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The Moon's Gonna Follow Me Home

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Derek Hale leaves Beacon Hills in the middle of the afternoon, three months after he escapes from Kate Argent in Mexico.

He should probably feel defeated by the fact that he’s finally hit his limit, that this is the end of what he can handle. He made it through the death of most of his family, the murder of his sister, killing his own uncle, watching his pack splinter, two of them dying. There were many points in the past few years where he probably should have broken.

Each one of those things left a small crack in his resolve. Until he looks around his loft and thinks about how he has another window to fix after a fight with the latest supernatural bad guy he helped Scott’s pack defeat and the cracks undermining the overall structure of his steely facade finally crumble.

He doesn’t want to call the window repair guy. He doesn’t want to sweep up the glass. He’ll inevitably miss a few shards and pull them out of the bottom of his bare feet for weeks.

He doesn’t want to try to make this place feel like home when it isn’t.

Derek stayed in Beacon Hills and tried to make it work because he wanted pack, wanted purpose. He gave his best effort and found himself back where he started: alone, with a few begrudging allies. He’s tired, and even though his werewolf body heals quickly, he feels the weary ache down to his center.

He packs his car with the few things he cares about enough to drag them from place to place. He locks the loft and calls a realtor about listing the building he’d bought in a misguided attempt to secure a future.

And then he leaves.

**

He travels up and down the west coast for a few weeks. He runs like someone is in pursuit, like he’s in danger of being caught.

Running is all he knows.

When he and Laura left Beacon Hills after the fire, they eventually made their way to New York, but they took an unpredictable route with stops in Kansas and then Minnesota, and down through Chicago. They spent a few strange months in Michigan and a memorable week in Pittsburgh. They were on the road for more than six months before they finally made it to New York.

Derek doesn’t know how to get anywhere directly. When he leaves Beacon Hills he doesn’t have a destination in mind. He just knows he needs to leave. There are too many memories, too many false starts, too many attempts at forgetting the past. He wants to be somewhere he can turn a corner without seeing ghosts.

**

It takes two weeks for Scott to notice Derek is gone. He texts one night while Derek is in Oregon.

Scott: wtf man went by the loft 2 times where u at

Derek considers not answering.

It took Scott’s pack awhile, but they eventually noticed Kate had kidnapped Derek, and they journeyed to Mexico to rescue him, even bringing Peter along to help. Derek knows if he doesn’t answer Scott will assume the worst.

Derek: I left

Scott’s reply comes almost immediately.

Scott: vacation????

Derek: Something like that.

Scott: ur not bein held in a dungeon by smthin crazy?

Derek rolls his eyes, but feels unexpected affection surge through him.

Derek: No, Scott. I’m fine.

Scott: Ok txt when u get bck

Derek could explain that he doesn’t have any intention of going back, but he isn’t in the mood for Scott to try to convince him to stay. Scott means well. They’ve come to a point where they trust each other, more or less. Scott is growing into his new role as Alpha. And while Derek doesn’t consider himself part of Scott’s pack, it is possible for them to co-exist in Beacon Hills together.

That isn’t why Derek left.

**

It takes another two days for Stiles to text.

Stiles: why is there a for sale sign in front of the loft if you're on vacation

Derek swallows. Stiles will be harder to misdirect if he takes on Derek’s departure as a project. Derek decides to be honest-ish.

Derek: I’m selling the place.

Stiles: I’m not Scott, Derek

Derek smiles.

Derek: Just selling the loft, Stiles.

It takes a few minutes for Stiles to reply.

Stiles: Scott seems to think you're on vacation. You’re not on vacation are you

Derek: No.

It takes long enough for Stiles to reply that Derek isn’t sure that he will.

Stiles: Ok I’ll let it go. For now.

Derek feels a little guilty but doesn’t respond. If there is anyone who deserves more of an explanation it’s probably Stiles, if only so he doesn’t add it to the growing list of things he’s convinced are his fault.

**

Toward the end of the summer Derek finds himself in a small Northern California beach town that seems destined to turn into a quiet, sleepy town once the tourists all leave for the season. He’s tired of living out of his duffle bag, tired of running, and no one has really been chasing him anyway.

He rents a little weathered house up on a bluff, overlooking the water. If he were human, the house wouldn’t have beach access. But he’s able to scramble down the embankment to a narrow strip of sand visible at low tide.

It’s a solitary spot, neighbors within sight, but not close enough for unwanted interaction. It’s only a fifteen minute walk into the small town nearby. There are a couple of restaurants open year round, a little bar filled with locals, and a few other essential businesses. The primarily tourism-themed establishments (souvenir shops, surf shops, etc) all close for the season only a couple weeks after he arrives, which suits Derek just fine.

In the midst of Derek’s Mexican captivity, Kate breathed against his turned cheek and laughed softly. “You keep trying to have a normal life, babe,” she sing-songed. She pressed her lips against his skin in an unwelcome kiss. “When are you going to learn?”

Derek closed his eyes, tried to block out the syrupy sweetness of her voice, tried to keep his senses from taking in her scent, to focus on something other than the feeling of her fingers trailing across his naked torso. He hadn’t answered, because that was what she’d wanted. She wanted a reaction.

“I’m going to keep coming back, you know,” she said, slinking around the room like a cartoon villain. “You and me are never over.” She grinned, her deceptively pretty face twisted by her cold heart.

Derek still hears her voice in his head as he sits on the back deck of his cottage and watches the sunset. He tries to soak in the calm and push out his fear. She’s dead. Really dead.

After Scott’s pack arrived to aid in his escape, Derek watched Peter kill Kate. Derek helped bury the pieces of her body in different parts of the desert. Stiles had done something with mountain ash and mumbled words over the grave sites that Deaton insisted would keep her from improbable resurrection.

Derek still isn’t entirely convinced she’s gone.

**

He settles into his life at the rental by the ocean. It’s cold and foggy most mornings, but he wakes early and runs along the road that skirts the edge of the cliff overlooking the water. It takes him to the center of town where he stops at the small grocery store. There’s a gourmet coffee counter inside, and he usually buys a cup of coffee and picks up supplies before walking back home.

It’s a small town, especially in the off-season, and he begins to recognize the people who dot the edges of his routine. People eye him suspiciously at first, but that’s probably because he’s cutting nervous glances at everyone. He reminds himself these are just normal, boring, human citizens.

He did as much research as possible before he decided to settle in this spot, and according to the contacts he has in the supernatural world there are no hunters settled here, no major supernatural presence aside from a couple of peaceful Wiccans. Werewolves favor the woods and mountains, and so the coast is often outside of pack boundaries. Beacon Hills is a couple of hours away and the Nemeton and the confluence of energy it sits upon means that anything supernatural that might normally be drawn to the ocean is pulled instead toward the power of the sacred tree inland.

No one in town knows he’s a werewolf, and so far he hasn’t scented any nearby. There are a few eccentrics, a guy who doesn’t wear underwear under thin white shorts and an old lady who never seems to have a matching pair of shoes on. But otherwise it’s just retired couples and stray hippies. People have been nice, if a bit cautious, interacting with Derek.

The third week he’s there he makes a point to start looking people in the eye. He hears his mom’s voice in his head admonishing him to stop scowling at people, to be polite. So when the guy behind the coffee counter slides his drink toward him and takes his cash, Derek swallows and thanks him, gives him a little head nod and schools his features into something less threatening. It earns him a surprised eyebrow raise and a “have a nice day.”

He’s not going to invite anyone over for dinner or anything drastic, but he does raise a hand in a pathetic wave when he spots his nearest neighbor out on her front porch as he walks back to his house. She raises her hand and smiles as he keeps walking.

**

Derek hasn’t heard anything from Beacon Hills since those initial texts from Scott and Stiles several months before. It wasn’t that he expected to hear anything, necessarily. But he was still somewhat surprised that Stiles was willing to just accept Derek’s absence without further investigation.

Stiles likes to prove he can figure things out, and Derek assumed he’d get a text the day after their first exchange crowing about knowing exactly where Derek was and what he had for breakfast that morning. But after a couple of weeks passed, Derek realized no one from Beacon Hills was going to come looking for him.

He wasn’t disappointed. Or he wouldn’t admit that to himself anyway. If Stiles had found him, Derek would’ve been irritated. He probably would’ve picked up and moved to a new location out of principle. He doesn’t like the invasive way the pack in Beacon Hills meddles in each other’s lives.

Yet somehow the fact that Derek didn’t rate the time it would take to be that invasive, to find where he’d been, to poke at his itinerary, to text annoying pleas for help, to have Stiles gloat and act smug via several emoji-laden texts, soured Derek’s stomach. He both wanted to be left alone and wanted someone to care enough to look for him.

**

It’s a surprise then, when Derek’s phone buzzes as he’s getting into bed one night the beginning of his second month settled in the sleepy coastal town, six months after he left Beacon Hills.

Stiles: dad said your building sold

It surprises Derek how welcome the contact is.

Derek: Yeah. Developer bought it last week.

Stiles: So not coming back then

Derek: Probably not.

There’s nothing else for a while, and then,

Stiles: There was a box of your shit by the trash when dad drove by. Guess the new owner is cleaning out before they knock it down. Dad picked it up if you want it.

Derek swallows.

Derek: I took what I needed with me.

And then after a couple moments of consideration,

Derek: But thank him for me.

Stiles: Yeah ok. If you want it, let me know. We can send it. Unless you’re like not in the country or whatever

Derek smiles.

Derek: I’m in the country.

Stiles: But not chained up in a basement

Derek huffs.

Derek: Oh well sure. But at least I have my cell phone, right?

It takes a few seconds but a text follows with a picture of Stiles flipping Derek off. Derek saves it and debates how he should respond.

Derek: It’s late. Don’t you have school?

Stiles: Couldn’t sleep.

And then immediately,

Stiles: Plus had to make sure you weren’t in need of rescue. This is a 1:00 am and all’s well text.

Derek smiles.

Derek: I’m fine, Stiles.

Stiles: You have indoor plumbing? living in a cave?

Derek: No cave. Normal house. I think you’d be disappointed in how normal.

Stiles: Probs

Stiles: Im still gonna picture you brooding in a roofless shack somewhere

Derek: Fair enough.

Derek: Go to bed, Stiles.

Derek receives another picture, this time of Stiles in mid-exaggerated eye roll. Derek decides to let him have the last word, turns the light out and goes to sleep.

**

A month later, Derek knows the names of the neighbors on his jogging route into town. Once he forced himself to start waving, people started greeting him and inviting him for cinnamon rolls and coffee.

The first couple of times, Derek was tense and suspicious, jumping a little every time one of them moved too quickly. Everything spelled imminent danger.

The obvious, knee-jerk reaction to that suspicion was retreat. For a few days Derek avoided his neighbors, avoided interacting with the people he encountered in town. He scoured through real estate listings farther from civilization trying to find something in a remote mountainous area.

But that didn’t feel right either.

Derek ran in the other direction for a few days, away from town on the road that hugged the edge of the cliff overlooking the water. He ran in the direction of the national park and thought about what he wanted his future to look like.

Derek grew up in a big family with loud siblings and loving parents. They were respected members of the community. His mom volunteered at the library. His dad was a successful attorney. His grandma taught second grade at Beacon Hills Elementary. Peter owned a rare books business that kept him traveling to estate sales across the country, a business that relied on charm and an ability to relate to people. Laura was part of student government and had a job at the local coffee shop. Cora was in Girl Scouts and had friends sleeping over most Saturday nights, loudly giggling and being generally irritating.

The Hale family didn’t hide. They protected themselves and were aware of what made them different. But they didn’t live isolated from the world.

When Derek gets back from his run the third day he takes the alternate route, he searches the internet until he finds a psychologist in the next town. He doesn’t bother calling Deaton to find one that understands the supernatural. Derek lost his family. He’s been kidnapped and tortured. He figures he has enough there to go on without having to mention the werewolf part of his life.

If he hates it, he’ll only go the one time. If he feels like he is in danger, he’ll leave.

Dr. Nelson looks like a professor. He has a white beard, and he smells like mothballs and coffee. But he doesn’t smell like anything dangerous. His heartbeat is steady, and his scent stays in the “interested and helpful, but not in a creepy way” range.

Derek doesn’t talk much in the first session, but he doesn’t feel pressured to do so. He asks some questions about therapy and tries to get a feel for the process. He leaves feeling like it hasn’t made anything worse, at least.

The day after his therapy session, he takes the jogging route that leads past neighbors and back into town. It somehow helps knowing that he has someone to talk with about his fears if he wants to, even if so far he doesn’t really want to. He’s taken control of things again, even if it’s mostly theoretical.

**

Stiles: Dude you should totally watch Breaking Bad

In a somewhat surprising development, Stiles keeps texting, even without Derek being forthcoming about where he is and what he’s doing. If Stiles has figured it out, he hasn’t said anything to Derek. Instead he sends him random pictures of his day and anytime Scott morphs into what Stiles called “the constipated Alpha face,” something Derek apparently introduced him to.

Derek: Already watching season one

Stiles: !!!! really? You have Netflix?

Derek rolls his eyes.

Derek: Yes, Stiles.

Stiles: OMG OK then you should also watch Sherlock. Have you watched Sherlock?

Derek: No.

Derek started with Breaking Bad. Unlike the rest of the world, he is able to watch an episode every couple of nights instead of staying up all night and finishing the entire season at once. That seems to drive Stiles crazy, and he pesters Derek about how he can possibly possess such restraint.

But TV becomes something they can talk about easily. Stiles gives Derek movie recommendations too. A couple of times when Derek indicates he’s watching a specific movie, Stiles queues the same movie, and then they text back and forth with reactions.

They weren’t really friends when Derek lived in Beacon Hills. Stiles clearly loathed Derek for the first few months they knew each other. But eventually they came to a sort of truce. Stiles accepted the inevitability of Derek’s presence, and Derek decided that Stiles was mostly helpful, even if he never shut up.

But regardless of their mutual acceptance, they didn’t text for no reason in Beacon Hills. Stiles had Derek’s number entirely for the “mayday” emergencies. When Derek looks through his text history before a couple months ago, it’s primarily “PIXIES TAKING OVER DEATON’S OFFICE” or “Scott missing!!! HALLLLLP!!!”

But now Derek gets a fairly steady stream of texts from Stiles. Never about anything important. Other than the couple of times he mentioned Derek selling the loft, mostly they’re texts about TV, movies or random stuff he’s eaten for supper. Often it’s late at night, sometimes well past when Derek’s fallen asleep, and he finds them the next morning.

He asks Stiles about it one night in the middle of a rant from Stiles about the Mets.

Derek: Do you ever sleep?

It takes Stiles awhile to reply.

Stiles: sometimes

That’s all he says, and then doesn’t say anything else for a long time.

When Derek left Beacon Hills all he could think about was getting away. But now that he’s created some distance, it’s easier to feel the weight of what Stiles must be going through as he processes the Nogistune possession and Alison’s death.

Stiles: Kinda scared to fall asleep sometimes

Derek thinks of the few sessions he’s had with his therapist. He still hasn’t said much, but he’s learned more about post-traumatic stress disorder. He’s learned more about processing guilt and grief and fear. He still doesn’t feel healthy and whole, but he sees himself more clearly these days. And it helps him think a little more objectively about other people too.

Derek: have you talked to someone?

Stiles: Umm youre someone

Stiles adds one of the little judging emojis he’s fond of.

Derek smiles.

Derek: I mean like a professional someone.

Stiles doesn’t answer, and Derek thinks maybe he’s pushed too hard. He breaks the silence with a question about the first episode of Sherlock he watched that day and lets the other topic go.

**

It’s peaceful for a while. Derek continues his daily runs and trips into town. He reads voraciously. Books he always meant to read and never could relax enough before to get into are now consumed in a couple of days. He buys an orchid and reads up on how to keep it alive, finds the perfect window spot, waters it exactly the amount the internet suggests. He buys a cookbook and makes his own tamales and attempts to recreate the salsa recipe his mom perfected.

It’s a relief to live the quiet life he’d always envied other people having.

There was a time when Derek thought he’d be happy if he never talked to another person again. All he wanted was to be left alone.

But that was more about longing for a feeling of security and safety and less about really wanting to be isolated. It’s nice not to feel in constant danger or worry about what’s around the corner, to wonder if Kate is plotting to take something else from him.

But other than Stiles and their innocuous texting and the few calls and texts he shares with his sister Cora, Derek is lonely. Werewolves are pack animals, and Derek is essentially an omega, a wolf without a pack. He misses the feeling of community a pack affords, even if it’s been years since that feeling co-existed with a feeling of peace.

When Derek was Alpha, before he surrendered his powers to save Cora’s life, his pack was built in a time of threat. All he could think about was the boon a pack would give his Alpha strength, that they’d be more likely to survive together than apart. He built a pack with broken people. But he never got a chance to see what they’d be like once the threat was gone. He never had the chance to help repair those broken people and use the pack bond to make them stronger, more confident.

He’d never been a real part of Scott’s pack, once Scott was the Alpha. But at least he had other werewolves to spend time with occasionally, to come to his aid in an emergency. They may not have been his pack, but they found him in Mexico. They came for him.

If danger finds him now, this time Derek really is alone. No one would know he was gone if rogue hunters decided to take him. It would take weeks for anyone to realize Derek needed rescue.

He lingers in town in the morning far beyond when he used to. He’s probably creeping out the locals who are used to his head nods and mumbled greetings.

“Why are you so sure people perceive you as threatening?” Dr. Nelson asks him one day during a therapy session.

Derek smiles and hears Stiles in his head calling him a creepy lurker. “I’ve been told I look like serial killer.”

Dr. Nelson’s eyebrows raise. “As a joke maybe?”

Derek stares at him and thinks about watching Beacon Hills High’s lacrosse practice from the sidelines, keeping an eye on Scott from the woods.

“Do you feel like a threat, Derek?” Dr. Nelson asks in the soothing tones of his Therapist Voice.

That’s a loaded question. Derek has blamed himself for the deaths of his family for so long he’s convinced himself he’s dangerous. That everything he cares about or tries to protect gets hurt or taken from him simply for being close to him.

“Not— not directly,” Derek says finally. He still hasn’t talked about the fire, about Kate, about anything that led up to the day his family died. They’ve talked around it, talked about guilt and isolation. He’s talked about how his sister was killed by his uncle (all without divulging the supernatural aspects). He’s talked about leaving Beacon Hills to get away from painful memories. But he hasn’t yet been able to talk about how it started.

Again Dr. Nelson asks Derek what he is looking for, what outcomes he hopes to achieve from social interaction. Again Derek shares part of the issue but holds big pieces back. But what he gains from the session is that maybe he needs to find ways to be around people that don’t make him feel like a Creepy Lurker. He could get a job, or volunteer somewhere. He could take his neighbors the salsa he’s been making.

Derek has a hard time imagining any of that happening. But then again, six months ago he would’ve had a hard time imagining himself living in a cottage by the ocean and going to therapy twice a week.

He supposes nothing is impossible.

**

Derek spends a few days looking around the small town and considering his options.

There’s a small house on a quiet side street that functions as the local library. An elderly woman seems to be the sole librarian, and the posted hours are basically “when Eunice feels like being here the library is open.” It actually says “hours vary” but when Derek stops by a few times and finds the library closed at various times, he determines this is more of a labor of love than an actual library.

Eunice is sassy. When Derek finally finds the library open and goes inside to inquire about getting a library card, she takes great delight in making him uncomfortable.

“If I’d known you were waiting for me, honey, I would’ve gotten here sooner,” she says with a wink, her giant earrings clattering as she moves behind the counter.

Derek doesn’t know what to say to that, so he busies himself reading the small signs posted. A few other patrons trickle in. There’s a mother with two kids who make a beeline for the children’s section in what would be a front bedroom if this were still a house. A retired man heads to the gardening section in the dining room.

There are notices for the monthly book club and for a knitting circle that meets every other week. Derek doesn’t know how to ask if Eunice needs help. He’s not even sure he wants to help. He just knows he likes to read and libraries have always felt like safe spaces.

“Okay, sugar,” Eunice says and slides the registration card across the counter to him. “Sign at the bottom.”

Derek dutifully signs the card. The form looks like it was made with an ancient dot matrix printer and then photocopied so many times it’s barely visible anymore. He glances at the stack of books next to the counter. All of the spines have a tag indicating their place in the Dewey Decimal system created with a typewriter. He also notices that the card catalogue is actually a little chest of drawers with typed 3x5 cards inside.

“Did you do all this?” Derek finally gets the courage to ask. He doesn’t know if he’s impressed or horrified on behalf of the twenty first century and all of its technological advances. Of course Derek’s own understanding of technology is a basic working knowledge of his MacBook and iPhone. So if he’s noticing the library is behind the times, that’s saying something.

“Been workin’ here since ’67,” she says with a smile. “I think some of the older books had their place before I got here. But I’ve done everything since then.”

Derek nods stiffly and looks around. The library is cluttered and very, very full. But it’s neatly kept. There are plants on the top of bookshelves and kitschy knick knacks and children’s artwork in frames propped up in any available empty space. It doesn’t have the austere and professional look of a larger library in a bigger town, but it is clearly a warm and well cared for space.

It’s on the tip of his tongue to ask if he can help somehow, but then the retired gentleman is behind him waiting to check out his book, and Derek loses his nerve. He takes one more look around and then leaves.

**

But Derek goes back. He takes the book he’s been reading and walks to the library. He waits on the front steps when he finds the library closed. Sure enough, 20 minutes later Eunice appears carrying a tiny dog.

“I was hoping yesterday wasn’t the last I’d see of you,” she says and gives him a flirty smile. She thrusts the dog at him as she digs through her purse for the key.

The dog peers up at him like it knows something is different about Derek. Derek flashes his eyes at the dog and it looks down and away. Submissive.

“He usually squirms more,” Eunice says as she collects the dog from Derek after opening the door.

“What’s his name?” Derek asks, smiling as the dog steals a glance at him.

“This is Gawain,” she says.

“Like the knight?” Derek asks, amused. The dog bears no resemblance to a knight.

“My Frank said a brave name would make him seem less timid,” Eunice says and gives the dog an apologetic look as she sets him down. “His words, not mine.” The dog trots off toward the back room. “He’s always been a squirrelly little thing. Afraid of his own shadow, weird around strangers. We picked him up from a rescue a few years back. He goes almost everywhere I go, mostly because if I leave him at home I find him under the bed shivering when I get home.” She shrugs and sets her purse down on the counter.

Derek smiles and looks past her to where Gawain is peering around the corner at him. He looks away quickly and after a few minutes Derek hears him drinking from a water dish.

“So what do you need today?” Eunice asks once she’s hung up her jacket and puttered around behind the counter.

Derek looks around at the small open area, the living room of the original house, he supposes. There are no other patrons, the big chairs that were occupied last time he was here are open. He shrugs. “Just wanted a place to read.”

She smiles at him and makes a “be my guest” sort of gesture. So Derek situates himself in the bigger of the two chairs. He pulls his book out and settles into his spot.

Eunice answers a few phone calls, waters plants, collects books from the book drop outside. She processes the books and reshelves them. Gawain positions himself where he can both keep an eye on Derek and track Eunice’s movements.

Derek loses himself in his book after that, looking up only when other people enter and leave again. A family with four kids tornado in at one point, knocking things over and sending Gawain running for cover in the back room. The parents attempt to keep the kids quiet, but it’s a losing battle. They seem to be there mostly to return books and then re-arm themselves with a new supply.

Eunice takes it in stride. She doesn’t coo over kids like some women of the grandmotherly age might. But neither does she seem distressed by their whirlwind of activity. Eunice rolls with the punches.

Around 1:30 she appears in front of his chair. “Honey, I’m done for the day I think,” she says and flashes a quick smile. “I’m old, and I need a nap.”

Derek huffs a polite laugh, but closes his book and stands to go.

“You’re welcome any time,” she continues. “My hours are hit and miss, but I’m happy to have the company.”

Derek smiles at her, unsure what to say. He likes the little library. He’s enjoyed reading and knowing Eunice and her little dog were nearby, even without much interaction. He nods and collects his things. The dog is cradled in Eunice’s arms and peers at him curiously from under his mop of hair. Derek reaches his hand out for Gawain to sniff and then scratches the dog under the chin.

“He doesn’t like most people,” Eunice says again, a little in awe.

Derek almost says something about not really being like most people, but keeps it to himself, just smiles and holds the front door open for Eunice. He takes Gawain briefly while she locks the door.

“Have a good afternoon,” Derek says politely as they part ways on the street.

“You too, sugar,” Eunice says with a little wave as she heads in the opposite direction.

**

The fourth day Derek spends at the library he offers to help Eunice carry in the stack of books from the book drop out front.

“Oh thank you, honey,” she says. “I can do it, mind you. But it’s nice to have help.”

He follows her, dutifully carrying the stack of books, and then he helps her sort them into categories and reinsert their cards and update her filing system to indicate the books were returned.

“You could keep this all on a computer,” Derek suggests when they’re done.

“With what budget?” She says with a rueful smile. “This place runs on practically nothing. Lord knows why I keep showing up.”

Derek doesn’t say anything, just watches her bustle around efficiently.

“Frank left money to the city to keep the library when he passed,” she says after a silence. “His way of getting around my direction that he should leave the money to charity, and I could take care of myself.” She sighs. “He was a tricky one. And this way he knows the city keeps the library, and I keep my job, and I can’t really hold it against him since he technically followed my wishes. But someday,” she says and shakes her fist toward the sky. “Or maybe—” she shakes her fist at the ground. “With him you can’t be too sure. He could be either place.”

Derek barks out a laugh. Eunice looks at him with a surprised smile. “So Gawain and I come here every day. Better than being alone. If I didn’t do this, I expect no one would. A town without a library is a dying town.”

Derek swallows. It sounds like something his mom would say and that makes his chest tighten. Gawain sighs heavily and rests his head on his paws and gives Derek an appraising glance before looking off toward the front door.

