Derek without saying a word. Derek follows along behind him as he starts walking, and slides into the opposite end of the booth from Stiles.

Stiles leans back on his side, stretches his legs out so his knee almost touches Derek's, and sighs. “We really don't have to talk about this anymore,” he says. “It was all a misunderstanding, blah blah, I overreacted as usual, blah blah, I shouldn't go to school anywhere but California, blah blah.”

“You can go to school wherever you want,” Derek says forcefully, shaking his head. “I've said that already. A half dozen times.”

“Why don't you try saying it to my father?”

“If you want me to talk to him, I can -”

Stiles runs his hands down his face, squeezes his eyes shut and wishes himself anywhere else, talking to anyone else. “What did you really come here to say, Derek?”

For a moment, Derek is quiet on the other side of the table. Which isn't altogether surprising or out of character, but the look on his face, and the way that he's looking at Stiles – that might be something a little bit new. Usually in these head to head confrontations, Derek is just mad and agitated and sarcastic. Sort of a lot like Stiles in that sense.

But, now, he just looks tired. Exhausted, really, like he's at the end of his fucking rope. “I don't want to argue with you.”

Stiles scoffs with a shake of his head, and looks out the window. “Isn't that all we do?” All they've ever fucking done, really.

“We have an entire summer ahead of us before you go off to school,” Derek says, ignoring Stiles' attempt at goading and plowing on through to get to his point. “I don't want to spend every waking second of it bickering.”

“And what makes this summer any different than the others?” Stiles asks – not without good reason. Summer for Derek and Stiles has always meant even more time to be forced together, even more time to get into fights, even more time to sit in stony silence. The sheer number of hours that Stiles has spent in Derek's bedroom after a summer barbecue, sitting on Derek's bed and staring down at his phone while Derek does whatever-the-hell must be astronomical at this point. While all the other kids were out doing whatever they wanted, Derek and Stiles were trying to figure out how to even like each other. “Why do you suddenly give a shit about how much you and I argue?”

Suddenly,” Derek repeats tonelessly, a single shake of his head side to side. “You know it bothers me when we argue, Stiles. It always has.” Stiles opens his mouth to protest, but Derek silences him with a hand in the air. “And it bothers you, too. So drop the act, for once.”

Stiles feels called out – his face colors in shame and he looks away, again. Half of him might know that being an asshole to Derek (and vice versa) is just how they've always coped with everything. But another half of him hasn't ever been quite sure of where the act ends and reality begins.

“This Summer isn't different from any of the others,” Derek continues in a low voice. “I'm trying to make it different.”

When Stiles doesn't answer except to anxiously tug at his hair and adjust his t-shirt, Derek leans forward, and reaches his hand across the table in Stiles' direction. If they were normal, Stiles would take that as his cue, grab Derek's fingers in his own. As it is, he keeps his own fingers twined together in his lap, tightening his grip to avoid any urge he has to reach out and touch.

“Aren't you tired of this, Stiles?” Exhausted, running on empty, sick of it, going insane, tired.

“Yeah,” he mutters in agreement. What's the use in even denying it?

Derek leans back into the cushion at his back, and his hand drags across the table, back over completely to his side. “Then stop being so fucking difficult all the time.”

Like a porcupine taunted, Stiles bristles. Familiar territory. “I guess you think you're such a ball of sunshine to deal with!”

“I wasn't the one who started yelling at dinner the other night.”

Stiles thrusts himself forwards so that his elbows slam down on top of the table as he narrows his eyes in Derek's direction. “But you were the one who fucking went behind my back -”

“It was meant,” he draws the words out in a low voice, dangerously, “to be a surprise. It wasn't some god damn top secret plan for your demise, Stiles.”

“Wasn't it?” Stiles snaps back without thinking about it. “It was the plans for manipulating me into being with you for the rest of my life, that's as good a demise as anything else.”

It's a cruel, thoughtless, terrible thing to say, and Stiles knows it. He knew it as it was coming out, and he knows it as they both sit there and listen to the silence between them following it. Derek blinks at him for a second, but he doesn't look particularly surprised or shocked. Stiles and he have said much, much worse things to each other over the years – in the grand scheme of things, this barely even fucking ranks in the top ten.

“I'm not -” Derek stops for a second, takes a deep breath in like he's trying to control himself, and then exhales carefully. “...there's no manipulation. You forget that I didn't choose you, just like you didn't.”

Fed up, Stiles stands up from the booth with flailing limbs, staggering to his feet. He gives Derek one last dark look as he says, “you pointed right at me before I could even fucking talk.”

This is an argument that Stiles and Derek have had enough times, now, that Stiles doesn't need Derek to say anything to hear his voice in his own head. I was four years old, Stiles, I didn't know what I was doing!, and then his own – so you admit that you could've made a mistake, then? Derek again – you and I aren't a fucking mistake, Stiles, Jesus Christ, I'm so tired of you acting like -

Even though neither of them say anything, as they stand there staring into each other's eyes in silence, they both hear the same thing in their own heads. They know each other well enough by now to recite each other's failures and misgivings and flaws word for word without pause or hesitation. Ask either of them to rank out a list of positive qualities, however – there might be some stuttering on that role call.

Stiles makes a tch sound, turns to walk away. He hears Derek's shoes squeak on the tiled floor underneath their feet, hears the tell tale sound of him deftly rising up from the booth – and isn't surprised at all when he feels thick fingers wrap around his wrist and tug. Hard enough that Stiles has no choice but to whirl around and face Derek head on, look back into his eyes.

Derek doesn't say anything, at first; just holds onto Stiles' wrist in a light grip and holds his eye contact. Tired of always having to get the last word in, Stiles doesn't say anything either. Frankly, he doesn't even know what the last word would be, this time.

“I'm not quitting,” Derek says in a voice so low that Stiles almost has to strain to hear it. “Just fucking remember that.”

With those final, cryptic words, Derek lets go of Stiles' wrist and turns on his heel to clomp across the floor of the restaurant. Stiles watches him as he pushes through the glass door with a vindictive slap of his hand against the handle, and flinches when it slams closed behind him. He keeps his eyes on Derek, his dumbass soulmate, for as long as he can see him crossing the parking lot, right up until his form disappears behind a particularly large SUV.

For the moment, he's stuck to the spot. All the fights that he and Derek have had, and all the times Derek has said something so hair raisingly horrible – he's never managed to actually paralyze Stiles with shock. It's just...something about what he said, and how he said it, and the look in his eyes as he did.

It was unlike anything Stiles has ever seen from Derek, before. A certain intensity aimed directly at him that doesn't feel angry or annoyed, but just – just strong. Strong in regards to what, what emotion it is that brought that kind of outburst out of him, Stiles isn't sure.

With a crinkling and a crunching sound, Erica sidles up next to him, following his eyeline to stare out at the empty parking lot as well. “So,” she says, holding a small paper pouch of fries out in between them for Stiles to take one if he wants. “You guys are pretty fucked up, huh?”

Fuck, Stiles thinks as he shakily reaches up to take his own fry. You have absolutely no fucking idea.

**

Stiles leans back against the outer brick wall of a building downtown, right next to a giant poster-ad that reads trouble in paradise?, against a purple and orange backdrop of a sunset over the ocean. He rolls his eyes up to the sky for a moment, wondering how it was that he wound up like this, before rolling them right back down again to be level with where Derek is standing a good five feet away from him, glaring at his phone.

Derek has assured Stiles about a dozen times through a dozen different forms of communication – text, voice mail messages, in person, passed down through his father, or Scott - since the news first broke about all this that it wasn't his idea. It's not that Stiles doesn't believe him, per se, because no fucking way would Derek willingly put himself through this torment of his own volition, but it's really, really hard not to blame him for the entire thing. Seeing as how he's the fucking reason they're even standing here to begin with.

Derek is the reason Stiles is here, and Stiles is the reason Derek is here. It's amazing how many different scenarios that sentence fits with.

“We could just not go in,” Stiles pipes up, scrunching at the gravel underneath his shoes a bit vindictively. “We could just vanish, you know.”

Derek gives him an unimpressed look. “I'm sure our parents would absolutely love to get a phone call from the receptionist asking why we missed our appointment.”

He has a point there. God only knows what Stiles' father would do if he found out that Stiles convinced Derek to skip out – because it's never Derek that convinces Stiles of any of the trouble they've gotten into over the years – but in his mind it looks a lot like being dragged back to this place kicking and screaming, whether he likes it or not.

Stiles sighs, long and loud, throwing his head back until his hair smacks into the brick wall. “I really, really don't want to fucking do this.”

“I know.”

“Like – Ann Boleyn being led to her execution levels here, Derek.”

Another one of those unimpressed looks, and then Derek is cocking his head towards the glass double doors. Through them, Stiles can see a drab looking lobby with a handful of potted plants, sad looking padded chairs splayed out in neat lines, stacks of magazines, and a bored looking receptionist eating yogurt behind her rounded desk. “Come on.”

Stiles tries to dig his feet for a quarter of a second, but Derek wraps his and around Stiles' elbow and tugs him forward until he's scattering awkwardly behind Derek as he walks. Grumbling under his breath, he lets himself be lead through one of the glass doors into the cool air conditioning and the scent of a lilac air freshener plugged in to one of the walls.

Stiles decides instantaneously that this place is fucking evil. No ifs ands or buts about it. This is hands down and without a doubt the very last place that he wants to be.

Once they're inside and stalking towards her desk, the receptionist perks right up and drops her yogurt down beside her. “Stilinski and Hale?” Like she even has to ask. Stiles recognizes her good and well from school, and he knows that she recognizes them right back. Oh, everyone knows who Stiles and Derek are. This woman and her boss have probably been counting down the days until Stiles and Derek wound up in here. It was fucking inevitable.

“Unfortunately,” Stiles drawls at the same time Derek says yes, that's us.

She smiles at them pleasantly, tracing her eyes over Derek's touch on Stiles' arm and the fact that Stiles hasn't pulled away from it yet. She files that tid bit of information away, to do what with Stiles isn't sure, and then clears her throat before pressing a button on the headset she has on. “Your two o'clock is here.”

Stiles and Derek exchange a look in the following, brief silence. Derek's face says something along the lines of so this is happening, and Stiles knows that his face probably reads HELP. ME. in flashing neon lights like a Las Vegas strip. Like Stiles always says – Derek tends to go with whatever flow comes his way, while Stiles has a tendency to dig his heels in deep like a stubborn mule. Maybe in some alternate universe, that would be seen as complementary.

“He'll see you now,” she chirps, so both of them turn to look at her. She points a long finger down an ominous looking hallway, all lit up in fluorescence and stock art and another potted fucking plant, and Stiles huffs. The point of no return.

It's only worse when they're actually sitting in Alan Deaton's spooky little corner office, with the view of another brick wall behind him through the huge glass windows. He sits there staring at the two of them for what feels like minutes on end, either completely oblivious or uncaring towards the way Stiles fidgets in discomfort underneath his gaze.

When he finally speaks, it almost startles Stiles into a jolt. “I don't know if you'd remember me,” he says, shoulders a straight line where he sits behind his desk. “Last time us three were in the same room, you were both very, very young.”

Right. Stiles a baby, and Derek barely old enough to have his memories burned in, yet. All the way back to the start.

Alan Deaton is the one who assured the adults in the situation that Derek was right in picking Stiles – that he wasn't just being a little kid, that he really found the one. So early on. Too early on, some people have said. The only reason it wasn't written off as completely absurd for the first couple of years is because of Deaton's word.

“I have to say, I'm surprised you never came to me any sooner than this,” he taps a single finger on his desk top, focuses his gaze entirely on Stiles – almost as if Derek isn't there. “Then again, maybe I'm not.”

Feeling like he's somehow in trouble, Stiles clears his throat and looks away from Deaton's probing gaze.

“That's enough of the small talk, I guess.” He flips open a manilla folder with a heavily written on sheet tucked inside, glances at it for a millisecond, and then looks back up between the two of them. “You two aren't getting along.”

We have never gotten along, Stiles feels like saying.

“You have a hard time with communication,” understatement, “you feel like the other doesn't understand you,” understatement, “and you've never been romantically involved.” They've never even held hands before, much less actually kissed. Stiles can't even fucking imagine kissing Derek Hale, in all honesty. It would be like kissing his annoying fucking cousin from his dad's side. “You think this is a mistake,” again, the eyes are only on Stiles, Derek somewhere in the background, like he's not having the same conversation that Stiles and Deaton are in on, at the moment. “Is that about right?”

Stiles is about to open his mouth, but he doesn't know what he would say. To the first few points, true, of course, undeniable fact. But to the last – he and Derek being a mistake – that, he just doesn't know how to respond to. He never has, no matter how many times he's analyzed that word himself all alone when he can't sleep at night.

Luckily, Derek takes the reins. “It's not a mistake,” he says, traces of annoyance in his tone. “We just haven't...” they haven't anything.

Up on the wall, to the left of Deaton's desk, there's a poster of a cartoony looking heart. It's a diagram, the words anatomy of a soul scrawled above it in a font choice that looks better suited for a Valentine's Day card. Arrows pointing out from the heart indicate things like trust and respect and love and loyalty. And in that respect, Derek and Stiles have nothing in the ways of actually being soulmates. Not if those are the qualifiers.

“It's not a mistake,” Deaton repeats, and Stiles has heard it enough times by now that it has no effect on him. “You two are meant to be together. I saw it in you when you were kids, and I see it right now.”

Stiles looks at Derek with a grimace, fully expecting to find his look of annoyance and disbelief mirrored straight back at him on Derek's face. But, instead, he finds Derek staring intently only at Deaton and nodding his head. Like he's buying this shit. Nevermind the fact that Stiles has never understood how a person could see a soulmate bond between a baby and a toddler, or how a person could see a soulmate bond between a teenager and a college graduate. Once again, Stiles feels like he and Derek are operating on two completely different frequencies. No matter how many times it happens, he still manages to feel that pang of disappointment in his gut at the lack of solidarity between them.

“I've never been wrong before,” he continues. “But especially not where you two are concerned. I think that being paired up so young, before either of you really understood what your relationship to one another meant, that you formed another one, instead, in place of what was meant to happen.”

Stiles rolls his eyes and snorts quietly to himself. If either of the other men in the room hear it, they don't react to it. What a heaping pile of bullshit, that is.

“You think you can help?” Derek asks, leaning slightly forward in his seat like he's dying to hear the answer.

A small smile crosses Deaton's face, and he nods. “There's no problem too great when it comes to soul bonds, Derek. It might take a little bit of time, because it's going to be an unlearning process. Sort of like starting all over again, meeting for the first time after years of already knowing each other.”

Stiles smiles too, but not the same way that Deaton is. It's more of a sarcastic, dickish, disbelieving smirk, as he tries to stifle a guffaw from spilling out from behind his lips.

“It's definitely not impossible,” his gaze flicks to Stiles momentarily, something knowing lurking behind them. “But it might be difficult.”

As soon as the door is closed behind them, Stiles punches Derek in the upper arm lightly and breathes out a relieved sigh. “That guy,” he points one finger towards the door as they walk back into the lobby, “is a complete and total fucking quack.”

Derek doesn't say anything. He looks at Stiles, briefly, and then keeps right on walking out the door and back into the summer sunshine, Stiles padding along beside him on light feet.

“I mean – what is he, some kind of a fucking mystic?” He matches Derek's pace easily with his long legs, digs his hands into the pockets of his jeans and laughs. “Like, as if you can just look at someone and know who they're meant to be with. Right?”

More stony silence from Derek's end – so Stiles just keeps right on going. It's what he's good at, after all.

“What a complete and total waste of time. And money. How much is that guy charging for his rip off palm reading sessions, anyway?”

That, apparently, is the final straw being ripped out of whatever control Derek had been exerting up to this point. He stops dead center in the middle of the sidewalk, whirls around to face Stiles head on, and snaps, “nothing. He's doing it for free, Stiles.”

Stiles is about to ask why the fuck he would do that, when Derek answers the question for him.

“He genuinely gives a shit about what happens to you and I, believe it or not. He knows there's something wrong, and he thinks he can fix it!” There's a pause, Derek looking away maybe only slightly bashfully for a fraction of a second, before looking right back into Stiles' eyes. “And I believe him.”

Stiles gapes at him. Just absolutely and completely – gapes. Of all the personality traits that Stiles has ever been able to pin down about his soulmate, being easily roped into crackpot bullshit like this has never once been one of them. Derek is way too logical to go along with this. He just is. There's no way, no way that he's buying this crap. But he looks so fucking earnest as he says it, all serious eyed and firm jawed, that Stiles is dumbstruck for a moment.

This is a side of Derek he hasn't seen before.

“All those things that he said – it makes sense,” Derek keeps Stiles' eye contact, traces his face. “We started out too young, and we grew up more like siblings than anything else, and – that unlearning process – it makes sense, Stiles.”

That snaps Stiles out of his stupor. “Unlearning process,” he repeats the phrase with a roll of his eyes – how many times has he done that today? In the span of a single hour? “Derek, we are what we are to each other! There's no way to unlearn what we've turned into as adults! That's just – do you hear how insane you sound?”

“Do you?” Derek counters hotly, taking a single step closer into Stiles' space. “Suggesting that our bond is somehow faulty -”

“It is.”

Derek's jaw snaps shut with an audible click. With what might be construed as hurt written across his features, he turns his face away.

“That guy -” he points to the building a block or so away, now, “...soulmate whisperer, witch doctor, whatever he feels like calling himself – he's a glorified couples therapist. All right?” He lets his voice go softer, done with yelling and done with Derek looking like an angry kicked dog shoved back into a corner. “I don't understand why it's so hard to think that some people just aren't meant to be, like that.”

“You're saying you think we can't be fixed,” Derek says in a quiet voice.

“We can't be.” Stiles shrugs. It's nothing to him. It's a fact that he's known for a very, very long time. “People don't just change like that, you know?”

“How can you think that?” Derek demands, turning back to look into Stiles' face with a line between his brow. “How can you think that, Stiles?”

“Because it's true! After eighteen straight years of this shit -” Derek rubs at his eyes, frustrated like he's seconds away from punching the wall closest to them, and Stiles talks right over it. “-don't you think it's time to just throw in the towel?”

A moment of silence passes. Stiles realizes that they're fighting publicly, again, for the umpteenth time since forever. Most people just roll their eyes as they walk past or give the two of them wary looks, like they're half expecting one of them to hit the other. Crazier rumors have been spread about them, either way, so Stiles doesn't worry much about it.

“We couldn't get away with it,” Derek finally says with a shake of his head. “Just giving up, like that. Our parents would never allow it, and you know that. Come on, Stiles, just – just do the therapy, with me.” He sounds pleading, begging, desperate.

The last thing, absolute last thing, that Stiles wants to do is sit in a room with Derek and Alan Deaton once a week for his entire summer, listening to the two of them squibble back and forth about imaginary this and imaginary that. Just to come out on the other side of it all feeling exactly the same. He just – he can't stomach it.

He can't stomach the disappointment when it doesn't work.

“Until you and I are as picturesque as possible, they're never going to get off our backs.”

Stiles freezes. He gets the same feeling he gets when he realizes the right answer for the question he left blank two pages back on an exam, that excited/thrilled/yes feeling that's all fist pumps and a lightbulb going off over his head. He opens his mouth, closes it. Then, opens it again. “I have a better idea. A better idea than the stupid therapy.”

Derek tilts his head to the side, confused, waiting.

“Hear me out,” he starts – because Derek is notorious for never listening to any of Stiles' brilliant ideas (though, most of them have been things like let's try and see if we can throw this watermelon off a roof onto your mom's car in the hopes that it'll bounce off and crack open on the ground so we can eat it. Derek's probably been right to not listen, in the past, honestly.) “All that crap Deaton said in there – the process and the this and the that – what if we just skipped right over it?”

Carefully, like he suspects some serious foul play is afoot, here, Derek says, “what are you saying?”

“I'm saying – let's fake it.”

Derek blinks at him. Hard. Stiles never knew that someone could physically make a blink look hard, but there Derek goes, slamming his lids together like he's fucking exercising them. “Fake it.”

Pretend, dumbass,” he backhands Derek lightly on his upper arm. “Pretend like we're doing as well as our parents want us to and then – they'll be off our backs, right?”

Ah, and there's the very, very familiar Stiles has lost his god damn mind facial expression that Stiles has come to know and despise. “We don't have to pretend anything, Stiles,” Derek says evenly, in a tone that suggests he'd much rather be yelling. “We're literally soulmates.”

“That's the beauty of it! It's going to be so fucking easy. I can't believe we never thought of this before,” he runs his hands through his hair and shakes his head in amazement, grinning from ear to ear. “Holy shit. I can't believe I just solved all our problems for us, man.”

All our problems are because you won't -”

“Listen to me,” he grabs Derek by both of his upper arms and shakes him. Well. Tries to shake him. Derek's muscle mass and size gives him the whole man who can't be moved effect. “You were the one who said you didn't want to spend our entire summer arguing with each other.”

Derek sets his jaw down hard. “This isn't exactly the fix it I had in mind, Stiles.”

“It's the only fix it there is,” Stiles contends with a firm shake of his head, and Derek looks away – something crossing his face that Stiles doesn't have a word for and doesn't take the time to try and decipher. “If we keep going on like we have been, our parents are never, ever, ever, going to let us stop going to Sir Quacks a Lot in there -” Derek's lips twitch, but before he can smile all the way, he forces them back down into a scowl, “...even when it's clearly not working, and they're never going to let me go to New York, and they're going to be on our asses 24/7. Just like every other second of our lives up to this point. Derek.” Another attempt at a shake, and Derek goes limp with it, this time. “I'm telling you. If you and I can just convince everyone we're the picture perfect soulmates they've been trying to force us to be our entire lives – then we finally get our get out of jail free cards.”

