There are two things that Derek will never know how to deal with, no matter how hard he tries. One of those things is people.
He would never call himself socially inept, or nervous when around people, but he just doesn't like it. Casual acquaintances, tactical partners, betas, those are all fine, but he can't have friends. He's not the kind of person who has friends. He learned that the hard way.
But even Derek can admit that his aversion towards people can sometimes get ridiculous, almost comical, if he were to go that far, but he also has a deep-seated notion of self-loathing, so he's not surprised. He doesn't avoid people, but he doesn't make nice. He doesn't stutter or find himself at a loss for words, but he will snap and growl and...
Well. He'll generally do his best to make the world hate him.
Derek's at his best when the world hates him. When the world hates him, everything is spelled out in black and white for him, with a notion of good and bad, right and wrong. His boundaries are much more solid and seeable, his reality more tangible. Decisions are easier to make, people are easier to hurt, things are easier to break.
Even so, Derek Hale's life is not easy. It's nowhere near easy, and it never should be easy, because that's not how the universe intended to let Derek live. He knows that better than anyone. He's horribly, disgustingly aware of it.
His lines are steady, and his world is solid, and his perception of reality is clear as day. He can live his whole life snarling at the world and hunching his shoulders, because that way, he's safe. That way, he doesn't mistakes, because he's so painfully aware of how much the world hates him that things just become linear. They spell themselves out.
But then Stiles happens. He's not sure exactly how Stiles happened, but he did, somehow. It was gradual, and it was subtle, in every sense of the word, and he'll never understand it, but Stiles entered his life, Stiles got to know him, Stiles made him... he doesn't want to say comfortable. He shouldn't be allowed that.
It's a recurring problem for him. Somewhere along the way, Stiles and he went from watching movies sometimes and meeting through Scott sometimes to making out on Stiles' sofa and sleeping with one another and generally being... attached. He enjoys Stiles company, and even if he still doesn't know what he's doing, even if he still doesn't know what he and Stiles are, he realizes that he's... open and attached and, yes, believe it or not, he has emotions about this. Perhaps not explicit ones, but, oh, they're there.
That's when he starts getting scared. And scared isn't a thing that Derek Hale gets easily.
Or maybe scared isn't even the right word. Maybe it's just nervous, or uncomfortable, or... like he's staring into something he can't understand. Like things suddenly aren't simple, like his boundaries are becoming blurred, his reality out of focus. This isn't a world that hates him anymore. This is a world with Stiles Stilinski, who likes him, who enjoys him and has enough of an emotional attachment to him to be... romantically involved with him, in one way or another.
Because Derek doesn't think about their relationship, he doesn't try at it, and yet it still happens. The world has dropped this in his life, and it's just... sitting there, growing on its own. He doesn't think about it when he kisses Stiles, wet and open-mouthed and hot, and he doesn't think about it when he falls asleep with Stiles leaning on him, warm, his heart beating through his back at this hypnotic, comforting rhythm. That's why, when it's happening, it seems so... well, natural. Right.
But then, he's not always with Stiles. They're, more often than not, not together, and Derek, more often than not, is alone. Whether he's working or not, whether he's resting or running or thinking or feeling, he's alone, and it's when he's alone that things come back to focus, and he starts seeing everything for what it is. He starts thinking, his brain starts working.
He thinks about Stiles. He can't help it, he thinks about Stiles and they way he acts around Stiles and the way Stiles acts around him. The fact that he's grown to like Stiles (a lot, even) and that he likes being with Stiles and --
The first time Derek realizes this, he's in the middle of the woods, enjoying a cold morning and the fog and the clouds above his head. The first time he realizes this, he panics. He absolutely panics, and he finds himself crouched on the ground, because he doesn't know how to deal with this again.
Derek doesn't like people because he doesn't know how to deal with people. He doesn't know how to deal with getting close to someone, how to have emotions for anybody but himself, to have thoughts of anything but his own survival.
Derek Hale is not efficient when he panics. He freezes. He absolutely freezes.
