“Oh my god,” Stiles says, the first time Derek takes off his shirt. “Wow. Can I—” his hand hovers over Derek’s chest for a moment, close enough that Derek can feel the heat of it.
“That’s kind of the idea, right?” he says, like he hasn’t thought about it, gone back and forth over it in his mind, whether it’s creepy and fucked up to get involved with Stiles or kind of okay, maybe. The rest of his life is so creepy and fucked up it’s hard to get a clear picture about whether it’s truly wrong to make out with Stiles, to seek him out when he needs help, to like the curve of his mouth, his impulsive, reflexive kindness, the gangling shape of his body that’s slowly resolving into something newly adult, narrow and tall, a body that he’s grown used to having at his back, that can swing a crowbar, fire a gun, make Derek lose what little resolve he has.
“Yeah,” Stiles says. He smiles at Derek, lopsided, running two fingers shiveringly down the center of Derek’s chest. They’re at Derek’s place, the apartment he rented when he decided he should at least pretend to be normal; they’re in Derek’s bed in case Stiles decides he wants to leave.
Derek lies back on the pillows, tugs at Stiles’ wrist until Stiles follows him down. “Okay?” he says.
“Mm-hm,” Stiles says, not paying attention, sliding down easily on top of him, lowering his mouth to Derek’s. They make out for a little while, Derek’s hands looped over Stiles’ waist. He wants Stiles to take his shirt off but he doesn’t ask. He rolls them sideways so their legs tangle, so Stiles’ hips line up, restless, against his, so he can kiss along Stiles’ jaw and listen to his heart.
“You ever—done that?” Derek says after. He slides up on an elbow to get a better look at Stiles’ face in the half-shadow of the lamp on his bedside table. He hadn’t thought to ask before.
“Oh—no, not really,” Stiles says. He’s smiling, staring up at Derek. After a moment he says, “wow, you’re handsome.”
“Thanks,” Derek says. “Thank you.”
Stiles will be eighteen in two months and going to college in five and Derek knows what happens then—Stiles will realize the full extent of his options in the world, all the people who are kinder and smarter, easier, people who’ve never hit him or hurt him, never held a living thing down and snapped its neck.
Derek has responsibilities, an ugly past, enemies, nightmares. He’s unemployed, he didn’t even graduate from high school, he doesn’t have much to offer someone like Stiles in the long run; it’s a little temporary screwing around, it’s meaningless, it’s nothing, Derek tells himself, forcing himself to ignore the wolf, the slobbering, eager, tail-wagging jackass, who spent three full moons digging out a burrow in the forest ten feet past the Stilinski property line, who can pick out the grumble of the Jeep’s engine in any amount of traffic. The wolf wants him to shut up and let Stiles touch him, wrap one cool hand over the nape of his neck.
Stiles kissed him first.
They’d all hammered out an uneasy truce by then, hunters and wolves and—Stiles, who was neither, but who held the whole thing together in the center, somehow, and Derek was glad for it, all the time he had to run in the woods and roll in the leaves and forget, forget.
That was how he started to notice; there were dead animals, little ones, chipmunks and field mice and frogs and the tiny darting lizards that he used to catch when he was a kid, pouncing—fragile things with short life-spans, but too many of them dead. Laura always used to tease him about the things he’d eat as a wolf, rats and grubs and rotting compost, week-old roadkill, congealed half-eaten pizza from the trash cans behind the Papa John’s, stale bags of Fritos left in hunting blinds, but the wolf wouldn’t go near any of dead he found up in the hills. It was unsettling.
The others felt it too; they spent a week of shivering nights in the woods, looking, watching, finding nothing. Stiles kissed him on a Tuesday—bit his lower lip hard, stumbling in against him, catching Derek’s face in icy hands and then jerking back out of his arms when he heard the others coming.
“Sorry,” he said, toneless, watching Scott and Boyd lope up over the hill.
“That’s okay,” Derek said, as quietly as he could. He’d been seventeen once.
He thought about it a little after, just idly: Stiles’ mouth, the roaring trip of his pulse, what it might be like to fuck him, thought about Stiles railing at him, saying, faster, jerkwad, harder, I want it harder, don’t stop.
They’re not friends, but they’ve spent a lot of time together, inevitably; Stiles is the most vulnerable and Derek is the strongest and since Stiles won’t just stay safely at home, Derek says pointedly, for what feels like the hundredth time—
“Come on, we all know Stiles is your favorite,” Scott says,
“Shut up,” Stiles says, very low, cutting. Scott frowns at him in confusion and Stiles shakes his head, meets Derek’s eyes, looks away—his cheeks color up a little, in shame or anger. Scott can be a pain in the ass, but there’s not an unkind bone in his body; he wouldn’t have said anything if he knew.
“I was just—” Scott mumbles.
“Trouble in paradise?” Erica says, lifting an eyebrow.
“Can we get this over with?” Stiles says, flattening the map they’ve spread on the hood of the car, pulling his pen cap off with his teeth and drawing out their search routes in slashing, decisive strokes.
Derek watches them. Scott’s hanging on the periphery, uncommitted, the way he’ll always be with Derek’s pack, but Stiles is edged in between Erica and Boyd, leaning across and grabbing Isaac’s wrist to angle the flashlight he’s holding down onto the map.
“I’m here for Scott,” Stiles said, one of the first awful meetings they had after the Alpha pack came, all of them jittery, useless, spoiling for a fight. If it was ever true, it’s not anymore.
Peter’s dead. It should have made things easier, but it doesn’t. He died in his sleep, almost a year after he came back, just at the point when Derek was getting used to having him around, the constant, stupid needling, the all-wrong smell of him.
Peter had an apartment, an ID, a car, a neighbor who called the cops when his recycling bins stayed tumbled in the wrong corner for too many days. The medical examiner is very kind. Congestive heart failure, he tells Derek. He didn’t suffer.
“Okay,” Derek says mechanically, and then realizes, as he always does, that he’s said something weird and off-putting. The medical examiner nods, unperturbed, and points him back to the front office.
“I’m sorry, are we sad?” Jackson asks, back at Derek’s apartment. Isaac and Erica and Boyd are sprawled on the couch, a heavy pocket of silence. “He was already dead. He tried to eat Lydia. And he was a complete asshole—”
“Dude,” Scott says.
“I’m sorry about your uncle,” Jackson says, to Derek. He goes out to his car and reappears with a fruit basket. “I got you this. It’s a fruit basket.”
“I think he knows what a fruit basket is,” Stiles says. He’s sitting on Derek’s kitchen table, shoulder to shoulder with Scott. “What’d he really die of?” he says
“Natural causes,” Derek says. “I guess.”
“Because that makes sense,” Stiles mutters. He picks an apple out of the fruit basket and takes a bite.
“What do you think happened, then?” Derek says.
“I don’t know,” Stiles says, around his apple. “It’s a delightful recurring theme.”
Stiles’ dad is working Thanksgiving; he and Derek spend it in the woods.
“Don’t you—shouldn’t you be at Scott’s?” Derek says, when Stiles knocks on his door at eight o’clock in the morning hefting a collection box and says, “Wanna go find some dead animals to ship to a lab?”
Stiles shrugs. “He’s at Allison’s. It’s not exactly an environment in which I feel like giving thanks.”
They walk the loop where it’s been the worst—the rocky edge of the pond, a long, narrow field of scrub grass and weeds and wild flowers, the lake, a steep eroding hill, tall trees with exposed roots, starting to die. They take soil and water samples, pack up little dead bodies. Stiles doesn’t talk much, except to dig through the spiral-bound manual that came with the test kit and read out the relevant pages about good sample collection technique.
“Everything okay at—uh—home?” Derek says, finally.
“What?” Stiles says blankly, and then huffs out a laugh. “Why don’t you ask what you really want to know,” he says, yanking his backpack up off the ground. “Is it pathetic to be lonely because my best friend got back with his crazyass girlfriend? Is my dad drinking too much, is it shitty on Thanksgiving because my mom’s dead? What do you think, Einstein?”
“I didn’t—” Derek says, caught off-guard. “I wasn’t,” he says. Stiles has been so quiet lately. “It’s none of my business,” he says.