“Then what?” Derek asks. His voice is quieter than Stiles has ever really heard it before. “We do this, and we make everyone think we're doing okay, and they leave us alone, and – and then what?”

Stiles takes his hands off of Derek's arms and exhales deeply. Honestly, Stiles isn't sure where he's going to go from there; in his mind, he's always thought that once he got to New York, far far away from Beacon Hills and his prying and meddling friends and family, that he'd be better off. Free. That's all Stiles has ever really wanted, when it all came down to it. Freedom. The possibility of anything laid out in front of him, instead of the surety of life with Derek Hale. “I just want to get out of here,” he says honestly, and watches as Derek swallows thickly, his adam's apple bobbing. “I – I've just gotta get out of here. We need to get away from each other. You know that, right?”

Derek starts to shake his head, starts to formulate an argument, but Stiles cuts him off short.

“What else are we supposed to do, here, Derek? We don't love each other.” He reaches one hand out and puts it on Derek's shoulder. The way a friend might comfort a friend. Or – the way a stranger might greet another. “We're never going to.”

Derek stares at him for a long moment. And, Stiles wishes that he could say that he understood it, that look, the expression, the stiffness of his muscles – but just like everything else with Derek, he just doesn't get it. He doesn't know what's going through his mind, what he wants, what he's thinking. Derek has always been the one puzzle that Stiles could never quite crack, the math problem on the board that still has him furrowing his brow and scritching across loose leaf paper. All the smarts in the world, all the A's on his report cards, and Derek remains unsolved.

“I want you to go where you want,” Derek says, finally, and Stiles smiles lightly at him. “If you think the therapy won't work and – if you think this is the only way to get where you want to go, then...”

Stiles' smile turns into a full blown grin then, all teeth and crinkles around his eyes. “Then let's fake it.”

**

Lydia and Jackson met each other on their first day of middle school, on a late summer's day, surrounded by the smell of fresh notebooks and unsharpened pencils. Stiles remembers this particularly well himself because he used to have vivid fantasies wherein Lydia was actually his soulmate – mostly just because she was pretty and smart and a certain kind of unattainable that boys his age (though some never grow out of this) find easy to obsess over. That was during the period of time when Stiles and Derek were really on the outs – Derek a sophomore in high school, Stiles a gawky little sixth grader. It was the absolute peak of their brother-like shenanigans. Stiles was looking for an escape, and found it in fantasies about Lydia.

When she and Jackson met, though, Stiles didn't feel anything except for a slight pang of regret. Not so much even specifically about Lydia, really. Not about the loss of her. But, as he sat in his desk, twirling his pencil around and around in his fingers, watching Lydia and Jackson make that eye contact with one another for the first time, he felt like he was missing out on something.

Lydia was never one of the ones who sat around with stars floating around her head as she fantasized about someday meeting her soulmate – she was more logical and driven than that, had a thousand other dreams she deemed much more important. That being said, she's still a person. All the logic and reason in the world couldn't have kept her from her own romantic destiny, in the end of it all. Though, for Lydia, the soulmates bit was always strictly just one of her many destinies. She collects them like trophies, one goal completed after another.

Stiles always identified with Lydia when they were growing up together. How she wanted more than just a soulmate, more than all of these things the culture itself had to offer.

When she met hers, he realized that he might actually and truly be alone.

**

“What do you think about this?” Lydia holds a scrap of fabric out in front of her and pinches her eyes at it – like she's trying to see through any imperfections with laser vision. “Is it too – lace?”

Stiles looks down at the table before them, and sees nothing, nothing for feet upon feet, but lace. Purple lace, white lace, different size lace, different textured lace, on and on and on. All of it in neat little sample squares that Lydia picks up one by one and holds up to the light, then in front of Stiles' face, then in front of her own in perfect succession. Lydia just likes lace, he guesses.

“It's a good lace,” Stiles decides to say, because he doesn't know one lace as better from the next.

“I'm not trying to go too much lace.” Stiles glances at the lace city in front of him once more after she says this, but she pays him no mind. “Just the right amount. Lace accents.”

“Right,” Stiles agrees half-heartedly. “Totally.”

Lydia sighs and drops the square of red back down on top of the pile with the rest of them, before running a prim finger across her brow and scowling. “I heard an old wives tale, once, that planning your wedding is meant to be sort of enjoyable,” she meets Stiles' eyes. “What a load of absolute trash.”

After six straight months of nothing but lace and cake samples and big decisions like venue and caterer, Lydia is starting to wear thin around the edges. Tenacious she might be, but everyone has their limits. Lydia's, as it turns out, is fabric samples. Who would've thought? “Why aren't you asking Jackson to do any of this?” Jackson, all things considered, and when all is said and done, can actually be a pretty half way decent person. But, only when it comes to Lydia. It's like the soulmate bond somehow managed to defrost just the tiniest slivers of his cold, dead heart when he met her. Though, not all of it. He can still be the most annoying person on the fact of the planet when he wants to be.

She fluffs her hair out with a hand. “He's doing the big picture stuff. I got saddled with all the minute details because you're so good at that, honey.”

“You are good at that.”

“I know.” She sighs wistfully. “A blessing and a curse. Anyway – enough about me.” With that, she turns her full attention onto Stiles, all shrewd gaze and serious twist to her mouth. Something about having Lydia's undivided assessment on him has always made Stiles squirm like a worm on a hook – she's too good at reading people, and Stiles prefers to not be read at all. “What's going on with you?”

Stiles shrugs, in a way he hopes comes off as more nonchalant than anything else. “Not much. Er – the usual, more or less.”

She blinks at him, tracing his face with her eyes for a moment. “I heard you and Derek got sent off to soulmate counseling.”

Christ. Everyone's probably heard about that, by now; the details of Stiles and Derek's – um – courtship for lack of a better word – have always been front page news. Not just in their own personal social circles, either, but in the town of Beacon Hills at large. It's no surprise that Lydia already knows, but it is embarrassing. He presses his hands over his face and huffs out a long sigh. “Yeah, all right? Yeah.”

“Don't get bashful. There's nothing to be ashamed of – you know, hundreds of other soulmates enlist in the same program every year.”

Hundreds. Hundreds. As compared to the billions of people walking around planet earth, hundreds doesn't even fucking rank. It's an anomoly, an oddity, and it's not good. Everyone knows that. He pulls his hands off of his face and shakes his head, not making eye contact with her. “It makes me feel like some kind of invalid, Lydia.” Stiles' “bond” with Derek has always made him feel like that.

She tuts. “I've always thought that if you and Derek could just sit down for ten seconds and really assess the situation, then you could get over the hump.”

“Everyone's always thought something about me and him,” Stiles mutters darkly, mostly to himself – but Lydia catches it all the same.

“You two are interesting,” she supplies, as if this is all the explanation needed in the world for the way people talk. “You can't really blame them.” A beat of silence, as Lydia runs her fingers through some of the fabrics in front of them on the table, maybe just for something to do with her hands. “How's it going then?”

“What?”

“The counseling. Is it working?”

Stiles almost opens his mouth and starts spewing off about how Alan Deaton is a certifiable nutjob and his entire operation is a fucking crock designed to trick poor, hapless people into believing that there's any hope for the soulmates who aren't wired right. He almost goes into detail about how he and Derek are never going to fucking be like her and Jackson, or Scott and Allison, or anyone else, and that a stupid guy in a stupid lab coat isn't going to fix any of that.

But he catches himself at the last second. He chooses instead to lean back in his chair with a creak, running his palms down the front of his jeans. “It's actually – well...”

Stiles hasn't said anything at all, but something in his tone – the way that he doesn't immediately go off on a rant about how idiotic Derek is like he normally would, maybe – has Lydia turning away from the fabrics again to look at him with her calculated gaze.

“...it's not bad.”

This was not the answer that Lydia had been expecting. That much is clear from the way her lips twitch and she stares at him like he's just grown another head. “It's not.” It doesn't come out like a question.

“Er – no, it's – it's only been one session, but I feel like...” he motions with his hands into the air, some vague gesture that means absolutely nothing. All the same, Lydia watches it with her eyes, and they light up. The same way they always did whenever she'd manage to solve a particularly difficult brain teaser.

“You think it might work?” If Lydia were the type to beam, then there would probably be rays of sun shooting out from her face right about now.

Stiles smiles at her. “Maybe.”

“As in,” she twists her body to face him completely, reaching her hands out in the air as if she's going to touch him – but just leaves her fingers hanging there in between them, “...you think that Dr. Deaton's counseling is going to help you and Derek actually love each other?”

For a moment, he feels his face fall, a near tell of the lie he's weaving, but he quickly covers it up by turning his face away in a duck of his head meant to look shy and vulnerable instead of dishonest. He had planned out what he was going to say, knew exactly the right cadence of voice to use to get Lydia thinking he's really gone doe-eyed on a soulmate bond. His lips are already forming the words, when Lydia wraps her fingers around Stiles' arm and squeezes.

“Holy. Shit.”

“I -”

“Holy. Shit.” A short bark of a laugh, something incredibly un-Lydia-like, shoots out before she can stop it. “I almost don't believe it.”

Stiles looks away, and once again, Lydia misreads it. Lydia, who can smell a lie a mile away, can't see what's happening right in front of her eyes. Even she believes that the soulmate bond is stronger than anything else. Even she thinks that it's always been inevitable for Derek and Stiles to one day find their footing on equal ground. Maybe if she hadn't been taught that getting a soulmate is the be-all end-all in any person's life, then she wouldn't be so quick to let her guard down, like this.

“You and Derek,” she leans back in her chair and looks away from Stiles to stare out at nothing as she shakes her head incredulously back and forth.

“It's only been one session,” Stiles says again with a shrug. “I can't say anything for sure, but it just feels – um – different.”

“Does it feel right?”

Nothing with Stiles and Derek has ever, ever once, felt entirely right. “I can't really explain how it feels.” A cop-out, a misdirection – and Lydia buys it wholeheartedly with a smirk. A knowing smirk, as if she's in on some big secret that Stiles hasn't woken up to yet.

If only she knew the fucking start of the real secret, here.

“It's just like I've been telling you for years,” she looks back down at her fabric squares and begins pecking through them with her fingers, a satisfied smile on her face, “all you two ever really needed was a shove in the right direction.”

She has no idea that Stiles won't be shoved, and won't be moved. He's dug his heels in firmly, so willing to be stubborn and so determined to claw his way out of a soulmate bond that he'd lie to all his friends and family, tell stories and half-truths. It's probably impossible for her to imagine. She doesn't know what it's like to not want the person she's been given, in life. To think that there was anyone out there who could completely and irrevocably want out?

She just can't think that way. No one else can.

**

Stiles knows Derek's childhood bedroom almost as well as he knows his own. He's spent an incalculable amount of hours sitting in Derek's desk chair or on top of his bed or on the carpeted ground through his childhood and teenage years; for a while, there was a drawer of Stiles' things inside of Derek's dresser. Which Stiles guesses sounds pretty romantic and very soulmate-esque when it's just laid out like that – but it was mostly comic books and lego sets. Things to occupy himself with so he wouldn't have to spend all that much time actually talking to Derek while they got in their parent-forced bonding time with one another.

All the same, even if Stiles and Derek have had many ups and downs (more downs than ups, honestly) inside of this room, it feels like a second home to him. There's a spot on the wall over the bed where the paint is cracked because Stiles smacked his head against it from jumping on the mattress too hard, and beside the doorframe are notches marking both Derek and Stiles' heights over the years in Talia's neat handwriting.

Stiles knows this room like the back of his hand. It's a shame he still hasn't figured out its owner to the same degree.

Right now, Derek is leaning back against the bedframe he's grown almost too big for, palms resting on is knees, staring at where Stiles is sitting right in front of him. They're close enough to touch, like this, but generally speaking, they don't really touch, much. “Okay,” Stiles starts, scratching absentmindedly at his hair. “This isn't going to be hard.”

Derek stares at him like he disagrees, but offers nothing to the conversation but a dark glare. Stiles is used to that.

“All we have to do is not punch each other in the face. That shouldn't be too hard, right?”

Derek's jaw tics. “You have to act like you actually like me. From the way you act every other day of the week, I'd think that'd be pretty hard for you to pull off.”

He can't even find it in himself to be affronted by this – because Derek certainly isn't wrong about that one. “I'm a good liar,” he shrugs.

A dozen memories must filter through Derek's head all at once – the time that Stiles insisted he wasn't the one who broke Derek's gameboy, the time Stiles claimed he didn't know who or what had hit Derek's fancy car, when Stiles didn't come to Derek's 16th birthday because he was 'sick' – because he narrows his eyes, but doesn't disagree.

“What I'm saying is that I'm not the problem,” he gestures to himself, and then to Derek. “You're the problem.”

“How am I -”

“You barely talk to me,” he tics this off with his index finger, “you glare at me like you wished you'd just let me drown instead of saving me that time at the lake,” his middle finger, “and you always end up starting a fight,” fourth finger.

“It's debatable who between the two of us is the one starting the fights, Stiles,” he contends, huffing out a breath and turning his face away.

“You're starting one right now.”

“Because you're so -” a hand fists in his hair as he growls under his breath words that Stiles can't make out but that sound a lot like fucking annoying. “you make me insane.”

“Right back at you, honestly!” So fucking honestly, holy shit – truer words have never been spoken in the history of Stiles' life. “But, this right now? This is exactly the kind of thing that we can't be doing in front of other people if you ever want to be rid of me.”

Derek's hand falls limply out of his hair. Just drops down into his lap, and for a second, all of the fight deflates clean out of him. It's almost as if Stiles has unwittingly delivered him a death blow, even though he's hardly said anything at all that Derek didn't already know. Stiles would be confused by it, and he is, but taking the time to cuss out what goes through Derek's mind hasn't been something he's been interested in doing since they were – well. Since ever. “You honestly think -” he breaks off, clears his throat. Won't meet Stiles' eyes. “You really think that if we manage to convince people we're decent soulmates, that we'll be able to just...”

“...get away from each other? Yeah, I really think that.” As soon as Stiles can convince his father and everyone else that the entire reason he's going to New York has nothing to do with wanting to get away from Derek, then they'll all leave him be. Once that soulmate bond is set in stone, Stiles can go and do whatever he wants to. It won't be like he's trying to escape Derek, anymore.

Of course, that's exactly what'll happen if everything goes right. But no one has to know that except for himself and Derek.

Derek doesn't speak for several long moments. The familiar tick of his old timey wall clock is the only sound between them, and it reminds Stiles of lazy summer afternoons, hunkered down with one of Derek's pillows on the ground, flipping through a comic book. Just for the tiniest of fractions of a second, Stiles gets a pang of fondness from not just the room at large, but from Derek – as if the simple sound of a clock ticking in between their shared silence, and all the memories that come along with that, has wrapped its tendrils around something in the depths of himself that he isn't even aware exists.

This time, Derek looks Stiles dead in the eyes. “That's really all you've ever wanted, isn't it? To get away from me.”

It burns to hear out loud, hurts to acknowledge. Not because it's Derek, but because it reminds him that he is a failure. That there's something wrong with him. With Derek, as well. That they can't make it work. That to him, soulmate has always been synonymous with bad, boring, annoying, and never – never love. “Isn't it what you want?”

Derek laughs. It's a bitter, sarcastic, rough sound. “What I want -” he starts, then stops. He does that a lot. There's no telling just how many things Derek has almost said to Stiles, but held back at the last second. “...I want to do what's best for you.”

“This is what's best for you, too,” he leans closer to Derek, puts one hand loosely on his upper arm in a friendly way. Derek looks down at the place where their skin is meeting, and swallows hard. “Trust me, man. You are going to be so much happier when you stop being forced to be around me all the time.”

Derek makes a face, but he says nothing. Stiles takes his hand off of Derek's arm, and the other man's eyes watch as it moves away from him, back to rest in Stiles' lap.

“It's going to be easy. Just – you know – faking it!”

“Kissing and all that,” Derek says quietly. If Stiles didn't know any better, he'd think there was something hopeful, there, in Derek's voice. “Right?”

The thought of kissing Derek is a lot like the thought of kissing Scott – just – weird and bizarre and – Christ. No. Stiles doesn't even want to fucking think about it. “Not yet,” he settles on. Because no way is he going to be able to convince anyone they're for real if they don't at least kiss sometimes. Against his will, his eyes click down to Derek's idiotic lips for a fraction of a second, and he imagines those dry, chapped things touching him, and all he wants to do is – jump out the window. Take off running at a sprint and fling himself through the glass.

It's going to be easy he reminds himself. How hard could it be?

Harder than Stiles thought, at first. Even after watching how soulmates interact with each other his entire life, not just in movies and shows but in real life, he finds it incredibly difficult to act the same with Derek. Which, no, isn't particularly a surprise to him (or to Derek), but it is frustrating.

And it isn't like Derek is making anything easier. If he had his way, he'd just sulk and mope and keep his arms crossed over his chest every waking second that they have to spend together – and his trying to not look he wants to claw Stiles' eyeballs out looks a lot more like not trying at all.

Stiles goes all out. He leans his entire body up against Derek's side, wrings one arm around Derek's neck and smiles at him as genuinely as possible. It seems like barely anything, the absolute bare minimum of contact, but from the way Derek's sisters all stop for a second once the two of them are touching, you'd think Stiles ripped Derek's pants off and started giving him a handjob right then and there in front of his entire family.

Like Stiles has said. He and Derek don't really touch. That much is evident from the way Derek's entire body goes stiff once Stiles has got his hands on him, the way his face tightens up and he looks physically pained for a moment. He recovers quickly enough – albeit a little awkwardly – by leaning right back up against Stiles and turning momentarily to stare into Stiles' eyes.

As they lovingly gaze at each other, Stiles is thinking about how fucking bizarre this is, how uncomfortable he feels, how he might as well be rubbing himself up against Scott – it's a genuinely horrifying thought and he tries to scrub it from his memory. It's impossible for him to say what's going through Derek's mind, however. He has this open expression on his face, his eyes wide and almost disbelieving, his jaw slack. Stiles then starts thinking that maybe they should've, like, practiced this back in Derek's bedroom before trying to act all lovey-dovey in front of people.

It feels like a colossal failure. The entire afternoon at the Hales just one big blinking red x. Derek goes stiff every single time Stiles reaches out to touch him (running his fingers down Derek's arm absentmindedly, pressing his leg right up against his when they're sitting on the couch, leaning forward into Derek's personal space as if he's thinking about kissing him), and even after he relaxes into the touch he just gets...weird about it.

At one point, Stiles drops his head onto Derek's shoulder, and Derek nearly has an attack. He jerks, at first, startled into oblivion, and then spends the next two minutes lifting his hand out of his lap, and then dropping it back down, again and again. Stiles thinks he might be considering running his fingers through Stiles' hair. Which is weird. Stiles makes a mental note to tell Derek not to touch his fucking hair as soon as they're alone.

Even so, Stiles' feelings of failure about the entire thing turn out to be completely unfounded. Apparently, even awkward, terse interactions between Stiles and Derek get read as the most amazing thing that's ever happened in the history of ever – because, again, everyone stares at them. Not even trying to be subtle about it, either. Cora looks like she's about to scream all throughout the movie, flicking her eyes over to where Stiles has still got his temple pressed into Derek's shoulder, nudging Laura in the side and nearly vibrating out of her own spot on the couch.

Stiles has to work to stifle all of his smirks, because he literally cannot believe this is really fucking working. Stiles thinks that he could lean up and kiss Derek clean on the mouth right now, and even if Derek recoiled and yelled in shock and alarm, the Hales would all nudge each other and go aww! Beats Stiles punching Derek in the face, at least.

The real kicker comes when Talia stops the two of them on their way out the door, right when Derek is about to drive Stiles back home. She wraps her fingers lightly around Stiles' arm to hold him back for a moment, and when Stiles turns back to look at her, he finds a soft smile there on her face.

Talia has always been like a second mother to Stiles – she was there for him as he grew up as often as his biological mother was, after all, spent as much time babysitting him and as much time driving him around as Claudia. When his real mother passed away, Stiles got the sense that Talia felt it was her duty, then, to take on that responsibility. Fill the void that was left behind. Of course, everyone knows that no one could have ever flat out replaced Claudia, not for Stiles. But Talia became the one who showed up whenever the Sheriff was caught up at work and Stiles was having a panic attack in the boy's bathroom at school, and she became the one that Stiles gave mother's day cards to.

She's never put the same kind of pressure on him that his father does, to fit together with Derek the way she probably wishes that he would. She has always just complacently stood by and waited. Maybe because a part of her always knew that one day, it would happen, and on Stiles and Derek's own terms. Or, she thought. Genuinely believed. Still does.

She leaves her hand on his arm and smiles wider, moving her eyes briefly to her own son. “You two seem to be getting along.”

Clearing his throat, Stiles nods, but doesn't say anything. He doesn't know what he would say, honestly.

“I thought that those therapy sessions with Dr. Deaton were a little bit much,” she looks in between them, once, twice, as though she's sizing them both up, trying to analyze them. “I guess your father was right, after all, Stiles.”

“Yeah.” Stiles draws the word out, clears his throat yet again. “A push in the right direction.”

“Right,” she nods her head encouragingly. “What exactly happened, in one session, that's brought all this on?”

Christ. He probably should've known that if any single person would be able to laser-eye her way through the charade that Derek and Stiles are trying to pull here with x-ray vision, it would be Talia. Moms just know things. It's in their DNA. He struggles to remember what the fuck Deaton even talked about during that ridiculous first session, what was said, and his mind goes completely and totally blank. Desperately, he glances at Derek for help.

Running a hand through his hair, Derek sighs, opens his mouth. Stiles cannot fathom what's about to come out of his mouth, because between the two of them, Derek is definitely the bigger failboat. He can't lie, he can't pretend, and he certainly can't do either of those things in front of his own fucking mother. Once, Derek spilled grape juice all over the white rug in the bathroom, freaked out, spent two hours scrubbing at the stain while Stiles sat on the sink and said it's not that big of a deal, just tell her someone else did it. When Talia came home, Derek only got halfway through the lie before he broke down and admitted the truth.

