The first clue is the silence. Stiles is no motormouth, but he’s not quiet either. Normally, when they’re driving, Stiles says something every few minutes. There are no long silences. There are sudden realizations, short lectures on the varieties of invasive plant life on the side of the road, plots that play out like constellations when Derek tries to visualize them. Silence isn’t an option, even when Derek turns the oldies station up in what he honestly thought was the universal sign for please, please shut up.
Stiles doesn’t say anything. Not until he opens his mouth and chokes like his throat seized around a sound, and Derek glances over and meets his eye and Stiles doesn’t look panicked, he looks—
Derek needs a new language to describe Stiles. Stiles, who laughs like he’s eating joy, who looks sorry when he’s angry and happy when he’s scared, who doesn’t smell honest, even when he’s telling the truth.
Stiles' gaze tracks lazily around the interior of the Camaro like he's never seen it before. He starts to say something again and stops. So Derek listens harder, and doesn't like what he hears.
“You’re too cold,” Derek says for him. “We have to stop.” He’d hoped to get further, to get back to town. But Beacon Hills is another two hours away, and some of the roads are still icy. He can’t afford to drive any faster, and Stiles' heartbeat can't afford to slow any more than it already has.
Stiles' head bobs in an uncoordinated nod. He hugs his knees harder. He’s not wearing his seatbelt, and Derek still itches with worry after watching Stiles tumble into an icy creek half an hour before. Derek wants to reach over and force Stiles to strap on the stupid, flimsy piece of nylon in case the road betrays them the way the rope bridge did.
Derek reaches to turn the heat up, but it's already set as high as it will go.
They’re never going on an errand for Alan Deaton again, even for something as useful as the supposedly magical flower they were after. Or, at least, Derek isn’t bringing Stiles on any field trips anymore, no matter how quick Stiles is when he’s jumping into a passenger seat or how aggressively he insists that no one has his eye for detail or his ability to get shit done, so it’s basically insurance if he comes along.
“We passed a motel on the way up the mountain. It think it's another mile,” Derek says. “I’ll warm you up.”
He expects an eyebrow wag. Or a lecherous comment about cheap motels. Or at least some enthusiasm, since Stiles is obsessed with kitsch. Finding a functioning vibrating bed is on his bucket list, and Derek knows this because Stiles pinned his bucket list to the wall near his window. It also includes going on a roller coaster in Las Vegas, eating a vegemite sandwich and petting a marmoset.
But Stiles doesn’t any anything. His jaw is clenched so tight Derek can hear the tiny scritch-squeak of his teeth. His breath smells like musty water-grass and mud and Derek focuses on the road, trying not to think of the wet, wretched coughs that it took to get the water out of Stiles’ lungs after he inhaled it in the shock of the frigid current.
“Stay here,” Derek says, feeling stupid for saying anything. Stiles doesn’t even acknowledge him.
Derek's fake ID and $35 get a room. It’s at the end of the row, closest to the drained pool. The door is blue, and Stiles is heavy.
“Straight to the bathroom,” Derek says like his mother used to when he came inside muddy. Leave your shoes by the door! Strip and get in the tub! He doesn’t know why he keeps talking as he carries Stiles; it doesn’t seem to comfort him one way or another. There’s an undercurrent of anger in Stiles, present in the low growl on his breath as he fights another wave of convulsive shivers.
They end up on the floor in the dimly lit bathroom that’s barely big enough to contain two men. Derek has never undressed someone in his life, so he doesn’t have much to go by, but he’s fairly certain it doesn't have to be this difficult. Stiles’ clothes are plastered to his skin, and he’s trying to help, but every jerky motion results in shaking off Derek’s cautious grip, until Derek’s strongly considering ripping the clothes to shreds.
Stiles mumbles and moves like a broken robot. He should be breathing hard, but he's not. Everything about him is off.
