Actions

Work Header

The Moon's Gonna Follow Me Home

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

Stiles leaves after breakfast the next morning. Derek busies himself cleaning up, doing laundry, puttering around the house. He gets a text from Stiles mid-afternoon telling Derek he’s home safely. After that Derek exhales.

He goes for a long run. It’s a bright blue-skied day, the fog long since burned off. He takes deep breaths and basks in the salty smell of the ocean, the sound of the seagulls, the rhythmic crash of the waves.

It’s the full moon that night, and for the first time since he left Beacon Hills, Derek thinks he might actually run. There’s a National Park not far away with enough wilderness that he could run without being seen. It’s not exactly the woods near Beacon Hills, but it will feel good to run, to answer the call of the moon.

It’s not the same as doing it with a pack, but it’s a start.

**

That night Derek beta shifts on the back deck and then runs north, away from town, toward the park. He stays off the roads and pays attention to his senses. He chases rabbits and small rodents. Not because he wants to catch them, but because the hunt itself is fun, and it answers a demand his wolf makes.

At moon rise Derek is near the top of a hill that looks out over the valley and the ocean beyond. This isn’t the territory of any pack, so when he howls he gets no response.

Derek releases a mournful howl for the packs he lost. For his family and for the pack he tried to build. It’s deep, primal. It’s the call of his heart. The muscles of his heart are relearning how to trust, how to do something other than hide. It’s sore from lack of use, and he howls with the effort.

When the moon is at its peak, Derek feels a pull from deep within him. It’s similar to the pull of an alpha or the strength of pack within proximity of each other. It starts in his soul and reaches toward the moon, searches for something to grab onto.

Derek lets it pull him, lets it change him until he’s standing in the moonlight a fully shifted wolf. His thoughts become less individual and more conceptual. His wolf mourns family, but it doesn’t understand the nuance of the betrayal that took them from him. His wolf wants Stiles, but it isn’t caught up in things like age difference or emotional baggage.

Derek runs, his wolf completely in control. He’s faster like this, sleeker. He feels free, light. He feels like he’s finally who he’s meant to be.

He runs to the point of exhaustion and then finds an outcropping of rock to rest beneath, a place where he can scent danger on the wind and see anyone who might mean him harm if they were to approach.

Then he sleeps.

**

When Derek wakes he’s human again and very naked. He left his phone and keys and wallet at home, but he lost his pants during the full shift. He has at least 10 miles to run back to his house without clothes.

Derek tries to remember the feeling he had before he shifted into the full wolf form, tries to find that same pull. It takes a few tries but he manages the shift again for the run back to his house.

When he gets back his phone is buzzing with a new text message, and he sees that he’s missed several texts from Stiles over the course of the night.

Stiles: you better be ok

Derek: Sorry. Went for a run while the moon was full

Stiles: I figured but needed to make sure

Derek drinks from a water bottle. Now that he’s back he realizes how hungry he is too.

Derek: You sleep okay?

Stiles: Not as good as with you but I used Maureens talisman and did the incantation she showed me I didnt have major nightmares or anything

Derek: good

Stiles: So a run?

Derek: Yep. And I managed a full shift

He says it nonchalantly, even though the full wolf shift is a rare ability. Most alphas can’t even do it. His mom and Laura both could. But most of the other werewolves Derek has known haven’t been able to master it.

Stiles: Wait. Really?

Derek: Yeah. It was pretty cool. I was me, but without all the overthinking.

Stiles: lol! I’m calling you

The phone rings, and Derek picks up without hesitation.

“So wait,” Stiles starts the conversation. “You’re telling me you turned into something that looks like a wolf.”

Derek laughs. “I’m telling you I shifted into a wolf. Not something like a wolf. The wolf inside me was on the outside.”

“Holy shit,” Stiles says. “Lemme see.” He tries to initiate a FaceTime call but Derek rejects it.

“I’m naked,” Derek says.

Stiles makes a strangled sound.

“I just got back from the run. When I full shifted I lost my clothes.”

“I want to see you as a wolf! Can your wolf take a selfie?”

Derek rolls his eyes. “I doubt it. I was me but not. It’s hard to explain.”

“Would you have tried to eat me if I was there?”

Derek smiles. “No. My wolf knows you.”

Stiles makes an “aww” sound and doesn’t say anything else.

Derek blushes. “I’ll show you sometime. I’m just not sure how to do that on FaceTime.”

“Yeah okay,” Stiles says, resigned. “But I mean, congrats, right? You’re like the wolfiest werewolf now. You win all the werewolf beauty pageants. Well, you do that anyway. But you know. You’re special now. Hey stop me from talking, wouldja?”

Derek grins into the phone, his chest warm. “Stop talking.”

“Thanks,” Stiles says. “God.”

They chat about other things. Stiles tells him what’s happened in Beacon Hills while he was away. He and his dad are going to a movie together later, and Stiles is going to talk to his dad about going to a non-Eichen House-based therapist. Stiles is going to ask Deaton if there are any supernatural-aware therapists nearby, but if there aren’t, he will have to think of a way to discuss the guilt he feels about Allison’s death without actually talking about being possessed by a Nogistune. That would get him committed to Eichen House for sure.

**

Sleep comes easier for Stiles over the coming weeks. He still texts Derek late at night sometimes, but Derek isn’t sure if that’s because he truly can’t sleep or because he wants to talk.

Deaton finds him a therapist. Stiles hates it at first, hates the questions, hates reliving things he’s spent months trying to forget. But like Derek, he ultimately finds relief in saying some of his scarier thoughts out loud.

Derek gets a call about a month after Christmas from the Sheriff.

“Thank you,” the Sheriff says after a few awkward pleasantries.

“For what?” Derek asks and immediately feels guilty, even though he doesn’t really have any reason to.

“Stiles,” the Sheriff says and clears his throat. “He’s sleeping, he goes to a therapist now, he doesn’t look sick anymore. He’s Stiles again.”

Derek smiles. “I think it helped him to be away for a little while.”

The Sheriff hums in agreement, but the pause also feels like it’s somewhat assessing. “I know you boys are close,” he says finally. “I just want you to know how good it is to have him smiling again. I give you credit for that.”

Derek’s face heats. “Well, thanks,” he says hesitantly.

“If you miss his chatter, you’re welcome here, Derek,” the Sheriff says magnanimously. “I know you sold your place in Beacon Hills, but our house is open to you.”

Derek’s heart twists. He knows the Sheriff is a smart man, and that he’s probably guessed that Derek and Stiles have feelings for each other. He also knows Derek’s past, the age difference, everything that could and maybe should be a red flag about his son having any sort of relationship with Derek. But he’s inviting Derek into his home anyway.

“Thank you,” Derek says sincerely at a loss for what else to say.

**

Derek goes to Eunice’s book club for the first time at the beginning of February. The club takes turns picking books and this month Joan, a recently divorced retiree, was in charge of book selection. They’re reading Eat, Pray, Love at her request. Derek reads it in a day, and while he finds parts of it trite and a little oversimplified, he still likes the idea of a quest of self-discovery. He’s on a little less self-indulgent Eat, Pray, Love of his own. His just involves the California coast, an elderly friend and time spent in a library, and learning to make salsa.

He’s clearly an unexpected presence at book club. The ladies all regard him curiously for the first half, especially when he contributes to the discussion. Eunice insisted before the meeting began that men are welcome in the group too, that a few sometimes come. Based on the group’s reaction to his presence, however, Derek is pretty sure it rarely happens.

The second half of the discussion they warm up to him a bit. The novelty of having Derek there has worn off, and by the time they’re eating cake at the end of the evening, the scent of the room has changed from guarded curiosity to acceptance.

He’s not sure he’ll make book club a regular part of his routine, but it was nice to discuss a book with other people, as that’s been a solitary hobby for him over the past several months. Once in awhile Eunice will see what Derek is reading and offer her opinion of the book and she and Derek will either excitedly agree or end up arguing with each other and having to retreat to their separate corners of the library.

It makes him wonder if he’d enjoy being back in school, maybe finish his degree. When he gets home later he googles local colleges, and investigates if any of them offer classes on a part-time basis.

He may not need to work, but that doesn’t mean Derek doesn’t like to be busy. Now that he’s not looking over his shoulder and feeling suspicious of everyone around him, a college campus wouldn’t be the worst place for him to spend some time.

**

Derek finally asks Eunice about digitizing the card catalogue at the library a few days after the book club meeting.

“Why would you want to do that, honey?” Eunice asks, exasperated.

Derek smiles and tries not to let her lack of enthusiasm dissuade him from continuing to outline his idea. “I think it would make things easier on you.”

“That’s a big project,” she says as she settles on her stool behind the counter. “And there’s not money for that kind of upgrade.”

“Don’t worry about that,” Derek says. “I’ll buy the equipment, and I think I can convince Stiles to come down and help us set it up.”

Eunice gives him a smug look. “The real reason comes out.”

Derek rolls his eyes. “I’ve been thinking about this since I first started coming in here.”

“And you’re just saying something about it now because…” she looks at him expectantly.

“Because I’m not good at initiating things,” Derek says honestly. His face gets hot, and he curses himself for being embarrassed about the weirdest stuff.

Her face softens into a smile. “Stiles mentioned the idea at Christmas,” she says finally. “He was surprised you hadn’t already told me.”

Derek makes a frustrated noise. “I asked him for his advice about what I’d need to set something like this up. That’s all.”

Eunice studies his face. “If you’re serious, I want to see a proposal for how you’d implement it and how you’d transition the library over before I agree. And even if you’re paying for it with your mysterious lack of a job, I still want to know how much it costs and if there are maintenance costs. If you disappear tomorrow, how much will this cost the library to maintain?”

Derek nods. “Okay. But you’re open to it?”

She grabs onto his wrist and squeezes. “It’s a really generous offer, Derek. I hate change, and computers are tools of the devil.” She laughs at herself and lets go of his wrist. “But you’re probably right, and I’d be a foolish old bat if I didn’t take your help.”

Derek laughs. “I’ll make sure to find something that’s user-friendly,” he promises. “I’ll have a proposal to you by Monday!”

She shoos him away with her hand. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Tell Stiles I say hello.”

Derek starts to protest but then realizes it’s pretty futile. He nods in agreement instead.

**

“How’d you feel if Scott and I came down to see you for the Presidents’ Day long weekend?” Stiles asks a couple of days later. “He keeps bugging me about visiting you. But if you don’t want anyone else to know where you are, I understand.”

Derek swallows, caught off-guard. “Oh. Umm.”

Stiles laughs. “It’s okay,” he says. “I just promised Scotty that we’d hang out that weekend. Kira’s gonna be in New York with her parents. And we were planning bro time. But I want to see you, and I know Scott wants to check out your place, make sure you’re okay.”

Derek smiles at the ceiling. He’d like to see Stiles again. “Will you help me order the stuff for the library?”

“Sure,” Stiles says, and Derek can hear his smile. “So it’s okay?”

Derek takes a deep breath. “Yeah,” he says. “Just don’t— I mean, don’t bring anyone else.”

Stiles just laughs.

**

A week later Stiles and Scott arrive late Saturday morning.

“Dude!” Scott says when Derek opens the door. He pulls Derek into a hug immediately. “Missed you, man.”

Derek makes eye contact with Stiles over Scott’s shoulder and gives him a helpless look. “You too,” he says and pats Scott’s back awkwardly.

Scott laughs. “This place!” he says as he breaks the hug and moves into the house. “This is so nice, bro. A proper home with walls and doors. You deserve it.”

Derek forgot how enthusiastic Scott could be. He’s making a big effort, though, which is nice considering their history. Derek tries not to do anything that shuts him down. “Thanks, Scott.”

“Stiles said you were doing good,” Scott says and plops down on the couch. “But you really do look good.”

Scott may not be Derek’s Alpha, but his approval still scratches an itch Derek didn’t even realize he had. The power emanating from Scott immediately puts Derek’s wolf at ease. He hadn’t noticed it had been restless, searching for something, until that moment.

Derek nods. “You too.”

Stiles laughs, delighted. “You two want to be alone?” He nudges Derek’s shoulder. “Werewolf appreciation society meeting need to convene? I can go find Eunice if I need to.”

Derek rolls his eyes.

Despite the initial overwhelming enthusiasm, the day is actually pretty easy. They walk into town and eat tacos at their favorite stand and show Scott the sights, such as they are. Eunice has the library open that afternoon, so they stop in and introduce her to Scott, and Stiles looks over the library to see where all the outlets are and if there are ethernet ports and a bunch of other things Derek doesn’t understand. Stiles crawls around under the desk and makes notes, and Eunice is charmed by Scott’s overall puppy-like nature.

“So Derek hangs out here every day?” Scott asks, eyebrows raised almost to his hairline.

“He assists me,” Eunice says generously. She’s trying to make it sound less like Derek’s the weird unemployed guy who hangs out in the library and more like he’s actually doing something valuable with his time. “And he reads story hour most mornings.”

Scott visibly starts at that. “Seriously?”

Eunice smiles. “The kids love him.”

Derek rolls his eyes and looks at his shoes. “They’d like anyone that reads to them.”

“Not true,” Eunice says. “Derek does the voices and everything. He has quite a following.”

“Dude,” Scott says, and his smile grows impossibly wider. Derek ducks his head, blushing at an Alpha’s approval.

“Of course the mothers and grandmothers and a few of the older brothers are pretty taken with him too,” Eunice says with a smirk. “I think that inflates his numbers a bit.”

Scott laughs, and Derek’s cheeks grow hotter. Meanwhile, Stiles bumps his head while crawling around under the desk and swears loudly and is shushed by Eunice.

“You’re in a library,” she says disapprovingly.

Stiles squawks his displeasure, and Eunice smiles mischievously at Derek.

“Okay,” Stiles says emerging from underneath the counter. “I think I know what we need.” He holds his notebook up triumphantly, and shoots Eunice a glare.

**

Later, while Derek makes dinner, Stiles and Scott try to figure out how to get down the cliff to the water. Scott manages it pretty quickly. It’s not difficult for a werewolf, but Stiles is human and is pissed he can’t perform the same maneuvers to yield similar results.

Stiles was at Derek’s house for a week at Christmas and never seemed that concerned with scaling the steep cliff to get to the water, but he’s there for just a few hours with Scott and they’re cheating death in Derek’s backyard.

Derek’s keeping an eye on the situation. So far Stiles has stood at the top of the cliff and shouted encouragement down to Scott.

They eat on the back deck as the sun sets later.

“I can’t believe you made this,” Scott says with wonder in his voice as he takes a big bite of the meatloaf Derek experimented with for supper.

“’s good,” Stiles agrees through a giant bite.

“I like it here,” Scott says looking around. “You like it here. It’s great.” He sounds like a proud dad.

Scott brings Derek up to date with McCall pack stuff. He keeps referring to it as “our pack,” as if Derek has a place in it. Derek doesn’t correct him, but he’s not sure that feels accurate to him either. Scott asks for Derek’s opinion about a couple of packs looking to form alliance agreements, whether it’s so their pack members are free to travel through Scott’s territory without incident or because they feel teaming up is some sort of strategic advantage.

Derek remembers a few of the names from when his mom was Alpha. But ultimately he defers to Deaton’s wisdom about most of the intricacies.

“If I need you to be part of the meeting, will you?” Scott asks carefully toward the end of the discussion.

Derek looks at Stiles, who is watching Derek carefully.

“Umm.”

“I understand if you don’t want to,” Scott says, and he seems sincere. “But these packs all had relationships with the Hale pack. It might help them take me seriously if you were there.”

Derek swallows. The bitter, angry part of him resents that Scott would never join his pack, snubbed him multiple times, was scornful of Derek’s advice, and wants to refuse. But Derek also knows how much growth it shows on Scott’s part to even ask. He’s clearly been spending time with Deaton learning about werewolf tradition and pack structure. He’s taking it seriously and wants to do right by the land and his pack. It’s hard to say no to that.

“If you think it would be helpful, I could be there,” he says finally.

The smile Scott gives him is blinding. “Thanks, man,” he says, and Derek feels a sudden rush of pleasure course through him, an instinctual thing at praise from an Alpha. “You wanna run tonight?”

Derek looks at Stiles because a run means they’ll end up leaving him behind.

“It’s cool,” Stiles says. “Leave me your credit card, and I’ll order everything we need for the library project.”

Derek gives him a look but complies.

“Plus,” Stiles says with a twinkle in his eye. “I wanna see the full shift.”

“Full shift?” Scott asks, sitting forward. “Really? Since when?”

“A couple months ago,” Derek says. It’s gotten a little easier since then. He knows what to reach for inside of himself to pull the wolf to the surface.

“Do it,” Stiles goads.

“After we clean up the kitchen,” Derek says.

Later, once the dishes are done and it’s dark outside, Scott and Derek rid themselves of their phones and keys and wallets.

“We won’t be gone long,” Derek promises Stiles. “Just an hour or two.”

Stiles waves his hand in dismissal. “I’ll be fine. Now do the wolf thing. I wanna see.” He grins at Derek, and Derek wants to touch him. His face is so open and happy. It’s such a contrast to how he looked just a few weeks before.

Derek rolls his eyes hoping to cover the swell of affection he feels. He forgets that Scott can scent emotions and mood too. He chances a look at Scott and finds him looking between Stiles and Derek with an expression of recognition.

Scott keeps his jeans on, since he’s not going into a full shift, but he removes his shirt and his shoes. Derek undresses fully and tries not to feel self-conscious. He cracks his neck and closes his eyes and then focuses on that inner pull and feels his body quickly remaking itself as his wolf rises to the surface.

“Holy shit,” Stiles says and comes toward him.

Derek’s instincts are different in this form, and he has to fight to maintain the control he needs not to just pounce on Stiles, claim him, mark him.

“Can I?” Stiles reaches his hand out like he’s not sure if he’s allowed to pet Derek.

Maybe Derek should mind, but he doesn’t because it’s Stiles. He leans into Stiles’ hand, letting out a possibly embarrassing groan as Stiles scratches behind his ears.

Stiles laughs. “Oh my god,” he says with delight. “This is the best. Do you stay like this all the time?”

Derek just looks at him hoping to infuse it with enough sarcasm that Stiles will remember he can’t actually say anything in this form.

“Oh right,” Stiles says.

Derek looks up at Scott, and he feels his eyes flash blue involuntarily. Scott smiles a little and flashes his red eyes back at Derek. His wolf preens at the attention, and they take off into the darkness.

**

Fully shifted, Derek can’t really keep track of time in the regular sense. But Scott seems to understand he needs to keep them from running too far and too long. When he’s in the wolf shift, Derek is even more susceptible to the need to obey an alpha.

They chase each other through the Park until Derek realizes that Scott is leading them back to the cottage. It feels like they were barely gone a few minutes, but when Derek shifts on the porch and looks at his phone he realizes it’s been over two hours.

Stiles left Derek’s bathrobe on the table on the deck. Derek feels a surge of affection at that display of thoughtfulness. He ties the robe around himself and looks up to find Scott smiling at him.

“He talks about you all the time,” Scott says quietly.

Derek looks away. His scent gives his true feelings away, but it doesn’t mean he wants to talk about it.

“It’s cool,” Scott says keeping his voice low. “I think you guys are good for each other. He’s been happier since Christmas. He calls me to hang out. He spends more time with his dad.”

“I didn’t do that,” Derek says truthfully.

“Well, you did something,” Scott says. “I don’t know what, but I’m grateful.”

Derek recognizes what a big deal it is for Scott to admit that Derek did something for Stiles that no one else could.“I’m glad he’s doing well,” Derek says carefully.

Scott nods and punches Derek lightly in the arm.

“Kill any bunnies?” Stiles asks as they enter the house. He’s on the couch with the TV on, but doesn’t look up from his laptop.

“No killing,” Scott says easily. “Just running. Derek’s fast as a wolf.”

“Aww my favorite puppies,” Stiles says and ruffles Scott’s hair when he sits down next to Stiles on the couch.

“We’re not dogs,” Scott and Derek say in unison.

Stiles cackles.

“I ordered all the stuff and emailed you the receipt,” Stiles says to Derek.

“Great,” Derek says, glad Stiles took care of that. He would’ve second-guessed himself. “How much was it?”