Case in point, Stiles is sure Derek is about to bungle everything right before his very eyes.

“He said we've spent so much time together we've negated the soulmate instincts,” his voice is calm, direct. Believable. Stiles raises his eyebrows. It's not technically a lie. “So we have to bring them back to the surface.”

Talia's face betrays the fact that she thinks that's a load of absolute hogwash for a moment, looking between her son and Stiles with an incredulous smile on her face. Quickly, she composes herself, shaking her head. “I guess that makes sense.”

“Totally,” Stiles agrees, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically.

“And you two think it's working?”

A beat. Then, simultaneously, in what Stiles would almost call an eerie conjoined voice, “yeah, definitely.”

Another big smile makes its way onto her face, and then she's moving her hand up to Stiles' shoulder, while reaching out with her other and to put it on Derek's. She stands there, squeezing their shoulders and gazing at them with that fucking smile, like they've just won a fucking Nobel Prize and she's in the audience with a tissue, as if this is a proud mother moment for her.

It most likely is. Something about that makes an ugly feeling pool in Stiles' stomach, and it's the first time since he hatched this plan that he's felt...regret. Shitty about it. Here's this person in front of him who's half raised him, held his hand through so much, and he's going to stare directly into her eyes and lie, like this.

It only gets worse when she sniffles, barely holding back tears, and says, “I'm so happy for you. My boys.” She pulls them in for a group hug, one arm wrapped around each of their backs. Stiles very pointedly doesn't look over her shoulder at Derek while this happens, and chooses instead to squeeze his eyes shut and pretend, but inside of his own head instead of for anyone else's benefit.

He pretends it's real, just for a second. Pretends that he feels something for Derek. Pretends that Claudia is standing off to the side watching and waiting for her own turn to pull he and Derek in for a hug, to call them her boys just like Talia had done.

Outside in the car, Derek rounds on Stiles the moment Stiles has got his door closed and their conversation becomes private.

“I can't fucking do this,” he snaps, clutching his keys in his hand hard enough that he might start drawing blood in a second, here. “I can't do this.”

Stiles rubs at his eyes, feeling shaky and raw. “I – okay. That was -”

“It was fucking horrible,” Derek finishes for him succinctly, shaking his head and turning away to stare out into the woods.

“It wasn't that bad. It was just –“

“Stiles. I'm telling you I fucking – can't.”

“I know it was bad! But honestly, a lie is a lie is a lie. You think this is any worse than any other we've ever told? She – she's never going to find out that it was fake. She -”

What?” Derek interrupts, furrowing his brow. “My mom?”

“Yeah,” Stiles says back, turning to look at Derek in his eyes. He finds frustrated confusion, there, Derek's brows drawn tight together. “Aren't you talking about – because -”

“I don't care about lying to my mom,” Derek says under his breath. “She's – that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about you and me, all right? Just – I can't fucking do that. With you touching me, and being – I can't. I can't.” He grips the steering wheel so hard that his knuckles turn white, keys dropping down into his lap with a clink as he grits his teeth and glares.

Stiles stares at the profile of his face for a moment, as realization slowly sinks over him. It feels like the hits just keep on coming, one after the other. First with Talia in there, the way she looked at them, and then with thinking about his own mother, and now – now this. Now fucking Derek has to be his classic self and go ahead and make Stiles feel like an even bigger piece of shit than he ever imagined possible. Derek is good at that. “I know that touching me is just the worst fucking thing ever, for you,” he says lowly, his voice cracking once or twice, and Derek turns to look at him with something akin to shock. “...but could you just try to fucking suffer through it, for once in your god damn life?”

Derek blinks at him, mouth hanging open. There's silence, silence, and then Derek is shaking his head. “That's not what I meant, Stiles.” He sounds so open, right then – so honest. Quiet and forceful at the same time, like he's trying to convince Stiles to believe it. “Touching you – it – it's just – I can't touch you like that, while knowing...” While knowing what?

Stiles snorts, rolls his eyes to the ceiling. “The only thing you ever have to think about when we touch is how, some day, you won't have to fucking do it anymore.” He crosses his arms over his chest and stares straight ahead, not wanting to see that fucking expression on Derek's face anymore.

Neither of them move, and Stiles can feel Derek's eyes on the side of his face the entire time they sit there, burning a hole through his cheek and putting Stiles on edge. Derek's direct attention has always made him feel like that – this toxic mix of shocky and shakey and hot. It must be some remnants of the failed soulmate bond, trying to inch its way to the surface. Stiles doesn't care. He fucking doesn't.

Finally, Derek puts the key in the ignition. Once the engine is started up, but before he puts it into drive, he gives Stiles another last look. “Whatever you want, Stiles.”

Oh, whatever Stiles wants. What he wants. He wants to fucking scream.

**

Stiles' parents met each other when they were both already late into their twenties, done with school, working their lifelong career jobs. After having worked their way through fake-relationship after fake-relationship, sitting around with people they didn't care about enough to stick around for, wondering where on earth their other halves could possibly be. Most people meet their soulmates in young adulthood, either high school or college-aged. Even though everyone knows it can happen anytime, anywhere, anyway, once the age of thirty starts getting closer, people start to lose faith.

But Claudia and John found each other at exactly the right time, exactly when they were meant to. The universe intended it, so it happened. Point blank.

Sometimes Stiles wonders if his father wishes he had never found his soulmate, at all. He wonders what's worse – to never find anyone, or to find them, and have them taken away too soon, and live the rest of your life alone.

**

Scott comes bounding into Stiles' bedroom early on a Saturday morning, leaps up on top of Stiles' mattress, and starts jumping on it. Again and again, leaping up and down, smacking his head into the wall once and muttering an ouch, before continuing his tirade of wake up wake up wake up!

Stiles groans, pulling his knees up higher to avoid his feet or legs getting crushed underneath Scott's shoes, and dives back under his sheets with a grumble of fuck off.

Scott does not fuck off. He starts jumping harder, until Stiles' entire bed and body is shaking up and down, until the sheets get pulled off of him of their own accord, until, finally, Stiles has no choice but to sit up shakily and blearily glare at his best friend.

He turns to the clock, which reads seven twelve in bright red numbering, and scowls. “I don't have to work until eleven,” he snaps, kicking his legs out from the sheets to start trying to kick them at Scott to get him off. “I'm going back to sleep.”

“No,” Scott hisses around a laugh, jumping once more until he lands on his ass with a thump that almost breaks the bed frame. “You and I have to talk!”

“I don't talk until eight am,” Stiles pulls back on his sheets and moves to lie down again. “Come back later.”

Scott leans over and pulls the covers fully off of Stiles' body, until he's completely exposed to the open air, and Stiles swears. “We need to talk now!”

“What?” Stiles snaps, rubbing at his eyes, then moving to smooth out his bed head. “What could possibly be so fucking important that you can't wait until, like, day to talk to me about?”

With what Stiles would call a fucking leer, Scott leans forward, all grinning and wide-eyed. That is not a look that Stiles likes to see on Scott's face. Not at all. “I heard something very interesting.”

Stiles glares at him, waiting for a follow up. But Scott just sits there with that creepy fucking grin on his face, raising his eyebrows suggestively again and again – Stiles thrusts his hands out like and?

“I heard,” he starts, a laugh coming out before he can stop it, like this is just so fucking exciting that he can barely contain himself, “from Laura Hale -”

Stiles would be fine if Scott never finished that sentence. He would be a very happy man if he could cut Scott off right then and there, get out of bed, and hop in the shower before he even has to fucking hear it. It isn't like he doesn't know exactly what Scott's about to say. It isn't like he doesn't know what Scott could've possibly ever heard from Laura Hale that would have him breaking into Stiles' house this early in the fucking morning. Oh, Stiles knows. He knows.

Stiles slaps a hand over his face right as Scott starts to say - “...that you and Derek are all bonded now. She told me that you were all over each other!”

There are a series of options sitting in front of Stiles right now. Well – only two options. Really, it's just a fork in the road. He could choose to either go along with it, even with Scott, tell him straight up that hell yeah me and Derek are all about each other now, convince Scott that everything is great and Stiles is great and Derek is great, and that Dr. Deaton should be on the Oprah network for his work in soulmate counseling because man that dude is amazing.

As Stiles mulls that thought over, while Scott talks a mile a minute in the muted recesses of Stiles' ears, he finds that he doesn't like it. At all. Between he and Scott, there have never been any fucking secrets. For Christ's sake, Scott was the first person he told when he started to believe he and Derek were never going to have a real bond with one another, that their bond is tainted and shaky, at best. Scott has always known that type of shit about Stiles, and vice versa.

He can't lie to Scott. He just can't.

“...can't believe you didn't tell me!” Scott is still all smiles, staring at Stiles with this look of awe on his face, of true, unbridled joy, so much like Talia's – Stiles can't deal with another layer of guilt on top of every thing else he has to deal with, these days.

So, with a sigh, he looks away. “I've got something you'll believe even less, buddy.”

Scott's eyebrows go sky high, and he, no context whatsoever, no fucking preamble, says, “ohmygod, you've had sex.”

Stiles rears back, mouth going fucking slack in shock, until his back slams against the headboard of his bed. “What? No! Why would you – what?” He gapes at his best friend, who just grins wider. Like this is all so fuckin' funny to him. “Why is that the first thing you -”

“Just asking,” he snickers, and Stiles feels like punching him in the fucking face.

“Well that's not – no. No we have not. And – Christ,” he rubs his fist into his forehead and tries to think of how to word this. How to even get it out there in the open, at all. “I have to tell you something. Okay? Something top secret as fuck.”

Scott's grin fades marginally, replaced by a serious, I'm listening expression. God only knows what he thinks Stiles is about to say – it couldn't be anything even near close to what Stiles actually is trying to get up the courage to admit.

“Don't tell anyone,” he warns. “Not even Allison.”

That gives Scott some pause. He looks hesitant for a moment, sitting up straight and narrowing his eyes in confusion. Between soulmates, there are very, very rarely any secrets. Everything is out on the table at all times, constantly. There's not much they have to lie to each other about anyway. Stiles waits, watching as Scott's face goes from confused, to conflicted, back to confused again. Finally, after ten solid seconds of silence, Scott nods his head up and down. “Okay,” he agrees, in a tone of voice that suggests he's suddenly very scared of what Stiles is about to say. “What is it?”

Stiles looks away again. For some reason, even though he's been pushing Derek so fucking hard on this, convincing himself it's the absolute right thing to do, he feels ashamed. Embarrassed. “Me and Derek – we're not...there's no bond.”

Scott waits for a moment. When Stiles doesn't follow it up with anything, he does so himself. “Not yet. Right?”

Not yet. Stiles used to say not yet to himself all the time. He used to believe so fucking much in not yet, when it came to he and Derek. “Me and him aren't ever going to have anything, Scott. I know that, and he knows that, and -”

“Stiles...”

“...no one is ever going to get off our backs until – until we seem like real soulmates, so I just – we just thought -”

Scott shakes his head. Stiles hasn't even said it out loud yet, but he's already denying it himself, refusing to believe it.

“We just thought we should fake it, so that we could finally get what we want out of life, instead of sitting around waiting for something that's never going to happen.”

When Stiles finally chances a glance back to Scott's face, he wishes he hadn't looked at all. All he sees written in Scott's eyes and his posture and the set to his mouth is...disappointment. Plain and simple. He looks so god damn disappointed in Stiles, almost to the point where it actually hurts him personally to have to sit here and listen to this, right now.

“You -” he starts, then stops. Like he has no idea where to even begin with this.

“I know it's crazy. I know that,” Stiles scoots forward a little on the bed to bridge some of the distance between them, reaching his hand out to drop his fingers on Scott's knee. “But we don't have any other options. I can't fucking – I can't stand it anymore.”

“So that's the plan? To make everyone think you're in love so – you can leave him?” He scrunches his face up, shakes his head again. “That doesn't make any sense.”

“Once people think we're really bonded they won't care,” Stiles shrugs. No one is going to give even half of a shit where Stiles wants to go, so long as they think he and Derek are a sure thing. He can go off, stop living underneath the pall of his failures, stop tormenting himself with having to be around Derek for any longer than he needs to be.

“But – when you're older?” Scott tilts his head to the side. “Out of school? When you come back to Beacon Hills, you're just going to have to -”

“I'm not coming back,” he says it quietly, almost a murmur – when Scott looks at him like he's just been slapped in the face, Stiles wishes he hadn't said it at all.

Stiles.” It's not said angrily, or like he's upset. It sounds like he's so fucking hurt – absolutely heartbroken over all this. “Why? Why are you doing this to yourself? You're making yourself miserable, I don't get how you don't see that.”

Stiles shakes his head, fervently – and only because he's heard the same thing so many times, from so many different people, he gets angry. It's so infuriating that his entire life, people have been telling him that they know what's going to ultimately make him happy, what he needs, what he should be doing. When there's no one, no one on this earth, who knows what's going to make Stiles happy like Stiles himself. “You don't get it, Scott. You don't fucking understand what it's like – you have a soulmate!”

“So do you!”

“He's not! Okay? It's not him! I know what I feel, and I don't feel – you just don't fucking get it,” he stares down at his lap and curls his fingers, uncurls them. Again and again.

“You're right. I don't. I cannot understand why you wouldn't want your soulmate.”

A sarcastic laugh bubbles out of Stiles' throat, and he feels like crying. “You think I just don't want it? You fucking think I like being this way, Scott? Do you think it's fun for me that I can hardly stand being in the same room with the person who's supposed to –“ he grits his teeth, can't even get the words out. He can't articulate what Derek is supposed to be to him, because thinking about it? Really considering all the things that he and Derek could have if they had been born right? God, nothing hurts more. Nothing.

Because, after all this time, and even after failure after failure, Stiles wants it. He wants every single fucking second of it, he needs it, almost. The real thing.

What's so horrible, so bitter about it, is that he never will. He's been given his lot in life, and it's what he has to live with. This person who doesn't love him, never will, and this person who he wants to love so fucking badly, but he – can't. He just can't. No one understands that. Because it's not normal.

“There's something wrong with me,” he admits in a low voice, tears prickling at the corners of his eyes. “There's something really, really wrong with me. Maybe with Derek, too.”

Scott sighs deeply through his nose, and instantly, Stiles knows that the fight that they were having moments ago is over now. Scott can't be mad at Stiles if he's going to sit there fucking crying. So, Scott reaches his hand out and squeezes at Stiles' shoulder, shaking him a little. “There can't be anything wrong with the bond, Stiles. There's nothing wrong with you or him. It's just – you guys just never have the right timing. I really think -”

Stiles presses his hands to his face and stutters a short huff. He can't stand to hear this again, not again, not again. “People come out differently all the time. With everything else, right? There's – there's all kinds of diseases. I have one. I -”

“Stiles, no.”

For the first time in his life, for the first time since he knew, Stiles says it out loud. Point blank. “I can't love my soulmate.” He holds his hands out, gestures to his room for some reason, as if this room alone encompasses everything that's ever gone wrong, with him. “What do you call that? What is that?”

Scott doesn't have anything to say to that. He squeezes Stiles' shoulder harder, shuffles closer until his body heat is right there against Stiles' bare skin, and stays quiet while Stiles cries. Stiles doesn't think that there's really anything that could be said, about this entire situation. The reality of it is right there, that Stiles can't with Derek. No matter how much he wants to, no matter how long he spends trying to force it, there's just this black empty void inside of him. In the same exact spot where every other person who's found their soulmate says that they find love, Stiles finds nothing.

An ache, maybe. A desperation. A please.

“All I've ever wanted is for you to be happy,” Scott finally says in a quiet voice, rubbing a hand along Stiles' back. “It's just natural for me to think you'd find that with Derek.”

Of course it is. Scott cannot imagine what it's like to only know hurt and disappointment where his soulmate is concerned. It's something that Stiles simply cannot live with anymore. “Don't tell anyone, Scott.”

There's a pause, but then, Scott is sighing again. Resignation. “Okay. I won't.”

**

Stiles and Derek fall into a routine. Routine seemed like the best option, out of anything else they could have come up with – just a daily set of responsibilities they devote to one another, and to everyone else, in a way.

On the days that neither Stiles or Derek work, Saturdays mostly, Derek will show up in his car outside in the Stilinski's driveway. He'll come up to the front door, stand in the living room or sit in the kitchen with the Sheriff, while the older man just fucking beams at him. The number of times that Derek has voluntarily shown up at the Stilinski house to just be there must be somewhere in the single digits, so to Stiles' father, it's as good as finding a four leaf fucking clover. He gets this look on his face, whenever Stiles and Derek are even in the same room with one another, regardless of whether they're touching or not.

It reminds Stiles, eerily and heartbreakingly, like the look that he used to give to Stiles' mother. It's this open, hopeful, trusting look. As if Stiles and Derek are proof of something, the same way that Claudia was proof of something. That there's a reason to keep going every single day, that love is a real thing that happens between people all the time, that – something matters.

Another thing it reminds Stiles of is how horrible all of this is. Maybe it would be self-deprecating and the right thing if Stiles put all of the blame and guilt solely on himself, if he saw that look and felt fucking horrible for doing this. But it wouldn't entirely be honest. The truth is, Stiles doesn't know if anyone's really at fault, for any of it.

Stiles and Derek are a mistake. Plain and simple. And they're a mistake that has no perpetrator or reason. Just a freak of nature occurance. Stiles only lets himself feel guilty for so long, before remembering that it's either this, or go on shoving his distaste for Derek down everybody's throats all the time. No. This is better.

He convinces himself that it's better.

Derek stops going still every time Stiles touches him, and Derek always picks him up on time and calls when he says he will, Derek puts his arm around Stiles during movies, and Stiles convinces himself it's for the best. They fall into robot-mode, where their fingers instantly lace themselves together once they're within reach – not because they want to, particularly, but because it's what's expected.

Everyone around them eats it up like it's the most amazing thing they've ever seen. People who Stiles only vaguely remembers from high school litereally double take the two of them when they walk down the sidewalk holding hands. Ercia has stopped teasing Stiles about picking up the mop to beat your soulmate to death with, huh?, and started teasing him with exaggerated kissing noises whenever Derek shows up on his lunch break, or leering at he and Derek while she mops the floors and they huddle together on the same side of the booth.

It's almost too easy. All those years of resisting it, of everyone standing around and waiting for it, probably praying for the fucking day that Stiles and Derek would finally stop fucking bickering and fighting all the time, would give in to the soulmate extinct they'd obviously simply been repressing – christ. It must have just built up to a point where no one can stop to think about how strange it is. That out of nowhere, Stiles and Derek are all picture perfect.

Stiles doesn't like to think about picture perfect so much. Picture perfect is everyone else, all around him, wrapped up with their soulmates – it's what Stiles has always wanted so desperately he could almost fucking reach out and touch it, that want.

Now, he reaches out and touches Derek, just like everyone would expect him to, and there's nothing there.

“It's about making a connection,” Deaton says in their third week of soulmate counseling, gazing at them with that same steely-eyed look Stiles is convinced is some kind of a fucking act. “From what I've seen, the two of you already have one – it's just not what it should be.”

Derek nods, taking it fucking seriously like he always does, and Stiles just crosses his arms over his chest and imagines himself anywhere, anywhere else. “We grew up together like brothers.”

“I think there's still a part of you that thinks of him like your annoying little brother,” Deaton goes on, giving Stiles a very pointed look. Like he's supposed to enthusiastically be agreeing with all this, nodding his head like Derek, leaning forward and dedicating his full fucking attention to this hackjob. “Obviously, that's not going to work.”

Derek swallows, like he's nervous. Or that there's a spotlight shining on his face, a crowd of people out there waiting for him to say something else. He averts his gaze from both of them, stares at the drab carpeting of Deaton's little office, and clears his throat. “Right. I – how would we -”

“My suggestion would be to push your relationship past the point of the comfort zones that both of you have set up over the years. You're comfortable with aruging and fighting and ignoring the other – maybe try the opposite.”

Derek nods again, eyebrows drawn together in concentration, and Stiles feels like he's going to reach out and punch a hole through the wood of Deaton's fancy desk. Sitting in this room is going to be the death of him. He just fucking knows that Deaton and Derek are in a tag team trying to kill him.

But, he doesn't do that. He sits there, smiles, leans his elbow up against Derek's, and tries his hardest to not look murderous. Deaton gives him sly looks the entire time, like he can laser-eye his way through the entire charade, but Stiles could give a fuck what Deaton thinks he does or doesn't know. In Stiles' mind, Deaton is just some guy with a made-up master's degree hanging on his wall in soulmate psychology, peddling his made-up therapies, doling out made-up advice to Derek and Stiles like he actually thinks it'll help anything.

“I hate that motherfucker,” Stiles says in the car as he clicks his seatbelt into place, thrusting himself back into the cushioning and huffing. “I hate him. I think about clawing his eyeballs out with my fingers and just -”

“He's only trying to help,” Derek says mildly from the driver's seat. He's always saying things so fucking mildly – like, whenever Stiles starts seeming like he's about to go off his rocker, Derek compensates by pretending to be all chill and cool and detached. It drives Stiles absolutely fucking insane.

“He's. A. Quack.” Stiles makes the beak of a duck with his hand and snaps it in Derek's face a few times, until Derek swats it away in agitation, grunting something under his breath. “He's bullshitting us. He sucks people's money up because he knows they're desperate either way. He's, like, a leech.”

There's a moment of silence. Just Derek driving along and Stiles fuming in his seat, coming up with other great zingers to use against Deaton in the future – and then Derek starts talking again. “The stuff he says makes sense, Stiles.” Stiles swerves his eyes almost murderously in Derek's direction, setting his jaw tight. “Sometimes I think you're just on some kind of mission to just be right about everything, even when you're wrong.”