“Let’s just finish,” Stiles says.
They walk back to their cars in silence; it’s too steep for Stiles, who almost slips a few times on the uneven ground. Derek has to grab him to steady him, one hand tight on his shoulder.
“Thanks,” Stiles says, the third time. “I—sorry,” he sighs, still walking. “I just. Sometimes it seems like a long time until I can get out of here.”
“Yeah,” Derek says.
“And I’m not going to kiss you again, you can, um, stop worrying about that,” Stiles adds.
“I wasn’t,” Derek says. He didn’t even think Stiles liked him much; it hadn’t occurred to him to worry that Stiles might do it again.
“It was stupid. I was having a really bad week,” Stiles says. He’s looking straight ahead, walking quickly. “And you were—you’re really. hot.”
“Oh,” Derek says. “That.”
Derek waits while Stiles straps the kit down in the back of the Jeep. It’s barely past three, but dusk is already creeping out of the shadows and it’s still, very cold.
“Are you—” he says, and stops himself. Stiles has shot up two or three inches in as many months, tall enough that Derek has to look up to meet his eyes, and he’s gaunt around the edges, his wrists sticking out of his shirts, his jaw too sharp. If Stiles belonged to him—if he were Erica or Isaac or Boyd or—Jackson, even, Derek would take him to a diner and make him eat something, get him a turkey sandwich, a big wedge of pumpkin pie, ice cream on the side.
“Hm?” Stiles says.
“Nothing,” Derek says.
The Alpha pack played with them—left little teasing clues that they always figured out too late, tore apart anyone from the town stupid enough to go out into the woods, killed enough of Argent’s guys to put Derek back at square one with him, always a step or two ahead. He didn’t find them until they wanted him to, and then they gutted him, cut him to ribbons and left him for dead. They meant to kill him, he thinks. It took a long time to heal, lying on the forest floor, staring at the silvered patch of sky he could see beyond the trees. By the time he dragged himself out of the forest, still aching and scarred, the Alphas were gone. Derek rented an apartment. He learned to make meatballs. He went to the movies with Boyd and showed Erica this thing Laura used to do to her hair with orange juice cans and went along with Jackson to practice jumping out of trees and helped Isaac capture some feral kittens living in a dumpster for spaying. At first he’d been in kind of a hurry, knowing they’d come back, but it was a long, quiet summer, the woods cool and black against the heat.
The Beacon County Courthouse burned down in 1957, the Beacon County Bugle shut down in 2008 and donated all their back issues to Beacon County Community College; according to BCCC they’re in storage off-site and being retrieved per Derek’s interlibrary loan request so please stop calling, they’ll notify him when they come in. Beacon Hills Library had funding cuts; all microfiche records prior to 1982 were improperly archived and have degraded to the point where they’re unreadable, the Hospital retains patient files for ten years and then they’re shredded and sent to a local pulp and paper plans in accordance with Beacon County Recycles, an ongoing green initiative approved by voters, and the basement of the Beacon County Nature Conservancy Trust Headquarters flooded in 1990, destroying all their records.
The rare books library at Beacon College—formerly Beacon Divinity School, established 1827—is closed to the public, but Derek writes letter after letter, about the genealogy project he’s working on, about Beacon College’s unique collection of mortuary records and forestry surveys and how he knows that the archive relies on generous private donations, and finally manages to set up an appointment on a Saturday in late January.
He asks Stiles to come with him because Stiles is the only person he knows who actually seems to bother to do schoolwork. He’s never even seen Scott crack a book and still isn’t sure how he managed to make it to senior year. Boyd dropped out the day he turned and Jackson and Isaac and Erica do the bare minimum to get by. Lydia seems to know everything already, without having to work at it. Stiles works, though—Stiles did a take-home French midterm in the middle of a meteor shower that was supposed to raise the dead.
“Seriously, man?” Scott said, from the backseat.
“Look, in the event that we all don’t get murdered in the next 45 minutes to an hour, which is a distinct possibility, I need to write a 750 word essay on Le Petit Prince, so— shut up, unless you know French for ‘what a bunch of bullshit.’”
It’s a couple hour drive to the library. They leave early, Stiles meeting Derek around the corner from his house, slumping into the passenger seat, hood up, eyes sleepy. Derek wonders what he told his dad, but doesn’t ask. He perks up a little when Derek goes through a drive-through for coffee and egg sandwiches, and then fixes it when the librarian takes one startled look at Derek, drops her coffee, and Derek’s hand snaps out, catching it reflexively.
“Derek’s letting me tag along for my civics class community project requirement,” Stiles says loudly, elbowing his way around Derek, mouthing “really?” at him. “It’s pretty cool, is this where the library has always been? How do you get to be a librarian? What’s the Dewey Decimal system?” He deftly removes the cup from Derek’s hand as he passes and tucks it back into her hand.
“Smooth,” he says, when they’re safely locked up in the archive room. “Would it kill you to smile?”
“I caught her coffee.”
“And look at what you’re wearing,” Stiles says, pulling the first manila folder towards him and opening it carefully, a cloud of dust kicking up from the yellowed newspaper clippings.
“These are my clothes,” Derek says, looking down at himself. He’s wearing a shirt and a clean sweater and jeans, just like Stiles, but Stiles’ mouth quirks into an unwilling smile.
“Yeah, you really look like a harmless genealogy researcher, too. Man, you scare people, the way you look.”
“I’m not trying to,” Derek says.
“I know you can be—charming or whatever,” Stiles says. “Maybe try that.”
“I caught her coffee—”
“Yes, with your freaky inhuman reflexes,” Stiles says, the tips of his fingers tightening into claws for a moment. “Just let it fall next time,” he says, and then, “Hey, 1881, suspicious drowning death down by the old mill pond.”
It’s dark by the time they leave, dusting snow, their breath curling in white clouds in the parking lot; they’re quiet in the car, silent under the weight of a century of deaths, stabbings, gunshot wounds that went septic, betrayed brothers, lost babies, electrocutions and hangings, people who wasted away or went away to an institution and never came back, all those unhappy people, dead and forgotten.
Stiles tips his head against the window, closes his eyes.
“It’s easier,” he says finally. “It’s easier when things are dangerous and crazy and awful. You can’t think about it much, you just have to get through it, one way or another.”
“I know,” Derek says.
“It’s—. when it’s quiet,” Stiles says. “You start to.” He swallows heavily, says nothing, turns his face away. Telephone poles tick by. “Beth,” Stiles says. “I didn’t even know her. She loaned me a number two pencil for the SAT last fall, she—” died, a bad fall, a broken neck, months ago, an accident that he and Scott and Erica took two weeks to chase down to soul eaters, three more deaths before they ran them off.
“Her mom called her Bethy,” Derek says. He’d had to call her parents up, pretending to be a reporter. Just hearing her mom’s voice through the phone, her bewildered sadness, made a cold, prickling sweat crawl up his back. It doesn’t seem to bother the others as much, but then Stiles already knows something about death; how it just stays around not getting much better, that grief is dull and repetitive, a fuzzy background murmur that can fishhook you without warning, rip you apart at the edges, years on.
“I feel pretty terrible, sort of—a lot,” Stiles admits, voice low. “I don’t know how to—” it’s a question, but he won’t ask it.
“Usually sex works,” Derek says.
The first year, he hadn’t—they’d been running and running, Derek terrified and ashamed and sad every moment he was awake—and by the time he’d taken notice of much of anything, they’d been in a long, narrow linoleum-floored walk-up in a Brooklyn. Laura was working nights; Derek was seventeen, but it was safer for him to be nineteen or twenty. People wanted to fuck him. He did, said yes every time.
Stiles laughs, a wry little chuckle. “For you, I bet,” he says. Then, “I wouldn’t know.”
“Wanna find out?”
“Jeez, do I ever,” Stiles says, almost absently, and then, “wait, was that—uh. Really?”
Derek shrugs. “It’s quiet now, like you said.”
“But. I’m not going to be eighteen until spring?” Stiles says.
“Happy Birthday,” Derek says, staring at the snowflakes sifting through the headlights. There’s almost no traffic, a football game on somewhere probably.
“I don’t know,” Stiles says, doubtfully.