Stiles grins. “Less than I’d originally estimated, but more than we were saying the other night,” he flips his computer around so Derek can look at the invoice. “There are some cables we need and the software has a yearly support fee you have to pay.”

Derek groans. He has the money. It’s not really an issue. But it still makes him nervous to spend so much of it in one evening.

They watch a couple episodes of Arrested Development and then Scott starts yawning.

“I need to call Kira and go to bed,” Scott says stretching. “Which room upstairs?”

Derek directs him to the guest room and makes sure he has a towel.

It occurs to him then that they hadn’t worked out where Stiles was going to sleep. Derek got so used to Stiles sleeping with him he hadn’t thought through what would happen with Scott in the mix.

“So,” Derek says when he gets back downstairs after helping Scott. “You on the couch? Or… what.”

Stiles smiles up at him softly. “Or what?” he says hopefully.

“Scott won’t care?” Derek asks, because even if Scott isn’t Derek’s Alpha, Derek’s wolf still considers him Stiles’.

Stiles rolls his eyes. “He’s going to coo at Kira for fifteen minutes and then fall asleep and snore obnoxiously for the rest of the night. He sleeps like a rock. Even if he did care he’d have no idea.”

Derek still isn’t sure.

“And I’m the boss of me,” Stiles concludes when Derek still hasn’t said anything. “And it might not be my birthday yet, but I’m still gonna snuggle the fuck out of you.”

Derek huffs a laugh and looks down at his shoes. “Okay.”

“C’mon big guy,” Stiles says as he stands up from the couch and heads toward the stairs.

**

Once their teeth are brushed and they’re in bed together, Derek listens for Scott’s heartbeat slowing down, breath evening out in sleep. Soon he hears the light snoring Stiles promised.

Derek flips the light out and turns to face Stiles. “You sleeping better these days?”

Stiles nods. “The last week I haven’t even gotten up to pee in the night.”

Derek smiles. “No dreams?”

“No bad dreams,” Stiles corrects. “I dream about other stuff sometimes.”

Derek is stepping into something, but he asks anyway. “Like what?”

He asks innocently,” Stiles says with a smirk.

Derek’s face heats.

“My birthday’s in 6 weeks,” Stiles says and scoots a little closer.

“Big plans?”

Stiles rolls his eyes. “Not sure,” he says. “Depends I guess.”

Derek smiles slow and easy. “Your birthday’s not a magic day for us, Stiles.”

“It’s not? Is today a magic day?”

Derek shakes his head. “Magic is negated by a protective alpha werewolf in the next room.”

“Well, shit,” Stiles says. “But just so we’re clear, that’s something you’re still into? Me. Not the alpha werewolf.”

Derek huffs a laugh and then takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. He waits a few seconds before he answers in the vain attempt to appear to have a certain amount of chill about Stiles. “Yeah,” he says and tries to keep his voice steady.

Stiles scoots closer. “I’m like, super into you, PS.”

Derek laughs softly. He reaches out and rubs his fingers up and down Stiles’ arm. “Good.”

“And we’re waiting to touch each other because,” Stiles says with a little whine in his voice.

Derek pulls Stiles all the way against him then, tucking his face into Derek’s neck.

“I meant— you know,” Stiles protests into Derek’s skin.

Derek shudders involuntarily at the feeling of Stiles’ warm breath. “Because we’re both working through stuff.”

“Side issue,” Stiles dismisses.

“Well, not really,” Derek says as he tightens his grip around Stiles. “Pretty central, I think.”

“Yeah,” Stiles admits with a sigh.

They don’t say anything else. Derek isn’t entirely sure why he feels like they should still wait. But he does. His instincts tell him that he and Stiles could be something more than fleeting, and if he gives in now it could complicate things.

Stiles hums against Derek’s neck. It’s satisfied and happy, not frustrated and confused. And that’s what Derek cares about most.

“Like bein’ close to you,” Stiles says against Derek’s skin, lips brushing his neck as he forms the words.

Derek shivers, but smiles and squeezes his grip around Stiles.

Stiles sighs, content, and they slowly drift to sleep.

**

“So tell me about Stiles,” Dr. Nelson says in the session following Scott and Stiles’ Presidents’ Day visit.

Derek smiles and looks down at his hands. He’s shared bits and pieces of his friendship with Stiles over the past several months of therapy. “He’s my friend,” he says even though that oversimplifies things.

Dr. Nelson quirks an eyebrow at Derek to let him know he’s aware of that fact.

“I like him,” Derek clarifies.

“But?”

Derek sighs. “But he’s 17. And he’s had a lot to deal with the last year or two. I don’t want to take advantage.”

Dr. Nelson taps his pen against his notebook and watches Derek. “Are you worried liking Stiles in a romantic way makes you like Kate?”

There it is. Dr. Nelson pulls no punches.

Derek swallows. “Well, I mean—”

Dr. Nelson shakes his head. “Who was Kate to you?”

Derek closes his eyes. They’ve addressed the Kate issue extensively over the past several weeks. Derek has left his sessions raw and split open some days. But he’s sorted through even the darkest most embarrassing parts of his Kate feelings, and he’s still intact.

“I thought she loved me.”

“Did she?”

“No,” Derek admits.

“How do you know that?”

Derek bites his lip and stares at his hands. “Because we met in secret. She told me not to tell my parents. She pushed me for sex before I was ready. She mocked me when I didn’t want to do something. She belittled my fears. She used me to get close to my family.”

It’s taken Derek weeks to be able to articulate all of that. It took Dr. Nelson leading him through some painful memories for Derek to understand there was a major power imbalance between Kate and Derek that went beyond even just age and experience.

Dr. Nelson nods like he’s pleased with Derek’s ability to state all of that so baldly. “And who is Stiles to you?”

Derek closes his eyes and pictures Stiles’ face. “My friend. The person I call when I want to share something I’m happy about. The person I like spending time with the most. He’s pa— someone close, someone important.” He opens his eyes to find Dr. Nelson watching him closely.

He nods. “What leads you to that conclusion?”

Derek smiles. “He values my happiness. He didn’t push me to move back to Beacon Hills even though that was what would’ve been easiest for him. He remembers the stuff I tell him. He’s excited when I’m happy. He made me that frame,” he adds, blushing at the memory of that special gift.

Dr. Nelson smiles.

“I told him I thought we should wait,” Derek goes on in a quiet voice. “And he’s never made me feel bad about that. I know he thinks I’m attractive, but he seems to like other things about me even more.” Derek has shared how violated he’s felt at various points of his life by people who can’t see past his looks and who think his physique gives them license to touch him, to stare, to suggest things he’s not comfortable with. Ever since Kate, his body has felt like it wasn’t his own because she used it for her own purposes when Derek wasn’t fully on board. And even when he was, she used it to confuse and distract him so she could get him to confide important things in her.

“These are all positive signs,” Dr. Nelson agrees. He rarely offers opinions about the things Derek says, so the unsolicited pronouncement makes Derek sit up straighter.

“Isn’t the age thing an issue?”

Dr. Nelson seems to carefully consider his answer. “I’m uncomfortable making judgements about a large age gap like you and Stiles share in a way that could be perceived as blanket approval or disapproval.” He sets his pen and paper on the coffee table between them and makes his fingers into a tent. Derek thinks of it as his Thinking Pose. “I do think, however, that you and Stiles seem suited to each other. He respects you and you him. Your focus seems to be on your mental health and on not violating his agency. You are careful to the point of excuse, I suggest as an aside,” he says giving Derek a look.

“So you’re saying…”

Dr. Nelson chuckles. “I will never tell you what to do, Derek. That’s not what this is for. This time is meant to help you process through your own feelings, fears, thoughts, and so on. I can guide you and try to help you to retrain negative thought patterns. But I can’t tell you what’s best for you.”

Derek swallows and waits for Dr. Nelson to continue.

“Instead of focusing on Stiles reaching an age that makes this suddenly acceptable, I would challenge you to think of it as considering if you are suited to help and enhance each other’s lives in your current stages of life. Can you enter into a relationship with Stiles in a way that won’t deprive him of important experiences? Can you engage in a relationship with Stiles while maintaining your own positive mental health? And remember, these aren’t pronouncements you can make on behalf of both of you. Only Stiles can tell you what he’s capable of and what impact the relationship will have on him. If you feel like he’s incapable of seeing it clearly or of making decisions that are better for the long term at the deprivation of short term pleasure or enjoyment, that’s a sign on its own, I’d say.”

Derek takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly.

“I know you like to collect information before you act. But I would also caution you that nothing will ever feel perfect. Not the timing or the person. Even if Stiles was 22 years old and lived next door to you there would be reasons the relationship could fail. You’re both people, human. You will hurt each other even without intending to. The important part is making the choice to be with someone who values and respects who you are at center. You are enough on your own. A relationship should acknowledge that and build from there.”

Derek nods. “It’d be so much easier if you’d just tell me what to do,” he mumbles.

Dr. Nelson smiles broadly. “I suggest you already know what to do. You just need to give yourself permission.”

**

Stiles convinces Derek to download Snapchat, so their communication for the next week is pretty photo-heavy.

Lacrosse practice has started up again, and a lot of the snaps are of Stiles’ sweaty face or Stiles making faces at an unsweaty Scott.

Stiles takes pictures of the cafeteria food at lunch and of his least favorite teacher, Mr. Harris. There are pictures of chemistry experiments gone awry with Scott’s sheepish face peering out behind beakers. Every day there’s a photo of the mailbox, usually with Stiles’ frustrated face next to it expressing distress at not receiving word from the many colleges he’s applied to.

Derek is less Snapchat prolific, but he sends Stiles pictures of the kids at story hour. And a picture of Eunice giving him a sassy face when he delivers her lunch. He captures the small brick house that serves as Dr. Nelson’s office and the restaurant he stops at on his way back from therapy. There are, of course, pictures of the ocean and the view from Derek’s deck. He takes a picture of the two lounge chairs where they spent so much time when Stiles was there and draws a stick figure Stiles and a stick figure Derek and labels them helpfully.

Derek exchanges snaps with Cora too. The thing about Stiles and his pestering Derek to start an Instagram and get Snapchat is that it also facilitated other ways of staying in touch with his sister. Their communication has become a lot more effortless in the past few weeks. She shoots Derek texts and pictures and tags him in Instagram posts like this is what they do, like this is what they’ve always done.

At the end of the week Derek has a great day. His therapy session goes well, and afterward he spends time browsing in his favorite book store. Eunice invites him over for dinner with a few of the regulars, and it’s a relaxing evening.

He looks in the mirror while he’s brushing his teeth before bed and is surprised at the face looking back at him. He looks happy. He doesn’t look haunted anymore. He can’t point to any one thing that makes him feel peaceful, and maybe that’s what’s satisfying about it. It wasn’t just getting out of Beacon Hills. Or settling on the coast. Or starting therapy. Or volunteering at the library. Or befriending Eunice. Or getting closer to Stiles. Or the full shift. Or cultivating a better relationship with his sister.

Every one of those things was influenced by and informed another. As each of them took root in his life, he was able to let himself believe he was building a life. Not just trying to stay alive, but trying to be alive, to cultivate and nurture the things that matter to him.

He gets a snap from Stiles of him in a t-shirt propped up in bed, the glow of his laptop evident just out of the frame of the picture. Usually Stiles’ snaps are jokes or are meant to tease. But this one is just Stiles with an open, soft smile and it says “Miss you” across the bottom.

A lump forms in Derek’s throat. He takes a screenshot of the snap because it’s a good picture.

He climbs into bed and then takes a picture of himself with an arm extended over his head to capture as much of the bed as possible and then he draws a stick figure Stiles next to him with an arrow pointing to the stick figure that says “your side.”

The phone vibrates in his hand about twenty seconds later.

“Dude,” Stiles says in a whine when Derek answers.

Derek laughs softly. “Yes?”

“What about if I come there for spring break?”

Derek smiles. “When is that?”

“A couple of weeks from now.”

“Sure,” Derek says easily. “You can help me with the library project.”

“Oh, the stuff came?”

“Yeah.” The shipment arrived the day before, and Derek is overwhelmed. He either needs Stiles to figure it out, or he’s going to need to do a lot of research.

“I can do that,” Stiles says. “And then I think you and I should do something adventurous.”

That sounds dangerous. “Like what.”

Stiles laughs. “I don’t know. Like road trip down the PCH to Big Sur. Whatever.”

Derek smiles into the phone.

“You can Instagram the whole thing,” Stiles adds, as if that will seal the deal.

“That does sound like me.”

During Derek’s nomadic sojourn prior to settling down, he spent some time in Santa Cruz and in Monterey. The Pacific Coast Highway is beautiful, and it’s not like a road trip with Stiles would be a hardship.

“Alright,” Derek agrees. “We can do that.”

He can hear Stiles’ fist pump and accompanying “yessss!”

They talk about lacrosse practice and the latest pack meeting. Stiles got his letter back from Stanford and didn’t get in. He seems remarkably okay with that given it was at the top of his list.

“My mom went to Berkeley,” Stiles says in response. “That’s the one I’m hoping for. Stanford was always a long shot.”

“Well, sorry anyway,” Derek says. He doesn’t like it when Stiles doesn’t get what he wants. But he doesn’t sound too upset about it.

“I would’ve been pretty surprised if I’d gotten in,” Stiles says. “But yeah, it still sucks I guess.”

It’s quiet for a few beats.

“So you miss me, huh?” Stiles asks, changing the subject.

Derek grins. “I think you’re the one that said that.”

“And you’re the one that drew the stick figure Stiles next to you,” Stiles chides. “He looks very unspoonworthy, by the way.”

Derek laughs. He swallows around his discomfort with talking about his feelings, the flash of awkwardness he feels at the exposure, the risk of being rejected.

“I wish I was there,” Stiles says, voice quiet and serious. “For like, lots of sexy NC-17 reasons. But also just because you smell super good. And you’re always so warm. And you’re like a champion cuddler, man.”

Derek blushes, even though he’s alone and Stiles can’t see him. He wishes he was as easy with his affection, that the words came quicker, and he wasn't so tongue-tied. “I can’t— I’m not as— I haven’t changed your pillow case,” he admits in a rush when he can’t say what he really wants to.

Stiles makes an interested noise.

“Smells like you,” Derek says quietly, and then feels like a total freak.

“Dude,” Stiles says gently. “That might be the nicest thing you’ve said to me.” He aims his tone toward teasing, but Derek can tell how sincere he really is. “But wash it before I get there,” he adds, and Derek can hear the grin. “I don’t want to sleep on a dirty pillow.”

Derek rolls his eyes, but can’t help the smile that spreads across his face in the darkness.

**

The book club meets again a few nights later. Derek liked the book much more this time, so he’s a more active participant in the discussion. He sits by Eunice, and she acts as a sort of guard dog when anyone approaches with what she determines are “intentions.”

“Derek has a beau,” Eunice says imperiously to a pretty young woman Derek would guess is in her early 30s.

Derek blushes and looks down at his plate of snacks. “Eunice.”

“I’m sorry,” the woman—Amy—says. “I didn’t realize.”

Derek shakes his head. “I’m not— it’s okay. Eunice is just protective.”

Amy smiles hesitantly. “I got divorced a few months ago,” she says and sits in the chair next to him. “I’m not really trying to date,” she shoots Eunice an embarrassed glance. “I’ve got a son, Tyler, and I just needed an excuse to get out of the house.”

Derek smiles. He’s seen Tyler at story hour a couple of times.

“I wasn’t trying to hit on you,” Amy says again once Eunice turns her attention to the woman on her other side.

Derek nods and gives her what he hopes is a reassuring smile.

“We’re just the youngest people here,” she says looking around. “And I’m sure I still have a decade on you.”

Derek’s cheeks redden. “I’ve gotten used to hanging out with the older crowd. You’ll get used to it too.”

Amy nods. “I got this house in the divorce,” she says. “Greg got the house in Palo Alto. And the new girlfriend. I got the kid and the beach house.” She swallows.

Derek cringes. “Well,” he says, floundering for something reassuring to say. “I think you got the better end of the deal.”

She smiles hopefully. “I think I did too. And I do like it here.” She looks around. “It’s just always been a place we visited a few weeks a year. So it’s an adjustment.”

Derek doesn’t press, partly because he doesn’t really know what to say, and mostly because it’s not really in his nature to pry.

“Anyway,” she says with a false sort of levity. “I’m glad to see someone nearish to my age in town. So it’s nice to meet you, Derek.”

“You too,” he says and finds it’s a genuine feeling. Lately meeting new people doesn’t set off alarm bells like it once did.

They get back to the book discussion then. Eunice shoots him a few questioning looks which Derek answers with an eye roll.

“I’m not cheating on Stiles,” Derek whispers to her as they’re cleaning up after the meeting. There are a few people still milling about, so Derek keeps his voice down.

Eunice narrows her eyes at him but doesn’t say anything else, just places muffins in big ziplock bags and thrusts one at Derek to take home.

He laughs and shakes his head. “First of all,” he presses. “Stiles and I aren’t actually dating. So stop telling people that.”

“Derek—” she starts, with warning in her voice.

“No,” he says gently. “We aren’t. I haven’t felt ready to date anyone. Not just Stiles. But I can be friendly to people. It’s actually part of my therapy assignment. To start conversations with people I don’t already know. So.” One of Dr. Nelson’s latest exercises in getting Derek out of his comfort zone.

Eunice winces slightly. “Well, I didn’t know that.”

Derek laughs. “Right. So stop it.”

“I just don’t want you to forget Stiles,” Eunice says quietly, as she waves goodbye to a couple of the ladies as they leave.

“Won’t happen,” Derek says honestly.

Eunice smiles softly at him. “He texts me, you know.”

Derek grins. He didn’t know, but it’s not surprising. Stiles and Eunice are kindred spirits, and their continued communication makes sense.

“He misses you.”

Derek zips a bag of grapes and places them in the small refrigerator. “I miss him too,” he responds, even though he knows he doesn’t have to. “I talk to him every day. He knows I miss him. You don’t need to police our relationship.”

“A ha!” she crows. “It is a relationship.”

Derek rolls his eyes as Maureen enters the kitchen. “I never said we aren’t friends. I said we aren’t dating.

Eunice sighs heavily.

Maureen glances between them. “Are you still denying our love, sugar?”

Derek laughs and lets out a frustrated sigh. “’fraid so, Mo.”

Eunice laughs and nudges Derek with her shoulder. “I just want you to be happy.”

“I am,” Derek finds himself saying. “There’s plenty of time for Stiles and me.”

“You think that now,” Maureen says, popping a strawberry in her mouth.

“I’m not 75,” Derek says and both ladies scoff.

“No reason to be rude!” Maureen huffs.

“I’m not!”

Eunice laughs brightly and wraps her hand around his wrist and squeezes. “I’ll stop giving you a hard time about Stiles. I just don’t want you to keep yourself from someone who could make you happy because you’re scared.”

Derek nods. He knows her meddling comes from a good place, but it doesn’t mean he wants her pressing him about this every time they see each other.

She seems to take the hint though. It doesn’t come up again that evening, and she lays off the heavy handed looks and leading statements anytime Derek chats with a library patron or answers the questions he gets from parents and grandparents after story hour. She doesn’t stop altogether because she lives to make him squirm. But it feels less like an interrogation every time he converses with someone new.

**

Beacon Hills High’s Spring Break is two weeks before Stiles’ birthday. That date has been an excuse more than anything for Derek to not jump into something before he’s ready, before he thinks Stiles is ready. But it’s getting more and more difficult to picture waiting until April 8 to kiss Stiles and tell him how he feels, what he wants. Their texts and snaps and phone calls have grown more and more leading, leaving little room for doubt about what either of them are thinking.

Stiles calls three days before he’s supposed to arrive for Spring Break and yells something incomprehensible at Derek. He sounds excited, not distressed, but it still makes Derek’s heart rate elevate.

“What?” Derek asks.

Stiles laughs. “I got into Berkeley!” he yells a little slower. He sounds like he’s jumping up and down, and he’s out of breath.

Derek grins. “Stiles, that’s great,” he says sincerely. He knows how much it means to him, that it was his first choice.