Stiles opens his mouth, shuts it. Open it again, shakes his head, small noises of shock and indignation coming out from his throat, and seriously considers clapping the side of Derek's face as hard as he physically can. “What?”

“He has a degree.”

“Yeah,” Stiles snorts. “That degree is the same to me as a Barbie driver's license for the dream mobile.”

Derek eyeballs him, hard, for as long as he can before having to turn back to face the road. It's a look he recognizes well – the Stiles is being difficult look. “He's helped other people -”

“Do I have to remind you,” Stiles cuts him off, whirling around in his seat to face Derek as much as he can with his seatbelt on, “about what you and I are doing here?”

Derek doesn't say anything.

“Okay! I will!” He flails, hands gesturing to words he hasn't even said yet as he churns them around in his head. “We are literally pretending to be falling in love with each other, because we both agreed that the real thing isn't ever going to happen for us! But for some reason, every time you set foot in that guy's office, you become convinced -”

“This was your idea,” Derek reminds him hotly.

Stiles gapes. “That you went along with!”

“You fucking asked me to.” Like this is all the explanation in the world, like that's everything Derek could possibly have to fucking say on the matter, he says this. Point blank, voice going hard in finality on the end. The problem is, Stiles has no clue what that's supposed to mean.

So what if Stiles asked him to? Stiles once asked to borrow Derek's play station, and Derek lobbed him over the head with of the controllers.

“It's not that I believe him implicitly, all right?” Derek goes on, ignoring Stiles' look of confusion and shock and indignation. “I just don't see the harm in trying. I told you I wasn't going to just stop trying to get you to -”

Right as they're stopping in front of Stiles' house, Stiles rips his seatbelt off. He does it so hard, and so loud, that it actually cuts Derek off mid-sentence. The metal part smacks up against the window while Stiles rounds on Derek, twisting his entire body in his direction. “Okay, then, smartass.”

“Smartass? I -”

“Since you're so sure that Dr. Deaton is the resurrected Christ -”

“I never said -”

“Why don't we put his little methods to the test!”

Derek is opening his mouth to say something else – from the look on his face something agitated and confused and Derek-like that'll just piss Stiles off all the more, so Stiles stops him with a hand in the air.

“You wanted to try,” he hisses, before motioning with two fingers in the air like c'mere. “Kiss me.”

Between them, something electric passes. And not electric in a sexy or romantic way – but electric in a very, very heated type of way. Derek's lips part in surprise, his eyes going half-crazed, mouth twisting open and downwards. Stiles just sits there, gaze intent and serious. No matter how fucking crazy Derek might say he is for this, no matter how crazy he actually might be, there's no way he's backing down now.

Stiles is the type who can't go back on his word. Once he's dared himself or taken it on, he has to follow through. It's been the reason for all three of his broken bones, all his trips to the principal's office, all his two-week long groundings. This isn't any fucking different.

“Kiss you.” Derek repeats like the word doesn't quite make sense to him.

“You heard what Deaton said,” he motions out the windshield as if Deaton is lurking out there in the woods somewhere, watching this entire exchange. He just might be, fucking hell, the guy is a creep. “Things brothers wouldn't do. Brothers sure as fuck wouldn't make out -”

“So now we're making out.” The thing about Derek's reaction to all of this is that it isn't necessarily disgust that Stiles sees on his face; but that's exactly what Stiles would expect to see. Because like Deaton has said upwards of a dozen times by now, they're supposed to be like siblings. And if making out with his brother doesn't inherently gross the fuck out of Derek – well...Stiles would be concerned. Very concerned about that.

As it is, Derek just looks awestruck. Like he literally cannot believe it.

“Yes,” Stiles says firmly. “Fucking do it. Come on – tell me if you feel anything.”

Across from him, Derek's grip on the steering wheel turns brutal. He traces Stiles' face with his eyes for a moment, specifically trails down to his lips and holds his look there for a moment – before noticing that Stiles is looking right back at him. Then, he flicks his gaze back up to Stiles' eyes like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. It really seems like he should just shuck Stiles out of his car with a roll of his eyes and an annoyed grumble under his breath – Stiles already has his hand reaching back for the handle of his door, already planning a sarcastic jab to send Derek's way...

...and then Derek is loosening his grip until his hand is free, and starts moving it towards Stiles' face. It happens so fast that Stiles almost misses the entire thing; almost misses how Derek cups Stiles' jawline in his fingers, how Derek shifts marginally in his seat, how he leans forward and keeps Stiles' eye contact the entire time, until he's too close – and can only look right at Stiles' lips the closer he gets.

Stiles sits there, stiff and still and half in a state of shock. He still has his hand on his door, braced to get out if he has to. Truth be told, he thinks that the second Derek presses his fucking dry-ass chapstick-barren lips to Stiles', Stiles will be rolling backwards out onto his ass just to get away from the guy.

The fingers around his jaw tighten and pull, until Stiles' mouth is exactly where Derek needs it to be – and then – they're kissing.

Here's the thing. If someone had said to Stiles an hour before this – or the day before, or a week before, a fucking year ago – that he and Stiles would be making out in Derek's car out in Stiles' driveway while the Sheriff is sitting inside watching a fucking baseball game? Stiles would've laughed directly in their face and skateboarded off into the sunset, still cackling maniacally. Fuck. Even seconds ago, Stiles had been sure of that.

When Derek's lips first touch his, Stiles has a thought like away, get off, do not want, hate, hate, gross – what's scary about it is that he doesn't know if he really meant it. Or if he just thought that, just for that one millisecond, because he was forcing himself to. Convincing himself that that's what he wanted to think. That's what he should think. It's what he's thought all his life.

Derek pushes the kiss deeper, sliding his tongue through Stiles' lips and going further, further, and Stiles doesn't stop it only because he...fuck. He doesn't know.

Something. A pull. A tug. The tiniest of whispers in the back of his mind, calling to him after years of being nothing more than an echo trying to drag itself to the surface. Something. Stiles doesn't have a word for it, isn't sure what it is at all, because he's never encountered it before. It's something foreign, while simultaneously something that he's had there inside of him for his entire life.

It's been waiting.

Stiles rears back like cold water's just been dumped on him, reaching his hand out to steady himself on Derek's shoulder because that – somehow feels natural. To reach out and touch Derek, like that. He opens his eyes, because what the fuck he had closed them at some point, and immediately searches Derek's face. A part of him is charged with some kind of hope, desperation; that he'll see confusion or shock or something on Derek's face, just like the something that's inside of Stiles, right now. This fucking remnant of whatever.

Instead, Derek looks calm. Serene, almost, Stiles would say. As if what just happened was nothing to him; as if he's kissed a thousand people before, and Stiles is just number a thousand and one, another to the list. At least, that's what Stiles reads there.

He clears his throat, because the silence in the car is so loud he can hear his own blood rushing through his veins. “You -” his voice is still scratchy, shaky and awkward, so he pauses to clear his throat yet again. “...feel anything?”

He doesn't know what he expects the answer to be. Honestly, he doesn't know what's going through his mind right about now. He knows, knows still, that he and Derek can't possibly work out, they just can't, and history has proven as much. But...but. That's all it is, right now. A single doubt.

It gets pretty much shot in the fucking face when Derek clears his own throat, blinks his eyes all innocently at Stiles, and says, “nothing new.”

Stiles doesn't pause. He doesn't think about anything, anything at all. He uses the hand he still has on the door handle to wrench it open, even if the fingers are a little stiff, and nods his head. “Right. Exactly. As I thought.”

As he thought.

**

Stiles doesn't think that Dr. Deaton is right. He also doesn't think that his parents, Derek's parents, or any of their friends or peers or acquaintances have been right, not when it comes to he and Derek. Stiles is still completely and entirely convinced that the bond that he and Derek are supposed to have is faulty, somehow. The lines aren't even, or there's a crack somewhere, and all the love he was meant to feel for Derek his entire life slowly bled out of him over a period of years, never to be gotten back again. Stiles is sure of this.

The kiss was a fluke. Feeling like he wants to kiss Derek again? That is also a fluke. Because, while he lies awake the night after, drumming his fingers on his chest and staring at his ceiling and thinking about Derek's rough fingers so gentle on his face, about the way Derek's lips felt against his, about how he smelled and tasted...that's just about where it ends. The kiss was fine (great, amazing, the best thing that's ever -), but when Stiles dares himself to think about he rest of it.

When Stiles asks himself how he feels about Derek, in the general sense, lips not included in the equation -

God, he still fucking – he still can't see them. As a thing. He cannot physically imagine wanting Derek in every single way, like he should, can't imagine wanting Derek to be around all the time, can't imagine wanting Derek to touch him everywhere, can't imagine wanting to talk to the guy. Just...it's just a fluke. Some teeny tiny little remnant of what the bond was supposed to do for them. That's fine.

It's absolutely and completely fine. And the fact that Derek didn't seem in the least bit affected by it at all? That's fine, too.

Just another thing to add to the list of the things that Stiles convinces himself of.

“I hear that you and your soulmate are, like, married, now.” Erica adjusts her hairnet, wipes grease off of her fingers and onto her smeared apron, and smirks at him over the grill. “After all this time -”

“Sure, Erica,” Stiles cuts her off early, watching the fries crisp up in the bubbling oil intently – as if there isn't a timer that'll tell him when they're done, either way.

“I'm just saying.” Erica has always been able to read Stiles' annoyance probably better than anyone he's ever met – even better than Scott, sometimes. The problem with that is that she doesn't necessarily care how annoyed he gets. She maybe even likes it a little bit. She's a button-pusher. “I always thought that when you two finally got your shit together -” the when and not if doesn't go over Stiles' head, and he thinks about dunking his own hand into the fryer as an excuse to get out of this fucking conversation, “- it would be way more romantic than other soulmates.”

Stiles gives her a questioning look.

“Well, think about it,” she lifts her gaze up to the ceiling, as if she's fantasizing out loud, for a moment. “Everyone else who meets their soulmate, it's just bang. You know?”

“Yeah.” Stiles knows.

“One moment, and then you're set for life. Which, whatever, that's cool,” the hand that isn't currenly holding a spatula waves noncommitally in the air. “But if you really think about it...what's so great about that? What is so amazing about meeting someone you've never seen before, just out of the blue, and looking them in the eyes and – that's it?”

Stiles has never really thought about it that way. “Well, that's – that's how it happens.”

“I know,” she huffs, flipping a patty so she has to raise her voice to talk over the sizzle. “That's my point. That's what happens to everyone. But have you ever thought that it's a little unfair? That we all get the same story, the same moment? Oh, I saw him over the tomatoes at Whole Foods and knew I was meant to with him for the rest of my life, even though I've never seen him before. Like? It's...boring.”

As Erica talks, Stiles can't do much except stand there and listen to her. He has no interjections, nothing to say, because – really – this is a brand new angle. He's never heard someone say something like this before. His entire life, he's believed that that moment, looking at someone and just knowing – that was the greatest moment that there could ever be. Stranger or not, he wanted that. He always thought that it got taken away from him, and he's stayed awake some nights fantasizing about people he's never seen before, their faces blurry or just recreations of people he's passed on the street before. But never Derek's. Never once.

“But you and Derek – that was a fucking lifetime coming. Right? It wasn't just a single moment, it was your entire lives, eighteen years of buildup and talking and getting to know each other, first. I get that it's all so sexy to meet someone and know instantaneously, but man.” Her gaze turns distant, here, far away, as though she's somewhere else in her head, imagining a scene that Stiles isn't allowed inside of. “To know and love someone because I wanted to, and not just because I was meant to? I want that.”

Erica hasn't met her soulmate, yet. Stiles knows that sometimes she wonders if she ever will – like everyone has to wonder time and time again. Now, he thinks that she might just not want to meet them, at all. It won't be how she wants, it could never be, because she didn't meet her soulmate at the age before she could even fucking talk.

Stiles got that privilege. It's just that, in Stiles' eyes, it's always been a burden and a curse more than anything else. It's funny, or maybe not really, that Erica thinks of he and Derek as this fucking epic love story – where everyone else only got a chapter, he and Derek got the Iliad. Stiles has never, ever seen in that way. Couldn't.

The timer for the fries buzzes, snapping Stiles back into reality. He picks the basket up and watches the grease drip down, shaking it a little to speed up the process.

“I don't know,” Erica goes on in the background. “I think you got lucky.”

Stiles thinks about Derek's lips on his, for just a fraction of a second – thinks about build up and waiting and unlearning processes, thinks about the years that Derek and Stiles have been through nearly everything together. And he wonders. For the first time since he was old enough to understand what his father and mother meant when they called Derek his soulmate, Stiles wonders. About whether or not he and Derek might be...something different.

But just for a second. Seconds are all he's really ever had for Derek, his entire life.

**

“I don't like him,” Stiles says resolutely. There's no venom there, no accusation, no real anger. Just fact. Out there as simply as someone might point out that the sky is blue.

His mother smiles at him, forgiving and understanding, and nods her head. “I know,” her hand smooths out Stiles' hair, brushing it out of his eyes, like she constantly had to do because he hated to get it cut. “I think one day, you'll feel differently.”

“Fat chance,” Stiles mutters, glaring out the car window at the Hale house with a curl to his lip. “He's annoying. And mean.”

“That's not fair. You haven't always been nice to him either, you know.”

Stiles' face colors in embarrassment, maybe shame, and he hides it by turning down to stare into his lap. “Yeah.”

“Yeah,” she laughs, ruffling at his hair again. “You're going to grow up some day and see the whole entire world differently, and Derek's going to be a part of that. You'll see.”

Stiles was still in that phase of his life where mom's word was law – even then, he had a hard time believing her. She was always so calmly sure of he and Derek. She wasn't as much of a pusher as his father was, wasn't so much about forcing them to be together all the time constantly. She was serene, like she just knew that it was all going to happen for Stiles and Derek, no matter what anyone ever did about it. Stiles was too young, back then, to really see that for what it was.

All the times that Stiles has wished that his mom were still here, eight years of wanting the feel of her fingers through his hair again (and five of those spent shorning his hair down to the root just so he wouldn't dream about that anymore), but for some reason, now. Now more than ever, he wishes his mom were here.

June 24th. It's a date that neither of the Stilinski men acknowledge out loud. It sits there on the kitchen calendar for three weeks, staring them both in the face – a blank square, where most of the others have things penned in (grocery day, Roscoe to shop, Fireman's Spaghetti Dinner). It's not like either of them have to fill it in, write what they're going to do that day. Because even though they never say it out loud, it's always there, in the back of their minds. June is one long lazy crawl to the 24th, seconds ticking past, both of them just wanting it to hurry up and come, so they can be over and through it, already.

Stiles stays in bed until eleven, trying to fall back asleep. He always tries to sleep through this day. But something, maybe the guilt or the sad or the anxiety, keeps him wide awake, staring at the sun as it creeps across his bedroom floor. Eight years feels so long, so long, but in hindsight, it feels like he's blinked through the first June 24th all the way to this one. He hates this day.

When he comes downstairs, his dad is drinking what Stiles knows to be his sixth or seventh cup of coffee, sitting at the kitchen table with a case file, pretending like he's doing something. He's always tried to stay busy, as though if he focused hard enough on something he could forget about anything else. It never works. He twirls a pen in his free hand, staring blankly out into space, sparing glances given to the paper work in front of him.

“I just made another pot,” he says to Stiles, who approaches the gurgling coffee maker with a grimace. “It's the breakfast blend.”

Neither of them like the breakfast blend. It sits there in their cupboard collecting dust, until it expires, and one of them throws it out. Then, another new one finds its spot in the cupboard, eerily waiting for a particular set of hands to pull it down. Those never come – but June 24th is the breakfast blend's heyday.

Stiles pours himself a cup, leans back against the counter, and doesn't say anything. He drinks it. Sip after sip, mechanically. He barely tastes it, really.

After the ten minutes it takes for Stiles to finish his cup, staring blankly out the kitchen window, and once the clink of his used mug landing in the sink resounds through the silence, his father stands up. He leaves his own cup steaming there on the table, abandons his case file, and wraps Stiles up in a hug. It's the very, very familiar June 24th hug. Stiles and his father hug as often as any other father and son do – birthdays, accomplishments, good news – but there's something particular about the hug reserved for June. It's firmer, somehow. Neither of them say anything, don't have to, but all the same, words pass between them in silence.

It is simultaneously Stiles' favorite and least favorite twenty seconds every single year.

When he pulls back, he grips Stiles' shoulder tightly, and says, “Derek's waiting outside.”

Of course he is. That's another routine – ever since Derek was old enough to drive, he's been parked outside the Stilinski house on this exact day, at exaclty noon, leaning up against the hood of his car with his arms crossed, just waiting.

The day that Stiles' mother died, he got shucked out of the room immediately after he was forced into giving a goodbye he couldn't stomach or understand just yet. Left stumbling around in the hallway, because they didn't want him to see.

After five minutes of walking back and forth across the same expanse of hallway, he slammed his back against a wall, falling until he was sitting, covered his face with his hands, and cried. Even though crying was never going to do anything, even though no one could do anything – he didn't know what else to do. And he didn't have anyone, at that moment. It was the most alone he's ever felt in his entire life, as nurses and doctors and family members of other people walked past him without even a passing glance.

The squeak of sneakers on linoleum, stopping right beside him, caused him to lift his eyes – and he thought Scott.

Instead, he looked up and saw Derek standing there, his face twisted into something Stiles didn't have a name for yet. Stiles didn't' know what he expected Derek to do, or say, maybe a quick mumbled sorry because his own mother forced him to, or maybe a roll of his eyes at how babyish Stiles was being at this entire thing. Whatever it was, Stiles didn't think he'd be able to take it right then.

Instead, Derek crouched down until he was sitting right next to Stiles, hip to hip. Without saying a single word, he pulled Stiles' hand away from wiping hotly at his tears, and laced their fingers together. He put their entwinced hands in his lap, used his free hand to stroke gently at the back of Stiles' with his fingers, and didn't say anything. He just let Stiles cry, and cry, until he couldn't anymore, until Talia had to come and pry them apart because it was close to two in the morning by then.

And then, every year for as long as it's been possible, Derek has come. Just like the first time.

“Stiles,” his father starts, shaking him out of his memory. He squeezes his shoulder again, smiling thinly. “She would be so happy to see you two as you are, now. All she ever wanted was for you and Derek to find each other.”

Stiles thinks that taking a fucking bullet would've been preferable to having to hear that. Because he knows that it's true, knows that his mother would've wanted nothing more than to see Derek and Stiles finally reaching the point she always knew they would have, eventually. She should have been around to see it.

Look at what Stiles is doing, now. She would've been so disappointed in him.

Outside, Derek is exactly where he always is. He doesn't even have a book to pass the time, doesn't even have his phone out to screw around on. He's just sitting there. When Stiles emerges, he stands up from his lean against his car, straightening up and dropping his arms down to his sides.

“You came,” Stiles says as he approaches – and he thinks that he's said the same thing every single year. It's never not been surprising to him, that Derek takes the time out of his life, probably took the day off at work, to sit outside the Stilinski house waiting for Stiles to come out. “You didn't have to.”

Derek holds his arms open, and Stiles just goes. In the past years, this has been the only time, the only day out of the entire year, that Stiles and Derek would willingly have a moment between one another. Would willingly reach out to touch, would willingly stand there skin to skin.

Now, something feels different. It doesn't feel necessary or supposed to – it feels...Stiles doesn't know. Different, is all. Just different. Derek smells the same as he always does, feels the same as he always does, and Stiles finds comfort in that.

Pulling away, Stiles levels his eyes with Derek's. It's the first time that they've seen each other face to face since the kiss, and the only interactions they've had for a couple days, now have been via text (they put cherry Coke back in the fountain at your favorite gas stationI can't believe u remember I love that shit lmao) and like all their text conversations, neither of them ever really say anything. It's just busy talk. A check-up.

Frankly, Stiles has maybe sort of been avoiding him (nah I can't today working a double). He figured that the best possible thing that the two of them could do for a while is just – avoid. Not be around one another. Not until Stiles stops thinking about the kiss, not until Stiles gets his mind right again, until his head is back in the game, so to speak.

But just like always, Derek won't be ignored. And now he's here, and putting his hands on Stiles, and looking at him. Stiles feels exposed underneath his gaze. Torn wide open.

“Where do you wanna go?” Derek asks him. “I have a full tank.”

Stiles thinks that spending any extended period of time with Derek, in Derek's car, would be a bad idea. It wouldn't be a good idea, at all, and he should just thank Derek for coming to pay his respects, go back up to his bedroom, hide under the covers.

“Let's just drive,” he says instead, rounding the front of the car to open the passenger door. “I hate – I don't want to be here.”

“All right.”

Stiles likes Derek's car because it drives so smooth. The Jeep mostly just lumbers along, engine roaring so loud once Stiles gets past a certain speed that it's a miracle if he can even hold a conversation with whoever happens to be sitting in the passenger seat – and fucking forget about listening to music. In comparison, Derek's car just seems to glide on the road, the stereo playing one of Derek's emo-boy playlists softly in between them. Just like Derek's bedroom, Stiles knows the inside of his soulmate's car pretty damn well. There's a spot on the carpeting underneath his feet where he spilled cherry red slurpee – Derek had pulled over, cursing like a sailor, with Stiles in the background shouting about maybe if you didn't drive like a fucking maniac!!, and then they spent half an hour on the side of the road, cars whirring past them, trying to scrub the stain out. To no avail.

It's just one of the hundreds (thousands, really) of memories that they have together. Something that Stiles guesses Erica might be jealous of, but that Stiles just thinks about only when he has to, when it's shoved into his face.

