Derek allows himself a second to roll his eyes when Scott pops up on his caller ID. Scott rarely calls, and when he does, Derek wants to hit deny. It’s a childish impulse, the kind he only allows himself between breaths, before he’s the alpha again.
He answers the phone with, “What?”
“Stiles is sending me weird texts,” Scott says, tinny and far away.
Scott would never call about something mundane. Derek shrugs away an itch of worry. “Fascinating, Scott. Write them down. These are precious moments.”
“Seriously, dude,” Scott says. Derek hates the phone; he can’t taste Scott’s words. “I think he’s wasted. Will you check on him?”
“Wasted... drinking?” That doesn’t sound like Stiles. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah. It’s... yeah,” Scott says. “I’m visiting dorms with Allison and I can’t—”
“All right,” Derek says. “Where is he?”
Stiles is in the sparse woods on the slope beside Beacon Hills Cemetery, which wasn’t where Scott said he’d be at all, which is why it takes Derek an hour and a half to find him by following the grease-boy-whiskey scent of the Jeep’s meandering path.
“Are you trying to get killed?” Derek asks. He takes Stiles’ keys—a quick snatch Stiles doesn’t even notice—and pushes them into his pocket.
“No,” Stiles says, blank with sincerity. “That would suck.”
Derek has never been drunk in his life. He tried once, when he was fourteen. He and Laura and their cousins stole a handle of something clear and vile and took turns gulping it. It tasted like pain and burned his belly and made him woozy for a moment, like the dizziness after a sneeze. And then nothing, no matter how fast he tried to drink it.
Watching Stiles sway where he’s sitting on a thick layer of slippery leaves, Derek is reminded that he stopped wanting to get drunk when he got old enough to see what it did to people. He sits beside Stiles, takes the bottle out of his loose grip, and throws it so far it makes no sound when it lands.
“What’s going on?” Derek asks, openly irritated. Stiles is a smart, sharp boy. He isn’t this boneless, foggy-eyed thing.
“Nothing.” Stiles rubs his thighs slowly, palms rasping against denim. Derek thinks that’s all he’ll get, until Stiles snaps out a breath and goes on. “Stupid idea. It’s like, you get going and it seems like a good plan, and then you’re talking to trees. Stupid.”
“It happens,” Derek says. His life often feels like navigating an obstacle course of the results of stupid ideas. Though they’re usually not Stiles’ stupid ideas.
Stiles barks out a laugh and reaches into the leaves beside him. He’s looking for the bottle.
Derek swats at his hand.
“Ow,” Stiles says. “You! You are... you’re.”
Then they’re staring at each other.
“I have thoughts about you,” Stiles says. He jabs his finger in the air, pointing somewhere about a foot to Derek’s left. “Sexual ones.”
“Did you text that to Scott?” Derek asks, in lieu of actually considering what Stiles just said—or processing the unnameable sensation scorching through him like a fever.
“Scott?” Stiles blinks about a dozen times. “Did he call you? He is such, such a traitor. I didn’t even say that. I didn’t...”
Derek senses the impending sickness before Stiles does. There’s a sudden sourness on Stiles’ breath and a waxy sheen to his skin, and it’s enough to give Derek time to take Stiles by the collar and a belt loop. He turns him over behind a tree and looks away while Stiles upends a significant amount of whiskey and bile.
When they settle again, several trees over, Stiles draws his knees to his chest and hugs them and says nothing at all. The silence is worse than the vomiting. Derek’s never been good at filling silences. He usually enjoys an absence of conversation. He likes the song of tires against asphalt. The gentle static of heartbeats. Silence is never really silent unless it’s charged like this, ugly and waiting to be something he probably doesn’t want to hear.
“It’s normal,” Derek says, hating the way it sounds. “You’re seventeen.”
“Oh, thank you for validating my sexual fantasies.” Stiles’ voice is as bitter as the scent that lingers on him. “I’ll definitely stop hating myself for them now.”
Derek lives with a pack of teenagers. He knows sarcasm. Sarcasm has infected him the way accents do, the way he and Laura developed a gentle twang the year they spent hiding in the hills of West Virginia, chasing swift-footed deer and squatting in vacation cabins. He misses her so much, sometimes, that it feels like he’s under the ground too. Suffocating.
Derek can’t afford to be suffocating, and the last thing he needs right now, or ever, is to have to parse Stiles’ intoxicated sarcasm. And yet, Derek finds himself reacting to the veiled significance of Stiles’ words—breathing through a hurt sensation that shouldn’t belong to him. He can’t ignore it now that it’s here, aching and young.
“It’s called a crush for a reason,” Derek says.
“Well it sucks.” Stiles shakes his head slowly, rubbing his chin against his knee. “Why can’t I want things that make sense?”