“I knowwwwww,” he says and sighs. “I just— I don’t—Dude.

Derek laughs. “Have you told your dad?”

“No,” Stiles admits. “I just opened the mail box like 3 minutes ago.”

Derek swallows. Stiles called him first. “Call your dad.”

“Yeah, I should,” Stiles says and then laughs again. “Can you believe it?”

“Yes,” Derek answers.

Stiles makes a small affectionate noise. “Der.”

Derek huffs a laugh. “Call your dad,” he says again.

“Are you excited?”

Derek smiles. “I’m really happy for you Stiles,” he says honestly. “You deserve it.”

“I dooooo,” Stiles says. “Okay. I’m going to call my dad. Three days, sourwolf!”

“Three days,” Derek agrees, but rolls his eyes at that stupid nickname. “Congratulations, Stiles.”

When Derek hangs up the phone he sits on the back deck. Berkeley is only an hour away without traffic. Beacon Hills is three hours away if he speeds the whole way. So Stiles will be closer. It will be easier to see him more often.

But Derek worries if Stiles spends all his time at Derek’s he won’t experience college fully. He brought that up to Dr. Nelson at their last session.

“Valid concern,” Dr. Nelson said tapping his pen against the ever-present note pad in his lap. “But it’s still Stiles’ choice to make. It’s something he should take seriously, so if he dismisses it entirely that’s a potential warning sign.”

Derek swallowed and stared at his hands.

“No more martyring yourself,” Dr. Nelson reminded him. “Your care for Stiles is a sign that your feelings for him are healthy. But you have a tendency to tip from concern for others to lack of care for yourself. If you have feelings for Stiles that you think he reciprocates, that’s worth exploring.”

“What if—” Derek stopped because it was still hard for him to articulate exactly what he was afraid of. “What if he wants to be with me now, and then a year from now it’s too much or he meets someone in college. What if we break up?”

Dr. Nelson gave him a considering look. “Okay. Well, take that to its end. What if that happened?”

Derek wanted to roll his eyes but closed them instead, leaning his head against the back of the couch. “It would suck.”

Dr. Nelson chuckled. “But talk it through.”

Derek sighed. “Yeah okay. If Stiles broke up with me it would suck.”

“And what would that mean?” Dr. Nelson prodded when Derek didn’t continue right away.

Derek let out a slow breath. “If Stiles and I broke up it would suck, but I’d be okay.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Because my happiness isn’t dependent on him. I would be hurt because I care about him. He’s my— he’s my best friend,” Derek admitted and his stomach flip flopped at the realization. “I would miss him. But.”

“But,” Dr. Nelson agreed.

“But if we broke up because he didn’t want to be with me anymore, I would figure out how to deal with that,” Derek said, surprised to find it was true. “I would accept it because it would be what he needed. I would hate it, but I would be okay.”

Dr. Nelson smiled and nodded his head once decisively. “There’s always risk, Derek.”

Derek swallowed and found that the tightness in his chest from just moments before had dissipated.

“Love is always a leap,” Dr. Nelson continued. “And love is never enough to make life worth living. Love is important and an amazing supplement to a full and rich life. But it isn’t the only thing that gives meaning to existence.”

Derek closed his eyes and pictured the dozens and dozens of conversations they’d had in these same spots. How hard it was to find the words to explain his hurt at first. How much it gnawed at his stomach after he’d leave each session. There were days he barely said anything at all. And there were days where he told Dr. Nelson things he’d never said out loud to anyone before.

He honestly never thought it would work. He didn’t think he deserved for it to work. He didn’t deserve to have peace from his inner turmoil. He didn’t deserve to forgive himself.

Or that’s what he’d thought for years.

“I choose how to be happy,” Derek said, remembering the strength of those words. “And happiness doesn’t make life less difficult.”

Dr. Nelson had a smile on his face when Derek opened his eyes. “Anyone who tells you that life will be easy is lying to you. Life is hard,” he said and flipped his notebook shut. “You know that better than most. But happiness is about learning what’s important to you and pursuing it even when doing so is no longer easy. It’s not something other people do for you, it’s something you do for yourself.”

When Derek left that day Dr. Nelson told him he thought he could cut his sessions back to once a week which was a vote of confidence Derek was surprised to find he felt he deserved.

Derek can’t help but worry about how a relationship will affect Stiles’ college experience. He knows his reasons are both selfish (not wanting to get hurt if Stiles finds he has outgrown Derek) and also altruistic (not wanting to hold Stiles back from having every “normal” college experience he deserves to have).

But Derek knows that whatever happens, even if it’s painful and even if it breaks his heart, again, he’ll be okay.

**

Derek and Stiles put together a schedule for the implementation of the new library inventory system over the next couple of days. They’ll get the new hardware and software up and running while Stiles is around as well as begin the cataloguing of all the books. But it will be a long process. In the meantime, Eunice will use the old system until the entire library is ready.

Derek plans their road trip too. They’ll leave the second half of the week after they make progress in the library.

Stiles is on the road on Friday afternoon. He skipped his last period and texts updates every time he’s stopped at a light or pulled over at a rest area.

Derek goes for a run because he can’t sit still. Normally Friday is a therapy day, but now that he’s cut back to once a week he has Friday free. He cleaned everything thoroughly that morning and made a trip to the grocery store to pick up all of Stiles’ favorites. That didn’t even get him to the end of the school day when Stiles was leaving.

So Derek bakes cookies and reads his book on the back deck after his run. He’s not used to the fluttery feeling in his stomach that makes it hard to sit still.

He hears Stiles’ Jeep coming up the road when it’s still a mile away. He doesn’t stop to think about playing it cool or pretending to care less than he does. He just stands on the front porch and waits for Stiles to appear around the bend in the road.

When he does and sees Derek standing there waiting for him, Stiles’ face explodes in a smile. He parks quickly and throws himself out of the Jeep, all limbs and nervous energy. Derek is standing close enough to catch him, gather him into a hug.

“Derek,” Stiles says into his neck in a happy sort of sigh. His arms tighten around Derek.

He chuckles and pulls Stiles even closer, relieved to see that he seems just as excited to be together again as Derek is.

“You look good,” Derek says when they finally break apart.

He looks healthy. His cheeks are pink, and his skin no longer has the sallow complexion of someone not sleeping or taking care of themselves. He’s put on a little weight, so his cheekbones no longer look so painfully sharp.

Stiles grins at him. “You too,” he says and winks in an exaggerated, cheesy way.

Derek blushes anyway, and rolls his eyes to cover. “I meant healthy.”

“Me too,” Stiles says again and waggles his eyebrows.

“How do you make everything—”

“—Awesome?”

Derek laughs. “Sure.”

Stiles drops his stuff by the door and makes a beeline for the plate of cookies in the kitchen. He bites into one and flops down on a chair at the kitchen table. “God, you’re my favorite,” he sighs and takes another bite.

“I might be saving those for someone,” Derek huffs.

“Who?” Stiles asks through another mouthful of cookie.

Derek leans against the counter and tries not to blush while Stiles moans rapturously at his second cookie.

“’s wha uh thah,” Stiles says through a big bite.

Derek makes chili and corn bread for supper. It’s still brisk in the evening, but Stiles insists they eat outside. He wears two of Derek’s thermals under the flannel shirt he already had on. Derek tries not to feel too smug about Stiles wearing his clothes, and Stiles smirks at him like he knows what Derek is thinking anyway.

After supper they sit in the deck lounge chairs and watch the sunset. “I love it here,” Stiles says and smells like contentment.

Derek’s stomach twists. “Me too.”

“You should buy this place,” Stiles declares looking around.

“I don’t think it’s for sale.”

“Have you looked around for something else?”

“Not really,” Derek admits. He’s thought about it, but there’s still a part of him that is used to having one foot out the door, that can’t commit to one place like that, even if it’s a place he’s been happy.

“It’s not that far from Berkeley,” Stiles says, and brushes imaginary dirt off his jeans. His voice is casual, but Derek can tell from his scent that he’s nervous.

“An hour and 13 minutes,” Derek says and smiles.

Stiles whips his head up and meets Derek’s eyes. He grins. “Yeah.”

Derek can’t think of how to say what he wants to so he turns again and faces the water.

“You thinking you aren’t going to stay here?” Stiles prods again after Derek doesn’t say anything else.

“I don’t have plans to leave,” Derek says softly. “But if I buy a place…”

“Yeah?”

“This is a small place,” Derek says finally. “I’d want to get something a little bigger.” He’s not sure he’s ready to believe he can have the quiet, peaceful life he’s experienced over the past few months long term. But he wants to.

Stiles’ smile is shy and a little unsure.

Derek reaches over and grabs Stiles’ hand and laces their fingers together. He doesn’t say anything else, but the tension leaves Stiles’ shoulders, and his scent goes sweet and calm instead of anxious.

**

They spend the first couple of days of Stiles’ break at the library. Derek offered the option of starting Stiles’ vacation with the road trip, but Stiles wanted to use it as a reward after they did their work. Derek called him a nerd and Stiles told him the pot shouldn’t call the kettle black and so on.

Derek thinks it’s probably good that they didn’t start their time alone on a coastal drive watching sunsets and staying in hotel rooms or it would’ve been much more difficult to keep his hands to himself.

Instead, they’re in the library being observed and clucked at by Eunice and ogled and objectified (in a strangely grandmotherly way) by Maureen. Eunice brought pastries and coffee to celebrate Stiles’ Berkeley acceptance, which she apparently knew about because “Eunice and I are BFFs, Derek,” Stiles declares with a wink.

“I have emojis on my phone now,” Eunice says with a bemused expression.

“She has an old iPhone,” Stiles clarifies. “We really should take her to get a new one.”

“Why do I need a new one when this one works just fine?” Eunice huffs.

“The eternal question of a luddite,” Stiles says with a smirk and passes Derek a cable he’s trying to thread through the desk.

Eunice makes a disapproving sound and then takes the pastry plate away to punish Stiles, which just makes him laugh.

Maureen and Stiles discuss spells and wards and the talisman she gave Stiles to stop the nightmares. Derek’s always marveled at Stiles’ ability to be doing three things at once, and all of them better than it seems like he should be able to. He’s managing to piece together the networking of a computer system and cabling that Derek has completely given up on understanding while discussing advanced magic and spellwork with Maureen and hassling Eunice about being an old lady about her technology.

“You need an iPad too,” Stiles says from somewhere under the desk. “How do you not have an iPad? How do you watch Netflix while you cook?”

Eunice laughs and gives Derek a look. “I don’t.”

Stiles bangs his head. “Ow,” he exclaims and mumbles swearwords under his breath. “You just… cook? Without doing anything else at the same time?”

“I listen to music sometimes,” she offers.

Stiles scoffs but stays under the desk. “Derek, buy her an iPad.”

Derek gives Eunice a look. “It doesn’t sound like Eunice wants an iPad.”

Maureen wants an iPad,” Maureen offers and winks at Derek.

“Maureen wants a lot of things she’s not getting,” Stiles scolds.

Maureen’s eyes twinkle in amusement. “Now, now,” she says. “No need to get jealous.”

Derek blushes in spite of himself, because he is apparently determined to make it easy for everyone to tease him.

“Derek behaves himself, Stiles,” Maureen says and gives him a little smirk. “Eunice makes sure.”

Stiles bangs his head again. “Can everyone make themselves useful instead of standing around heckling me while I work?”

Derek laughs and ducks under the desk while the ladies move across the room, even if they keep their eyes on the proceedings. “I’ll do whatever you tell me to,” Derek offers. “But I have no idea what you’re doing, and I’ll probably mess it up.”

“I’m almost done with this part,” Stiles says as he connects wires and does important looking things with the costly equipment Derek bought.

Eunice and Maureen leave for a while and come back later with lunch. They eat outside on the little patio because the sky is bright and cloudless.

“The weekenders will start coming soon,” Eunice remarks.

Derek is both dreading the influx of people the warmer months will bring and also interested in seeing how it changes the town. There are a few seasonal cafes and outdoor markets that pop up once the tourists and vacation home owners start their pilgrimage back to the ocean.

“You guys are townies!” Stiles says delightedly. “Are you suspicious of outsiders? I feel like I’ve seen this movie.”

Derek laughs and nudges his foot under the table. Stiles grins at him and keeps his foot pressed up against Derek’s.

“Is Derek a townie now too?” He asks as he takes a big bite of his BLT.

“I think everyone more or less accepted he was one of us when he stopped glaring at everyone on his morning run,” Maureen says mildly, wiping her mouth with her napkin.

Stiles laughs. “That’s just how his face is. That’s not actually a glare.”

Derek rolls his eyes. “I’m sitting right here.”

“Oh, he glared,” Eunice says, chiming in. “But then he started coming by the library and Gawain liked him, so I figured he had something under the glare worth seeing.”

Derek smiles and looks down at the table.

“He’s a softy,” Stiles says and nudges Derek with his shoulder. “The first thing he said to me was ‘this is private property’,” Stiles says affecting what Derek’s sure is supposed to be his gruff voice. “But all I heard was ‘I own a thumb hole sweater and need someone to make me soup.’”

“That is not what you thought,” Derek says and gives him a look. Derek remembers that day, and Stiles was practically dripping with hormones and fear. Derek knew Scott was a werewolf, wasn’t sure how that had happened and if it had anything to do with why Laura was dead. He was guarded and defensive and numb with grief.

“No,” Stiles agrees. “You’re right. I was pretty sure you were a murderer at first.”

“Was it the glaring?” Maureen asks innocently.

“The glaring,” Stiles agrees. “Among other things.” He smirks at Derek, the less-than-friendly relationship they had when they first met goes unexplained.

Derek blushes and looks away. He’s not proud of how he acted in those first few days. But he didn’t know who he could trust, didn’t understand why Scott was so determined not to cooperate with Derek’s attempts at helping him gain control before the full moon. Stiles was infuriating, intriguing and somehow Derek kept ending up gravitating toward him anyway.

Derek’s fear may explain why he behaved the way he did, but he’s still not proud of it. Although he imagines Stiles has some regrets about those days too.

The conversation drifts to town gossip and a retired widowed military officer who recently purchased a house south of town. Stiles’ eyes light up as the ladies discuss strategies for wooing him.

After lunch they return to the library project, Derek still bewildered about how to be helpful and Stiles teasing him because that’s what Stiles does.

“Sorry you’re having to do all the work,” Derek says as he drives them back to the house later.

Stiles smiles and glances over at Derek. “You can make it up to me. We still taking a road trip?”

Derek nods. “Yeah, if you want.”

“I want,” Stiles says. “Definitely.”

Derek feels almost embarrassed by the amount of thought he’s put into Stiles’ request. “I thought maybe we could drive down to Berkeley first,” he says after a few beats of silence. “Since you know for sure you’re going there.” He bites his lip. “And then,” he swallows. “And then I kind of made a plan for the rest.”

Stiles’ smile spreads. “Yeah?”

Derek nods. “We can go other places if you want. But I’ll show you what I’ve planned.”

Stiles reaches his hand across the center console and squeezes Derek’s leg. “See? Softy.”

Derek rolls his eyes. “How does this make me a softy?”

Stiles’ expression has grown impossibly smug. He doesn’t answer except to squeeze Derek’s leg again. “Is there a spread sheet? Have you made a power point presentation for me?”

“I’m sending you on the trip by yourself,” Derek grouses. “Which requires more planning.”

Stiles laughs. “Are not.”

Derek blushes and finds he can’t even keep up joke anger at Stiles these days. “Yeah,” he says, resigned.

**

Stiles didn’t bother with the pretense of the guest room this time. They sleep close, wrapped up in each other, but so far nothing else has happened.

Derek isn’t sure if he’s still resisting because he’s trying to be respectful and wait until Stiles is 18, or if it’s more that he’s just not ready for physical intimacy with someone who matters so much.

Since Kate, Derek’s forays into sex and romance have been infrequent. Kate was his first, and every encounter after her gave him the sinking sick feeling he’d experienced when he realized just how badly she’d played him, that his family was dead because he was too young and stupid to know the difference between love and whatever it was he had with Kate.

But Derek got lonely, and there was a guy in New York Derek liked enough to see more than once, and a woman he worked with at the grocery store. Those were the closest he’d had to relationships, unless he counted Jennifer and her spell to bend him to her will, and really, Derek didn’t count that, and mostly tried not to think about it.

But otherwise there was just a handful of people Derek picked up in clubs, people whose names he didn’t catch. He wasn’t looking for a connection. He didn’t need to know anything about them other than that they didn’t smell like hunters or something supernaturally dangerous. They smelled like lust and want and like they’d give him (willingly) what he needed.

But with Stiles it’s different.

They lay in the dark that night, Stiles pressed close, his cold toes wiggling underneath Derek’s leg, chin digging into his chest as he tries to find his perfect spot.

Derek chuffs a laugh into Stiles’ hair. “Be still.”

“Easy for you to say,” Stiles grumbles and mashes his face into Derek’s chest.

Derek runs his hand up and down Stiles’ back in a way he hopes is soothing. “Your heart is beating really fast.”

Stiles barks out a muffled laugh. “Duh.”

Derek pauses the movement of his hand because he’s not entirely sure what’s happening or what Stiles is trying to say. But Stiles squirms around more and it becomes clear he’s trying to get Derek to resume his earlier movement. So he does.

“I’m missing something,” Derek says.

Stiles makes a frustrated sound. “No,” he says sheepishly. “I’m just. I’m being dumb.”

“Probably,” Derek agrees, trying to lighten the weird mood that seems to have overtaken them.

Stiles smiles against Derek. “You’re just. You. You know? And being close is, like, great. Duh. I sleep better with you. And so, I’m not saying I don’t want to be in here.”

Derek’s heart kicks up in rhythm, and he feels a sense of dread.

“I just. Like it’s not a secret, dude,” he mumbles. “I like you. And so, you know.” His hand comes up in a gesture meant to convey something.

“I like you too,” Derek says slowly, because he does. He thought Stiles knew that.

“Yeah, but, it’s different,” Stiles says in a quiet voice.

“How?” Derek says, hand stilling while he waits for Stiles to explain.

“You could walk out of here and pick up anyone, anywhere, whenever,” Stiles says propping himself up a little so he can look at Derek’s face. He bites his lip and then looks down again, dragging his thumb nail across Derek’s chest in a nervous sort of pattern. “And you’re older than me. And you’ve done more stuff. Stuff with dudes. My ‘stuff doing’ is pretty limited.”

Derek huffs a surprised laugh. He starts to respond, but Stiles makes a noise that suggests he’s not done talking.

“So you know,” Stiles continues. “I just, I’m back in Beacon Hills, like, thinking about you and how much I like you, and like, how much I want to be close to you. Not just because I’m hot for your bod—”

Derek winces at the ridiculous phrase. “Hot for my bod?”

Stiles rolls his eyes. “Shut up. You know.” He gestures up and down Derek’s body like this explains everything. “Like this is all great, but mostly I just. You're you. And that makes this” another full body Vanna White type gesture “even more attractive. Cause you’re the person I want to talk to most. And you’re funny, and like, that feels like a secret I know that other people don’t. And then I come here, and you smell so good. Seriously, what is that?”

“Soap?”

Stiles makes another frustrated sound. “So unfair. Seriously.”

“You smell good too,” Derek says in a soft voice and resumes his soothing strokes down Stiles’ back.

“Oh, whatever. Probably like dirty socks and spunk.”

Derek laughs. “Yeah, there’s some of that,” he admits. “But you just smell, uh. Safe.” It’s so hard to explain scent to humans. They think of only the top layer of how scent relays information. They smell “clean” and miss the scent underneath the soap and detergent that says “I’m nervous and trying to make a good impression.” Or they smell “sweaty” but they miss the effort and satisfaction of a big win.

Stiles smells like a normally hygienic teenage male whose family laundry detergent choice is Tide and who owns an inexpensive cologne he applies more liberally than he actually should. But he also smells like safety, comfort, truth. Derek doesn’t know how to unpack that and explain it to someone who would just smell the Tide and the cologne.

“Safe,” Stiles groans after a few beats of silence. “That’s like telling me I smell boring.”