“No pressure,” Derek says.
“Hey, I didn’t say no,” Stiles says. “I definitely—” he’s looking at Derek now, sharp and alert. “I am definitely not saying no. I’m gonna go ahead and say yes, actually. If that’s cool.”
“Okay,” Derek says. “Anytime.”
But Stiles doesn’t take him up on it. That’s probably—that’s good, Derek thinks. Stiles says stupid stuff all the time, but he almost never actually does anything stupid, which is more than he can say for anyone else he knows. Boyd breaks his leg three weekends in a row, running in the woods, which Derek only finds out about afterwards.
“You should have said something,” Derek says, watching Boyd haul himself to his feet, test the new-knitted bone with a careful step.
“Like what, I’m a clumsy asshole who heals in ten minutes, so who cares?” Boyd says.
“It didn’t occur to you that it’s weird, getting hurt so much?”
“Uh, no,” Boyd says.
“Well, it is,” Derek snaps. He was ten before he got more than a scraped elbow or knee or a nip that healed in seconds, and then only because he jumped off the porch roof on a dare and landed wrong, snapped his wrist.
“It’s no big deal,” Boyd says.
“Fine,” Derek says. “But tell me, next time.”
Derek remembers—Laura next to him on the porch and her quick, shocked breath when he actually jumped, the awful sound of his bones breaking and mending together, that he cried, that it had ached the next day and his mom had let him stay home from school, lying on the couch and watching tv and eating soup.
Boyd’s been shot and poisoned and slashed from neck to knee, and Erica’s been cut and stabbed, been tied up and tortured, and Isaac—there’s nothing that can happen to Isaac that can be worse than what his father did to him. Derek told them that if they took the bite, they’d never get sick or be hurt, not really, ever again, but hadn’t quite realized that to them, it’s meant that they’re always hurt, that it doesn’t matter.
Stiles comes by with the test results, sour and stewing over something.
“There was nothing,” he says, pulling an envelope of his backpack and handing over a sheaf of papers. “Slightly elevated levels of polychlorinated dioxins consistent with paper plant runoff, nothing out of the ordinary.”
“Crap,” Derek says. He hadn’t expected anything to come of it, not really, but the test kit had been somehow reassuring, all those little bodies and bits of sludge and grass and water, slides and droppers, test tubes, color-coded labels. Stiles’ plans were generally reliable. The papers are very thin, a stack of staticky onion skins and they crease and rustle in his hands.
“Yeah,” Stiles says.
“Got any other ideas?” Derek says. Stiles shakes his head. He’s crumpled into one of the mismatched chairs at Derek’s kitchen table; he smells tired.
“Do you think it’s selfish,” he says, “To try to—go to college somewhere else?”
“Who told you that?” Derek says.
“No one,” Stiles says, in a way that means Scott.
“Look out for yourself,” Derek says, shrugging. “No one else is.”
Stiles nods, but doesn’t say anything. Derek flips through the papers again, as though it’ll make a difference. When he looks up, Stiles is staring at his mouth.
“There’s something going on with the—” Derek says. His cheeks feel hot. He refolds the test results, putting them back in the envelope, fumbling a little, “Isaac says there’s something going on with the spiders in the forest, they’re—”
“big, yeah,” Stiles says. “I got the e-mail.”
“You want to go out and check it out?” Derek says.
“Not really,” Stiles says. His voice is very steady. “Do you?”
“No,” Derek says and leans in and kisses him. It’s hot and sweet, Stiles lifting up to meet him, catching Derek’s shoulders in his hands, hauling himself up and letting Derek take his weight. Derek leans back against the kitchen table and Stiles presses in closer still. Stiles’ mouth is so, so, soft, irresistibly warm—he doesn’t know what he’s doing, he nudges his nose against Derek’s awkwardly a few times, there’s an uncomfortable spearminty spot on the edge of his tongue, it doesn’t matter. Derek puts a careful hand on the small of his back. Beneath his palm he can feel the thundering rush of Stiles’ blood, the visceral hum of his body. Stiles’ breath catches. He sighs into Derek’s mouth, his knee slides between Derek’s legs, and all of Derek’s anger and exhaustion crumble to dust.
“I think,” Derek says, when he has to pull back and take a breath. “we should, uh—” there’s a rapidly darkening hickey just beneath Stiles’ ear that Derek doesn’t remember giving him and his eyes are half-lidded, glinting. “Um,” Derek says.
“Do you want to—” Stiles says. Derek lost his virginity twenty minutes after the first time he kissed a girl; that didn’t turn out so great.
“Make out,” he says firmly. “I think we should—just. We should make out.”
“All right,” Stiles says. He sounds reluctant.
“You’ll like it,” Derek says. He puts his hands on Stiles and walks him back a step or two, past the edge of the linoleum that separates the kitchen from the carpeted living room.
“That does seem,” Stiles says, as Derek leans in to mouth at the hollow of his throat, eases him down on the couch, “likely.”
Afterwards, Stiles is quiet, tipped into the corner of the couch, loose-limbed, missing a shoe. “That was—you’re a good kisser,” he says. “Not that I have—uh, much of a basis for comparison—”
“Thanks,” Derek says, cutting him off. His lips feel bruised. He wants to pull Stiles back down on top of him, feel Stiles’ weight press his shoulders into the couch cushions, and is hit with a vivid sense-memory of shoving Stiles up against a locker, a door, of hitting Stiles—not hard enough to hurt him, really, but harder than he knew he was allowed to hit anyone human, how Stiles felt under his hands, the stubborn anger on his face, the kicked-up rabbit-fear stink of him. There’s no way out but to go forward. “You too,” Derek says.
He falls asleep after Stiles leaves, curled on the couch, listening to Stiles’ heartbeat go down the hallway, the stairs, through the lobby, across the parking lot, drive away.
The spiders are big, very big, bigger than they looked in the pictures and they move more quickly than they should. They cluster and skitter on the forest floor, iridescent.
“Oh holy fucking—what the fuck,” Erica says, swinging around on Derek. “You never said anything about big spiders.”
“Yeah, I’m gonna go,” Boyd says, taking a careful step sideways. “I should go.”
“They’re just spiders,” Derek says.
“I don’t like bugs,” Boyd says, “and I don’t like that.” He points at Isaac, who’s letting them crawl on him. There are spiders creeping up over his shoulders and up his neck, perched on his ears and the top of his head.
“Dude,” Scott says.
“They’re in pain,” Isaac says. “They’re sad.”
“Gross,” Erica breathes out.
“Look, I’m not happy about this either,” Stiles says. “It’s a long story involving the outhouses at Cub Scout camp which I’d really prefer not to get into or ever think about again, and also spiders are invertebrates, so—”
“So?” Isaac says.
“So invertebrates don’t have an amygdala or a cerebral cortex and can’t feel pain or have an emotional response,” Lydia says tartly.
“Why are you here?” Derek says, so he doesn’t have to look at the dark tendrils extending down Isaac’s forehead and arms.
“Stiles said I should come,” Lydia says. A spider crawls over the pointed toe of her boots and she arches an eyebrow and ignores it.
“Why?” Derek says.
“Oh, sorry,” Stiles says, “Has the Nobel committee here already solved the giant fucking spider problem? I thought we could use a little help.”
“Who says it’s a problem?” Derek says.
“I do,” Stiles says.
“Me too,” Boyd says, arms crossed stiffly in front of him.
“Maybe it’s global warming,” Scott says.
“Climate change—” Lydia starts, but Derek stops paying attention, watching a single spider walk aimlessly up the trunk of a tree and then back down.
“Hey,” Stiles says, when they’ve all given up and walked back to their cars.
“What?” Derek says, turning, digging in his pocket for his keys.
“Um—” Stiles is silent for long enough that Derek looks up, watches Stiles hitch his backpack up on his shoulders. “I thought—I was wondering if you wanted to go back to your place.”
“Okay,” Derek says. He turns to get into his car and Stiles says,
“It’s fine if you don’t—if it was a one time thing, I get it, I—”
“I said okay,” Derek says. It’s a small thing, a favor, something to make Stiles look less frayed at the edges. “You don’t have to ask. Just come over, if you want to come over.”
