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Wolves in the Timber

Chapter Text

Will you be my anchor
When there is no one around
To hold me down?”
-The Frames- Angel at my Table

It does not come all at once. Stiles loses his mother in increments. At first she is just absent minded. Then, it is the nightmares, followed by sleeplessness, followed by rapid mood-swings. One day, she cannot find her keys and her screams force him back up the stairs, clumsy, tripping over his untied shoes, until he is safe in behind his closed closet door. Later, he will understand that she was confused and terrified in her confusion and he will feel a great pity for her. But then? Then, he is eight years old and there is a monster inside his mother. Maybe this is why, years later, he barely blinks when his best friend transforms into a werewolf.

There are monsters in everyone, underneath blood and bone. By genes or bite they’ll reveal themselves, it’s only a matter of time. He knows this, he has long known this. It makes him good at what he does-the go between, the mediator- if all humans are monsters, then all monsters are also human.

 

 

Derek Hale disappeared. He left with Braedan after the Benefactor, or more accurately, after Peter. There’s a limited number of times you can tangle with your uncle and want to stay, so he went. He stayed in touch for a couple of years-emails, texts, the like- mostly with Scott. After a while, though, the texts stopped coming and the emails petered out. Nobody thought much about it. It’s normal, Stiles knows, to fall out of touch. It’s part of growing up and moving on, even if you haven’t exactly moved anywhere. He and Malia haven’t spoken in years, not out animosity- she’s down in Texas with her pack of hellions and it’s not like they aren’t friends anymore but just- their lives are different now, and that’s the way some things happen. So that’s what they thought, that’s what Scott thought, had happened to Derek. The McCall pack had grown up, gone to college, gotten educated, dispersed, re-united, expanded and changed and all the while Derek was here and there, sometimes with Cora, sometimes with Braeden and then he just faded away.

And yet, here he is now in wolf form, limp and shallowly breathing on the dingy institutional laminate floor of the Beacon Hills’ police station.

Ramirez had brought him in caged and tranquilized. She set down the big kennel cage in the middle of the bullpen, panting a little from the weight of it and wiping her sweaty hands on her knees. “I found him back behind the warehouse on Lewis,” she told Stiles. “I thought for a minute he was just a big dog, but then he flashed those eyes at me. Must have been stuck there for a while, poor thing.”

Ramirez only thinks ‘poor thing’ because she’s got an old retired K-9 at home, harmless and loyal, but she hasn’t seen them frothing, snarling, pacing a circle of ash. Stiles has. He told Ramirez to put him in one of the interrogation rooms and to line the doorway with ash, and then he went and called Scott.

“Do you think,” Stiles takes an involuntary step towards Derek, if it really is Derek- he’s not so sure, even if Scott is. “Should we wake him up?”

Scott shakes his head and inhales. He’d come immediately when Stiles had told him that they had a strange were at the station. “Let him sleep it off. He doesn’t smell like he’s injured, but he doesn’t smell right either.”

Derek doesn’t look hurt, a little skinny maybe, and dirty, his fur caked with mud all along his haunches, but he looks, he looks whole at least. It’s impossible to tell with weres though. They’ll heal almost anything.

“Ramirez said he was stuck, shut up in ash.” Stiles tells Scott. “That shouldn’t have kept him from shifting though. Once he saw Ramirez, he should have shifted, would have wanted to avoid being shot up with tranquilizers if he could.”

“Maybe he was protecting himself,” Scott says. “He hasn’t been here in years, he doesn’t know what Beacon Hills is like nowadays. Most likely he didn’t want to scare Ramirez half out of her wits.”

Stiles rubs the back of his hand over the stubble he hadn’t had a chance to shave that morning. “Yeah, I guess that makes sense. It’s pretty crazy though. I never expected to see him back here again. Especially not like this. I thought he was gone.”

“Me too. This is insane.” Scott bounces on the balls of his feet, grinning. “It’ll be good to see him though. I’ve kind of missed him.”

Stiles has occasionally missed Derek, too, but right now he can only focus on his current problem- that problem being that a) Derek is unconscious and b) he’s currently a wolf. “How long do you think he’s going to be out?” he asks Scott. They don’t really have protocol for this. The stray dogs and wild animals that occasionally turn up in the populated areas of Beacon Hills are turned over to Animal Control. Most of them eventually even end up in Scott’s clinic.

“A while. Maybe even all night.”

“Shit. We can’t leave him here.” Stiles scrubs his hands through his hair. It doesn’t seem right to leave Derek at the station or at Scott’s clinic. He’s supposes the best thing to do is to take him home with him. There goes his quiet night.

 

Stiles wakes into darkness, needing piss like a motherfucker. “Motherfucker”, he mutters, kicking at his sheets as they tangle around his legs. It’s hot and dry- his landlord always leaves the heat on too high- and the air in his room is oppressive. He stumbles to the bathroom, takes a good piss and splashes some cold water on his face. It comes to him slowly as he wakes that there’s a high, whining noise coming from the living room. There’s a high, whining noise coming from the living room where he had left Derek, still out,in a circle of ash and that means that Derek is awake but isn’t in his human form. Shit. Shit. Shit. He remembers now, remembers setting the (Jesus, how is he so heavy) werewolf down and laying the line of ash- just, just for a minute while he goes to get changed, just in case. He must have fallen asleep. Fuck. Fuck. Stiles careens into the living room, clad only in his boxers and socks. In the low light he can see Derek pawing at the barrier, turning in frantic circles.

“Hey, hey, hey,” he keeps his voice low and hands up. “Easy there, buddy. I’ll get that for you in a sec.” He walks slow, on quiet feet, trying to keep his movements light and even. Derek snarls at him as edges closer, but his haunches are low and his tail is tucked in between his legs. He’s frightened, and Stiles doesn’t know why. It’s been years, but they still, they still know each other. He’s not a stranger to Derek. He shouldn’t be a stranger.

“Hey there,” he says again. One foot, then the other. “It’s me. It’s Stiles, man. You know me, Derek. C’mon. Don’t you want to shift back and tell me what’s going on?” But the wolf gives no indication that he recognizes Stiles or even his own name. He snarls again as Stiles feet hit the edge of the ash line, feinting forward and then scrambling back. Stiles hesitates for a only a second before scuffing the ash with his foot. He wants to get to Derek, to put his hands on him. Too late, he remembers the the open windows to let the cool air into the hot apartment, and the frightened, confused werewolf, probably about to make a dash for it.

“Wait!” he yells, lunging towards Derek. But Derek isn’t moving towards the windows. He darts the other way, a dark blur in the moonlight, around Stiles and down the hallway into the office. He’s under the desk by the time Stiles makes it in there, curled up in a tight ball at the corner where the desk meets the wall, trying to make himself as small as possible as he trembles.

Jesus fucking Christ. Stiles’s heart is going about a million beats a minute, knees going weak from the adrenaline rush. Derek did not go for the open windows. Thank God, for small favors, because it looks like small favors is all that he’s getting. Goddammit. Goddammit he needs Scott. He needs Scott, because Scott is the Alpha, and this is firmly and completely his shit to deal with.

 

“Still think everything’s fine?” Stiles grumbles as Scott and Lydia frown over the results from Derek’s bloodwork. He’d gotten almost no sleep the night before, what with the possibly feral and definitely terrified werewolf hiding under his desk and it had been a long day at work. He wants to get home, check on Derek-not that he thinks much was likely to have changed-take a long shower and pass out. But Scott had said that he’d gotten the bloodwork back, so here he was at Scott’s clinic cranky, annoyed and tense.

“What?” Scott blinks at him, distracted.

“I said, do you still think that the fact that Derek doesn’t want to change back into his human form and seems to not remember either me or you or anybody else for that matter is a sign that everything is fine and dandy and coming up daisies?” He knows he sounds petulant, but he doesn’t care. He’s done. He’s done indulging Scott’s naivete. They have a possibly feral werewolf on their hands. Everything is not going to be ok, no matter how much Scott insists it will be.

“He probably does want to change back.” Lydia doesn’t even look up from the paperwork. “He just can’t. His blood work is showing high levels of Siberian monkshood and myrtle. In the right proportions, those can keep even an Alpha from shifting, and Derek’s probably been an Omega for a long time. I don’t know why he doesn’t recognize us but given the amount in his blood, I’d say he’s been stuck like this for a long time.”

“Great.” Stiles throws his hands up. “Just great. So what do we do now?”

“Nothing,” Scott answers.

“Nothing? Scott, are you insane? We have to get him back. We have to know how this happened to him. Jesus.” Stiles kicks at the metal cabinets lining the examine room. “We can’t just leave him like that. Whatever did this to him is coming here. It’s coming here and it’s not going to be happy and if it could get a jump on a born wolf, God knows what else it could do. Scott. We are not just going to do nothing.”

“Stiles buddy, calm down.” Scott says . “Obviously, something bad happened to Derek, but I don’t think it’s coming here. Nothing feels off. Other than this the town is quiet. Isn’t that right, Lyds?”

Lydia nods. “If something was off I’d feel it. You don’t have to worry, Stiles.”

“Fine.” Stiles crosses his arms over his chest. “I’ll have it noted that I don’t like this. But, fine.”

Scott picks up an empty vial and tosses it absentmindedly from hand to hand. “I think probably Derek came here because he knew, subconsciously or not, that he’d be safe here. So, we’re going to keep him safe here. We can’t know for sure that something or someone didn’t follow Derek here, or isn’t on the way here, looking to make trouble. But so far, nothing’s come up and we’ll take extra measures of caution. Liam and Bee will run extra patrols. Satomi knows and has her people on alert. Chris is already reaching out to his contacts. And you and Lydia will do what you guys do best. This is Derek’s home. This is our home. We’ll protect it, and we’ll protect Derek, just like we always do. But I really believe that everything’s going to be fine. The monkshood and myrtle will work itself out of his system eventually and when it does, hopefully he’ll come back to us. In the meantime, there’s not much else we can do. Patience. It will work itself out.”

“You’ve been spending too much time with Deaton.” Stiles grumbles. “Talking about patience and shit,” but he folds into Scott’s hug and lets some of the tension drain from his body.