Derek swallows. “Not to me,” he says firmly. “Nothing used to smell safe to me. This house does now. The library does after months of spending time there. But you have from the beginning. It bothered me at first because of how much you seemed to hate me, how determined you were to work against me. But then I’d be in your room or stuck with you in a pool or on the floor of the Sheriff’s station, and I’d breathe in and know that you would do everything you could to take care of me. That you had my back. No one else smells like that. Boyd and Erica and Isaac smelled like expectation and disappointment—everything I wasn’t doing and was supposed to be doing to make things better for them. Cora smells like sadness, like hurt and grieving and cautious trust. That changes a little the more I get to know her again.”

Stiles swallows. “Why do I smell safe?”

“I don’t know,” Derek says honestly. “But it’s not something you can control, really. It’s who you are and who you are to me. It’s this mix of your home and your dad and your past. It’s your effort and diligence and need to prove yourself. You smell sad sometimes, and right after the Nogistune you smelled scared, hurt. But you still smelled like you. I don’t know how to explain it.”

Stiles seems unsure what to say. “Well, that’s not—I mean that’s not what I meant, really. The smelling good thing is just a part of it.”

Derek smiles. “I know. But to me it is the bigger point. I’m not just attracted to you. You’re important. And I’m not sure if I’m ready to balance that with sex. It’s been a long time since I’ve had sex with someone I cared about.”

“It’s not just because I’m not 18 yet?”

Derek wraps his fingers loosely around the back of Stiles’ neck, rubbing the warm skin there with his thumb. “No,” he admits finally. “I talked about it with Dr. Nelson.”

“Yeah?” Stiles asks, like he’s surprised that Derek has spent time thinking this over at all.

“Yeah,” Derek says and squeezes his neck gently. “Everyone I’ve ever loved has died or been taken from me in some way. And I’ve been used, raped—Dr. Nelson says that’s what Kate did to me—manipulated. Spelled into feelings. Loving and trusting people hasn’t worked out for me the way it does for most people.”

Stiles props himself up on his elbow and searches Derek’s face, his eyes wide with concern.

“We’ve both been through a lot,” Derek says when Stiles seems, for once, to be at a loss. “I just want to make sure that when we have sex it’s for the right reasons, and that we know how we feel about each other. And that you don’t think it’s something you have to do to keep me interested.”

Stiles smiles and then chews his lip nervously. “So what you’re saying is you like me.”

Derek chuckles. “Yes.”

“And you’re hot for my bod.” Stiles grins and waggles his eyebrows.

Derek rolls his eyes. “Yes. But I’m not saying those words out loud, at least not like that.”

Stiles smirks, but then his face settles into a more serious, thoughtful pose. “Can I kiss you?”

Derek’s stomach flip flops. He nods slowly. “But I’m— still not ready for more.”

“Derek, Derek, Derek,” Stiles says and scoots closer, so their lips are within mere centimeters of each other. “I’m easy to please. Making out will be pretty fucking fantastic.”

Derek smiles slow and easy and uses the gentle grip he has on the back of Stiles’ neck to draw him closer. “Just a kiss.”

Stiles nods.

He’s so close, and Derek can feel his breath, smell his toothpaste. Derek presses their lips together. Stiles makes a pleased noise, small but triumphant. The kiss is a gentle thing, chaste and cautious. Derek pulls away after a few seconds, just enough to see Stiles’ face.

“Oh my god,” Stiles murmurs and licks his bottom lip with a quick dart of his tongue.

Derek tracks the movement and leans back in, unable to stop himself. It’s deeper this time, their lips parted a little. Stiles tastes minty and like something unrecognizably sweeter. Derek hears a moan and realizes it’s coming from him. He’s the moaner.

When he pulls away they’re both breathing heavily.

“Oh my god,” Stiles says again, this time with a little more weight. He rests his forehead against Derek’s shoulder and then presses his lips into Derek’s neck.

Derek wraps his arms around Stiles’ back, holding him in place, keeping him close. Derek’s heart is beating fast, but it’s no match for Stiles’ rabbit heartbeat.

Stiles laughs and kisses Derek’s neck again.

It’s overwhelming, but it feels right. His wolf is satisfied having Stiles so close, and now that they’ve kissed, the wolf is sitting up, waiting for the next step, urging Derek on, to take, to claim, to have. But he takes a deep breath and squeezes Stiles tightly in a hug instead.

“You’re stuck with me now,” Stiles says against Derek’s skin.

Derek smiles up at the ceiling and rubs his fingertips along the strip of exposed skin along Stiles’ lower back.

“And that was just a kiss,” Stiles says, excitement prompting his signature stream of words. “Imagine if we have sex. I’ll be like a barnacle you’ll never get rid of!”

He says it like it’s something undesirable. It’s meant as a joke, to lighten what has been an emotionally charged moment. But Derek has no objections to Stiles being around constantly.

“I’m sure I’d manage,” he says, heart and head full of Stiles.

Stiles props himself up so he can see Derek again. “Good,” he says and kisses Derek again.

This is a thing they do now. They kiss. Derek gets to wrap his arms around Stiles, gets to sleep pressed against his warm body. He gets to hear the sleepy thoughts and ideas Stiles shares into the darkness. He gets to press his lips against Stiles’ full mouth and feel the life and promise that vibrates from it. He gets to hope, to believe, that maybe affection can be had without peril following closely behind.

Stiles shifts slightly, and Derek can feel the hard length of his dick pressed against Derek’s thigh. He shudders involuntarily, the force of his own desire a surprise.

“Sorry,” Stiles says and shifts again so it’s not in contact with Derek anymore. He seems embarrassed, his scent changed from ecstatic happiness to something laced with worry.

“It’s okay,” Derek reassures, pulling him as close as he can. “It’s not that I don’t want that. You know that, right?” He swallows thinking of how much he wants it. “I just want to make sure we’re ready for that. So I mean, I know you have a dick. It’s fine.” He flushes in embarrassment at the bold acknowledgement.

Stiles smiles and it spreads across his face like a rising sun. “I do,” he says, smile turning into a smirk, angling his body again so Derek can feel the hard outline against his thigh again. “I’m okay with waiting. I may have to go take care of this in the bathroom in a few minutes,” he adds, kissing Derek quickly. “But I can wait for you to be ready to be part of that.”

Derek smiles and rolls his eyes at the smug look on Stiles’ face and kisses him again, this time letting it deepen.

**

By Tuesday the new library computers are up and running. Stiles has trained Derek on how the software works and how to input books and print labels, and they’ve catalogued the children’s section entirely.

It will be slower going once Stiles leaves, but Derek is confident he can manage the project on his own, and possibly train a couple of the patrons who have expressed interest in the process over the past several days.

But it’s Stiles’ spring break, and Derek doesn’t want him to have to spend the entire thing in a library doing work. So on Wednesday after breakfast, they start their road trip.

Stiles has seen the plan and approved Derek’s suggested stops and activities, even as he teased and made fun of him for how seriously he took Stiles’ request.

“It’s great,” Stiles says when they look over it one more time. He kisses Derek until he forgets that Stiles had been making fun of his detailed itinerary and reservations. “I like that you did this,” Stiles murmurs against Derek’s lips.

Derek wraps his arms around Stiles’ low back, grabbing fistfuls of Stiles’ t-shirt as he deepens the kiss.

“I tease because I love,” Stiles says and then freezes. “I mean, you know.” His cheeks are bright red, and he pulls back.

Derek isn’t sure what to say. And it seems like Stiles didn’t mean to say it, so Derek isn’t going to make a big deal out of it and make Stiles uncomfortable, so he doesn’t push.

Stiles insists they stop at the grocery store on the way out of town so he can stock the car with snacks and “road trip essentials.”

“I don’t want to smell corn nuts all the way to Berkeley,” Derek says as Stiles combs the snack aisle.

“Corn nuts are amazing,” Stiles protests and tries to put them in the cart.

Derek shakes his head and pulls them back out.

“You already vetoed jerky,” Stiles pouts.

“Things that smell like salty feet are out.”

“I didn’t veto that trail mix you insisted we buy!”

“It doesn’t smell like a gym sock after a double header,” Derek says firmly. “And I’m not going to make you eat it. I don’t want to only eat chips and candy.”

Stiles rolls his eyes dramatically. “Fine. No corn nuts. No jerky. May I please purchase Twizzlers, your grace?” He bows deeply at the waist because he’s ridiculous.

Derek pushes the cart farther down the aisle and chooses to ignore Stiles’ theatrics. “Twizzlers are fine. Get whatever you want in the non-feet-smelling category.”

“You eat woodland creatures!” Stiles says, a little too loudly, if the reaction of the older gentleman in the aisle with them is any indication.

Derek waits until Stiles is closer with the cart to lean over and reply. “I have no idea where you got that idea, but no I don’t.”

Stiles grins.

“And even if I did, they’d smell better than corn nuts.”

Stiles laughs. “Fine, fine.” He throws a can of Pringles into the cart.

“It takes an hour to get to Berkeley,” Derek reminds him. “How much of this are you going to get through?”

Stiles shakes his head imperiously. “We’ll be gone several days, Derek. And what if every restaurant is booked up or closed for some reason, you’ll be glad we have supplies.”

Derek rolls his eyes. “Yeah okay. You’re a wonderful provider. My hero.” He keeps his tone flat.

Stiles laughs and peers down into the cart. “Okay. Gatorade, Mountain Dew, Pringles, Twizzlers, Hot Tamales, disgusting trail mix, Cheetos, Pop Tarts, bird seed granola bars, water, Rolos, Junior Mints, a book of Mad Libs, Cosmo, book of inspirational quotes, a Jackie Collins book on tape, and license plate bingo. I think we have everything.” He looks up at Derek with big, smiling eyes, and Derek’s heart twists.

“I think like three fourths of that is unnecessary, but okay.”

“We’ve noted that for the record,” Stiles says as he places their items on the conveyer belt and winks at the check out clerk, “let the record reflect Derek is against road trip frivolity.”

The checkout clerk looks between them and then down at the items and smirks at Stiles.

He wanted to get corn nuts too,” Stiles says nodding his head toward Derek. “But I was like, ‘eww gross Derek, they stink.’”

The girl screws up her face. “They do stink,” she says to Derek, like she’s disgusted with him on Stiles’ behalf.

Derek groans and steps out of the range of Stiles’ reaching hands. He swipes his credit card to pay for everything while Stiles talks about how Stiles only eats trail mix and never junk food because his body is a temple, goddammit, and flexes his muscles for the checkout girl while Derek growls menacingly, but only loud enough for Stiles to hear.

“You are what you eat,” Stiles says sagely as she bags the last of the items. “This guy is just one big Mountain Dew flavored Cheeto.”

“You are ridiculous,” Derek says as he scoops up the bags, heading for the door while Stiles gives one last charming smile to his new best friend.

Stiles jogs to catch up.

You’re the Cheeto,” Derek mumbles as he opens the car and places the bags in the backseat.

Stiles laughs. “Well, obviously. And you’re the temple.” He gives Derek a once over. “Clearly.”

Derek blushes as Stiles steps into his space.

“Is it okay if I get my Cheeto dust in the temple? Or…” he leans in close to Derek, lips almost touching his.

“Cheeto dust, okay,” Derek says and pulls Stiles’ lower lip in between his. “I draw the line at corn nuts. No corn nuts in the temple.” He kisses Stiles slowly, letting it get deeper than he probably should in the parking lot of the grocery store.

“I’ll never eat corn nuts again,” Stiles says breathlessly when they pull away.

**

They have not scheduled a Berkeley campus tour or anything formal. Stiles and his dad apparently did that already at the end of the summer last year. So they just wander around, duck into buildings, peek into classrooms. It’s bright and sunny and a good day for aimless tourism.

Stiles is nervously excited. His scent is engaged and a little anxious. He alternately grabs Derek’s hand and drags him places and then seems tentative and embarrassed to intrude. Derek resists the urge to direct or make suggestions. He lets Stiles set the pace.

Berkeley has a definite college town feel, patchouli and pot in the air as they pass dorm windows. After his months in the small, sleepy oceanside town he lives in, Berkeley is much busier, full of students and aimless wanderers. People play Frisbee in parks, study on benches, group noisily on patios. It’s frenetic and crowded, and it takes some adjustment. But Stiles is engaged and interested so Derek swallows down the slight panic that pulls him toward their hotel.

“Are you wooing me?” Stiles says as they set their bags down in the room. He bounces on the big King-sized bed. “I’m already pretty wooed.”

The room is nice. Derek did some research and found a hotel very close to campus that was also quiet and comfortable. There’s a big bath tub and a ridiculous shower, and it smells clean and well cared for.

Stiles pats the bed next to him. “What’d you think?” He asks as he reclines back on the bed, hands resting on his stomach.

“Of?” Derek asks as he follows him down.

“The campus? Berkeley!” His smile is broad and satisfied.

“I like it,” Derek says truthfully. He keeps his thoughts about how jarring it is for him to be in big groups of smelly students. He’ll get used to that for Stiles if he needs to. “It’s a nice campus. It suits you.”

Stiles smiles and nods. “And it didn’t take that long to get here.”

Derek’s stomach flips. “You mean after the 30 minutes we spent buying snacks?”

Stiles laughs and rolls onto his side. He runs his fingers up Derek’s chest. “Not too bad. Right?” His face looks so hopeful.

Derek smiles and rests his hand on top of Stiles’. “It’s not too bad,” he agrees. “Scenic.”

Stiles grins and rests his head on Derek’s chest. “I want you to be part of this,” he says quietly.

Derek swallows and reaches his other hand up and cups Stiles’ head, scratching his fingers through Stiles’ hair. “You may change your mind about that,” he says, voicing the fear that has gripped him since he realized his feelings for Stiles. “You’re going to meet a lot of people, make a lot of friends.”

Stiles makes a noise of protest. “What? So?” He tries to sit up, but Derek keeps his fingers in Stiles’ hair. It’s easier to have this conversation if they aren’t looking at each other. “I may make friends, but I’ll still want you.”

Derek squeezes Stiles’ neck. “You can’t know now how you’ll feel then.”

“You think I’ll change my mind?” Stiles asks, challenge in his voice.

Derek focuses on keeping his voice steady. “I think you’re at the beginning of things. And there’s no way for you to know what’s going to change or what you’ll want in a couple of years. I don’t want you to make a commitment right now that you can’t keep. I’m not asking you to.”

Stiles struggles to sit up, propping himself on an elbow and keeping his hand on Derek’s chest. “What are you saying?”

Derek swallows. He thinks of Dr. Nelson’s advice, that he can’t make choices for Stiles. He can’t decide how Stiles feels and what he’s capable of. That’s not fair to Stiles even if it makes everything feel more tenuous to Derek. “I’m just saying I want you to be with me because you want to be, not because you made a promise when you were a senior in high school, and you think I’ll be devastated if you change your mind.”

Stiles’ brow furrows. “I know how I feel,” he says indignantly.

“I know,” Derek says carefully. “I know you care about me. I’m not saying otherwise.”

“But you think I’ll get to college and see something shiny and forget about you?” Stiles asks, voice rising. His scent changes to something sharp and defiant.

Derek closes his eyes briefly and tries to center himself. “I don’t want to fight, Stiles,” he says finally. “Only you know how you feel. I just know how much college can change things. And I don’t want to hold you back from experiencing things.”

Stiles’ mouth sets in a hard line. “It’s not going to change how I feel about you.”

“I’m not saying it will,” Derek says, keeping his voice even.

“Seems like you are,” Stiles says and sits up farther, looking out the window. “Because what, I’m just a kid, and there’s no way I could know what it feels like to love someone? To want to make them a part of my life regardless of how my life may change?”

Derek doesn’t know what to say.

“Yeah,” Stiles says. “Gotcha.” He stands up and goes into the bathroom and slams the door.

**

The shower turns on after a few minutes. Derek stares at the ceiling and tries not to feel like he’s ruined everything. He remembers the things Dr. Nelson said. He can’t make Stiles’ choices for him, but Derek has a right to his own fears and concerns. If this is going to work Stiles can’t freak out every time Derek suggests a potential issue.

After several minutes the water turns off, and he hears Stiles’ heartbeat. It’s steady; calmer than it was when he went in. He appears in the doorway in one of the thick hotel robes a few moments later.

“Sorry,” Stiles says softly. “I’m kind of proving your point when I act like a douchey kid.” He looks down to the floor and when he looks back at Derek his expression is hopeful.

“I understand why you’re hurt,” Derek says.

Stiles sits down next to Derek. “I get what you’re saying, though. You’re not saying you think I’m going to break up with you, but that if I want to, you want me to know you’ll be okay.”

Relief floods through Derek. “Yeah,” he answers, voice rough. “I mean, it’ll suck. But I’ve worked hard to figure out what I want and what makes me happy. And I want you, yeah. And you make me happy, yes. But you aren’t responsible for my happiness. I’d be sad if you decided you wanted to be with someone else or whatever, but I’d be okay.”

Stiles lets out a slow breath. “Okay. But you have to promise to believe me if I say I’m happy with you and not put words in my mouth if I tell you I want to come see you or want you to come to campus. You don’t get to tell me what I want.”

“Fair,” Derek says.

“Also,” Stiles says, swallowing and looking away again. “I feel like we skipped the step where we decided that we were dating.”

Derek’s stomach drops. “Oh.”

Stiles looks at him again. “I want to be,” he clarifies and the buzzing in Derek’s ears stops. “But you’ve said stuff about waiting, and I just want to make sure we’re on the same page.”

“Do we have to have sex to be together?” Derek asks carefully.

Stiles shakes his head emphatically. “Nope. I just didn’t want to assume.”

“I want to be with you,” Derek says quietly.

“Me too,” Stiles says with a big smile. “And someday maybe we’ll have sex, too.”

Derek huffs a laugh. “Yeah. Someday we’ll have sex.”

“But no corn nuts,” Stiles clarifies.

Derek grabs him around the waist and pulls him closer. “Never.”

**

They sleep in and eat a late breakfast.

“Anything else you want to see in Berkeley?” Derek asks as he pays the bill.

“Nah,” Stiles says as he tries to give Derek cash. “I’ll have to come back again with my dad, and I’ll make appointments to talk to financial advisors and stuff then.” He slips $20 into one of Derek’s pockets.

“I told you, I got it,” Derek says and passes the bill back to Stiles.

“You don’t have to pay for everything,” Stiles says.

“You spent the first four days of your break helping me out with the library stuff,” Derek insists. “This is your reward for that. Stop it.”

Stiles rolls his eyes. “You mean helping you with the volunteer, totally optional project you’re taking on because you are trying to win citizen of the year?”

Derek blushes. “Well, still. Just let me.”

Stiles sits back in his chair. “I guess I’ll let you spend money on me and take me to nice hotels and drive me around. If I must.”

“You must,” Derek agrees. “Alright. Next stop Half Moon Bay?”

Stiles grins at him and nods.

**

Highway 1 hugs the coastline, and Stiles makes Derek stop the car several times so he can take pictures. Even though Derek lives on the water and sees the ocean every single day, he has to admit that the view is breathtaking.

“Where are we staying?” Stiles asks again.

Derek hasn’t told him that yet because he’s sure Stiles would insist it’s unnecessary.

“You’ll see,” Derek answers.

“Are we camping or something?” Stiles asks, staring out at the ocean. “Is that why you’re scared to tell me?”

Derek laughs. “No. Not camping.”

The truth is, when Derek was younger his parents would drive down to Half Moon Bay when they wanted to get away for a weekend together. They always came back with pictures of this beautiful, serene spot. Of course, Derek’s dad liked to golf, which was the reason they chose their resort. Well, that and the spectacular view.

It seemed like such a luxurious treat. Derek and his siblings always begged to go with them, but of course the point of the trip was for them to be alone together, something Derek, Cora and Laura didn’t fully grasp when they were younger.

When Derek left Beacon Hills the last time moving from place to place along the coast, he was tempted to go to that hotel his parents had always found so rejuvenating. But it seemed like something he wouldn’t want to experience alone, and at that point his trip was more about hiding and running than it was about discovering and enjoying.

“Wait,” Stiles says as they pull onto the road leading to the hotel. “This is where we’re staying? What?”

Derek smiles. “That okay?”