“I, um,” Stiles looks away, squints at the forest. “I wasn’t sure if you had other plans.”
“Come over whenever you want,” Derek says.
Stiles comes over after dinner sometimes, once or twice on weekend mornings when his dad is working, but mostly after school, in the gathering late afternoon winter dark, until it’s another thing Derek does: runs the borders with Boyd and Erica and tussles with Isaac, kills a nest of vampires with Scott and Jackson and tells Erica again that he doesn’t care how slutty she dresses, that she doesn’t have to wear any pants at all as far as he’s concerned, and kisses Stiles, in his bed and sprawled out on his couch; in Stiles’ little bed, rolling sideways, knocking elbows against the wall; once or twice, awkwardly, in their cars. It’s a bad winter; the forest is a mess of icy slush and half-rotting frozen leaves, but Derek hardly notices, learning all the ways Stiles likes to be kissed. They tussle a little, too; it’s not anything like the puppy roughhousing he’s used to. Stiles is human and Derek is very, very careful with him.
“This place is way less of a dump than it used to be,” Jackson says, when he comes by. He’s not around much, but he checks in occasionally, comes over and shows Derek all the college brochures for the places that are recruiting him.
“I’m not asking for permission,” he says, watching Derek shuffle through them. They all look the same to him, glossy and unreal, people wearing sweaters. Jackson’s excited about it, being wanted so much; it makes him almost pleasant to be around.
“Okay,” Derek says.
“Are there any professional athletes who are werewolves?” Jackson says.
“How would I know?” Derek says, but that’s not fair. Jackson works hard at controlling the change; he’s methodical, determined. He’ll be ready. “Shaq, maybe,” Derek says, a peace offering.
He and Kate had fucked in an equipment shed the first time, the second, and then she said there was an apartment they could use, that she’d borrowed the keys from her realtor cousin. It was empty, grimy, no electricity, a trickle of icy water in the shower when Derek needed to clean up after. Kate said she had roommates so they couldn’t be at her place until he was older, out of high school, that it wouldn’t be that long, that if he loved her he’d—. Derek always met her at the apartment because she said it was too dangerous for her to give him a ride; she’d been careful about getting his scent anywhere on anything she owned. She was late all the time, but he always waited for her.
“I thought we were all going to run,” Erica says, when they meet up at his place after the moon. “What happened to you?”
“All of you were together,” Derek says. He would never have left any of them alone. “I had some—I had to take care of some stuff, I knew you were safe.”
“What stuff?” Erica says brightly.
“Nothing,” Derek says.
The alpha change is different. Derek loses his human side more quickly and more thoroughly than he’s used to, and his memories of the full moon are different too—jumbled and vivid, difficult to follow, dreamlike. In this particular case, however, he’s uncomfortably certain that he spent most of the full moon digging through the dumpsters out behind the high school to find and happily eat half a ham sandwich, an apple core, a ho-ho wrapper, and a five page history exam that Stiles had thrown away at some point in the last week.
It’s not just kissing.
Derek is content with kissing, with the jagged, luminous orgasms he has when he beats off later, revved up still from Stiles’ hands on him, but Stiles wants more. The first time they screw around in Stiles’ room, Stiles thumbs open the button on Derek’s jeans and jerks him off. Derek doesn’t stop him. Stiles’ eyes are wild and intent, flickering between Derek’s face and his cock, and he smell like come after. Stiles’ hands are big, with surprisingly delicate knuckles, and Derek licks at the skin between his thumb and forefinger and then sucks on his fingers, two and three at a time, slides down to his knees between Stiles’ thighs and sucks him off.
“Sorry,” Stiles says after. “That was probably, uh—kind of fast.”
“That doesn’t matter,” Derek says.
“Can I do that with—can I blow you sometime?” Stiles says.
“Sure,” Derek says, ignoring the way his throat tightens thinking about it, if he’ll choke Stiles or shove him or push his head down, if he’ll be able to control himself with Stiles’ mouth on him. He’ll have to.
He runs into Melissa McCall at the gas station; she’s filling her tank on the opposite side of the island, staring at him, so Derek gives her a short, polite nod and the next thing he knows she’s next to him, holding a squeegee.
“I wanted to thank you,” she says.
“Oh,” Derek says.
“For—his grades are up, he’s going to college, he’s happy,” she says. “I didn’t know that was going to be a—an option, anymore.”
Derek shrugs. “It’s nothing I did,” he says.
“Oh,” she says. There’s a long silence. Derek stares at the numbers ticking by on the gas pump. “Well,” she says, finally. “Whatever you did or didn’t do, it’s been a nice winter and they’re all having a nice normal senior year, and that’s what they deserve, after—everything.”
“Yeah,” Derek says. There are marks on Stiles’ thighs right now, on his stomach, on the crease of his elbow, places he can cover up. Derek tries not to leave marks, but—.
“Have a great weekend,” she says, tossing the squeegee back into the bin, stepping across the island.
“Okay,” Derek says.
“You mind if I stick around?” Stiles says once. He’s heavy-eyed, soft-mouthed, naked to the waist, lying on the crumpled bedclothes, the new sheets and thick red blanket Derek bought because the thought of kissing Stiles on his bare mattress made him feel twitchy, worried. “I have a lot of homework and this is a—it’s hard to work at home sometimes,” Stiles says.
“That’s fine,” Derek says. Stiles stays all afternoon, hunched industriously at the kitchen table, silent for longer than Derek has ever seen him. Derek does laundry—there aren’t enough machines in the dingy shared laundry room in the basement, but it’s quieter weekday afternoons. He makes the bed and folds the laundry on the couch, paging slowly through a chapter in one of the books from the house about insects and the occult. It’s boring and more technical than Derek is really able to follow; he doesn’t turn up anything useful. Stiles is on the phone when he walks in with the last load of laundry, his back to Derek, his shoulders twisted up, angry.
“I told you I was busy,” he’s saying. “I have things to do, it’s not—” he exhales, looks up and sees Derek. “I said I’m busy,” he says again. “I have to go.” He hangs up, tossing his phone into his bag, looking tired. Derek doesn’t ask. He carries the basket over to the couch.
“Scott,” Stiles says.
“He doesn’t know?” Derek says. He pulls a towel off the top of the basket and starts folding.
“You think I should tell him,” Stiles says.
“It’s not a secret,” Derek says. “I wouldn’t—ask you to keep a secret like that.”
“It’s not about that,” Stiles says. “I don’t have to tell him everything, especially if he’s just going to turn around and tell—” he stops talking. The muscles in his jaw jump and tighten.
“Are you still angry about Allison?” Derek says carefully.
“Am I still—” Stiles shakes his head. “Aren’t you?” he says. It’s been a year and Derek’s had other things on his mind; Allison’s kept out of their way, she never actually killed anyone.
“I killed her mom,” Derek says. “It’s complicated—”
“You didn’t kill her mom,” Stiles says. “Don’t be stupid.”
“Okay, fine, but her mom died—”
“So fucking what,” Stiles says explosively. “That doesn’t give you any special rights, last I checked.”
Derek folds a t-shirt, a dishtowel, matches up a pair of socks. Stiles picks one of the shirts out of the laundry basket and folds it all wrong. Derek’s mom taught him how to do laundry; maybe Stiles’ mom never had the time.
“You want to fuck around?” Derek says.
“Yeah,” Stiles says, voice low. Derek watches the throb of Stiles’ pulse; he’s going to rough him up a little, press him up against the wall and take him apart.
“Come here,” he says.
The wolf thinks it’s forever, but Derek knows better.
He’s seen the college applications that Stiles minimizes, quickly, when Derek comes in through his window, as though he thinks Derek doesn’t understand; Stiles is going places—Boston or Chicago or Chapel Hill or New York or Pennsylvania—and Derek isn’t going anywhere at all.
He has six months at the outside, probably more like three, of Stiles turning up at his place, falling asleep on Derek’s bed curled into his pillows, sitting at his kitchen table eating pancakes Derek makes from a boxed mix, all the things Derek tells himself are more than enough until Stiles throws the textbook he’s reading on his bedroom floor, rolls over and looks up at him and says,
“You know I’m not joking around, man, take me to bed or lose me forever.”