Around noon, Derek’s stomach growls in hunger. Eunice has been helping an older woman pick out books in the fiction section. They’ve been laughing and glancing at Derek, and he’s been purposefully not using his werewolf hearing to listen in. He suspects they’re looking for a book that has some sort of sexual content. He’d rather not ponder old women thinking about sex, so he decides to walk down to the market to grab some lunch. Eunice is finishing up with the lady and taking her place behind the counter, and on a whim he stops by the desk.

“I’m going to get some lunch from the market,” he says quietly. “Can I get you something?”

She smiles brightly at him. “Well, aren’t you perfect,” she says and gives him a nod. “I wouldn’t say no to a chicken salad croissant and an iced tea.”

Derek nods once and raps his knuckles on the desk.

It’s a pretty day, warmer than the last few have been. The sky is clear and sunny instead of grey. Usually the fog rolls in and socks in the coastline for much of the morning. In the summer it often burns off by lunch, but this time of year it gives way to colder, grayer days that linger. Today is an exception.

It’s a pleasant weather for walking down Main Street to the little market, and Derek realizes he’s in a good mood. It’s not a feeling he’s used to, and the near bounce in his step is a foreign feeling. He orders soup and a sandwich for himself and eats it on the patio, watching people pass by and enjoying the sun. When he’s done he orders Eunice her sandwich and iced tea and heads back to the library.

“I knew I liked you,” Eunice says with a grateful smile as she takes a big bite of croissant.

Derek smiles back as he takes his spot and returns to his book. Eunice keeps the library open until 4:00 that day.

**

Stiles texts him later that night.

Stiles: what do you do all day anyway

Derek: things

Stiles: evil things?

Derek huffs a laugh.

Derek: Today I was at a library. Ate lunch outside. Walked home. Things.

Stiles: Hmmm

Stiles: Not believable. Do not accept.

Derek: You’re right

Derek: I sold drugs to school children and beat people up. Another day at the office.

Stiles: More like it

Stiles sends a picture giving Derek a sarcastic thumbs up.

Derek’s struck by how thin and pale Stiles’ face looks. It’s been two weeks since Derek asked if Stiles has spoken with anyone about his nightmares. Their texts since then have focused on TV shows and Stiles’ brief description of whatever supernatural run-ins he and Scott have had. Not many, apparently. Deaton managed to find a protection spell that seems to be working to mask the pull of the Nemeton. Instead of the barrage they’d expected, it’s more of a periodic omega werewolf or a power hungry amateur witch—things the group can handle without much trouble.

Derek: I’m at the beach

Stiles: !! I promise not to tell the mafia

Stiles: What beach???? Where? Mexico? Hawaii? Bahamas?

Derek: Why is this so interesting to you?

Stiles: because dude

Stiles: You just disappeared. Scott still thinks you’re coming back. Even after they knocked over the warehouse. He is steadfast.

Derek: He’s Scott

Derek smiles. If Scott gave up that easily, he wouldn’t be the Scott Derek came to know. Stubborn, sure of himself, always believing the best thing would happen, that good would win out in the end.

Stiles: He is

Derek thinks about how he wants to respond, how much he wants to share.

Derek: I’m not out of the country

He’s not sure why he’s keeping it a secret. It’s not a secret, really. Mostly he just likes messing with Stiles. He chooses not to examine that too closely.

Stiles: Well that’s good

Stiles texts an incomprehensible series of emojis.

Derek: Why’s that?

Stiles: Dunno

The little text bubble indicating Stiles is typing appears and disappears several times, and Derek’s just about convinced Stiles isn’t going to respond at all.

Stiles: feel safer knowing we might possibly be in the same time zone. Don’t let it go to your head.

Derek doesn’t know what to say to that. So he picks what looks like a smug emoji and sends it back to Stiles and then sets his phone on his bedside table and goes to brush his teeth.

**

Derek spends the rest of the week at the library. He brings his laptop along, and when he finishes the book he’s been reading he does some research on his computer. He wants to make sure he knows what he’s talking about before he approaches Eunice, but he thinks even someone that’s not very tech savvy might be able to solve some of her problems.

He’s tried to figure out her system. It’s not incomprehensible, but it also isn’t user friendly, either for the patrons or for anyone trying to help her.

Derek can see why she doesn’t have volunteers. The system makes sense to Eunice, but anyone else would be frustrated. Over the years she’s probably adopted the “it’s just easier if I do it” approach. Hence the reason the library closes when she’s away.

During the school year when the tourists have mostly gone home, the library is less in demand. But even so, there’s a steady stream of people who check out books and ask Eunice for help and want to talk about the next book club selection. Eunice is a big part of the library’s appeal. She’s just sarcastic enough to be interesting, but she’s still patient when people don’t know what they’re looking for. She gives gardening advice and offers cooking tips when someone is browsing through those sections. She chats up the lonely single men who stop by regularly, a group to which Derek realizes he technically belongs.

The library is a special place, and it runs entirely because Eunice wants it to. If she were to get sick or move to Florida or any number of other things, it might not be a task someone else would be willing to take on. It’s her labor of love.

He brings it up in his therapy session at the end of the week.

“So you’ve been spending time in the library then?” Dr. Nelson asks, glasses sliding down his nose, giving Derek a look over top of them.

“Well, yeah,” Derek says, wondering if it’s somehow a sign of mental illness to spend time in a library. “And I think, maybe— I’ve been thinking I could help Eunice. The librarian.”

“Has she asked for help?”

“Well, no,” Derek admits, and as usual he finds himself analyzing why Dr. Nelson asked the question. “You think I butt in on people’s business too much?”

Dr. Nelson smiles. “I didn’t say that. Do you think you butt into people’s business too much?”

Derek makes a frustrated sound. “I hate when you do that.”

“Why did you assume that was what I was asking?” Dr. Nelson asks as he jots a note down in his book.

Derek hates when he’s said something noteworthy.

“Because you always mean something,” Derek says. He leans back in the chair until his head is resting on the back and he can see the ceiling. “You’re thinking that I always try to save people from things they don’t want to be saved from. Right?”

“That’s interesting,” Dr. Nelson says and makes another note.

Derek hasn’t told him about the werewolf stuff, obviously. But he has found a way to talk about taking Scott under his wing after his uncle tried to manipulate him, and Scott misinterpreting his offer of help because it felt like an attack. He’s found a way to tell Dr. Nelson about Boyd and Erica and Isaac. About how he tried to help them with their problems and only made things worse.

“But I mean, sometimes I actually might be able to help,” Derek protests, realizing he’s arguing with himself since Dr. Nelson wasn’t actually the one who suggested this line of thinking. Tricky.

“What do you think the difference is between a sincere offer of help and stepping over the line?”

Derek sighs and regrets bringing any of this up. He closes his eyes and thinks about just shutting down for the rest of the session. He’s done it before, just stopped answering the questions thoughtfully. Dr. Nelson will leave him alone, let him think. Derek knows this. But it’s also the easy way out.

He swallows. “Maybe… maybe not giving someone a choice? Or… deciding for them? Taking over?”

Dr. Nelson nods slightly and makes another note in his book.

“Sometimes, if someone is in danger or the stakes are high, sometimes you can’t, like, discuss this stuff with people. Sometimes you just have to do what’s best for them.”

“Well then,” Dr. Nelson says, closing his book after glancing at his watch. “This makes a good exercise for you then. This isn’t a life or death situation. So your homework is to to tell Eunice your idea to make the library more efficient and user-friendly. And report back about what happens in your next session.”

Derek looks down at his hands.

“And if you can’t do it before the next session, then I want you to at least think about why you can’t or won’t. What is stopping you and what would have to happen for that to feel like a conversation you’re willing to initiate?”

Derek nods and stands. It ends as abruptly as the sessions usually do. Their allotted time is up, and the doctor has to ready himself for the next patient. Derek is left to drive the half hour back to his cottage and mull over everything said.

**

It’s so much easier to just bully into a situation and solve a problem. Derek’s natural inclination is either to stay out of everything completely or to come in and make the necessary changes without asking a lot of questions first.

He does more research into library management software and asks Stiles some computer-related questions during one of their text exchanges.

Stiles: are you stealing something?

Derek: yep bank heist about to go down. Want in?

Stiles: depends

Derek: on what?

Stiles: are you wearing all black? Are there masks? do you have a get away driver? is anyone tunneling anywhere?

Derek snorts and shakes his head as he sets his phone down on the counter of his small kitchen. He chugs a bottle of water before replying.

Derek: tunneling as we speak.

Derek: Stop distracting me.

Stiles: Ummm you texted me first this time, buddy.

Derek: I have no idea what I was thinking.

Stiles: probably something like you know what this heist needs? More Stiles.

Derek: You are the cowbell of heists.

Stiles: HA! A+ on the reference. Respect.

Derek rolls his eyes. It doesn’t take much to impress Stiles. He seems to have this picture of Derek as a nearly feral woods-dweller who just recently acquired language and fire. The Nell of werewolves.

Stiles: No but really. What are you doing?

Derek hesitates momentarily and then decides there’s no reason not to tell Stiles what he’s doing, really. All the caginess is kind of dumb.

Derek: Researching library management software.

Stiles:

Stiles follows that up with a bunch of surprised looking emoji faces.

Stiles: literally the last thing I thought you’d say

Derek: Yeah well I live to surprise you.

Stiles: Har har but seriously what?

Derek: Long story. I’ve been spending time in a small techless library. Thinking of trying to help.

There’s a longer gap in the conversation than Derek had anticipated his explanation would produce.

Stiles: Mind. Blown

Stiles: Okay, I’ll research scanners and stuff. Let you know

Derek smiles and feels a little surge of something like affection in his stomach.

Derek: Thanks

Stiles: No problem keep ya posted

**

Derek doesn’t tell Eunice his idea. Another therapy session has come and gone and Derek still hasn’t done it. But it hasn’t felt right yet.

Eunice recommends a couple of books after he finishes his most recent choice, and Gawain now lays by his feet while Derek reads. Sometimes Eunice brings him a muffin in the morning. He doesn’t want to do anything that might make all of that less comfortable.

“So you’ve been coming in here for almost a month, honey,” Eunice says to him one day after he gets back with her lunch. “You clearly don’t work. You don’t seem to be homeless. You smell nice and have clean clothes. So what’s your story?”

She peers at him from her perch behind the counter. The library is empty other than the two of them, so she doesn’t bother whispering.

“No story,” he says. “Was just looking for a change of scenery. Found a place to rent by the water.”

She nods, but her eyes narrow suspiciously.

“It’s nothing bad,” he says when she seems to wait for him to continue. “It’s not that interesting a story.” Which isn’t true, obviously. He’s a werewolf, and nearly all of his family died in a fire his older girlfriend set when he was 16. His uncle killed his sister. He’s been hanging out almost exclusively with high schoolers. He’s been kidnapped and tortured and buried the pieces of a body he hopes won’t find a way to come back to life. So yeah, it’s not exactly a boring story.

“Don’t get me wrong,” she says, voice softening. “I don’t mind the company.” She shuffles papers around on the counter. “But a handsome man your age doesn’t usually spend most days reading books in the town library and talking to an old woman and her dog. So you see why I might be curious.”

Derek does. And really, he’s pretty impressed it took her this long to ask. He’s seen the looks she’s given him, heard the whispers of townspeople when they’ve realized he’s in the library again. The fact that she’s managed to keep her questions to herself for this long is one of the reasons Derek feels comfortable around her.

He nods. “I like quiet. I left— my last situation was— things were tense all the time,” he finally says. “I just wanted to be somewhere peaceful. The coast is peaceful. This town is quiet. The library is— I feel comfortable here.”

She smiles and nods her head once, like she’s decided something. “I’m glad, honey.”

“Can I—” Derek feels like he’s allowed to ask questions now that he answered Eunice’s with a degree of honesty. “Can I help with anything?” he finally settles on. It’s a starting point anyway.

“Like what?” she asks, eyebrows raised. “You already bring the book drop books in every morning.”

Derek huffs a laugh. “I could help you shelve books. Tidy up. Whatever you’d like.”

“I can’t pay you, Derek,” she says.

“I know that,” he rushes to reassure her. “I don’t mean it like that. Just— I’m here anyway. So if there are things I could help out with, I like to be busy.”

“Well, tonight is book club,” Eunice says after a few beats of consideration. “You could help push the furniture around to make room for the circle. Maybe lug the coffee maker up from the basement?”

“Of course,” Derek says and stands to oblige.

“You could come to book club, you know,” Eunice says over the top of her glasses.

“I didn’t read the book,” Derek says, grateful to have such a straightforward excuse.

“I don’t think the ladies would mind,” Eunice says with a wicked sort of smile. “People have been asking after you. I’m the Derek expert. Women stop me at the coffee counter and in the grocery store and when I’m walking Gawain.”

Derek’s face heats. He looks down at his feet, unsure how to respond.

“But book club isn’t a requirement for hanging around the library,” Eunice says when she notices his discomfort. “You’re welcome if you’d like to come. And I can try to beat the ladies back with my purse if they come on too strong. If that’s the problem.”

Derek smiles. “Maybe next month,” he says finally, as he follows her directions down to the basement and searches through the dusty boxes for the coffee maker as Eunice shouts suggested locations to him from the top of the stairs.

**

Stiles texts him late that night.

Stiles: whatcha doing?

Derek: Trying to sleep. Like you should be.

Stiles: Oookay gramps

Derek: What do you need Stiles?

Stiles: seeing if you were up

Derek: is something wrong?

Stiles: I mean… no

Derek: Which means yes. What happened?

Stiles doesn’t respond for a couple of minutes.

Stiles: You know Malia

Derek: I’m familiar.

Stiles: Right well when we were in Eichen we like hooked up

Derek’s suddenly not sure this is a conversation he wants to be having. But he did ask.

Derek: Okay

Stiles: Right. So she sort of thinks we’re dating

Derek: And you’re not?

Stiles: I like her. And we’ve been trying to help her get used to being you know not a coyote anymore or whatever

Derek lets out a slow breath.

Derek: She’ll need help with control.

Stiles: Right. Scott and I helped with her first full moon since she came back and stuff. And she’s funny in a weird way. I like her.

Derek: But…

Stiles: Right. But I don’t think I like her like her

Derek: But you had sex with her.

Stiles: In Eichen! Everything was very stressful and it was kind of like a drowning feeling. I didn’t know if I’d survive.

Derek understands that actually, even if he’d rather not be talking about Stiles’ sex life.

Derek: I get it.

Stiles: Yeah? Well, I mean she just keeps coming over here? Like through the window at night. Sleeps with me and stuff. Just sleep. Not the other, not since. But she obviously thinks, you know. And I feel like a dick. Which is making it even harder to sleep.

Derek grinds his jaw and resists the urge to call Scott and tell him to get a handle on the Stiles situation. He’s clearly not okay. Derek hasn’t asked again about therapy, but it seems like something Stiles might mention if it was happening. He’s apparently in a relationship he doesn’t want to be in but feels guilty about ending. He doesn’t need more guilt. Someone needs to do something.

Derek weighs what he should say and decides to be direct.

Derek: You need to end it, Stiles. It’s a much bigger kindness than to lead her on and let her think something that isn’t true.

Stiles: She’s my friend though. I don’t want her to hate me.

Derek: The longer you let it go without saying something, the more likely she will resent you.

Stiles: Yeah

Derek: People break up. It happens. It doesn’t make you a bad person.

Stiles doesn’t say anything for a long time, and Derek thinks maybe he fell asleep.

Stiles: I wish stuff could just be easy. For once

Derek bites his lip. He left because he wanted things to be easier. He gave up on Beacon Hills. On Scott’s pack. And in a sense on Stiles. He doesn’t really have a lot of room to talk about sticking it out through hard times.

Derek: Talk to Malia. That’s something with a solution. Focus on things you can control right now.

Stiles: Yeah good talk coach

Derek rolls his eyes.

Derek: Go to sleep Stiles.

**

“Derek,” Eunice calls to him the next day, and he looks up from his book.

He glances around and realizes the library is busier than usual. He’s gotten good at blocking out the noise of his surroundings now that he isn’t on high alert for danger. He can’t decide if it should worry him that he’s let his defenses down enough that the library filled with people, most of them loud children, and he didn’t even notice it.

He steps to the desk where Eunice is helping an older gentleman.

“Could you round up the kids and read them a story in the children’s section?” Eunice asks, eyes a little frantic, which is unusual for her. It takes a lot to rattle her, and Derek realizes that the noise level of the library has elevated enough that the few regulars are looking around like they’re planning their escape.

“Oh,” Derek says, surprised that’s the solution Eunice came up with. “Umm. Yeah. Okay.”

He did say he wanted to help out, and apparently this is helpful to Eunice right now. There’s a five year old boy chasing his younger sister through the furniture maze in the middle of the room, shrieking delightedly every time he manages to catch her. They are there with their bewildered grandmother who gives Derek an apologetic smile.

“Hey guys,” Derek says, trying out a voice he hopes sounds authoritative yet warm. He keeps in mind that Stiles used to tease him for having the face of a serial killer and smiles.

The brother and sister look up in unison.

“It’s story time,” Derek says, because apparently it is, even if it’s not technically something anyone was planning on.

“You do voices?” the little boy asks, looking up at Derek.

“Sure,” Derek says because the library is now blessedly shriek-free, and Eunice is shooting him appreciative looks.

The kids cheer and run toward the children’s section. Derek follows and picks up a couple of books from the display table. This isn’t a part of the library Derek has investigated before. It’s decorated with stuffed animals and bright prints from the pages of famous children’s books. His mom would’ve loved it, and Derek swallows past a thickness in his throat as he realizes that.

There’s a bean bag chair in the middle of the space that the kids dive for. Derek perches on the edge of the lone adult-sized chair and flips the book around so they can see the pictures. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble is first.

“Do the voices,” the little girl whispers when Derek reads the first bit of dialogue in his regular voice.

“Oh right,” Derek says apologetically and pauses to decide how a donkey named Sylvester would sound talking about a magic pebble.

He’s never read the book before and is wrapped up in the story, in the sadness of Sylvester’s family losing him for an entire year and then wishing him back into existence. The kids listen with rapt attention, and when he’s finished, Derek looks up to find his audience has grown to two other kids and a couple adults. He smiles shyly as the kids clap.

“Another!” the little boy squeals, and Derek picks up If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and dutifully reads and does the voices without being asked.

“Yay!” the little girl cheers when Derek is done. The two new arrivals clap their hands and scramble to take the books from him so they can page through them on their own.

“Thank you,” the beleaguered grandmother says to him as he rises from his chair. “They’re staying with me while their parents are on a vacation, and they’re a handful.”

Derek smiles awkwardly. “You’re welcome.”

“How often is story hour?” she asks somewhat desperately.

Derek looks over at Eunice who is nodding at him encouragingly. “Umm. Well, we could do it again tomorrow at this time if you want.”

“Oh! That would be lovely. We’ll look forward to that,” she says as she rounds up her grandkids and moves to the desk to check out a few books.

Derek gives a little wave and then settles back in his comfy chair.

“Thank you,” Eunice says after several minutes.

He looks up from his book and nods. “I told them I’d read again tomorrow.”

“Do you mind?” she asks in a horrible attempt to seem like she doesn’t really care one way or the other.

Derek shrugs. “I can’t do it every day. I have something I have to do on Friday. But tomorrow I will.”

“Oh I know. Tuesday and Friday you mysteriously disappear for most of the day,” Eunice says. “I know your schedule by now, dear.”

“Should I vary my pattern to keep you on your toes?” Derek jokes, again surprised it doesn’t bother him that Eunice has been paying attention.

Eunice smiles, eyes twinkling. “Not on my account,” she says and pats his shoulder. “It’s nice to have something to depend on.” She winks at him and heads back to the counter.

**

Derek sits on his back deck overlooking the ocean and Skypes with Cora. The last couple of times she initiated a call it was too foggy or dreary outside for Derek to give her a proper view of the ocean. But it’s sunny and clear, so Derek called Cora. It’s a normal conversation for them, filled with the mundane parts of their lives, skirting around the deeper stuff they should probably talk about. Derek doesn’t tell her about his therapy or mention much about his time at the library. They’ve never talked about what happened to him when Kate last kidnapped him, just that he was safe again. They don’t discuss Peter’s latest trip to Canada to look for distant relatives of his deceased wife, or if Cora is ever coming back to California. But at least they talk.

It’s not quite natural yet, but it’s better than not talking at all.

“Looks good, bro,” she says after he’s finished pointing the computer around the small backyard and his view of the ocean.

“If you want to come for the holidays,” Derek says, trying to keep his voice even, “there’s room. This is where I’ll be.”

She doesn’t say anything, just hums noncommittally. Derek’s phone buzzes in his pocket. It’s the middle of the day, and he’s talking to the only person other than Stiles who really texts him.

“You should get that,” she says.

“It’s fine,” he says. “So you have other plans for Christmas?”

“Might go to my boyfriend’s family’s place,” she says softly. “Just… you know. I wasn’t sure where you’d be.”

Derek nods and tries not to feel resentful. Thanksgiving is coming up in just a couple of days, and Peter hasn’t communicated much since setting off on his Canadian quest. It’s a long way for Cora to travel so close to Christmas, so he assumed she wouldn’t come home for Thanksgiving. But for some reason he had assumed they’d be together for Christmas. He’s surprised to find how much it bothers him that they won’t be. It hasn’t been that long since he’s even known she was still alive. He spent so many years mourning her death, thinking she’d died with the rest of the family in the fire. It’s still hard to get used to the fact that she’s alive and living in South America.

Derek forgets sometimes what it feels like to have family. But Cora is family, and family should be together on holidays.

His phone buzzes again, and he absentmindedly presses his hand against it in his pocket.

“Looks like you’ve got a good set up,” Cora says gently. “I’m glad you’re out of Beacon Hills, Der.”

Derek swallows. “Yeah,” he says around an unexpected thickness in his throat. “Seemed like it was time.”

“I’ll let you know for sure about Christmas,” she says after a few beats of awkward silence. “And if not at Christmas, another time. I promise.”

Derek smiles knowing that the last place his sister probably wants to be on one of her breaks from school is with her older brother. “Sure.”

“Later, D,” she says with a smile.

“Bye Cora,” he says and ends the call.

He pulls his phone out of his pocket and sees that it’s Stiles who texted.

Stiles: Got suspended

Derek raises his eyebrows.

Derek: For what?

The phone rings in reply, and Derek picks it up without waiting to see who the call is from.

“Harris,” Stiles says with exasperation in his voice. “My chemistry teacher. Hates me.”

It’s the first time they’ve spoken on the phone, and Derek isn’t sure if that’s an indication of the size of the problem or just Stiles’ lack of someone else to talk to in the middle of the day.

“What happened?” Derek asks, closing his laptop and sitting back in the deck chair.

“Are you outside?” Stiles asks instead of answering. “I hear nature.”

Derek snorts. “I’m outside. Yes.”

“I hear the ocean,” Stiles says suspiciously.

Derek rolls his eyes. “That does happen when you live by the ocean. Does this change what happened with your teacher?”

Stiles sighs exaggeratedly. “Maybe. Possibly.”

Derek waits him out, knowing that Stiles needs to talk about whatever this is or he wouldn’t have called.

“I fell asleep in class,” Stiles says finally. “And then when Harris woke me up he was a huge asshole about it. And I just— I haven’t been able to stop myself from saying the shitty stuff I usually just think in my head. Lately. After—”

After the Nogistune possession, Derek hears in the empty space. “It’s because you’re exhausted, Stiles.”

“Or—”

“You aren’t still possessed,” Derek says firmly.

“How do you know that? You don’t know that.”

Derek isn’t a reassuring person. He’s out of practice with advice-giving, but he hears the quiet fear in Stiles’ voice. He knows this isn’t something Stiles has said out loud before. So Derek methodically recounts for Stiles the way the pack got rid of the Nogistune, the way they trapped the last firefly in a box made from the Nemeton tree.

Derek wasn’t there for that part, but he’s heard the story. He pressed Deaton for details when he was back in Beacon Hills after his captivity in Mexico.

Stiles exhales slowly. “Yeah.”

Derek has no idea why he’s the one Stiles is talking to. Surely Scott was at school with him when it happened. Scott knows the whole story, knows the teacher in question, knows what Stiles has been going through the past few months in a way Derek can’t.

But Stiles called Derek. So Derek has to think of something to say. “You’re still not sleeping?” He finally asks. “Why?”

“Just— lots of, you know,” Stiles says hesitantly. “I can’t get my brain to stop. And when I do I have the dreams. Things kind of intensify in the dreams.” He hears Stiles swallow.

Derek feels completely lost for what’s expected of him. He does better when they’re sniping at each other or making jokes. He can carry on a conversation about the latest Netflix show he’s watching, listen to Stiles rambling about high school politics. But this is real, and Derek’s never been good at the reality of communication and the navigational skills required to steer through feelings and tougher topics.

“Have you talked to someone?” he says finally, because it’s still clear that’s what Stiles should do. He was possessed by an ancient demon that used his body to do unspeakable things to people Stiles cares about. And apparently, if Deaton is to be believed, Stiles remembers a lot of what happened, which has to make him feel even guiltier, like he should’ve been able to stop it.

Stiles is quiet. “Yeah, I don’t know,” he says vaguely. “I can’t. I mean, I don’t think I can go back there.”

“Where?”

“Eichen House,” Stiles says with a small voice.

Derek’s stomach twists. Stiles tried so hard to beat back the demon, and before they realized what was wrong, he fought against his own feelings of instability, of losing himself and leaving his dad to deal with another tragedy. “There’s a lot of space between therapy and Eichen House, Stiles.”

Derek can’t see Stiles, but he can picture the way he’s probably fidgeting in the silence that follows. The way he’s chewing his lower lip. The way he’s jimmying his knee up and down like he’s about to crawl out of his skin.

I’m talking to someone,” Derek says finally, surprised at himself for sharing.