“Dude,” Stiles says. “Is this, like, our honeymoon or something? Holy shit.” He breathes out a low whistle. “And you don’t even expect me to put out.”

Derek laughs. “I’ve always wanted to stay here,” he admits. “My parents used to come here, and we were never allowed to come with them.”

Stiles bites his lip. “I didn’t bring clothes for this,” he says, his scent changing to nervous and uncertain.

Derek smiles. “You’ll be fine,” he reassures. “And if you want we can just get room service or go eat in town if the hotel restaurant is too stuffy.”

“How rich are you, anyway?” Stiles asks as they pull up to the valet station.

Derek laughs. “Don’t worry about it.”

Derek rarely spends money on anything but necessities. His parents were wealthy, and their pack was old and established. Derek, Cora and Peter were the last Hales left to inherit the fortune. Derek’s only spent the insurance money he received from the fire. He’s never touched the investments and other wealth associated with his family.

The room is ridiculously nice. It’s oceanfront, and the private terrace has a fire pit and deck chairs. Stiles laughs out loud when he first walks in.

“Are you fucking kidding me right now?” He asks and throws open the sliding doors leading to the small terrace.

Derek smiles. His parents stayed in the rooms with the fire pits overlooking the ocean. He remembers their pictures. It’s why he booked this room, and now he feels an overwhelming sense of missing them.

Stiles steps closer to him. “Dude you are full-on wooing me now. I thought the Berkeley hotel was nice! I had no idea.” He kisses Derek’s cheek and wraps his arm around his waist. “I would’ve been fine with camping.”

Derek nods. “I know,” he says and leans into Stiles. He knows Stiles doesn’t care about a fancy resort. He doesn’t expect five star accommodations. But that makes it more fun to surprise him.

They rent bikes for the afternoon and choose a path that winds along the ocean. It feels nice to be out of the car and away from crowds for awhile. When they get back to the hotel, Derek goes to the fitness center to work out, and Stiles goes to the steam room.

“I’ve always wanted to say that,” he says and kisses Derek when they part. “I’m going to take a steam.”

Derek rolls his eyes. Stiles poured over the hotel amenities before they left the room and read various features to Derek with excitement. “Just don’t go into the candlelit, co-ed Roman mineral bath with someone else.”

Stiles gives him a wink and finger guns. “I only go in candlelit Roman mineral baths with you, sourwolf. No worries.”

Derek rolls his eyes. “I’m relieved.”

Later once Derek has finished his workout, he finds Stiles back in the room, sprawled out on the bed.

“Dude,” Stiles says glancing up at him when he comes in. “The BBQ Bacon Cheeseburger is $22.” He looks up from the hotel information booklet with wide eyes. “What can a burger possibly have on it that makes it worth $22.”

“Is that the room service menu?”

“No,” Stiles says. “This is just that ‘casual restaurant’”—he uses air quotes around the words— “off the main lobby. I assume a room service cheeseburger requires a small loan and possibly comes with a blow job.”

Derek laughs. “So are you saying you’d rather go into town?”

Stiles shrugs. “To be honest,” he says setting the book down again and making grabby hands at Derek, “I’m all relaxed and kind of want to stick close.”

“So room service?”

“Or maybe the $22 casual burger,” Stiles admits sheepishly. “Is that okay?”

Derek laughs. “Yeah, of course. I don’t care where we eat, I’m just hungry.” He plops down next to Stiles and leans over him.

“Hi,” Stiles says with a goofy grin. “You smell good.”

“I showered.”

“Did you go into the candlelit Roman bath with any of those scantily clad people in the workout room I saw eyeing you when I left?” Stiles reaches up and cups Derek’s jaw with his hand.

Derek rolls his eyes. “No one was eyeing me.”

Everyone eyes you. Literally everyone. Everywhere. Always. Have you seen you?”

Derek blushes.

“Are you going to go into the candlelit Roman baths with me?” Stiles asks, eyes wide, lip slightly pouted.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard the words ‘candlelit Roman baths’ said more times in my life than they’ve been said in the last two hours.” He leans down and kisses Stiles gently.

Stiles makes a pleased sound and kisses back.

Derek reaches around him and grabs the hotel notebook while they kiss. He breaks away so he can read the menu, earning an indignant grunt from Stiles.

“Salmon,” Derek reads from the menu. “Pork chops. Roasted Chicken. Oh, steak with applewood smoked bacon. Yeah let’s go.”

Stiles laughs. “Steak wins over kissing, eh?”

“It does right now,” Derek says and jumps off the bed and out of the way of the pillow Stiles throws at him.

**

The restaurant, like everything else at the hotel, has a postcard-worthy view. The sun dips lower in the sky, and they eat ridiculously overpriced food. Stiles takes pictures of everything and texts pictures to his dad and Scott.

Stiles has insisted his dad is fine with their road trip but Derek still wonders just how okay with it he’ll be when he realizes how nice the hotel is, if the Sheriff will worry Derek expects things from Stiles.

Stiles looks up at him and laughs. “Scott wants to know if you robbed a bank.”

Derek rolls his eyes. “And your dad?”

Stiles smiles. “Told me to behave.”

“Maybe I should give him a call,” Derek says as Stiles takes a giant bite of his burger.

“You gonna tell on me?” Stiles asks, through a full mouth of burger.

Derek makes a face. “Gross.”

Stiles rolls his eyes and swallows his bite. “This burger is fucking fantastic.” He pokes at Derek’s plate with his fork. “How’s the steak?”

“Good,” Derek says, pulling his plate away from Stiles’ wandering fork.

When they’re done with their supper they wander down to the beach and listen in amusement as a bagpiper plays what they assume is a celebration of the completion the sunset.

“It could be like a ‘this dude ordered his 10th super expensive burger and gets his card punched and a bagpipe plays to celebrate’ kind of thing,” Stiles suggests.

Derek smiles. “Could be. That sounds like a thing.”

“What do bagpipes have to do with the beach?”

“No idea,” Derek admits.

“I saw on the room service menu that we can order a s’mores kit for our fire pit,” Stiles says and waggles his eyebrows at Derek.

“Did you memorize that thing?” Derek asks with a chuckle.

“Maybe. Possibly,” Stiles says. “I like to know my options.”

Derek smiles and draws Stiles closer by looping his arm around Stiles’ waist. “Okay, sure. S’mores and a fire sound good.”

“Does the bagpiper come to light our fire pit?”

“God, I hope not.”

**

Later, Derek and Stiles sit on their patio and watch the fire and listen to the ocean. Stiles makes messy marshmallow sandwiches for them and chatters periodically to break the silence.

“My mom had a picture by her bed of she and my dad sitting on one of these chairs together with the fire pit in the background,” Derek says after awhile.

“Yeah?”

Derek nods. “They looked so happy.”

Stiles reaches over and squeezes Derek’s hand, his fingers sticky with marshmallow.

“They loved each other,” Derek says. It’s easier to talk about them now than it was before therapy, but it’s still hard to know how to bring them up. He spent so many years keeping the memories from bubbling to the surface, that now when they pop up naturally his inclination is to stuff them back down even when he realizes he doesn’t have to anymore.

Stiles doesn’t say anything, just squeezes Derek’s hand again. He stands up and then transfers himself to Derek’s chair, squirming his way into the V between Derek’s legs in the oversized chair. He leans back against Derek’s chest and rests his head on Derek’s shoulder.

Derek wraps his arms around Stiles and kisses his neck. “I think the way they loved each other made me more vulnerable to Kate,” Derek admits after a long silence.

Stiles makes a surprised noise, but doesn’t say anything, waiting for Derek to continue.

“I didn’t have a lot of examples of manipulative relationships,” Derek says. “My parents were affectionate with each other and with us. And so when someone told me they liked me, offered me closeness, attention, I just assumed it was genuine.”

“Makes sense,” Stiles says quietly. “But that doesn’t make affection a liability.”

“No,” Derek agrees. “I know. But in therapy I’ve had to think about why it was so easy for me to trust Kate. Part of it was that I didn’t really have many examples of how horrible people could be to each other. My mom warned us about hunters, so I knew in theory there were people who would want to hurt us just for being what we are, but my life had been pretty safe and happy up until that point.”

“Kate’s craziness wasn’t your fault or your parents’ fault. She’s the one that had something broken inside of her. Not you,” Stiles says and leans more heavily against Derek.

“I know,” Derek says in a small voice. And he does now. He knows he’s not to blame. But he’s still getting used to the idea, and the words feel foreign on his tongue.

Stiles pulls out his phone. He holds his arm out to snap a selfie of them together. They take a few. One smiling, one kissing, one where Derek is looking at the camera and Stiles is kissing his cheek. Stiles makes the kissing one his lock screen photo, and Derek declares him sappy.

“Hey,” Stiles says defensively, “If your boyfriend looked like my boyfriend does, you’d want everyone to know it too.”

Derek’s stomach twists. Boyfriend. He hadn’t let himself label them that way before. “He does,” Derek says softly and kisses the back of Stiles’ neck.

Stiles makes a pleased sound and turns his head so he can give Derek a kiss. “What’s the plan tomorrow?”

“Monterey,” Derek says. “But if you’d rather we can stay here another day.”

Stiles smiles and kisses him again. “This road trip needs more road,” he says against Derek’s lips. “Not that I don’t love this,” he adds. “Cause I do. But we should stick to the plan.”

Derek nods. “Okay. Then we get up, eat breakfast, drive to Monterey, see what there is to see. We can go to the aquarium or whatever you want to do, and then Saturday we drive all the way back to my house.”

“And then Sunday I leave,” Stiles says sadly.

“Yeah.”

Stiles sighs. “Will you come up to Beacon Hills for my birthday?”

Derek smiles. “I think that can be arranged.”

“It’s okay if you’re not ready to come back there,” Stiles says quickly.

“I can handle it,” Derek says and finds he means it. “It’s your birthday. I want to be there.”

“When the magical sex clock strikes legal?”

Derek rolls his eyes.

Stiles cackles and lays his head back on Derek’s shoulder again.

**

They take their time driving down the coast the next day, stopping for lunch in a little town halfway between Half Moon Bay and Monterey. Where their Half Moon Bay hotel had been expensive and over-the-top, their Monterey hotel isn’t even on the beach. It’s a small bed and breakfast-type place a couple of blocks from the ocean. But the room is clean and comfortable, and it’s a welcome change from the $22 hamburger and valet parking.

“So no candlelit Roman baths, then?” Stiles asks as he checks out the room.

“Did you actually use the candlelit Roman bath at the other place?”

Stiles shrugs. “No,” he admits. “But once you know you have access to candlelit Roman baths, it’s hard to go back to a regular bath.”

“I’m sure you’ll manage.”

“Oh, sure,” Stiles says dramatically. “I’ll manage. But should we merely manage?”

“What are you even talking about?” Derek asks, lowering himself down onto the comfortable bed covered in a quilt that appears to actually be quilted by quilters. That’s the sort of luxury Derek can get behind.

Stiles smiles. “I’m not even sure anymore.” He climbs on the bed next to Derek. “Sometimes I just get going and forget why.”

Derek chuckles. “That is not a surprising revelation.”

They take a nap, and when they wake up, the sun is setting. It’s disorienting, especially since Derek didn’t actually mean to fall asleep. He wasn’t especially tired. He’s slept great since Stiles has been around again, and the bed at the Half Moon Bay hotel was incredibly comfortable. Stiles is octopussed against Derek’s side, limbs clinging to him, face pressed into Derek’s neck, drooling on him slightly. He tightens his grip around Stiles and kisses his forehead.

“Let’s go eat,” Derek says quietly, shaking Stiles just a little.

He mumbles and snuffles into Derek’s neck.

Derek slips a hand inside of Stiles’ t-shirt and rubs his hand along the sleep-warm skin of Stiles’ back. “I’m hungry. Stiles.”

Stiles wakes up a little at a time. “Me too,” he murmurs against Derek. “Hungry.”

“C’mon then,” Derek says gently. “Let’s walk down to that place we passed on the way in.”

Stiles makes an interested noise. “Th’ lil’ Mexican place?” He mumbles as he shifts against Derek.

Derek smiles and nods. “Yeah. That sounded good to me.”

“’kay,” Stiles says and slowly rolls away from Derek, stretching obscenely.

Derek watches as his shirt rides up and exposes his pale stomach and the little trail of hair Derek wants to scritch his fingers through.

“H’long did we sleep?” Stiles asks, smiling at Derek.

“A couple of hours.”

Stiles sits up and stretches again. “Guacamole sounds good.” His voice is still slowed by sleep. He looks cuddly in a way that makes Derek want to pull him back to bed. But Stiles is already up and in the bathroom, splashing water on his face and waking up enough to start a commentary on why you can always tell the quality of a Mexican restaurant by the quality of the guacamole. Derek doesn’t know what it says about him, but he actually finds himself agreeing. There’s nothing worse than shitty guacamole.

**

The guacamole passes the test. Derek buys Stiles a margarita, only one, and gets himself a beer. The restaurant is small and nothing fancy, but the food is good and for a tourist-filled town, pretty cheap.

Roman bath jokes aside, Stiles seems just as happy with a $10 combination enchilada and tamale platter as he did with the expensive burger. And when Derek thinks about it, the burger was the cheapest thing on that menu. Derek’s steak had been close to $50.

“You’re a cheap date,” Derek says out loud.

Stiles laughs loudly. “Where’s this coming from? And should I be offended?”

Derek smiles and drags a chip through the guacamole bowl. “Just thinking about how you are easy to please.”

Stiles scoffs, ready to argue the point, as if that’s somehow a negative quality.

“It’s a good thing,” Derek says before Stiles can work up too much steam.

“Hey, this tamale is amazing,” Stiles says through narrowed eyes.

Derek smiles. “This is my point.”

“Is your burrito not good?”

“My burrito is just fine,” Derek reassures him. “I’m telling you I like being around you, dumbass.”

The waiter comes up just as Derek says that and gives him a look.

“He’s a charmer,” Stiles says to the waiter. “I complete him.”

The waiter refills their water glasses and the chip bowl and then scurries away.

“Stop making strangers uncomfortable,” Derek chides.

You stop giving me weird compliments that seem like they could be insults!”

Derek rolls his eyes. “I take back anything I said about you being easy.”

A different waiter walks by their table just as Derek says that and shoots him a disapproving look.

Stiles laughs, delighted. “Well, the feeling’s mutual, by the way. Anyone who can live in an abandoned train station and a half-house despite apparently having unlimited amounts of money is pretty low maintenance.”

“Nothing a candlelit Roman bath couldn’t cure, I’m sure,” Derek offers.

Stiles barks out a surprised laugh. “No doubt.”

**

There’s no fire pit or ocean view at their inn, but they take the long way back, stopping to get ice cream and detouring to walk by the beach.

“I see why you want to live on the water,” Stiles says. It’s almost completely dark, but it’s still beautiful and the sound of the waves hitting the sand is soothing.

“I didn’t think it’s where I’d end up,” Derek admits. “I thought I’d end up in the woods somewhere.”

Stiles nods. “When you first left, and we didn’t know where you were, I looked for you a little.”

Derek raises his eyebrows at Stiles.

“Yeah, I mean, we had no idea where you’d gone. Scott contacted Cora and she swore you weren’t there with her. And we knew you wouldn’t go to France with Isaac and Argent. I figured Mexico was out. So I looked in places like Yosemite.”

Derek furrows his brow.

“I mean,” Stiles continues, as if he can sense Derek’s question. “I didn’t physically go. But like, calling local Sheriff offices, using my dad’s database to see if there were any hits on your license and stuff. Sorry.”

Derek shakes his head. “It’s okay. I actually thought you would. I was surprised when you didn’t hassle me more about it.”

Stiles grins. “Cause you missed me?”

Derek rolls his eyes. He’s not sure he understood why he was disappointed Stiles didn’t chase after him at the time. But now he does.

“What’d you do,” Stiles asks after a bit. “When you first left.”

“I didn’t stay anywhere very long. Just went from place to place. I still felt like I was running for awhile. Until I realized no one was really chasing me anymore. And by the time I figured that out, I was renting the place by the ocean and decided to stay.”

“Did you ever think of going back to Beacon Hills?”

“Yeah,” Derek says honestly.

Stiles nods like he understands. “Scott refused to believe you were really gone.”

Derek smiles. That sounds like Scott.

“I think he didn’t realize how much he relied on you until you weren’t there anymore,” Stiles says staring out at the ocean.

Derek doesn’t respond to that. He wanted nothing more than for Scott to trust him for so long, and somewhere along the way Derek earned Scott’s begrudging respect.

“What made you go into the library the first time?” Stiles asks after a long silence.

Derek smiles. “My mom.” He glances over at Stiles. “She loved libraries. We spent a lot of time in the Beacon Hills Library when I was young. And I kept hearing this voice in the back of my head telling me to stop shutting myself off like a hermit.”

Stiles laughs softly.

“I was tired,” Derek admits. “Of running and living on the defensive. I just. I wanted a normal life. Something my parents would’ve understood and been proud of. And I don’t need to work, but I hate just sitting around. So I went in there to read, and started to think maybe there were ways I could help out. I liked Eunice. It seemed safe there. And I was lonely.”

Stiles makes a small noise and leans his head on Derek’s shoulder. “For weeks I kept expecting you to drop into my bedroom window,” Stiles admits.

“You hated when I did that,” Derek reminds him.

Stiles makes a dismissive noise. “I thought I did. I thought it wouldn’t make any difference to me if you were gone. And then you left, and I kept waiting for you to come back.”

Derek’s heart twists. His feelings for Stiles have always been complicated, even when he refused to acknowledge them.

“The first bad guy we fought without you was a total disaster,” Stiles says with a laugh. “Not that it always worked out great with you either. But it felt like we were just kids stupidly fighting the forces of evil on our own. Like an episode of Buffy or something.”

“If you say I’m Giles, I’m leaving.”

Stiles laughs loudly. “You’re not Giles. You’re Angel and Spike and obviously Oz mixed together.”

“And who are you?”

“I’m Willow and a much cooler Xander and maybe Giles.”

Derek smiles. “I hate Xander. You aren’t Xander.”

Stiles grins. “I can’t believe you watched Buffy.”

“Didn’t everyone watch Buffy? My mom and Laura used to watch it together.”

“My mom liked it too,” Stiles says, voice smaller. “I wonder sometimes what she would’ve thought of all this. If she knew about all the supernatural stuff.” He shivers slightly and Derek wraps his arm around Stiles’ shoulders to draw him closer.

“You think she did?”

Stiles shrugs. “My therapist was asking me,” he says. “She knows about all the werewolf stuff. And she knows about my magical spark. And she said usually a spark runs through bloodlines. And since we know my dad doesn’t have one, and I don’t really know anyone else in my mom’s family, it seems likely maybe I get it from her.”

Derek tries to remember back to when his mom was alive, if she’d ever said anything about Claudia Stilinski, if Deaton had ever mentioned her, but he comes up blank.

“It doesn’t matter, really,” Stiles says quietly. “I just wonder sometimes what she’d think about my life now. If she’d be proud of me.”

Derek squeezes his shoulder. “Of course she would.”

Stiles makes a noncommittal sound that breaks Derek’s heart. He still bears a lot of guilt for so much of what has happened, still feels so responsible.

“Your dad is proud of you too,” Derek says firmly.

Stiles doesn’t respond.

I’m proud of you,” Derek says after a long silence.

“Awww,” Stiles says and kisses Derek’s shoulder. “So sappy.”

Derek rolls his eyes and nudges Stiles’ shoulder. “Let’s walk back.”

Stiles slots their fingers together and lets Derek tug him toward the inn.

**

They go to the aquarium Saturday morning and then drive up the coast toward home. Stiles insists they listen to their Jackie Collins audiobook on the way back. Derek rolls his eyes, but ends up getting drawn into the story, blushing during the surprisingly explicit sex scenes.

Stiles cackles. “Your face!”

Derek rolls his eyes. “I just didn’t expect to hear such a detailed description of his, uh, member.

“Member!” Stiles wheezes.

“That’s what she kept calling it!”

Stiles grins. “I know. It’s amazing. ‘Throbbing member’.”