“Stiles, just hold still,” Derek says, unable to stifle his irritation. He reaches out and wrenches the tap up to get the hot water started, and the sound fills the bathroom, echoing and far too loud. Stiles goes still at the noise and blinks slowly, owlishly, as if he's never heard running water before. With Stiles distracted, Derek finishes the job, and in another minute Stiles is naked and the water is starting to warm up. Derek pulls him close as he waits. Stiles’ skin is icy and damp. The normally steady afterthought of his heartbeat drags, leaden and weak.
It occurs to Derek that he knows very little about what human bodies can endure. They have two states that he’s most aware of: Healthy and dead. Stiles is unnervingly far from healthy, and Derek wants to shout at him that this is why he didn’t want Stiles to come looking for the flower.
When the water starts to steam, Derek plugs the bath and watches it fill. It’s like every hotel faucet he’s ever seen; the water screams out like a tiny jetstream. Is it efficiency or cheap hardware? This is what Derek wonders at while he’s trying not to think about Stiles’ ice-cold nose against his throat and the disoriented tension building in Stiles as he alternates between shivering and going very still. He’s exhausting himself.
“Try to calm down," Derek says quietly.
Stiles growls again.
“If I have to call an ambulance, I’m going to get arrested for harboring a naked minor in a shitty motel room,” Derek says. “So calm down.”
Stiles doesn't calm down, but he doesn't get any more worked up either. He probably can't, not when he's this cold. Derek’s trying not to acknowledge Stiles' nudity, but it's impossible to ignore. His clothes are piled up on the toilet lid, dripping steadily onto the dusty linoleum. His ass is soft-firm-frigid against Derek’s palm where Derek grips him to keep him close.
When the tub is half full, Derek lifts Stiles and gently places him in the water. He’s not sure what he expects at that point. Relief? Gratitude? What he gets is the first long, loud sound Stiles has made since the torrent of incoherent swear words that came out of him after the creek water did. Derek only catches a few words, but manages to piece together hot and oh my god and are you trying to boil me and what the fuck, Derek.
“It’s not that hot,” Derek says, bewildered. Stiles fights hard for someone who’s been curled up, silent, and shivering weakly for an hour. The water splashes and Stiles claws at Derek viciously to try to get out, which is not what Derek is trying accomplish here, damn it.
To keep him still, Derek has to climb into the tub too. He does so before he thinks about it, and that results in soaking jeans and sneakers and socks and Stiles fighting harder. It’s a bad fight now, waves of deep, instinctive fear souring the bathroom. Stiles is fighting for his life, blank-eyed and breathless. His lips are the wrong shade; they’re a pale, sick violet.
“I’m not hurting you!” Derek shouts. “Stiles!”
Stiles doesn’t listen, or doesn’t hear him, so Derek lets him fight. Stiles can’t get away, he’s not hurting himself—though Derek has to get his hand between Stiles’ jerking head and the rim of the bath a few times—and the water will help him. It has to help him, or Derek will find someone who knows how to identify and fix exposure.
After several minutes of fighting, Stiles abruptly calms down. His harsh trembling settles to fine shivers and he opens and closes his eyes in long, dazed blinks. He looks drugged.
“I think I have hypothermia, dude,” Stiles says after ten minutes have passed.
Derek stares at him. “No shit, Stiles. Do you think we're in the bathtub together for fun?"
“Haven’t you ever seen a movie? You suck at First Aid. We should have been naked an hour ago,” Stiles says. He taps the surface of the water like he’s never seen water before and frowns at his wrinkled fingertips.
“If you’re an expert at hypothermia, why didn’t you say something before you were half dead?” Derek asks.
Stiles looks up at him. “I was embarrassed. And then thought it would be okay if I waited to get home.” He wrinkles his nose. “And then I felt all popsicle-y.” His breath gusts out with a harsher round of shivers that run through him like an aftershock. “You didn’t have to scald me. Dick.”
“I didn’t scald you. It’s on warm. And if you’re finished trying to fight me, I’ll get you more comfortable.” Derek climbs out of the bath, scowling at the sensation of denim sticking to his skin and his feet squishing in his wet shoes. As he peels off his soaked clothes, he watches Stiles watching him unashamedly and wonders if it's the hypothermia making Stiles bold.