 

Derek comes out from under the desk slowly. At first, Stiles notices that the food bowl he’s left in the middle of the office floor is no longer full. Later he’s sitting at the kitchen table, filling out paperwork, a tumbler of Jack at his side, when he sees a black shadow out of the corner of his eye. He sucks in a breath, not daring to move, not daring to ruin this. Derek stands in the open doorway, just staring at him, his dark gaze steady and inscrutable.

“Hey,” Stiles whispers. “Hey there, big guy. You ready to join the land of the living?”

But the wolf just turns around and silently pads back into the office.

Beacon Hills remains quiet. Nothing and no one comes after Derek.

Soon after that, Derek moves from the office into the living room the next evening. He lays himself down just a few feet from where Stiles is reading on the couch and watches, wary and skittish. Stiles is tired. They’ve got a John Doe with a GSW to the head at work and absolutely zero leads. It doesn’t seem to be supernatural, just plain old murder, but everyone’s still on edge. Beacon County is small and sparsely populated, and it’s strange but true that simple human cruelty is more disquieting than supernatural shenanigans. Scott’s position as True Alpha has more or less put a cap on supernatural murder in the area. He won’t allow it or condone it in his territory and he’s got enough power to back it up. In some ways, these days it’s a bit of a relief to come home to Derek. Yes, he’s a mystery and it’s frustrating and sad, and Stiles wishes he were Derek-Derek, not wolf-Derek, but he’s still a mystery that Stiles knows, not a human corpse lying on the coroner’s table asking for human justice. It takes him a minute, caught up in Cloud Atlas and his thoughts to realize that his hand hanging off the couch is curled into something soft and thick.

“Oh,” he says, and it’s Derek, who’s come to sit at the foot of the couch, who shudders and tenses as Stiles runs a hand down his back, but doesn’t move away. “Oh.” Stiles says again and he lightly rests his fingers on Derek’s head, until Derek relaxes, and presses his skull into the curve of Stiles’ hand.

The next night though, it all comes undone. Derek goes still, sniffing at some scent in the air, pacing Stiles’s apartment, unwilling to be calmed. He huddles to doze under the desk, hypervigilant, starting at every sound and Stiles begins to thinks they’re never going to get him back, that they’ve lost him to the trauma and the fear and the guilt. Watching Derek tremble under the desk, he can’t help but believe that whatever it was that happened to Derek has swallowed him whole.

He calls Scott.

“Stop projecting,” Scott sighs. “It’s monkshood and myrtle, Lydia told you. It will work itself out his system, he’ll change back, and we’ll be able to figure out what was going on with him. Ok?”

But Stiles isn’t so sure. All he sees is a black wolf panting on the hardwood floor of his apartment and maybe there will be one forever. If Derek wanted to change back, he would have changed back already.

Scott makes a frustrated noise. “Stiles. Ok?”

“Yeah. Ok.”

“Do I need to sic Lydia on you?”

Lydia is usually the only one who can talk Stiles down when he gets like this- edgy and irrational with a touch of self-loathing. Ok, maybe a little more than a touch. Lydia, Lydia knows what it’s like- your body that is not your body, the terror in disorientation, a darkness that pulls you. It’s a comfort to have someone who knows.

Lydia could have gone anywhere, done anything, but hadn’t. She stayed. She stayed and she did not go on for her PhD at MIT. She did not win a Fields’ Medal. She advises the pack and she teaches at the BCHS, just like her mother did.

“You could be taking over the world,” Stiles once told her.

“I don’t want to take over the world,” Lydia said, “I want to be happy.”

On his worst nights Stiles thinks it’s not the same, Lydia can afford to be happy, and he doesn’t see why Lydia couldn’t be happy and be out in the world doing great things. Lydia is death adjacent, but Stiles knows what it’s like-has looked down at his hands, his long, knobby fingers and he didn’t kill Allison, but his hands did.

Stiles had always thought that Derek would understand, maybe. If Derek had been around to talk about it. He would know what it was like to think that maybe it wasn’t a fluke, maybe there’s something in you, something twisted that pulls blood and betrayal and death to you, like a remnant of your mother’s disease, her monstrous confusion, still encoded in your genes. Stiles still dreams of that day in the loft, the water lapping at his ankles and the dirty light. Derek’s stricken face. He wonders if there are days when Derek wants to tear his own hands off too. But Derek wasn’t around, and now he’s a wolf. So.

He’s 28 years old, it’s been years. He’s past all that. He should be past all that.

There’s a black wolf panting on the floor of his apartment like an accusation. Stiles knows that there’s nothing that Lydia can say or do. He’s not projecting, it’s the truth, it’s the kinship he’s always felt with Derek, and if he could curl into his animal self, he would, and maybe he would stay there. It would be easier that way.

 

But. Scott comes by. Kira, too, on her lunch break. Lydia says that she’ll do a little research into the chemical properties of monkshood and myrtle, see if there’s anything that can be done to speed up the process a bit. Even Liam’s girlfriend, Bee, seems concerned, though she does not know Derek, and has never met in his human form. Scott has a way of attracting caring people to him and the pack rallies around one of their own, it seems.

It’s early April when Stiles gets sick of walking Derek around the same block three times a day. There’s an itch under his skin so he drives out to the preserve one Sunday, way out past the old Hale house that’s long been torn down, up into the hills of Beacon Hills. Derek’s in the back seat, head on his paws. There’s still a chill in the air, but there’s softness to it that wasn’t there a few weeks before. It’s a good day for a drive and a good day for a run. He pulls in to the patch or dirt that serves as the parking lot for this particular trail head and opens the back door for Derek, expecting him to dash out into the clearing, almost afraid that he’s going to lose him to the woods and the wild. It had taken him a while to come out here, to trust that Derek wouldn’t run, despite their tame walks. But Derek doesn’t make a break for it. If anything he’s retreated further into the car.

“Hey, hey.” Stiles cajoles, trying to get his fingers into the soft ruff around Derek’s neck. “What’s this? Don’t you want to come and run? Come on, it must be ages since you’ve had the chance.”

Derek sniffs cautiously at the air, seems almost like he’s going to relent and come out, then changes his mind. He curls in on himself and tucks his nose under his stomach. Stiles doesn’t have the patience for this. He wants to get going, wants to move, to pound away at the tension that’s been thrumming through his body for weeks now.

“Fine,” he huffs. “Stay here by yourself. I gotta go. I’ll be back in a few.”

And he goes.

He doesn’t know why he suddenly so annoyed. Sure, he’s frustrated- he’s been frustrated since he first saw Derek passed out on the station floor. And yeah, it’s a pain to have a dog who isn’t quite a dog to take care of. And it’s not that he’s resentful that it’s him and not Scott or Lydia who’s stuck with Derek. They both have families, significant others, responsibilities, he gets that.

He lets his mind go. He runs here often, he knows this trail. He likes this stretch of path here, the slight decline, the way the light filters through the pine, deep rooted, not letting anything else grow, so the whole length of it smells of the trees, clean and new after the rain. Maybe he’s done this to himself. Scott would have taken Derek for a while if he had asked. Lydia certainly would have. He could have dropped him off at his Dad’s. In fact, that probably would have made the most sense. His dad is retired. What else is he going to do with his day? (His dad does plenty with his day. He fixes the front steps, weeds the garden, goes to check on Mrs. Cunningham, who’s going on 93, is deaf as a doorknob, mean as a wet weasel and inexplicably one of the Sheriff's most favorite people in the world.)

His knuckles sting as they graze along the outcropping lining the path. He needs to be honest with himself.Yes, he no longer believes that there is anything coming after Derek. If something were going to come, it would come already. There is less urgency now in his need to have Derek back. But there is a part of him that wanted to be the one to save Derek. He wants to feel useful again. And he wants Derek. He wants to see him curl out of himself and into his humanity-just a private thing, a secret acknowledgement, a pact between the two of them. Coming out here today, Stiles had wanted to run with Derek. He had this idea that this day out in the preserve could change him, free him. But life doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t follow the path you want, or planned. It’s a long slog, and you aren’t always the hero.

Stiles slows as he reaches the clearing, trying to even out his breathing. What is he going to with Derek now? He can’t keep him at his place forever. Maybe he should just bring him to his Dad’s. Concentrate on work for a while. The very thought makes him feel guilty.

When he gets to the car, Derek is sitting in front of the open passenger door, sniffing at the ground and nosing through the grass. He stands when he sees Stiles, padding toward him slowly, head down, almost shy.

“Hey,” Stiles whispers. He can’t help it, his hands curl in Derek’s fur. There’s a lump in his throat. He doesn’t want to give up on him, which is stupid. Doing the things he needs to do in life is not giving up on Derek. There’s nothing he can do. He knows that. It’s just time. It will work itself out. “Sorry,” he says. “Sorry. I just thought, maybe, it would help or something. Or it would be nice to do something together. I’m not. I won’t give up on you.”

Derek whines and licks at his hands. Stiles closes his eyes. With his eyes closed, the earth seems reborn to his senses: the black dirt and the new grass and the budding trees pushing their way into life. The sun is young. When he opens his eyes, Derek is there, panting and leaning his warm body against Stiles’s own

It occurs to him sometime in the night, because emotional epiphanies always happen in the night or in the shower, that he misses Derek, has missed Derek all this time. For years he has been turning in his bed and Derek has not been there. He was never been there. And yet, Stiles misses the weight of Derek’s arm across his shoulder, the drag of his body supported by his own; even the smirk of his mouth, back when he was dangerous and threatening. His longing is a physical thing. In the same moment it occurs to him also that he is angry, furious, that he left, more so now that Derek is here but not; there, but unreachable to Stiles in every way, and his anger is such that it forces him up and out of bed into the office to drop his face into ruff of Derek’s fur and to rub his nose over the curve of his delicate skull. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m sorry.”

Chapter Text

It doesn’t happen that day, or even that week, but ten days later, Stiles is woken up in the middle of the night to the sound a crash coming from the office. He’s up and out of bed in seconds. Derek, human Derek, is kneeling naked on the floor in front of the desk, clutching at his head. He’s panting, and his eyes are wide and frightened.

“Whoa,” Stiles says as he picks his way across the floor to Derek, “easy. Can you- are you ok?”