He can't let this happen again, because the last time it happened, all he can remember is pushing himself under hot beams of wood and through broken panes of glass, all he can remember is looking behind him and hearing nothing but screaming as his mother and his father and all his family were burned.
The worst part is, they healed.
They burned, and they healed, and they burned, and they healed, and it happened over and over again until the healing process couldn't keep up anymore, until the flames got too fast for them, until they were finally granted the kind of solace that they never would have had to seek in the first place if it hadn't been for Derek.
All he remembers is looking back, shell-shocked and scared, young and stupid, and he knows, deep in the back of his mind, that he the orange and red of the flames bounce off the highlights in Kate Argent's hair, somewhere, as she walked away. He remembers looking back and seeing Peter, half-engulfed in flame and staring at him as he ran, wide-eyed and betrayed.
He remembers Laura, screaming and crying and clutching his hand, telling him to run faster.
And that's what he did. That's all he remembers of the last time he fell in love.
So, where is he now? What's he thinking? Because he knows, deep down within him, curled and spiraled around the very core of who he is, that the last and only time this happened, every single person he knew and loved died. Stiles isn't as an intimidating of a person as Kate Argent was -- he's clumsy and a tad air-headed and he's not a hunter, so that's a plus. But Derek thought nothing was wrong with Kate, back then. He figured nothing could go wrong then, either.
The fact that he likes Stiles at all only proves to him that the whole saying about history repeating itself is painfully true and likes to come back to bite werewolves in the ass. He still doesn't know what's going on, so that makes it even worse, even if he wasn't as self-assured way back then as he is now. But he knows that this isn't something that's just carnal anymore, that he'd just as soon have Stiles underneath him, trembling and unraveled, as he would have him pretending to sleep, like he always does when Derek comes over, leaning against him and happy.
He doesn't understand that. He doesn't know when he stopped understanding everything around him, because everything used to be so defined and so easy. Derek's gotten to a point in his relationship with Stiles that he doesn't even think anymore, that they fall asleep together or they kiss or Derek will watch movies with him and laugh, that Derek will trace the triskelion against Stiles' skin because it feels like it belongs there. Does he know that it belongs there? No, of course not.
He doesn't know anything, he just feels it, and that's not right.
Derek doesn't know what the triskelion against Stiles' skin symbolizes for him, and he knows it's incomplete, and he knows it isn't good. He doubts it's Kate, Stiles, random third party, because he's sure he's getting far too world-weary and far too cynical to ever feel this way about people without some serious psychological help (Stiles has constantly surprised him, ever since the beginning) and it's not love, betrayal, loss, because he's not a starving poet.
It doesn't make sense with Stiles. Derek is finally associating himself with something that's not definable, something that's atypical, and, in the long run, that can't possibly end well for him. He's an animal of instinct and an animal of survival, and when he comes across something atypical, something out of the norm, he should stay as far away from it as possible, to keep himself as safe as he can.
But here he is with Stiles, watching Smoky the Bandit and eating junk food and commenting on what he likes about the movie and what he doesn't like about the movie. Here he is, pretending not to notice when Stiles collapses against his shoulder. Here he is, wrapping his arm around a warm body and kissing Stiles' temple without thinking about it, and enjoying it. This is abnormal. This is the very definition of abnormal, because everything in his life should be deliberate, should be done towards an end, one that involves not dying.
He'd had the same internal monologue with himself when Kate had happened. He'd dismissed it. How well had that turned out?
Derek tells himself, almost constantly, that Stiles can only end up being a problem, no matter what he wants to think, but he ends up at Stiles' house anyway with a bag of Cheetos or a copy of The Room, because apparently that movie is hilarious, and Stiles lets him in with a grin and a witty remark, and Derek ends up with his arm around Stiles, kissing him and enjoying it.
But he doesn't know what to do. Even as he feels warmth lick upwards around his ankles, even as he feels burns on his neck and on his arms, even as he hears whispers from far away, he hears Stiles' heartbeat above it all.
There are two things that Derek will never know how to deal with, no matter how hard he tries.
One of those things is people.
The other is fire.