They drive along the highway, and Stiles doesn't know when Derek plans on stopping to turn around, go back home. Stiles doesn't much feel like going back to sit in his house with his father watching the clock tick, just waiting for the day to be over and done with, so he doesn't ask Derek to turn around. Mostly, they sit in comfortable silence. Stiles staring straight ahead as he watches mountains and trees and gas stations whirl past them in a flurry, Derek on cruise control with one hand on the wheel, popping his thumb idly against the leather to the beat of whatever song happens to be playing.

“You don't have to do this, you know,” Stiles pipes up once they're fifty miles out of Beacon Hills, fiddling with the collar of his shirt. “It's probably just a waste of gas, anyway. I'm – it's not like I'm, you know. Inconsolable or whatever.”

Derek gives him an eyebrow. “You said you didn't want to be there.”

With his eyes firmly planted on the profile of Derek's face, Stiles thinks about whatever you want Stiles, and wherever you want to go Stiles, how many dozens upon dozens of times he's heard Derek sit there and say variations of the same exact thing. Even all the times Derek has actually done just what Stiles wanted him to.

Back when they were growing up, pretty much up until Derek left for college, it wasn't really ever about what either of them wanted. It was all about what their parents wanted from them, what everyone else expected from them; what they wanted themselves was never really a part of the equation. Derek wouldn't have been caught dead saying whatever you want to Stiles – no fucking way. Then, the Summer Derek came back after his first year at college, Stiles figured that Derek was just mature, now. Exhausted of constantly having to bicker and argue with his teenaged soulmate, exhausted of trying to keep up with Stiles all the time, so he started sighing and saying whatever you want.

It used to drive Stiles insane, how Derek could be so fucking complacent and detached all the time – but now, all he can think about is how much Derek has really done for Stiles in the past four or so years, and how little Stiles has done in return.

“Don't you ever hate it there?” Stiles asks back instead of directly answering him, staring out at the woods as they go through a pass. “Like – everyone always staring at you all the time? Especially – you know. When you're with me and all.”

“Hated coming back for the summers,” Derek says. “When people used to stare at me and you before, er -” he hesitates for a second, side-eyeing Stiles like he doesn't really want to say what's coming out of his mouth next. “...before we started doing this, it was much worse.”

Stiles knows what he means. “Right? Everyone always looked at us like we were some kind of ticking time bomb.”

Derek nods his head. “Not so much a time bomb. Maybe just a time capsule.”

A time capsule. Now there's something. Just some little box of nothings, memories, and pictures, and moments, all stashed away, packed tight and buried underneath the earth until it would come time to dig it back up again and let everything loose. As though as soon as Derek and Stiles really took the time to catalog every thing, look back on all the things they've done and shared together (mostly by force – don't get Stiles started on their fucking shared birthday parties as little kids just because they were born in the same three month span), they'd realize something.

“Now, I'm not sure.” Derek adjusts his grip on the wheel and squints at the gray sky. “It's just different.”

Stiles plays with a loose thread in his jeans, and then intently stares down at his fingers as they work along the fabric. “Do you ever wish...” he halts mid sentence, mouth opening and closing around the words he's trying to say. “...we'd never met?”

When he chances a glance at Derek's face, he finds a familiar facial expression. Jaw clenched, eyes set dead ahead, face tilted just slightly away from Stiles' gaze, like he doesn't want Stiles to see what he thinks he's revealing out to the open. Instead of answering, Derek spits back, “do you?”

More times than he's willing to admit, Stiles has thought about what would have happened to the two of them if they had met later on in life. Because the way that they really met sort of felt like having something stolen from them. What if they had met later on? What if they still hadn't met, at this point, and what if they ran into each other in a city far, far away from Beacon Hills, just in the middle of the street somewhere?

Would Stiles have gotten his eye-contact that's him moment? Would everything have turned out completely and totally fucking opposite to how it is now?

Or is there really something inherently wrong with how the two of them are built, that, no matter the scenario, and no matter the timing, they would wind up exactly as they are? Jaded. Fucked up. Messy.

“Sometimes,” he admits, quietly. “We could have lived radically different lives, y'know? You and I – we could have gone anywhere, if we weren't both just holding each other back.”

“I never saw it that way.”

Stiles looks at him. “I've always felt like I was a problem for you.”

Derek's face remains unreadable, blank, staring straight ahead. He always does this, Stiles thinks with a vindictive head shake. He's always like this. Giving away nothing, allowing no one in.

“It's why you went to LA -”

“I went to LA -” Derek cuts him off harshly, voice cracking like a whip inside the confines of the car, “because I thought that's what you needed me to do. I thought that if I went, I'd come back and -” he cuts off. Doesn't finish. He slams down on the brakes, suddenly, and before Stiles has the time to tell him what an insane idea it is, Derek is driving his car through the AUTHORIZED VEHICLES ONLY dirt road in between the opposite ends of the highway, where police cars normally sit, and he's turning the car around to go back the way they came.

Derek appears murderously angry, out of nowhere, as if Stiles has said something that not just pissed him off, but hurt him.

“And what?” Stiles hisses over the noise of the tires screeching. “You'd come back and I'd be all oh, Derek, I missed you so much?”

Derek surges back onto the road and immediately starts gunning the engine hard enough that they're going a hundred miles per hour before Derek's opening his mouth again. “Distance. I thought that if we finally got some distance -” as opposed to being shucked into the same room day after day after day, “something would happen.”

“Well,” Stiles thrusts his hands into the air, “everything is exactly the fucking same, still, Derek. It didn't change a god damn thing.”

Eerie silence from Derek's end of the car. There's something charged there, in the fact that he won't say anything. Like he doesn't necessarily agree, but doesn't feel like arguing with Stiles for the thousandth time since he came back this summer.

Stiles wants to ask what, then? What's different now? And some idiotic, twisted part of him wants to ask if he might've actually felt something, during that kiss, like Stiles did. Even though most of him is still denying that he really had, Stiles just wants to know.

But he doesn't ask. Maybe if he had, everything would have turned out differently, in the end.

For the rest of the time as they drive back, while the sun falls from the sky and turns into twilight, Derek is mute silent. The stereo between them keeps going on and on, but even when a song that Derek should probably be embarrassed by comes on, he doesn't switch it. He doesn't do much of anything except stare straight ahead and just drive. Stiles sometimes hates Derek's silence, hates it so much he feels like it should choke him, but other times, like now...silence is just exactly what he needs. He can't stand to listen to Derek go on about how there's possibilities, about how if they tried, and maybe this and maybe that and hey what about – he just can't do that anymore.

He can't think about any of that. Not when the phantom feel of Derek's lips on top of his still makes him tingle around his cheeks whenever he thinks about it for too long. It's too much. Stiles' mind is made up, because it has to be, and he's leaving, because he needs to.

That's it. There's nothing more to the story than that. No matter what anyone else thinks, and no matter what the struggling embers of the bond between them tries to get him to believe.

By the time they're pulling up outside of Stiles' house again, it's pitch black dark – nothing but a porch light on for Stiles, his father's bedroom window already blacked out. Most likely, he went to bed at nine, just to end the day early. Just to hurry up and be done with it. Stiles knows that feeling good and well.

When Stiles unbuckles his seatbelt, Derek clears his throat. “So, that's it then,” he starts, voice resigned. “You're going to New York.” It's not said like a question, but there is a question inside of Derek's eyes. And if Stiles didn't know it any better, he'd say there was something akin to hope there.

Stiles nods his head, letting the metal end of his seatbelt slap against the paneling of the car. “That's the plan. There's no use in waiting around here. Right?”

He moves forward to open up his door, thank Derek for driving him around, but Derek grabs his upper arm to stop him. He doesn't push, or pull, or drag Stiles in any direction that Derek wants him to go – just holds him still for a moment. Stiles doesn't have much of a choice but to turn his head and look back into Derek's face.

It's intense between them for a second, two, three, and then Derek is parting his lips. Perhaps after drawing up the courage from deep inside of himself to speak. “I would have waited, you know.”

Stiles blinks at him. And something stirs inside himself.

“I waited for a long time. And I would've kept waiting.”

The thing about Stiles, and also the thing that he would've thought that Derek felt as well, is that he never wanted to wait. He never had to wait, honestly. He got Derek as his soulmate so fucking early on, and as such, got spoiled with knowing his entire life. Now, he can't stand the thought of having to sit around for something to happen. He can't stand the thought of sitting and waiting for something to happen between he and Derek – isn't willing to do it, never was willing, resisted it, even. But the way Derek is looking at him now, and the confines of the space they're in and – it's all together just -

Stiles is terrified. Even if he's not completely sure what Derek means, even if nothing is making sense, he knows for certain that he's scared. It's scaring him. The look in Derek's face, the intense set to his jaw, the way he's locked eyes with Stiles and has no intentions of letting up any time soon.

This was not in the script. Whatever this fucking is.

Derek reaches his other arm across the space between them and puts his hand firmly on Stiles' shoulder. Even if it's a move they've both done to each other over and over again, all those other times, it was only just friendly, at absolute most. This time, however, it's just something else. Derek's fingers are warm and firm against his skin, squeezing tightly and with intent – almost as if he's trying to force a mark onto Stiles' skin, one that'll stay and linger for a few seconds even after he takes his hand away. “I just thought you should know that.”

Stiles jerks away, nearly smacks his head onto the window in his haste, and throws his door open. It just feels too hot in the car all of the sudden, and Derek looking at him like that is freaking the ever living hell out of him, and it's...never been like this between them and he doesn't know what's happening and it wasn't in the script and he's -

Got his feet on the ground, waving his hand in the air. He doesn't say see you later like usual, because his wind pipe feels a bit compromised at the moment, all choked up for reasons he doesn't even know. He slams the door beind him and makes his way through the grass, up the steps on skittering feet. Derek's car idles for a few moments as he watches Stiles fumble for his keys, waits until the door is open – only then, with Stiles standing in his own foyer just about to close the door, does the engine rev to let Stiles know that Derek is leaving.

He closes the door, waits until the sound of Derek's car is distant, distant, gone.

Slamming his back against the wood, covering his face with his hands, he breathes into the pitch dark of his own living room.

There's something buzzing underneath his skin. Underneath it, through it, all over him, circulating in the blood stream and pinging around inside of his head. It's nothing finite, nothing concrete that he can firmly wrap his fingers around, nothing as solid as a coherent thought – but it's there, none the less. Humming.

Just – the way Derek had looked at him. The way that Derek's hands have been all over him lately, the way Derek kissed him and held him and been there for him.

His heart beats out, and Stiles swears he can hear the word almost, almost, almost, beat-beating along inside his head with it. Almost there. Almost got it. So close.

Stiles should've known right then and there that he was fucked.

**

Since Stiles and most everyone else is closer friends with Lydia than they are with Jackson, a whole group of them wind up going to Lydia's bachelorette party. Stiles had been hoping that they'd be going to a club somewhere to get really drunk, force Lydia to wear a 99 cent bedazzled crown from the party store that read BRIDE, but that is so far from what ends up happening, it's almost not even funny.

They wind up in Lydia's fancy house, eating fancy dinner and drinking fancy wine that's so expensive that Stiles feel somewhat guilty having even a second glass. Scott and Allison are there, and Laura and Cora Hale, and Erica, and, of course, because it was fucking inescapable either way, Derek. Even if he hadn't been invited, it would have been weird for Stiles to just show up sans-him, when he and Derek are supposed to be all sewn together at the hip as they work to get their bond up and running under the tutelage of Dr. Deaton.

It's also no surprise that his place at the table is directly beside Derek. Go figure.

Since the fiasco (as Stiles as so aptly titled it) inside of Derek's car a couple of days ago, Stiles has, once again, been trying to steer clear of Derek at all costs. At this point, Stiles is almost afraid of what's going to happen if they ever wind up alone together, again. First the kiss, which was disturbing on its own level, and then – whatever the actual literal hell that shit was the other night in his car. Stiles wants to avoid.

And his biggest inspiration for staying the hell away from Derek is the fact that there's something inside of him that...really doesn't want to stay away from him at all. That probably scares Stiles more than anything else.

What it is – is that it's not that Stiles is trying to resist anything inside of himself. It's not that he's fighting some great war, him vs. the bond, where he himself doesn't want Derek but something does, something that's not entirely connected to himself.

It's that he, himself, Stiles, is beginning to feel differently. He can't really and truly say there's any divide between him and the feeling. It's fucking scary. For the past two nights, he's laid awake, just thinking about him. Picking up his phone to send out a text at two in the morning, like hey are you up, just to talk to him. Derek probably would've been up, too. He knows that. But he never sent anything.

When Derek walks in a good ten minutes late, citing something about not being able to get out of work on time to the room at large, he pulls his chair out right next to Stiles and then slides in. Stiles can't help but turn to look up at him as he sits down, settles himself into his seat.

“Hey,” Stiles greets, turning his body a bit in his seat to be just that marginal inch closer to him. “The wine is good.”

Derek smiles, just slightly. “Should you be having wine?”

“This is a closed environment,” he snickers back. “Adults are present. I can have as much as I want!”

If people are watching them, right now, observing this pleasant interaction between he and Derek, Stiles doesn't notice. If anything, Derek probably just thinks this is Stiles acting how he should to keep the jig up, keep up appearances, and on and on.

Stiles doesn't even know if there is much of a jig, anymore. At least, not on his end. But he doesn't want to think about that.

When Derek gets his plate of food in front of him, Stiles looks over his shoulder, points at the brussels sprouts that he knows Derek fucking hates, and says, “can I eat your sprouts?”

Derek pushes his plate inches closer to Stiles', and gestures like help yourself. Help himself, Stiles does. He spears into sprout after sprout, poking his fork around Derek's knife as it slices through the meat, and it's probably the most bizarre thing Stiles has ever done with Derek. And, there's been a lot of bizarreness where the two of them are concerned. Everyone in this room has gotten an eyeful and an earful of weird from them – to the point where it's more or less commonplace, now.

Stiles catches Scott's gaze more than once, and he can tell that his best friend thinks that whatever's going on right now, is all just for the cameras, so to speak. He's got this disappointment, there, face twisted up, while beside him, Allison is blithely unaware. He's most likely thinking I can't believe he can just sit there and pretend like that, I can't believe he doesn't just want it to be real, I can't believe, I can't believe, I can't believe – and Stiles is thinking the exact. Same. Shit.

What Derek is thinking – oh, Stiles has never known. Not once.

Stiles does wind up having that second glass of wine, right around the time people start haranguing Lydia about her upcoming nuptials. Which is completely average bachelorette party talk, Stiles guesses.

“We're going to live in one of his summer houses for a while,” Lydia is saying, gesturing with the hand that's holding her own glass of wine. “It's nice – kind of up in the hills a bit.”

“Away from civilization,” Allison winks at her, and Lydia smirks back. “that sounds so romantic – surrounded by nothing but trees -”

“What about you two?” Lydia must be just drunk enough to start crossing the line between her normal level of directness into a whole other realm altogether. She gestures between Allison and Scott with her wine, and some almost goes sloshing down onto the carpet. Christ. “When are you guys going to hurry up and tie the knot?”

The thing about marriages between soulmates is that it's obviously never, ever a question of if – only when. It's pretty out of custom to wait too long after meeting that person to finally just settle it all down and get married, mostly because meeting a soulmate literally is settling down. Who else are you going to go out with? Who do you think is going to catch your eye more than that person? No one. There's really no point in putting it off any longer than just circumstances and it being too busy a time to really make the effort, just yet.

So, Stiles has been wondering that exact same thing himself. When the fuck are Allison and Scott going to get married? Stiles has always wanted to be a best man.

Scott goes red hot with embarrassment, shoving his face into his glass of wine almost murderously, giving himself a way out of this conversation. Stiles hasn't had much one on one talk with Scott these past few weeks, too wrapped up with Derek frankly, but just from the look on his face and his evasion, Stiles can just tell that Scott already has the ring. He's probably planning on proposing to Allison at some point during Lydia's big wedding week, because he knows that Lydia and Allison would love nothing more than to have a big shared joy moment between the two of them.

“Anyway,” Stiles pipes up for a diversion, before Scott literally dies right before his eyes. Next to him, Derek has this incredulous, small smile on his face, like he knows exactly what's going on here as much as Stiles does. “Is there cake?”

Lydia's gaze swivels on to Stiles, and then to Derek, and then back to Stiles. Warning, warning, warning, starts hissing out in Stiles' head – the same way it fucking always does whenever Lydia gets that particular look on her face – and right as she's opening her mouth, the entire room goes silent in anticipation. Cora sits up straighter, a grin slowly spreading across her face as she leans forward on her elbows, jostling her discarded silverware. Scott's mouth falls open like he's about to interrupt her himself, Erica starts to fucking laugh, and Stiles sees his entire life flash before his very eyes.

“What about you?” She asks, like boom. A wide smile makes its way onto her face, and if she wasn't drunk, and if Stiles wasn't tispy, he'd be leaping up from his seat to try and fight her right about now. Derek would hold him back, in the end, but it would be the thought that counts.

“Yeah,” Erica joins in, and Stiles suddenly feels like the male to female ratio in this room is shockingly huge. “What about you two?”

Desperately, perhaps insanely, Stiles starts to laugh. He turns to Derek, who's just sitting there stoically underneath everyone's gaze, nothing passing his face except for maybe vague amusement, and then looks to Scott. His only fucking defense. Derek is as useless as he ever was. Why, exactly, is his bond flaring up again? The guy is a stick with eyes.

“I always thought a winter wedding for you, Derek,” Laura says – she doesn't say it mischievously, like she's just joining in on the attack. She just puts it out there. But Stiles wants to jump up and scream at her, all the same. “And with Stiles' complexion.”

“Red,” Lydia snaps her fingers, nodding in agreement. “Red and white would be a great -”

“I feel like purple,” Cora chimes in, smirking.

“I feel like it's too soon,” Scott adds, and Stiles feels like making out with him. “Um – maybe we should – this is awkward – um -”

“I like winter.” That's it. That's Derek's genius intervention into the middle of this attack. Stiles turns to him, mouth agape, narrowing his eyes down into slits. Derek gazes back at him, raising one eyebrow as if to say what?

What – what is that Stiles now has images in his mind of getting fucking married to Derek Hale, in the fucking winter time, and red, and it's – it's too much. His poor little fragile bond can't take it. Stiles thinks that, what ends up happening here, is all due to a combination of things. It's due to the fact that he and Derek kissed, and Derek said that shit about waiting for him, and then this wedding talk, and everyone looking at them like they're the new number one couple in Beacon Hills, and – Jesus. It was the perfect fucking storm.

And, again. He should have known.

He stands up from his seat, overwhelmed, and everyone watches him, going a little bit quiet.

“Oh, Stiles,” Erica snickers at him, shaking her head. “We were just playing with you -”

“I'm -” Stiles starts, glancing down at Derek. He's already got his seat pushed out, hands perched on the armrests of the chair as if he's getting ready to push himself up and follow him if he tries to run out the door, or something. “I need some air.”

“We were joking -”

“It's not – I'm okay,” he insists, stepping away from the table, dropping his napkin on top of his empty plate. “Too much to drink, maybe. I'm just going to -” he starts backing away, pointing his thumb in the direction of the front door, where Lydia's front porch is waiting for him to dry heave over the railing.

Then, Derek stands up too. “I'll come with you,” he says.

Stiles is about to say something like no, stay in here, because objective number one is all this is get as far away from Derek as possible. Because, part of him knows. It just knows. And this is not the time, not the place, not the way he always wanted it to happen.

But, Derek reaches his hand out, runs his knuckles along Stiles' cheek to maybe wipe some leftover food off his face – smiles all fondly and sweetly, raising his eyes to meet Stiles', and -

That's it. It happens. One second Stiles is standing there feeling like he's going to vomit all over everyone and everything in sight, and the next...

All the times he's heard people say that they couldn't ever put it into words, he never really believed them. Every feeling has a word attached to it, and every moment can be explained – that's what Stiles always thought. And he thought that because he didn't know, yet, that there are some things that just cannot be put into words. He's spent his entire life walking around in the dark, seeing Derek in half-lights, a shadow of him, and explained him in words like annoying, or boring, or pain in the ass. It's easy when you can classify someone or something. It's easy when there's a word.

But, this? There's no word for this. Like lightning has just struck the exact spot where Derek and Stiles are standing, he can't move. Paralyzed, stuck underneath Derek's gaze; he's sure, for a second, that hours have passed with them just staring at each other, like this, hours since he raised his eyes and met Derek's and just...knew.

It's what he's wanted his entire life. A moment. An instantaneous reaction to meeting someone's eyes and feeling that thing that can't be named, can't be put into any word Stiles could ever fathom.

Derek is Stiles' soulmate. He nearly feels like lifting up his hand and pointing right at him, poking him in the chest, and saying, you. Kind of like what Derek had done to him in that grocery store eighteen years ago. They deserve a do-over, a restart, a chance to just...begin again. Starting with this moment, right now.

In reality, Stiles was only standing there staring at Derek for, maybe, at most, a second. When he comes back to, Derek is wrapping his hand around his upper arm, saying, “you look sick.”

Befuddled, absolutely confused out of his mind, a million thoughts passing through his mind at once, Stiles tears his eyes away from Derek for just long enough to take stock of the rest of the room.

No one else has noticed anything weird, or off. Stiles feels like there's a neon fucking sign flashing over his head like just found my god damn soulmate, you fucks!!, blinking on and off in a marquee, fireworks going off all around him. But the rest of the dinner table is just blinking at him placidly, sipping at their wine, picking at what's left in front of them on their plates.

It feels like everything should just...stop. So Stiles can have this to himself, to himself and Derek.

But it's not just everyone else who's acting like nothing even fucking just happened.

Derek has no emotion whatsoever on his face except for amusement, smiling at Stiles and shaking his head as he starts to pull Stiles along towards the door. Stiles wants to shove Derek's hand off of him, wants to start shouting at him, did you feel that? Did you fucking feel that?