Stiles makes an interested noise. “What? Really?”

Derek shrugs and leans back in the deck chair and grounds himself to his current reality by staring out at the ocean. “Yeah,” he says.

It’s not that he’s had any breakthroughs or anything. Derek isn’t convinced he’s fixable yet. But somehow it helps to know there’s someone he can tell things to, the things he’s been scared to say out loud. At some point he’ll finally tell the therapist about Kate, about how he let her close when he was 16, about how she took his family, about how he can’t shake the feeling that it’s his fault.

But for now he feels good for making the drive to the next town over twice a week, for sitting in the big leather chair and talking about the easier things. About what he should do with his life. About missing Cora. About his anxiety over having to form relationships, even simple ones with the grocer and the people who make his coffee.

“That’s— I can’t picture that,” Stiles says finally, clearly attempting to work up the will for a joke of some sort.

“Yeah well.”

“No, I mean, good for you,” Stiles says. “Or whatever.”

Derek rolls his eyes.

“So you’re really, like, settled there,” Stiles says after a few beats of silence. “I mean, most people don’t engage a therapist when they’re on an extended vacation. Unless you’re at some spa for mental health and therapy is on the treatment list next to seaweed wraps and hot stone massage.”

Derek huffs a laugh. “Because that sounds like something I’d do. I am currently in a white robe and listening to pan flute music.”

Stiles snorts. “Well, true. But I also wouldn’t have thought I’d ever hear you say you were in therapy. So. Excuse me for feeling like everything I know about the world is wrong.”

“So you’re suspended,” Derek changes the subject. “That was dumb.”

“Your face is dumb,” Stiles says half-heartedly.

“Not your best work.”

Stiles sighs. “Yeah. System overload, really. Too many things I could say. You, therapy, dude in a cardigan smoking a pipe asking how you feel about things.”

“You’re an idiot,” Derek says automatically.

“See, and I doubt that’s a therapy-approved statement,” Stiles gloats.

“I’m supposed to talk about how I feel,” Derek says. “And I feel you are an idiot. So.”

Stiles laughs.

If Derek were a different person he’d figure out how to say the right thing to convince Stiles that he needs to talk to someone to process his guilt. But it took Derek almost eight years to make it to therapy. It took Derek many months, several kidnappings, the death of packmates, lots of violence and destruction for him to finally decide he’d had enough of Beacon Hills. That he wanted something different for himself. He doesn’t have a lot of credibility on the subject of appropriately processing pain and guilt and grief.

“Dad’s home,” Stiles says. “Gotta face his wrath. You can turn the pan flute music back up now.”

Derek smirks. “Bye Stiles.”

“Later, Derek.”

**

“I’m going to go out on a limb and assume you don’t have Thanksgiving plans, Derek,” Eunice says to him over top of her glasses while they sort the book drop the next morning.

Derek swallows. “No plans.”

“Don’t look so scared,” she says with sparkly eyes. “I understand if you’d rather not, but I’m making a turkey and having a couple of friends over for dinner tomorrow. I’d love to have you join us.”

Derek raises his eyebrows. His Thanksgiving plans are an extra-long run and watching some football. He’s going to stop by the grocery store on the way back home and grab something he could grill on the deck. He hadn’t considered adding anyone else to his day. “Oh.”

Eunice holds up her hands. “No pressure.” She slides a small card across the table. “This is my phone number and my home address. If you decide to come, bring a bottle of wine and show up at 6:00. If you decide you’d rather not, no hard feelings. I promise.” She squeezes his hand quickly and goes back to her work.

Derek pockets the card and decides he’ll think about her offer later.

When it’s time to leave the library that day, Eunice hands Gawain to Derek as she locks up. “Library’s closed tomorrow. And I know Friday you don’t usually come by. So if I don’t see you at dinner tomorrow, I’ll see you back here next week?”

Derek nods once. “Thank you— thanks,” he says as he hands Gawain back to Eunice. “For the invitation. If I don’t— I may not be able to come. But— but it’s nice of you. So, thanks.”

She smiles and reaches up with a small hand and gently pats his stubbly cheek. “I don’t need you to tell me your story, Derek. My life hasn’t always been what I thought it would be, and I haven’t followed a straight path to anywhere I’ve ever gone. But I know good people when I meet them. And you are good. I’m thankful for you, whether you come to dinner or not.”

She takes her hand away from his cheek and gives him one more smile before she turns down the road the opposite direction Derek has to walk to go to the grocery store and back to his house.

Derek watches her walk to the end of the block, feels the warmth on his cheek from where she touched him. He wonders momentarily why his first inclination is to keep people from knowing him well enough to care if he has plans on a holiday. And how Eunice managed to worm her way past his normal barriers of self-preservation anyway.

**

Stiles: I’m grounded

Derek: Well you did get suspended.

Stiles: Whose side are you on?

Derek: the side of truth

Stiles: I hate you

Derek: Stop texting then

Stiles:

Derek smiles and sets the phone down. He stopped at the grocery store and bought a steak to grill and some potatoes to roast. He even bought some tortilla chips to go with the salsa he’s been making the past few weeks. A splurge. He also picked up a pumpkin pie in the bakery section because it’s his favorite. He hasn’t had a slice of pumpkin pie since Laura died.

He still hasn’t decided if he’ll take Eunice up on her offer. But he wants to be prepared to have a nice day, a day that feels purposeful, even if it’s still a little pathetic.

Derek: So you’re grounded.

Stiles: right. So even though I would already be on vacation tomorrow and friday, I’m still grounded.

Derek: Because you’re suspended.

Stiles: Right. But if this wasn’t t-giving week I’d be at school tomorrow. So

Derek laughs.

Derek: That’s irrelevant. The grounding and the suspension don’t have to be the same length. You thought the sheriff would ground you for two days?

Stiles doesn’t respond, and Derek feels a wave of guilt. He was trying to vent, and Derek shut him down.

Derek: how long are you grounded for?

Stiles: Two weeks. Starting yesterday.

Derek: So you don’t get pie or something?

Stiles: No we’re still going to Scott’s. But I have to help my dad at the station all weekend. Going through files and shit. I barely escaped with my phone. He was going to take it from me. But I convinced him I’d need it if I were to run into danger.

Derek: You are a manipulative little shit.

Stiles sends him picture of himself grinning smugly.

Stiles: Yeah well… I’ve got a strong sense of self preservation.

Derek: Or something.

Stiles: Shut your face

Stiles: So… do you have t-giving plans?

Derek looks at the grocery bags on the counter.

Derek: sort of.

Stiles: brooding?

Derek: No.

Stiles: lol

Derek: Haven’t decided yet. But I was invited somewhere if I want to go.

Stiles: Somewhere… evil?

Derek rolls his eyes, but smiles in spite of himself.

Derek: No. The librarian invited me over.

Stiles: Smokin hot and uptight?

Derek: more like elderly and kind of a ball buster.

Stiles: Get it Derek.

Derek: You are grounded from communicating with me now. Only yourself to blame.

Derek throws the phone on the counter and smiles every time he gets a follow up text from Stiles trying to lure him back into a conversation.

**

Thanksgiving Day starts like every other day. Derek goes for a run, but instead of stopping for coffee at the counter in the market, Derek runs back home. Everything’s closed in the little town. There are very few cars on the street.

All the houses he passes are either completely dark (and seem empty) or the driveways are full of extra cars that signify a house full of guests.

It’s a bright sunny day. It’s chilly, but Derek sits on the back porch in a sweatshirt and reads for a while. He tries not to think about how he misses the library, how weird it feels not to be dragging the books in from the drop bin. How strange it is to read without Gawain snuggled close to his feet.

Stiles: happy t-giving you asshole

Derek: you sound just like a pilgrim.

Stiles: lol. srsly tho

Derek: yeah, you too. So Scott’s?

Stiles: Yeah I made a pie and dad bought rolls. That’s all we’re allowed to contribute

Derek: Melissa McCall is a smart woman.

Stiles: You know nothing of my cooking skills. I mash a mean potato

Derek: Sure.

Stiles: you decide what you’re doing?

Derek: well right now, this

Derek snaps a picture of his view of the ocean. His legs sprawled out on the Adirondack chair are visible, as is the book in his lap.

Stiles: that’s where you live?

Derek: yep

Stiles: Whoa nice

Derek: I like it.

Stiles: Can I see the house?

Derek considers saying no. But he’s trying not to be so defensive all the time. So he stands up and walks a few paces off the deck so he can get the back of the house in the shot. The blue shutters and the sprawling deck and the slightly overgrown yard are all visible.

Stiles: Dude

Stiles: I’m impressed

Derek: It’s not very big.

It’s not. Two bedrooms, one bathroom. It has a kitchen, living room, dining room and a deck. It’s a cottage more than a house, but it’s plenty big enough for him, and it came furnished. It’s supposed to be a seasonal rental, but the realtor said the owner didn’t mind a longer term arrangement if Derek was willing to sign a lease after his first month.

Stiles: It looks pretty great. Like a real house.

All Stiles has known of Derek’s living arrangements is either the burned out husk of a house he basically squatted in for the first few weeks he was back in Beacon Hills and then the abandoned train station where he attempted to build his pack and the loft in the warehouse building he’d purchased that was never quite finished, that was always suffering some damage or another from the monster of the week.

But that’s just a small fraction of his life. That husk of a house was once a big, happy place. After the fire, he and Laura ran to New York, and after a few temporary places they found a little apartment in Brooklyn that was on a quiet street and felt like home.

Derek: it is a real house

Stiles: :)

Derek: Did you talk to Malia?

Stiles: Sort of

Derek: Meaning…

Stiles: She didn’t seem to get it

Derek: Stiles

Stiles: I know ok. I know

Derek: You should try again.

Stiles: I will. Just after the holiday. The pack’s eating together at Scott’s. It seemed awkward to press it before that.

Derek: It’s never going to be easy.

Stiles: I know! I know I’ll try again later

Derek: how did she not get it?

Stiles: I think she thought I was telling her I wanted to spend more time with Scott. So she started inviting him over with her. I don’t even know

Derek: Does Scott know what you’re trying to do?

Stiles: I think so. He seemed confused too

Derek laughs, even though he shouldn’t, at the image of Malia attempting to take Stiles on a date with Scott in tow.

Stiles: Well enjoy your day with or without the librarian

Derek: thanks. Enjoy your dinner and your breakup.

Stiles: You are the worst person

Derek: I’m sure it’s one of the things you’re thankful for.

Stiles: I’ll be sure to mention it when melissa makes us go around the table

Derek smiles and pockets his phone.

**

His phone buzzes a couple hours later, and he’s surprised to see that it’s Scott.

Scott: Happy turkey day man

Derek: Thanks Scott

Scott: Stiles said hed talked to u

Derek: yeah he texted earlier

Derek isn’t sure how much Scott knows about how often he and Stiles text, so he’s purposefully vague.

Scott: glad he got in touch. u doin good?

Derek: yeah. you?

Scott: things are prtty good. Deaton found a spell to keep things quiet

Scott: Stiles is maybe not okay

Scott: did he tell u?

Derek doesn’t want to betray Stiles’ confidence, even if most of what they talk about is pretty stupid.

Derek: just that he’s tired.

Scott: yeah I thot so. Deatons workin on it

Derek feels relieved that at least someone else has noticed Stiles hasn’t recovered yet.

Derek: that’s good

Scott: he doesnt say much but i can tell hes not okay. think he thinks im mad about allison. but we’ll figure it out

Derek: I’m sure you will.

Scott: have a good day man

Derek: You too Scott.

Scott sends a thumbs up emoji to end the conversation in as Scott-like a way as possible.

**

Derek goes back and forth all afternoon about whether he’s going to Eunice’s house. But in the end, he grabs the bottle of wine he bought just in case and drives to the address she’d given him.

Her house is just like he thought it would be. It’s small but well-kept, with a big garden out front. He never told her he was coming, so he hesitates before he knocks. But the door opens anyway, like maybe she was watching for him.

Eunice gives him a big smile and ushers him inside. “Derek, good. You brought wine. You’ve always been good at following directions.”

Gawain wags his weird stubby tail, and Derek bends down to give him a chin scratch.

“Come meet the group,” Eunice says and leads him toward the kitchen.

There’s a man Derek recognizes from the library, Stan apparently. Derek nods and shakes his hand when they’re introduced. Then there’s Dorothy and Paul, married and a few years younger than Eunice, Derek guesses. They both nod approvingly at him. And then finally there’s Maureen, who grins mischievously at Derek.

“None of us believed Eunice when she told us she was dating a handsome younger man,” Maureen says as Derek shakes her hand.

His face heats, and he cuts a quick glance at Eunice only to find her laughing.

“Don’t pay any attention to Maureen,” Eunice says with a hand wave. “She’s a horrible person and feeds off the embarrassment of others. Like a discomfort vampire.”

But it’s good natured. Maureen makes a “pshaw” sound and then winks at Derek, and he takes a seat at the kitchen table.

“We’re almost ready for dinner, Derek,” Eunice says. “Can I get you something to drink? Wine? Beer? Something stronger so you can withstand Maureen?”

Derek huffs out a laugh. “Wine thanks,” he says. It won’t affect him like it does everyone else, but it feels rude to refuse.

They go back to the conversation they were apparently having about Dorothy and Paul’s “constantly horrible son” Andrew who’s “finding himself” in Brazil. It sounds like “finding himself” involves a lot of Paul and Dorothy’s money. But Paul’s a good storyteller, and Dorothy cracks jokes at the perfect beats. It seems like a coping mechanism to Derek. They’re worried about their son, but it’s also clear that they both process their fear through humor. They remind him of Stiles.

“Stop sending Andy money,” Maureen says as she takes another sip of her wine. “Make him move home, and I’ll keep an eye on him.” She winks at Derek.

Dorothy rolls her eyes. “AndREW, Maureen. Apparently part of finding himself was finding out he only wants to be called by his full name.”

“Well it’s about time,” Maureen says. “He’s 42.”

Derek chuckles and raises his glass at Maureen. He was picturing a 20 year old or something. It makes the stories even funnier.

“How old are you, Derek?” Maureen asks.

“Mo,” Eunice says with caution in her voice, as if she’d warned everyone against asking Derek anything personal.

Derek smiles. “23, almost 24,” he says.

“Are you finding yourself?” Maureen asks with a twinkle.

Derek laughs, but that is sort of what he’s doing. “Well,” he says and then stops. “Yeah, I guess I am.”

“And he doesn’t have to answer to us,” Eunice says loudly. “Dinner is ready. Paul, carry the turkey! Stan, grab the potatoes. Derek, sit far away from Maureen.”

Everyone laughs, and the small amount of tension that had built up dissipates instantly. Another of Eunice’s many talents.

Another is that she roasts a good turkey, and the mashed potatoes are the best he’s had since his mom was alive. Derek doesn’t say much during the meal, mostly just listens as Dorothy and Paul weave tales together, making the group laugh with the antics of their wandering son. He tries not to choke on his food as Maureen says inappropriate things that make everyone blush, and Stan sits quiet and stoic, once in awhile cutting looks at Eunice that make Derek wonder if he has intentions.

Before pie they go around the table and say one thing they’re thankful for. Eunice makes a point of saying that no one has to participate, but if “the spirit moves” they should share their gratitude.

As these are all people over the age of 65, their gratitude centers around their good health and some variation of family and friends.

Eunice finishes her ode to Gawain and her “friends who are like family” with “and I’m grateful I no longer have to haul the book drop books on my own, and that lunch magically appears on the counter most days.” She winks at Derek, and he drops his eyes to the table as his face heats.

It’s his turn if he wants to say something. It’s been a nice, unexpected sort of evening. He began the day pretty sure he wasn’t going to come. And now he feels like he had a real Thanksgiving. It’s been awhile since he’s had a traditional holiday.

“Well,” Derek says after the silence drags a few beats. “I’m thankful you let me join your dinner, even if I am ‘finding myself’” he uses air quotes and smiles at Dorothy and Paul who laugh softly and shake their heads. “And I’m thankful for fresh starts and unexpected friendships.” He looks at Eunice and smiles. That’s all he can really say without weighing down the evening with his complicated grief and twisted perspective. But it feels nice to simplify things a bit.

As he drives home (with a tupperware full of leftovers on the seat next to him), Derek thinks about what he’d say if he could be totally honest.

He’s thankful Kate is dead, and that he and Cora are not. Everything else is just part of what he’s figuring out.

And for now that’s enough.

**

Derek’s phone rings late one night a week after Thanksgiving.

“Stiles?” Derek answers, because while they text fairly regularly, he’s only called a couple of times and never without first checking to see if Derek is around.

“No,” the Sheriff contradicts. “Sorry, son.”

“Oh,” Derek says stupidly. There’s fear pooling in his stomach because if the Sheriff has Stiles’ phone it means something happened to Stiles. “What’s wrong?” he finally asks, ripping off the Band-Aid.

The Sheriff is quiet but Derek can still hear him breathing. “Where are you Derek?”

“My house?”

“No.” His voice sounds tired, weary. “Your location. Are you in California?”

“Oh. Yeah,” Derek says. “On the coast. Why?”

“Is it safe there?”

“Safe?”

“Monsters, hunters, whatever.”

“Oh,” Derek says. He feels like he’s been one step behind since he picked up the phone. “Seems to be. Kate— Kate Argent’s dead,” he says because he doesn’t know how much the Sheriff knows. “We have a truce with Chris Argent and the hunters he’s allied with. And I haven’t seen any other supernatural activity here. Nothing harmful anyway.”

“Good,” the Sheriff says and lets out a slow breath. “How much do you know about what’s been going on here?”

“Well, Stiles texts me most days, but it’s rarely substantive.”

“Yeah, well, that’s Stiles.”

Derek smiles. “Yeah. He’s said—” Derek considers not saying anything. It feels like a betrayal. “He’s not sleeping much.”

“Yeah,” the Sheriff agrees, voice shaky. “Not more than a couple hours a night. For months. He won’t— I’ve tried to get him to talk to someone. And then he stopped telling me when he didn’t sleep. I think he’s afraid I’m going to send him to Eichen House.”

“He mentioned that,” Derek admits.

“He’s isolated himself here,” the Sheriff says. “I don’t think he talks to Scott much outside of school. There’s a lot of Allison-related guilt there. And Scott’s been busy with the Alpha werewolf stuff, and Stiles says Scott has a new girlfriend. And Scott seems to think Stiles broke up with his girlfriend.”

“Yeah,” Derek says, although he never heard confirmation that Stiles actually broke up with Malia in a way she understood.

“Stiles is up in his room all the time. I don’t know— I don’t know what he does in there if he’s not sleeping. Is he talking to you?” His voice breaks, and Derek hears all the months of fear and worry. Probably some of it spilling over from even before the Nogistune possession, before he knew the full scope of what Stiles was involved in.

“He texts me,” Derek says. “We watch movies sometimes. But I mean, really, I don’t know what Stiles does.”

“He was suspended from school,” the Sheriff says. “Still couldn’t get him to talk to anyone.”

“He told me about the suspension.”

Derek is sorry he spent so many weeks being cagey with Stiles, keeping his whereabouts a secret like he was in witness protection. Not that knowing would’ve helped, but maybe it would’ve made Stiles feel less alone.

“Where is Stiles now?” Derek finally has the nerve to ask.

“I convinced him to take a pill so he’d sleep,” the Sheriff admits. “And— he’s going to hate that I called you, but I don’t know what else to do. I’m worried.”

“Me too,” Derek says in a small voice.

“I think it’s this place. Deaton told me about the Nemeton, about the power here. I know what the kids did to save us. I know why the Nogistune was able to possess him. I just think he needs to be somewhere else for a while.”

“You can’t send him to Eichen House though,” Derek says quickly. “I really don’t think it would help him.”

“No,” the Sheriff agrees. “That’s not what I was thinking.” There’s a pause. “I was thinking— winter break is coming up, and I was hoping maybe he could come stay with you for a few days. Maybe you could invite him? I don’t want him to think I’m trying to get rid of him.”

Derek exhales as his heart beats faster. “I don’t— why do you think it will be different here?”

“I think he feels safe around you,” the Sheriff says. “He talks about you a lot. I hear him telling Scott what he thinks you’d do when they’re problem-solving or researching something about the supernatural. He needs to be away from Beacon Hills. I can’t afford to take him on a vacation right now, and I don’t want to send him somewhere alone.”

Derek’s mind races through all of his possible objections. Stiles in his space, invading his sanctuary, bringing Beacon Hills to his quiet, drama-free town. Derek’s new life under the careful observation of Stiles, who likes to tease and never lets anything go.

But Cora isn’t coming for Christmas. She’s confirmed that now. So there’s room.

“I’ll ask him,” Derek finally relents. “I can’t promise he’ll want to come though. You might have to be more direct with him.”

“If he says no, I’ll be surprised,” the Sheriff says, relief flooding his voice. “Thank you.”

“No promises,” Derek says again. He fully expects Stiles to reply to the invitation with some sort of sarcastic remark. Derek knows him well enough by now to know he won’t be unkind. But there’s no way Stiles wants to spend his Christmas vacation alone with Derek.

“As long as you try,” the Sheriff says. “I’m desperate, Derek.”

Derek supposes he’d have to be to call a 23 year old former fugitive werewolf to help with the problem.

**

Derek starts to ask Stiles to come visit a couple of times and then chickens out. The part of him that chooses isolation over rejection is convinced Stiles will turn the invitation into a joke, will belittle their semi-friendship and make Derek regret even asking.

“I was thinking of asking a friend to visit,” Derek says in his next therapy session.

Dr. Nelson raises his eyebrows. “Why haven’t you?”

Derek swallows and leans back so his head is cradled by the back of the chair. “He might not want to come.”

Dr. Nelson smiles and writes something in his notebook. “Why don’t you think he would want to come?”

That’s the thing, isn’t it? Derek wants the therapist to tell him what to do, to tell him whether or not Stiles will say yes. Not make him pick apart his own brain to find the answers. He’s starting to feel like therapy is a little too “self-service” for “full service” prices.

“Our relationship is unconventional,” Derek says after searching for a way to explain what he and Stiles are to each other.

“Unconventional how?”

“We didn’t like each other for a long time,” Derek says and stares at his hands. “Then he saved my life a couple of times, and I don’t know… now we text, and he calls.”

The therapist taps his pen against his notebook and studies Derek. “Have you asked Eunice about digitizing the card catalogue at the library yet?”

Derek closes his eyes. “No.”

“What is similar about these two situations, Derek?”

Derek makes a frustrated noise. “Look, I know what you’re getting at. I’m afraid of rejection or whatever. I’m afraid if I put myself out there someone might decide they don’t think I’m worth much. I get it. It’s not that complicated.”

Dr. Nelson chuckles. “You aren’t getting a refund,” he jokes.

Derek scoffs, but feels himself relax. “I know, okay? I just— I’m scared.”

“Of?”

Derek swallows. “Of needing people and having them not need me back.”

Dr. Nelson takes careful notes and is silent for what feels like minutes.

“What if it isn’t about needing and being needed?”

“Meaning…”

“Why do you use the word ‘need’?”

Derek hadn’t really thought about his word choice so he doesn’t know. He starts to say he didn’t mean anything in particular by it, but knows the therapist will say that everything means something.

Dr. Nelson closes his notebook and looks at Derek, a small smile on his face. “‘Need’ is a survival word. We need air and water and sleep and food. And while one could make an argument that relationships help to fulfill certain biological imperatives, let’s set that aside for a moment.”

Derek isn’t used to hearing this many words from Dr. Nelson, so he just nods and waits.

“You haven’t told me everything about your past, Derek,” he says in his warm yet careful voice. “But the common theme with you is survival. And what I want you to think about is what you want if we assume you have what you need to survive. If you need food, what do you want to eat? What do you enjoy? If you need sleep, where do you prefer to lay your head? Do you like a soft mattress or a firm one? Down pillows or artificial fill?”

Derek nods.

“You had to struggle to meet those needs for so long, you forget you are allowed to have opinions about them. That you can have preferences. That you get to shape your existence to meet both your needs and your wants.”

Dr. Nelson leans forward and sets the notebook on the table in between them. “You can continue to meet your basic needs, which don’t have to include things like library volunteerism and spending holidays with friends. You get to decide if you want those things to be part of the life you are creating for yourself, Derek.”

“So you— you can’t just tell me what to do, huh?” Derek says and smiles.

Dr. Nelson chuckles. “I could. But it’s so much more meaningful and lasting when you work those things out for yourself.” He stands as Derek does.

“Nothing’s ever easy,” Derek says as he opens the door to leave.

“True,” Dr. Nelson says. “But fighting yourself is always the most difficult option.”

**

Derek goes for a run to clear his head when he gets back. He makes himself a healthy dinner and tries to think about the food as something other than a way to stay alive. He looks around his little house and doesn’t see himself in anything. It’s a rental house that came with furniture and innocuous sea-themed artwork. Other than the family picture Derek keeps in his bedroom and the couple of books he’s reading that are out on the coffee table, Derek could disappear from this house and no one would ever know he was here.

He doesn’t know what he’d do to make it look more like “him.” He doesn’t have a lot of decor-related opinions. But he thinks he’d choose different artwork for sure. The tan twill couch isn’t bad, and it’s comfortable, but the throw pillows have sea horses and shells on them. And they’re a shade of green he doesn’t like.

The house he grew up in was full of things. But not just things. The dining room table had been his grandmother’s. There was a cabinet in the foyer that had been in the family for a hundred years. There were pictures everywhere—portraits and candids, some flattering, some ridiculous. There were mementoes from trips, souvenir snow globes and figurines.

Dusting was one of Derek’s household chores. He muttered under his breath about how there was too much shit everywhere, too many things sitting around that he had to tend to with his dust rag.

But each of those items suffused their house with character, personality. They made it something other than just a place to stay dry when it rained, a place to sleep and eat. It was a house built to facilitate the best parts of being a family.