It probably shouldn’t turn Derek on, this over the top sex scene with throbbing members and “dripping sex” and a bunch of other vaguely disturbing descriptors. But he’s also spent over a week sleeping next to Stiles, waking up pressed close to him yet keeping everything very PG-rated. So the smutty book is making the car a little warm for Derek.

“I’m gonna write you some Stiles/Derek fan fic,” Stiles teases after he pauses the audiobook. “Members will throb, chests will glisten. Your ‘love wand’ will magic my ‘sex’.”

Derek rolls his eyes, but his cheeks flame anyway. He’s not good at joking about sex, not when it’s something he wants to be having but has decided he shouldn’t, not yet.

Stiles wraps his fingers around Derek’s knee and squeezes. “I’m just teasing,” he says contritely. “Sorry.”

Derek smiles. “It’s fine. I’m not— I’ve just never really talk about sex with people. It’s something that happens, but I don’t really analyze how or why. You can talk about it, I just— will probably be awkward about it.”

Stiles smiles softly at him and rubs his fingers into Derek’s thigh. “How ‘bout I write Stiles/Derek fan fic and don’t make you read it?”

Derek snorts. “At least don’t make me talk about it. Also, what is fan fic?”

Stiles eyes light up. “Oh god. Fan fiction. Written by fans of shows and movies about pairings people like or want to see. Some of it is horrible and some of it is amaaaaaaazing.”

“It sounds horrifying.”

Stiles laughs and flips through his phone. He finds what he’s looking for and then spends the rest of the ride back to Derek’s house reading Sherlock fan fiction. Thankfully he chooses one that isn’t full of throbbing members. Derek isn’t sure he could take it. But the story is actually pretty good.

“So there are people that watch Sherlock and think Sherlock and John love each other?” Derek asks when Stiles finishes a chapter of the story.

“Oh yeah, dude,” Stiles says. “Also people who think that Harry and Draco Malfoy are hot for each other in Harry Potter. If there’s a movie or a book or a TV show, there are people ‘shipping characters with each other. And if there are people ‘shipping someone is writing them fan fic.”

Derek shakes his head.

“I ship us,” Stiles says, opening the can of Pringles and taking out a stack of salt and vinegar chips.

“You are ridiculous,” Derek says, accepting the chip Stiles pushes to his lips.

“Yeah, but you dig it.”

Derek smiles and chomps down on the chip.

“I’m pretty sure Scott ships us too. Maybe he’ll want to read the fan fic.”

“Don’t you dare,” Derek warns, shooting him a look.

“I won’t, I won’t,” Stiles promises.

Derek reaches over and threads his fingers through Stiles’ salty chip-crumb-covered fingers. “Keep reading.”

Stiles smirks and advances to the next chapter.

**

They take their time getting back. They stop in little towns so Stiles can purchase his dad, Eunice and Scott souvenirs. He makes Derek look away from a transaction at a shop at one point, so there’s probably some kitschy knick knack in Derek’s future too.

In the car Stiles reads Derek “Johnlock” fan fiction and they eat Stiles’ stash of snacks. Derek has no idea when he lost control of his car and his life.

When they get back to Derek’s house a few hours later, Derek changes into his running clothes. Being cooped up in a car for several hours necessitates exercise, as does the mountain of junk he’s eaten over the course of the day.

Stiles sits on the deck and calls his dad. He waves to Derek as he sets out on his run.

Derek runs his usual route. He’s missed it. It’s been a couple of days since he’s pushed his body, and it feels good to run until his muscles burn.

When he gets back, Stiles is hunched over his laptop on the deck. Derek can’t tell if he’s Skyping someone or just reading one of the dozens of websites he seems to check constantly. Derek doesn’t bother him. He just runs upstairs and jumps in the shower.

Stiles requested a homemade dinner for his last night, so when Derek gets out of the bathroom he puts on sweatpants and a soft henley. Stiles’ arms wrap around him from behind, and he places a kiss on the back of Derek’s neck.

“Smell so good,” Stiles murmurs against his skin. “I didn’t know you were back.” His hands slip under Derek’s shirt and stroke his stomach.

Derek’s eyes slip shut. “You seemed busy,” he says softly. “How’s your dad?”

“Good,” Stiles says with a shrug. “Misses me, obviously.”

Derek smiles and leans back into Stiles’ embrace. “Obviously.”

“You’re gonna come for my birthday, right?” Stiles says and drags his teeth down the side of Derek’s neck.

Derek shivers and bites back a groan. “Yeah.”

“Mmm,” Stiles says and drags his tongue down the same path his teeth just followed. “Good.”

Derek swallows. “I’m going to make lasagna for supper,” he says to try to distract himself from how much he wants to turn around and push Stiles toward the bed.

Stiles chuckles. “I love it when you talk foodie to me,” he teases.

Derek smiles. He feels warm all over. Stiles is solid and steady behind him, holding him close. He’s struck by how much he likes Stiles—his nerdy puns and his sarcastic comments. He likes how Stiles makes jokes when he’s nervous and rambles when he’s unsure of himself. He likes that Stiles knows trivia about almost every topic. He feels so fond of him it’s overwhelming. If Stiles could read his mind he’d tease him for being so sentimental. It’s not something Derek would know how to articulate anyway.

He turns around in Stiles’ arms, earning a surprised noise. Derek wraps his arms around Stiles’ waist and leans closer and kisses him, tries to make him understand what he can’t seem to say out loud.

“What’s that for?” Stiles says against Derek’s lips as he pulls away slightly to breathe.

Derek smiles and kisses him again, slowing the kiss down until it’s a languid, lazy sort of thing.

Stiles moans softly into the kiss. “You’re killin’ me, Smalls,” he says, resting his forehead against Derek’s.

Derek laughs. “You’re too young to know that movie.”

Stiles rolls his eyes. “It’s a classic. Everyone’s seen that movie.”

Derek kisses Stiles again quickly.

“So lasagna?” Stiles asks breathlessly.

Derek chuckles softly. “Yeah.”

“We gotta do that then,” Stiles says stepping back a little. “Or I’m going to need to be alone for a little while.”

Derek’s cheeks heat, and he looks down.

“It’s not a bad thing,” Stiles says quickly. “I’m just new at all this, and it doesn’t take much.” He rubs his hands up and down Derek’s sides.

Derek smiles and studies the earnest longing in Stiles’ big eyes. He’s so trusting and it makes something primal and protective swell within him. Derek’s wolf may want to claim Stiles as his own, but even more than that everything within him wants to make sure he’s safe, cared for, loved.

Derek still isn’t great at translating deep emotion into words so he leans over and gives Stiles a chaste kiss and nods, to show he understands. “Lasagna and salad and garlic bread. You can help me chop things.”

Stiles smiles and pushes Derek gently toward the bedroom door.

**

Derek has two weeks until he promised to be back in Beacon Hills for Stiles’ birthday. Two weeks to figure out a gift for Stiles. Two weeks to throw himself into the library project so Eunice stops shooting him worried looks.

He does story hour every day he’s at the library. He’s chided by a couple of the kids for missing the few days he was gone on his trip with Stiles.

“There was no one to read stories, Derek,” one little boy says to him while holding up his favorite book.

“Maureen read to you,” Derek says, because he knows at least one of the days Eunice had enlisted her friend.

“She doesn’t do the voices,” another girl chimes in. “You’re better.”

Derek smiles and tries not to feel too proud that the kids prefer him to Maureen. Eunice laughs from her perch at the desk, probably taking notes to taunt Maureen later.

Story time is extra long that first day he’s back.

“No one brought me lunch either,” Eunice says to him when he’s at the desk after finishing with the kids. “I had to close early.”

Derek rolls his eyes. “I’m sure Maureen or any of your gentlemen friends could’ve brought you something.”

“It’s not the same,” she sniffs. “Now, are we going to continue the cataloguing project? Or are you going to abandon me again?”

Derek huffs a laugh. “Did you take a course in guilt while I was gone?”

“We left off in the gardening section,” Eunice says instead of answering him.

She’s ridiculous, but it’s still nice to feel like he has a place he belongs. Derek tries to make his absence up to her by bringing her a lobster roll and a brownie for lunch.

“It’s a start, Derek,” she says, unwrapping the sandwich and giving him a little smile.

**

Derek wants to get a hotel room when he visits Beacon Hills but Stiles insists the Sheriff wants Derek to stay with them. Probably so he can keep an eye on things, but it’s still nice to feel like he’s welcome in their home.

The downstairs guest room is made up for him when he arrives. Derek notes the creaky stairs in between Stiles and him, and the Sheriff’s repeated reminders that he took the whole weekend off for Stiles’ birthday, complete with pointed looks.

“Subtle, right?” Stiles says as the Sheriff leaves the room with the door open announcing that he’ll be in the kitchen making dinner. “We’ve had ‘a talk.’” Stiles uses air quotes.

“Oh good,” Derek says, and wonders when he’s going to get the warning about treating Stiles right.

“He’s okay about it,” Stiles says. “Just kept saying we couldn’t have sex in the house and did I want him to have a heart attack?”

Derek’s cheeks heat.

“I told him it wasn’t like that,” Stiles insists. “That you were being a gentleman and leaving room for the holy spirit and all that.”

Derek laughs and sits on the edge of the bed.

“No kiss?” Stiles whines and plops down next to him. “It’s been two weeks!”

Derek leans over and gives him a dry peck.

Stiles makes a face.

“Hey, you’re the one that just brought up your dad and his ‘no sex in the house’ rule,” Derek says and nudges Stiles with his shoulder.

Stiles rolls his eyes but doesn’t press it.

They join the Sheriff in the kitchen a few minutes later. He’s apparently used Derek’s visit as an excuse to make burgers and steak fries, like he’s daring Stiles to say something in front of Derek.

“Scott’s coming over for dinner too,” Stiles says after he’s given his dad a disapproving look. “Melissa has to work tonight.”

“Already set him a place,” the Sheriff says, gesturing toward the table where there are four places set.

“I just assumed that was a buffer spot so Derek and I couldn’t sit next to each other,” Stiles says with a smirk.

The Sheriff rolls his eyes. “No need for a buffer spot when an alpha werewolf is coming to dinner.”

Stiles sputters in response. “Scott is my bro.”

“Yeah, I am,” Scott says as he enters the kitchen. “Why?”

The Sheriff hands him a plate of burgers with melted cheese smothering them to set on the table. “Because you’re going to keep Derek and Stiles from putting me in an early grave.”

Derek’s cheeks heat.

Scott laughs and pats Derek on the back. “Derek’s a gentleman.”

“Derek wants everyone to stop talking about this,” Derek says and sits down in the chair opposite from Stiles, hoping to put an end to the conversation.

Stiles narrows his eyes at him. “Traitor.”

The Sheriff shoots him a smile and pulls the pan of steak fries out of the oven. “Let’s eat while it’s warm. We’ve made Derek uncomfortable enough for the time being, I think.”

It’s easier after that. Stiles and Scott talk about the party Lydia has planned for the following night. Derek is not looking forward to the party. He’s in Beacon Hills because Stiles wants him to be. But a loud party full of strangers is definitely not Derek’s comfort zone.

He wasn’t sure what it would be like to be back. He felt the heavy sort of veil that surrounds the town when he crossed the county line. The wards give off a charge of magic, and Derek felt the buzz under his skin as they crossed the boundary. He’s not sure how the spell works. It doesn’t keep anyone out, but it disguises the pull of the Nemeton, and it’s powerful magic.

Other than that new buzz along the borders, Beacon Hills is the same. Derek was surprised to discover that isn’t a good or bad thing anymore. He expects the swell of sadness upon the sight of the familiar. He anticipates how his heart twists when he passes the library, when he sees the diner where his dad took Derek for milkshakes. He feels anger when he’s near the hospital, and he’s sure if he drives out to the old house, he’ll feel the ache of memory, and the echo of anger, bitterness, consuming revenge.

Later, with Stiles upstairs in his bedroom, grumbling that he’s 18 tomorrow and he should be allowed to sleep in the same room as his boyfriend if he wants to, Derek’s in his room down the hall from the kitchen, reading the latest book club selection. He gets up to get a glass of water and finds the Sheriff sitting at the kitchen table, going over a case file with a glass of whiskey in his hand.

“Derek,” the Sheriff says and motions to the chair across from him. “Have a look at this,” he says and slides the file over toward Derek. “This sound supernatural to you?”

Derek reads the description of the crime scene. It was a stabbing, but there is a ritualistic pattern to the wounds. “Could be part of a ritual?”

“Witches then?”

“Maybe,” Derek says. “What does Deaton say?”

The Sheriff sighs. “Nothing quickly.” He smiles ruefully at Derek. “He’s not the most forthcoming with information, especially if I’m in a hurry.”

“Have there been others?” Derek asks, looking over the rest of the notes.

“So far just this one,” the Sheriff says and swallows the last of his whiskey. “Hoping to catch whoever it is before it becomes a pattern.”

Derek nods. “I don’t miss that,” he says honestly.

The Sheriff leans back in his chair. “It’s been better since the wards went up. This is the first murder I’ve seen in awhile. I sent it to Argent, and he doesn’t think it looks like hunters. Scott has grown a lot as Alpha, but he still isn’t a well of supernatural wisdom.” He smiles at Derek. “Stiles is good at researching this stuff, but I like to keep him away from it if I can.”

“He’ll do it anyway,” Derek says gently.

“Oh, I know,” the Sheriff says with a sigh. “But I have to at least try to keep him away from instability.”

Derek nods and looks at his hands.

“He’s doing good, though,” the Sheriff says. He watches Derek for a few moments, gaze steady. “I didn’t necessarily mean I wanted you to date him when I called you and asked you to invite Stiles to visit over Christmas—”

“That’s not—”

“I know, Derek,” the Sheriff says with a small, tired smile. “I think a part of me always knew he felt that way about you. It’s why I knew you could get through to him.” He scrubs his hand over his face and fixes Derek with his considering gaze. “I think you’ve been good for Stiles. And he’s been very forthcoming with me about his feelings for you. He told me when he got back after Christmas how he felt, what he wanted.” He shakes his head and smiles. “He told me way more than I wanted to know, to be frank. But at least he was talking to me. And he agreed to therapy, he started sleeping through the night, his grades picked up again. He started running a few mornings a week.”

Derek doesn’t know what to say into the silence that lingers between them after the Sheriff pauses. But his scent isn’t sharp with anger or frustration. He smells resigned, maybe even accepting. Derek’s afraid if he says something he’ll ruin it.

“You’re too old for him,” the Sheriff says, and Derek’s stomach sinks. “On paper you’re too old for him, and on paper I have to wonder why a 24 year old wants to be with someone not yet out of high school.” He lets out a slow breath. “But.”

Derek’s heart skips a beat.

“But,” the Sheriff says and smiles softly. “You have both lost a lot and view the world from a similar angle. I know you’ve looked out for each other. I want Stiles to be happy, and I think he’s happier since you have been part of his life than he was before. You respect him, and I know you’ll protect him.”

Derek nods. “He’s important to me.”

The Sheriff smiles. He taps the table and then gathers his papers into their folders. “Stiles is almost old enough that this won’t legally be my business anymore.” He stands up. “But he’ll always be my first priority. As long as you prioritize his welfare, you and I are on the same team.”

Derek swallows and nods. It wasn’t exactly a glowing blessing for their relationship, but it wasn’t a warning to stay away from his son either.

Derek fills a glass of water and turns out the kitchen light and heads back to the guest room. There’s a text from Stiles on his phone when Derek climbs back into bed.

Stiles: omg. is my dad shovel talking you?

Derek: it wasn’t that bad.

Stiles: did he get out the gun?

Derek: haha no. I think he’s okay with it.

Stiles: by it you mean us having loud sex in the house?

Derek: lol no. By “it” I mean respectfully dating and never mentioning anything sexual to him ever.

Stiles: prude

Derek: If talking about our sex life with your dad is a relationship deal breaker, you may need to find someone else to date.

Stiles: gasp! On my birthday? You’d break up with me on my birthday?

Derek: Only if you keep bringing up all the sex we aren’t having in front of your father.

Stiles: Come up here

Derek: No

Stiles: You bein close and not bein w me is super uncool

Stiles: Im coming down there

Derek: Could you wait 15 min for your dad to go to sleep?

Stiles: Hes not gonna do anything

Derek: Stiles.

Stiles: fine see you in 15

**

Stiles crawls into bed with Derek awhile later. He waits much longer than the promised fifteen minutes, long enough that Derek is dozing when he finally appears.

“Suh?” Derek croaks out when he feels a cold foot touch his.

Stiles laughs softly and scoots closer, wrapping himself around Derek. “Go back to sleep,” he says and kisses Derek’s neck.

Derek wraps his arm around Stiles’ back, pulls him closer and kisses his temple. “’s your dad asleep?”

“Think so,” Stiles murmurs. “It’ll be okay though. Our clothes are on.”

Derek rolls his eyes. Derek wants to be respectful of the Sheriff’s boundaries. He made it clear he knows what’s going on and that he reluctantly accepts that Stiles and Derek are dating, but Derek still doesn’t think he’ll be thrilled to find his son in bed with a 24 year old, clothed or not.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Stiles says against Derek’s skin. “Thank you.”

“‘course,” Derek says and rubs a slow circle against Stiles’ back.

“Sorry about my dad.”

Derek smiles. “He loves you. He’s just looking out for you.”

“Cora’s already hassled me about you,” Stiles says after a few moments of silence.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yep,” Stiles says. “After she saw the Christmas pajama picture I think she realized there might be capital F feelings.”

“What’d she say?” Derek asks, genuinely curious, and a little surprised.

“Just that I better be sure how I felt about you, because you deserved for me not to treat you like an experiment.” Stiles’ hands slip under Derek’s shirt and rub the skin above the waistband of his sweatpants. “She said you deserved to have someone put you first for once. She loves you.”

Derek makes a surprised noise. He knows Cora loves him, but he’s not used to people sticking up for him.

“You should go see her,” Stiles says.

“When?”

“This summer? I don’t know. I think she’d like that.”

Derek lets out a slow breath. “Yeah maybe.”

“I am sure by the way,” Stiles says quietly.

“About what?” Derek asks, confused.

“About how I feel about you,” Stiles says and lifts his head Derek can see his eyes. “So sure.”

Derek’s stomach flip flops. The small part of him that has trouble believing good things can happen to him nudges him and tells him there’s no way Stiles can be as sure as he sounds. But he’s learning to ignore that doubter. Derek rubs a thumb across Stiles’ cheekbone as his eyes flutter shut.

“Me too,” Derek says quietly, ignoring the fear that pools in his stomach and tells him that loving leads to heartbreak, leads to tragedy. That loving Derek is dangerous for Stiles.

Stiles’ smile is warm and earnest, free from his normal smirk or teasing. “Yeah?”

Derek nods, and Stiles surges forward and smashes his lips into Derek’s before pulling away, smile still firmly in place. “You should come down to visit soon,” Derek says and pushes his hands under the back of Stiles’ shirt.

Stiles’ smile turns into a satisfied grin. “Oh?”

Derek nods.

“You need help with the library project?” he teases.

Derek pretends to think about it. “It’s not quite done,” Derek admits. “Although I have made good progress.”

Stiles leans in again and presses his lips to Derek’s, gently this time. Derek loves kissing Stiles. He says so much with his kisses. And this one is unhurried, a slow roll of tongues. Content.

“But you should come,” Derek says again when they pull away. “So we can, you know, be alone.”

Stiles’ eyes brighten. “Is that my birthday present?”

Derek chuckles. “No,” he says and lets his fingers dip down the back of Stiles’ pajama bottoms.

Stiles shivers as Derek slides his fingers across the top of Stiles’ ass. “You have no idea, do you?” he asks and arches into Derek’s touch.

“About what?”

“How much I think about you,” Stiles says as he kisses Derek again slowly.

Derek smiles into the kiss. “Same.”

“You think about yourself?” Stiles asks pulling away a little. “Cause honestly if I were you I think I would be all I needed to get hot. I’d be like, ‘look how muscly my stomach is’ ‘look how perfect my ass is’ ‘feel how nice my hands feel sliding all over my own body.’”

Derek snorts. “Yeah, I don’t think I have the same effect on myself as I do on you.”

