Stiles has learned to be open to new experiences and wacky ideas, so when he catches himself daydreaming about armloads of zucchini and whether he has what it takes to grow a giant pumpkin instead of concentrating on writing his essay on Zora Neale Hurston, he goes with it.
He attends a couple of university extension classes on weekends—sustainable agriculture and organic practices, gardening for dummies—and has afternoon tea with Phyllis, a master gardener with crooked, arthritic fingers who knows more about plants than everything Stiles knows about anything put together.
He talks to his dad about it at Christmas, and when he comes back home again for spring break, the whole backyard is dug up, beautiful dark soil in place of their ratty lawn. There's a pile of stakes and netting for him to use as a fence off to one side and the results of a home soil-testing kit and a permit to sell at the Beacon Hills Farmers' Market sitting on his desk. His dad is the best. ("You're not growing anything illegal," he says darkly, and Stiles says, "Dad, no, come on, just wholesome, delicious veggies, all you can eat," and Stiles can see the exact moment his dad realizes maybe he hasn't thought this all the way through.)
Between classes and homework and Friday night Skype calls with Scott, Stiles reads endless blog posts about farming and planting and growing (and about chickens, maybe he should think about getting chickens, except then he thinks about the kinds of things that run around in Beacon Hills after dark and thinks better of it), pores over seed catalogs, gets what he needs to start seedlings in his dorm room to take back home with him in May, argues with his roommate about how much prime real estate they take up while he gets them situated just right in front of their only window. Just in case they need a spark, he concentrates, believes, really hard when he pushes each seed down into its little cup, and when the first new-green sprouts push up out of the soil and reach toward the sun, it does feel like magic.
The first time he really gets his hands in the earth, dirt jammed so deep under his fingernails he's never going to be able to scrub it out, back aching, frantic brain quiet for once, he knows it is.
It's when Stiles is out in the garden after midnight—headlamp strapped to his forehead, picking hungry little beetles and caterpillars off of his plants one by one, because Phyllis swore it was the best way to get them all—that Derek shows up. Of course he does. He says, "Hey, Stiles," and Stiles startles, and Derek is just lucky he doesn't get a face full of bug guts. Derek wrinkles his nose in evident distaste, and it cracks Stiles up, because come on, really? They've seen so much worse. Stiles switches off the lamp, which is making Derek's eyes do that nighttime reflective thing, and then it's just the two of them standing together in the dark. It feels familiar and strangely comfortable, and Stiles thinks maybe he missed Derek.
On a whim, he emails Deaton—and how the man can come across as so calm and inscrutable even over email is a mystery—about healing herbs, and he ends up with a patch of peppermint and lemon balm and thyme and rosemary that doesn't take long to grow wild and unruly.
Derek comes back, and not just when Stiles is doing his midnight bug raids to protect his growing babies. When he catches Stiles weeding one afternoon, Derek strips down to his t-shirt and gets right on his knees in the damp soil and helps. He turns out to have a nose, literally, for weeds, unerringly sniffing out what needs to be yanked, even though he professes to know nothing at all about gardening.
As usual, the weirdest thing about Beacon Hills is Derek Hale, even if Beacon Hills is actually a whole lot less weird than it was while Stiles was in high school. Even his dad says that things have gotten back to typical cop stuff instead of freaky mountain-lions-and-serial-killers stuff—definitely quieter than when Stiles was 16 and learning about werewolves and hunters. It turns out that it's a lot easier to stay under the radar if you aren't growing your very own werewolf pack in a small town. The werewolflings were remarkably well adjusted by the time they graduated, anyway, and they're all doing scarily normal upwardly-mobile summer things like internships and co-op programs. Lydia's working on some kind of potentially world-changing equation. According to Scott, Peter got bored and left for greener pastures (and Stiles hopes it's not actual pastures, full of fluffy, unsuspecting sheep).
Scott's around, or he was—Stiles saw him a couple of times the first week he was back, but he's spending most of the next two months on some kind of hopped-up Outward Bound survival trip with Allison and her dad, which sounds frankly terrifying to Stiles, on so many levels. He gets "still alive" texts from Scott every few days, presumably when he surfaces somewhere that gets more than zero bars. Stiles will take ordinary Beacon Hills survival, thank you very much.
Which just leaves Derek. Stiles wonders what Derek does, now that he's not avenging his family or hunting alphas or trying to raise a pack. He wonders if he's lonely.
His dad's amazingly okay with the whole thing—from finding radishes and cauliflower and enormous heads of lettuce heaped on the kitchen counter (well, maybe he gripes a little about all the cauliflower in his diet) to finding Derek in his backyard more often than not. Maybe he's just grateful that every time he gets off a shift, Stiles is in the garden instead of invading his crime scenes or missing in action. When Derek's there, too, he just claps them both on the shoulder and squeezes and asks what's for dinner.
Stiles pulls a carrot out of the ground, brushes off the worst of the dirt and grit with his fingers and then scrubs it against his pants leg for good measure, chomps off the end and grins and holds it out to Derek triumphantly.
Derek rolls his eyes, but he takes the bite Stiles is offering him, a crisp, clean crunch with his big white teeth that's loud in the quiet of the garden.
"Bunnicula," Stiles mutters, and Derek only pauses for a second before he says, "He was a vampire."
While Stiles is busy gaping with his mouth hanging open, Derek smirks and says, "What, you think our parents didn't read us books about supernatural bunnies?"
Stiles shoves him, takes another bite and tastes sun and sweetness and perfect, cool carroty goodness. "Is that not the best carrot you've ever had in your entire life??" he crows, and even though all Derek does is chew and nod and say, "'s good," weird pride still wells up in Stiles's chest, because he's pretty sure Derek means it. He grew that. It's the best damned carrot Stiles has ever tasted, and he made that.