His voice is light, but Derek hears the heavy note of truth in it; Stiles is tired of waiting. Derek bookmarks his page and stands. Stiles’ eyes drop in resignation, then widen as Derek takes the two steps to the bed, puts a hand on his chest and pushes him down, climbs up on top of him and kisses him hard.
“Holy shit, really?” Stiles says, when Derek lifts up. His eyes narrow. “You aren’t just going to give me a handjob again, right?” he says. “Not that—uh. Your handjobs are great, but I—”
“You can fuck me,” Derek says. Stiles gapes at him, but recovers quickly.
“I—okay,” he says, “but I was sort of,” his voice trails off. He licks his lips. “Not that I don’t want to but, I’ve been—thinking about—” he’s pink, his throat, his cheeks, and Derek takes pity on him and says,
“the other way, right?”
Stiles nods. His pupils are dilated already, black and wide, amber-edged.
“Fine,” Derek says.
“Fine,” Stiles repeats, his smile dimming. “Do you not—want to?” he says slowly. What Derek wants is to make it good for Stiles, his first time. He wants a do-over, he wants to have a first time that doesn’t make him sick with rage and regret. He wants Stiles to be glad he did it.
“Never mind,” Stiles says briskly. He turns his face sideways and starts to squirm out from underneath Derek, talking, talking, not saying much of anything, “I have to—I’m pretty busy with the—I kind of forgot I need to—”
“Wait,” Derek says. Stiles ignores him, so Derek pulls him down by the waist, runs a hand up and pins one of Stiles’ wrists above his head, not hard. “I want to,” Derek says. Stiles looks at him, frowning. Derek takes a breath, tightens his hand around Stiles’ wrist, thinks about it, Stiles on his belly, neck bared, knees sliding apart on the mattress, sucking on Derek’s fingers while they fuck, Stiles on top of him, grinding down onto Derek’s cock, holding him by the throat, taking, taking what he wants. “I want to,” Derek says. “I’ve wanted—” and Stiles must hear the truth of it, because his face opens up into a teasing grin,
“All right,” he says. “I mean if you’re sure you’re ready for the ride of a lifetime—”
“I’m sure,” Derek says. He thinks, maybe he can have this one thing, Stiles laughing and pulling him in for a kiss. It’s only for a little while.
He tries to go slowly, but it gets blurry after a while, kissing Stiles, pulling his clothes off, his cock in Derek’s hands and then his mouth, the sound he makes in his throat the first time Derek presses his thumb inside him. By the time Stiles is kneeling naked above him, leaning heavily against the arm Derek has wrapped tightly around his waist, just the head of Derek’s cock inside him, Derek is so wound up he’s shaking with the effort of holding back. Even the tip of his dick rubbing along the crease of Stiles’ ass in a condom felt so good that he’s shudderingly close to coming, to dumping Stiles on his back in the blankets and pushing inside.
Stiles kisses him, the corner of his mouth, his cheek, eases down a little more, forehead creased in concentration. Derek touches the small of his back, the soft curve of his ass, rubs a palm up his thigh, trying not to move.
“It’s okay?” Stiles says. His eyes are wide and bright, mouth flushed red from kissing.
“Yeah, it’s—you feel good,” Derek says, swallowing. The hot clutch of Stiles’ body, his breath against Derek’s cheek, his hands on Derek’s shoulders, fingers digging in, he can’t—
“Easy, Killer,” Stiles says, steady, soft, and Derek stops being afraid.
They screw their way through the condoms that Derek bought for Erica but chickened out of giving her, the ones Stiles produces from somewhere,
“These better not have been under the seats in your car for years or something,” Derek says, inspecting them for an expiration date.
“They weren’t,” Stiles says. He’s sprawled out on the bed, naked, his cock dark and wet from where Derek was sucking on it as he put his fingers inside Stiles, “I mean, what are you—do we even need to use these?”
“Yes,” Derek says, ripping the thing open and smoothing it down over Stiles’ cock, going slow, and then kneeling up, cupping his hands carefully over the fragile span of Stiles’ ribs to ease down, take him in in one long shaky breath, watching Stiles’ face, the way the long muscles of his arms and chest tighten and release, the jump of the pulse in his throat.
“You should be—” He gulps in a breath; Stiles smells hot and distracted, isn’t paying any attention. “Don’t be stupid,” Derek tells him anyhow.
“Yup, safe sex, got it,” Stiles says. His voice slips lower when they’re fucking, hoarse and quiet. He puts one hand on Derek’s hip, thumb tracing over the crease.
“Are you applying to college?” Derek asks. He waits until after the next full moon, when Erica and Boyd and Isaac are slumped on his living room floor, eating ice cream for breakfast. Erica looks at Boyd and Isaac looks at Erica, who shovels a huge spoonful of butter pecan into her mouth.
“I dropped out of high school,” Boyd says slowly. “Two years ago.”
“Yeah,” Derek says.
“I got my GED and I’m getting an accounting degree at BCCC,” Boyd continues, starting to sound annoyed. “Remember when I said, I can’t go to that border meeting thing because I have class on Thursdays, and you said you couldn’t move it and—”
“Dr. Deaton said I could go full time next year when Scott goes to college,” Isaac says, interrupting.
“I was going to maybe get a job and take some online classes,” Erica says.
“Oh,” Derek says. “So you’re—staying.”
“Yup,” Isaac says, scraping his spoon across the bottom of his dish.
“You don’t have to,” Derek says. He grew up the traditional way, pack all living together, but there are different ways of doing it; he’s tried to make that clear this last year. When he bit them, he hadn’t been thinking beyond getting his feet underneath him, but he had never intended to trap them in Beacon Hills.
“Does it sound like we’re asking for permission?” Boyd says. “We’re pack, we’re staying.”
“But—” Derek says.
“You made us, you’re stuck with us,” Erica says, shrugging.
After Kate, Derek stopped working out for a little while; it didn’t make much of a difference. He was strong and fast still, but the transformation was hard on the human part of him. His joints hurt after the full moon. He was slower to heal when he hurt himself.
He started up again in New York, running, pushups, nothing fancy, and now he makes some extra time for it, punishing runs in the woods and chin-ups on a jungle gym in the back yard of an abandoned house near the woods, thinks of what Stiles’ face looks like when he touches him, the way his eyes darken up when Derek closes in on him, takes off his shirt, the way he smells just behind his ear and in his armpits when he’ll let Derek nose in and lick him there, the way he throws back his head, gasping, when Derek eases inside him, the restless little hitch of his hips, the way he says,
“God you are—unbelievable,” after they fuck, the honest, uncomplicated pleasure he takes in Derek’s body.
Derek didn’t look like much as a kid—big ears, puppy fat—and the guy he sees in the mirror usually looks helpless or tired or irritated, but he knows what other people see. It’s—useful, it can be useful, occasionally, but mostly it’s an extra layer of difficulty, something he’s still trying to learn how to use, even years later, something that reminds him that maybe it wouldn’t have happened at all with Kate, if he hadn’t looked the way that he does.
But Stiles likes it, which, for the first time Derek can remember, balances out what a pain in the ass it is most of the time, people who remember his face when it’s inconvenient for anyone to remember him at all, or bother him when he’s just minding his own business, trying to find a book to read where nothing too terrible happens to anyone.
“You like happy endings, huh?” Stiles says, lying pressed in against his back, sliding his fingers along the edge of Derek’s chest, along his ribs and up his sternum. “See what I did there?”
“Yes,” Derek says. Stiles laughs, a murmur against his hairline.
“Well, not much gets by you,” he says.
“Just—the library,” Derek mutters. It’s supposed to be a quiet place where people ignore each other.
“Are you complaining again about how you’re so beautiful that it makes people lose their minds?” Stiles says. He wraps his hand around Derek’s dick and then nips at the back of his neck, hard enough that Derek shivers and pushes into Stiles’ grip, wanting.
“So, yeah, I’m—I’m starting to get in to places,” Stiles says, after they fuck, when Derek is half-asleep, face down in Stiles’ pillow, breathing deeply, blissed out, covered in jizz.