It's probably important to keep Stiles talking. "Why were you embarrassed?" Derek asks as he dries off with a scratchy white towel that reeks of bleach.
"Cause." Stiles looks up at the ceiling and back at Derek. "I fell off a rope bridge."
"Technically the rope bridge fell off... itself," Derek says weakly. He’d rather resort to showing his teeth than try to reason with Stiles. He can't help feeling like Stiles will talk constricting circles around him, even in this state. "You couldn't have done anything."
"But if it had been you, you would have shaken it off and we'd have the flower," Stiles says. He drops his head to the rim of the tub and closes his eyes, as if explaining to Derek exactly why he should be embarrassed has sucked the remaining energy out of him. He has hairy legs and knees pocked with half a dozen old scars. He's lanky and broad at once, and makes the tub look too small.
"I don't need a magical flower to keep my pack safe," Derek says, annoyed. He's well aware of how ridiculous that sounds when he couldn't even keep one teenager safe for ten hours.
"We have the room for the night. Your dad thinks you're at Scott's right?" Derek asks.
"Yeah. This is a motel?"
"Oh. Why?" Stiles asks, blinking his eyes open to look at Derek through clumped-wet lashes. “Naked. So naked.”
"Because I want you holding still and staying warm until you're stable," Derek says. "The water's cooling off. I'm going to take you to the bed."
Stiles grunts. "Any Magic Fingers?"
"Not the automated kind," Derek says.
Stiles coughs out a small laugh. "Flirting! That was good."
"You'd know if I was flirting," Derek says, placing his hand against Stiles' forehead to see if he's warmed up. He hasn't. It almost hurts to touch him.
"I doubt you'd know if you were flirting," Stiles says. "You should get in the game, you know.”
“The game?” Derek asks, distracted by planning how he wants to wrangle a wet, potentially combative boy out of a bath tub.
“Yeah. Aren't you supposed to be siring litters at your age?"
"Is that what Google told you?"
"I read a thesis on the reproductive habits of werewolves. It basically said that alphas mate pretty hard because it's like, inherently dangerous to be an alpha and it's a natural tendency to want to pass genes or whatever on before getting murdered." Stiles yawns, shivering halfway through it like he got electrocuted. He scowls.
"Some werewolves are controlled by animal instinct," Derek says. "Those wolves aren't strong. Strong werewolves embrace both sides. The human and the wolf. Humans have... choices. Choice is important."
"So you don't want to have a million puppies?"
"I don't want to be a father," Derek says, reaching for Stiles’ soggy hands. "Come on. Bed time."
Stiles tries to stand with Derek's help, but he's unsteady and weak, and Derek has to wrap his arms around him. As soon as most of Stiles’ body is out of the water, the shivers return, harder now, and he whines as they overtake him. "Damn it. I hate this."
"It's good that you're shivering more," Derek says. “I think.”
"I think it sucks."
It's quiet, brisk business getting Stiles dry and under the sheets. The comforter smells like semen and piss, so Derek leaves Stiles in a shivering ball on the bed and throws it into the closet. The sheets are only marginally better, but the velour blanket above them is surprisingly clean and soft. It'll do for a nest.
"This isn't how I pictured this," Stiles says. He's still too pale, but his lips have more of a fleshy color to them now. He rolls onto his side, away from Derek.
"You've pictured this?" Derek positions himself along Stiles' back and works the sheets and blanket up over both of them. He has to fight the immediate instinct to recoil from Stiles' cold skin; it's unnatural for a living thing to be so icy.
"Dude, I'm seventeen," Stiles says. He sounds more focused now, like he's finally surfacing. "It's my job to think about doing it with everyone I know."
Stiles’ timing isn't great.
With his groin pressed against the painfully soft skin of Stiles' ass, Derek doesn't want to think about doing it. But he can, immediately. He can picture exactly how sweet it would be to fuck the boy—how alive and strong he'd be, how he'd shake and beg with the eagerness of youth.
"You're totally pulling a Jon Snow on me, aren't you," Stiles says. "What a waste of a boner."