“Yes.” Derek’s voice is hoarse, but still so much softer than Stiles is expecting. It was always like that with Derek. “I think. I’m ok.” He doesn’t seem so certain of the fact, glancing this way and that as he rises to his feet. “I should go home. I shouldn’t be here. I should go home.”

“Derek.” Stiles moves fast, blocking Derek with a hand to his chest. “Do you know who I am? Do you know where you are?”

Derek looks down at Stiles’s hand and then back up, meeting his eyes for the first time. He lifts an eyebrow. “Stiles.” he says simply.

“Good,” Stiles breathes. Thank God for that at least. “Well then,” he snarks patting at Derek’s chest, because he is really not at his best at this time of night, and his relief is taking all the fight out of him, making him sharp where he should be soft, “you should also know that you, my friend, are totally naked, and also it is 3 in the morning. You’re not going anywhere right now, big guy.”

Derek blinks and glances down as if becoming aware of his own nakedness and his shoulders hunch. It’s making Stiles regret his tartness.

“Hey, it’s no problem. That couch pulls out and I”ll just run and get you some sweats. Really, it’s fine.” He holds out his arms. “Come here, man.”

Derek hesitates before stepping into his embrace and Stiles can feel the moment he just gives up and lets himself fall, his head coming to rest on Stiles’s shoulder. “Stiles,” he whispers and trembles.

“Shhh.” Stiles says, running his hand through Derek’s greasy hair. “It’s alright. You’re alright now. I’ve got you. It’s fine. You’re fine.”

It’s a long time before either of them get back to sleep that night.

 

Derek lets out a long breath as he looks down at the corpse laid out on Dr. Naemi’s table. “Yeah,” he says, “that’s him.” He lifts his hand as if he’s going to touch, but then seems to think better of it. Stiles can only imagine what he’s feeling. After all, this man had trapped him in his wolf form for the better part of a year and made a killing off of dog fights he was never going to lose. Fuck. Stiles is slightly nauseated just thinking about it. He doesn’t really know all the details, he doesn’t know if he wants to know the details. Derek hadn’t wanted him in the room when he gave his statement, and even though he can easily access it if he wanted to, and despite his curiosity, he wants to respect Derek’s privacy for as long as possible. Eventually he’ll have to know if they ever want to solve the case, but Stiles is not so sure he wants to solve the case. Why should that man get justice when Derek has never gotten any justice in his life? Let him rot, the fucker.

His name was David Holst, late of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. According to Parrish who had read Derek’s statement, Derek had known him as Davey, just a guy on the construction crew he was working with,out in Pittsburgh. What Davey (and Derek) were doing Pittsburgh is as of yet unclear. (“ I just kind of ended up there,” is all Derek has to say for himself.) Davey seems to have had some contact with hunters, though it does not appear that he was a hunter himself- his cousin married into a big hunting family up in Wisconsin- and presumably that is how he found out about werewolves. How he discovered that Derek is a werewolf, let alone a full-shift werewolf is also as of yet unknown. Derek assumes he must of gotten sloppy and that Davey just got lucky. But it’s also possible that Holst knew about the Hales and was tracking Derek specifically for his cousin’s family. At this point, it is very unlikely they will ever know.

“We good to go?” Stiles nods his thanks at Dr. Naemi and turns to leave the room. The autopsy had been performed (cause of death: gunshot wound to the head), the victim now had an identity and a story and a crime of his own. The corpse was just a body. His responsibilities were to the living now.

“Yeah,” Derek rasps. “Yeah, let’s get out of here.”

They don’t talk about it until they are leaving the station to meet Scott. It’s a lot for Derek’s second day back as a human, but Derek said that he wanted to get things squared away, so here they are.

“I’m surprised the asshole got away with it for so long. You’d think someone would pick up on the fact that he never lost.” Stiles says.

Derek shrugs and turns his face up to the weak, April sun. “We moved around a lot. I’m actually surprised it doesn’t happen more often. If you were a dog fighter, if you found out there were dogs that could instantly heal. I mean, wouldn’t you want to get your hands on one?

“First of all,” Stiles slides into the driver’s seat. “you’re not a dog.” He holds up his hand at Derek’s noise of protest. “Even when you were, you know, all wolfy, you did not look like a dog. You looked like a big-ass wolf. How did that not set off alarm bells? Even illegal sports have regulations.”

Derek shrugs again. “It’s pretty hazy. I remember things when I’m a wolf, I can process them, but it’s just different. It’s more sense memories than anything else. I don’t know how he did it.” He pulls at his seat belt, snapping it sharply against his chest and turns toward the window, closing his eyes. He is quiet the whole way through town, head resting on the glass, fingers clenching and unclenching on his lap. God, it was so much easier when Derek was a wolf, when Stiles could at least try to put a hand on him.

The landscape opens wide as they merge onto the highway. Rosa’s is a bit out of town, a haven for truckers and farmers who own the few bits of surviving agriculture as well as the townsfolk. The abruptness of the change is always disconcerting to Stiles. One second he’s got urban decay all along the train tracks, the next minute it’s all orange and grapefruit trees. It’s enough to give a guy whiplash.

“Sorry,” Derek says finally. “I don’t mean to be-” he stops, trying to find words.

“Terse? Moody?” Stiles supplies.

Derek shows the barest suggestion of a smile. “I was going to say an asshole. But yeah, moody and terse will do.”

Stiles has to look away to keep an eye on the road. “It’s okay. I get it. I mean, I don’t get it, but I get that you don’t really want to talk about it. If I start pushing too much, just let me know and I’ll stop. For what it’s worth though, I’m glad it all came back to him. I’m glad he’s dead.”

Derek looks at him and does not say a thing at all.

 

Rosa’s is relatively quiet this time of day in the gap between the late lunchers and early dinner-goers. Rosa is wiping down the counter with a semi-clean rag and Stiles can hear the clatter of dishes and the water spray and the two line-cooks joking around in Spanish. Otherwise, they’re the only people in the place, and it’s a good thing too, because eventually other customers would have begun to look askance at the sight of two grown men stuck in an extended embrace in the middle of the diner floor. Scott and Derek have been at it for like five minutes and neither of them seem inclined to relinquish their hold on the other.

Finally Scott pulls back and his eyes are bright with tears, but he’s smiling. “Derek. Man, it is so good to have you back.”

Stiles had almost forgotten about this- the deep, werewolf brother bond between Scott and Derek.

“It’s good to be back,” Derek replies, grinning as he looks Scott up and down. “You look good. Power’s a good look on you.” To Stiles’s eyes, Scott hasn’t changed much over the years. Scott is Scott- his crooked grin and goofy smile. It’s deceptive to those who don’t know him. There’s an iron core of uncompromising idealism and kindness at the very heart of him. But Scott at least still looks abashed at the mention of his power. He ducks his head as the three of them slide into one of Rosa’s sticky booths-Scott on one end and Stiles and Derek on the other, their shoulder brushing in the small space.

“Yeah, I guess we’ve done ok. But how are you? What happened? Stiles told me the bare details, but I want to hear it from you.”

Derek shakes his head as he takes his coffee from Rosa and curls his fingers around his mug. “No, I don’t want to talk about that. Tell me about you. About the pack,” he leans forward over the table and everything in him is open and curious and hungry, as if he needs this, some good news. Stiles sits back and listens and tries not to feel usurped.

“See?” Scott says, nudging at Stiles with his foot. “There was nothing to worry about, Stiles.”

Derek glances at him. “You were worried? Why were you worried?”

“Oh, you mean the fact that you were stuck as a wolf and didn’t seemed inclined to get yourself unstuck. I don’t know, why would that worry me? That should have given me zero reason to worry at all.”

“Stiles was afraid something supernatural was chasing you. He was all ready to start going to war. Batten down the hatches and all that.” Scott is entirely too gleeful about this. Stiles kicks him in the shin in retaliation.

“No,” Derek says, “nothing supernatural. Just one human.”

“Who is dead.” Scott supplies.

“Right. And he’s dead. So you don’t have to worry.”

“Yeah. He was shot in the head.” Stiles reminds them. As if he thinks Derek could ever forget that. “Just because it wasn’t supernatural, doesn’t make it any less murder.”

Scott frowns, but then brightens. “You’re on the case, bro. I’m sure you'll get your man.”

Stiles needs new friends.

 

“Wow.” Derek’s mouth hangs open as he peers up at the prime piece of real estate he called home for the better part of a year. The cops have long since stopped trying to even fight the decay, the windows have been broken for years and it looks like someone took a angle grinder to the padlock on the front doors. Even to Stiles’s nose it smells like piss and other bodily substances he doesn’t want to think about. “You were not kidding when you said I was a slumlord.”

“Nope.” Stiles rocks back on his heels. “Landlord of the year, right here, ladies and gentlemen.”

“I left it with a building manager.” Derek shoots back. “I didn’t just abandon it. Jesus Christ, how did this happen?”

“I imagine it had something to do with your inability to reply to emails or answer your phone.” Derek glares at that, so Stiles claps his shoulder and gives him a wry, half-smile. “Not your fault, dude. What happened, happened. What are you going to do now?”

Derek seems dumbfounded, still half in shock “I. I have no idea.”

“Well, no rush.” Stiles flips his keys around his fingers as he heads back to the car. “You can just figure it out later. Let’s go home.”

They stop by the grocery store on the way back and Derek insists on making lasagna for dinner.

“You’ve housed me and fed me for months, it’s the least I can do,” he says.

“Dude,” Stiles protests, “you don’t owe me anything. I wasn’t going to leave you in the station for all that time, and it’s not like you ate me out of house and home. It was no problem. I promise.”

“Stiles,” Derek sighs, throwing a can of tomato sauce into the cart, “just let me do this, ok?”

It’s surprising to Stiles how easily Derek has slipped back into his human self. It’s almost hard to believe that two days ago he was stuck as a wolf who couldn’t open doors on his own. Now he’s awkwardly moving around Stiles’s kitchen obviously trying not to bug Stiles, or overstep his boundaries, but at the same time it’s clear he’s having a goddamn hard time cooking without knowing where anything is. Stiles watches from the couch until it’s no longer funny. When he hears Derek cursing about “the fucking can opener” he hauls himself to his feet and moves to the kitchen to point him in the right direction.