Derek stares out at the water after supper and watches the tide roll in and the sea gulls circle.

He doesn’t need for Stiles or anyone else to come visit. If his life is about survival, then houseguests and holidays rank low on the list of importance.

If it’s about more than that, though, then he doesn’t want to be alone all the time. But he’s pushed everyone away for so long, no one is going to press in and make him accommodate them. If he wants company, he’s going to have to ask for it.

**

Derek forgoes the library the next day for a trip to Target. He stands in the decorative pillow aisle and feels overwhelmed by the choices. He narrows it down to a blue and tan plaid and a plain textured dark green pillow. He takes pictures of them both and texts Cora.

Cora: What am I looking at here?

Derek: Which do you like better?

Cora: if this is my Christmas present I want a do-over.

Derek:

Cora: Okay fine. Umm. Maybe the plaid? What’s this for?

Derek: My house.

Cora: Oh okay. Tan couch, right?

Derek: Yeah.

Cora: yeah blue would look nice in that room. Maybe get a solid color to go with them.

Derek: more than one? Why?

Cora: It would take me too long to explain aesthetics and interior design to you, but trust me and take a picture of the blue toned pillows.

Derek rolls his eyes but obeys, sending her several pictures of the pillows on offer.

Cora: Okay. Get the Navy pillows and then get that cream one with the blue H on it.

Derek: What? Why?

Is there even going to be room to sit on this couch when Cora’s done with it?

Cora: Just trust me. H pillow can be optional. But I like it.

Derek huffs incredulously. He’s pretty easy for whatever Cora wants, and he wouldn’t mind her thinking of his place like home, so he begrudgingly adds the H-adorned pillow to the cart along with her other choices.

He makes himself stop and decide if he actually likes them. They aren’t flowery or covered in shells or other things he finds a little too precious. They’re colors he likes and the fabrics feel nice, like falling asleep with his face on them won’t be unpleasant. At the end of the day, isn’t that the point of a pillow?

Cora: Get that blue throw too.

Derek: Throw?

Cora: That blanket. Top shelf. Cable knit. Goes on the back of the couch.

Derek: I’m here for pillows.

Cora sends an emoji with an unimpressed expression.

Derek: Fine.

Cora: So what’s the occasion?

Derek: No occasion. Just realized my house doesn’t really look like me. And I hated the pillows on the couch.

It takes Cora a few minutes to respond. But when she does it’s just the heart emoji and that’s it. Cora’s really intense about home decorating, apparently.

**

Derek still doesn’t ask Stiles to visit. He tries a couple of times. He asks about school, about the upcoming exams. He asks how Stiles is sleeping and how Scott’s doing. They talk about Malia, and whether she will low-key growl at him forever now that she finally realizes Stiles has broken up with her.

Derek just can’t seem to articulate the actual invitation for a visit. He works around the topic but can’t ever zero in.

And of course Stiles wouldn’t expect it. He mostly seems surprised when Derek answers texts or picks up the phone, like he’s waiting for Derek to disappear into thin air at some point in the near future.

Derek thinks about asking, thinks about what they might do if Stiles visits, places they could go so it wouldn’t be as awkward.

The pillows look good on the couch. It’s a stupid thing, maybe. But the room feels less like a temporary landing place now. The pillows and the blanket now remind him of Cora. He takes the big seascape painting (or “painting,” as Derek is fairly sure it’s just mass produced art) off the wall and stares at the empty space. He has no artistic opinions, really. He knows when he likes something, but he wouldn’t know how to explain it or how to look for it.

But somehow in the absence of the artwork that had nothing to do with him, the room feels more like his.

“Pillows are a good start,” Dr. Nelson says indulgently when Derek mumbles something about trying to make his house feel less like a quick stop on a getaway.

Derek rolls his eyes. “And no I still haven’t talked to Eunice or asked Stiles to visit.”

Dr. Nelson taps his pen against his notebook. “There isn’t a right or wrong thing to do here, Derek. It’s about what you’re comfortable with.”

Derek sighs. Because there really is a right answer, in his own head anyway. He’s just too chicken to do anything about it. He doesn’t want to be alone at Christmas. He wishes Cora were coming home, and he had the courage to tell her, or at least let her know he misses her, even if she still chooses not to spend the holiday with him.

“Acceptance and self-actualization are a process,” Dr. Nelson says thoughtfully. “You’ve spent years out of tune with your wants and desires. It’s not a switch you can flip to create that harmony within yourself.”

Derek breathes deeply.

“Tell me about your family,” Dr. Nelson says, tone changing to one of a polite interviewer.

Derek’s stomach twists. Usually they talk mostly about what Derek wants to talk about. Derek usually steers around the topic of family. He swallows and looks down at his hands.

“What holiday traditions did you have?”

Derek closes his eyes and thinks about their house, Christmas music playing throughout the first level, the house smelling like spiced cider and things baking in the oven.

“My mom liked to bake,” he says finally. “She made really good cinnamon rolls.”

Dr. Nelson nods. “Christmas? Hanukkah?”

“Christmas,” Derek says. Werewolves have deeper, older traditions that are dictated by phases of the moon and the solstices. But the Hales still celebrated Christmas. His mom always said that any holiday that encourages family togetherness, that provides an opportunity to share with each other, that makes them think outside themselves, was one the Hale pack would embrace.

“We always had a big tree,” Derek continues, “Usually something my dad cut down from our own land.”

Silence settles between them, and it’s clear the therapist won’t say anything to interrupt.

“We made popcorn chains and origami stars and my mom put every stupid ornament we made at school on the tree. Even the hideous glitter popsicle stick ones.”

Dr. Nelson smiles and leans back in his chair.

“My dad could play the piano really well,” Derek says, swallowing around the thickness in his throat. “So he played carols, and we sang. It was all pretty Hallmark card disgusting, really.”

Dr. Nelson chuckles. “Sounds nice.”

Derek nods, and his eyes inexplicably sting with tears. These aren’t things he thinks about. He doesn’t let himself.

“My birthday is on Christmas,” he says finally, irritated at the quaver in his voice. “My mom always made a special dinner that night after we were done with Christmas. And all my birthday presents were wrapped in birthday paper. She was really careful about it. And on my half birthday, in the summer, I always got one present, because she knew it kind of sucked as a kid to get all your presents at once when everyone else had them spread out over the year.”

“Sounds like a wise woman,” Dr. Nelson says with a smile and jots a note in his book.

He doesn’t know the half of it, is the thing. Talia Hale was Derek’s mother and his Alpha, which is something humans don’t understand, really. It’s like if your parent was both the principal of your school, the police chief, the mayor and your parent. It wasn’t an easy balance, but she handled it well. Gracefully.

“Yeah,” Derek chokes out. “She was— yeah.”

The therapist nods. He doesn’t press anymore. He doesn’t ask Derek to explain what happened, doesn’t make him pick at the scabs of the fire, of his own culpability. He doesn’t know enough to ask, as far as Derek is aware. But just that brief exchange brings up a well of emotion that usually stays stuffed down. He’s gotten good at keeping family memories in an out of the way place inside of himself. Compartmentalized.

Grieving has no place in living to survive. As long as he was running, being chased, hunted, grief was a useless emotion.

But now.

He’s in his car and driving back to his house without really remembering the session ending, tears distorting the brake lights of the cars ahead of him. He sniffs and wipes his eyes with the cuff of his sweater. He turns up the radio in an attempt to drown out his thoughts.

**

Stiles: dad’s working over Xmas

It’s later that same day, and Derek’s been in a fog since he got back from therapy. He stares at his phone and thinks that he’s not going to get a better opportunity than what Stiles just texted.

Derek: oh yeah?

Stiles: yeah. usually he has at least xmas day off, but this year I guess he can’t

Derek: that sucks

Stiles: yeah

Derek is such a chicken. Why is this hard? This shouldn’t be hard.

Derek: You could come here.

He stares at his phone in mild horror, wondering how he could’ve possibly sent that when his brain seemed completely blocked against making it happen.

Stiles doesn’t answer for what feels like minutes. The little thought bubble that indicates he’s texting appears and disappears several times until Derek has to set his phone down on the coffee table and look away. Stiles is trying to find a way to let him down gently. Derek hates him a little bit for it. He’d rather Stiles was just an asshole about it, really.

Stiles: like… where you are? at your house?

Stiles: will you be there?

Derek huffs and rolls his eyes.

Derek: Yes.

Derek: Just a thought. Not a big deal.

There’s more thought bubble appearing and disappearing and another couple of minutes go by without a response.

Stiles: so like a visit to your house with you in it. me staying there where you will also be in your house. over a holiday type time period

Derek laughs and relaxes a bit.

Derek: you’re an idiot.

Stiles: just clarifying. Um, sure? I mean. As long as I don’t get there and then you decide you’re sick of me and throw me off the cliff into the water. Or tie me to a tree and leave me as a sacrifice to some woodland god.

Derek grins.

Derek: No promises. But if you’re willing to risk it…

Stiles: I’ll need to ask my dad if I can visit a murder suspect over the holidays.

Derek:

Stiles: Jokes. Jokes. former murder suspect. I know. Cleared of all charges. I’m pretty sure he remembers that

Stiles: so like when?

Derek swallows.

Derek: Whenever.

Stiles: School’s out in a week.

Stiles: Do you have an xmas tree?

Derek: No.

Stiles: I will come as long as we get a tree

Derek lets out a slow breath. He hadn’t intended to actually celebrate Christmas with Stiles. It was supposed to be a chance for him to get some sleep, to get away from Beacon Hills and the complicated shadows that loom over him there.

Derek: we’ll see

He can’t give in to Stiles right away. It sets a bad precedent.

Stiles is coming for Christmas. Derek ignores the fluttery feeling in his stomach and concentrates instead on how he did what the Sheriff asked. That’s what this is about.

**

Derek second guesses the decision at least a dozen times in the next few days. Dr. Nelson has him focus on the things he’ll enjoy about having Stiles there when Derek informs him he’s thinking of canceling the visit.

It helps, even if it doesn’t remove Derek’s anxiety.

Stiles texted to say he asked his dad and the Sheriff was totally fine with the idea. Stiles seemed surprised, like he thought he would have a battle on his hands.

They decided that Stiles would arrive Saturday morning. Derek has a couple of days to stock up on groceries and, of course, regret every decision he’s made in the past week.

**

“You going to do story hour today?” Eunice asks as he enters the library. He’s been going a little less frequently, not purposefully, but because he’s been running more and spending time in Target and Bed, Bath and Beyond trying to make his house look less like an unimaginative hotel.

Derek nods as he sets his bag next to his normal chair.

“The kids came looking for you on Tuesday,” Eunice says, giving him a look.

“I’m never here on Tuesday!” Derek says defensively, not liking the suggestion that he’s let anyone down.

She smiles. “I know. I’m just letting you know you have fans.”

Derek rolls his eyes. “I’m a huge hit with the Kindergarten set.”

“Don’t dismiss it, sugar,” she says as she pushes her reading glasses up her nose. “Kids can spot a phony a mile away. If they like you there must be something good about you.”

Derek feels his face heat, which seems to delight Eunice.

“You going to be around for Christmas?” She asks after several minutes of silence.

Derek nods. “Yeah.”

“Same group is coming over for Christmas if you want in on another dinner.”

Derek smiles. “Well, I, uh, there’s someone coming to town to visit for the holiday.”

Her eyebrows shoot up to her hairline. “Well, well, well!”

“Not like that,” he hurries to add.

She smiles in a calculating way. “The very fact that you think that’s what I meant—”

“Eunice,” Derek warns.

She sighs dramatically. “Fine. Well, you and your special friend are both welcome for Christmas if an evening with the elderly is at all appealing.”

Derek laughs. “He’s not ‘special.’ At least not like you’re saying.”

Eunice would love Stiles is the thing. And Stiles would be charmed by Eunice. Derek can’t decide if that means they should be introduced or kept apart at all costs. It seems if they team up it could end badly for Derek somehow.

“Well, I like him if he’s coming to visit you,” she says. “He’s got good taste.”

Derek looks down and busies himself getting things out of his bag. But Eunice knows she’s struck a nerve, even if he’s not exactly sure what nerve it is.

“I promise to be good if you bring him by the library,” she says innocently after he doesn’t say anything.

Derek gives her a knowing look. “No you won’t.”

She laughs, cackles maybe, and heads into the back room. Derek gives Gawain a shrug as the little dog puts his paws up on Derek’s leg. This is a new development, Gawain wanting to sit on his lap instead of just curling around his legs.

Dogs tend to either give Derek a wide berth or growl at him and never settle down in his presence. Gawain’s continued interest is definitely a new experience for Derek. If all dogs would take to him like this he’d think about getting a dog.

“What do you want for lunch?” Derek asks after he finishes reading to the four kids who are regulars at his story time.

Eunice pretends to consider her options, although Derek’s found she almost always knows exactly what she wants and seems to have been anticipating the question.

“I wouldn’t say no to fish tacos,” she says after tapping her chin like the idea just came to her.

Derek laughs. There’s a stand down on Main that stays open all year, and it’s one of Derek’s favorite places to get lunch in town. Derek leaves the library and heads toward the smell of frying fish and fresh pico de gallo.

**

Derek is restless waiting for Stiles on Saturday. He watches out the window, as if it’s possible for him to surprise Derek, as if he won’t hear the Jeep coming a mile down the road.

Stiles texted when he left Beacon Hills and there have been several texts from his random stops along the way.

Stiles: gonna stop in napa and buy you wine since you live in a real house like a real adult

Derek: you’re 17.

Stiles: almost 18

Derek: Which still isn’t 21.

Stiles: you’re no fun

And then a half hour later,

Stiles: I bought you something

Derek: is that a threat?

Stiles: lol no. you’ll see.

Derek knows about how far away he is, and he still can’t help peering out the front window every few minutes.

Finally, he hears the crunch of the Jeep crawling up his gravel driveway. His stomach swoops, and he admonishes himself to get his shit together and stop being ridiculous.

He can feel the nervous energy vibrating off of Stiles as he ascends the porch steps and knocks on the door.

Derek opens it to a Stiles that looks like he’s lost at least 10 pounds. His cheekbones are more prominent, and his eyes seem to sink farther into his skull. There are dark circles smudged like messy makeup beneath them. He smells like anxiety and exhaustion, and Derek wants to hug him.

So he does. Awkwardly.

Stiles makes a surprised noise and pats Derek’s back. “Hey big guy,” he says with a laugh in his voice. But Derek hears something else underneath that—emotion and relief—and Stiles melts into the hug.

“Good to see you,” Derek says as he pulls away and gives Stiles a hesitant smile.

“Is it?” Stiles teases. “Cause I gotta say, I never thought I’d see the day when you were glad I was anywhere you were.”

Derek rolls his eyes. “I’ll show you your room,” he says instead of answering.

“This is nice,” Stiles says. “View is super great. Wow.” He chatters on about some of the mansions he passed on his way down the road leading to Derek’s and keeps up a steady stream of words that Derek can’t focus on. As he talks, Stiles looks out the windows and peers around to see what’s nearby. Derek doesn’t know if that’s to check for escape or entry routes, but either way it pulls at something inside Derek. He knows what it feels like to never relax, never feel entirely safe.

“I brought stuff to do a spell,” Stiles says rummaging through his bag. “Deaton— he says hi by the way— Deaton said we could do the same protection spell around your house that we put around the town. I mean, I can’t do the whole town, I’m not— Deaton and Ms. Morell had to do Beacon Hills. I just helped. But he showed me how to do one house.” He glances at Derek and then looks away. “I mean, it’s not like mountain ash. It doesn’t hurt werewolves or anything. It just makes you less visible to other supernatural stuff. Like keeps them from honing in on you. Or something. I zone out when he talks sometimes.”

Derek laughs gently. “Okay,” he says with a shrug. “You can do that. But I haven’t had any trouble since I’ve been here.”

Stiles groans and twists his torso back and forth exaggeratedly. “Derrrek. That’s, like, rule number one in horror movies, man. You don’t say you haven’t seen bad stuff because then you always see bad stuff!”

Derek rolls his eyes. “Well, so far I’ve seen a couple of omegas passing through, but they weren’t looking for trouble. I’ve sensed magic in town, like the kind that a couple of peaceful witches might throw off. Not like the intense energy of anyone trying to take over the world. Just peaceful practice. I haven’t felt unsafe.”

Stiles swallows and chews his lip, eyes roaming all around the room. “I’m not— yeah okay. I mean, something might’ve followed me. I don’t really know how this whole heart of darkness thing works.”

Derek doesn’t want to be dismissive, but he also knows that when Stiles gets like this, heightened anxiety, irrational thoughts, it’s best to seem calm and self-assured. “We can spell the house after lunch.”

Stiles nods. “Okay.” He sits down on the bed. “So lunch?”

Derek shrugs. “If you want. There’s a sandwich shop. Or a good taco place.”

“Tacos,” Stiles says decisively.

Derek leads him out to the living room and grabs his keys from the little table by the door. “Walk or drive?”

Stiles looks out at the overcast sky and winces. “Drive? It’s cold.”

Derek scoffs. “Not cold.”

“Not warm,” Stiles challenges.

“Did you bring a coat?” Derek asks, looking at Stiles in his hoodie.

He shakes his head sheepishly. “I thought it’d be warmer here!”

“It’s December.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Stiles says. “I wasn’t thinking, apparently.”

Derek reaches into the closet and grabs his leather jacket and throws it to Stiles.

Stiles looks at it and then at Derek before putting it on. It’s big on him, bigger than it would’ve been a few months ago. It makes Derek’s wolf stretch and reach to protect Stiles, pleases the wolf to see Derek’s jacket covering Stiles.

They eat tacos, and Derek points out a few of the sights.

“It’s smaller than I pictured,” Stiles says after they walk by the library.

Derek nods. He likes how quiet the town is now compared to when he first moved here at the end of the summer, with tourists still milling around. He recognizes a few people as they walk down the street toward the car.

“People are staring at me,” Stiles says as they climb in the car.

Derek chuckles. “No, I think they’re just surprised to see me with someone else.” He smiles as he throws the car into gear.

“The more things change, the more things stay the same,” Stiles says easily.

Derek rolls his eyes.

“So are we gonna get a tree?” Stiles asks as he buckles his seatbelt.

“I thought you wanted to do that spell.”

Stiles nods. “I do. But we can do that when we get back. Yeah?”

Derek sighs. “Okay, fine.” It’s pointless to argue, and there’s a part of him that likes the idea of the house smelling a little like Christmas.

He points the car toward the larger town with a Target and a chain grocery store. They end up with a full sized tree tied to the top of the car and several bags of Christmas decorations.

Stiles phone vibrates on their way back to the house. “My dad,” he says and looks at Derek like he’s asking permission.

Derek waves his hand in a “be my guest” gesture.

“Hey Dad,” Stiles says and shoots Derek a little smile. “Yep. Yeah, sorry. Got here a couple hours ago…” Derek can make out the Sheriff’s words through the phone, but it feels rude to eavesdrop on conversations he has no reason to listen in on. “We ate lunch, and I made Derek get a Christmas tree,” Stiles says smugly and glances over at Derek. “I’m being a good guest,” Stiles mumbles in protest. “I am not being pushy!”

Derek huffs a laugh and shakes his head.

“I am a delight,” Stiles says sullenly to whatever his dad just said. “Now the truth comes out. Don’t go too crazy at the Stiles is Finally Out of the House party.”

Derek feels something tighten in his chest at the affection in Stiles’ voice.

“Okay,” he says after listening to his dad without interrupting. “Yeah. You too. You can always come down here, if you realize I am the center of your world and your existence is bleak without me.” Stiles grins at Derek and waggles his eyebrows. “Derek wouldn’t care!” Stiles protests and then grimaces. “Okay, I won’t invite people to Derek’s house.” He rolls his eyes conspiratorially at Derek, like that’s a totally ridiculous request the Sheriff is asking of Stiles.

Derek shakes his head and pulls onto Highway 1.

“Love you too. ‘kay. Bye, Dad.” He ends the call and smiles shyly at Derek.

“Your dad good?” Derek asks just to make conversation.

Stiles nods. “Other than his insistence I not piss you off.”

“Was that in your plan otherwise?” Derek asks, amused.

Stiles shrugs. “I was going to play it by ear,” he says and winks exaggeratedly.

“You’re an idiot,” Derek says as he pulls into the driveway.

“You don’t fool me,” Stiles says, taking off his seatbelt. “That’s practically an endearment at this point.”

Derek rolls his eyes, but can’t keep the smile off his face.

**

When they get back, Stiles goes purposefully up to his room and comes back with supplies and a book. He watches a video on his phone of Deaton reciting the spell and then arranges everything carefully.

“Do you need me for this?” Derek asks because Stiles hasn’t said anything for a while, but he’s thrumming with a sort of energy that puts Derek on edge. His scent is sharper and filled with something Derek isn’t used to picking up from Stiles.

He doesn’t look at Derek, he keeps staring at the book in front of him on the floor and the arrangement of herbs and powders and potion bottles. “Don’t leave,” he murmurs, but Derek isn’t sure if that’s just because Stiles doesn’t want to be alone or because Derek is somehow crucial to the spell that’s supposed to protect his house.

Derek hasn’t felt unsafe here. He might always have a more acute awareness of the potential dangers surrounding him than a human might. He might watch new faces suspiciously; pay extra attention to the movements of someone he doesn’t recognize in town. But so far he hasn’t felt like he was on the radar of any sort of Big Bad.

And while Derek thinks the entire Hunting profession is twisted and misguided, he knows most do operate under a code, and a born werewolf minding his own business and hanging out in a library isn’t going to ping anyone’s danger meter. Hunters are busy keeping track of the packs of werewolves that use their power to take over the drug trade in struggling communities, like the pack in Arizona that’s started cooking meth. But that’s just a handful of werewolves, and most hunters seem to be at least grudgingly aware of that.

Derek’s realized as he processes things from a somewhat removed vantage point that while Kate was a hunter and her dad was a sick asshole, their brand of psychosis would’ve existed whether they were hunting werewolves or teaching high school science. Kate was more of a predator than Derek’s family ever could’ve been, tracking, stalking, hunting her prey. It was a game to her. And she may have hid behind her twisted racist notions about werewolves being “less than” but it takes someone with something dark inside to burn an entire family alive, to listen to their screams and pleas for help, to seal doors and windows with mountain ash so they had no hope of escape.

That wasn’t about Kate being a hunter. That was about Kate being Kate.

And she’s dead.

It doesn’t stop him from having nightmares sometimes, or from feeling an overwhelming sense of dread from time to time. He’s not afraid the way he was when she was still alive, when he knew there was someone out there who would delight in his demise. But he’s also aware enough of the realities of the life of a werewolf to know he’s never going to be 100 percent safe anywhere. He can’t hide away forever.

And now that he’s stopped running, he realizes how much he wants to stay still. He likes sleeping in a real bed every night. He likes having a favorite coffee mug, a favorite deck chair, a favorite window under which he reads in the late afternoon. He likes having reusable grocery bags and knowing his way around the market. He likes Eunice being able to depend on him to read to the kids in the library. He doesn’t want to run anymore.

Derek watches Stiles’ lips move as he begins the spell. He murmurs something in Latin and waves his arms over the spell ingredients, lighting herbs on fire and mixing the ash with some sort of powder. He walks the perimeter of Derek’s property, sprinkling something on the ground as he goes, lips moving as he says the same phrase over and over again.

He goes inside the house and does a special blessing at the doorway and windows of each of the bedrooms and then goes back to the circle he’d created earlier, repeating all of the actions from the beginning of the spell, the phrasing only slightly different.

When he’s done he looks up at Derek and smiles, the planes of his face showing the relief.

 

Derek can’t sense anything different, other than the unmistakable scent of ozone in the air signifying the magical spark Stiles utilized to work the spell.

If it makes Stiles feel safer though, Derek is glad he did it. He’d let Stiles do just about anything if it kept that look on his face all the time.

**

Derek wakes up in the middle of the night to the acrid smell of fear. His hair stands on end, and it takes him a few seconds to realize he woke because Stiles is having a nightmare.

Derek sits up and listens carefully to Stiles in the next room. For a moment he’s paralyzed by indecision. But the third time he hears Stiles whimper an inarticulate sort of plea he gets up and goes into Stiles’ room.

Stiles is squirming around in the bed and saying “no no no, please, no no,” over and over again in such a mournful way it breaks something inside of Derek.

“Stiles,” Derek says, sitting on the very edge of the bed, wrapping one of his hands around Stiles’s ankle. “Stiles.”

Stiles continues to thrash but his whimpering stops, and he seems to slowly come out of the dream.

“‘D’rek?” he mumbles, voice thick with sleep.

“Yeah,” Derek says and squeezes Stiles’ ankle. “You were dreaming.”

“No, no,” Stiles argues and turns over onto his side. “He was here.”

Derek swallows, the panic in Stiles’ tone heightening Derek’s protective instincts. “No one’s here, Stiles.”

Stiles sits up a little and rubs his hand over his face.

“You’re at my house,” Derek says, remembering how Laura would tell him where they were whenever he woke from a nightmare, whenever he was convinced he’d just watched his family burn, when it seemed so real he could feel the smoke in his lungs. “It’s just you and me here.”

Stiles makes a frustrated noise, like some part of him still thinks Derek’s wrong, even as his awakening senses start to tell him he’s not.

“I’ll get you some water,” Derek says. He has no idea what else to do. Laura would sometimes lie down next to him and wrap him up and make soothing noises. He has no idea if that’s a werewolf thing, something an Alpha can do to calm a frightened beta, or if everyone would find it comforting.

When he comes back Stiles is sitting up against the headboard. He glances over at Derek and then looks down at his hands. He smells sheepish, embarrassed.

“Sorry,” he mumbles.

“Don’t apologize,” Derek says.

Stiles swallows and closes his eyes and takes deep, slow breaths.

“How often does this happen?” Derek asks finally.

Stiles’ last deep breath shudders out of him. “Most nights,” he admits.