He's too flustered to even open his mouth, really. It's all he can do to let himself stagger on unsure feet underneath the pull of Derek's hand. Derek walks on steady, sure feet, drifting his hand down to Stiles' hip to help steady him, and he laughs, again. “You didn't even drink that much,” he sighs. “Now I know you're a lightweight.”

You didn't even drink that much? Stiles repeats incredulously in his own head. That's what Derek has to say right now? What the – what is going on here?

Outside they go, into the cool night air, and Stiles pulls away from Derek's hand to stumble back into the railing. He catches himself with his hands braced behind himself, cocks his head to the side, and examines Derek in his entirety. Derek closes the door behind himself, turns to look at Stiles, and then puffs out a breath. “Jesus, you're pale.”

“Derek -”

“Are you going to be sick?” Derek takes a single step forward, hand held out in front of him, looking Stiles up and down. “If you have to puke, don't do it on the porch. Lean over the side.”

It occurs to Stiles, just then, that he knows exactly what's happened here. There's not a doubt, not a single one in his mind, that he didn't just recognize Derek as his soulmate. The thing about the bond, the thing that he has read over and over again in every single textbook and self-help book he could get his hand on, is that once the bond is solidified, there's no way to mistake it for anything else. Stiles can't say, eh, just how he looked at that exact moment or eh, must have been a trick of the lights.

Stiles knows. He looks at Derek, and he sees him. The one. His person. That's all there is to it. It's as black and white as it could ever possibly come. Stiles doesn't have to sit here and hem and haw anymore.

But Derek looks at him just the same as he's done all summer long. There's no recognition, no moment of clarity, no nothing, there. Just concern that Stiles might just barf all over his fucking shoes.

Stiles had his soulmate awakening moment, all right. The problem is, Derek isn't on the same page. It's possible that all the years they've spent pushing each other away, all the time Stiles has dedicated to trying to get away from Derek, has taken a toll. Or, it's possible that the bond is still fucking faulty, and – and it only goes one way.

It only goes one way. Stiles repeats that phrase again and again in his head, almost like a mantra, because it can't be real. Derek is saying something, he keeps fucking talking, putting his hand on Stiles' shoulder, but Stiles – he can't – think.

He probably looks shocky and petrified, because Derek starts shaking him a little bit, maybe concerned that he's about to have a fucking panic attack; and, honestly, he just might. Out of all the possibilities that Stiles ever imagined for his life, winding up halved? Winding up as a soulmate's worst fucking nightmare? Loving someone who's never, never going to love you back?

Stiles pushes Derek away from him, leans over the edge of the porch, and vomits.

 

Derek rolls down Stiles' window for him, shakes his head, and says, “Jesus Christ, Stiles.”

In his own seat, Stiles presses his palms to his eyes. Leans his head back against the seat, and pants. Deep breaths, in and out, in and out, before pushing his hands back up over his forehead to run them through his hair.

“Head out the window,” Derek says calmly, nudging Stiles' arm a bit. “I don't want to spend the night scrubbing vomit out of the upholstery.”

Upholstery. Everything that's happened tonight, and all Derek can think to fucking care about is the god damn upholstery of his idiotic car. For a split second, Stiles imagines himself lashing his fist out to beat the shit out of the dashboard, really fucking rail on it. He's in enough of a high strung mental state that he really might do it, but catches himself at the last second. Derek wouldn't like it if he did that.

The car starts moving, and Stiles lurches forwards against his seatbelt, shaking his head back and forth.

“You didn't even have that much to drink.”

Finally, Stiles manages to speak. “It wasn't -” he swallows heavily. “It wasn't the wine.”

Derek turns to give him a look, and then he's gritting his teeth together. “Don't start, Stiles.”

“What?” Stiles demands, opening his eyes up to turn and give Derek a look right back. “What?”

It wasn't the wine,” he mimics, and Stiles feels affronted. “So, what was it then? All that talk about you and I – just the sheer thought of you and me actually being together in any kind of official capacity – that makes you physically ill. Is that it?”

This fight doesn't feel like all the others have. In all their previous fights, Stiles has been as easy to rile up as a cobra – ready to strike right back ten times harder than Derek ever could dream of. He's been agitated, annoyed, bitter about it, every single time.

This time, Stiles feels hollowed out. It's painful. “No,” he says quietly, unable to put as much force behind it as he needs. “No.”

“I know,” Derek says hotly. “I know. I know that you can't stand me, and I know your every wish on this earth is just to get away from me -” Stiles shuts his eyes again, squeezes them tight. He doesn't know if he can fucking survive this one. “...but I had no idea that you hated me this much.”

It feels imperative, absolutely essential that Stiles drill the idea home into Derek's head that he doesn't fucking hate him. Really, not at all. Not anymore. There was a time, so recently and yet feeling like lightyears ago, where he might've really despised Derek. Now, the bond is making it crystal clear that it wasn't ever Derek that he hated. It was the fact that there was something missing, when he looked at Derek, that he hated. It was the fact that Derek was never what Stiles wanted him to be. It was all of their friends and family forcing them together, not knowing that all they were doing was watering them both down to the point where they couldn't see each other as anything more than sibling rivals.

That's so clear to him now. Stiles feels like he's had this great big awakening, and Derek – he's behind.

He might never get there. Stiles thinks about puking again.

“I don't,” Stiles says back. Again, Stiles just can't work up a yell, or any emotion into his voice. “Derek, I don't.”

Derek grumbles something under his breath, and from the corner of his eye, Stiles can see him setting his jaw again. “You're going to New York in two months. Why don't you think about that whenever someone starts to horrifically talk about you and I -” Derek cuts off abruptly, tapping on the brakes for a second in surprise – and it's because, literally out of nowhere, Stiles is bursting into tears.

In a big way, too. Not just a couple of tears running down his face, but a literal and complete fucking breakdown right there in Derek's car. One second he was sitting there staring straight ahead, feeling like he's about to claw his own eyes out, and the next, he's full on sobbing into his hands, entire body shaking with it. It's just been too much. Not even just tonight; the kiss, and Derek, and touching each other, and all that talk of marrying him, and his bond waking up, and Derek – being like this.

Stiles doesn't think that Derek's seen him cry like this since the night his mother died. He doesn't think he's cried like this, even by himself, since then.

He feels the car slow to a stop on the side of the road – hears Derek's seatbelt unclick, and then the creak of the leather seat as his body shifts on top of it. “Jesus,” Derek mutters, and then his warm hand is on Stiles' back. Stiles leans into the touch, desperately trying to stop, crying, but he literally can't. “Stiles, hey.” The hand rubs up and down in soothing motions, again and again, and it only manages to calm Stiles down just barely. “I'm sorry. I'm sorry.”

He doesn't know what he's sorry for. He doesn't have any idea what's happened inside of Stiles, doesn't know what he has to be apologizing for – maybe, he shouldn't have to apologize at all. Is it his fault that their connection only goes one way? Is that his problem?

“Stop,” Derek says in a gentle voice, pressing his fingers deeper into Stiles' back. “Stop crying like that, I can't – I can't -”

Before Derek could have a chance to stop it, Stiles is wrapping his arms around Derek's neck and pulling him close against him, as much as their space in the car will allow. Derek willingly comes, doesn't put up any kind of a fight, and hugs him back just as tightly. Stiles is still shaking through everything, sniffling and dampening Derek's shirt with his tears, but he's calming. Derek's embrace is comfort, safe, love, and it's everything, everything Stiles has ever wanted.

In a twisted way, it nearly doesn't matter that Derek doesn't feel the same. Stiles doesn't need much from Derek, not really. Just this. Close.

“What's wrong?” Derek asks. And it's so genuine, Stiles can't help but press closer against him, as close as physically possible.

“I don't -” Stiles hiccups. “..I don't hate you.”

It's a second before Derek is nodding against Stiles' shoulder. “Okay. You don't hate me.”

Stiles sags in relief against him. Good, he thinks. Good, he knows. He knows.

Another couple of seconds, and then Derek is tentatively clearing his throat and pulling just slightly away from Stiles' embrace. “Is that all?”

The question feels loaded. And maybe that's because of the dozens of ways that Stiles could possibly answer it – a lie, the honest truth, a different lie, and another lie, and another, and another. It's all Stiles wants to be able to pull back, look Derek square in the eyes, and say, I know you're my soulmate. It would be so easy. Maybe things would get better, if Derek knew that. Maybe – maybe Stiles could somehow find a way to pull at Derek's bond, make it see him, just like Stiles is seeing Derek.

It feels too good to be true, though. And admitting to Derek that Stiles loves him, coming clean with it, only to have Derek pull back in disgust...the thought feels like torture. Stiles doesn't know if he'd be able to survive something like that.

“Yeah,” he says instead. No explanations. “That's all.”

Stiles asked Scott to drive his Jeep home from Lydia's house for him – which he did, while laughing on the other end of the phone about how much of a lightweight he is. At that point, right after having been dropped off at his own house after Derek drove him home, he didn't have the heart in him to tell Scott what really happened. He hasn't told anyone.

He and Derek's bond has always been a source of shame for him. But this? This is the worst it's ever been. There is nothing that Stiles can think of as being more embarrassing, more horrible, or more humiliating, than being trapped in a one way bond. Things like this don't happen. As seldom as people don't meet their soulmates, even more seldom is the possibility of meeting them and...well.

Not telling Scott isn't an option, though. When Scott shows up at his work right at the end of his shift, Stiles grabs him by his shirt collar and thrusts him out the back door, ignoring Scott's indignant squawking protests, and shoves him up against one of the walls beside the dumpster.

“Stiles, what -”

“Something happened,” he starts, voice shaking. “Something really, really bad happened last night, Scott.”

Scott is alert. He gently pries Stiles' fingers out of his shirt, wraps his own fingers around them, and starts guiding himself and Stiles away from the wall. “Okay,” he says, slowly, pushing Stiles towards the middle of the enclave they're in. “Because of the alcohol?”

“Jesus Christ,” Stiles snaps, shaking his head. “I had one and a half glasses of wine, okay? It wasn't that, it wasn't -”

“Was it all that stuff the girls were saying?” He asks, because Stiles is being fucking hysterical and not making any sense and Scott is just trying to guide the conversation in what he thinks would be the right direction.

“Do you remember how I told you, how I've said so many fucking times...” so many times, so many, many, times, “...that me and Derek. We – me and him -”

Scott is nodding, up and down, as if he's following.

All Stiles can do for a second is stand there, blinking off into space, his fingers wrapped up inside of Scott's hands, and for a moment, he really thinks he can't say it out loud. He's said a lot of things out loud, before. He's said we're never going to work and I have to get away from him and I can't fucking stand him, and those all slid out of his mouth as easily as water. Now, though, he's tongue tied. It still somehow feels unreal to him, even though it's been a full seventeen hours since everything happened, and throughout that entire time, he hasn't doubted it. But it just – it feels like it's happening to someone else.

That's what an entire life of denial can do to a person, Stiles guesses.

Eventually, he manages to get himself together enough to say, “I was wrong.”

Scott's fingers tighten marginally against his own, whether in surprise or something else, Stiles isn't sure. “About what.” That's not a question. He knows. He just wants to hear Stiles say it.

“He kissed me,” Stiles blurts out. “He kissed me, because I asked him to, because Deaton said that it was an unlearning process and Derek was being such a fucking ass about it, and I said, you should kiss me, and he did, and I felt like – I don't know – I was ignoring it. And then he said he was going to wait for me, and I felt something then and I ignored it, but -”

“Okay,” Scott cuts him off, unfurling one hand from Stiles' fingers to put it on his friend's shoulder. “Holy crap. Okay. One thing at a time. You and Derek kissed?”

Stiles shakes his head. “Doesn't matter. That – not the point. Last night. Last night.”

“Yeah?”

Last night is a distant memory, last night is all he's been able to think about, standing in the backroom at work churning every thing over again and again in his head, over analyzing every single thing that Derek said and did, searching for a sign, for anything, any fucking indication...

“Derek's my soulmate.”

Scott's hand on his shoulder turns brutal, gripping it so tightly it feels like it should snap under the pressure, and his face breaks out into a grin. “Oh, man. Dude. I knew it. I knew you'd realize, some day, I knew -”

Stiles shakes his head, pulls away out of Scott's grip and stumbles backwards. “He's my soulmate,” he repeats, just to taste how it feels on his tongue. Sweet, simple, light. “But I don't think I'm his.” Bitter. Burnt. It chokes him to swallow. “I don't think I'm his. I don't think – I don't think he loves me.”

After that, neither of them say anything. Anything Scott could offer, any condolence, anything to make him feel better – nothing would work. Both of them know that. Stiles and Scott just stand there, drinking in the same information, and after enough time has passed, Scott wraps his arm around Stiles' shoulders.

It's as much of a white flag as he's ever gotten from Scott in regards to his predicament. So much back and forth, between hope and futility, that he thinks Scott just doesn't have it in him anymore. Stiles doesn't know if he has anything left inside of himself at all.

Deaton had been right. This was an unlearning process. And Stiles just unlearned thinking of Derek as his annoying older brother and relearned seeing him as what he actually and without a doubt is. If Stiles hadn't kissed Derek...well. That might've only slowed them down marginally, in the end.

Fate works how fate works. In all the ways that Derek and Stiles started trying to avoid it, they thought that they had been outsmarting it, and they thought they were somehow escaping it. But, all along, it made fools out of them. It was just biding its time. Now, look at what Stiles has gone and done. Look at this fucking mess he's made.

**

“Are you all right?” Derek leans back in his seat in Dr. Deaton's office, and he scrutinizes the side of Stiles' face the way someone might stare at a half finished puzzle. “You've been acting strange all week.”

Stiles takes what Derek just said and reads between the lines. Derek doesn't really need to go into specifics about how Stiles has been acting weird, what exactly he's been doing that Derek deems strange enough to comment on, because Stiles already fucking knows. He is hyperaware of every single off thing he's done since that night at Lydia's house, starting with puking into her rose bushes.

It's like every second that he's spent with Derek since waking up has been about watching all his steps, carefully monitoring what he says, what he does, how often he reaches out to touch Derek. Stiles isn't normally so stringent in watching his actions, everyone knows that – someone who would know it incredibly well, better than most people, is Derek. He knows how weird it is for Stiles to remain silent instead of taking the bait for an argument. He knows how weird it is for Stiles to sit stock still in his spot instead of fidgeting his fingers or running them through his hair.

It's been hard. Stiles could wax poetic for hours about what it's like to have to sit there at the Hale house, letting Derek wrap his arm around his shoulders, or lean closer to him, or lace their fingers together, knowing that it's all fake either way. Mentally, Stiles knows that it's fake. But emotionally? It really fucks with him. It hurts. Stiles can't help but lock up whenever Derek touches him, torn between leaning into it and letting himself pretend, or pulling back and admitting that he just can't stand it.

Truthfully, he can't. He can't pretend like that.

That translates into Stiles acting strange for Derek. “I'm tired,” Stiles explains, rubbing at his face for emphasis. It's really only half a lie – he's hardly been sleeping lately, choosing instead to stay up, pacing back and forth, twisting his fingers together.

Derek observes the profile of his face for a moment longer, face twisted up in concern or confusion, but he doesn't get the opportunity to press any harder than he already has to get the truth out of Stiles. Deaton comes sweeping into the room with an apology for being a couple of minutes late for their regularly scheduled session. Derek sits up a little straighter, while Stiles stays exactly where he is, slouched over in his seat, half tempted to hide his face from both of them.

Deaton sets his eyes on Stiles for a moment, the way he always does, like Derek isn't even there, and Stiles doesn't know what it ever is that he's reading all over Stiles' skin. Whatever it is, normally Deaton just blinks at him placidly before turning back to address them both at once – but today, he lingers. Stiles shifts marginally, glancing sidelong at Derek so he doesn't have to meet Deaton's gaze head on.

“How's everything going?” Deaton asks, finally, and Stiles doesn't even bother putting up the pretense like he's going to answer that question. There are way, way too many fucking strings attached to it – but, of course, it's no surprise whatsoever that Derek just nods his head like he always does, and says it's going good.

Deaton nods his head right back at him, and Stiles makes the comparison between he and Derek and those dashboard dogs that come in Happy Meals.

“You know,” Deaton leans back in his chair, in a pose Stiles has recognized as his I'm really about to say some shit move. “...if you two feel like you can go along without any more guidance...” He doesn't finish that, but waves his hand in the air to complete the thought for him wordlessly.

Derek turns to Stiles at the exact moment that Stiles looks right back at him, and in Derek's eyes is a question. After all, Stiles was the one who said that if they faked it for long enough, eventually, they wouldn't have to sit here in this room being fed what Stiles honestly believed was a load of absolute horseshit. If they faked it for long enough, they could've gotten out of every thing.

Two months ago, Stiles wouldn't have thought that things would turn out like this. Everything that Stiles had originally thought and planned is all screwed up, now. Everything in Stiles' life is screwed up, now.

“Um -” Stiles starts, looking pointedly away from Derek's gaze. “It's been working. So.”

“Yeah,” Derek agrees in a solemn tone of voice – not convincing at all, Stiles thinks. It sends a pang through his chest that, for Derek, it really isn't true. “I think we could be done.”

Done. The word reverberates inside of Stiles' head for a full minute after it's already out of Derek's mouth, as the two of them stand up to shake Deaton's hand, as Derek promises a check should be coming in his mail any time soon from his parents.

Done. Just like that. How easy it must be for Derek to say that word done, to even think it, while Stiles feels like a deer in the headlights just hearing it spoken out loud. Done means that Derek might actually just be giving up on Stiles, after all, done means that Derek expects Stiles to go to New York in the Fall.

Stiles wants to go to New York. But he – doesn't. At the same time. He's afraid of what's going to happen if he leaves Derek behind, now. God, he never thought he'd feel that way.

“It's been a pleasure working with both of you,” Deaton says with a professional smile, following them towards the door and holding it open for them. “I hope to see you both again – in different circumstances, of course.”

Derek laughs half-heartedly at the joke, and Stiles is mute silent. He follows Derek down the hallway, and remembers the first time they walked down this way. He remembers that fight out on the sidewalk they had, the very first day, at the start of everything, and he tries to remember what it felt like to be so detached from Derek. To the point where he could say that he hated the guy, as easily as saying anything else.

He remembers it the way that charred embers underneath a fire pit remember what it was like to burn – distantly. He remembers that it hurt, but he can't recall the exact parameters of the pain, any longer. He can't mark down what it was, exactly, that had him so convinced, why he was so hellbent on getting away.

Now, he walks just a step behind Derek, and thinks about reaching out to run his fingers down his soulmate's broad back. Feel the muscles twitch underneath his own skin and touch. Grab him by the shoulder and flip him around and kiss him – he could. It would be easy. Where every thing else is hard – oh, that would be so fucking easy.

It should be easy.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” Stiles says, skrrting to a stop in his sneakers against the carpeting. Derek glances over his shoulder at him, raising his eyebrows.

“Okay. I'll wait -”

“In the car,” Stiles cuts him off forcefully. “Just wait for me out in the car.”

Derek gives him a puzzled look, but doesn't argue any farther than that. He nods his head and turns back around to face forward, walking out into the lobby all lit up from the sunlight shining outside. Stiles stands there and watches him go, until he's pushing his way through the glass double doors and vanishing out of Stiles' eye line – and then he turns right back around on his heel and beelines it quickly for Deaton's office.

He doesn't bother knocking. Just barges right back in, slamming the door hard behind him, and looking at the guy like he's personally wronged him somehow. In Stiles' mind, he really sort of fucking has.

Stiles points an accusatory finger at him, and Deaton stares at him placidly. Like he'd been expecting this, or something. “You've been playing us.”

Deaton caps a pen he had been writing with, and gives Stiles a blank look. “Your father asked me to do exactly what I did.”

“Is any of this real?” Stiles contests, half talking over him, half fucking shouting. “Is anything you told us – is that anything?”

Like he's so fucking good at doing, like he does it to everyone, he levels Stiles with a single look. It's that creepy, enigmatic stare that always somehow manages to make the hairs on the back of Sitles' neck stand up. He knows something. Stiles has always thought so. “You tell me, Stiles.”

Stiles swallows. He still has his finger pointed at him, hanging there in the air between them, and for some reason Stiles can't get up the muscle movement to drag it back down to rest at his side. “I – what do you mean.”

Deaton raises his eyebrows at him, cocks his head to the side. It's the look Stiles' mother used to give him when Stiles would say things no, I didn't eat the last cookie, I swear!!

Stiles pulls his hand back to palm at his face. He knows he doesn't have a lot of time to stand here yelling at Deaton, acting like he's been victimized in all this – mostly because he knows better than to waste his time doing exactly that like, and also because Derek is sitting out in the car right now with the air conditioning blasting, glancing in the rearview mirror again and again, waiting to see Stiles emerging from the office. “Can I ask you something?”

The doctor nods back at him. He knows what the question is going to be, either way, Stiles would bet.

“Is it – is it possible – would you be able to tell -” Deaton prompts him forward by waving his hand in the air, looking bored already with the direction of this conversation. Stiles puffs out a huge sigh, rubs at his face some more, and forces the words out through his teeth. “Me and Derek. I think we might be...halved.”

“Hm,” Deaton murmurs.

“You said it was an unlearning process, and I feel like I've unlearned,” he pauses for a second. Rephrases. “I have unlearned. Definitely. I've started over, and I feel like Derek is still stuck back at square one, and is that – is that possible?”

“Are you saying you felt the bond?”

That night at Lydia's house – the lightning striking the earth feeling. “Yeah. Yeah. And Derek just fucking stood there, like – like nothing.”

“Like nothing.”

Stiles doesn't know how else to put into words the way that Derek just went right along acting like every thing was normal – mostly because to have to think about that placid look on his face, the way he hardly seemed to fucking care at all...that's a sting. It's a particular kind of sting, the kind that Stiles doesn't know that he's ever felt before. “I just want to know how likely it is. From your, like, professional stand point.”