It's still dark out when Stiles gets up for his first market day.
He'd done some reconnaissance, of course, staked out the competition, checked out prices, judged the rainbow of their chard and the adorableness of their hand-written signs. Stiles isn't sure he really fits the farmers' market profile—it's all young rural-hipster-chic families, guys with beards and hand-knit caps with pretty, earth-mother wives and round-cheeked toddlers; older women, one who sells olive oil soaps, another who sells goat cheese; and Mrs. Weaver, who grows roses and who has to be at least his dad's age and who seems a little too interested in getting her hands all over Stiles's produce, among other things. But Stiles has eggplants and green beans burning a hole in his metaphorical pocket, so it's a little late to be worrying about all that now. Game time, Stilinski.
By the time he gets home a million hours later (give or take), he's bone-deep, noodle-limbed exhausted. He's spilling out of the driver's seat and wondering whether he can manage to unload everything before he crashes when Derek materializes and starts taking out crates two at a time.
"How'd it go?" he asks, and he actually seems interested, so Stiles props himself up against the side of the Jeep and tells him about the haggling customers and the old ladies who wanted to pinch his cheeks and how amazing it felt to have people giving him real money for this thing he's been putting his heart and soul into for months.
"You could have stopped by, you know," he says, finally, and Derek just shrugs. Maybe the farmers' market, with all the people and the dogs and babies and the guy who plays the ukulele mostly badly, isn't exactly Derek's natural habitat, but he's here now, and he's looking at Stiles so fondly, so indulgently, that Stiles sways close and kisses him.
Derek doesn't kiss him back like he's surprised; Derek kisses him back like he's been waiting, groans quietly and opens his mouth and lets Stiles lean against him and lick his way in.
"You're getting sunburned," Derek says, drawing his finger across the bare nape of Stiles's neck, and Stiles feels the shivery prickle of it all the way down his spine. "Farmer tan, oh great, just what I always wanted," he says when he can think again. It's still new and overwhelming, Derek all up in his space, teasing him and touching him with intent. "Hey, can werewolves even get sunburns?"
"Not really," Derek says, sounding like he's not even paying attention, and when Stiles turns toward him, he pounces, tackling Stiles to the ground and rolling them over until Stiles is spread out on top of him.
"Watch the herbs!" Stiles yelps, but Derek just nuzzles at his temple. "Animal. No, come on, Deaton said they're for healing and stuff"—Derek snickers—"wait, are you serious, was he just messing with me? Aw, man, I knew it!"
"They might be good if you have a stomachache. Maybe. And they're fine," Derek says, getting his hands up under Stiles's shirt so he can splay his palms against Stiles's back, warm and grounding.
Stiles leans down, rubs his nose against Derek's neck and takes a deep breath. Underneath the fresh bittersweet tang of the crushed peppermint and thyme, Derek smells like earth and roots and green, growing things—the opposite of fire and smoke and ash. "You smell like the garden," Stiles tells him. "So do you," Derek answers, and just like that, something snaps into place in Stiles's brain—something about why Derek might be spending so much time in Stiles's garden, about how this is Stiles's territory, the first place that's ever really been just his, because he built it with his own two hands and invited Derek in. Something about finally finding a place to belong.
"Derek, why are you here?" Derek just hums in response, which might have something to do with the way that Stiles has his fingers buried in Derek's hair, now, scratching lightly. "I mean, believe me, I am really, really glad you're here, especially here here. Really glad. But when everyone left, why did you stay in Beacon Hills?"
"Your dad's here, I knew you'd be back," Derek says, eyes half-closed, and then he blinks and focuses, looks sharply at Stiles, like maybe he was distracted when he said it—like maybe he didn't mean to say that to Stiles at all—but Stiles just grabs him and holds on tight and kisses the dark sweep of his eyebrow, kisses the scruffy hinge of his jaw, kisses his hot mouth, again and again.
"I'll be in town for fall break, which isn't that far off, but you know this place will go all feral and Little Shop of Horrors if someone doesn't weed and water it, and there's so much still growing, it'd be a shame for it to go to waste, and I could really use the money, even though I'd totally split it with you, obviously—" Stiles is rambling, he knows he's rambling, but he can't seem to stop himself, and Derek's just standing there at the edge of the garden watching him, hands stuffed in his pockets, late afternoon sun lighting him up from behind and making it hard for Stiles to really see the look on his face.
"Sure," Derek says, shrugging with the tiniest shift of his shoulders, like it's that easy, like it'll be perfectly normal for Derek freaking Hale to spend the fall hawking squash and counting out change and dodging handsy Mrs. Weaver. Without Stiles.
Stiles stares back at him so long that he forgets what he's even doing, until he feels the damp starting to seep through his jeans where he's kneeling on the ground.
"What's that?" Derek finally comes closer, hands still in his pockets. He tilts his chin at Stiles's handful of papery bulbs.
"Oh," Stiles says. "Um, it's garlic. Yeah, you plant it in the fall, and it's sort of dormant underground in the dark all winter, and then in the spring you get leaves and these green curly scapes that shoot up, and you can eat those, and then later in the summer, you can harvest the whole garlic—"
"So you'll be back."
"I'll be back! Yes! Of course I'll be back."
"Okay," Derek says. "I'll be here." It sounds like a promise—but it's not, Stiles realizes, what he wants.
"I'm thinking about looking for an off-campus apartment when I get back to school," he blurts, his heart thumping hard enough that he can feel the pulse fluttering in his throat. "Maybe someplace I could do some container gardening . . . someplace that would be mine."
"Okay," Derek says again, serious even though there's something like a smile on his face. He nods, more to himself than to Stiles, reaches to take the garlic cloves out of Stiles's cupped palm and fits their fingers together instead. "Okay. Good."