“What do you dream?”

Stiles swallows and cuts a look at Derek before looking toward the window. “Just— different things.” He chews his lip and twists the sheet up in his fingers. “Watching things happen I can’t control. Sometimes just this voice in my head. It feels— it’s so much like how it really was… it feels so real.”

Derek nods. “It’s not though,” he says softly.

Stiles doesn’t say anything.

“Is it better if you take a sleeping pill?” Derek asks, remembering the Sheriff saying he’d gotten Stiles to take one the night he’d called Derek.

Stiles shakes his head. “It makes it harder to wake up out of the dreams, so they’re more vivid and weird. I only take them if I haven’t slept for several nights in a row.”

“Anything help?” Derek doesn’t want to embarrass Stiles, or make him talk about it, but sometimes taking the time to fully wake up and remind yourself what’s real and what isn’t helps to keep from instantly slipping back into the same dream.

“Maybe, like, leave the light in the hall on?” he asks sheepishly. “And don’t close my door?”

Derek nods and moves to leave.

“Or yours?” Stiles requests in a small voice.

“Sure,” Derek says like it’s something he does all the time anyway.

Stiles works his way back down the bed and nods at Derek as he moves into the hall.

“Thanks,” Stiles says quietly as Derek flips the hall light on.

**

Stiles acts like nothing happened the next morning when he comes downstairs for breakfast. Derek’s already run his miles, showered, made coffee and oatmeal and cut up fruit.

Stiles groans out an incoherent greeting.

Derek rolls his eyes. “It’s 10:00 am,” he says and hopes he sounds disapproving.

Stiles gives him a look. “Yeah. Exactly.”

Derek ignores the accusatory tone. “Coffee?”

Stiles nods, and stares blankly out the kitchen window toward the ocean. He has a pillow crease across his cheek and his hair is standing up in various directions. Clearly not a morning person. Derek doesn’t know that he’s ever seen him sit so still and silent.

Derek sets a mug down in front of him along with the sickeningly sweet flavored creamer he’d bought at the grocery store when he was stocking up for Stiles’ arrival.

Stiles croaks out a ‘thanks’ and then pours a gross amount of creamer in his coffee.

Derek makes a face. It smells like nothing found in nature, like chemicals and corn syrup. The thought of drinking an entire cup of coffee with that mixed in makes his stomach turn.

When it’s clear that Stiles is content to sit in a catatonic sort of silence, Derek turns his attention back to his book. He reads while he eats his oatmeal and fruit.

“Food?” Stiles asks after a few minutes. He peers over into Derek’s bowl, looking incrementally more awake.

Derek nods. “There’s oatmeal on the stove. Fruit on the counter.”

“Oatmeal?” Stiles makes a face.

Derek rolls his eyes. “There’s cinnamon and sugar in the cupboard.”

“It’s my vacation,” Stiles grumbles. “Vacations are for sleeping and bacon.”

Derek tries to hide his smile. “If you eat bacon every day you’re going to have a heart attack by the time you’re 20.”

Stiles scoffs. “Yes, but vacation.”

“Shut up and eat the oatmeal, Stiles.”

He grumbles, but stands up and makes himself a bowl full of fruit and oatmeal. He then, of course, ruins it by dumping half a cup of sugar in it. He grins at Derek as he settles back into his chair.

“So what’s the plan today?” Stiles asks with his mouth full of food.

Derek shrugs. He panics a little internally, because he doesn’t have a plan. And his biggest fear about this visit is that Stiles will get bored and start picking at the threads of Derek’s life for his amusement.

“No plan,” he says and sets down his book. “Anything you want to do?”

Stiles looks around. “Decorate the tree,” he says with a smile. “Eat something unhealthy.” He looks down at his still half-full bowl of oatmeal. “Watch some movies?”

Derek nods. Those things all sound doable. They’d unloaded the Christmas tree and the large bags full of decorations the prior evening. But by the time they’d gotten the tree to stay upright in the stand they were both irritated and hungry and it seemed like self-preservation to halt the Christmas decorating so Derek could make chicken pasta for dinner.

They’d eaten on the back porch and then watched a couple of episodes of Sherlock before it was clear that Stiles was going to fall asleep sitting up if Derek didn’t suggest they go to bed.

“You have any Christmas traditions?” Stiles asks, aiming for nonchalant.

Derek swallows and tries not to let the question feel like an attack. “Uh,” he starts and then watches Stiles chew his lip nervously. “Haven’t really celebrated Christmas much since my family—” he lets his voice trail off and hopes Stiles gets the hint.

“Yeah,” Stiles says and takes a suspicious bite of his oatmeal. “My mom was big into Christmas. So after she died, my dad kind of just went through the motions.”

Derek forgets sometimes how Stiles understands grief better than most people his age.

“We still put up a tree,” Stiles says quickly. “And we have certain movies we always watch and stuff. But neither of us is quite as into the holiday as my mom was. So. It always feels a little, you know.”

Derek does know. He and Laura celebrated together in New York, but instead of focusing on Christmas, Laura would plan stuff for them to do for Derek’s birthday. It was too difficult to figure out how to try and compensate for the loss of the huge Hale Christmas celebration, but birthdays seemed more doable.

“Christmas is my birthday,” Derek admits.

“What? Really?” Stiles asks, trying to feign surprise.

Derek rolls his eyes. “You knew that,” he prompts.

“Dude,” Stiles says with a look. “Birthdays are easy.”

Derek smiles and then immediately tries to cover it with annoyance. But it’s a half-hearted attempt at best.

“So, uh,” Stiles says and darts his eyes over at Derek. “Last birthday you were, uh— Kate had you, right?”

Derek swallows. “Right.”

He tries not to think too much about what happened during that time. The days ran together after she took him. He was the werewolf version of drugged for a while, and he thinks she was working on some spell she needed Derek for, because she would disappear for long periods of time gathering her supplies. She’d come back crowing about how it was only a matter of time before her Big Plan came together.

While she was gone, Derek had nothing to eat or drink beyond what she’d left for him. She’d lined the tomb that served as his cell with mountain ash so that even if he’d escaped his bonds he wouldn’t make it very far. He knew that, of course, because she was constantly monologuing her plans and intentions in the grand tradition of bad guys everywhere.

“Sorry, man,” Stiles says, pulling Derek out of his memories. “I know that’s not— it’s okay not to talk about it.”

Derek shrugs and tries to look indifferent. He’s working through his issues. Stiles doesn’t need more things to feel guilty about. “It’s okay,” he says. “She’s dead.”

“Happy birthday?” Stiles tries, small smile on his face.

Derek huffs amusement and nods. “I don’t think you guys made it quite in time for my birthday, but it was a good late present.”

“Sorry,” Stiles says sheepishly. “That, you know. Sorry she had you so long.”

Derek stands and busies himself at the sink so he doesn’t have to meet Stiles’ eyes. “I’m just glad you guys came.”

Stiles lets the subject drop.

A year ago Derek was in the ruins of a church in Mexico, being held by Kate Argent. It was the culmination of a year spent trying to avenge his sister’s death, trying to figure out who killed her, trying to build a pack after he became Alpha, trying to defend his betas from a kanima and a pack of Alphas, realizing his younger sister was still alive and then watching her almost die, and giving up his Alpha powers so she could live.

And now he’s in a small house overlooking the ocean eating oatmeal and reading a book. He hangs out with an old lady in a library and sees a therapist twice a week, and he and Stiles may decorate a Christmas tree later.

He’s not sure which reality feels more bizarre.

**

Later that day they watch Elf and decorate the tree. Stiles insists that it’s impossible to decorate for Christmas without either Christmas music and hot cocoa or Christmas movies and hot cocoa. The hot cocoa is apparently a necessity, and Derek figures a movie comes with less of a likelihood of Stiles singing along.

The tree is about seven feet tall, bigger than Derek felt like it needs to be. But Stiles won that argument at the Christmas tree lot and even paid for it with money he said his dad had given him so he could chip in on groceries. Derek could argue that buying an unnecessary Christmas tree isn’t quite the same as buying his share of a week’s worth of groceries, but Stiles seems pretty thrilled with the tree, and Derek doesn’t need the money anyway.

The tree is situated in the front window that is visible from the road, both because Stiles declared it a crime to block the ocean view and because he seems to think it’s important for passersby to be able to identify them as “non-humbug havers.”

It’s decorated with cheap ornaments from Target along with a howling wolf ornament Stiles picked up in a gas station on his way to Derek’s. Stiles seemed pretty pleased with himself when he presented it. Derek rolled his eyes obligingly because he knows that irritating Derek is part of the fun of Stiles’ various wolf-related puns and themed gift items.

Derek once found a very 80s looking wolf t-shirt on his front porch, folded up neatly and tied with ribbon. There was no note attached and it was completely without context or occasion. He’d scented it to make sure it wasn’t some sort of trap, wasn’t printed with wolfsbane ink or bearing some sort of curse.

It was a ridiculous shirt. It looked like something that should be airbrushed on the side of a windowless van. But it was also the perfect size and really soft. Derek wore it on days he read his book and had nowhere he needed to be. Granted in Beacon Hills there hadn’t been many days like that, but he couldn’t bring himself to throw it out, especially because he caught Stiles smirking at him a couple of times right after the t-shirt appeared on his front stoop, and he realized, of course, that Stiles was the cheesy t-shirt gifter.

But now that he has nothing but time and there are many mornings or evenings where he can wear sweatpants and kick his feet up on the couch and read or watch TV, the wolf shirt is part of his wardrobe.

The wolf ornament prompts Derek to wonder if he was supposed to get Stiles a Christmas gift. He hadn’t thought they’d be celebrating traditionally, with the tree and the hot cocoa and the Christmas movies. But when they’re done decorating the tree Derek notices a couple of small wrapped packages under the branches. Well, shit. He’ll have to figure out what to get Stiles for Christmas now.

**

That night Derek is awakened again by sounds of distress. It takes him a few seconds to remember that Stiles is in his house, that he’s having a nightmare.

Derek sits up in bed and waits to see if he should intervene.

Stiles is whimpering. He sounds frightened and like he anticipates pain.

Derek can only listen to that for a few moments before he’s up out of the bed and standing in the doorway of Stiles’ room.

Stiles is curled up in a ball, like he’s trying to make himself small. Derek scents the air automatically and is struck by the saltiness of tears.

“Stiles,” he says and stands awkwardly next to the bed.

More whimpering and inarticulate pleading.

“Stiles,” Derek says and swallows.

Stiles face is twisted in a grimace that makes Derek’s heart ache. He moans softly, murmuring “No no no” over and over again.

“Stiles,” Derek says and sits down on the edge of the bed. He knows there are those who think you should never wake someone up from a nightmare, but Derek’s not entirely convinced the nightmares aren’t supernatural in origin. If they are, staying inside of the dream for longer than necessary seems dangerous too.

He reaches out and gently squeezes Stiles’ arm. “Stiles,” he says again.

Stiles jerks in response and murmurs something Derek can’t decipher.

It takes him a few more tries, but Stiles finally wakes up enough to realize Derek is there. He seems embarrassed and confused, curling even farther into himself.

“Sorry,” Stiles says quietly, voice so small and so unlike his normal bravado.

“Don’t apologize,” Derek says. He has no idea what to do. Stiles had said this happens most nights but Derek wasn’t prepared for what that actually means. “I couldn’t sleep anyway,” he lies easily.

Stiles finally looks up at him. “That why your hair’s all smashed like that?”

Derek’s hands automatically smooth down his bedhead. “I was reading,” he says. There’s no sense in making Stiles feel worse than he already does.

Stiles nods and doesn’t say anything else. He quickly wipes his eyes, like he’s hoping Derek won’t notice there were tears streaming down his face.

“Does it help to talk about it?” Derek offers neutrally.

Stiles shakes his head. “Nothing helps.”

“You’ve told Deaton?”

Stiles nods. “They warned us,” he says in a small voice. “This is the price.”

Derek knows Stiles is referring to the price Scott, Allison and Stiles paid for saving their parents’ lives when the Darach had them, that there would be darkness on their hearts. He also knows Stiles thinks that’s why the Nogistune was able to get a foothold inside of Stiles.

“Does Scott have nightmares?”

Stiles swallows. “No,” he says. He won’t look at Derek.

Derek takes a deep breath. Everything within him wants to leave the room and let Stiles sort through this on his own. He can barely handle his own guilt, his own nightmares. He’s just now starting to process his hurt and his pain, he has no idea how to help Stiles come to grips with what he’s done, the things he’s seen. And he might be a werewolf, but he has no magic of his own. He’s not Dr. Deaton. He can’t ward Stiles against dark magic or the powerful forces that could still be trying to use Stiles.

“They’re not as bad here,” Stiles says after a long silence.

Derek’s heart clenches, imaging how much worse it must get, how Stiles handles it on his own when his dad works nights. If his dad even knows the full extent of the problem. Stiles may be loud and sarcastic as a default, but when something really matters or when he’s truly scared, he goes inward.

“I’m gonna get a glass of water,” Derek says when he can’t think of what else to say. “You want something from the kitchen?”

Stiles looks up at him, searching his face like he’s trying to compute Derek’s angle. “Is there still chocolate milk?”

Derek smiles. “Yeah, I think so.” He pats Stiles’ leg and leaves the room.

In the kitchen he grabs a bottle of water for himself, pours a glass of chocolate milk and after a little deliberation picks up his laptop from the table.

“Sleep or TV?” Derek asks when he gets back to Stiles’ room.

Stiles scrambles to sit up against the headboard, taking the glass of milk from Derek. “TV.”

Derek nods and sits next to him, balancing the laptop on his legs. “I’ve been watching Arrested Development,” he says. He has actually only watched a couple of episodes. His interest has run mostly toward Breaking Bad. But it’s a little too dark for nightmare distraction.

“Have you never watched it before?” Stiles asks, incredulous.

Derek shakes his head. “Just started last week.” He debates saying anything further, but decides maybe it will help Stiles relax if he shares a little. “My dad used to watch it,” he admits as he queues up the third episode of the first season. “He and Peter loved it, actually.”

Stiles chokes. “I don’t want to know Peter has a good taste in TV.”

Derek smirks.

“So you didn’t watch with him?”

“Nah,” Derek says and aims for nonchalant. The truth is those nights his dad and Peter watched TV and invited him to join them it seemed lame to spend an evening watching TV with his dad and his uncle. Now he wishes he’d done every lame thing his dad ever wanted him to do.

They watch without talking after that, laughing at the Bluth family’s ridiculousness.

“So,” Stiles says toward the end of the episode. “If the Hales were the Bluths, was Peter Buster or Tobias?”

Derek barks out an unexpected laugh. “What?”

Stiles grins. “I like to picture Peter being Buster,” he explains.

“As if you have before tonight?”

Stiles shrugs. “Well no,” he says. “But it’s a funny image, no?”

Derek chuckles. It is. And weirdly not far from the truth, except instead of clinging to his mother, Peter was weirdly attached to Derek’s mother, Peter’s sister.

“And if he can’t be Buster,” Stiles charges on, “then I want him to be Tobias. A self-absorbed never nude.”

Derek laughs at the image. Part of him wants to text Peter to tell him because it would make him sputter indignantly and because button pushing is all their relationship seems to consist of these days. But most of him is glad they have minimal communication given Peter’s current volatility.

They watch another couple of episodes before Derek falls asleep. When he wakes up again, there’s light outside and Stiles is slumped against him, the laptop closed on the bedside table.

**

Derek leaves Stiles a note when he walks to the town.

“I thought your friend was here,” Eunice says over the top of her glasses when Derek arrives at the library.

“He is,” Derek says. “Still sleeping.”

She gives Derek a look that makes him blush, even though there’s nothing to blush about.

He ignores her as best he can and busies himself bringing the books in from the drop-off bin and tidying up the desk area.

“I’ll leave at lunch today,” Derek says a bit later.

Eunice smirks at him. “As long as you do story time I promise I won’t tease you about your special friend.”

Derek makes an irritated noise and turns back to the shelf of gardening books he’s rearranging. “It’s not like that.”

“I told you I wouldn’t pry,” she says imperiously.

Gawain gives Derek a commiserating look and trots over to sit at his feet in solidarity. Derek rewards him with a head pat.

At 11:00 am, the library gets an influx of kids along with their parents and grandparents looking for something to occupy the kids’ attention for a while. Derek leads them into the children’s room and passes pillows to the kids, remembering to hand the regulars their favorites. Eunice laid out three holiday themed books for him since this will be the last story time before Christmas: Olivia Helps With Christmas, The Polar Express and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Derek knows by now to use voices for the different characters. He’s even mastered reading mostly upside down so the kids can see the pictures. He hasn’t read the Olivia book or The Polar Express before, so he’s pretty engrossed in the stories. It isn’t until he’s treading through the familiar territory of the Grinch that he looks up and notices Stiles standing in the doorway, watching Derek with a surprised expression.

Derek’s face immediately flushes, and he stumbles over one of the more well-known parts of the story and is instantly corrected by one of the visiting grandchildren. Derek’s not sure why it’s embarrassing to be caught reading a story at the library, but he can’t bring himself to make eye contact with Stiles again.

When he’s finally done and has paid attention to the kids who want to show him drawings they made for the library and new toys their grandparents bought them, he looks up to find Eunice and Stiles standing next to each other with identical looks on their faces.

“I knew you two shouldn’t meet,” Derek grumbles as he pries himself off the floor and busies himself reshelving the books he read.

Eunice laughs brightly. “Don’t be rude, Derek.”

Derek sighs loudly. “Fine. Eunice this is Stiles. Stiles this is Eunice.”

“Well, we’ve already established that,” Eunice huffs. “Stiles and I have decided you boys are going to grab me lunch before you head off on your adventure.”

“Adventure?”

Stiles shrugs helplessly, clearly already a big Eunice fan. “She said you usually bring her lunch.”

“Yeah,” Derek says. “But what adventure are we having?”

Eunice rolls her eyes and links her arm with Stiles’, leading him into the main part of the library. “I assume you are showing your friend a good time, is all. Maybe taking him to a movie. Or to San Francisco for something special. The Nutcracker maybe?”

Derek shakes his head and shoots Stiles a look. “We’ll think of something,” he says vaguely. “What would you like for lunch?”

“Soup,” Eunice answers immediately. “And grilled cheese. From the deli counter at the grocery store.”

Derek nods and then hustles Stiles out of the library before Eunice can do any further damage.

“So that’s your librarian,” Stiles says, amused, as they walk the two blocks to the grocery store.

“Eunice,” Derek says. “Yes.”

“I love her,” Stiles says dreamily. “I’m going to run away with her.”

Derek rolls his eyes. “She can’t run away,” he says. “She’s the only one with keys to the library.”

Stiles laughs happily.

**

“We don’t need to do anything big,” Stiles says after they’ve dropped the soup and sandwich off for Eunice.

“We can go somewhere if you want,” Derek offers, but he’s not entirely sure where that would be. Driving to San Francisco is about the last thing he wants to do. But if Stiles had his heart set on activity he could probably force himself into it.

Stiles shakes his head. “Nah,” he says. “I say we eat this food on your deck and you can read your book, and I’ll dick around on the internet.”

“How’s that different from what you do every other day?”

“Is it supposed to be different?”

Derek shrugs. Derek is worried Stiles will be bored. His quiet seaside life isn’t full of excitement. The only people he speaks to regularly are an elderly librarian and a psychologist he pays for the privilege. He’s read twenty five books since he’s settled in the cottage, more than one a week. He’s watched more TV in the past several months than he had in all the years since the fire. He’s cooked and tried to embrace the feeling of having a place he belongs, even if that belonging is mostly solitary.

It’s been so long since he felt safe, that now that he does (for the most part) he’s trying to relearn what it feels like to fill a normal life with something other than confrontation and fights for survival.

Derek doesn’t really know Stiles outside of the context of those battles. He knows Stiles is smart and resourceful. He knows he can lie without giving himself away to all but the most seasoned werewolves. He knows Stiles uses humor and sarcasm as armor. But Derek isn’t entirely sure what hides beneath it.

The past few months as they’ve texted Derek feels he’s gotten a better picture of what Stiles is really like. But even that isn’t entirely clear. He still keeps Derek at arm’s length, and texting as a primary means of communication means if Derek asks something Stiles doesn’t want to answer he doesn’t have to. He can let silence speak for him. He can freeze Derek out for a few hours, or days, if he feels like Derek’s gotten too close to something Stiles considers private.

All Derek knows is that the people closest to Stiles are worried about him. That he’s struggled for almost a year, struggled with nightmares and isolating thoughts. That he rarely sleeps, that he’s shutting out his friends and family. That apparently Derek is one of the people with the most information about what’s going on with Stiles, which he finds both humbling and terrifying, as he still doesn’t feel like he has a clue how to help.

Derek doesn’t have many people in his life anymore. Cora is on the other side of the world. Isaac has never really forgiven Derek for pushing him away. Scott has come to terms with Derek, but Derek doesn’t feel like he can call him a friend.

Stiles is the closest thing Derek has to a friend. And in typical Derek fashion it isn’t a friendship he fully understands. It’s layered and complex, built on a foundation of quid pro quo. Somewhere along the way Derek started to care about Stiles, but it’s not a feeling he entirely trusts.

“Stony silence it is,” Stiles says with a laugh, jolting Derek out of his brooding thoughts.

Derek rolls his eyes and pulls in the driveway of the house. “Lunch on the deck sounds good,” he says, taking the food bag from Stiles and heading inside.

**

For all of Stiles’ jittery ADHD behavior, he can be surprisingly quiet. After they finished their lunch, Derek settled into one of the chaises with his book and Stiles went inside for a while, emerging later with his laptop and a bottle of soda. He smirked at Derek, but other than that he kept quiet, tapping away on his keyboard, laughing quietly to himself.

“If I turn off geotagging, can I post a picture of your view on Instagram?” Stiles asks after a couple of hours of silence.

Derek marks his place with the receipt he’s been using as a bookmark and looks over at Stiles. “Geotagging?”

“You know, like, if I turn off the location thingy that would tell people where I took the picture,” Stiles says and flips through his Instagram feed to show Derek an example.

“Oh,” Derek says. He looks out at the water and feels oddly touched that Stiles bothered to ask. “Yeah okay.”

“I won’t say who I’m with or anything,” Stiles says hurriedly. “It’s just so pretty and shit.” He waves his hand around in front of him to indicate the panorama.

It is really pretty and shit. Derek’s gotten used to how pretty it is. He hasn’t gotten tired of it, but it’s become a normal part of his day, the way the ocean crashes against the rocks below, the sound of the seagulls as they circle, the sun peeking through the clouds that dominate the sky throughout the morning, reflecting against the water.

“Not that many people follow me anyway,” Stiles says as he takes a few pictures. “But just in case.”

Derek nods and stares out at the ocean before returning to his book.

Stiles flashes his phone at Derek after a few minutes. “Wanna see?”

Derek takes the phone from him. The picture captures the grandeur well. He’s done something with the filters to enhance the way the light makes the water glow. Stiles’ caption is “my view is better than your view.” It already has a couple of comments from people Derek guesses are Scott and Lydia.

“You have Instagram?” Stiles asks as he takes the phone back from Derek.

“No?”

“Are you unsure?” Stiles asks.

“No,” Derek says more decisively. “Why would I want it?”

Stiles shrugs. “Cora has one,” he says as he scrolls through something and hands the phone back to Derek.

There are dozens of pictures of Cora by herself and Cora with some guy Derek assumes is her boyfriend and more pictures of food Cora has eaten. Some of the pictures he’s seen when Cora’s texted them to him. But not all.

“You can be private,” Stiles explains, leaning closer so he can see what Derek’s looking at. “I mean, you can make an Instagram that only people you approve can see your pictures. But we all have them. Scott, me, Lyds, Cora, Malia. I think Peter even has one, but I refuse to follow him. I just know that because he comments creepily on Lydia’s and adds oddly supportive comments to Malia’s pictures.”

Derek pulls his phone out of his pocket. “You set it up,” he says. “Make it private.”

Stiles grins at him. “Aye aye, cap’n.”

Derek rolls his eyes and goes back to reading his book, inputting his password when Stiles needs it to download the app. He tries to ignore the determined look on Stiles’s face, the one he gets when he’s excited about something.

“Okay,” Stiles announces after a while. He hands Derek back the phone. He’s taken a picture of Derek for the profile picture. It’s a close up of the lower half of his face, mostly beard and mouth with just a faint glimpse of California coast in the background.

“Sourwolf? Really?” Derek asks with a requisite eye roll because he doesn’t know how to comment on the picture. “Original.”

“I figured you wouldn’t want it to be something anyone could search on,” Stiles explains with narrowed eyes. “I followed your sister and me for you,” he says pointing to the list on his profile page. “I figured you could follow other people by looking through mine if you want. And see this? It shows you when people request to follow you. As I have. Which you should approve,” he adds biting his lip. “If you want.”

Derek huffs a laugh and grudgingly accepts Stiles as a follower. “I doubt I’ll take any pictures.”

Stiles shrugs. “Well, so far I’ll be the only one that sees them if you do. You’ll have to approve Cora if she requests to follow you.”

Derek goes through Stiles’ profile and finds people he might want to follow. He hesitates over Isaac’s profile, wondering if Isaac will welcome the intrusion into his life. But his profile isn’t private, so Derek won’t have to know if Isaac rejects him. He follows Scott too after similar deliberation.

Derek pokes around within the app for long enough that he doesn’t notice when the air takes on the chill of evening.

When he finally looks up, he sees that Stiles has closed his laptop and is leaned back in the chaise lounge next to Derek’s, eyes closed, face relaxed and peaceful. Derek takes a picture impulsively and adds it to Instagram. He tells himself it’s because he needs to learn how to use his account. He adds the caption “Only time he’s quiet” and then posts it. He also sees that Cora has requested to follow him, so he accepts her request and she quickly adds a comment to the picture. “I assume you having insta is his doing,” she says in her comment.