After dinner is awkward. Dinner had been fine, the truly excellent food giving them both something to focus on, but now Stiles doesn’t quite know what to do with himself. The night before Stiles had spent his time re-organizing the office so that Derek would have some space to put his things for the time being, while Derek had borrowed Stiles’s laptop that he could start contacting his bank, his credit-card companies and let them know that he was not, in fact, dead. Tonight’s a Thursday, so Stiles should be out with Stacey and the others, but he hadn’t wanted to leave Derek alone yet. He is now regretting that fact.

“Well,” he says, throwing himself onto the couch, “that was both delicious and nice. What do you want to do now?”

Derek just shrugs, standing in the middle of the living room with a slightly panicked look on his face.

“Movie?” Stiles offers, “TV? They re-vamped Battlestar Galactica for like a third time, and it’s total campy trash. Wanna watch?”

Derek glances down at the foot of the couch, like he’s thinking of just curling up down there like he did just two days before, just sitting while Stiles read or watched tv, or dicked around on the internet. Stiles’s hands spasm in a memory of running his fingers through his thick, soft fur.

“Nah,” Derek says, “I think I’m just going to head to sleep. It’s been a long day.”

“Oh. Yeah, sure. Ok.” Stiles jumps to his feet and they face each other, weirdly formal. “Good night, then.”

Derek almost smiles. “Good night, Stiles. Thank you.” Then he disappears into the office, leaving Stiles standing there alone in his living room for the first time in over a month.

 

The going assumption at the station is that Holst dogs won one too many times and he’d gotten a bullet through his head for his troubles. The problem is that as far as the BHPD knows, there are no dog fighting rings in all of Beacon County. So why was he here with his prize fighter if he wasn’t going to enter him into a fight? Parrish thinks they should start looking at other angles, specifically supernatural ones. He doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that Holst ended up in Derek’s home town. Stiles is not so sure. Beacon County is pretty big and there are miles and miles of woods flanking the town on one side, and an abandoned industrial district on the other. There are plenty of places to hide a dog fight if you wanted to.

“Maybe he was just drawn here,” Parrish says, tapping his pen on the corner of his desk. They’re going over the file one more time. They don’t have much to go on, other than Derek’s terse statement, which Stiles had finally relented and read. The hunting LeBrecs of Wisconsin claimed that they’d never heard of David Holst and were not pleased that one of their own was spreading information about the supernatural world to outsiders. Lucy Holst Lebrec, for her part, claimed that she knows nothing about her cousin’s illegal activities and that she didn’t think she had mentioned any information regarding specific werewolves to him, but that the whole conversation had taken place while she was quite drunk, so she couldn’t be sure. All in all, it’s not much.

Stiles rubs at his eyes. “Yeah, but then why was he shot? That doesn’t exactly scream supernatural. Satomi says she hasn’t heard anything and she generally has a pretty good idea of what’s going on around here. Even Chris says he doesn’t know anything.”

“No, you’re right,” Parrish concedes, “Chris would know. And Deaton would know if his wards were tripped. Hell, Lydia hasn’t felt anything in months. It’s quiet. It’s been quiet. But we have had no evidence of dog fighting or of illegal gambling of any sort. Most of that stuff is done online now. And it just seems like too much of a coincidence that he ended up specifically here with Derek.”

“Maybe it was Derek that was drawing him here.”

“Could be.”

They both stare down at Holst’s headshot. “Still doesn’t tell us why someone killed him, though.”

Parrish closes the file in frustration. He looks tired and pale and like he’s been surviving on nothing but coffee and energy bars, which is exactly what he’s been surviving on. Stiles is fairly certain he doesn’t look much better. Derek’s been throwing him concerned looks. Not that he sees Derek that often, what with the 18 hour days he’s been pulling.

“God, I hate this case,” Stiles slumps in his chair, closing his eyes for just one second.

Parrish grunts in agreement. “Let’s call it a night. His file isn’t going to tell us anything more. Go get some sleep, Stiles.”

It’s close to 1am when he finally gets home. Derek is asleep, or so he assumes, but there’s a note telling him that there’s a plate of food in the fridge for him. Indeed there is a bowl of pasta bolognese waiting for him. Stiles stands in front of the open fridge deliberating whether he’s hungry enough to forgo dropping straight into bed. Hunger wins, though he dozes off for a few seconds while his food nukes, the ding of the microwave startling him awake. This case is breaking him. He wants to solve it and he doesn’t want to solve it. He wants it to be supernatural. Supernatural is familiar. Supernatural means that he has Scott and Lydia and Kira and Liam and Bee and Mason and his partner, Satomi and his Dad and Derek and even Malia if it comes down to it on backup. Supernatural means that there are no dog fighting rings in Beacon Hills. But supernatural is also its own shitshow. You never know what you’re going to get with the supernatural. There’s almost no way to prepare and there’s no method of operation. When you’re dealing with the supernatural you fly by the seat of your pants and you hope for the best. It’s a thrill and it’s the devil he knows- drilled into him throughout high school and some of college until Scott finally managed to reign in the chaos and impose some normalcy on his territory. “We deserve quiet lives,” he had said. But Stiles had never done well with normal.

 

They don’t talk about it, they never talk about it, the fact that Derek doesn’t leave. One day, Stiles says, “you know, if you wanted to get a real bed, instead of sleeping on the couch, I’d be fine with that. I hate that thing anyway,” and Derek says, “Ok.” The next day there is a check made out for half the rent sitting on the kitchen table.

They fall into a routine. Stiles’s alarm goes off at 7. He stumbles into the shower, stumbles out of the shower, grunts at Derek who has, by that time, taken a run, showered, eaten and probably solved the world economic crisis, damn him, downs a cup of black coffee and wakes up. There’s an awkward moment every morning as Stiles is running out the door and Derek is reading the Times on his new laptop where they seem to dance around what to say to each other as Stiles rushes out the door. In the end, they go for a grunt of acknowledgement and a hand wave.

Stiles spends his day at work, catching petty, small-time criminals and smoothing over the bumps in this supernatural haven that he calls home. With no new evidence, they’ve put Derek’s case on the back burner, even if Stiles refuses to let the file leave his desk. Derek does whatever Derek does during the day. Mostly, from what Stiles can tell, he’s been talking with Scott, getting updated on the goings ons that he missed while he was away, and sifting through his family vault, organizing it and getting it back in working order. It’s been a long time since there’s been a Hale in Beacon Hills and the vault has suffered from neglect. Some of the stuff hadn’t been touched since before the fire and with all the shit that went down all those years ago, they didn’t really have the chance to take an inventory. Then, to Stiles’s great delight and shock, Derek comes home and cooks.

Stiles watches as Derek chops some squash into a scarily accurate half inch dice. It’s nice, coming home to this, the sheer domesticity of it is so novel and yet surprisingly comforting and almost familiar. He doesn’t know why it should be familiar. He has no real memories of his mother cooking and his Dad is a terrible cook- they practically lived on frozen dinners and instant mashed potatoes until he was old enough to start teaching himself how to make the basics. And even then he was never a very good cook, just a decent one, so he has no idea why this is so recognizable to him.

Watching Derek work is fascinating, he seems so still, yet so kinetic all at the same time, his body rooted at the counter, his shoulder and forearm flexing, smooth and practiced as the knife rises and falls. It’s something he obviously has a lot of experience with, cooking, dicing. It comes to him naturally, like muscle memory. Derek catches Stiles’s look and smiles down at the cutting board.

“I worked as a line-cook for a while. Back in New York, when I was with Laura.”

Stiles can’t help but raise his eyebrows at that. “Really?”

“Really.”

“Huh. That’s super cool. You should do that here. Open a restaurant or something.”

The squash hits the bottom of the pan with a sizzle. Derek hands Stiles a wooden spoon he didn’t know he owned.

“Here. Stir.”

Stiles stirs.

“It’s bad enough I’m a slumlord, you want me to be a slave driver too?”

“I’m not sure how that follows, dude. I said you should open up a restaurant, not a plantation.”

“Stiles,” Derek sighs, “restaurant work is hard. It’s a lot of hours standing on your feet, moving around in god awful heat and noise.”

“So?” He peers into the pot. The squash seem to be getting a lot browner than maybe it should. “Uh, Derek?” he starts, but Derek is already leaning over, turning down the heat and nudging Stiles away from the stove.

“So, it’s fine for me. I’m a werewolf, and I had the money, I could stand the hours and the heat and hard labor, but it’s no way to make a living.”

“Some people like hard labor.”

“Not for minimum wage, they don’t.”

“So don’t pay minimum wage. Look, you’re looking for something to do. You’re really good at this. You seem to like doing this. You should do it.” Something hisses and splatters and Derek swears a little, but it smells heavenly to Stiles’s nose, like ginger and onion and sugars turning dark and sweet.

“There is almost no way to make it the restaurant business paying more than minimum wage. As it is, most places go under within half a year.” He shakes his head. “I don’t need that in my life. Besides, it was fine for a bit, but I don’t really like cooking like that for so many people. It’s better when it’s just a small group, for people you care about.”

Stiles can’t help but grin at that. He hip checks Derek gently as he reaches up for the glasses in the cabinet above the sink. “I’m glad I’m one of those people you care about enough to feed. I’m getting a pretty good deal here, I think.”

“Yeah, well, you’re doing the dishes,” Derek grumbles, his face flushing, “so don’t think you’re getting this for free.”

The soup tastes like the platonic version of what squash soup should be, but it’s the memory of that flush on Derek’s face that gets Stiles through the pile of dirty dishes.

 

The break in the Holst case comes in late May. Jake Ebbing complains that he has been blocked from entering one of his abandoned factories on the east edge of town. He had been considering turning it into apartments, but when he went to survey the site, which he had not seen in many months, he found that the gates were padlocked and he could not get in. So he called the police.

For the life of him Stiles will never know why it didn’t occur to Mr. Ebbing to mention the smell.

“Jesus Christ,” he gags, stumbling back towards the cruiser. Indeed the factory gate is padlocked shut, but it is the smell, the putrid sickly sweet smell of decomposition that is the true sign that something is truly and terribly wrong here. He gets on the radio and calls for Parrish.