“Things will probably make more sense when you sober up.” Something is building in Derek, like storm clouds, and all he wants, desperately, is to ignore it.
“They won’t. Please. Look at our lives, Derek,” Stiles says, straightening and gesturing at the streetlight-haze beyond the dark cemetery. “This town is basically a Hellmouth. The first step is acceptance, or something. That nothing is ever going to make sense again.”
“You just said—”
“I know what I said,” Stiles says, unconvincingly. “My head hurts.”
Stiles must have benefited from emptying his stomach. He turns his head and gives Derek a long, clear-eyed look soaked in so much attitude Derek nearly recoils from it.
The not-silence returns. Derek can’t think of anything to say. He sits near-but-not-beside Stiles, listening.
“When.” Stiles swallows and moves, resting back with his palms in the leaves. His forearms are smudged with mud. He’s something wild out here, like it’s where he’s meant to be. “When my dad would be, you know, I’d think it made him tell the truth. And they say it’s not, it’s just impulses and brain chemistry going all wrong, but I don’t feel like that right now.”
Derek stares at him.
“Doesn’t it make you wonder though,” Stiles goes on, “if everyone’s hiding something. Like if they told the truth, they’d tell you everything that sucks about you.”
“You can’t trust anyone,” Derek says immediately. It tastes like a lie and a betrayal, and he nearly chokes on the words.
“That’s where you’re wrong. And you’re wrong a lot, dude.” Stiles laughs like he’s gone out of tune.
Derek’s instincts urge him to tackle Stiles, to chew on him and roll him down the hill until they’re both out of breath and can’t think about trust and truth. Because Stiles is a boy and not a wolf, Derek throws a clump of mud at his shoulder. Because Derek is a fool, he says, “Enlighten me.”
“You’re not even alive if you don’t trust anyone. You have to trust people even if they make you feel like a piece of shit sometimes. Right? Otherwise we’re alone. We’re just completely freaking alone and you know what? I refuse. No.”
“If you’re so trusting, Stiles, why were you in the woods by yourself?”
Stiles pats his pocket. “I have a phone! I texted Scott but he’s off with Allison doing college stuff because she had like 42 million credits and she’s going to school early. Oh my god I lost my keys.”
“I’ll give you a ride home,” Derek says.
“And!” Stiles pauses, letting the word hang like a drumbeat. “I trust you to get me home in one piece. See? Totally fucking enlightened.”
Derek snorts. “You don’t trust me.”
Stiles’ expression blanks out. It’s startling and awful, and just when Derek decides he never, ever wants to see that look again, Stiles’ eyes brighten and that’s even worse. “Yes. I do. God, you’re such an asshole.”
“I was kidding,” Derek says weakly.
“No, you’re not kidding.” Stiles picks up a handful of leaves and throws them at Derek. They all miss and flutter limply to the ground between them. “You’re like, zen master alpha werewolf and you can’t tell your tail from... do you have a tail?”
“I do trust you!” Stiles yells. “I might be a complete idiot at love but I’m not stupid enough to crush on somebody who’s going to kill me.”
Derek lets his claws sink into the ground. “I’m not going to kill you, but—”
“It’s not just that. For starters, you’re not even really an asshole. You’re probably not going to be a hall of famer alpha but you’re not the worst.”
“I didn’t come out here for a performance review,” Derek says. He feels detached, his voice steady and his mind reeling. It shouldn’t be like this. This kid should not make him feel like he’s under attack—like he’s done something to deserve that.
“Why did you come out here?” Stiles asks.
“Scott called me,” Derek says. It’s a nice, simple answer.
“Since when is how I spend my Saturday night pack business?”
That’s not as simple. “This isn’t normal, for you,” Derek says, gesturing broadly to indicate that what he means, primarily, is the way Stiles is half-sprawled and mostly drunk. “It’s in our best interests to investigate abnormal behavior.”
“And the Hale pack is now the behavior police of Beacon Hills? Cause dude, I’ve met Erica and Isaac and those kids are fah-reaky. Maybe you should start closer to home.”
Derek keeps his claws in the dirt, because the dirt is more solid than the unsteady, unwanted feeling of being able to sense Stiles’ brittle walls coming up.
“Hale pack,” Derek repeats, as Stiles’ words sink in. They’ve never called it that. It hasn’t been that since before the fire.
“I’m walking home,” Stiles says abruptly. What’s less abrupt is his ability to stand. He lurches forward, trips a step, and lands on his knees, swearing out a string of creative, unrelated curses.
Derek’s shouldering him up before making a conscious choice to do so. His fingers are blunt again, gentle. “This doesn’t change anything,” he offers.
“Right, of course.” Stiles is heavy against him. He’s more solid than he looks. “What’s one more mortifying rescue?”
Stiles’ trains of thought are hard to follow on the best days. “What?” Derek asks, not really intending to voice the question.