Derek rolls his eyes and slips the phone in his pocket. Stiles looks so comfortable, Derek can’t bear to wake him, especially since he gets so little sleep these days. He takes off his jacket and drapes it over Stiles to ward off the chill coming off the ocean and then goes inside to see about dinner.

**

By the time Derek comes back outside with two steaks and two foil packets filled with potatoes and onions, Stiles is sitting up in the chaise and glancing around bewildered.

“Did I sleep?” He asks, rubbing his sleepy face with his hand.

Derek smiles and starts the charcoal chimney on top of the grill. “Yep,” he says. “Couple of hours maybe?”

“Wow,” Stiles says and swings his legs over the side of the chair. “That never happens.”

“It’s peaceful here,” Derek says and gestures toward the ocean.

Stiles doesn’t say anything, just watches as Derek putters around the back deck, going back into the house several times for supplies.

“You making dinner?” Stiles asks after an embarrassingly long time of watching Derek do just that.

Derek laughs. “Yeah.”

“Smells good,” Stiles says and gets up so he can monitor Derek’s progress. “Steak? Potatoes? Man, my dad’ll be so jealous.”

Derek smiles. “There’s a salad inside. In his honor.”

Stiles takes a picture of the steaks cooking on the grill.

“Are you posting that?”

Stiles nods. “How else will my dad be jealous?”

Derek shakes his head and tries not to feel fond.

**

At bedtime Derek’s brushing his teeth when he looks up to find Stiles standing awkwardly in the doorway. He spits his toothpaste in the sink and then rinses his mouth out with water.

“Need something?”

“Just thought— uh, well, I mean,” Stiles says and swallows. “We could watch something in your room? Maybe?”

Derek hides a smile. They’d spent the evening watching TV downstairs. But he can read between the lines. Stiles doesn’t want to be alone. Derek has no idea if his presence actually correlates to no nightmares, but Stiles didn’t seem to have one once Derek was in his room the night before.

“Sure,” he says and pulls back the covers of his bed. “Arrested Development?”

Stiles nods and produces his laptop from behind his back, hurrying to slip under Derek’s blankets.

They watch three episodes before Derek can barely keep his eyes open. He scoots down farther in the bed and adjusts the covers as he feels Stiles stiffen, and his scent grows uncomfortably acrid.

“You can stay in here,” Derek says quietly. “Or keep watching in here. I was just falling asleep sitting up.”

Stiles nods, and Derek senses the relief radiating from him.

“Does it help to have someone around?” Derek asks once Stiles has settled in the bed and turned the light off.

Stiles is quiet for a few moments, and Derek isn’t sure if he’s going to respond. “Maybe? Malia stayed over sometimes, and I still got nightmares sometimes. But not as bad.”

“Well,” Derek says and keeps his voice as even as possible. “I don’t mind. Just don’t kick or steal covers.”

Stiles snorts. “No promises.”

Derek smiles into the darkness. “You should talk to your dad,” he says after a while.

Stiles goes still next to him. “He has enough to worry about.”

“Stiles,” Derek says carefully. “He’s your dad. And he’s not stupid. He has to know something’s wrong.” He pointedly doesn’t mention he’s worried enough that he called Derek while Stiles slept one night.

“Yeah,” Stiles says in a small voice. “But what’s he gonna do? It’ll just make him feel guilty.”

Derek takes a deep breath. He’s bad at comfort. He doesn’t know how to tell someone things will be okay when so often things have gone horribly wrong in his own life. He doesn’t have a lot of optimism to offer about things working out for the best.

“Maybe,” Derek says. “But he loves you. And you can’t decide for him what that means. My guess is it means he’ll do whatever he can to make it better. Take fewer night shifts so he can be home more in the evenings. Let you sleep in his bed. Whatever.”

Stiles snorts derisively. “I’m not 8.”

“If it helps you sleep, who cares?” Derek says, hoping to convey his sincerity. “No one has to know.”

Derek can hear Stiles swallow and can smell tears even if he can’t hear them.

“I think I scare him,” Stiles says, voice a near whisper. “He sent me here. So he wouldn’t have to worry for a few days.”

“That’s not—”

“It’s okay, Derek,” Stiles says, voice quivering slightly. “I’m okay with it. I wanted to come.”

Derek doesn’t know what to say. Stiles somehow knows the Sheriff asked Derek to let Stiles visit for the holidays.

“It’s okay,” Stiles says again. Why does he always feel like it’s his job to reassure everyone? Who reassures Stiles? “I’m not mad.”

His whole body seems tense, like he’s holding himself so carefully, trying to will himself to not be in the way, not to make things more difficult for Derek. There’s something so broken about that, so contrary to the Stiles everyone else sees.

“Stiles,” Derek says, feeling inadequate to the task of making this better for him, to making him understand how much his dad loves him, how much Scott and his other friends care.

Stiles flips onto his side, facing away from Derek. “I’m okay,” he says in a tight, small voice.

“You don’t have to be okay,” Derek says finally. “Not with me. I wouldn’t have asked if I didn’t want you here.”

Stiles’ shoulders shake as he lets out a long and shuddery sigh.

Derek reaches out a couple of time before finally resting his hand in the middle of Stiles’ back. He pats him awkwardly, unsure how to soothe his fear, how to make him feel safe. If Stiles were a werewolf, he would be able to scent Derek’s sincerity, his offer of comfort and safety. But he’s not.

“A lot has happened,” Derek says after a while, trying to think of something Dr. Nelson might say, grateful that tomorrow is his own therapy session so he can ask him what he should do.

Stiles laughs a wet-sounding laugh. “Understatement.”

“You aren’t alone,” Derek says.

Stiles buries his face in his pillow and doesn’t answer.

“It probably feels that way,” Derek continues, even though every part of his habitual communication method is screaming at him to shut up. “And you blame yourself,” he forges on anyway. “You think other people blame you too.”

Stiles makes a pained sound and his tears are no longer quiet. “So embarrassing,” he says, his words muffled by the pillow. “Maybe the bed will swallow me alive while I sleep.”

Derek smiles in spite of the seriousness of the situation. “Hey, you’re talking to the king of self-blame, okay? I’ve already told you I’m seeing a therapist, right? That’s not just some sort of ‘finding myself’ exercise.”

Stiles turns his head slightly, and Derek can see the tears smeared across his face. “’s it help?”

Derek nods. “I didn’t think it would at first,” he admits. “But it’s helped me see how hard I’ve been on myself. How hard I assume everyone else is on me.”

Stiles groans. “I was such a dick to you,” he says in whiny voice.

Derek chuckles. “Well, I didn’t exactly give you a reason not to be.”

“Still,” Stiles says. “We didn’t make it easy for you.”

“You didn’t,” Derek agrees. “But at the time that’s what I thought I deserved.”

“And now?” Stiles asks, voice leveling out.

Derek swallows. “And now— I don’t know. I’m figuring that out. Now I think I’m ready to let myself be happy. I’m ready to forgive myself. Maybe ready to let it go.”

Stiles takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly.

“You deserve that too,” Derek says and resumes his awkward patting of Stiles’ back. “But only you can make that happen. That’s something I’ve learned. It doesn’t matter how many people tell you something isn’t your fault or that you’re a good person and worthy of good things. You have to believe it or it doesn’t matter.”

Stiles swallows and nods slightly, but he doesn’t say anything for a while. “I’m not trying to make this weirder than it already is,” he says finally. “But I wouldn’t object to some, like, totally non-feel copping touching. Like, little spoon me, man.”

Derek huffs a surprised laugh. Werewolves are very tactile, and if Cora was next to him in bed crying, Derek would’ve already wrapped her up in a tight hug. But that felt out of bounds for several reasons, a few of them complicated.

Stiles squirms in the bed until he’s backed himself up into Derek’s space. “I promise not to like think anything of it,” he says quietly. “I just. I feel safe. Here. With you.”

Derek’s heart clenches, and he reaches an arm out and pulls Stiles closer. He ignores the voice in his head that whispers to him that he wants it to mean something more and that alone makes it a bad idea. He concentrates on trying to infuse the acceptance he’s offering into the tightness of his grip.

“Yeah,” Stiles says, resting his head against Derek’s bicep. “That’s the stuff,” he says sleepily. “Pack comfort stuff, right?”

Derek swallows and he nods, his chin resting on top of Stiles’ head. Stiles does feel like pack. He always has, even when Scott was rejecting Derek as his alpha. Even when Stiles was pretending to hate Derek. Something about Stiles felt safe. It’s a feeling he shoved aside and ignored. Derek had long before decided he didn’t deserve to feel safe, didn’t deserve to have pack or home. But now that Stiles needs those things, yearns to belong, like someone understands, like he can give someone else his burden to carry for a little while, Derek revels in the feeling a bit.

It might be hard to grab onto when he needs it for himself, but if Derek can help Stiles feel safe enough to accept himself, and if helping him do that means Derek needs to let Stiles in a bit, let him feel like he belongs when he’s with Derek, well, then, that’s a different thing entirely. Derek’s always been willing to give almost anything to make someone else happy. It’s learning how to let himself take what he needs that’s the problem.

**

When Derek wakes up the next morning, he still has his arms around Stiles. He tries not to think too closely about how much he likes that, or about what it feels like when Stiles squirms closer, murmuring something nonsensical to himself while unconsciously closing the gap between his ass and Derek’s dick.

Derek swallows and carefully disentangles himself from Stiles, trying not to wake him. Stiles made it through the night without a bad dream. Derek wonders the last time that happened.

He leaves Stiles a note saying he needs to go to his therapy session, but he’ll be back after lunch.

*

Therapy starts how it usually does, with Dr. Nelson listening as Derek recounts things that have happened since their last session.

Then, Derek says, “When I was 16 a woman, umm, older woman, had sex with me, convinced me she loved me and then burned my family alive in our house.”

Dr. Nelson’s face is a mask of neutrality, but Derek can smell his surprise, can sense the way Derek’s words change the flow of energy in the room. It seems to take him a few moments to collect himself so he can ask a follow up question.

Derek didn’t mean to say it all at once like that. He’s meant to bring up the fire the past few sessions. But he’d wanted to ease into it.

“Okay,” Dr. Nelson finally says and flips the page of his notebook. “Let’s unpack that a bit. Start from the beginning. How did you meet this woman?”

Derek’s throat tightens. He experiences the usual panicked feeling when he has to think about Kate. But he presses through it and tells Dr. Nelson about Kate sitting across from him in a diner one day after basketball practice when he’d stopped to grab a burger on the way home. How she’d smiled her big, flirtatious smile and asked Derek all about school and the basketball team.

Laura was always the superstar student, popular and well-liked in high school. Cora was the baby, spoiled and coddled by their parents. Derek was the stoic middle child who didn’t make waves. He mostly did what he was supposed to.

Their parents were busy, his mom with her volunteer work and the business of being the pack Alpha. His dad worked long hours at the law firm. They still came to Derek’s games most of the time, but his quiet personality made it easy to overlook him, to assume he was doing okay. He didn’t draw much attention to himself. His sisters were much more interesting.

Kate acted like he was someone worth talking to, and it was an instant ego-boost for Derek.

Derek doesn’t get much farther than telling Dr. Nelson how he met Kate and how she made herself part of his world, how she talked him into sex, how she coaxed him to share family secrets. Instead of mentioning hunters and werewolves, Derek says Kate’s family was part of a hate group that targeted racial and religious minorities and that Derek’s mom had done a lot of work with minority groups so Kate’s family viewed Derek’s as a threat.

By the time the session is over, Derek is wrung out.

“This is a big step, Derek,” Dr. Nelson says as he caps his pen and sets his notebook on the coffee table between them. “Sharing this is a sign of growth.”

Derek swallows and looks down at his hands.

“I know it feels like we’re stopping right in the middle of the story,” Dr. Nelson says apologetically. “But it’s good to take a break during difficult topics anyway.”

Derek nods.

“We’ll pick this up on Friday,” Dr. Nelson says and gives Derek an encouraging smile. “Your homework for the next couple of days is to think about how you would respond if one of your friends told you what you just told me. How would you react? What would you say if they told you they felt like it was their fault?”

“250 word essay?” Derek jokes feebly.

Dr. Nelson smiles. “It’s Christmas,” he says. “I’ll spare you. I just want you to break the pattern of self-blame. Think about how you’d advise someone else to work through what you just described to me.”

Derek nods again as he stands. “Yeah, okay.”

He didn’t mention Stiles or any of the things he wanted to ask in regard to dealing with someone going through PTSD or other trauma-related issues. He can ask about that on Friday.

**

When he leaves the office and checks his phone, Stiles has texted him to inform him he walked to the library. He sent the text almost 45 minutes before so it’s too late to warn Stiles that Eunice may not have opened the library today given that it’s Christmas Eve, and she knew it was one of the days Derek wouldn’t be around.

Derek stops at the mall and immediately regrets all of his life choices. It’s a zoo, full of irritated, desperate people. Derek is one of them because he doesn’t have a present for Stiles.

He wanders through the Apple store, but he’s pretty sure Stiles’ computer is pretty new and that he already has the newest version of the iPhone. He takes a turn through Best Buy, but has no idea what Xbox games Stiles already has or what he might want.

He buys Stiles a couple of joke gifts, a cookbook about how to sneak vegetables into your kids’ meals since Derek knows Stiles is concerned about his dad’s diet.

Making a fool of himself would probably make a pretty good gift for Stiles, so he buys them both very loudly patterned Christmas pajamas. He’ll let Stiles take a horrific picture of Derek in the PJs as part of the present.

He buys bags of Stiles’s favorite candy and a couple other joke items and hopes that’s enough so that he doesn’t feel like a dick on Christmas morning.

He gets a text halfway back to town.

Stiles: Eunice says to bring us lunch on your way back

Derek waits until he’s idling at a light before replying.

Derek: Oh and what would she like?

Stiles: She says you’ll pass by the taco place and she’d give you Gawain if you brought her fish tacos and a side of guacamole.

Derek chuckles and shakes his head.

Derek: I don’t want her dog. What would you like?

Stiles: Twice as many fish tacos as Eunice, something with caffeine and a vat of salsa and guacamole.

Derek complies with their requests and shows up with a dozen tacos, most of them fish, some with the braised beef Derek favors. The taco stand guy packed the different salsas and sauces in separate containers along with the requested “vat” of guacamole.

When he gets to the library he finds that Eunice has closed it, but left the door unlocked. She and Stiles are sitting at stools by the counter and looking through old dusty books and a few photo albums.

“You didn’t tell me your boy was magic, Derek,” Eunice says and shoots him a look.

Derek stops in his tracks, unsure he heard her correctly. “Uh, what?”

“I was looking through the metaphysical section,” Stiles says sheepishly. “She asked what I was looking for. It snowballed from there.” He turns back to the book and taps on a page and gives Eunice a questioning look.

“That could work,” she agrees. “Let me ask Maureen. She knows more about this stuff.”

Derek is standing with his mouth hanging open, staring. “How—”

“My Frank was a powerful witch,” she explains. “Led a coven here that scattered when he died. It’s not something I advertise.”

Derek has never smelled magic on her or in her house or picked up that slight pop of ozone that clings to those who practice.

“Close your mouth, dear,” Eunice tisks. “And unpack the food. My heavens, I’m hungry.”

Stiles looks up at him. “I thought you knew,” he says quietly. “I assumed— I just figured that’s why you felt comfortable here.”

Derek’s always been wary of magic practitioners. There are old spells that can help a powerful witch control a werewolf. And Derek has met too many power hungry witches bent on world (or at least county) domination to feel completely safe in their company.

He dutifully unloads the tacos and salsas and chips and drinks.

“I’m just a librarian, sugar,” Eunice says and pats his arm. “Frank’s the one who had the power. I just know about spells and things because he was a mentor to many young practitioners. There are a few still around the area, but it’s mostly a spiritual thing for them, private. Nothing to fear.”

Derek wonders if she knows he’s a werewolf. If she does, he’s pretty impressed she’s managed not to mention it for this long. If she doesn’t, Derek wonders if she knows of the existence of werewolves, or if Frank’s practice of magic is the limit of her knowledge.

Stiles wraps a hand around Derek’s forearm and squeezes. “You good?”

Derek swallows and nods. “Just hungry, and trying to figure out how I missed this,” he says and gestures to Eunice who has gone to the back room to grab plates and napkins.

“I didn’t say anything about you,” Stiles clarifies as he unwraps one of the tacos. “I have no idea if she knows about the— you know.” He makes a clawing motion and what he probably thinks looks like a fierce roar.

Derek rolls his eyes. His gut instinct is that Eunice is a good person. Kind, and generous and she’s never pushed him when he didn’t want to talk about something. Derek may not trust himself completely given his lack of awareness in the past, but he’s also older and far more cautious than he was before the fire.

“Derek,” Eunice says as she returns with supplies. “Stiles tells me that Christmas is your birthday.”

Derek shoots Stiles a look. “Technically.”

“Technically?” Stiles and Eunice ask in unison.

“Haven’t celebrated in a while,” Derek clarifies.

“That changes this year,” Eunice says decisively. “Stiles and I have been talking.”

Derek gives Stiles a betrayed look.

“What?” Stiles asks, defensive. “Eunice says you already know her friends. She said we could eat Christmas dinner with them and then we’ll play games. Eunice is gonna bake a cake.”

She nods as she takes a big bite of taco.

Derek knows resistance is probably futile, and there’s a part of him that likes the idea of something as normal as a birthday celebration. Derek embraces normal these days.

“Okay,” Derek says after he swallows.

“Really?” Stiles ask around a big bite. “I thought you’d take more convincing.”

Derek shrugs. “It’s the Thanksgiving group?” he asks Eunice.

“Yes!” she says. “And it’s even possible that Paul and Dorothy’s constantly horrible son Andrew may be home for Christmas. And that’s always delightful.”

Stiles looks between them expectantly. “Are you really not going to fight the party idea?”

“Would you let me win that fight?” Derek asks and scoops a big glob of guacamole onto a chip.

“Probably not,” Stiles admits.

“So then, okay.”

“This new Zen you is a lot to take in,” Stiles says giving Derek a skeptical look.

“What was he like before?” Eunice asks, trying not to appear too eager (and failing).

Stiles pauses, and Derek knows even with Stiles’ need to chatter he won’t give anything away he thinks Derek is keeping a secret.

“Lots of brooding,” Stiles says. “Smoldering too. Brooding and smoldering. Usually in leather.”

Eunice laughs brightly. “He does that here. But he wears less leather, more sweaters. And he reads children books most days of the week. So less smoldering too.”

Stiles grins at her. “You complete me, Eunice.”

She bats her eyelashes at him.

They make small talk the rest of the meal. Stiles and Eunice seem completely at ease with each other, and Derek wonders how Stiles determined he could trust her, how much of himself he shared. She promises to speak with her friend Maureen about a spell to ward against nightmares and then they whisper a little in a corner about Derek’s birthday.

Derek doesn’t listen in.

**

“So do you have any thoughts about Christmas?” Stiles asks as they drive back to the house.

Derek waits for Stiles to explain himself since he’s sure that’s coming, but he shoots him a confused look just to drive the need for elaboration home.

“Traditions you want to recognize? Wolfy things you do outside naked in the moonlight?”

Derek laughs unexpectedly. “No naked moonlight wolf stuff,” he says. “My mom always made cinnamon rolls. I found a recipe.” He’s suddenly embarrassed to share something so personal. “I wanted to try to make them.”

Stiles smiles and nods. “Awesome. I want to make popcorn tonight and watch Christmas movies, yeah?”

“Sure,” Derek agrees easily. “Do you do presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day?”

“Day,” Stiles says. “My grandma used to make us do it on Christmas Eve, which was very confusing as a kid. Why did Santa show up a day early to grandma’s house? But when we did Christmas at our house we always waited to open gifts until the morning.”

“Yeah, us too,” Derek says. “So presents in the morning.”

Stiles grins at Derek. “You got me something?”

“A couple little things,” Derek says, a blush creeping up his cheeks.

Once they’re back at the house, Stiles takes a nap on the couch while Derek starts the cinnamon roll dough in the kitchen.

Derek combed at least a dozen baking websites until he found a recipe that he thought got the closest to capturing the cinnamon rolls of his childhood. He wishes he’d paid better attention while his mom and grandma made their recipe year after year.

He finally gets the dough into a bowl, covered with a towel so it can rise. When he’s done, Stiles is still sleeping, so Derek wraps the few presents he got and puts them under the tree. Stiles is still asleep when he’s done.

Derek takes his book to the back deck after checking on his bowl of dough. He’s not sure what “doubled in size” means, but it doesn’t seem to have quite happened yet.

His phone rings after a few minutes. He assumes it’s Cora, because the only other person who calls him is currently asleep in the living room.

“Hello?”

“Derek?” It’s a male voice from a number he doesn’t recognize.

“Yeah?” he replies hesitantly.

“Son, this is John Stilinksi.”

Derek exhales. “Oh. Hello.”

There’s a gentle chuckle on the other end of the phone. “Are you alone?”

“Yeah,” Derek says and cranes his neck to see if Stiles’ legs are still hanging off the end of the couch inside. They are. “Stiles is napping.”

“Oh good,” the Sheriff says, relief audible in his voice. “So is he doing okay?”

“He is,” Derek says. It feels a little like betrayal to say too much, since Stiles seems to so closely guard his state of mind. But Derek knows how worried the Sheriff has been. “I don’t think he had a nightmare last night.”

“You don’t know how happy that makes me, Derek.”

Derek’s never been good on the phone, and so he lets that hang a little awkwardly.

“Everything else okay?” the Sheriff asks after the pause.

“We bought a tree,” Derek volunteers. “I’m making cinnamon rolls.”

The Sheriff makes a surprised sound.

“You can come join us, if you want to,” Derek suggests, and even as he says it he thinks about how uncomfortable that visit would probably be. “Stiles would like that, I’m sure.”

“I really do have to work,” the Sheriff says apologetically. “I’m sure Stiles thinks that was a ruse, but I have a shift starting tonight at midnight extending into most of the day tomorrow. Giving the other guys a break since I knew Stiles would be with you.”

Derek nods even though the Sheriff can’t see it and stares at his hands.

“I’m glad he’s doing well,” the Sheriff says. “I’ve tried to call a couple of times today, and he hasn’t called back. I started to worry.”

“He spent his morning helping the librarian,” Derek offers. “I think he read to the kids for story time. And he’s been asleep for a while this afternoon.”

The Sheriff takes a deep breath. “Good. Good. Thank you.”

“I haven’t done anything,” Derek says truthfully.

“You’ve done plenty,” the Sheriff argues. “He’s resting there. That’s enough.”

**

The timer on Derek’s phone goes off a few minutes later, and he checks on his dough. It has puffed up considerably. He “punches it down” as instructed in the recipe and then sets it on the counter he’d dusted with flour. He purchased a rolling pin, and he carefully rolls the dough into a rectangle.

He’s brushing it with what feels like way too much butter when Stiles zombie-walks into the kitchen.

“Smells good,” he mumbles as he opens the refrigerator and grabs the carton of chocolate milk.

His hair is sticking up all over and he has a deep crease across his cheek where the couch cushion made an impression. Derek wants to touch him, to smooth his hair and kiss his cheek. It’s a strong enough feeling that he stares hard at the dough and concentrates on the distribution of cinnamon and brown sugar.

“Do you like raisins?” Derek asks.

Stiles grunts inquisitively.

“In cinnamon rolls,” Derek clarifies. “Some people don’t.”

“I do,” Stiles says and rubs his eyes and stifles a yawn.

“Okay good,” Derek says, hiding a smile. “Me too.” He carefully places the raisins over top of the sugar layer.

Stiles watches as Derek rolls up the dough rectangle, mimicking the technique he found online.

Soon there are two big pans of sliced rolls, way too many for two people. But Derek wanted to make the recipe as it was written, and it was apparently created to feed an army.

“When’ll they be done?” Stiles asks.

“They have to rise again,” Derek says and covers each pan with a towel and puts them in a draft-free corner of the kitchen. “Then bake.”

Stiles groans. “Mean.”

“They’ll be better baked than raw,” Derek says and pushes Stiles’ face away gently.

Stiles smiles up at him. His face is open and easy, and he looks much less drawn and tired than when he arrived a couple of days before. Derek has to look away, busy himself with something at the sink so he doesn’t do or say something impulsive.

**

Christmas Eve looks like this: Derek grills burgers on the deck and they eat outside. Stiles insists on playing Christmas music from his iTunes while he cleans up the kitchen afterward.

They make popcorn while Derek bakes the cinnamon rolls and then argue over which movies to watch. They’ve already watched Elf, so the discussion focuses on whether or not Love, Actually qualifies as a Christmas movie (Stiles says yes) or if they should watch something like Miracle on 34th Street (Derek suggests this) because it’s a classic. Stiles decides they can watch both.

“Oh my god it smells like cinnamon and sugar made sweet love and had babies,” Stiles groans as Derek pulls the pan of cinnamon rolls out of the oven.

Derek rolls his eyes. “They need to cool just a bit and then I’ll ice them,” he says, batting Stiles hand away from the pan.

“I want them to be warm!” Stiles protests.

“They will be. Grab the popcorn.”

They watch the first part of Love, Actually and after a few minutes Derek spreads the icing on top of the cooling rolls.

“Dude,” Stiles says through a mouth full of cinnamon roll. “I may love you a little bit.” (It actually sounds like, “ah muh luh yuh lul buh.”)

Derek’s cheeks flush against his will. The rolls are good, but not the same as his mom’s. They’re missing something.

“Seriously,” Stiles insists after he swallows. “Really good.”

Derek shrugs. “They’re okay.”

“Okay? Okay?” Stiles shakes his head dramatically. “You’re changing my life here.”

“Not as good as my mom’s.”

“Nothing anyone makes is ever as good as the mom version,” Stiles says. “But these are amazing. If you keep talking smack about them they’ll hear you and escape. And I love them.”