“Oh,” Derek says. It takes him longer than usual to get it; he’s out of practice, but he knows this part, better than Stiles does. ‘So yeah’ means an early meeting or a boyfriend coming in from out of town, means he was a good lay but the things he says in his sleep are frightening, that sometimes the way he looks or moves or talks is too creepy or no explanation at all; there are a lot of thirty second conversations that begin with ‘so, yeah,’ and mean please get out. Stiles looks worried, his heart rate kicking up a little. “I’ll go,” Derek says, standing.
“But—” Stiles says, watching him pull on his jeans. Derek looks at him and he closes his mouth.
“I’m taking this,” Derek says, picking up Stiles’ shirt from where he’d dropped it earlier, not thinking, wanting Stiles in him, wanting to wrap his hands over Stiles’ hips and lick at the crease of his thigh, he hadn’t known it was the last time. “For—” he says, jams his shirt over his head and picks up his jacket and just leaves.
Derek is fine; better to make a clean break. He doesn’t see Stiles for three weeks, he doesn’t think about it much. The wolf won’t let him alone, though, picks at him, obsessively patrols the Stilinski property line, finds Stiles’ shirt folded up in his bottom drawer, next full moon, chews it to shreds, eats half of it and throws up on the kitchen floor, runs for miles and miles and miles, wakes up in a ditch in the next county with Stiles’ heartbeat in his ears, lets animal control get a jump on him and has to pretend to be a lost dog for a week, curled up on a blanket at the pound, gnawing on a kong filled with peanut butter to while away the days until Stiles comes through the door, his face a conflicting mess of anger and fear, relief, a flicker of amusement, and says,
“Benji! Thank god you found him. I—” he looks a little blank, and then says. “I—uh—I was worried he’d been hit by a car.”
Mindy smiles and flips open the lock on his pen; Stiles shoots him a warning look and Derek trots over and butts his head against Stiles’ leg.
“What a big sweet boy he is,” Mindy says. “At first we thought he must be part wolf—”
“Nope,” Stiles says loudly, cutting her off. “No, that’s—I mean, a lot of people say that, actually, it’s funny—I think, it’s—. You know, mutts can look so. uh. Different.”
“He didn’t give us any trouble at all, never even barked,” Mindy said. “The animal control officers said he was just a lamb.”
“That’s Benji,” Stiles says weakly. Mindy smiles.
Stiles fills out the paperwork and writes a check to cover the fine while Mindy packs up Derek’s blanket and the fuzzy giraffe lovey they gave him, the kong and a half-chewed pig’s ear. “Why don’t you keep these for him?” she says, passing the sack across the counter to Stiles when he signs the last sheet and puts the pen down.
“Thank you,” Stiles says. He takes the bag.
“And you be sure to keep him on the leash, from now on, dear,” Mindy says.
“Absolutely,” Stiles says. He has a leash and a frayed old collar, tags, paperwork neatly arrayed in a folder. “Of course. Yeah. Thanks again.”
He walks Derek across the parking lot in silence, leash looped over his wrist. He opens the door and then crouches down and takes off the collar, drops it in the seat well, face unreadable. Derek leaps up into the passenger seat and scrambles over the divider into the back seat, sits quietly while Stiles walks back around to the driver’s side door, talking on the phone to someone,
“Yeah, it was him,” he says. “Fine, I guess, yeah,” he says, after a moment. “Yeah, I will,” he says, and then hangs up and climbs into driver’s seat, slams the door and starts the engine, pulls hard out of the parking lot.
When Derek shifts it feels good, like a bone-cracking stretch after a long sleep. There’s a stack of his clothes tucked into the corner, jeans and a shirt, shoes and socks and a jacket.
“Thanks,” he says, when he’s dressed.
“Yeah,” Stiles says. He’s speeding, 50 in a 35. “So you—what happened?” he says.
“Nothing,” Derek says. “I was distracted. There was no way to get out of it without—”
The guy who picked him up was his age, a young guy in cheap shoes and a plastic nametag that said ‘Kevin’.
“Hey, big fella, easy now, easy,” Kevin said, when he put Derek in the back of the car. He had a tranq gun, but he didn’t use it, didn’t even drag or pull at the heavy lead he’d clipped on, just waited patiently for Derek to jump up on the seat and get settled. He stopped at a doughnut place on the way back to the pound. Derek hadn’t eaten breakfast or dinner; in wolf form it was hard to resist pressing up against the divider for a sniff. Kevin laughed, broke a doughnut in half so it could fit between the openings in the grate.
“I thought you seemed like a blueberry glazed kind of dude,” he said. The fact is, Derek likes jelly doughnuts, but after that, after listening to Kevin sing along loudly to a Pearl Jam song, off-key but pleasant, he couldn’t bring himself to do anything but trot docilely into the cage—”let’s put him in that nice big one, poor thing,” Mindy said—and wait for someone to come get him.
“Okay,” Stiles says. He swipes at his face with his hand; Derek isn’t especially good at reading anything subtle even when he can see people’s faces—rage, killing rage, anger, fear, he’s got, but the hunch of Stiles’ shoulders isn’t any of those. Stiles swings a plastic bag over the seat without looking back.
“It’s a burrito,” he says. “You’ve been eating kibble for a couple days now, I thought—”
“Thanks,” Derek says, mouth full. “You didn’t have to.”
“You disappeared for 72 hours,” Stiles bites out. “We found your car. You—you could have been lying in a fucking ditch, you—”
“I said they got the jump on me,” Derek says. “Did you want me to hurt them?” Stiles goes silent, hands tightening on the steering wheel. He doesn’t say anything for ten miles, for twenty. They’re a long way from Beacon Hills, further than Derek thought he’d gone.
“Just because we’re not fucking anymore,” Stiles says finally. “Doesn’t mean—”
“Okay,” Derek says. Stiles is silent the rest of the way. He parks in far the corner of the lot where Derek left his car, a strip mall a few miles outside town. “Thanks,” Derek says and gets out. He left the car unlocked, but he has to dig through the trunk to get the spare keys he keeps in there, and when he finds them, Stiles is standing by the car, holding the paper bag with his blanket and toys loosely in one hand. Derek takes it and tosses it in the trunk. Their hands don’t touch, but Stiles heaves in a long breath anyhow and says, in one hoarse rush,
“Was it—did I do something wrong, was it because of something I did?”
“What,” Derek says blankly.
“We were fine, I thought we were fine,” Stiles says. “And then you just—”
“Stiles,” Derek says. He slams the trunk lid down, straightens. “What did you think was going to happen?”
“I don’t know,” Stiles says, voice rising. “I thought—we talk about things, we have sex, it’s worth something, it’s worth trying to figure out—”
“There’s nothing to figure out,” Derek says flatly. “We fucked for a while, you’re going to college. I used to—I pushed you around. I hit you.”
He didn’t think much about it at the time, just shoving himself through the days as quickly and harshly as he could, never mind the collateral damage, to himself, to anyone else, but now, thinking about Stiles as someone he’s kissed, someone he’s fucked, someone he can’t stop—someone he’d kill for, he thinks of what he’d do to anyone who touched Stiles the way he has, to anyone who thought he had the right.
“You—” Stiles’ eyebrows draw together. “Is that what’s been bothering you?” he says softly. “That was a while ago.”
“Were you planning on doing it again?”
“No,” Derek says. “That’s not the point.”
“I guess,” Stiles hesitates. Cars hum by on the highway but they’re all alone at the edge of the parking lot, the sun falling sharply down towards the horizon. “I thought. It can get confusing,” he says, “when you already lead a—an unavoidably violent life, it gets confusing what’s—normal.”
“Don’t make excuses for me,” Derek says automatically, and he’s so fucking stupid, so slow, that he only just now realizes what Stiles must think, what Derek has been teaching him all this time that he thought he could take some comfort in Stiles, that it wouldn’t hurt anyone as long as he was careful about it, that he hasn’t been careful at all. “Don’t ever make excuses for someone who hurts you.”
“It’s not an excuse,” Stiles says, sounding cross. “It’s an explanation.”
“What difference does it make,” Derek mutters.
“I used to call you a murdering dumbshit all the time,” Stiles says roughly. “What are you going to do about that?”
“Nothing,” Derek says. “It’s true.”