The kennels are like nothing he’s ever witnessed before. There have to be at least 25 dogs crammed into a space not much bigger than the living room of Stiles’s dad’s house, the cages stacked one upon the other. From what he can tell, at least a quarter of the dogs are already dead, and most of the rest are well on their way. There was a general ruckus of barking and snarling when they first entered, but since then the dogs seem to have lost their energy, lying listless in their cages, only stirring when approached. Even then, most of the dogs don’t seem to have much more than a weak, ineffectual snarl in them. They are torn up, wounded, starving and dehydrated. No food. No water.

Parrish is standing in the middle of the room, hands on his hips, his face a mix of horror and fury. Stiles swallows down the bile in his throat and walks over to his boss. “Looks like we found the dogfighting ring.”

Parrish grimaces. “Yup. Really wish you were wrong.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“You should call Scott. Animal Control isn’t going to be able to handle all this on their own.” Parrish says, and Stiles is relieved. In general, he tries to avoid the abandoned factories at the edge of town. They aren’t a good place for him, the damp and the smell of death. He’d been able to push it into the corner of his mind as long as he was focused on his job, but now he can hear Lydia’s tiny frightened gasps, getting louder with every step he takes. His vision narrows, hazy around the edges. This isn’t a good place for him. He stumbles outside and calls Scott.

By the time Scott arrives, Stiles has gotten a handle on both his breathing and his heartbeat, but they ratchet back up when he sees who’s with him. Shit. He should have said something. He should have know that there was a chance Derek would be with Scott given the amount of time they spend together. All he had said to Scott was, “Come to the abandoned factory on fourth.” Fuckity fuck this is a disaster.

Derek takes one step out of Scott’s Honda and his face goes pale. It’s obvious he knows what awaits beyond the gates.

Stiles almost runs to him. Would throw his arms around him, if he could. But all he can do is come to a stop in front of him and put up his arms. “Derek, hey. Don’t.” He stops because he doesn’t know what else to say. Don’t what? Don’t go in? Don’t go back to wherever it is your head is going? Don’t run? He doesn’t know.

“No.” Derek says around a mouthful of teeth, and Stiles genuinely doesn’t know what he’s going to do if Derek decides to go through him. “No, Stiles. Let me through.”

“Derek,” Scott, thank fuck, finally appears seemingly out of nowhere. He wraps an arm around Derek’s shoulder in a suggestion of restraint. “This is police business you know you can’t be in there. Let them do their work.”

“No,” Derek says again, so soft it’s almost a whisper. He still hasn’t moved, but his hands are spasming, blood trickling down where his own claws are digging into his palms. “You don’t understand, I fought them. I need to be there. Please.”

Scott doesn’t roar. He doesn’t flash his Alpha eyes. He puts his gentle hand on the Derek’s nape and looks him in the eye.

“Derek,” he says kindly, “Stiles is going to take you home. I don’t think this place is too good for him either. He’s going to look after you. You’re going to look after each other. Ok?”

Derek nods. His hands fall open and heal. Scott turns and looks Stiles. “You got this, buddy?” he asks. Stiles reaches over and takes Derek’s bloody hand and he’s relieved, he’s relieved to have a reason to not be there. “Yeah,” he says and leads Derek toward the car.

 

Derek doesn’t say a word the whole two hours it takes for Scott to reappear at Stiles’s apartment. He’s almost catatonic, sitting on the couch, his eyes a million miles deep into nothing, flinching when Stiles wipes the blood off his palms. Stiles keeps himself busy, getting updates from Parrish, making tea Derek won’t drink, fixing lunch that he doesn’t eat. It is not so much that he rejects the food as it is that it doesn’t even register on his radar. Derek has retreated from the world. Stiles keeps an eye on him as best he can but he wouldn’t be surprised if he turned around from washing the dishes to find Derek shifted and hiding underneath the desk again.

Stiles is surprised. Derek remains human.

“You look like shit.” Scott is haggard and pale in the doorway and the sight of him stirs a memory in Stiles of seeing Melissa coming home from a double shift with that same tightness around her mouth and sorrow in her eyes and of her arms coming around them both to pull them into a tight, motherly hug. “Oh boys,” she would say, “I feel like death warmed over.” Scott looks like death warmed over.

“Yeah, well, so do you.”

“Fair enough.”

“How’s he doing?” he jerks his head toward Derek, apparently unconcerned by the fact that Derek can hear them.

Stiles sighs. “Not good. He hasn’t moved since we got in. But at least he’s still human, right?” He tries for optimistic. Most likely fails.

Stiles takes a seat next to Derek on the couch, not touching, but close enough that he can feel the heat radiating off him, while Scott settles himself on the coffee table in front of them. Scott lightly taps at Derek’s forearms.

“Derek,” he says. Derek blinks. His eyes focus for the first time in over two hours.

“Yeah.” he whispers hoarsely.

“Are you here with us, Derek?” Stiles can feel the echo of Derek’s shudder all along his own body.

“Yeah.”

“Good. I need to tell you some things. You need to know them.”

“Ok.”

“We found the dogs. You know that, right?”

Derek’s eyes dart toward Stiles and then back again. “Yes. I was there.”

“Good. That’s good.” If you didn’t know Scott like Stiles knows Scott you wouldn’t know that he’s nervous, terrified even, right now. But Stiles can see it. He sees it the way he curls his fingers around Derek’s tightening his grip, the way his Adam’s apple bobs as he swallows, his sharp intake of breath. “Derek, not all of the dogs.” Derek turns his face away and Scott closes his eyes, just briefly, composing himself. “Not all of the dogs, made it. And we’re doing our best, we’re going to try our hardest to take care of the ones that did. But some of them are just too sick. They’re too far gone. Do you understand?” Derek nods, his face still turned away, eyes screwed shut. “I’m sorry.” Scott continues. “We’re doing our best. And we’re going to do everything we can to save the ones we can. Everything. We won’t give up on them. I promise.” He gives Derek’s hands a little shake, emphatic. “Derek.”

Derek lets go. Scott reaches for him again but Derek avoids his touch. “Yes, Scott. I understand.” His voice is flat and dull.

“It’s not your fault, Derek.”

Derek stands. “Thank you for letting me know,” he says, “I’m going to my room now.” And with that he turns, walks down the hallway to his room and shuts the door with a click behind him.

“How much shit can…” Scott’s voice is muffled behind his hands. He scrubs at his face and when he pulls his hands away he looks ancient.

“How bad is it?” Stiles has to know.

“Bad. We’ll be able to save maybe 5 or 6 of them. Maybe a few more, if we get the media involved. They’re in real bad shape and it takes a lot of time and money and space to rehab dogs like that. We just don’t have the resources.” Scott groans as he stands to go. “What a clusterfuck.”

“Yeah,” Stiles stands with him to show him to the door. “Fuck humanity.” Stiles has known werewolves and kitsune, druids and darachs and a few sidhe yet the sheer cruelty that human beings are capable of never ceases to amaze him. So fuck humanity. Fuck the people who did this to those dogs, who used them as weapons for sport and then abandoned them. Fuck the piece of shit who did this to Derek, who made him complicit in their own cruelty against his will. “Fuck them.” He says again, louder, because even though he knows Derek can hear him all the way on the other side of the apartment, he wants him to know that he means it, that there’s a force of will behind his words.

“Yeah.” Scott agrees. “Fuck em all.”

 

Derek is quiet for the next few days, not that he is ever particularly loud. He mostly stays in his room as far as Stiles can tell and Stiles is torn between wanting to draw him out and wanting to give him space. When he does come out of his room, he is pale and distracted, eating only bits and pieces, losing the thread of any conversation Stiles tries to start. Seeing Derek like this gnaws at Stiles’s stomach, but he also remembers this part, the strange fog, a world muffled in a blanket of unreality. So he’s worried and not worried. He would be more concerned if Derek went wolf again, but for the most part it appears that he is just going through the normal stages of trying to process something that cannot really be processed. Stiles has the horrifically depressing thought that this is probably not the first time Derek has shut down like this. He’ll give it a week. If Derek doesn’t show signs of trying to claw his way back by then, then he’ll start to worry. But until then he just tries to remain watchful and present.

Three days later he wakes up to the sound of the shower running. It takes him a moment to register why the steady stream of the shower awakens something so hopeful in him. Derek. Oh. Derek is showering. He’s awake. He’s up. He’s taking care of his own basic hygiene. Stiles shuffles out of bed, grinning maniacally and goes to wait outside the bathroom door.

Derek seems surprised to see him when he comes out, steam wafting around him into the hallway. It is not often that Stiles gets up before 9 on his days off. Stiles responds to his raised eyebrows with a jaunty smile. “Just waiting my turn, dude,” he says as pushes past Derek into the bathroom and makes a grab for his toothbrush. “I’m glad you showered. You were beginning to smell a little ripe there, and I was not looking forward to having to try and get you clean myself. There are limits, my friend.”

Derek blinks, obviously having trouble keeping up with Stiles’s upbeat rambling, but Stiles has an opening here and he’s just going to keep pushing until he blows the whole thing open and Derek is talking and responsive again. He also remembers that shock of laughter, when it would come, how it would bring him back to himself, if only for a moment. What he wouldn’t give to hear that from Derek right now. Even a chuckle, and he’d be happy. A smile.

Derek opens his mouth and then shuts it again. “I.” He seems confused. “You’ve already seen me naked. I think we blew past those limits a while ago.”

“Yeah, well.” Stiles leans around the bathroom door, toothbrush hanging awkwardly out of his mouth. The point is to keep Derek guessing. “Some boundaries need reinforcing,” and he closes the door on Derek’s bewildered face.

 

Derek doesn’t talk about it until he does the next morning at breakfast. Stiles is eating. If he’s going to get up early on a work morning to make sure Derek is putting food in his mouth, he’s damn well going to eat. Derek is pushing his eggs around his plate. “I don’t know what’s worse,” he says finally and it’s the most he’s said in days. Stiles puts down his fork. “That I understood, or that they didn’t. They’re dogs. They have no sense…” he shudders. “But even in that form, I knew. I knew. And I was there in those rings, they reeked of blood and pain and confusion. I’ve killed before, but this, they had no idea. They had no idea.”