Derek huffs a laugh. “They’re pretty good.”

“That’s more like it,” Stiles says and piles another sticky roll onto his plate. He takes a picture of it. “I’m Instagramming this.”

Derek bites back a smile. They may not be exactly like his mom’s, but they’re still warm and gooey and they smell like Christmas is supposed to.

“Now,” Stiles says as he serves himself another roll and turns up the TV volume. “Let’s watch British people fuck up love at Christmas time.”

**

“I’m gonna change into PJs before the next movie,” Stiles informs Derek as Love, Actually ends.

Derek feels his face heat in anticipation of his next statement. “Yeah, but wait.”

Stiles raises his eyebrows. “For what?”

“Uh,” Derek says and retrieves one of the gifts under the tree. “Here.”

“I thought we opened presents on Christmas morning.”

“Well, yeah. Except for this one,” Derek says and then wishes he hadn’t done this at all.

Stiles shakes the box gently like he’s checking for a bomb. “I’m scared.”

Derek rolls his eyes. “I can take it back.”

Stiles narrows his eyes and clutches the box closer. “No way.”

He tears the wrapping paper like he’s in a race but then lifts the box carefully. He parts the tissue paper to reveal the obnoxiously patterned Christmas PJs. He looks up at Derek with a smirk.

“Keep going,” Derek mumbles.

Stiles goes back to the box, taking the first pair out to reveal an even more ridiculous set underneath. He holds them both up and looks at Derek like he’s not entirely sure he understands what’s happening.

Derek shrugs. “I figured me having to wear something stupid and letting you take a picture of me in it was a pretty decent present for you.”

Stiles grins broadly. “Wait. You’re going to wear these?”

“The bigger pair is mine,” Derek clarifies.

“But those are the ugliest ones!” Stiles holds them closer to his face. They’re bright green and have cartoon woodland creatures all over them, including wolves, each of them wearing Santa hats. “Oh my god.”

Derek laughs.

Oh my god,” Stiles repeats. “This is the best day.” He beams at Derek, and Derek feels like he did something right. “You’ll put them on too?”

Derek nods. “Yep. And you can take one picture.”

“Can I post it on Instagram?” Stiles asks eagerly as he heads toward the stairs with his own bright red PJs clutched in his hand.

Derek sighs dramatically. “I guess.”

Stiles cackles.

“I regret this already,” Derek mumbles as he follows Stiles up the stairs. He will even more after the 100 people that follow Stiles see Derek in ridiculous pajamas, but for now he’s pleased that he managed to make Stiles so happy. Derek put that smile on Stiles’ face, and that feels like its own gift.

“This better not be some elaborate joke on me,” Stiles calls from his room, voice muffled slightly. “Like, I better not change into these and then you lock me out of the house or something.”

Derek laughs and shakes his head and looks at himself in the mirror. He looks ridiculous, but at least the pajamas are soft.

Stiles pokes his head in the doorway. “Ready?” he asks and then his eyes brighten. “Oh. My. God,” he says exaggeratedly. “Look at you!” He laughs so hard he has to sit down on the edge of Derek’s bed to steady himself. “This is the best.” He wipes his eyes and then starts laughing again.

“It’s not that funny,” Derek protests. Stiles manages to make bright red pajamas with cartoon reindeer on them look normal. He looks soft and rumpled. Derek secretly finds it pretty appealing. So he fixes his face in a scowl to compensate.

Stiles grins. “I just keep thinking about that day you found me and Scott in your woods. And you were all—” he makes an exaggerated mad face “—and in your leather and your tight jeans and like ‘get off my lawn, youths!’ and Scott practically peed his pants, and then I picture that Derek in these PJs and…” He giggles again.

“Yeah, well,” Derek says awkwardly.

“It’s awesome,” Stiles says and stands up. “Come stand by the tree for your picture.”

Derek groans. “I hate you.”

“Do not,” Stiles says lightly. “If you did you wouldn’t have bought the pajamas.”

Derek stands next to the Christmas tree. “I’m not going to smile.”

“It’s better if you don’t,” Stiles says, nonplussed. He fusses with his phone and then grins down at the screen. “Oh god. Perfect.” He pokes at the phone a bit more and then smiles up at Derek. “Take mine too? For my dad.”

Derek takes Stiles phone and complies. Stiles of course smiles brightly, and Derek takes note of how the bags under his eyes have receded and there’s color in his cheeks again. His face is relaxed.

“Okay,” Stiles says with a decisive nod of his head. “Now c’mere.”

Derek rolls his eyes but steps closer until Stiles can reach out and drag him in.

“Pretend like you’re having fun for a second,” Stiles says as he reaches his arm out to snap a selfie of the two of them together. “I won’t tell anyone.”

Derek rolls his eyes, but smiles as Stiles snaps a couple of pictures.

“Awesome,” Stiles says and plops down on the couch. “Gonna text these to my dad. Proof of life.”

Derek queues up the Miracle on 34th Street remake as Stiles taps out a text to the Sheriff. The phone rings almost immediately, and Stiles laughs as he answers it on speaker phone.

“Hi Dad,” Stiles says.

“Please tell me you haven’t done some spell or something to make Derek wear Christmas pajamas, son.”

Stiles laughs, head thrown back. “No way,” he says. “That was my present! He wore those of his own free will!”

The Sheriff laughs. “Can Derek hear me?”

“Derek can,” he says and sits on the couch next to Stiles.

“You are a patient man,” the Sheriff says amiably. “And clearly know Stiles well.”

Derek looks over at him. He’s grinning at Derek and nodding a little, like he doesn’t realize he’s doing it.

“I didn’t know what video games he’d want,” Derek mumbles.

Stiles and his dad both laugh.

“Well, it looks like you boys are having fun,” the Sheriff says, and Derek thinks he hears relief in his voice.

“Yeah,” Stiles says easily. “Derek made cinnamon rolls, and we’re watching Christmas movies. And we’re wearing these pajamas. It’s like I’ve entered the twilight zone.”

“Sounds great,” the Sheriff says, and Derek can hear the hubbub of the station behind him. Derek feels bad he’s alone on Christmas.

“And tomorrow we’re gonna celebrate Derek’s birthday with his elderly BFF Eunice and her peeps,” Stiles says.

Derek rolls his eyes. “She’s the librarian,” he explains.

“Derek volunteers at the library, Dad,” Stiles says gleefully. “Reads to kids. Brings an old lady lunch every day.”

The Sheriff makes a surprised noise. “Well, it sounds like the coast agrees with you, Derek.”

Derek blushes. “Yeah,” he says and swallows thickly. “I like it here.”

Stiles bites his lip and nods at Derek, like he’s said something good. “Eunice is awesome.”

“I’m glad you are enjoying it there, Stiles,” the Sheriff says as the noise level around him seems to increase. “Be good.”

“I’m being good!” Stiles protests. “And you better go to the McCall’s tomorrow for dinner. Scott will tell me if you don’t.”

The Sheriff groans. “We’ll see, son. I’ll be getting off a long shift around that time. So it will depend.”

“Don’t be alone all day, Dad,” Stiles says, voice dropping down from its previous excited level. “Scott and Melissa want to see you.”

Derek is struck by how much time the Stilinski men seem to spend worrying about each other.

“Alright,” the Sheriff says. “I need to go out on a call, Stiles. I’ll talk to you tomorrow night.”

Stiles swallows. “Merry Christmas, Dad,” he says. “Be safe.”

“I’m always safe,” the Sheriff says. “I have Parrish with me tonight.”

That seems to put Stiles at ease. “Good. Love you.”

“Love you too,” the Sheriff says quickly. “Bye.”

The line goes dead, and Stiles looks down at his phone for a few seconds before looking up at Derek and smiling, a little less brightly than before. “So. Next movie?”

Derek nods. He wants to say something reassuring or ask if Stiles is okay. But that’s never been Derek’s strong suit. “More popcorn?”

“Good idea,” Stiles says, and Derek pops another bag as the movie begins.

**

After the movie ends, Derek reads his book in bed. Stiles went his own room after the movie, but after several minutes Stiles pokes his head in the door. He bites his lip and looks embarrassed.

Derek goes back to reading, but lifts up a corner of the blankets so Stiles knows he can join him if he wants to. He hears Stiles cross the room, but still doesn’t look up. If Stiles is embarrassed about needing to sleep in Derek’s room, Derek certainly isn’t going to make that worse by making a lot of eye contact with him or making him talk about why it’s easier for him to sleep with someone else around.

Stiles settles against the headboard and then pokes at his phone. “You are very popular,” he says staring down at the screen. “37 likes already on the pajama picture.”

Derek glances over at the phone. There are a few comments too. CallMcScott says “Photoshopping Derek’s face onto PJ models is mean, Stiles.” Cohale’s comment just says, “Hahahahahahahahahahaha. Hahahahahahahaha.” IsaacL says “has Derek been kidnapped again?”

Derek rolls his eyes. “You drool while you sleep,” he says mildly, turning the page of his book. “If you aren’t nicer I’ll Instagram that.”

Stiles squawks.

Derek smirks, but doesn’t look up from the book.

**

“I like Eunice,” Stiles says into the dark a few minutes later.

Derek smiles at the ceiling.

“I didn’t tell her about you,” Stiles says after Derek doesn’t answer. “She just seemed so confident about the magic stuff. I guess I thought you knew about Frank.”

“We haven’t really talked that much,” Derek admits.

Stiles snorts. “You go in there almost every day!”

“I’m not— I don’t really make small talk with people.”

“Well, right,” Stiles agrees. “But you seem comfortable there. She obviously likes you.”

Derek thinks back to those first few days he spent time in the library. How it reminded him of his mom, and how he liked the calm and quiet broken up with the semi-whispered interactions of Eunice and various library patrons.

“I just—“ Derek starts and then doesn’t know how to explain it. “I traveled up and down the coast after I left Beacon Hills. Never stayed in one place very long. On the run, without needing to run anymore. And then I liked it here. So I stayed.”

He can see Stiles turn his face toward Derek’s in the dark. He doesn’t say anything, just waits for Derek to go on.

“And then— I don’t know,” Derek admits. “I don’t need to work. But I didn’t really have anything to do.” He swallows. “I went in there one day, and I liked it. I felt safe there. And I could read my book and not have to talk but still be around other people a little bit.”

“Why’d you leave Beacon Hills?” Stiles asks after letting the silence linger around them.

Derek closes his eyes. He still hasn’t completely figured that out. He thinks that’s something therapy will help him process. “I don’t know.”

“It sucked,” Stiles says quietly.

Derek turns and finds his face in the dark. He hadn’t realized Stiles even noticed he’d left right away. It took a couple weeks for him to text, and then it felt perfunctory more than anything.

Stiles shrugs and stays quiet, and Derek tries to figure out what to say.

“Felt like time to go,” Derek finally says.

Stiles’ scent has turned into something Derek can’t interpret. It isn’t fear or anger or disappointment. But it certainly isn’t anything good.

“You guys found that spell anyway,” Derek says when Stiles still hasn’t said anything. “To cloak the pull of the Nemeton. Kate’s dead. Scott’s Alpha.”

“You guys were getting along though,” Stiles says quietly. “He was asking you for help and stuff, right?”

Derek takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. He’d worked with Scott’s pack to help stop the Nogistune and save Stiles. And they rescued Derek from Mexico when Kate kidnapped him. After they got back, Derek had done what he could to be useful to Scott’s pack. But he’d still felt on the outside.

“Yeah,” Derek allows, but doesn’t know how to explain anything else he felt in the weeks leading up to finally leaving.

“Scott tries hard,” Stiles says. “He’s figuring things out. But he still— he doesn’t listen super well. To anyone. He trusts everyone else way too much, and doesn’t trust me at all anymore.”

“He trusts you,” Derek says automatically, but he doesn’t know that for sure. He just knows Stiles’ guilt over the Nogistune possession leads him to feeling responsible for things that aren’t his fault, and he assumes other people feel that way too.

Stiles makes a dismissive noise.

It’s quiet for a long time. Derek can still hear Stiles’ heartbeat, knows he’s awake. But he isn’t sure if any more is going to be said.

“I’m glad you like it here,” Stiles says finally. “You seem— you seem good.”

Derek glances over and finds Stiles looking at him in the dark. “Do you think you’ll stay in Beacon Hills after graduation?”

Stiles shakes his head. “I applied to several of the UCs, but Berkeley is the one I want the most and of course Stanford. But that’s a long shot.”

“Anywhere out of California?”

Stiles swallows. “I want to stay within a few hours of my dad.”

“I’m sure he’d understand if you wanted to go somewhere else,” Derek says carefully.

“No,” Stiles says firmly. “It’s not— I mean, he’d probably rather I go farther away. I just— I want to stay close. For me.”

Derek feels his chest clench. “I get it,” he says. “If my family hadn’t, you know, I would’ve stayed nearby too.”

“Yeah?” Stiles asks, turning on his side to face Derek.

Derek nods. “We were close. It would’ve been weird to be away from the pack, from my Alpha.”

“And it’s not weird now?”

“I don’t have an Alpha.”

Stiles makes a small, distressed noise. “You have a pack though,” he insists.

Derek thinks about how to respond to that without hurting Stiles’ feelings. “I had a pack,” he says finally. “But after my family died, it’s just been different. With Laura and me, it wasn’t the same as being in a big thriving pack. We were always scared, always running. Then when I was back in Beacon Hills chasing Peter, Scott made it clear we weren’t pack—”

Stiles makes a noise of protest.

“Stiles, he told me every time he saw me that we weren’t pack. That he didn’t want anything to do with me.”

“But that changed—”

“Then when I was Alpha, I bit Jackson, Isaac, Boyd and Erica. Scott still didn’t want to be in my pack. He made a pretty big deal out of that too, even going so far as to force me to bite Gerard and then tell me again that he wasn’t in my pack.” That still stings, even all these months later.

“Yeah, but—”

“And then Boyd and Erica died. Cora came back. I pushed Isaac away to try to keep him safe. I gave up my Alpha powers to save Cora.”

“Yeah that’s the summary of events,” Stiles says. “But it’s still not—”

“By then Scott was an alpha. He’d built his own pack.”

Stiles doesn’t say anything for a few seconds.

“It’s okay, Stiles,” Derek says after the pause lingers. “Being in a pack is ideal, but I don’t think any pack is ever going to feel to me like my family did. No Alpha is going to be my mom or my sister.”

“Isn’t being an omega a bad thing for a wolf?”

“For a bitten wolf, definitely,” Derek says. “For a born wolf, there’s an ache there without pack. Like this nagging feeling that tells you something is missing. But it’s like any other loss. I can control myself because my control doesn’t come from pack anymore.”

“Lone wolf,” Stiles jokes feebly.

Derek smiles sadly and turns his face toward the ceiling. “Maybe I’ll find a place in a pack again someday. But for me the most important thing was feeling safe and like I had control over my future.”

Stiles doesn’t answer, but his heartbeat is calm, and his scent has changed back to something Derek recognizes.

“My therapist says I need to figure out what I want, not just what I need,” Derek says after a while. “If I’m not fighting to survive, what do I want my life to look like?”

“Any thoughts?”

“Not sure yet,” Derek admits. “But I like the ocean. I like this town. I like the library. That’s as far as I’ve gotten.”

Stiles makes a noise of approval and scoots slightly closer. “I want to sleep this well all the time. I want to not feel like Scott and my dad are looking at me like I’m crazy. And I want to get into a good college.”

“Sounds reasonable.”

“What if I can’t sleep when I go back home?” Stiles asks quietly.

“We’ll figure something out,” Derek says. He wants to pull Stiles close, to reassure him. “And you can come back here on the weekend sometimes.”

“Yeah?”

“Sure,” Derek says, and wonders when that got so easy to say.

Stiles turns over so his back is to Derek and then grabs Derek’s arm and pulls it over his waist. Derek chuckles and moves a little closer, presses his nose into Stiles’ hair.

“You may not think you’re Scott’s pack,” Stiles says sleepily after several long quiet moments. “But you feel like pack to me.”

Derek’s stomach twists. He squeezes the arm he has wrapped around Stiles. “You’re not the alpha,” he jokes, because he doesn’t know how else to respond.

Stiles laughs and turns his face into his pillow. “I’m not?” he asks and squirms a little closer to Derek. “Are you or are you not currently wearing hideous pajamas because I wanted you to?”

Derek huffs a laugh that ruffles Stiles’ hair. “Go to sleep, Stiles.”

Stiles hums contentedly, and soon his heartbeat slows in sleep.

**

Derek wakes up with his arms wrapped around Stiles, their legs slotted together like this is the way they always sleep, the way they were always meant to sleep.

In the haze between sleep and waking, he lets himself consider the things he’s pushed out of his consciousness for a long time. He feels safe with Stiles.

Derek didn’t have much of an inner life after the fire. Everything was about survival. They ran, they stayed alive, they stayed under the radar. There was always enough money, but most of it was held in accounts and funds that Laura was afraid to touch, in case the Argents’ hunters were tracking them somehow.

So they worked. Derek preferred jobs that let him use his strength. He was a stocker at a grocery store, receiving big pallets of cans and produce and working through the night to replenish the shelves. He did construction during the summer, picking up work when job foremen came looking for day laborers.

After he turned 21 he was a bouncer at a club in New York. He hated that job because it required an unexpected amount of social interaction. Derek had pictured standing near the door and removing unruly patrons forcibly when necessary. But the manager thought he had a “pretty face” that raised the club profile so he worked the door. The few nights he lasted at that job he spent his shifts being flirted with, groped, eye fucked. He hated it and quit after a week.

He worked at a mechanic’s shop mostly after hours cleaning up. But he showed an interest in learning about engines so one of the guys who was always around at closing taught Derek about cars and soon he was helping with that, too.

The common theme of each of those jobs (the ones he stuck with at least) was hard work that tired him out, kept him busy and didn’t require constant interaction with strangers.

Derek tried not to think about his family, about the fire. He shoved thoughts like that away, replaced them with anger and revenge and let that fuel him to work harder, to do better.

But these last few months Derek’s had more time to think. He’s rebuilding his life, brick by brick. Dr. Nelson is helping him decide which bricks are important to him, what matters enough to choose it now that he’s essentially reconstructing himself.

He lost almost everything. He shut down, shut out every thought that required him to examine why (if that reason was any deeper than pain or anger or guilt). But now that he’s beyond the point where he needs to live instinctually, he has the opportunity to choose what he will focus his attention on, what matters.

When they were in New York, one of the few friends they made was a woman Laura met at her job as a bartender. Her name was Sarah and she was loud and funny and warm. She didn’t know they were werewolves, so Derek ended up overhearing more of her conversations with Laura than he was supposed to.

When Sarah was young her mom died and her dad shut down emotionally after, leaving her with an aunt who had never wanted to have children. She wasn’t abused, but she was definitely aware she was merely tolerated. So at the first opportunity, she she ran away. She saved up her money and took a bus into the city, got a job waiting tables and made a friend who let her stay in what was essentially a big closet in his tiny apartment.

Sarah’s life was as hard as their’s had been. But she wasn’t angry. The first Christmas they were in New York, Sarah asked Laura what they were doing for the holiday and Laura shrugged and glanced at Derek like she was hesitant to even bring it up.

Sarah seemed to understand the longing Laura felt for family, and she had sympathy for how hard holidays could be after losing nearly everything. She brought over a bag of groceries on Christmas Eve, and they made enchiladas and margaritas and watched Raising Arizona and had what Sarah called “The Opposite of Christmas.”

It wasn’t the same, but it wasn’t supposed to be. It was fun and stupid, and it was one of the first times since the fire that Derek felt like he could see a path to figuring out how to do more than stay alive.

“Friends are the family you choose,” Sarah joked one night.

She was teasing Laura about a guy she liked at the bar, and Laura said something like, “You suck. Get out.” She was kidding, and Sarah’s response was meant equally as a joke.

But it made Derek stop and think. “Friends are the family you choose.”

His family had been his pack, his best friends. He had buddies at school, but he spent most of his free time at home with his family. Losing them felt like losing his whole world. It was hard to imagine “choosing” a new family, a new pack.

Derek had tried with the pack he built when he was Alpha. But that was tainted by his own fear and the new alpha power surging through him that urged him to get stronger through pack acquisition, that clouded his judgment with a need to claim and control. He hadn’t been trained for the extra power. He was never supposed to be Alpha.

Derek could’ve grown to love Erica, Boyd and Isaac enough that they could’ve been his chosen family. But there was so much to overcome first. So much pain and confusion and resentment. They were fighting simply to survive.

Survival seems like more of a certainty now. Derek wonders how things would’ve been if he’d met Erica in the library. If Isaac worked at the counter of the market deli where he buys sandwiches most days. What if Boyd was one of the fellow runners he nods to on his morning jog? He wishes he had a chance to make it up to them now that his head is clearer, now that he has more time and patience to teach them things. He thinks he’d choose them again. He’s just not sure if they’d choose him.

Then there’s Stiles.

Derek still has his arms wrapped around him, his nose tucked behind Stiles’ ear. Stiles smells warm and peaceful, nothing like the sharp scent of pain and confusion when he arrived.

Derek can’t pinpoint exactly how it happened, but somewhere in the last couple of years, they became a safe space for each other. Stiles doesn’t have nightmares when Derek’s close, he seeks him out through text or phone call when they are apart.

Stiles doesn’t let anything slide. He pokes and prods and hassles and harangues. Derek doesn’t find that as annoying as he thinks he should. He likes that Stiles doesn’t let him get away with stuff, won’t let him brood. He likes that Stiles knows that under his issues and beyond the walls he’s built around himself, he wants to eat cinnamon rolls and watch Christmas movies, that he likes that there’s a tree in his living room.

The more Derek lets himself consider it, the more he realizes Stiles was right. Stiles is pack. If Derek could choose someone to build a pack with, he’d choose Stiles. Stiles is smart and has good problem solving skills. He’s loud and brash, but that hides a surprisingly cautious and careful nature. He doesn’t trust easily, waits for evidence someone is worthy of his time, his energy. But he seems to trust Derek, and Derek takes that very seriously.

Stiles is bright and lively and funny. He’s also ridiculous and over-the-top and sarcastic. But when he’s honest with himself, when he doesn’t censor his own thoughts and desires, Derek is attracted to Stiles.

Derek tightens his arms around Stiles, and Stiles moves against him in return, murmuring something unintelligible and squirming closer. Derek wants to wake up like this every morning. He tries not to let that thought settle into his consciousness in a way that will take root and create a foothold, but it’s becoming a hard thing to ignore.

“”s Christmas,” Stiles mumbles into his pillow.

Derek smiles against him and doesn’t say anything. He knows if he does it will draw Stiles further into wakefulness, and Derek will have to let go. He won’t have the excuse of sleep for why his legs are entwined with Stiles’.

It’s Christmas, as Stiles says. And Derek’s not going to let himself feel guilty on Christmas.

**

Derek makes them breakfast after they open presents. Stiles likes the things Derek got him. There’s a distinctive wolf theme running throughout his gifts Stiles gave Derek, including a keychain that plays “Hungry Like the Wolf” when the belly is squeezed.

Breakfast is bacon and potatoes and eggs and more of the cinnamon rolls. Derek usually eats a healthy breakfast, but Stiles will complain if he has to eat hard boiled eggs and oatmeal and fruit on Christmas.

They Skype with Cora while they clean up the kitchen. She seems excited about the new computer Derek sent her for Christmas. She and Stiles tease each other, and then when they tire of that they both start in on Derek.

“Don’t get salty,” Cora jokes when she sees the annoyed look on Derek’s face. “We tease because we love.”

Derek rolls his eyes and turns back to the sink. He actually doesn’t mind that much. He likes that Stiles and Cora get along now. That didn’t always seem to be the case during her brief stint in Beacon Hills.

“Sarcasm is our love language,” Stiles agrees and pats him on the back.

Derek’s glad Cora isn’t in the room with them and can’t smell the way Derek’s scent turns sweet at the easy affection and the way Stiles stays a little closer to Derek afterward.

“We’re throwing him a party tonight, Cor,” Stiles tells her. “Me and Derek’s old lady love.”

Cora laughs delightedly. “Yes, Eunice. I’ve heard hardly anything about her. Do tell.”

Stiles grins and cuts a glance at Derek. “She’s awesome. If Derek decides he doesn’t want to, I may ask her to marry me.”

Cora smirks. “I somehow doubt either of you are going to end up with Eunice.” She raises her eyebrow at Derek knowingly.

Derek ignores her and goes back to scrubbing the potato pan in the sink.

Stiles scoffs at Cora. “Eunice would pick me anyway.”

Cora laughs, and they continue to tease each other while Derek finishes the dishes.

**

The birthday party is actually pretty fun. It’s the same group from Thanksgiving, and even though Derek has seen them each a few times at the library since, he worried it might be weird for them to be invited to a party for him. But it’s not.

Part of why it’s not awkward is because they love Stiles. Maureen is especially fond of him, and they end up talking about magic conspiratorially in a corner for the first part of the evening. Derek keeps an eye on the discussion out of habit more than anything.

He has no reason to mistrust Maureen, really. If Eunice likes her, Derek’s mostly satisfied. But he’s also dealt with enough seemingly harmless people who turn out to have nefarious intent to not blindly follow near-strangers or let the people he cares about do it either.

But Stiles has good instincts. He’s wary and cautious, more than he probably should be at his age.

Derek watches, but mostly because he has trouble tearing his eyes away from Stiles these days.

“He’s special,” Eunice says as she stands beside him at the kitchen counter.

Derek’s face heats, and he looks down at the pitcher of punch.

Eunice smiles and squeezes his arm. “I haven’t pushed you before,” she says carefully. “And I won’t now. But that boy lights up from the inside when you’re around. In case you’re too stubborn to notice, I thought maybe I should point it out.”

Derek swallows and doesn’t respond. Stiles throws his head back and laughs at something Maureen has said, and they go back to looking through the spell book she brought with her.