“No,” Stiles says forcefully. “It’s not—”
“I kill people,” Derek says. “I do dumb stuff.”
“Derek, come on, I—” Stiles reaches for him and Derek flinches back out of his grasp.
“Don’t,” he says. “I should—” never have started it up with Stiles in the first place, selfish and reckless and weak. “It was just a hook up,” he spits out, and watches Stiles’ face crumple in on itself, his eyes widening in shocked hurt. “What did you think?” Derek says. He feels an unfamiliar, awful urge to laugh. “Let me guess, wolves mate for life.”
Stiles licks his lips quickly. “I don’t—I never—I don’t know,” he stammers.
“I felt sorry for you,” Derek says. He’s not used to hurting people on purpose; it’s usually something he does without having to try. Stiles pulls in a ragged breath. “You were so lonely,” Derek says. “And when my dick was in your mouth, I didn’t have to listen to you whine, so—”
He can’t make himself keep talking, but it’s enough. Stiles presses his lips together. The edge of his jaw tightens, convulsive.
“All right,” he says, voice raw, nearly inaudible. He walks back across the parking lot to his car. He stands for a moment, motionless, his hand on the door handle, head bent, and then he jerks around and comes quickly back towards Derek.
“I said—” Derek begins, not even sure what he’s going to say, knowing he needs to end it, that he can’t let Stiles have the good-bye kiss, the good-bye fuck he’s going to want, and Stiles squares his shoulders and punches Derek in the face. It’s a heavy, solid hit, nice follow-through, Sheriff Stilinski taught him that, probably. Derek’s not ready for it and it snaps his head sideways, splits his lip.
“There you go,” Stiles says, stepping back. He shakes his hand, fingers flexing. “I hope it makes you feel better. Have a nice fucking life, asshole.”
The lake goes dry that summer—in June it’s a stinking muddy sinkhole, festering with red and yellow algae, and by August the mud is dried, cracked open, not even enough water for mosquitos to lay eggs. Isaac says he sees ghosts in the edges of the forest, flitting around the trees. Derek looks, dutifully, but never sees any. The forest is empty.
He doesn’t see Stiles, not even around town by accident; he doesn’t expect to really ever see him again and then he comes home one day and Stiles is leaning against his kitchen table, turning over a rubber-banded stack of envelopes in his hands.
“What are you doing here?” Derek says, hanging back as far as he can. Stiles is a little taller. He needs to shave.
“I still had my key,” Stiles says. He straightens, fishes a key out of his pocket and puts it down on the table. “So. Here. And I needed to give you—” he lifts the envelopes and puts them down next to the key.
Derek leans in and picks up the first one; it’s a letter on thin stationery, handwritten in spidery blue ink. He skims it without understanding: of course it would be nice to have a real pack on the land again, very quiet, hope that won’t be a problem—
“What is this?”
“There are places you can go,” Stiles says. “You and the pack. You don’t have to stay here.”
“Of course I do,” Derek says.
“Edith is the last of her pack,” Stiles says. “She owns a hundred and fifty square miles of protected land in upstate New York, you could—”
Derek shakes his head, opens his mouth to say no, and Stiles cuts him off,
“Please think about it. Or, there’s Texas, and there’s a place in the Appalachians—”
“Why did you do this?” Derek says. Stiles looks down.
“I thought—” he shakes his head. “Doesn’t matter. It’s not safe here for you.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“The others think this is normal, but you know it’s not,” Stiles says. “The birds didn’t come back this year, you must have noticed that. The forest is—there’s something wrong. I think that’s why the Alphas left, and I think—it’s angry and tired and old, and it doesn’t want you here.”
“It’s just a bunch of trees and dirt, Stiles, there’s no such thing as a killer forest—”
“Jesus fucking Christ. A forest ecosystem is a terrestrial unit of living organisms,” Stiles says, rattling it off, “interacting with themselves and their environment—yeah, that’s right, I took AP biology—like seventy people have died out there in the last three years, and I’m not even counting all the injuries and the animals. You know they had to cut the pollywog field trip from the second grade curriculum this year because there aren’t any fucking frogs anymore? What—what Kate did was poison, and what Peter did—Lydia’s not a witch,” Stiles says. “Where do you think he got the power?”
“I don’t know Stiles, what did they teach you in AP Witchcraft?” Derek says, but Stiles jerks his chin up and says,
“You know what? Fine. Just stay here in your rotting forest, circle the fucking drain, do whatever you want.” He looks down, shoulders slumping, and Derek watches him, the dark fan of his eyelashes, the mouth that he could never get enough of, that he told himself that he’d already forgotten.
“Also I need to—um,” Stiles says finally. He draws in a breath and meets Derek’s eyes. “I shouldn’t have hit you. I’m sorry. My dad would fucking lose his shit if he knew I did that to someone that I—. Anyhow. Edith was the nicest and—” His voice is thick, throat clogged. He’s not angry anymore, just sad, sad, sad exhausted. “I thought if I got into Cornell, that—”
“It’s okay,” Derek says. “I kind of deserved it.”
“Don’t ever make excuses for people who hurt you,” Stiles says. He’s straightening the little stack of envelopes, print-outs of e-mails and maps, frowning down at the table. “That’s really good advice, actually.”
“Stiles, I—” Derek says. Stiles looks up. Derek thinks, this is what he wants to remember—not the soft catch of Stiles’ breath when Derek bent down towards him in bed, the secret curl of a smile when Derek tucked his head up against his ribs, drowsy, not Stiles lying in sock feet on his couch or grabbing the front of his shirt and reeling him in for a kiss, but this: Stiles, standing in his kitchen, unafraid, the easy breadth of his shoulders, the resolute tilt of his chin. There are things that are harder to wreck than you could ever begin to imagine.
“What is it?” Stiles says.
“Good luck at school,” Derek says.
It’s a paperless campus, digital textbooks, papers turned in by e-mail. Flyering is discouraged. Stiles has a mailbox but he doesn’t get much mail; bills, some junk mail. He gets exactly two important pieces of mail during his entire undergraduate education.
There are some bad wildfires up in the hills this year, his dad writes in October of his freshman year, a letter scrawled on the back of some Beacon Hills Sheriff’s Department stationery. No one hurt but whole swaths of the forest burnt black, a lot of downed trees. Looks like it might have taken out some of the critters too, he writes, those raccoons haven’t been at the trash since you left.
It’s spring of his junior year when he gets the second, a thin envelope with no return address that he drops on his desk and forgets about, late for class. He sees it again when he’s working on a problem set late that night, picks it up and tears it open. There’s no note, just a newspaper clipping, smudged a little: Endangered Wolves Make a Comeback Upstate.
He keeps it in his drawer for a couple weeks and then sticks it up on the wall over his desk, where he can see it, which is when he notices that there had been something written in pencil along the bottom and vigorously erased until the paper is thin and brittle to the touch.
He writes one letter, scribbled on a piece of notepaper and stuffed into an envelope before he can lose his nerve: “Come and find me,” it says: “if you have something to say to me.” He never sends it.
“That hot farmer is checking you out,” Jenny says, angling her eyes over Stiles’ shoulder.
“What, who?” Stiles says, twisting his neck, remembering he’s supposed to be subtle and jerking back around, taking a nonchalant sip of his coffee. He graduated in May but is staying the summer before he starts his job in Manhattan in September, subletting a room in first floor apartment in a run-down Victorian, going to farmer’s markets to get breakfast with his roommate on Saturdays, pretending to be a grownup.
“Eight o’clock,” Jenny, whose dad was a marine, says. “Eight o’clock. Eight. Eight. Eight—okay have you ever actually seen a clock?” but Stiles isn’t listening, because it’s Derek, holding a milk crate, staring at him, a little pocket of stillness.
“I gotta—I’ll meet you at home,” Stiles says vaguely, and Jenny says,
“Wow, when you go for it when you really—” but Stiles isn’t listening. He fights his way across the plaza, past the corn and beets and gluten free bread and raw honey and beeswax candles and up to the front of the tent.
“Hi,” he says. There’s a beat up white pick-up truck backed up behind the tent, a card table with samples of cheese, plastic knives, crackers.