“Both.” Stiles answers and he takes Derek’s hands, gently unfurling his fingers so that he can lay his palms over the warm smooth expanse of Derek’s. They’re smooth and soft and bear no trace of his suffering and Stiles wonders, has often wondered, what it must be like to have no physical proof of your own history. Is it better or worse for all your experiences to be locked away under perfect, unblemished skin; for the onus of the unburdening to always be on yourself because you have no scars to share your story? He always thought that Derek was taciturn because he was surly and grumpy and a little unfriendly, but maybe, when you are what he is, every small revelation is a small baring of the soul, a visible vulnerability, a patch of ugly twisted skin. “Both are worse, Derek. It’s not, it’s not a competition here. Evil was done to all of you. And just because you understood, it doesn’t mean you had a choice.”

“There’s always a choice, Stiles.”

“No.” He says firmly. “No, and it’s taken me a long time to realize this, and most days I have trouble believing it, but sometimes you don’t have a choice.”

Derek looks as if you could knock him over with a toothpick, wide-eyed. “You were possessed, Stiles,” he hisses. “Possessed. Of course you had no choice. That wasn’t you.”

“If you believe that about me, then start believing that about yourself.”

There’s an awful scraping sound as Derek pushes his chair back, wrenching himself out Stiles’s grip. His eyes flash yellow, then blue. “Don’t.” He grits out around his fangs, and Stiles will take it. He will take this anger anyday if it means seeing Derek’s furious eyes alive and aware and focused. He hasn’t been afraid of werewolves in a long time. “Don’t you dare patronize me.”

Stiles keeps his gaze and his heartbeat steady. “When have I ever patronized you?” he says and lets the truth settled between them. He stands up. He buckles his holster. He goes to work.

 

Parrish arrests eight men and one woman on charges of animal cruelty and illegal gambling. Eventually one of them confesses to killing Holst. It’s a relief to close the case, but there’s very little joy in the squad room when the charges are made. Bloodlust bred murder. There’s no pride in a case like this, no sense of justice. Derek shrugs when Stiles tells him, but he seems relieved. And Stiles is beginning to realize that Derek’s silence does not indicate a lack of interest, but it is simply an indication that he doesn’t know what to say.

Chapter Text

Everything in Stiles has aligned itself, turned to true north. He comes home now to a house that’s been disturbed- the pillows are not where he left them on the couch, the door to the bathroom is ajar, the green coffee cup is on bookshelf because Derek leaves a trail of coffee cups behind him wherever he goes like a trail of breadcrumbs marking his path around the house; his house is breathing, it’s living, lived-in.

 

Derek is quieter than Stiles remembers him, less prone to cutting remarks. Stiles gets the sense, that up until he found himself stuck in wolf form and used as a game-piece by a psychopath, Derek’s years away from Beacon Hills had been good to him. There’s something in the way he holds himself when he feels safe, or when he’s so engrossed in something he forgets to feel afraid- when he’s tucked away in the armchair by the window reading a book, talking to Scott, or helping Stiles put together the new bookshelf for his room - there’s a looseness to his body Stiles had never seen before. Or maybe he had always been this way, but Stiles, high school Stiles, could never see it, caught up as he was in the chaos and drama. Either way, he finds that he likes this Derek, a lot.

He rejects the notion, that passing thought he had when Derek was wolf that he wants him, has wanted him in his bed. He pushes those thoughts away, but he will at least admit to himself that he wants him to stay. Derek has never given any indication of what he intends to do or if he has any plans for the future in Beacon Hills or anywhere else. Stiles still gets half the rent every month, but he knows that even if Derek stays in town, he’s unlikely to want to keep on rooming with him indefinitely. The man owns a freaking building for God’s sake. It would make no sense for him to continue on this way. And anyway, now that things have settled what’s to say that Derek wasn’t going to leave again? He’d done it before, he could do it again.

 

It’s high summer when Scott finally broaches the issue. He pulls Stiles aside one evening after family dinner at his dad’s house. They’re standing under the overhang of the garage outback to protect themselves from the rain and from prying werewolf ears, the werewolves in question being Derek and Liam who have been tasked with the washing and drying- Melissa McCall-Stillinski is big believer in everyone pulling their weight.

“What?” Stiles snaps, smoothing his t-shirt. Scott didn’t have to literally drag him out here. Scott glances furtively back at the house.

“Do you think Derek is staying?”

It’s a question Stiles has asked himself ten thousand times over the last few months, even though he has continually told himself that it’s not useful. Derek bought a bed. He pays rent. But that’s not really a commitment. He will either stay or go. Stiles can’t control what he does, so there’s no use worrying about it. “He hasn’t left yet, has he?”

Scott rolls his eyes. “I know. But you live with him. You might have a better idea of what he’s planning.”

Stiles scoffs. “I may live with him, but he spends most of his time with you Scotty boy and he actually talks to you about things. If anything you should know better than me what he’s thinking.”

“You guys don’t talk?”

“Of course we talk. But not, like about important stuff. At least not often. Derek isn’t exactly forthright, in case you haven’t noticed.”

“Oh, I’ve noticed. I don’t know what’s going on in his head any more than you do.”

“Obviously, since we’re standing here in the rain, getting wet, discussing an issue that could be easily solved by just asking the dude.”

Scott raises his eyebrows. Ok, fine. Stiles has been less than inclined to ask Derek what his plans are and it doesn’t seem likely that he will feel so inclined in the near future. He kind of hates confrontation and if he can ignore something until it either goes away or comes to ahead, he will totally ignore it. “So what’s this all about?”

Scott looks back at the house yet again. “I want to ask Derek to be my second, but I don’t want to do it unless I know that he’s going to stay.”

Stiles blows out a breath. Being second to the Alpha is a big deal. It’s a commitment. Not only would Derek have to agree to officially join Scott’s pack, he would also take on the responsibility of training new betas and recording pack lore and regulations. If Scott should die, Derek would become the new alpha. It’s a lot to ask of someone, especially Derek. Even if Derek decided to stay, Stiles is not sure whether Derek would want to subsume the Hale name in Scott’s pack. The Hales have a long and storied history in Beacon Hills. It’s possible that Derek would want to rebuild his family pack-get married, have kids, bring Cora back, and so on. Then again, Derek doesn’t have an Alpha, though he could always remain an Omega, or just leave-find greener, less-painful pastures. “I don’t know, man.” Stiles says. “Agreeing to be your second, that’s-that’s big.”

“I know,” Scott agrees. “I’m not sure it’s the right thing to do. He’s been away for so long, but he’s also- I mean, he’s Derek, so I want him around for his own sake. He knows so much, Stiles. He grew up like this. There’s so much he can teach us about how things were, how things should be.”

Despites Satomi, despite Deaton, despite Lydia’s extensive bestiary and despite Stiles’s own training as a mediator between the various supernatural groups that call Beacon Hills their home, the town is lacking a Hale. The Hale pack had helped found the town and their pack lore and traditions evolved and grew with it. It would be a great boon to have access to that history- to know what the town needed and how to deal with its many quirks. It was a beacon after all and the Hales were the lighthouse keepers.

“I think you’re just going to have to ask him.” Stiles says.

“Great.” Scott groans.

“You’re the Alpha.” Stiles slaps his friend on the back, grinning.

“Ugh.”

“Race you back to the house? No powers.”

 

In his dream he’s wrapped in rags again, and he’s more powerful than he ever imagined he could be. It’s been raining in Beacon Hills and he can smell the damp, the wet concrete. It’s a musty, moldy smell that lingers in his nostrils as he drags his body through the streets. He is dragging his own body, his own body that is Allison’s in the logic of dreams and all around he hears this great clanging and whooshing sound. It surrounds him in a great white tube of noise and he can’t move, he can’t make a sound to scream.

Someone is shaking him.

Someone is shaking him and saying his name, incessant and intrusive. He jackknifes off the bed, his face smashing into something hard and bony, teeth first. The force of the hit radiates a sharp and excruciating pain up his nasal cavity into his brain. He’s awake.

“Sorry, sorry,” he gasps, clutching at his dad’s forearms.

“It’s ok. You’re ok,” someone says. Not his dad. Not his childhood bedroom. Derek. “It was just a dream.”

He closes his eyes, opens them. In the dark, he can just register the shape of his dresser in the corner, the armchair, covered in dirty laundry and the dark shadow of the Mondrian print on the wall. Derek. The warm mass of him, his hands still on Stiles’s shoulders. Now that he’s caught his breath, Stiles can tell that he is covered in sweat and tangled and twisted in his sheets. The rags from his dream.

“Nightmare,” he corrects Derek. “It was a nightmare.”

Derek nods and stands. “Nightmare,” he concurs. “I get them too. You ok?”

“Yeah,” Stiles breathes. “Yeah, I’m ok. Thanks. Sorry I woke you.”

“It’s no problem.” Derek says shortly, almost awkwardly. “I’m gonna go get you something to drink.”

Stiles is glad to be alone again to compose himself and wipe at his wet face in private. He doesn’t like Derek seeing him like this. He smooths out the sheets and places his pillows back at the head of the bed. It’s 4 am. It’s not very likely that he will get much more sleep tonight, but he’s learned that if he doesn’t re-make his bed after these nightmares his chances of falling back asleep are virtually null. His therapist says that it’s his way of trying to impose some order on the chaos that’s in his mind. His therapist is probably right.

“Close your eyes,” Derek says from the doorway.

When Stiles opens his eyes, his bedside lamp is on and Derek is standing above him holding a glass of water in one hand and a mug of tea-chamomile by the smell of it- is on the nightstand.

“Thanks,” Stiles croaks, reaching for the water.

“No problem,” Derek says, “I told you, I get them too.” He crosses the room and starts methodically tossing Stiles’s dirty laundry off of his armchair and into the laundry hamper.

“Dude,” Stiles protests, “what are you doing with my laundry.”

Derek doesn’t even pause, he just continues lobbing items of his clothing across the room . “I’m not doing anything with your laundry. I’m clearing off the chair so that I can sit down. Now be quiet and drink your tea.” He folds himself into the chair, stretching his legs out in front of him and laying his hands over his chest, never taking his eyes off Stiles.

“You’re just going to sit there and glare at me until I drink this tea aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“For old times’ sake,” he snarks and Stiles snorts. “Because I want you to drink the tea and go back to sleep.”