Deaton is quiet for all of five seconds, sitting there playing with a pen in his hands, fingering at it and then dropping it down onto the desk with a brief intake of breath. “It's possible. Highly rare, but possible.”

“Possible,” Stiles nods, and the word comes out more like a breath than anything else. Possible, Stiles knew. He already knew that. This is not a death blow. “Okay. Right. But, what are the statistics? What's – what's the likelihood, in numbers, of something like this happening?” He glances at the clock, figures it's been about four minutes since he walked in here, four minutes of Derek sitting in the car tapping his foot. Maybe he only has two or three more until he gets out and comes looking for Stiles.

“One in a million, give or take,” Deaton says, detached, just rattling off numbers. “It's even less likey than not meeting your soulmate at all. But possible.”

One in a million is still a percentage, still a number on a sheet somewhere. Stiles could be that fucking .00001%, because someone has to be that number. Numbers don't come from nowhere. Statistics aren't made up.

“You'll have to forgive me for asking,” Deaton goes on, “but I wonder why it is that you seem so sure that Derek doesn't feel the same as you do?”

Stiles gives him a look. A really really dirty look. “I fucking told you that during what should've been our shared bonding, he just stood there. What more proof do you need than that?”

Unimpressed, Deaton shrugs. “That could be a sign. It could mean something else.”

With a final shake of his head, Stiles puts his hand on the door knob behind him, gritting his teeth together. Every thing he needed to know, he got from this conversation. All he wanted was the direct facts, the truth of it – one in a million, unlikely but possible, and Stiles doesn't know if it'll keep him up or help him sleep better. “You don't see the way he looks at me.”

Another puzzling expression from the doctor, right as Stiles is pulling the door open. “I've seen exactly how he looks at you.”

Stiles freezes, in the middle of walking out the door, meets Deaton's gaze head on.

All this time, Stiles has thought that Deaton surely knew something; just from how he sat there during their sessions, and the looks, and some of the things that he would say. It was like he was twenty steps ahead in whatever game of tag that he had Stiles and Derek playing, chasing their soulmate bond. It was like he had the thing in his hands, at the finish line, holding it and waiting.

“Stiles?” Derek's voice, calling him from the lobby. “Did you forget something?”

Stiles shakes his gaze away from Deaton, and staggers all the way out the door.

**

Stiles and Derek met each other – well. Stiles and Derek didn't ever really meet.

**

“I feel like I want to take a bite out of it,” Erica says somewhat wistfully, resting her chin against the palm of her hand while the other holds onto a flute of champagne. “Doesn't it look like whipped cream?”

“I was going more for an elegant feel,” Lydia says critically, walking in a slow circle around the dress where it's hanging a couple of feet away from her gaze. “But I'll take that.”

The dress looks like something out of a movie. Stiles can imagine clear as day in his head how the scene would go – how the camera would zoom in on particular aspects of it, the details of the skirt, the way the train glides as she walks, the glitter of the top glistening against every light comes across it. Whenever Stiles has ever imagined a wedding, he's always imagined it like a movie. A movie is something that happens in an alternate universe, in fiction, and for much of Stiles' life, he's always thought that movies would be the only place he would ever be able to imagine himself ever having a wedding. Never in the concrete, always in the abstract.

What he imagines now? Nothing. Nothing is safest.

“You don't think it's too -” Lydia holds her hands up and makes a face along with a gesture. It doesn't mean anything to any of the other three people sitting in the room – Allison and Stiles make faces at each other over Lydia's head, like what?

“I think it's perfect,” Allison says with no room for argument. “A week ago, you thought so too.”

“A week ago I wasn't getting married in two days,” she contests with a bit of a bite that Allison doesn't take to heart. She just rolls her eyes like she's had to deal with Lydia's snippiness and short-temper for the past three months of wedding planning and has grown a thick skin against it. “Every thing I look at now seems like a mistake.”

“Stop looking at it, then,” Erica suggests before taking another swig.

“Right,” Lydia agrees. “Right. That's probably a good idea.” She turns away from the dress very pointedly, and takes a seat on the couch right next to Stiles, reaching over his legs to grab at the bottle of champagne sitting on the coffee table. “Every second I spend planning this wedding is another second I spent wondering if it's even worth the fucking bother. What's the point?” She takes a drink straight out of the bottle, scrunches her face up against the burn, and then has another. “It's not like we don't both know we're going to be together forever either way it goes. Whether I have a ring on my finger or not,” another drink, “I'm going to be with Jackson forever. This wedding is – fucking archaic. What's the point?”

“Because it's romantic!” Allison insists, nudging Erica in the side to join in and talk Lydia down to what could be shaping up to be a cataclysmic drunken melt down where she fires her wedding planner and sets the dress on fire.

“Totally romantic,” Erica slurs in agreement. She's had more to drink than anyone else in the room, and it's starting to become glaringly obvious. “The wedding bit isn't so much about proving anything it's about – you know – a gesture.”

“A gesture,” Allison agrees with a snap of her fingers. “That's the word.”

“Soulmates just meet one another and it's like, oh, yeah, right, bing.” Erica waves her hand around and frowns. “What's romantic about that? The good part comes in – gestures.”

“Standing up in front of a whole crowd of people and being, like, I love this person.” Allison gets a far away look on her face, and Stiles wonders for the billionth time when Scott is going to hurry up and get the balls – or, to be fair, when Allison is going to hurry up and get the balls. Either/or at this point.

“Stiles,” Lydia says abruptly, startling him into looking beside him into her face. “You've been uncharacteristically quiet.”

Clearing his throat, Stiles nods. “Yeah. Just – struck by the beauty,” he gestures to the dress vaguely, and then goes back to swishing his drink around.

“You're thinking about something,” Lydia challenges him, raising one eyebrow. “I can tell. Spill it.”

To be fair to himself, when is Stiles ever not thinking about something? But to be fair to Lydia, when is he ever not fucking talking?

With a grimace, Stiles palms his forehead. “I don't know. This talk about – you know. Meeting your soulmate.”

Across the coffee table, Allison frowns. “Oh, right. I guess you never had that moment.”

Stiles takes a huge sip from his glass to cover his face in the wake of that.

“Or, if he did, he was too young,” Erica agrees. “Frankly, I don't see what the big deal is.”

“You haven't had the moment, either. Yet.” The last is tacked on forcefully – like Lydia is trying to convince Erica of this fact. There's a yet at the end of that statement. Point blank. No wiggle room. “You wouldn't see the big deal. It was the best moment of my life.”

“Mine, too,” Allison agrees, smiling with her dimples and leaning forward. “It was – everything I always thought it would be.”

For them, of course it was. It was mutual. Stiles has known his entire life that maybe the greatest feeling that a person could ever find on this horrible, shitty, stupid planet, is to love someone who loves you right back. Unconditionally. No strings attached. All the good, all the bad, all the horrible, all wrapped up into one package – and someone would come right along, see you for what you were, and accept it.

“I still think there's gotta be something better than that,” Erica argues – she sounds like she's about to go on the same tangent she had gone on to Stiles about in the kitchen at work. “To me, a wedding is a thousand times more important than any cosmic blooh-blah.”

“Soulmates aren't cosmic blooh-blah,” Lydia sniffs, and Stiles nearly burts out laughing at hearing her say those exact words.

“They are.”

“They're biological, if they're anything. It was an imperative to keep the human populations up, back at the start, and now it's – romance. True love.”

“Biological,” Erica repeats with an eye roll. “Sweep me off my feet, why don't you?”

“You're just being cynical,” Allison cuts in, sensing a drunken fight is about to break out. “It's easy for you to look in, from the outside, and see it as sort of trite. But once you meet yours...it'll be different.”

Erica looks at her like she disagrees, on all levels, but for the sake of not winding up throwing champagne all over Lydia's crisp white wedding dress, she keeps her mouth shut and just nods once, hard. “I just meant that Stiles might be luckier.”

It's quiet for a second, the two other girls drinking that in, while Stiles just drinks.

“Do you know something?” Allison is the first to speak after the silence, leveling Stiles with a small smile from across the room. “I really always thought that you and Derek were something different.”

Stiles thought the same. His entire life, he thought he and Derek were different. Just, not the way she means. Not the way that anyone else has ever fucking meant it.

“With the whole soulmate thing, I think we all get this idea like – soulmate love is soulmate love. Period. But -” she smiles again, mostly to herself. “There are really a million different ways to love someone, and no two bonds are exactly identical.”

“What you and Derek have is so singular,” Lydia agrees, reaching out to pat Stiles on the shoulder. “I mean – I could write a book about how I feel towards Jackson. You, though.” She points at him, a little liquor sloshing down onto her couch that she pays no mind to whatsoever. “...you could write a dozen.”

Stiles smiles at them as they all get a little wistful about Stiles and Derek's supposedly envious fucking bond, while on the inside, he's thinking about how they're got the story all twisted up and backwards. If they knew the reality, he doesn't know how romantic they'd all think it sounds.

“I love him,” Stiles says. For the first time, out loud. “There doesn't need to be a book. Sometimes it's that simple.”

Stiles wishes, wishes, it were that simple.

**

“Have you ever, ever even once thought about how fucked up it is, though?”

Derek looks at him steadily, clutching the neck of his beer bottle like it's personally offended him, and doesn't say anything. He never, never says anything.

“It's like, okay,” Stiles reaches out and touches him on the arm, and Derek goes still. “There are billions of people on the planet, and each of them is doing different things. Living completely separate lives, headed in completely different trajectories. Different fucking continents. One dude in the states is waking up and pulling his kids out of bed for school, and someone on the opposite end of the earth in a different country is starting dinner. Like?”

“Point.” Derek prompts, looking away to glance at the bonfire a few yards away from where they're standing at the edge of the tree line. His face glows a little in the firelight, his eyes shining with it, and Stiles thinks that if they were really soulmates, he'd think that Derek looks beautiful, like this.

“Point – all of these billions of people have such different fucking life plans and life goals, but there's this one unifying factor. I could be a homeless kid living on the streets, I could be a millionaire, I could be anything – and still.”

Fingering the bottle in his hand, Derek looks back at Stiles' face and scans it for a moment. He's only been back from school a week or so, and he's been this way since coming back. Like he's some big, serious man now, all stoic and questioning, looking at Stiles like this mysterious puzzle to solve, instead of just the teenage kid he's supposed to fall in love but can't get the pieces to fit right. “Don't you think it's kind of nice, though?”

Stiles snorts, rolling his eyes. “Nice? Dude. It's fucked up.”

Like he's about to disagree, Derek rears his neck back and opens his mouth, but Stiles cuts him off.

“Think about you and me. From the time we were kids, we've always just known this. But can you imagine if – if we had to look? And think about it? And get to know someone before...before we have to pledge our entire lives to another person? I mean – what if I don't want to?”

“You don't want to,” Derek mutters.

“Do you?”

“Do I what?”

Stiles leans forward, mostly just because the noise level from the party behind them is reaching a point where they're nearly shouting at each other off to the side here. “Do you want to know? Or do you want to wonder?”

With an odd glint to his eyes, Derek swallows, his adam's apple bobbing as he does so. This close to him, Stiles can smell the kind of old spice he uses, has always used, can pick out the colors in his eyes in the flickering firelight. It's just facts, parts of him. Stiles doesn't think anything but that. “Both.”

“You can't have both.”

“Stiles,” Derek says – and he says his name with so much exhaustion. He's been saying Stiles' name for years, again and again, maybe thousands of times a year for as long as either of them can remember, and by now, it must feel like a weight on his tongue. “It's always been both, with you.”

**

“You look thirty years old,” his father says to him, standing with his hands on his hips where he stands in the lobby of the reception hall. “You look like you're taking out a second mortgage.”

“Thanks, dad,” Stiles half-laughs, adjusts the lapels of his jacket. “I feel like a clown.”

“I meant it in a good way. In a mature way.”

Stiles doesn't much feel mature in his getup for Lydia's rehearsal dinner – he feels all silly and childish, like a kid playing dress up in his dad's clothes. Even if the suit has been tailored specifically for him and fits him nice and snug, it still sort of feels like he should look in the mirror and see the sleeves dangling over his fingertips. Eighteen is a weird age, like that.

“You should get used to wearing things like this. It won't be too long until you're having one of your own of these,” he pats Stiles on the back, and then gives him a stern look. “Right? Your old man – well. He's getting old.”

Stiles feels himself choke up, at that, and he has to turn his face away. For just a half a second, for maybe the first time in his life, he allows guilt about his soulmate predicament to flow through him in its entirety, thick and heavy and bitter. For so much time, he's scapegoated the blame onto anyone or anything else. Onto Derek, onto his parents, Derek's parents, their friends, the soulmate system in general.

But nearly never on himself. His father has spent eighteen years running himself ragged trying to help his son, trying to get things to line up as they should, trying to – force it. Stiles always saw it as this big burden on his life, this unfair pushing and shoving that he neither wanted nor believed that he needed.

Stiles understands now that when his dad said all I want is for you to be happy, he meant it. How things are, being happy is synonymous with finding one's soulmate. Stiles can shake his fist at the sky about it all he wants, but it's like cursing the fact that trees grow, that there are birds in the sky. It just is. In a lot of ways, his father's happiness depends on Stiles', and Stiles – can't be. Truly happy.

He hasn't been his entire life. He's been half, from the start. It's just that he didn't always know that. Now, he does.

As if on cue, Stiles hears the sound of one of the lobby doors opening and closing over the noise of everyone else gathered and milling around – and when he turns, he sees Derek walking directly towards him, eyes set only on him.

He looks – good. Derek might've always looked good, but up to a certain point, it had always been in a really objective sort of way. Sure, Derek is objectively good looking, and he objectively always dressed well, and he objectively might've been a catch. Stiles remembers that around the time he started turning teenaged and awkward, hormones raging a mile a minute, he used to tell Scott that the only good thing about being paired off with Derek Hale was that at least he was a fucking looker. But, again. That was objective.

This, right now? There's nothing detached about how Stiles thinks about Derek's looks now.

“Hey,” Stiles calls out to him as though to get his attention, even though he's already headed straight for him. “You look better than me.”

Derek's eyebrows fold downward, but he smiles all the same; a sort of baffled amusement. “Disagree,” he says when he's standing right beside Stiles, putting his hand on the small of his back. It's so stupid – so fucking idiotic and pointless, airheaded and without any real substance, but still feels brighter. Just from having Derek's hand on his back, just from having Derek close to him.

This time, he doesn't think about how the only reason Derek is touching him at all is because Stiles' father is standing right there. He doesn't let himself think about that.

As expected, the Sheriff practically beams at watching these two have even a moderately civil interaction; you'd think that Derek leaned down and kissed Stiles full on the mouth right there in front of everyone, from how he's looking at them. “You two make quite a picture,” he says, taking a step back like he's giving them some room. He stares at them for a moment longer, before breaking out into a wider smile. “An actual picture, as a matter of fact – hold it right there.” Before either Derek or Stiles can say anything, a camera is pulled up out of his pocket and he's wielding it with a mechanic noise as he turns it on.

Stiles and Derek have been in, give or take, ten thousand pictures together. There's one in particular on the mantle that Stiles is thinking about right now, framed in red and perched right in the middle of a white wedding picture of Stiles' parents and one of Stiles' old school photos.

Derek is probably eighteen, which puts Stiles at fourteen – so, Derek looks like a fully formed human being with nice hair and a good jawline, and Stiles looks like a bumbling, pimple faced disaster waiting to happen. Nothing is happening. Derek has a plate of cake on his lap, sitting right next to Stiles, and the background of wherever they were (Stiles thinks maybe a backyard barbecue in the summer time, if his memory serves him correctly) is all blacked out, save for the glow of a couple twinkle lights. Stiles is looking directly at Derek, the profile of his face, a smirk making its way onto his lips, and Derek is staring straight ahead, a frown so deeply embedded into his face you'd think he was born that way.

That picture, out of all the other ones Stiles can remember or has around his house (one of he and Derek as kids decorating Christmas ornaments, one of Stiles stuck in a bucket and Derek standing over him like he had something to do with it) or the Hale house (one of Stiles dropping an entire handful of pumpkin guts on top of Derek's head, one of Derek teaching Stiles how to ride a bike), stands alone as unique.

“Come closer together,” Stiles' dad says, now, swishing his hand in the air with one eye squinted at his camera screen.

Maybe it's because that picture doesn't quite fit in with the rest of them, Stiles thinks as he presses himself against Derek's side, lets Derek's arm snake around his waist. Every time Stiles has walked past it since it was placed there, his eyes have had their own gravitational pull towards it, like it's a neon yellow sign in the middle of the rest of the frames sitting around it.

“All right – now, smile.”

Truth is, that picture always jumped out at Stiles because he used to think that it was the true definition of what he and Stiles' relationship was, and was always going to be. A picture's worth a thousand words, and boy, did that picture used to talk to Stiles. How Derek looked sitting there next to them, like there were a zillion places he'd have rather been. How Stiles was smirking at him, about to launch into one of his sarcastic jibes just to get a rise out of him, just to start a fight, just to be a little shit. All in the setting of one of their little forced interactions, maybe one of the last before Derek was set to go off to college.

“Stiles – smile. You look like you're in pain.”

Beside him, Derek stiffens marginally at hearing that, and Stiles can feel Derek's body lock up right next to his own.

He wonders what he'll think about this picture. Part of him hopes that he never has to see it.

Stiles smiles right as the flash bounces off their faces, and promptly steps out of Derek's arm.

“We should go in and find our places,” he says offhand, fiddling with one of the buttons on his blazer jacket. “Also, alcohol.”

“I heard that,” the Sheriff warns at their retreating backs.

Stiles gives Derek the eyebrow over his shoulder. “You'll fake me out to the bartender, right?”

Derek stares back at him as they walk, a slow smile creeping across his face. “Whatever you want, Stiles.”

From that point onward, everything is a flurry of twinkling lights, tasteful flower arrangements, and the clinking of silverware against expensive plates. Stiles eats two entire platefuls of something in a wine reduction sauce, gorges himself on weird tiny little appetizers that all taste like too much garlic, and forces Derek to convince the girl working behind the bar that Stiles is of age. It's almost kind of eerie how well Derek can just lean over her bar top, give her a broad grin, and convince her to do all of his bidding. Nevermind the fact that he pointedly introduces Stiles as his soulmate; Stiles guesses that he really just has that much charm, when he feels like using it.

Case in point, Stiles manages two rum and cokes and a champagne flute before Derek claps his hand over the top of Stiles' glass where they're sitting at the table. “That's good enough, Stiles,” he warns, shaking his head.

“I'm barely buzzed,” Stiles insists, trying to pry his glass out from underneath Derek's fingers. “I could have, like, four more before -”

“I have a vague memory of you puking after a glass and a half of wine at Lydia's bachelorette.”

Taunted, Stiles wheels his body around in his seat and glares full force in Derek's direction. “I have a vague memory of you splayed out on my kitchen floor two years ago, eating raw green beans and -”

“Right,” Derek interrupts loudly, scanning his eyes around the rest of their table-mates like he doesn't want them to hear the rest of that story. It's probably for the best; Derek wound up making a complete and total ass of himself, that night. Why he wound up banging on Stiles' door at two o'clock in the morning, piss-drunk and barely cognizant, Stiles will never fucking know. “Which is why I've switched over to water.”

“But I -”

“We have a speech to make,” Derek says loftily, like they're going to be standing up there addressing a congregation about something earth-shatteringly important, instead of just talking in front of their family and mostly life long friends. “Remember?”

Stiles maybe did sort of forget about that little tid bit. It's not like he's been particularly looking forward to it – speeches have never been a fun thing for him, but this one, in specific, is sure to be one of the worst times he's ever had to get up in front of people and flap his lips. It only makes sense, seeing as how he's in the bridal party and Lydia asked him in specific to say some words at the rehearsal, along with Allison.

Back when she first asked him, it was fine. A little nerve wracking, but fine.

When she cornered him a week ago and demanded that he bring Derek on up to the front of the room with him, it suddenly felt very, very not fine. First of all, because Derek can't speak in front of a group of people to save his own fucking life (don't even get him started), and second of all, because – because...

Does Stiles even really have to explain it?

“Bah,” Stiles mutters, relenting his attempts to get the glass out from underneath Derek's hand. “Fine. Water.” That's probably for the best. Though, drunk-Stiles is always good with a microphone in his hand.

Drunk-Derek...that's another story.

At one point in the middle of the deserts, Talia makes the appearance that Stiles has honestly been waiting for her to make. She has this way of showing up right when Stiles wants to have to see her least, right when he's all weak and beaten down a few pegs already. It must be some kind of mom radar inside of her skull that calls to her when she's needed, but not wanted.

She puts her hand on Stiles' shoulder, smiles down at him all serene, before looking over at Derek with a similar facial expression. Awe, maybe. Disbelief. “I can't help but notice that neither of you have caused a scene, yet.”

“Mom,” Derek warns with a sigh.

“Just an observation.” She laughs to herself, her eyes going far away for a second, as if she's having some kind of fond walk down memory lane, recalling all the times that Stiles and Derek did cause scenes and did ruin entire events just because they couldn't get on. How any of those memories could ever been seen as anything more than embarrassing and horrific is beyond Stiles, but if it gives her a jolly rather than a heart attack, more power to her. “You two have grown up so much.” Her fingers scratch at the base of Stiles' neck with fondness, and Stiles tries not to think too hard about his actual mother.

“It's not our wedding,” Derek reminds her, like she needs it. From the way she's looking at the two of them, maybe she does need to be reminded.

“Right,” she nods. “I'm just thinking.”

Stiles feels like backflipping right the fuck away from whatever it is she's thinking, doesn't even want to know the start of it – because if it's anything like what he's imagining it is, he doesn't know if he'll be able to take having to sit here listening to her talk about them, like that.