Derek laughs quietly against Stiles' neck as he wraps one arm around him to lock him close.
That's the worst part. It isn't just youth, it isn't just the musk of Stiles' body and the knowledge of how tight and good he'd feel. It isn't what the wolf wants. It's what Derek wants with his mess of human impulses. It’s the choice. It's Stiles. It's the fact that Derek doesn't stop Stiles from coming along because he enjoys his company. He likes having Stiles around more than he hates worrying that he'll get him killed. He wants to roll Stiles over and fuck him because Stiles is unraveling him at the seams with his stupid smart mouth and his keen fox-eyes and the headlong momentum he lives with. Stiles hurtles forward like there's a clock winding down, and Derek wants to chase him, sink his teeth into him and keep him still.
"I would never hurt you," Derek says, trying to shake the thought of Stiles as a wolf, as his beta, and how that would feel.
"You're warming up. And your pulse is stronger now."
"That's reassuring, Dr. Hale. Is the probe back there part of your recommended treatment?"
Derek shifts. He's trying to keep his erection to himself but it's... hard. (Stiles would love that.) "Are you uncomfortable?"
Stiles' breath gusts out. "Yes. No? I don't know, man. Why are you acting so weird?"
That’s a tricky question. “I was worried about you,” Derek says, gruff and glad that Stiles can’t see his face.
“I worry about people all the time, but I don’t rub my penis on them as a coping mechanism.”
Derek fights a shiver. It’s like the cold is affecting him, except he feels hot. Very hot. “You don't have to worry about me.”
“It’s a thing I do.” Stiles tries to turn over, and Derek keeps him still to avoid Stiles’ knowing, cunning gaze.
They fall quiet. Stiles alternates between shivering and settling, his breath even and his body warming little by little. As Derek holds him, listening to his heartbeat and the sputtering hum of the heating unit against the window, Stiles’ skin begins to feel like flesh and not chilled rubber.
Derek’s erection doesn’t flag despite his silent, fervent efforts to control his body. It isn’t like the change. His blood doesn’t obey him.
Before Derek can think of something to say to fill the silence, Stiles drifts into a restless sleep. That’s, apparently, what it takes to convince Derek’s body to calm down. It becomes easier, more natural, to curl close and place his palm against the birdlike ridges of Stiles’ collar.
Holding Stiles’ sleeping body fills Derek with a warmth he struggles to identify. It isn’t the flushed, instinctive heat of want. Stiles feels comfortable in his arms, weary but safe. Chilled but no longer threatened by it. Desirable but... something else. It feels like stretching in the sun. It’s ridiculous. They’re on a lumpy, awful mattress in a filthy motel room, and Derek is intoxicated with contentment.
When Stiles struggles in his sleep, Derek lets him turn over. He goes still as Stiles rearranges himself, hugging at Derek and smacking his lips together.
The room is only lit by the flickering light from the open bathroom door, and Stiles' lashes cast thready shadows against his pale skin. Derek does something he hasn’t done since he was a child: he nuzzles. He rubs the tip of his nose slowly, carefully against Stiles’ cheek and along the fine ridge of his nose and at the gentle part of his lips. He presses his cheek close and breathes Stiles’ scent. He does it for a long time.
When Derek pulls back, he sees Stiles awake and watching him, and he fights a startle reflex.
They’re covered, nestled together, warm now. Safe. But under Stiles’ gaze, Derek feels his nakedness and struggles to keep still. This is the weakness of humanity—the doubt that comes with having a choice.
Stiles wriggles, sudden and clumsy and tangled in blankets and limbs, and finds Derek’s mouth. The kiss is brief and sticky, and ends when Stiles pushes Derek onto his back and uses him as a pillow. Stunned with relief, Derek allows himself to be moved. His hands settle slowly, finding Stiles’s back and his lightly curled fingers.
The heater cycles off, plunging the room into a silence that registers as white noise. As Derek’s perception recalibrates, tuning to softer sounds, he hears Stiles’ lips part to form a smile.