“Hi,” Derek says. He’s still holding the crate, fingers tight, and he frowns down at it and then turns and puts it down on the tailgate.
“I—” Stiles says, caught by the details, the blue and gold banner wrapped across the back of the tend that says World Cheese Awards Bronze Medalist, Best Newcomer, New England Cheese Guild Championships, Certified Organic, Free Range. Derek twists his head around to follow his gaze.
“That’s—Erica,” he says. “She made us do it.”
“Yeah,” Stiles says nonsensically. A silver-haired woman with a giant tote bag buys some cheese and Derek makes change for her, shelling a five and two singles out of the crumpled wad of cash in his pocket.
“You don’t have to, um—” Derek says, after she leaves. “I didn’t know you’d still be living here,” he says carefully.
“I am,” Stiles says, and Derek—Derek huffs a soft laugh, looking down at the table.
“Yeah,” he says, “I got that.” Stiles realizes his mouth is open in shock—Derek laughing, the edges of his eyes crinkling—and picks up a piece of cheese to cram into his mouth so he won’t say anything stupid.
“You look—” too late. Derek is wearing a faded t-shirt that says Utica Farmer’s Market, a bright red flannel shirt over it, old jeans tucked into a pair of wellies. He’s grown a beard, very dark, cut short. Stiles looks at the boots and then the flannel shirt, which has a tear in the collar and tattered cuffs, and then at the t-shirt, which falls softly, almost loosely, against Derek’s chest.
“Oh,” Derek says, glancing down self-consciously. “Not as, um—”
Derek was whipcord thin, that last year, his stomach a precise arrangement of diamond-cut hollows, his back a ropey, unforgiving coil of muscle. The way he moved made him seem bigger than he was; Stiles had been surprised, the first time, at how narrow Derek was in his arms, how well they fit together.
“No, you look good,” he says hurriedly. “You look—” Derek’s shoulders are bulkier, and his face isn’t as thin anymore; Stiles thinks they’d fit together a whole different way now, realizes he’s staring thoughtfully at Derek’s chest, and jerks his eyes back up to his face.
“You too,” Derek says softly.
“About this cheese,” Stiles say, taking it in a little more, the neatly arrayed samples, the sign that says “Raw Milk available, please ask,” the cascade of cellophane wrapped caramels spilling out of a jar.
“You have to do something,” Derek says, a little defensively. “Boyd does the accounting and Isaac takes care of them and Edith and Erica and I make it and keep them safe.”
“The sheep,” Derek says, sounding pained. “And—all that,” he says, gesturing at the banner, the little stickers on the cheese that have four bronze stars on them, “It’s not a big deal, it’s, milk from wild foraging sheep is—um, but it’s almost impossible to keep them safe from predators—” his voice trails off.
“But I bet you don’t have any problems with that,” Stiles says.
“No,” Derek admits. He smiles again—it’s a nice smile, bright, climbs all the way to his eyes in slow increments; Stiles feels a little faint. A guy comes in and buys some lamb sausage, a pint of yogurt. Stiles smears some cheese on a cracker and eats it, watching Derek swing himself up into the truck to get the yogurt out of the cooler. There’s stack of brochures on the edge of the table and Stiles picks one up idly while Derek wraps the sausage in an extra layer of wax paper. Join us for a Farm Tour, it says, on the first page.
“You should—you could come visit,” Derek says. “The others would like to see you.”
“The others,” Stiles says. “Would they?”
“And me,” Derek says. He sounds reluctant. Stiles looks down at the picture on the front of the brochure, steeply rolling farmland, a curl of fog across the crest of a hill. “I could show you around, if you—”
“Don’t,” Stiles says, cutting him off. “Don’t do me any favors.”
“Okay,” Derek says. “I—this isn’t really how I thought this would go, I—”
“Oh, when you accidentally ran into me after ignoring me for four years even though I was—” Stiles looks down at the brochure, “—an easy 45 minute drive from Ithaca?”
“That’s not—I left you alone,” Derek says. “I thought that was what you wanted.”
Derek shrugs, looking down. “I wrote to you and you didn’t—you never wrote back, so I figured—”
“A newspaper article with no note doesn’t count!” Stiles says, outraged. “You didn’t even put on a return address.”
“You knew where I was,” Derek says.
“That’s true, but—”
“Stiles,” Derek says calmly. “It’s fine. Everyone has people they fucked in high school that they don’t really ever want to see again."
“That’s—what?” Stiles says. “Is that how you think about it?” he demands.
“No,” Derek says. “I—you have to know I still—” Their eyes meet. Derek looks away. “I still,” he says.
“Still?” Stiles says, his voice hoarse. Derek shrugs. “That’s—”
“pathetic,” Derek mutters, low.
“No, I—that’s it? You were never going to—say—” Stiles says, and Derek’s head jerks up.
“Yes, Stiles,” he says, aggrieved. “Yes, after everything I did to you, after everything I—took from you, I thought I’d just leave you alone so you could have a happy life.”
“Maybe I didn’t want—” Stiles begins furiously, realizes the guy buying zucchini at the next stall is staring at him, and continues, in sharp whisper, “Maybe you should have asked me if I wanted a happy life.”
“What?” Derek says.
“You should, um—” Stiles takes a breath and says, “You should ask me if I want a happy life.” Derek frowns at him, but opens his mouth, obediently, and Stiles says, “Oh, but, not now.”
Derek’s face falls. “I—okay,” he says.
“It’s—I’m moving to Brooklyn in two weeks,” Stiles says. “And I—I’m obviously going to need to buy cheese. Sixteen dollar cheese is, um, a staple. It’s the staff of life.”
“That’s bread,” Derek says.
“And yogurt,” Stiles says. “With all the—things—”
“Live cultures,” Derek murmurs.
“Yeah, those,” Stiles says. “I mean, I definitely will be hitting the—um.” he picks up the brochure to get a better look at the fine print on the back and says, “The Union Squ—”
“Grand Army Plaza,” Derek says. His eyes are searching Stiles’ face, documenting, a little hungry. “That’s where—I mean. You should go there.”
“Okay,” Stiles says. “I’m gonna—” he gestures vaguely behind him, and Derek says,
“See you around.”
Stiles leaves, starts the walk towards home, and makes it an entire six blocks before turning back. There’s a line at the stall by the time he gets there, people buying cheese and milk and putting in detailed orders for cuts of lamb they want next time and talking about the weather.
“Stiles,” Derek says. He had to have known Stiles was there, but he looks uncertain, and then resigned. “Changed your mind?” he says.
“Nope,” Stiles says. “Just—two weeks seems like kind of a long time, and I—”
“Do you want a happy life?” Derek says, interrupting him.
“Yeah,” Stiles says. “I—yeah, absolutely.”
Derek ducks his head, smiling, a sharp, secret grin. “Me too,” he says.
“Oh, I loved a human boy once,” Edith said, that first fall. When she transformed, she was scrawny and agile, her muzzle iron grey; she spent the first three months making Derek run the borders until he knew them in his sleep. They took breaks halfway through, rolled in the dirt, drank from the already icy, rushing creek, talked a little.
“What—what happened?” Derek said, and then immediately regretted it when she smiled, slow and sad.
“Well, it was a different time,” she said.
“Oh,” Derek said again, throat tightening. Edith had been impossibly kind to them, giving them bedrooms in the big empty house, lending her old Volvo to Boyd to drive down the mountain for his classes, taking Erica off for long private talks, calling up an old friend who owned a farm and getting Isaac a job taking care of goats and piglets.
“Well of course I had to marry him when I got pregnant,” Edith said. “Daddy and Mama were livid about it, but they calmed down after a little while.”
“But I thought—” Derek said. There were pictures of Old Joe at the house; with Edith on their wedding day, grinning fiercely, digging fence holes for the sheep pens, leaning against a post on the front porch holding a mug that said “Go Big Red,” whispy ring of white hair, same grin. He had only died a few years ago—that was Derek’s mug now, still bright, hung up on one of the hooks next to the coffee maker.
“Things usually work out all right in the end, I think,” Edith said. She shifted back and snapped playfully at his shoulder, bounding up the hill into the woods, waiting at the top of the ridge for him to follow.