“It’s complicated,” he says finally.

Eunice nods. “You’re 24, he’s not quite 18. He’s got darkness around his heart, you’re a werewolf.”

Derek chokes on the sip of punch he just swallowed. “Wh-what?”

Stiles looks over at Derek with sudden alarm. He can’t hear what they’re saying, but he’s picked up on Derek’s distress.

Eunice rolls her eyes and pats Derek on the back gently. “No one else knows,” she soothes. “Or if they do it’s not because I’ve said anything.”

Derek doesn’t know what to say, and he looks down to find Gawain staring up at him, concerned. Derek bends down and picks the little dog up. Gawain licks Derek’s chin thoughtfully, and Derek smiles.

“It’s not hard to spot if you know what you’re looking for,” Eunice says lightly. “I don’t care that you are. But Frank knew your Mama. And I remember the fire, sweet boy.”

Derek feels like he was punched in the stomach for a moment. But he talks himself down from a need to run. She’s not saying it to taunt or hurt. He takes stock of his senses and there’s nothing about Eunice that is giving off threat or menace.

“I— I—” he starts and then doesn’t know what to say.

Maureen and Stiles have put the spell book away and Dorothy, Paul and Stan have joined them in the living room. Dorothy and Paul’s son Andrew is apparently sulking at home, but they are regaling the group with stories since Stiles knows nothing about him.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner,” Eunice says and stands so Derek has to look her in the eye. “I wanted you to tell me if you wanted to. But I also realized you’ve run so long you might not recognize a friend when you saw one.”

Derek bites his lip and looks at his hands.

“You’re safe here,” she continues. Gawain punctuates her words with another chin lick. “Maureen has the town warded, and she said she sensed that Stiles further protected your house when he arrived.”

Derek nods. “He did a spell,” he says with a small voice. He suddenly wants to cry. The urge is so foreign. He doesn’t let himself cry, doesn’t let go enough to cry. But he feels overwhelmingly relieved. Having Stiles safe and close, knowing he made a wise choice when he started spending time at the library, that he chose a town with a powerful witch with a good, if flirtatious, heart.

“You’re a good man,” Eunice says again, repeating something she’d told him a few weeks before. “I’m glad you stuck around our little town.”

Derek swallows and searches her face. “I didn’t— I’m not even sure why I did.” He looks over at Stiles and thinks about how easy it would be to follow him back to Beacon Hills, back to the fray of the fight. “I was tired of running.”

Eunice nods decisively, like something is settled. “We just need to get Stiles sorted.”

Derek smiles and watches Stiles across the room. He looks easy and relaxed, warm and happy. Derek zeroes in on his heartbeat, steady and strong. It ticks up, racing a little, as Stiles locks eyes with Derek and smiles back at him.

**

They play card games and tell stories and give Derek silly touristy gifts of seashells and snow globes and a sweatshirt with the name of their town airbrushed across the front in a purple pastel. There’s cake with a layer of caramel and there are nachos that Eunice keeps calling “birthday nachos.” As far as he can tell it’s just a normal pan of nachos with different kinds of meat and cheese and vegetables and big bowls of salsa and sour cream and guacamole.

“They’re birthday nachos because I’m guessing you wouldn’t eat them otherwise,” Eunice explains when she passes around plates and napkins during one of the breaks in their card game playing.

“I like nachos,” Derek says defensively.

Maureen smiles and winks at him. “You may like them, but no one who wears those little running shorts and looks like you do in them eats nachos very often.”

Derek blushes, and Stiles laughs loudly.

“We had bacon this morning!” He says. “Christmas bacon.”

“Probably the only day he eats bacon,” Maureen says.

“True,” Stiles agrees because he’s a traitor. “It’s been oatmeal and fruit the other days.” He takes a big bite of chips and stringy cheese. “But he did make us cinnamon rolls last night.”

Eunice raises her eyebrows. “I expect a pan of those at the library one of these days.”

Derek smiles and looks down at the nachos in front of him. “It was just an experiment.”

“A good one,” Stiles says through another messy bite.

Eunice gives Stiles an indulgent smile and then turns to face Derek and the smile grows knowing, like she can see his soul somehow. He’s beginning to wonder if she can.

**

At bedtime that night Stiles doesn’t bother with the embarrassment of the night before. He changes into his Christmas pajamas again and then climbs into bed next to Derek. He sets a large but thin package on Derek’s lap.

Derek looks up in surprise.

“This is your birthday present,” Stiles explains. “Note the lack of Christmas themed wrapping paper.”

Derek smiles at the cupcakes and streamers that decorate the yellow and orange design. “You didn’t have—”

“I know,” Stiles says and waves his hand dismissively. “But I did. So shut up.” He grins at Derek. “Open it.”

Derek unwraps it and lifts the top of the box carefully. He parts the tissue paper and sucks in a sharp breath. The smell overwhelms him. It’s a frame, but it smells like his house in Beacon Hills. And inside the frame there’s a picture of Derek, Cora and Laura from a year or two before the fire. The shot is slightly blurry, but it’s not one of the pictures Derek has that survived the fire. He combed the ashes for any leftover family heirlooms, and this isn’t one he found. He looks up at Stiles.

Stiles’ cheeks are pink. “Cora had that with her, I guess,” Stiles explains. “I emailed her to ask if she had any pictures from before.” He looks down at his hands and suddenly seems unsure. “So she scanned the one she’d had in a book she hid in her fort in the woods. She stopped there before she ran and grabbed the few things she’d been hiding I guess.” Stiles chews his lip. “And then I— I went out to the house and found some wood from one of the broken windows. Trim pieces. And my dad helped me make it into a frame.”

The smell of it is so powerful Derek doesn’t know whether he wants to bring it closer to his face or set it on the other side of the room. But the picture is carefree and happy, their faces bright and silly. It’s perfect. It’s perfect, and Derek has no idea what to say.

“It’s too much,” Stiles says quickly. “I shouldn’t have— I’m sorry. I just— I knew you didn’t have a lot with you from before.” He glances at Derek and then looks back at his hands. “I didn’t know what else to get you.”

Derek nods and feels his eyes fill, making his vision shiny for a moment. He blinks back the tears that threaten to fall.

“It’s perfect,” Derek finally says, voice thick. “Thank you.”

Stiles looks up, his face hopeful. Derek is overwhelmed by his scent, his nerves, the look on his face. How much Derek seems to matter to him, how much he wants to make him happy.

“You’re welcome,” Stiles says and nudges Derek’s shoulder with his own.

Derek looks back at the picture, tracing the edges of the frame with his fingers. The wood is mostly unsinged, like Stiles had searched for pieces of the house that bore no burn marks. The frame would’ve been gift enough, but he’d found a picture Derek hadn’t seen in years. That he hadn’t known Cora even had.

Derek sets the photo next to the bed and then flips the light off, anxious to cover the emotions on his face in darkness.

Stiles moves toward him easily and wraps himself around Derek, leaning his head on Derek’s chest. “I don’t want to go home,” he says in a quiet voice. “I want to stay.” He isn’t leaving for a few more days, but Derek knows what he means.

Derek swallows and wraps an arm around Stiles’ back. “You graduate in five months.”

Stiles makes a frustrated noise. “Are you going to move back?”

Derek’s heart twists, and he wants to say he will, but he also knows that for his own mental health he can’t. He’s healing here, and that’s important. For the first time in a long time, he has to make himself a priority. “No.”

Stiles doesn’t say anything. Just tightens his grip and burrows his face into Derek’s chest. “Yeah,” he agrees finally.

“You can visit,” Derek reminds him. “And maybe I’ll come back for a visit sometime.”

Stiles makes an interested noise.

“Did you and Maureen talk about something to help with the dreams?”

Stiles nods. “She has some ideas.”

Derek squeezes Stiles around the waist. “Good.”

“I feel safe with you,” Stiles says, like a dam has broken, like he can suddenly express things he had been trying not to say.

Derek makes an involuntary distressed sound.

Stiles’ fingers worm their way under the hem of Derek’s t-shirt and stroke gently at the skin of his sides. It’s not sexual. It’s meant to be soothing. But Derek still feels like he should put a stop to it. He doesn’t want to, is the thing. He just knows he should.

“Stiles,” he says gently.

“Shut up,” Stiles protests softly.

Derek chuckles and wraps his fingers around Stiles’ moving hands. “We can’t.”

“Can’t what?” Stiles asks, lifting his head up and giving Derek wide, innocent eyes.

Derek rolls his eyes. “You know what.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Stiles says and lowers his head back to Derek’s chest. But he slowly slips his hands out of the bottom of Derek’s shirt, resting them in the same place, just without the skin-to-skin contact.

He doesn’t say anything else. Derek’s not sure what to say either so it’s quiet for a while.

“It’s not that I don’t want to,” Derek says finally. He doesn’t want Stiles to misunderstand. “I just think—”

“I get it, Derek,” Stiles says softly. “I still want to be close, though. Is that okay?”

Derek squeezes him. He’s not sure Stiles does get it. Because Derek wants nothing more than to give in and let whatever Stiles is thinking about happen. But it also feels a lot like taking advantage. Neither of them are healthy enough at the moment to make that choice without transferring some pretty massive baggage to the other, and that doesn’t seem fair. To either of them.

It would be easy to give in, and a year ago he probably would have. He wouldn’t have known how else to express his gratefulness for the friendship he has felt from Stiles, for the genuine acceptance and affection. He would’ve mistaken his attraction to Stiles for readiness to take their relationship to a different level. He would’ve rushed it and ultimately messed it up since they’re both so broken right now.

But a little distance, a little therapy, and a lot of time to think has given Derek perspective. He knows how important Stiles is, how rare. And he’s not willing to risk that for a few moments of comfort when what Derek really wants is something much more long-lasting.

“I want what you want,” Derek clarifies, because he doesn’t want Stiles to misunderstand. “I just need some time.”

Stiles makes an interested, if sleepy noise and nods slightly against Derek. “Not going anywhere,” Stiles mumbles, and Derek feels him smile.

**

“I’m meeting Maureen at the library,” Stiles says when Derek gets back from his run the next morning.

“The library?” Derek asks, after finishing his bottle of water. “What an unexpected idea.” He grins at Stiles and pulls his sweaty shirt over his head and tosses it toward the laundry room.

Stiles makes a choking sound and then studies his cereal bowl closely. “Right. Maureen and I are going to work on a spell in the library basement.”

Derek nods and heads toward the stairs. “First a shower.”

There’s another strangled sound from Stiles at the table. Derek rolls his eyes and bites back his smile.

 

The library is already busy when Derek and Stiles arrive. There are kids shrieking in the children’s section being shushed by a weary mother.

Finally,” Eunice says and presses a stack of books into Derek’s hands. “Help me shelve and then please read the kids a story. They’re working on my nerves.”

Stiles grins at Derek and then wanders toward the basement to find Maureen.

Derek helps a rattled Eunice with the shelving and then gathers the rowdy children in the corner and reads them stories. Their mother sighs deeply and mouths a thank you to him while she collapses in a nearby chair.

It’s a couple of hours before the library clears from the holiday stir-crazy patrons looking for an escape after an entire day spent at home with their families. Derek focuses once the library is quiet again and hears snippets of Maureen and Stiles’ conversation. He catches whiffs of burning sage and other herbs and feels the buzz of magic beneath him.

“You can trust Maureen,” Eunice says gently. “She’s been doing this a long time. She learned from Frank.”

Derek nods. It helps that Eunice trusts her, but Stiles has been through so much. He’s vulnerable, and magic is dependent on a stable spirit. Stiles may not have as much strength as he’d need to ward off curses or black magic, if Maureen did turn out to have nefarious intentions.

“She called a few of her trusted circle for advice,” Eunice says and pats Derek’s arm. “She knows it’s important.” She doesn’t tell Derek not to worry because she knows that’s probably useless. But it does help to know she has confidence in Maureen.

“He seems more relaxed the last couple of days,” she says neutrally.

Derek gives her a look. “I think he’s been sleeping better.”

“Why do you think that is?” Her face is the picture of innocence.

“Being away from the Nemeton probably helps.”

“Being near you probably helps too,” Eunice says with a twinkle in her eye.

“It’s not like that,” Derek insists.

“It doesn’t have to be like that for your presence to calm him, Derek.” She organizes the checkout desk as she talks. “You know about anchors.”

Derek looks up at her sharply. “Are you saying I’m Stiles’ anchor?”

Eunice hums noncommittally. “I don’t know that. My point is you know that anchors exist. That there are people or things that can center someone, keep them rooted to reality, keep their spirit tethered so it doesn’t drift.”

Derek obviously knows about anchors. The anger that filled him after Kate killed his family was his anchor for a long time. But lately anger hasn’t been enough. It leaves him feeling empty instead of feeling steady, in control. Focusing on the past, on pain, on everything that has gone wrong instead of hoping for things to go right anchors him in a negative way now. It keeps him wallowing in grief and from moving forward.

Derek’s mom used to say that people shouldn’t be anchors. An anchor should be something more abstract, something not tied to one particular person or relationship. She said that needing someone else that much left a person without their center if something should happen to that other person. An anchor should be something more conceptual, like the idea of family or home, something that can be fulfilled by more than one person.

“He says he feels safe here,” Derek says, instead of addressing the overwhelming anchor topic.

“That’s important,” Eunice says with a small but genuine smile.

Derek hears Stiles laughing in the basement, hears them finishing up, gathering supplies. Soon Stiles appears in the doorway to the basement stairs. He’s grinning, big, wide and contagious.

Derek smiles back helplessly. “Success?”

Stiles shrugs in a loose, easy way. “We won’t know until I’m back in Beacon Hills,” he says and plops down on the stool behind the counter. “I sleep well here, so you know.” He clears his throat, and his ears get red. “But Maureen thinks maybe the dreams are part of the negative energy the Nemeton is currently repelling due to our wards. That the little that gets through is somehow being channeled to me. So we’ll see.” He smiles up at Derek.

“Good,” Derek says and nods at Maureen. “Thank you.”

Maureen sighs dramatically. “This is what I do, love. If you want to show me your thanks—”

Eunice slaps her arm playfully. “Oh stop, Mo. You’ll scare them.”

Maureen bats her eyelashes at Derek, but doesn’t continue the flirtatious comments.

“I’m hungry,” Stiles says glancing at his phone.

“You boys should run along,” Eunice says.

“Are you trying to get rid of us, Eunice?” Stiles asks, eyes narrowing.

She rolls her eyes. “Well, I’m closing the library at noon. Mo and I are driving to San Francisco to meet some gentlemen for dinner and a show.”

Stiles’ eyes go wide, and he claps his hands together in delight. “Well! That’s a different story. Carry on, ladies.”

Maureen reapplies her lipstick and winks at Stiles.

“What if your flirting with Derek had worked out,” Stiles asks her in a loud whisper.

“Honey,” she says with a smirk, “trust me when I say every man from here on out is merely a backup plan to Derek. Keep that in mind.” She grins at Stiles and ruffles his hair while he ducks his head to hide the blush blooming on his cheeks.

**

Derek and Stiles drive to Santa Rosa and eat lunch at an Italian place Derek frequents after therapy sessions. Stiles suggests a movie when they’re done. He wants to see The Hobbit.

Even though he consumed a huge bowl of pasta at lunch, Stiles gets the biggest tub of popcorn at the theater and then distractingly licks butter and salt off his fingers throughout the movie. He drinks his Coke and when he finishes it he reaches across Derek and takes sips of Derek’s water.

“You’re a menace,” Derek whispers.

It may be the middle of the day, but it’s the day after Christmas and the theater is full of families, so when Stiles starts his answer in full voice Derek clamps his hand across Stiles’ mouth.

“Shhhh,” he says and gives Stiles a look.

Stiles licks Derek’s palm, because of course he does.

“Mature,” Derek says, but keeps his hand against Stiles’ mouth. “Whisper.”

Stiles rolls his eyes and makes a derpy face under Derek’s hand.

Derek slowly removes his hand, and Stiles watches him the whole time.

“Nerd,” Stiles whispers loudly once Derek’s hand is back in his lap.

Derek reaches over and takes a handful of popcorn from Stiles’ tub.

“Nerd who likes popcorn,” Stiles whispers.

Derek shushes him again.

The movie is long, and by the end Stiles’ head rests against Derek’s shoulder. Derek puts his arm around Stiles letting him settle more comfortably against Derek’s chest.

He likes to have Stiles close, especially in a theater full of other people. Stiles’ scent grounds Derek, eases his agitated wolf in the congestion of so many strangers.

Stiles makes a small, pleased noise that makes Derek feel like he’s done something right.

**

That night, in the dark of the bedroom, Derek tells Stiles about Kate. Stiles knows parts of the story already, and he’s smart enough to have guessed the rest. But Derek has therapy the next day, has to say it out loud again, and it helps to tell someone who matters.

Stiles doesn’t say much. He listens, asks clarifying questions, hums appreciatively or adds snorts of derision. But given his usual conversational style, he’s downright silent.

The moon shines brightly, reflecting on the water outside. It will be full in just a couple of days. Derek feels its pull, especially as he shares something so personal, something that makes him vulnerable.

“Did you always know it was her?” Stiles asks when Derek finishes.

Derek turns. “What do you mean?”

“Like, did you ever wonder if someone else had done it?” Stiles clarifies.

Derek shakes his head. “She wanted me to know. She’s the reason I wasn’t at the house when the fire started. She told me she wanted to meet me and give me a surprise.” He shudders at the thought.

Stiles scoots closer and wraps his fingers around Derek’s wrist. He doesn’t say anything trite or attempt to encourage. He seems to know that the touch will mean more than the words really could.

“When I came to Beacon Hills to find Laura,” Derek says after the silence settles, “I thought Kate was behind the animal attacks meant to lure us back.”

Derek’s still not sure she wasn’t behind Peter’s nurse letting him out of the hospital. It doesn’t excuse Peter killing Laura, but Peter was still healing, still unsure what was real and what wasn’t. It wouldn’t have been hard to manipulate him, to empower the madness that was trapped inside him for all those years.

“I knew there was an alpha werewolf too,” Derek explains. “But I was convinced Kate was behind it.”

“Was she?” Stiles asks, voice steady and serious.

“I don’t know,” Derek says truthfully.

“Am I still allowed to think Peter’s a scum ball?” Stiles asks in a serious tone.

Derek huffs a laugh. “He’s done some pretty shitty stuff,” he admits. It’s still hard for Derek to reconcile the favorite uncle of his childhood with the man Peter became after the fire. He’s done inexcusable things, but Derek can’t condemn him completely. He had so much taken from him and was left virtually alone with his own twisted thoughts for years as his body struggled to heal itself. He hates what Peter became, but he still can’t hate Peter.

“The thing people don’t always notice about you,” Stiles says moving closer until his head rests on Derek’s chest, “is that you’re a really fair person. And that’s better than being nice.”

Derek wraps his arm around Stiles and grunts in interest at his train of thought.

“Nice is boring and often fueled by external forces. People are nice because it’s expected of them. People are fair because they expect it of themselves. And that’s far more interesting, I think.” He rests his palm on Derek’s stomach, fingers moving minutely.

“I’m not trying to be anything,” Derek insists.

“That’s what makes it better,” Stiles says quietly. “You just are this way. You aren’t the nihilist you want everyone to think you are.”

Derek chuckles softly, and the room is quiet for a long time.

“I’m sorry about Kate,” Stiles says, voice barely a whisper. “What she did to you. It wasn’t your fault.”

“I’m trying to believe that,” Derek says honestly. “For a long time I thought it was.”

Stiles shakes his head. “I hate that she did that to you and then came back and fucked with you again. Twice. How do you ever feel safe?”

“I didn’t,” Derek admits. “It took me a long time to believe she’s really gone this time.”

“Understandable,” Stiles says.

Derek still has a hard time talking about tough topics for long periods, especially topics centered on his feelings.

Derek focuses on the steady beat of Stiles’ heart, his even breath, warm against Derek’s chest. Derek’s lost a lot, had to start over from tragedy more times than most people twice his age. But he hasn’t lost everything, and he’s learning how to recognize the important parts of what remains.

**

At therapy the next day, Dr. Nelson wants to talk about Kate and the death of Derek’s family, and Derek knows he needs to do that. But he also wants to talk about Stiles, try to work out some of the more complicated thoughts he’s been having.

But Derek knows Dr. Nelson won’t just tell him what to do. It will take more than one session to pull at all the little threads and worry out which one is the most important.

“There’s not enough time,” Derek says in frustration when he notices the clock and sees his hour is almost up.

Dr. Nelson smiles. “Four months ago you wouldn’t have said that.”

Derek smiles. “Probably not.” The silence used to stretch on for minutes after Dr. Nelson had asked something Derek didn’t know how to answer. Sessions sometimes passed with Derek barely speaking at all.

“This is good, Derek,” Dr. Nelson says. “It’s a sign of progress.”

Derek smiles and looks at his hands. He doesn’t know how therapy works or even why, but he does know it’s easier to talk about difficult things now than it was four months ago. It’s still not his favorite thing, but he can actually find the words to articulate things he’s never spoken out loud before.

“We’ll pick this up Tuesday,” Dr. Nelson says and caps his pen.

Derek nods and lets out a long, slow breath.

**

Stiles is supposed to leave for Beacon Hills on Saturday. School doesn’t start for another week, but when they made the initial arrangements Derek was worried that the visit might be awkward or that Stiles would be bored. He hadn’t planned on it going so well, or for either of them to be so comfortable with each other.

Now Derek is dreading Stiles’ departure. It’s been nice having someone to talk to, sharing his new life with someone who matters. Derek didn’t expect to want Stiles to stay. He pictured himself longing to have his solitary life back.

Stiles may be infuriating sometimes, but it’s the sort of infuriating that pushes Derek to be better, to try harder, to want more for himself. He thinks maybe he has a similar effect on Stiles.

Friday afternoon and evening are quiet, subdued. Derek doesn’t know what to say when Stiles is quiet. He’s accustomed to Stiles filling the silences, drawing Derek out. But he doesn’t this time.

They spend their afternoon reading (Derek) and on the computer (Stiles) on the back deck in the lounge chairs facing the ocean. Instead of feeling peaceful like it has before, it feels solemn.

Derek doesn’t know how to change the mood, isn’t even sure he should try.

After supper they watch TV on the couch. Stiles stays on his side, plastered against the armrest like he’s bracing himself against an urge to touch Derek.

Derek doesn’t want to push him. But it’s a marked difference from the way things have been the last few days.

At bed time Stiles goes to his own room and shuts the door with a soft click and doesn’t re-emerge. Derek reads longer than he normally would. He waits to see if Stiles will appear in the doorway, sheepishly asking to join Derek. But he doesn’t.

After Derek turns off his light, he lies awake, staring at the ceiling, listening for the sounds Stiles makes in the next room. Derek can hear his heart, hear his breathing, knows he’s asleep. But that still doesn’t settle him enough to make him feel he can relax and drift into sleep himself.

He tosses and turns for a couple of hours before he hears soft footfalls on the floor leading into his bedroom and feels the bed dip as Stiles slides under the covers.

“Bad dream?” Derek asks, surprised he didn’t hear Stiles’ distress.

“No,” Stiles admits in a whisper. “I just want to be in here.” He scoots closer and tucks himself under Derek’s chin. “Okay?”

Derek’s heart beats faster, and he nods his head. “Okay.” He wraps his arms around Stiles and pulls him closer until they’re pressed against each other.

“Sorry,” Stiles whispers into Derek’s neck.

“For what?” Derek asks as he rubs Stiles’ back in slow circles.

“Being quiet and stuff,” he says. His breath is hot against Derek’s skin, and it takes willpower to keep his thoughts from running in inappropriate directions.

“It’s okay,” Derek says gently.

“I’m scared to go home,” Stiles admits, voice still in a whisper.

Derek smiles. “I figured.”

“I wish you were coming too.”

Derek swallows. “I know.”

“I get it though,” Stiles says. “You’re good here. It’s good. Good you’re good.” He sounds like he’s steeling himself for something, and it makes Derek’s heart twist.

He rubs Stiles’ back for a few minutes in silence. “If you need me, text or call, and I’ll get in my car and be in Beacon Hills in three hours. Whatever it is.”

Stiles makes a small noise, and his nose drags along Derek’s neck. “What if I just want you to help me go to sleep?”

Derek huffs a laugh into Stiles’ hair. “I’ll be there.”

“Stop being great,” Stiles says into Derek’s neck. “Makes leaving suck more.”

Derek smiles. “I’ll miss you too, you know,” he says so Stiles won’t feel like he’s alone on a ledge of feelings.

“Yeah?” Stiles asks and pulls back so he can see Derek’s face.

Derek nods and looks down at him. “I don’t exactly have a busy social life.”

Stiles laughs and settles against Derek. “Your friends are awesome,” Stiles insists. “I love the elderly.”

They’re quiet for a long time. Derek thinks maybe Stiles has finally drifted back to sleep. But then he stirs slightly and says, “I turn 18 in three months. And I’m gonna come down here and kiss the hell out of you once I’m legal.”

Derek laughs in surprise. “Is this a warning?”

“Sure,” Stiles says. “You have three months to decide how you feel about that.”

Derek smirks and burrows his nose in Stiles’ hair, breathes in the pleased scent, the happy confidence. Derek doesn’t remind him that in three months he may decide Derek isn’t what he wants, that maybe Stiles will continue to heal, to sleep, to process the complicated things that have happened to him over the past couple of years, and he’ll fall into something easy with someone his own age.

“I’m kind of a mess,” Derek says because he feels like people should come with warning labels.

Stiles shrugs. “Me too. But you’re much less of a mess than you think you are.”

“Therapy.”

Stiles swallows. “Yeah,” he says carefully. “I may look into that when I’m back home.”

Derek nods against him but doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t want to campaign too hard for something so personal.

Stiles sighs.

“It’s going to be okay,” Derek says and for the first time in a long time he feels like he can say that honestly.