“And I’m saying that’s such a waste,” Stiles says. “I would literally never stop touching myself if I were you. I’d always be half mast and ready to go.” He waggles his eyebrows at Derek. Derek is disappointed in himself that it makes his stomach flip flop.

“You’re already always half mast and ready to go,” Derek says with an eyebrow raised.

Stiles rolls his eyes. “You only see me around you, though. Bad example.” He runs his fingers through Derek’s hair. “Okay fine, so what gets you revved up then?”

Derek smiles. “You.”

“Riiiight,” Stiles says like that’s a big joke. “Me doing what?”

“Just you,” Derek says. “Doing whatever. You.” He knows Stiles’ self-esteem hasn’t always been the best, that he thinks of himself as the goofy sidekick to Scott’s True Alpha, and that he assumes he’s the Ducky of every romantic subplot. He runs his thumb across Stiles’ plush lower lip.

“You’ve been Stockholmed, maybe,” Stiles suggests, but his face looks hopeful, and his eyes are so bright. Derek is completely gone on him. He doesn’t remember what it’s like to look at Stiles and not feel a clench in his chest and a flutter in his stomach.

Derek shakes his head and squeezes Stiles’ ass. He’s not good at the effusive praise thing like Stiles is, but he wants Stiles to understand. “You’re my Derek,” he says and then winces because that’s ridiculous.

Stiles’ forehead wrinkles in confusion.

“I mean, how you say you think I’m hot or whatever,” Derek mumbles because just saying it out loud is embarrassing. “That’s how I feel about you.”

Stiles flushes, and Derek has no idea how he doesn’t know how attractive he is. How his smile transforms his face, how his eyes are lively and intelligent, the way his nose is kind of turned up at the end. Derek doesn’t know if that’s a thing most people find attractive, but Derek does.

“What, nah,” Stiles says and rests his head back on Derek’s chest.

“I think about you when you’re not around,” Derek says and tries to be brave. “I think about you, you know, touching me. Stuff like that.” It’s about as close as Derek’s going to get to dirty talk, and Stiles seems to know it.

He kisses Derek’s chest. “So when I come see you in a couple of weeks, if I wanted, say, for you to not be wearing these pants, you’d be okay with that?”

Derek huffs a laugh. “Yeah.”

“And just so we’re clear, you’d be cool with me also going pantsless and for my dick region to possibly touch your dick region.”

“Well, that takes all the appeal out of it,” Derek jokes and pushes Stiles’ face away gently when he looks up at Derek with a smirk.

“I just want to be on the same page, is all,” Stiles says with gravity. “And you get all blushy and embarrassed when I say things about how I want to suck your dick and let you come on my chest.” Stiles winks at him. “So you know.”

Derek swallows. “Not embarrassed,” he clarifies. “Just not really used to doing play by play analysis.”

Stiles laughs softly. “I’m warning you now, I will probably talk about our sexy times before, during and after we engage in them. Talking’s kind of my thing.”

Derek smiles. “I know.” He rubs the shell of Stiles’ ear and trails his fingers down Stiles’ neck. “Luckily I’m kind of a fan of your thing.”

Stiles waggles his eyebrows again obnoxiously. “Yeah ya are.” He brushes their lips together. “But the pants stay on now?”

Derek swallows, head full of Stiles, ears ringing with the want of him. “Yeah,” he says but it sounds much less sure than it should. “For now.”

“Okay,” Stiles says, and tucks his head back into Derek’s chest. “But I’m sleeping in here.”

Derek smiles. “Alright.”

**

There’s a knock at Derek’s door the next morning.

“Derek?” The Sheriff’s voice is muffled a bit by the door.

Derek sits up, jostling Stiles and earning a dissatisfied grunt in response. “Yes?”

“Breakfast is ready,” the Sheriff says. “If Stiles is in there will you wake him up and tell him if he wants his birthday pancakes he better have pants on right now?”

Derek flushes and looks down at a slowly awakening Stiles. “Pants are on,” he says somewhat desperately. “We’ll be out in a minute.”

The Sheriff sighs and walks back to the kitchen.

“Wake up,” Derek says, running a hand down Stiles’ back.

“Don’ wanna,” Stiles says and squirms closer to Derek.

“Your dad is out there,” Derek says. “Breakfast is ready.”

Stiles groans. “So scared of m’ dad,” Stiles mumbles, but rolls away from Derek and struggles to sit up.

“It’s your birthday,” Derek says and kisses Stiles’ temple.

Stiles makes an approving noise. “‘m legal.”

Derek laughs softly. “You are.”

Stiles pops an eye open and grins at Derek. “Smells like pancakes.”

They make their way to the kitchen.

“Yo daddio,” Stiles says and plops himself down in his chair.

“Hey kiddo,” the Sheriff says with a smile. “Happy birthday.”

“Whatdja get me?” Stiles says and then grins.

“A roof over your head and apparently me ignoring the fact that you slept in Derek’s room last night.” He gives Stiles a look Derek imagines intimidates suspects.

“I waited ’til midnight,” Stiles says cheekily. “It was a legal co-sleep.”

The Sheriff sighs loudly while Derek chokes on his coffee.

“You’re lucky it’s your birthday, kid,” the Sheriff says and slides three pancakes onto a plate and hands them to Stiles.

Stiles grins at him. “I won’t even say anything about the bacon you’re going to pretend not to eat.”

“How benevolent.”

“It’s my maturity showing through, I think,” Stiles says with faux sincerity.

The Sheriff looks at Derek and shakes his head. But the expression is exasperatedly fond. Derek understands the feeling.

**

The party is loud. Stiles keeps declaring that he doesn’t know half the people there, but he’s tugging Derek around and introducing him to people who smell like hormones and beer.

“Nice party,” Derek says conversationally to Lydia while Stiles drunkenly yells across the backyard to where Scott and Kira are sitting.

Lydia raises her eyebrow at him. “I don’t have to be a werewolf to hear that lie,” she quips. “But it’s nice you’re here anyway.” Her face softens, and she leans closer. “I called this a year ago, by the way.”

“Called what?” Derek asks.

This. You two together.” She runs her fingers through her long hair. “When you left last year Stiles was pretty shaken up. He kept bringing it up at pack meetings. He was convinced we should go look for you. He researched spells to track people and spells to determine if people were in peril.” She waves her hand around to suggest that was just the start of it. “He was way too concerned about you for there not to be feelings. Feelings clearly reciprocated.”

Derek smiles and looks toward where Stiles has wandered off to talk to someone on the lacrosse team.

When he glances back at Lydia she’s watching him intently. She nods once and then smiles. “Watch out for him next year,” she says, more gently than Derek thinks he’s ever heard her say anything. “He’s doing so much better than he was, but—“ she looks off to where Stiles has finally made his way across the party to Scott. “But I’ll worry about him anyway.”

Derek nods. Stiles is laughing with his head thrown back, hand braced against Scott’s arm.

Lydia squeezes Derek’s arm and moves off to check on the drink supply and make sure there aren’t “drunk teenagers getting body fluids on my mother’s Egyptian cotton sheets.”

Stiles searches the crowd and when his eyes land on Derek he grins and starts moving toward him.

“Havin’ fun?” Stiles asks, and waggles his eyebrows inexplicably.

Derek smiles because he can’t help it. “Sure. A kid puked near, but not on, my shoe a few minutes ago.”

“It’s all you can really hope for,” Stiles says gravely and slides his arms around Derek’s waist. “Let’s go make out in a corner.”

Derek laughs, surprised. “Are you drunk?”

“I always want to make out with you,” Stiles grouses. “I don’t have to be drunk for that.”

“That doesn’t answer the question, really,” Derek says, but leans closer and presses a kiss against Stiles’ lips.

Stiles smiles into it. “My boyfriend’s hotter than everyone else’s boyfriend,” he smarms, pulling away slightly.

“You are drunk,” Derek decides. “Your dad is gonna kill me.”

“Eh,” Stiles says and tugs Derek toward the kitchen. “I’m pretty sure he knew this was inevitable.”

**

The next morning, after a breakfast where Stiles tried to pretend he wasn’t hung over, but winced at every purposefully loud noise the Sheriff inflicted on them, Derek gives Stiles his birthday present.

“I wasn’t sure what to get you,” Derek says, sitting next to Stiles on the bed.

Stiles makes an “aww” sound. “You didn’t have to get me anything.”

Derek rolls his eyes. “Right. That would’ve gone over well.”

Stiles laughs. “You came for my party and didn’t complain.” He pauses to rethink that. “Didn’t verbally complain, although your eyebrows did a lot of judging for you.”

“My eyebrows just sat on my face,” Derek protests. “Being eyebrows.”

“Sure,” Stiles says slowly.

“Anyway,” Derek says over the top of whatever Stiles was about to launch into. “So here.” He hands him the envelope.

“A card,” Stiles says. “You shouldn’t have.”

“Open it,” Derek says and nudges his shoulder.

Stiles does and laughs at the two howling wolves on the front. Cheesy wolf art is one of Stiles favorite things. He reads the card and then looks up at Derek. “Wait. Really?”

Derek smiles and looks down at his hands. “I didn’t know what to get you. But I figured since you were going to be going back and forth a lot from here to Berkeley and from, uh, Berkeley to the, uh, beach, maybe—”

“Dude,” Stiles says and launches himself at Derek. “It’s perfect. Better than if you’d got me a new one.”

Derek flushes, pleased. He arranged to have Stiles’ Jeep essentially rebuilt. A new engine along with a complete workup, anything that needs to be replaced will be. The guy at the shop had looked at him like he was nuts. “This will cost as much as buying something new,” the guy had said slowly, like Derek was possibly simple.

But Derek long ago learned that the Jeep was special to Stiles, had been his mother’s and was an extension of himself the way Derek’s dad’s leather jacket was a part of him. Derek had briefly considered buying him a new car, but also knew the Sheriff would balk at the outlandishness of such a gift and that Stiles would feel guilty about leaving the Jeep behind.

“Well at least I won’t have to come pick you up from the side of the road,” Derek mumbles while Stiles clings to him like a monkey.

Stiles kisses Derek’s cheek with a loud smacking noise. “Perfect. You’re perfect.”

Derek flushes. “Glad you like it.”

Love it,” Stiles says and straddles Derek’s lap. He presses himself closer. He smiles at Derek, a small, earnest thing, nothing like the big, suggestive smiles he gives half-jokingly. This is something quiet, something real. “I can’t believe I get to have this. You,” he says softly.

Derek brushes his lips against Stiles’. He still doesn’t know quite how to tell Stiles just exactly how much he agrees. That Stiles thinks he’s the lucky one, when Derek can’t stop counting his fingers and making sure he’s actually awake.

**

Derek’s in the library after he gets back from Beacon Hills. He’s inputting the fiction section, alphabetically, then printing the labels and bar codes when he completes a letter. When he has the stack done, he hands them to Eunice and Maureen and then they add the labels to the spine and the inside cover of the books.

They also heckle him. Lovingly, or so says Maureen. They’ve been teasing him about his visit to Beacon Hills. Maureen has told him at least a dozen times that his “aura stinks of affection” and that she senses residual traces of Stiles’ magic all over him.

Derek knows if he didn’t blush and act embarrassed they’d stop. But he can’t help it. He keeps picturing Stiles’ face after Derek gave him his present, the soft look of disbelief, of hope, of devotion. He thinks about how his stomach twists every time Stiles touches him, how it feels to be close, and then he feels like that’s written all over his face. Which then makes him blush. It’s a vicious, annoying cycle.

It delights Maureen because she loves to make Derek blush. And it delights Eunice for nicer reasons, as she loves Stiles and wants Derek to be happy.

“Stiles says he’s coming to visit, sugar,” Eunice says the next time Derek brings a stack of books and labels to them.

Predictably, Derek blushes. But his back is turned toward them when she says it so he escapes their teasing. “Yeah,” he says and fiddles with the scanner. “In two weeks.”

“Let me throw him a little birthday party,” Eunice suggests. “If you boys don’t have big plans.”

Derek blushes again, and unfortunately this time is facing them. Maureen giggles, and Derek ignores her. “We could come over one night,” he says mostly to keep them off the topic of ‘big plans’.

“Good,” Eunice says. “I’ll make his favorites. And we can play poker or that game Stiles keeps talking about.”

“Which game?”

“Cards for Humans? Something like that.”

Derek laughs. “Cards Against Humanity.” He somehow can’t imagine playing that with Eunice and her friends, but he’s sure Stiles will find it hilarious.

“Yes,” Eunice agrees. “He says we’d love it.”

Derek shakes his head but doesn’t disagree. He doesn’t want another lecture about how they keep up with popular culture, Derek. They know about Tom Selleck and Tony Danza, Derek. He didn’t have the heart to point out that there have been a lot of developments in pop culture and, well, men, since Tom Selleck and Tony Danza were considered lust-worthy.

“Cards Against Humanity with Eunice, Stiles, really?” Derek says later on the phone when he’s walking home from the library.

Stiles laughs. “Why not?”

Derek doesn’t even try to answer that. “Eunice wants to throw you a party while you’re here.”

He can hear Stiles fist pump through the phone. “Yesssss,” Stiles says. “Ain’t no party like a Eunice party cause a Eunice party ends at 10:00!” Stiles sings/raps at Derek.

“She wants you to text her a list of your favorite snacks and cookies. And any other requests you might have.”

Stiles cackles. “Male strippers and cookies with Eunice! My life is the best.”

“I have no idea why you get so much joy out of uncomfortable situations,” Derek says, but smiles anyway. “You’re sort of a younger, male Maureen.”

Stiles squawks. “Oh yeah? Well. Maureen is a powerful witch. So. That’s a compliment!”

Derek nods hello to one of his neighbors as he turns down the stretch of road leading to his house. “I didn’t say it wasn’t. But you do both seem to get a lot of pleasure out of making me squirm.”

Stiles makes a turned on noise.

“That wasn’t meant to be sexy!” Derek protests and rolls his eyes.

**

The closer Stiles’ visit gets, the more restless Derek is. He’s nervous and trying not to second guess himself, trying not to let old fears creep in. He spends a couple of sleepless nights and has a therapy session that leaves him unsettled and doubting himself.

Derek full shifts the third night. He wants to run, and running is the simplest, least complicated thing when he’s a full wolf. He can let himself go without having to overthink. Everything is instinct.

It’s pre-dawn when Derek finally shifts back to his human form, the sky just starting to streak with light. He’s exhausted, barely stumbles into the house before falling naked into bed.

He’s tempted to sleep the day away. But Eunice is expecting him. They’re getting close to finishing the cataloguing project, and he knows Eunice is anxious to have it completed. Derek is too, and if they get it done within the next week, Stiles can help test the system before they take it live.

So Derek drags himself out of bed just a couple hours after he originally crashed. He showers in a daze, and forgoes his normal walk into town for the easier drive.

“You’ve been distracted all morning,” Eunice chides when she has to repeat a question to Derek three times before he even realizes she’s talking to him.

“Sorry,” Derek says and stifles a yawn. “I was up most of the night.”

She gives him a considering look. “Everything okay?”

Derek nods. “Couldn’t sleep. So I went for a run.”

She makes a vaguely disapproving noise.

Derek makes more of an effort after that. He doesn’t want to trigger Eunice’s concern or for her to text Stiles and make him worry. Gawain keeps a close eye on Derek, letting out deep sighs periodically.

When Derek finally leaves for the afternoon, Eunice pats his arm. “I stay up late,” she says. “If you can’t sleep, come by and I’ll make us tea, and we can watch a movie.” She smiles and squeezes his wrist.

Derek’s stomach clenches at the kindness of the gesture. There’s no way he’s calling an old lady in the middle of the night or dropping by her house late to watch movies, but the concern exhibited settles something in him, steadies him.

“Thanks,” he says honestly. “I’m sure tonight I’ll be fine.”

He’s not going to tell Eunice that two of the women he’s slept with ended up being manipulative murderers and that Derek has trust issues. He’s not going to tell her that he and Stiles are getting closer to having sex and that Derek is worried he’ll do something to mess everything up. It wasn’t that Derek couldn’t sleep the night before, it’s that he didn’t want to. He wanted, needed, to run. To shut his human brain down and let instinct take over.

For the first time in a long time, Derek has people who care if he gets enough sleep, if he’s taking care of himself. And even if he’s not going to bare his soul to Eunice, he still appreciates the consideration.

It’s nice, and somehow knowing that Eunice is going to notice if Derek’s sleepy again the next day keeps him from another restless run. Instead he sits on the back deck and listens to the waves, texts Stiles and Cora until he’s calm enough to take a hot shower and read his book until he falls asleep.

**

“I’m thinking of coming up there in June,” Cora says the next night when they’re on the phone.

“Really?” Derek sits up from where he’s reclined on the couch. “I mean, sure.”

“I’d bring Manny with me,” she says with some warning in her voice. “And, like, he wants to see San Francisco and maybe drive down south to LA. Maybe go to Disneyland. But, you know, we’d use your place like home base?”

Derek swallows and a smile spreads across his face. “Sounds good.”

“Yeah?” She says, voice hopeful. “I think you’ll like him. Just no grilling him and being tough and all that macho BS.”

Derek chuckles. “I already know you threatened Stiles.”

“Not threatened,” she clarifies. “Just. Needed to be sure he wasn’t having a gay experiment phase or something.”

Derek huffs. “I think he’s bi.”

“Well, whatever,” she sniffs. “Just lookin’ out.”

“I know,” Derek says. “Thank you.”

There’s a stunned sort of silence, like Cora expected more back and forth, more fight. “So, uh, June then?”

“I’ll be here,” Derek says. He hasn’t discussed whether the landlord is willing to lease him the cottage for another summer and off-season, but if he’s not, Derek is willing to start looking for a place to buy.

“And I can meet your librarian BFF?”

“I don’t think I’d be able to stop that from happening even if I wanted to,” Derek admits. “I’m sure she’ll have a little party for you. She enjoys any pretense for a party.”

“Awesome,” Cora says brightly. “Stiles loves her. He says she keeps a tight watch on you, so she’s already good in my book.”

“Yeah,” Derek says and feels a swell of affection for the people who matter in his life.

“Okay,” Cora says, and the room she’s in fill with other voices. “My friends are here. But just wanted to make sure it was cool with you if I was around for awhile this summer.”

“Definitely.”

**

“I thought it was time I made you a food delivery,” Eunice says, standing on his front porch a couple evenings later. Derek had taken the day off after another long night.

Derek wasn’t expecting her, but stands aside and lets her in, trying not to betray his surprise.

“Sorry about today,” he says and follows her to the kitchen, a casserole dish wrapped in beach towels carried in front of her like a sacrifice.

“Mo and I did a few shelves out of Home Improvement, and one of Mrs. Crawford’s older grandkids read for story time,” she says as she unpacks the canvas bag she had slung over her arm. She fiddles with the dials on the oven and bustles about the kitchen like she owns the place. She’s actually never been over at all, so Derek watches her in a certain kind of amazement.

“I haven’t been sleeping well,” Derek admits, embarrassed.

“That’s the last few nights, right?” Eunice asks as she slides the casserole into the oven to warm.

Derek shrugs.

“Did something happen?”

“No,” Derek says. “Just been thinking.”

Eunice nods, and remarkably doesn’t press him into further explanation. She pulls plates out of the cupboard and chops vegetables she brought along with her into a salad. She hasn’t bothered to ask if Derek is hungry or if he has plans. She seems determined to feed him regardless.

“Frank wasn’t the first man I loved,” she says after several minutes of silence. “When I was in high school I fell hard for the attendant at the corner service station.”

Derek is used to the storytelling and the random subject changes by this point. There was a point it would’ve annoyed him, but now he finds it soothing.

“His name was Butch,” she goes on, not waiting for a sign Derek is paying attention. “He was 28 and I was almost 18. My parents did not approve. They wanted me to go to college, and Butch wanted me to move in with him. He was handsome, and all the girls at my school would stop by the station to buy packs of gum and ask ridiculous questions about cars, just to get his attention.”

Eunice hands Derek the salad bowl and pushes him out toward the back deck, following behind with the plates and a bottle of salad dressing. “Get the noodle casserole,” she instructs.