Stiles drinks the tea slowly. It’s unsweetened, the way he likes it, and the mild floral flavor of the chamomile is soothing. Derek’s eyes are closed and his breath is slow and even, but Stiles doesn’t think he’s asleep. He places the mug back on the nightstand and turns out the light.

“I’m good,” he tells Derek.

Derek makes a noise at the back of his throat half-way between a groan and a yawn. “I was going to get up in a few hours anyway. If you want me to go, I will, but I might as well stay here. It’ll make me feel better if I stay.”

Stiles doesn’t know what to say to that. His initial embarrassment has faded and there’s something comforting about Derek’s presence just off to the side- there, but not smothering. It’s not an old comfort, his dad, or even the earlier childhood one of his mom smoothing his hair back, kissing his forehead, sitting on his bed until he sleeps. This is a different comfort. Further and closer. Derek is not on his bed, has not soothed him with his hands.

“Ok,” he finds himself saying, and he turns off the light and gets back under the covers. He lays there for a while, eyes open, just breathing. He can’t really see Derek from the position he’s in, but he can hear the rustle of noise he makes as he adjust his position in the chair, can sense from his breathing that he’s awake.

“I’m sorry I woke you,” he says, because he feels like he has to say something. “It’s weird that I was calling out or whatever, because in my dream I couldn’t make any noise. I couldn’t move.”

There’s a long period of silence and he thinks that maybe he was mistaken and that Derek has fallen asleep, but then Derek says, “You weren’t calling out. It was your heartbeat that woke me.”

Stiles raises himself up onto his elbow in surprise.“You can hear my heartbeat in your sleep?”

“No, I heard the change in your heart rate. I thought you were under attack.”

“Oh. Well, I wasn’t.”

“I know. Do you want to talk about it, or do you want to sleep?

“Sleep.” Stiles decides. The dream still comes to him in flashes when he closes his eyes, but the overall feeling of terror and dread is gone. He turns onto his stomach and sleeps.

 

Derek puts on a good show, but he is not so recovered as Stiles had thought him to be immediately after he regained his human form. He still wary around people he doesn’t know, prone to flinching in the supermarket and at the sound of the rattle of a chain-link fence. Some days he goes quiet and curled in on himself. Some nights he is barely human, pacing a figure eight in the moon-lit living room, an echo of growl in his throat.

On his nightmare nights, Stiles gets out of bed and makes tea, the same tea Derek made for him. He doesn’t try to calm Derek, he knows this need, this compulsion. He knows what it’s like when your skin is too small for the terror in your heart. He goes into the kitchen, puts the kettle on the hob, pulls out two mugs and waits. Derek’s tea gets cold waiting. That’s ok. He knows it’s there and that’s the important part.

 

Stiles has had a shit day. He’d been trying to facilitate the introduction of a pooka into the town, and the local kelpies, whom he had worked very hard to pacify three years prior, were not pleased. But Cathal’s father was an old friend of Deaton, was looking for a safe place to settle. and was exactly the type of supernatural creature they were trying to draw to Beacon Hills- stable, non-violent, and invested in keeping the territory safe and secret. Stiles wasn’t going to let some testy kelpies undermine that. On the human side, vandals had struck a row of stores on Main and it wasn’t really a big deal, nothing more than a bunch of teenagers, but one of the shopkeepers had kicked up a fuss and was threatening to sue and it was all just a bit too much for one day. He comes home on the edge of a migraine and throws himself on the couch.

“Rough day, huh?”

He opens his eyes blurrily. He can just make out Derek standing above him. The apartment is dark and his head still feels like there’s a drill bit shoved up behind his eyeballs. He groans and turns his head to face the back of the couch, which is mistake because holy mother does it hurt.

“Shhh.”

There’s a large, warm hand settling on his temple, smoothing back his hair and just pulling away the pain, like the tide going out. It’s such a relief Stiles could cry. It’s such a relief that he does cry. He can see the black tendrils of his migraine pulsing up Derek’s forearm. “Stop,” he pushes at Derek ineffectually. “Stop,” he says again, “if you keep on doing that, I’m going to throw out all my painkillers and then what will I do when you leave? You’ll turn me into a werewolf pain-sucky addict. I’ll go into withdrawal. It will be terrible.”

Derek laughs and rubs his thumb over the bridge of Stiles’s nose. “It’s a good thing I’m not leaving then.”

“Enabler,” Stiles grumbles and he wants to say more, but it’s he’s on werewolf morphine, heavy all over. He slips back into sleep. It’s only when he gets up the next morning that he realizes the implications of what Derek had said.

“Dude!” he rushes into the kitchen in his pajama bottoms. Derek looks up from his coffee and raises an eyebrow. “Dude, you accepted Scott’s offer?”

“Yes, two days ago” he says, and how is he so calm? This is huge. Huge.

“So you’re staying?”

“Yes, Stiles, I’m staying. I was always staying,” there’s an edge of impatience to Derek’s voice as if he’s tired of explaining this to Stiles again. Not that he ever explained it to Stiles. “That was never the issue. It was more a question of whether I wanted to join Scott’s pack. I just. I needed some time to think about it,” he rubs at his shoulder. “But, I um, I think this is what my mother would want. So I’m going to do it.”

Stiles doesn’t know how to ask him if it’s what he wants too.

 

“Was it a problem for you having me here in wolf form?” Derek asks over dinner one evening. He’s become busier now that he’s accepted Scott’s offer but they still somehow make it a point of having dinner together at least once a week. Derek says he enjoys getting the chance to cook. Stiles enjoys the chance to eat Derek’s food. Stiles looks up from his salad. That was months ago. Now Derek’s asking about it? “With your landlord, I mean.” Derek clarifies.

“No,” Stiles hedges, still unsure exactly what’s going on here. “My landlord didn’t know.”

“Good.” Derek clears his throat. “Good. I’m glad.”

“What’s this about? It’s been ages. Why are you worrying about this now?”

“I’m not worried. I just wanted to make sure that your building allows pets.”

Oh, God. “Yeah, it allows pets. Billy and Mo have a cat. I feed her sometimes. Yaz has one of those little yappy rat dogs.” He puts down his fork. “Derek, please tell me you did not adopt a pet.”

“No, I did not adopt a pet.” He pauses “At least not yet?”

“Oh, God” Stiles groans, dropping his head on to the table. When he raises his head, Derek is pushing food around his plate, and his face is full of hopeful yearning. “If it’s a problem I can start looking for another place now.”

Derek pays rent and it’s not as if Stiles didn’t enjoy having an animal in the house for the short time that he did. Not that Derek is an animal.

“It’s one of the fighting dogs, isn’t it?”

Derek nods. “Yeah. One of the pits. Scott said she’s just about ready to be homed, but a lot of people are afraid to have a former fighter in the house, so it’s doubtful she’ll get adopted. She’s a good dog,” he says, emphatic.

Stiles is a little afraid to adopt a former fighter, to be honest. Two damaged souls is just about as much as their apartment can handle. “Is she socialized?”

“No. I’m asking you if I can bring a dangerous, killing machine into the apartment I share with you.” Derek rolls his eyes hard enough to threaten his eyebrows. “Of course she’s socialized and vaccinated and trained. It’s a common misconception about fighting dogs, pit bulls in particular, that they’re too dangerous to be pets-”

“Fine.” Stiles cuts him off.

“What?” Derek blinks, obviously not expecting Stiles to give in quite so easily.

“I said fine. I already live with one dangerous killing machine. What’s one more?”

Derek throws a slice of bread at his face.

 

Lilly (after the Sargent painting, not Harry Potter, Stiles) is a medium sized, tan and white pit bull, with chewed off ears and scars on her muzzle. She is three years old, stupider than a box of crayons (stop insulting her, Stiles) and the light of Derek’s life. She lives for joy. Everything is exciting. Walks, her toys, dinner, Derek, Stiles, Stiles’s dad, the Newton’s cradle pendulum that Stiles received as a prize for winning the science fair in 9th grade, everything sends her into a fit of ecstasy. It’s hard to imagine her in a ring pitted against other dogs, going for the kill and it turns his stomach, thinking of it. For all his bitching, and he loves to bitch, he’s glad she survived and he’s glad she’s theirs, because having her around has changed something.

Derek is happier- as if seeing Lilly’s joy has allowed him to access his own joy, that self he was outside of Beacon Hills, unburdened by his history and responsibilities here. Stiles hears him talking on the phone with Cora in Spanish sometimes and he does not understand what Derek is saying, but his tone is light and teasing. He didn’t talk like that before Lilly came. Stiles is also beginning to suspect that sometimes, when he’s not there, Derek shifts into his wolf form and chases Lilly around the house. He’s never seen it, but the black fur he occasionally finds on the couch suggests that there has been more than one furred creature breaking the rules by lounging on the furniture when he is not around. "Carnation, Lilly, Lilly, Rose," he hears Derek sing to her. It makes his heart feel soft.

Stiles is happier too. Nowadays he wakes up to Lilly’s grinning mug and he grumbles and whines about dog breath, tugging at the Raggedy Ann doll that she drools all over and pushing her muzzle out of his face as he trips out of bed. She follows him to the bathroom. She follows him to the kitchen. On his days off she sits at his feet while he drinks his coffee and dicks around on the internet. How could he not be happier?

Lilly has also become somewhat of a pack mascot. She’s the star of Scott’s weekly summer barbeques- a new tradition that had started as a welcome back party for Derek and morphed into lazy Sunday afternoon potlucks that stretch well into the evening. Lilly loves them. She loves being the center of attention. She gallops from person to person, basking in the love, handing out slobbering kisses to anyone who will get near enough for her to reach.

“She reminds me of Kira,” Scott says, wistful over a bottle of beer one of those long, lazy afternoons. Kira is in Miami for the week on a business trip and Scott is obviously missing her.

“Did you- did you just call your wife a bitch, Scott?” Occasionally Stiles still has to remind his very best friend that he is not as dumb as he sometimes sounds.

“No!” He splutters. “I just meant, her energy. All that love and enthusiasm. It’s a good thing, I promise.”