As it is, before he gets the chance, she's already starting in.

She lowers herself down right in between them, adjusting her dress, and leaves her hand on Stiles' shoulder. “I've been thinking a lot about you two, as a matter of fact.”

Derek pinches the bridge of his nose, like this is just embarrassing and humiliating for him, and nothing more, nothing less. Like he's wondering how many glasses of wine his mother has had to get to this emotional point, when it's barely even eight o'clock yet.

“At a certain point, maybe when you were thirteen, Derek,” she pats his back, “I really started to wonder about you boys. I don't think I ever said it, back then, but you two used to really run me ragged.”

She never had to say it. It was clear as day on her face, Stiles' father's face, everyone around them, that they were all getting tired of Stiles and Derek and their bullshit.

“I remember thinking that I just wanted to give up altogether, let you two hash it out amongst yourselves, if ever.” She gives them a bashful smile, suggesting that this is something she's a little ashamed of, now. “I was weak.”

“We were little shits,” Derek clarifies for her, casting his gaze sidelong at something on the other side of himself, away from where his mother and Stiles are, as though he doesn't want to fully participate in whatever's going on, here. As if he really can't. “I'd have given up.”

“You two already had.” Stiles already had. He knows that beyond any shadow of a doubt. “But you know – actually, Stiles, it was your mother that convinced me it would all be worth it, one day.”

Stiles is very, very well acquainted with the particular lump that tends to form in his throat whenever someone mentions his mother. Even if over the years it's decreased in size, stopped smothering him to the point of panic, it's still there. An old friend as much as a scar that won't go away is. When it comes to him, now, though, it feels larger than it ever has before. More pronounced, refusing to be ignored.

“She always knew that you two would figure everything out,” Talia squeezes Stiles' shoulder, and Stiles tightens his hands into fists where they're resting on his knees. “Even when I stopped believing in it – she never did. She was always on your side, when no one else was.”

Stiles can't do anything more than nod up and down, almost mindlessly – and he wishes he could evaporate. Just vanish.

“I just think you should know that she'd be so proud. Of both of you. You've come so far, and I know she would've given anything to be here to see you, now.”

Oh, if Stiles' mother could only see him now. Would she have been one of the ones that Stiles would have had the balls to tell the truth to? Would he have ever done this, in the first place? Would he have dragged himself headfirst into a half-bond, would he have ever let it get this far?

And what would she think? Half a soulmate, half a person. What would she think?

It's in the middle of this pseudo-mental breakdown that Stiles hears his name called in a singsong voice from a good twenty feet away, a lilting thing he'd recognize anywhere as Lydia's come and do my bidding voice. When he manages to look up in her direction, she's crooking a finger at him with a broad smile, beckoning him up to the front of the room where she and Jackson are sitting at their own table all decorated in roses and lights.

There couldn't have been a worse time in the history of his life for Stiles to have to stand up and function as a normal human being, but it doesn't matter. Talia rises back into a standing position and tugs on Stiles' arm to get him up, rubbing his arms up and down and pushing him gently forward. Behind him, Derek's footsteps are audible. It's mostly background noise. Stiles meanders through the tables on auto pilot, heart stuttering out in his chest, and he orders himself to not think.

Take the cards out of his pocket, stare directly down at them, don't move from the script. Last time he moved from the script, everything went to shit.

He's at the front of the room in a blink, accepting a microphone out of Lydia's pale and dainty hand, while a cacophony of glasses tinkling urges the room into silence. So that everyone has to sit there staring directly at Stiles, listening to only Stiles' voice with the occasional input from Derek if Stiles can force it out of him, and -

Stick to the script. The room goes silent, and there's only the shuffling of Stiles' clothes in the microphone as he presses against his pocket to make sure his cards are still there. Beside him, Derek is watching like a hawk. If he has any idea, if he's clued in at all to what's going on inside of Stiles' head...

Well. Stiles thinks that if Derek knew even the start of what was going on inside of Stiles' head, they wouldn't even be standing here, right now.

“Lydia and I first met in kindergarten. Um – I remember thinking that she was the prettiest girl I'd ever seen in my entire life -” cue the laughter, as expected, cue Stiles smiling and nodding like he's in on something. “I also remember thinking that she was really, really mean, but I still liked her anyway. We grew up together, so I was literally there on the day that she and Jackson met -”

He thinks about the cards sitting there in his pocket. His mind goes blank, fuzzy, as he recalls the details of that day, in specific. What it was like to sit there and watch a moment like that happen, in real time, the first time in his life he'd ever been physically present for a soulmate bonding right in front of his very eyes. The way that they looked at each other, how they gravitated towards each other so fucking naturally – how Stiles wanted that.

How he felt that it was stolen from him. And, now -

The cards, he reminds himself. The cards.

He doesn't look at the fucking cards.

It's been silent for a few seconds too long – that awkward pause in between broadcasts, switching from one channel to another, white noise.

“I actually used to think that me and Lydia were a lot alike,” he admits. At this point, he's lasered his eyes down to a specific point in the distance, not looking anyone in the face. “I used to think that the both of us were going to grow up and realize that the soulmates thing was just a bunch of made up fairytales that everyone convinced themselves existed because it helped them all sleep at night.”

The laughter is nervous, this time around. Derek shifts in the corner of Stiles' eyes.

“And then Lydia met Jackson and I thought – I might actually be the only living person on earth,” half a laugh bubbles out of throat, near hysterical, “who's as fucked up as I am!” Derek is reaching over like he's going to pry the microphone clean out of Stiles' spindly fingers, but Stiles shoves his hand away, takes on step back from him, shaking his head. He feels like he's on a roll, somehow.

The truth feels like that. Once you start – you can't stop. Lying is hard. The truth is easy.

“I convinced myself for a really long time, after Lydia and Jackson met, that I was going to be alone for the rest of my life. I don't think any of you know what that feels like,” he scans the room briefly, met with wide-eyed stares, a few dropped jaws – the sight of Scott rising to his feet like he's coming this way to come and pull him down and away before things start getting too out of hand. “I'm really happy that Lydia got a forever that isn't just, like, cats and Chinese take out all the time. I'm really glad. She's one of my best friends, and I thought I loved her for a while, there, but I -” he breaks off, just for a second. His jaw works, Derek puts his hand on his shoulder, Lydia clears her throat in discomfort.

“...I don't think Lydia and I are alike at all, anymore. I'm sorry, I -” he palms his forehead, relents the microphone to Derek's fingers, shakes his head. “I'm sorry, I've – I can't. I have to -” and then he's vanishing from the front of the room. Quick steps on shaking legs, the sound of his shoes against the marble floors accompanied by murmuring from all his friends and family, confused and startled and – most likely, they think Stiles has had too much to drink.

What he just said up there was so convoluted and nonsensical, that's what they all must think. Stiles doesn't know what's worse. The fact that the truth is so horrible that even when he gives it to them all on a silver platter they still can't accept it, or the fact that his truth is so nonsensical that it comes out jumbled and messy no matter how many different ways he tries to word it.

Out into the lobby, where only a few straggling guests are mingling, shoving his way through one of the side doors, stumbling across the concrete. He doesn't even remember where he parked his car, anymore. Everything, everything inside of his head is one big mess, back and forth, and jumbling together in a way that no one could make sense of, least of all himself.

He tries to take a second, just a second, to catch his breath. Just one fucking second to himself, to just be, and not have to – think so hard all the time. Push himself, fake anything, just -

“Stiles.” Derek crunches along behind him, and he doesn't yell. He doesn't seem mad, at all. He's got this look on his face, crossed somewhere between terrified and brave. This mixture of honest and holding back that Stiles thinks should seem out of place on his face, but looks like it belongs there, all the same. “What happened in there?”

Stiles looks at him for just a second, and then he has to look away. Stiles has always, always had to look away from him. When he didn't love him, and when he does. “I can't talk to you,” he hisses, swiping at his nose as it runs from the unshed tears in his eyes. “I really can't. I can't do this anymore, I can't – talk to you, fucking -”

“Calm down,” Derek commands him, grabbing at one of his wrists and clutching him in place before he tries to walk off and away across the parking lot. Stiles struggles to pry himself free, tears finally starting to make their appearance on his cheeks, and Derek releases Stiles' wrist if only to grip onto his shoulder, instead, to hold him down more steadily. “Stiles.”

“I can't.” Stiles snaps. “You don't get it, you don't –“

“I don't get what?”

Abruptly, Stiles goes limp. Just deflates underneath Derek's hand, all the fight draining out of him like someone went ahead and poked a hole in whatever resolve he was desperately trying to hold onto. He swallows, looks up to meet Derek's eyes a little blearily. “I fucked up.” His voice sounds so small, and fragile. As if one flick of Derek's fingers could shatter him, right about now.

Forceful and gentle at the same time, Derek says, “what are you talking about?”

“I was playing games,” he admits lowly, holding steady underneath Derek's hand and gaze. “I – I really think I fucked everything up, Derek.” Beyond repair, Stiles thinks. Beyond any hope of salvaging. If he had known...

Stiles.”

“I really,” he takes a step back, and this time Derek lets him out from underneath his hold, his hand going slack. “I can't look you in the face and say this.” So he looks away, down at the ground, his gaze fogging over.

“You're scaring the hell out of me.” His voice really does sound fucking petrified, in a way that Stiles can't say he's ever heard it before.

As Stiles stands there underneath a flickering parking lot light, chancing only the barest of glances in Derek's direction, he knows that he doesn't have a choice. The amount of time that he's wasted lying, pretending, acting like somebody he wasn't and something that he's not is weighing him down, now. He just can't do that anymore. Stiles is tired, so fucking tired, and Derek deserves to know. After everything that they've been through together, after everything that Stiles himself has put him through, Derek deserves to know.

With a deep breath in, Stiles tells himself it's like letting go of a ledge – telling the truth is. There's only so long a person can hold on, until the bottom of the ravine just doesn't seem that bad anymore. “I meant everything I said,” he starts, nice and slow. The beginning. “I never thought that Deaton knew what he was talking about, and I really thought that it was best for us to not see each other anymore. Or ever again. I -” he curls his fingers into his hair and tugs, as though he can pull the words straight out of his head without having to do the talking part himself. “...I really never wanted to see you again. You have to know that I honestly believed that you and I were a mistake.” They had to have been a mistake.

Nature does that all the time. Mistakes. Everything in the universe is exactly where it needs to be for everything to function correctly, and if even one thing were out of place, it could capsize in on itself. Stiles thought that he and Derek were that thing, that shipwreck, and the only thing to do when the ship goes down is get away. He thought that.

“I was wrong.”

Derek stares at him. His body is drawn up all tight, hand still held halfway out from his body like he's going to reach out and touch Stiles again, shoulders a tense line. All he does is stare. Maybe it's all he can do.

“I was really, really wrong about everything and – I'm sorry. I'm sorry about everything. I'm sorry for the past eighteen years, and I know that's not even close to enough, because – so much has happened – and -”

“What are you...” Derek takes a single step forward, and Stiles doesn't move. A part of him wants Derek to get closer, closer, until there's no space left between their bodies anymore – but he knows that he doesn't deserve that. “Stiles, what are you talking about? What do you have to be sorry for?”

What doesn't Stiles have to be sorry for, honestly? He looks over Derek's shoulder at the reception hall, call see through the huge paned windows bits and pieces of the party still happening inside. “When I asked you to kiss me, I knew.”

“You knew.”

“I knew, I fucking knew, but I didn't want to believe it. I wanted to run away from it.” Maybe that, above all things, is what Stiles is sorry for. The running. Christ, it's like it's all he's ever really known, is that need to get away.

Another step forward, and Derek's face is impossible to read. His eyes are so wide in his face, his lips parted in what could be shock or awe or something, one of the thousands of things about Derek that Stiles has never bothered to take the time to learn, but that he wants to, now. He wants to understand every thing about Derek until he can recite him by heart, up and down and across and horizontal.

“I love you,” Stiles half spits it out, and Derek shakes his head. “I do. I love you. I didn't know it before, because – because like Deaton said! I couldn't realize it because of how we grew up, I couldn't understand anything, I just wanted – I just -”

Derek is still just shaking his head, disbelief written all over his face, while Stiles near explodes. Like he said; once the truth starts, you can't stop it.

“I wanted nothing to do with you, do you get that? I fucking hated you, so much, and you hate me, and that was going to be it! But then – at Lydia's -”

In half a voice, Derek finishes Stiles' sentence for him. “You woke up.” Understanding flashes across his features.

Stiles woke up. Eighteen straight years sleeping every time Derek came around, only to be shaken awake at the exact wrong moment, the exact wrong time.

Stiles' shoes crunch against the gravel underneath his feet as he starts to walk away. He has no idea where he's going, doesn't even fucking remember where he parked his car, but he knows he has to fucking go. “I ruined every thing,” he hisses through hot tears, angrily swiping them away from his face as he walks. “I ruined every thing. I pushed you away so hard and so much that you can't even look at me right anymore. It's all my fault.”

Derek's footsteps echo off the cars and the walls of the building they stand beside, as he follows along behind Stiles. They're just walking off towards the woods, really, but Stiles couldn't stand still like that, with Derek looking at him, for another second. “Just wait, Stiles, just wait -”

“I was the one who made you do this faking it bullshit. I was always the one who got up and left even if you asked me to stay, I was the one who kept fighting even when you didn't have anything left to say, I -” ...destroyed it. The bond. Singlehandedly, Stiles tore it to fucking shreds.

Poetic justice is that he only manged to ruin Derek's half of it. Now, he gets to live with his mistakes, straight down until the day he dies.

“You can't love me,” Stiles snarls out into the night – spoken out loud, it sounds like an avalanche. “And I'm really, really sorry about that.”

Derek's footsteps halt behind him, and Stiles keeps going. He has every intention to just keep fucking walking, until he can't anymore, until someone from the rehearsal dinner that Stiles half ruined has to pull up alongside him on the road and pick him up and drive him back home. From there, he doesn't know what's going to happen. He doesn't know if he'll ever tell anyone else about this, because it's not like anyone can help him, at this point. He's made his bed.

And he really doesn't know what's going to happen between he and Derek. Would it be better for them to not speak, if Stiles didn't have to ever see him again? Would the bond weaken? Hurt less? Stiles doesn't know how much longer he can survive being Derek's...whatever the hell he is, to Derek. Whatever he has ever fucking been to him.

Nothing. Being Derek's nothing.

Honestly, and it's so fucking twisted Stiles can't believe he could ever think it, but he thinks he'd rather be Derek's nothing than anyone else's something.

“The Summer I came back from school,” Derek calls after him, and Stiles only barely slows his steps. “After my freshman year.”

A landmark for he and Derek's relationship – Stiles has always thought of that point in time as the ultimate turning point, and not in a good way. It was around that exact time that Stiles and Derek stopped fighting so much, started becoming resigned to their fate. Derek was so complacent in everything, just going with whatever their parents made them do, with a grimace and blank eyes. Stiles hates to think about it, now.

Stiles is about to whip around and shout I know, you motherfucker, I know that's when you realized you couldn't ever, ever love me, why the fuck do you have to twist the knife after you've already fucking impaled me on it – but Derek changes course before Stiles even knows what's hitting him.

“I came back,” his shoes crush gravel, and he comes closer. “And I saw you.”

He stops walking. Freezes dead in his place, half the breath knocked out of him. Hesitantly, he turns his head, just over his shoulder, and looks at Derek in his peripheral. It's all he can take, right now, because seeing Derek in his entirety - he can't do that.

“I always told you that all we ever needed was time, Stiles,” at this point, Derek is close enough behind him to reach out and touch, but he stays two feet back. Almost as though he doesn't think he's ready, just yet. Not until everything is out there, cards on the table, not until they've run their voices hoarse. “I have loved you, for years.”

When Stiles finally turns all the way around, it's all he can do to shake his head no. Again and again, like he's trying to shake himself out of a dream. It can't possibly be real, none of it can, not after these past couple of weeks of drowning himself in the knowledge that Derek would never...ever...

“All I was doing was just waiting for you to catch up. I didn't know how to deal with you, if you weren't – if you weren't there like I was. You were always so far away.”

“I don't -” Stiles croaks, thumbing his own tears away. “I don't understand.”

“I shouldn't have agreed to pretend with you, it was wrong of me,” Derek's in Stiles' personal space, now, so close that Stiles has to pull his neck back to look him full in the face. “I knew it was wrong. But I saw it as my only opportunity to really be with you,” he confesses lowly. “I – I love you, so much, and you didn't – you just -”

“I do,” Stiles says. “I do, I love you. I didn't know. I didn't know.”

“I didn't know,” Derek repeats, nodding his head. “I fucked up.” Like it's all they have to do, now, Derek reaches out and cups Stiles' jaw in his fingers, and Stiles leans into the touch, and thinks – any second, I'm going to wake up alone.

He doesn't. They stay there. In that moment. All the times that Stiles wished he would get his soulmate moment, it was never like this. It was always like everyone else's. Perfect and balanced and expected; as many movies has he's seen, he's never seen any variation on the way soulmates meet and recognize each other.

He's never seen anything like what he and Derek have.

“I'm sorry,” Stiles says for what must be the thousandth time. “I am really, so, so, sorry for all the time I wasted, all the fucking messes I made out of us.”

“I'm sorry, too,” Derek strokes a finger along Stiles' cheek, drags the salt of Stiles' tears across his own skin. "You don't know how painful it was, to be with you like this, knowing the entire time that you..."

"I thought that you -"

They were both wrong. They've both been wrong for years.

“I don't know what else to say," Derek says, shaking his head. It feels like there's so much, so fucking much to say, right now. They should go back and look over every single last detail of these past few years, they should re-examine every move they've made, try to figure out where everything went wrong. Stiles remembers when Lydia had said that he and Derek could fill twelve entire books, with their story, from beginning to end – and he realizes, now, that she was wrong.

He and Derek could fill an entire fucking library. Shelves upon shelves of misunderstandings, half truths, out right lies, eighteen straight fucking years of nothing but miscommunications and let downs. Other soulmates – they don't get that. There's no such thing as a fucking misunderstanding between soulmates.

Stiles and Derek stand as unique.

“Don't say anything,” Stiles decides on, fed up with words that all jumble together into nothing but noise, after too long. “Can you just – just hold me. I just want to be -”

“Okay,” Derek agrees, wrapping his arms around Stiles and tugging him close against his chest. Stiles rests his chin on Derek's shoulder, and holds him back as hard as he can; as though there's some part of him that believes this is all just pretend, still. And if it is, he wants to savor every single last second of it to the best of his ability. “I would've kept waiting for you, Stiles. You could have gone to New York, the other side of the world, and I would have stayed here to wait for you.”

Stiles, somehow, in spite of everything, knows that it's true. Irrefutable, irrevocable fact. Derek would've waited. He'd wait, now. He might've had to spend his entire life waiting, even though what he wanted was right there in front of him all along.

“You don't have to, anymore,” Stiles tells him.

He means it.

**

In spite of Stiles' best attempts, he didn't wind up completely ruining Lydia and Jackson's rehearsal. Mostly, the following day at the wedding, everyone just clucked their tongues at him and rolled their eyes. He's gotten a reputation for being the resident lightweight, and he'll be lucky if his father even lets him try sips of his beers anymore until he turns 21. Even then, he's betting his friends will all cut him off after his second drink. That's a burden he's willing to live with, for a while.

The wedding itself goes off fine, and Stiles stands there in his suit beside Scott on Jackson's side (because it's not like the guy has any other friends aside from Danny, he had to pilfer from Lydia), and catches Derek's eyes out in the audience every other passing glance. It's nice. Lydia's mom gets too drunk and cries all throughout the reception, Stiles eats three pieces of cake with Derek's hand draped over his back, and it's just nice. Maybe one of the nicest times he's ever had in his life.

Stiles doesn't know what's going to happen to he and Derek. Or, he does know, in the broadest sense. He knows that he and Derek belong together, and he knows that there's nothing that could ever change or stop that, but so much has happened. Like Erica has said time and time again, so much has happened between Derek and Stiles, some of it horrible, some of it just bad, but very little of it really good. Miles of uncharted territory lie before them, now, as far as the eye can see, and Stiles doesn't know what to do about it.

He knows for certain he can't stay in Beacon Hills. The soulmate bond was never his ultimate goal in life, no matter what anyone has ever said, and his dream is just to get out; at least for a little while.

Even more importantly, he knows that Derek will be following him. Anywhere Stiles goes, anything that Stiles wants, Derek will be there. It's funny that Stiles felt and thought for so long that he never had anyone or anything like that, who would be willing to do that for him, when really, Derek had been standing right beside him all along. Stiles just hadn't seem him in the right light, yet.

So, they're messed up. That doesn't matter. They fucked every thing up for years, were never honest, couldn't talk to each other. That doesn't matter either.

"That's not alcoholic, is it?" Allison laughs, pointing at the drink in Stiles' hands from her spot across the table.

Stiles bears the teasing with little more than a smirk and an eye roll. "It's a shirley temple. I've been banished to the kids mocktail bar for the rest of the night."

"Poor Stiles," Erica goads, reaching out to pinch his cheek like she would a little kid. "Poor alcoholic baby." Her eyes flick to where Derek is sitting next to Stiles, and her grin broadens. "When are you going to slide a ring onto your human disaster's finger, Derek? I can't wait to see how he bungles that day, as well."

Derek meets her eyes coolly, and smiles. For a moment, he looks so fucking happy, so genuinely content, that Stiles can't help but smile himself. He knows the feeling. Finally, he knows that feeling. "Could be any day, I guess."

It really could be.

Maybe Stiles and Derek never got the moment they wanted. They were always two steps forward, one step back, on different tracks and on completely different pages.

But he wouldn't trade it for anything, looking at every thing now. All his mistakes, all the lying, all the games - none of it really matters, in the end.