“I know I’m not one of you, okay? I get that, but Scott’s my best friend and I’m not letting go of him just because you guys have a big butt-sniffing bond.”
They near the edge of the cemetery, where the ground is thankfully even. It would be ten times faster if Derek just lifted Stiles and carried him, but he doesn’t think that would go over well, and this night doesn’t need to get any worse.
“I meant that what you said doesn’t change anything,” Derek says tightly. “In a bad way, moron.”
“Oh. The crush thing?”
Derek makes a muffled sound of acknowledgement as he repositions Stiles. “Attraction is just instinct. What you call a crush, or love, it’s biological. No one’s going to fault you for it.”
“That is literally the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard you say,” Stiles says.
“Oh?” Derek asks, anger burning tension through the muscles of his neck and shoulders. It’s sort of like an urge to throw Stiles.
“First off, your adorable worldview. No one’s going to fault me for having a crush on an alpha werewolf? Wrong. Secondly, biological? Sorry, Scrooge, but I believe in love.”
“You’re not in love.”
“Right on, thank fuck, but I believe in it. It isn’t biology, dickhead.”
“You’re not a very nice drunk.”
Stiles makes a hoarse sound that can’t be classified as a laugh. “You don’t believe in love, and I’m the mean drunk?”
“I’m being practical. When you recognize those feelings for what they are—biology, instinct—you keep your head clear. You use the feelings that move you forward, you ignore the ones that hold you back, that fog your vision.”
“What about your parents?” Stiles asks.
Derek stops. He just... stops.
Stiles slips to the ground beside him, landing on his ass with a quiet grunt.
“What about them?” They’re standing between a row of gravestones, each uniform and shadowed, granite edges sharp in the moonlight.
“Didn’t they love each other?” Stiles asks. The way the light hits him, he’s all big dark eyes and bone-pale skin and moles like little splatters of mud.
“I don’t know,” Derek says, vision tunneling with the effort to control the wolf. The wolf who wants to shift and run and run and run away from Stiles’ questions.
“That’s not true.” Stiles’ voice is thick with tears, but he doesn’t move. “You know.”
Derek stands still, closes his eyes. It doesn’t help. He still sees them, their cartoonish figures. He doesn't have any pictures. They were always so careful, and the few they dared to keep burned with everything else. There’s nothing left on Earth that even smells like them. They’re just bright colors, warm voices. Of course they loved each other.
“Don’t,” Derek says, despite knowing that the one person in the world who isn’t going to obey him is Stiles.
“He won’t say her name anymore,” Stiles says. Derek opens his eyes again, and fights the vertigo that comes with trying to understand where Stiles’ mind has gone. Stiles isn’t looking up anymore. He’s crying. “But he—he wears his wedding band. And she couldn’t. Her hands. They were swollen and then they were so small. They loved each other, so shut up. Just shut up. Shut up, Derek.”
Derek crouches, one hand finding the back of Stiles’ neck, where he needs to hold onto him to keep him still and safe, to center him. He stops listening to Stiles’ words; they’re too private. They aren’t for him.
He knows one of these stones bears Stiles’ last name. He doesn’t want to see. He doesn’t want to do the ugly math that comes unbidden any time two dates are presented, side by side, a beginning and end.
“Howl,” he says, close to Stiles’ ear.
“What?” It’s a sniffle between hiccoughed sobs.
“You can.” Derek places his other hand over Stiles’, against the damp, short grass. He presses down, makes him feel the thrum of the earth below them. “Howl.”
Stiles sucks in a few shuddered breaths and nods. His chest expands. Derek moves his hand, lets Stiles throw his head back, and the sound that Stiles makes isn’t a howl—but it doesn’t sound human either.
Derek recognizes it. He made that sound once, when he was a boy, grieving.
The sound goes on for a long time. Derek sits back and pulls Stiles into his lap when it’s over, when it feels like there’s no air left around them at all. They’re still alone. No one was listening. So Derek allows the silence to stretch again, the white noise of it punctuated by Stiles’ trembling, sniffling breaths against his shirt.
Derek hasn’t held someone in a long time. He feels Stiles grow heavy with exhaustion and shifts him until he’s more or less cradling him. He’d hold his wolves this way, when they needed it, if he understood how to get here, how to break through the minefields of all the things they don’t say to each other.
Stiles jerks in his arms, falling asleep like it takes a bumpy road to get there. Derek noses at his hairline when he’s sure Stiles won’t notice. It’s a gesture of comfort, but Derek isn’t sure which of them it’s meant to soothe. He doesn’t want to think about it.
Derek isn’t tired or sore, but he feels like he’s been in a fight, like he’s bruised inside. He imagines, watching Stiles smack his lips in his sleep, that Stiles would tell him that that’s exactly what love is.
It changes everything.