Stiles laughs. He’s watching an elaborate three-way game of take-away unfold between Parrish, Lilly and his Dad. Lydia and Derek are off to the side, probably discussing some old documents Derek found in the vault that need to be added to the expanded bestiary, but it’s rapidly looking like they’re about to get pulled into the game as well. Liam and Bee are off somewhere, avoiding dishes duty. Satomi came and went. Even Kira’s parents had stopped by despite their daughter’s absence. The low light of dusk brightens the colors and the noise. Derek laughs at something Stiles’s Dad says, his head thrown back with it. It’s a solid and sure sound, matching the bearing of his body, turned away from Stiles even as Stiles stares at the relaxed set of his shoulders. Stiles takes a sip of his own beer. Yeah, she’s a good thing.

 

It’s the same path, but this time Derek is with him and they take it at stroll. There’s no need to run. They have time. Lilly trots ahead of them, turning her head every once in awhile as if to check that they are still there. Occasionally she’ll circle back to wind her way between their legs and then take off again up the path. The pines are dark and pungent with summer. If Stiles listens hard enough, if he tunes out the sound of the creek they’ll soon be crossing, and the far-off crows and the rustle of the breeze in the tree-tops, Stiles can hear their friends back in the clearing. Their happiness is loud; his feels much quieter.

“What did you want to talk about?” he settles on one of the large rocks overlooking the water. Derek sets himself down next to him.

“Nothing much,” Derek frowns down at the stick in his hand, turning it over a couple of times before throwing it in the direction of the stream. Lilly goes bounding after it into the water. “It was just a little bit too loud for me out there. I thought it might be nice to have some quiet.”

Stiles can do quiet. “Alright.”

They watch Lilly cavort, water spraying in all directions as she jumps and barks, snapping at the dragonflies, pawing at the river rocks in curiosity. Finally, Derek says, “I think I know what I’m going to do now. Besides work with Scott, I mean.”

“Really?” Stiles can’t help but be surprised. He hadn’t known that Derek was planning on doing anything else at all.

“Yeah. I think I’m going to revamp the loft building and turn it into a shelter for dogs like Lilly. I’m almost done sorting through the vault, and most of what I do for Scott comes down to being a glorified watchdog, but it’s been really quiet here, so,” he shrugs. “I’ve got the time and the money. I might as well do something with it.”

Stiles leans back so he can see Derek’s face more clearly. “That’s a great idea.” It’s a terrible idea. Later, he will suggest to Derek that maybe he should see about buying his family land back from the city and using that space as a shelter. There’s plenty of room for dogs to run around out there and almost no neighbors to complain. Later, he’ll remind him about zoning laws and noise complaints and that it would be more financially lucrative for him to refurbish the building and start renting it out. Gentrification has to start somewhere. Just because he’s doing something good for the world doesn’t mean he should bleed money. The rent would cover the shelter costs. But now, Derek’s face is shadowed and mottled in the shade and so painfully earnest that Stiles can’t bring himself to say those things.

“Great,” he says again, “I’m glad you found something you want to do. I mean I still think you shouldn’t rule out a restaurant. As someone who has been eating your food for months now, I really do think you would be doing a public service. But I suppose an animal shelter will suffice in lieu.”

Derek laughs. “I’ll take that under advisement.”

Stiles clears his throat, berating himself for just not getting it all out and saying it. If he doesn’t talk about it now he never will. “To be honest, I’m pretty surprised you stuck around. This place hasn’t exactly been kind to you.”

“Stiles,” Derek says, “you keep on saying stuff like that. But why would I leave? Where would I go?” As if hadn’t been gone for years and years

“I don’t know, you’d go to Cora. Or Malia. They’re your family.”

“Yeah, but Beacon Hills is my home. Why would I leave when I spent all this time trying to get back? I always meant to come back.”

Stiles is shocked, but Derek seems completely sincere, his eyes trained on Stiles’s face.

“You were trying to get back here?”

“Yes. Yes, Stiles.” He takes Stiles’s hands in his. “Always. I was always trying to get back here. It was always the plan. When he first trapped me, when I could still think, it was the only thing I could think about. I just kept on thinking that if I could get to Scott, to Lydia, to you somehow, I would be ok. You would save me. I just needed to get to you somehow. I don’t know, maybe Parrish is right, maybe I was drawing Holst here.” He gives a sharp whistle and Lilly comes bounding out of the creek, spraying water in every direction, to come settle at Derek’s feet.

“This is my place,” Derek continues, “this is where my family is buried. We’re in the very roots of this town. Maybe I needed it, so it drew me in, and brought me back- so you could find me. So you could save me. You always save me.”

“Derek-” Stiles says, he doesn’t know what else to say.

“Please believe me, Stiles.”

“I believe you. Jesus, I believe you, Derek. I just didn’t know. How could I know? You always disappear without saying anything. You never say anything, so what was I supposed to think?”

“I dream about this place sometimes,” Derek answers without answering. “Not about my family. Not about before. It’s not a recurring nightmare, just a dream. Even when I was away. Especially when I was away. It’s always the light coming through the trees in the preserve, the buzzing insects, the chattering birds, or that turn just off of Highway 5, where everything goes flat and you can see the whole damn town spread out in front of you. We used to go on these long car trips in the summer when we were kids and even back then, we would come around that curve and I would know that we were safe. I’m always so homesick in those dreams. This place is mapped on my soul. It’s in my genes. Where else could I be when there’s still someone to come back to?”

“Derek-” Stiles says again, overwhelmed. The force of Derek’s gaze is like a physical thing.

“And what about you, huh? Why did you stay? You could be with any police force in the country, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, if you wanted to stay in California, but you’re still here in your home town, doing grunt work when you should be running the place. And it’s not as if this town has been very good to you either. It hasn’t been good to any of us. How much have lost here? How much trauma have we seen here? All of us- me, you, Scott, Lydia, even Kira. Why are you still here, Stiles?”

Because it’s his home. Because he owes these people. Because he loves them. Because where else would he be?

“Where else would I be?”

“Exactly”

“Stiles,” Derek squeezes his hands, “I’m not saying that you should leave, or that what you do here isn’t important. It’s important. You’re important. But you’re always second guessing, you’re always attributing emotions to me because you think that’s what I’m feeling. But I want to be here with you. I choose to be here. And I’m glad it was you who came to get me. I’m glad.Thank you.”

Stiles gives a little laugh. It’s a little sad and a little bitter and a lot rueful. “You’re welcome. It’s not as if I did much. And you know, it was good to feel useful again.”

In high school and after, everything had been so big- life and death, literally. It’s been so long since he’s felt that way. And then Derek had appeared, and he’d thought, here where we go again. But maybe Derek’s right. Maybe Scott and Lydia had been right. There had been nothing for him to do. There’s nothing but the quiet contentment of coming home to someone else, the worn down ritual of their movements around each other; and they’re not worn down yet, not by a long shot, if anything there’s a frisson of excitement and discovery, but they will be. Stiles can see it. One day, this silence between them won’t be this great unknowable bright thing. One day, it will simply be a porch light left on at the end of a night shift- a gesture of love and care and knowing.

He gets a little thrill from Derek’s fingers tightening on his own, warm and sturdy.

There’s so much Stiles wants to tell Derek. He wants to tell him how easy it is living with him; how much better his life has been since he got back. He wants to tell him how much he values him, how much he hates it that he seems to think so little of his own life. He wants to tell him that he’s sorry he left and he’s sorry if they made him feel like he didn’t have a place here in his home, his family’s home. He wants Derek to know that he’s done good things, he’s made the world better. Even at his worst, he made it better. He gave those powerless kids power and he loved them. That’s the truth of who he is.

Hard lives make most people cruel. Stiles has seen it, continues to see it every day in his line of work. Sometimes he thinks that his own life has made him cruel. He has a few select people in his life whom he cares about beyond limits. He will, and has, done anything for them; guards them with a ferocity that is sometimes scary even to himself. But if you’re not on that list, to be honest, Stiles really doesn’t fucking care. His priorities begin and end with his people.

There are a select few people, though, who hardship has made endlessly kind, as if their own suffering has given them an endless capacity for empathy; has opened their arms to the world. Stiles thinks that perhaps Derek is one of those people. It’s funny to think in these terms now, because years ago, when this whole thing started, if anyone had told him that he would think of Derek Hale as kind, he would have laughed in their face. Derek was gruff and terrifying and dangerous and a goddamn pain in the ass. But now, with the advantage of hindsight, he understands that Derek was terrified. He was terrified and grieving and fighting for his life and didn’t have the luxury of justifying his actions to a bunch of annoying teenagers. Living with Derek he can see it. After all, most people wouldn’t take in an abused dog with a history of violence. Most people wouldn’t slip money into mailboxes, wouldn’t stop to buy a homeless man a burger. There are very few people, save Derek and his dad, who would deal with Mrs. Cunningham’s sharp tongue. But Derek does these things and more without expectation of reward or acknowledgement. He knows. He’s seen it.

As if he knows what he’s thinking, Derek leans over and kisses him- just a dry, quick, press of his lips, the heat of him, then he’s gone, sitting back up, and it is so unfair that Derek can just smell it on him, whatever he’s feeling and Stiles has no way, no way of knowing-

Derek kisses him again, harder this time, his fingers cradling his face, and Stiles can only relent, can only put his answering hands on Derek’s broad shoulders as if to hold him down. “Stop it,” Derek says finally, “wherever you just went in your head, stop it. Believe me.”

“Ok,” Stiles says and he tucks his head under Derek’s chin. Lilly settles with a sigh between them, raising her muzzle to lick at Derek’s face.

“Dog breath,” Derek mutters, pushing her away, but his voice is full of gentle affection and suddenly Stiles knows exactly how Derek will sound years from now talking to his children-talking to their children, maybe-and it is the most joyful thought he has ever had.

“Lydia once told me that she didn’t want to rule the world, she wanted to be happy.”

Stiles remembers the day now, not Lydia, the day in the clearing, so clearly, how it was just the cusp of spring and you could almost smell the earth turning over and the green things pushing their way into being. The world smells a little like that just now. He wonders what it smells like to Derek.

“I think I’m ready,” he tells Derek. “I think I’m ready to be happy now.”

“Yeah. Okay.” Derek says and his fingers tighten and clench around Stiles’s and they’re like an anchor. “Okay.”