Derek obeys, pulling the now-bubbling noodle bake from the oven and carrying it outside.

“Butch had a temper,” Eunice continues as Derek settles into his seat. She nods her head toward the salad, and Derek takes a pile from the bowl while Eunice serves him a huge helping of the cheesy casserole. “I was young, and I didn’t know much about love. He was my first everything, and I wanted him to be happy. So when Butch told me I couldn’t go to college, that I needed to stay home to take care of the house, that he needed me to help at the station, I didn’t question it. When he started drinking more and slapping me around when he got angry, I just assumed that was part of a grown up relationship.”

Eunice pauses the story to take a bite of salad.

“This is not a short story,” she admits after awhile. “So we’ll skip all of the parts where Butch wouldn’t let me see my friends and stopped letting me visit my family. Where he isolated me and made me feel like that was my fault. Where the bruises never seemed to heal. The point is, one night my older brother knocked on the door. Butch was out, and before he left he’d pushed me into a wall and punched me hard. I was lying on the couch with ice on my face, trying to convince myself that it would be better this time if I’d just do like he said. Butch wanted to have a baby, and he kept accusing me of sabotaging that. It sounds ridiculous now, but I was young, and I thought maybe I was. Like maybe I didn’t love Butch enough, or I didn’t want a baby bad enough and God had heard that somehow. Butch said I was cursed.”

Derek hasn’t seen Eunice like this. Her face is a mask of seriousness. The ease has gone out of her tone.

“So that night my brother knocks on the door and he says, ‘Grab a bag. We’re leaving,’” Eunice continues the story. “He saw my face, the swollen cheek and the split lip and the way I winced when he hugged me. He started walking around the house and pulling my things off hangers and throwing them into a small suitcase he found in the garage. And the whole time I’m trailing after him telling him that it’s not as bad as it looks, that Butch gets mad sometimes but usually because I’ve forgotten something important and that it will be better this time. And as I’m saying the words, I realize how utterly untrue they are. That I haven’t talked to any of my friends in weeks, that no one in my family has been to my house in months, that up until I bumped into my brother’s friend in the grocery store I hadn’t seen a single person from my old life in a year. I was anxious and scared and had no focus in my life other than making sure that Butch was happy, that Butch had what he needed, that I’d been nice enough to Butch that day so I didn’t get shoved against the dresser.”

Derek’s anger rises, bile forming, and he wonders if he could track Butch down and push him around just so he knows how it feels.

“It’s been fifty years, Derek,” Eunice says, reading his mind. “More than, come to think of it. If he’s still alive he’s an old man. But thank you.” She reaches out and pats his hand, squeezing his fingers briefly. “I’m just trying to give the story context. I told you it wasn’t short.”

Derek smiles sheepishly and waves his hand so she continues while he eats the chicken casserole.

“I left that night with my brother. I was scared. Butch always told me if I left he’d come get me. I think he assumed I’d go back to my parents, and he’d just show up and drag me away. But my brother drove us from San Diego to San Francisco that night. He gave me $250, which was a decent amount of money back then, and rented me a room in the attic of an older lady’s home. The next day he helped me enroll in college. He told me not to call Butch or any of my friends back home, but that he would check in on me and relay messages to our parents for me. And then he drove back home.”

Eunice wipes her mouth with her napkin and takes a big sip of wine.

“My brother and I weren’t particularly close before that night. He was always good to me, but he was several years older and hadn’t been around much when I was younger. But that night he helped me save myself. He gave me a fresh start. I found out later the money was from my mother. That she’d been scrimping and saving for that whole year to give me that life line. That my brother added what little he could to it and then when his friend saw me in the grocery store and told him I’d looked frightened and jumpy, my brother decided to act.”

Derek doesn’t know what to say. Eunice has opened her life up to him in so many ways, but until this moment he hadn’t really known much about her past.

“This is getting longer than I intended,” she says apologetically.

“You don’t have to tell me any of this,” Derek says, in case he’d done something to make her think she had to bare her soul.

“There’s a point, Derek,” Eunice says wearily. “But I’m an old lady, and I’m prone to ramble.”

Derek nods in deference.

“For five years after I got to San Francisco I didn’t date or talk to men at all,” she says finally. “I made friends in my classes and played bridge with my landlady’s friends. But after that fifth year I met Frank. We started as friends. He walked me home from my job at the library sometimes, never tried to get fresh. He brought me lunch, left me little gifts. I knew he was sweet on me, but I wasn’t interested. Not yet.”

Derek smiles, picturing Eunice as a younger woman.

“We were friends for five more years before I finally kissed him,” Eunice says finally. “And in that time I got a degree, a job, rented my own place, started a book club, made friends. I wasn’t running anymore by the time Frank and I fell in love. Frank didn’t save me. My brother got me out of Butch’s house, but I saved myself. And ten years after I left with my brother and drove to San Fransisco, Frank and I moved here.”

Derek looks out over the cliff to the waves crashing against the rocks.

“Frank’s parents had a store here,” she says and leans back a bit. “A magic shop, although I didn’t know about that at the time. His dad was sick, and he needed help. Frank needed to move down here. And the town had a small library that needed a librarian. So I came with him.” She shrugs and smiles at Derek.

He has no idea what to say. Or why Eunice baked a chicken noodle casserole and felt compelled to come and share this story with him.

“I know enough about your past to know you are complicated,” Eunice says when Derek doesn’t respond. “Our situations aren’t the same. It simplifies both of us to equate them. But I do know what it feels like to be trapped, to start over, to make a life for yourself, to fall in love when you didn’t expect to. I know that love at its best is improbable, nearly impossible. It’s frustrating for rational folk. And it will never make sense on paper.” She smiles like she’s remembering something private. “It would’ve made the most sense for me to stay single forever. I didn’t need Frank. I had learned to take care of myself. I’d made a way for myself. Trusting someone that way was a disruption, could potentially open me up to hurt.”

Derek bites his lip and looks down at the table.

“Frank and I never married,” Eunice says with a smirk. “I didn’t want to be tied like that to someone, and because he loved me and wanted me on whatever terms I felt comfortable letting him close, he never pushed me. But oh, I loved him,” she says reverently. “He was brilliant, kind, funny. I learned about his magic once we got here, was witness to him building his coven, sharing his gift and nurturing young practitioners. He was always bringing home strays. Stray people, stray animals. We almost always had someone staying in our guest room, and we had a Noah’s ark situation with cats and dogs and birds. For awhile we even had a raccoon.”

Derek thinks of his own family and the cacophony that surrounded their home. A lump forms in his throat, tight with longing.

“Being broken isn’t a life sentence,” she says in a quiet voice.

Tears threaten to spill suddenly down Derek’s cheeks, and he nods.

“It’s okay to move forward,” she says and grabs the canvas tote off the deck and pulls out a tin of cookies and offers one to Derek. “I wasn’t the same after Butch. It’s to be expected, I suppose. I’m not glad it happened, that seems twisted. But I am proud of who I became after. Leaving Butch marked the BC/AD moment in my history. Things didn’t stop, I just marked time differently.”

Derek smiles and takes another cookie. They’re his favorite, oatmeal chocolate chip. Warmth spreads in his stomach at the thought of someone in his life knowing what his favorite cookie is and baking them for him because he matters.

“Thanks,” he says finally, but it feels inadequate after Eunice shared something so personal with him. “It, uh, helps. I’m, I’m figuring it out. How to move ahead. I’m. I’m trying.”

She smiles and nods. “I know. It’s okay not to have it all figured out. Just keep moving in the right direction, and you’ll be fine.”

Derek swallows. They stare out at the sunset, Eunice surprisingly still and silent, just letting the sound of the waves fill the conversation gap.

“Stiles said you might be looking for a house,” Eunice says suddenly. She slides a card across the table. “Stan has his real estate license. Give him a call.”

Derek takes the card and holds it by its edges.

“I like this place though,” Eunice says. “I remember the people who used to come here every summer to stay. They moved to Oregon I think, right? That’s why they rent it, I guess.”

Derek smiles. It figures Eunice would know his landlord.

Eunice slaps her hands on the table. “Now,” she says with a big smile. “Let’s talk about Stiles’ party.”

Derek huffs a laugh and nods as he slips the business card into his pocket.

**

It’s just a couple of days now until Stiles arrives. Derek gets a text in the middle of the afternoon, presumably while Stiles is still in school.

Stiles: things I’ve been thinking about:

Stiles: one

Stiles: are you paying attention?

Derek: Yes. Are you? Aren’t you in school?

Stiles: [picture of Stiles rolling his eyes like an asshole]

Derek:

Stiles: lol. Okay so things I’m thinking about. One, how all your shirts are so soft. What’s that about?

Derek chuckles to himself and earns a hawk-eyed glance from Eunice.

Derek: Fabric softener?

Stiles: Nah I think it’s like your essence infused into your shirts

Derek: My essence?

He makes a face as he sends the text.

Stiles: hahaha not dirty asshole

Derek: I didn’t make it dirty.

Stiles: Also you smell super good. Like constantly. I wake up thinking about that.

Derek bites back a smile, glad that no one is reading over his shoulder.

Stiles: Also the look you have on your face right now

Derek narrows his eyes and looks up, looking around to see if somehow Stiles is watching him.

Stiles: I’m not there. I just know you and I can picture the look on your face right now. Like you want to smile but you’re worried if you do someone will see.

Derek smiles, big and cheesy and snaps a quick picture of it and sends it to Stiles.

Derek: Like that?

Stiles: lol no but that ones not bad either

Stiles: all the Derek faces are pretty great

Derek: Two days

Stiles: dude TWO DAYS. I don’t care if you think I’m cheesy, I miss you and your stupid handsome face and your soft smelling goodness and just you

Derek grins and glances around to see if anyone is watching. Eunice, predictably, is.

Derek: So cheesy.

Derek: I’m looking forward to you being here too.

He even sends an emoji along with that, a rare Derek texting addition.

Stiles: whoa you must miss me. emojis

Stiles sends a string of emojis. Hearts, boys holding hands, heart eye face, an eggplant for some reason.

Derek: Now pay attention for the rest of class so your dad doesn’t ground you.

Stiles sends a picture of him sticking his tongue out.

Stiles: it’s study hall Derek. Nerd

Derek chuckles and pockets his phone. He ignores Eunice’s smug satisfied smile.

**

When Derek gets home from the library on Friday afternoon, Stiles’ car is in the driveway. The hood is still warm, so he must’ve just arrived. Derek smiles, and his heart skips a beat. He is a walking cliche, and he doesn’t care.

He finds Stiles sitting on the back deck staring out at the ocean. He turns a little when Derek opens the back door, and his smile is so big and genuine Derek feels a little lightheaded with how much he loves him.

“Hey,” Stiles says and reaches out his hand to beckon Derek closer. He pats the empty space on the big deck chair. “C’mere.”

“You’re early,” Derek murmurs as he settles himself between Stiles’ legs. The chair isn’t really quite big enough for both of them, but Derek doesn’t care.

Stiles wraps his arms around Derek’s waist and squeezes. “Ditched after lunch,” he admits and kisses Derek’s neck. “Kept thinking ‘bout you.”

Derek leans into him, lets himself go, doesn’t even try to hold himself back. He strokes his fingers along Stiles’ wrists as Stiles kisses down his neck.

“Fuck,” Stiles breathes against his skin. “I’m so into you.” His teeth drag along his neck and he slips his fingers under Derek’s shirt and strokes his stomach. “Please, Der.”

Derek smiles and closes eyes, submitting himself to the scent of want and affection and safety. There is no place in the world he’d rather be. There’s no one he’d rather be with. It hits him like a force, how much he wants this with Stiles.

Stiles’ teeth tug on Derek’s ear lobe. He’s murmuring things, about how he was half hard most of the drive from Beacon Hills, stuff that would usually make Derek blush, but this time he just lets himself be covered in Stiles’ desire. He knows it’s for all of him, not just his body. Stiles wants Derek, just Derek. Not because he needs him for something, because he’s trying to get something else. But Derek for his own sake.

Derek lets it wash over him, being cared for that way. He doesn’t give credence to the nagging thoughts that letting Stiles closer will cause pain. Love is always a risk, but he knows Stiles. He loves Stiles.

He guides Stiles’ hand lower and unbuttons his jeans, lowering the zipper slowly.

Stiles groans into Derek’s ear.

“How embarrassing would it be if I came from touching you? Is that a thing that happens?” Stiles asks as he slips his fingers into Derek’s jeans, following the trail of hair on Derek’s lower abdomen into his underwear.

They both groan again when his fingers bump into Derek’s erection, already straining in his stupidly tight pants.

“Damn baby,” Stiles murmurs, probably trying for a joking tone, but it sounds almost reverent. Stiles’ throat clicks as he swallows, his fingers tentatively wrap around Derek’s dick.

Derek turns his head until he can get his lips on Stiles’. The kiss is heated, intense, yet somehow easy. Like both of them know the other isn’t going anywhere.

In the annuls of great hand jobs, this one probably won’t get ranked. Derek’s jeans, even unbuttoned and unzipped are tight, and even once Stiles has freed Derek’s dick into the open air he seems frustrated by the fact that he can’t touch everything, that most of Derek is still covered up. His stroke doesn’t ever completely find a rhythm, it feels a little desperate and rushed. And yet it’s somehow exactly what Derek wants and needs. Stiles keeps up a steady stream of often nonsensical commentary, kisses Derek, laughs, mutters about a sea gull who he swears is watching them intently.

Derek might be embarrassed about how quickly he comes if it were anyone other than Stiles. But as he comes in thick ribbons of white over Stiles’ hand and his own jeans and shirt, all he can hear is the encouraging noises and turned on sounds Stiles is making, and he doesn’t feel at all self-conscious.

Just happy.

He turns his head again and captures Stiles’ satisfied smile in a kiss. “’s good.”

Stiles’ smile broadens into the kiss. He licks Derek’s lower lip and pulls away slightly. “Handies al fresco.”

Derek huffs a laugh and rests his head on Stiles’ shoulder. “That sea gull is staring at us. You’re right.”

“Right?” Stiles says triumphantly. “Told you. I can’t decide if I’m weirded out by the turned on sea gull or kind of proud that we’re hot enough to make interspecies voyeurism a thing.”

Derek grins and stares at the bird, whose head is now tilted like he’s trying to understand the situation. “Maybe he’s waiting for me to return the favor.”

“I don’t think you can give a bird a hand job,” Stiles says seriously.

Derek laughs loudly and turns around in the chair so he’s straddling Stiles’ thighs. His dick is soft now. Soft and messy and still not tucked back into his jeans. “I meant you, dummy,” he says fondly, letting his gaze settle on Stiles’ amused expression. “Look at you,” he adds, because Stiles is beautiful in the afternoon sun.

“Me?” Stiles asks with faux innocence. “Look at you,” he says with a challenging tone. “I propose you don’t tuck your dick back into your pants for the rest of the weekend. I’ll build it a little pouch it can rest in if we need to go into public.” He drags a curious finger over it lightly. “I think he likes me,” he says conspiratorially.

Derek laughs again and shakes his head. “So weird,” he says and leans closer, nipping at Stiles’ smirk.

Stiles holds onto Derek’s dick loosely, not like he’s trying to get something going again, but just like he can’t help it. “I love you,” he says, looking up at Derek, eyes bright amber in the sun.

Derek’s stomach twists, and he kisses the small, hopeful smile on Stiles’ face. He slows the kiss down and tries to turn it into words as he slips his tongue in alongside Stiles’. He’ll probably never be quite as easy with his affection as Stiles is, but he wants to try. He pulls away and swallows, drags his thumb along Stiles’ cheek.

“I love you, too,” he says finally, the weight of the words and the intensity of their meaning make the air around them feel thick.

Stiles’ smile grows, and he nods a little. “You do,” he agrees, like Derek wouldn’t have had to say it, but he’s pleased he did. He’s still cradling Derek’s dick like it’s precious, and it’s both ridiculous and touching at the same time.

Derek grins at him and kisses his cheek, trailing his mouth down until he can tug on Stiles’ earlobe with his teeth. “I wanna blow you,” he says quietly. “Here? Or inside?”

Stiles groans. “Oh fuck,” he says and his grip tightens around Derek’s dick slightly. “Here. Just. I’m gonna last about 37 seconds. Here here.”

Derek huffs a laugh and scoots backward until he’s crouched over Stiles’ knees on the bottom part of the lounge chair. “Unbutton,” he suggests when Stiles just stares at him.

“This is seriously like a sex vacation postcard,” Stiles babbles as he pulls down his zipper and shimmies his jeans a little ways down his hips to expose his boxer briefs.

Derek rolls his eyes and realizes that the sex he has for the foreseeable future is always going to include banter and nonsequitors. “Sex vacation?” He asks, eyebrow raised.

“Scenic,” Stiles says and waves his hand around expansively. “Waves and sun and a view and a perverted sea gull. You and your dick still outside of your jeans and that face you have which is just. Yeah. The face of all the faces. When God was thinking about faces and how a face should face he probably had you in mind. Is the thing.”

Derek shakes his head slightly but can’t keep the smile off his face. He rubs his fingers along Stiles’ underwear clad dick and watches in amazement as Stiles’ eyes flutter shut and his perfect pink lips part in a happy sigh.

“Shit shit,” he murmurs, and Derek reward him by leaning over and licking along Stiles’ dick through the fabric. “Oh god.” His hands find Derek’s head and thread through his hair.

Derek mouths at him through his underwear for a few more seconds and then peels them down, releasing his dick to the air.

“The bird moved closer,” Stiles observes as Derek wraps his fingers around Stiles’ dick. He’s bigger than Derek was expecting, cut and so hard it looks painful, the head an angry purplish color beaded with precum.

“Watch me,” Derek instructs. “Not the bird.” He swirls his tongue around the head of Stiles’ dick.

Stiles groans so loudly Derek’s pretty sure everyone in town probably heard it. “Oh my god,” Stiles says breathlessly. “Yeah, look at you. Shit. Fuck you, bird. Look at Derek.”

Derek laughs around Stiles’ dick and wonders how he’d ever worried about this. He concentrates his efforts on giving Stiles all his best material, all the tongue flicks and throat tricks and everything he’s ever learned about blow jobs. Not that he thinks Stiles needs him to do anything but keep his mouth on him, as he’s groaning and moaning and swearing and making sounds like he’s trying to audio dub a porno.

“This is my favorite day,” Stiles says breathlessly. “And the best chair.” He pats the arm of the chair lazily. “And you,” he says and curls his hand around Derek’s chin. “Definitely the best.”

Derek gives him a look and takes him as deep as he can gagging just a little when Stiles’ hips stutter forward. Stiles groans and rubs his fingers across Derek’s cheek.

“I’m like, oh fuck, this isn’t gonna last long,” Stiles breathes out. “Shit. Der.” He pats Derek’s head sort of desperately.

Derek looks up and finds Stiles looking at him with awe. He comes hard and suddenly, like it’s punched out of him, like it was a surprise to him too. Derek swallows as much of it as he can, but since he wasn’t quite ready, a lot of it ends up on his face and his shirt.

It’s gross and awesome in the way it usually is when sex is messy. But it’s also Stiles, which means that Derek doesn’t mind the gross part.

“C’mere,” Stiles says as Derek pulls off of him. He tugs at Derek’s shoulders, trying to drag him closer.

Derek crawls until he’s crouched over Stiles’ lap and kisses him.

“So that’s what it tastes like,” Stiles says licking his lips as he pulls away slightly. “Weird.”

Derek laughs softly and rolls his eyes. “Well, it’s yours. So.”

Stiles grins. “Fuck that was awesome,” he says sincerely. “We’re doing that again, right?”

Derek nods and leans into Stiles’ touch as he wipes errant jizz from Derek’s cheek.

“We just did that where anyone could’ve seen,” Stiles says looking around at the deck and the grassy area around the house.

“Other than the perverted sea gull, I’m pretty sure we’re safe,” Derek reassures him.

“Right,” Stiles says dismissively. “But they could’ve seen. Which is kind of hot.”

Derek rolls his eyes and shuts Stiles up with another kiss.

**

They take a shower together after they go inside. Stiles insists on showering with Derek, even though Derek’s bathroom just has an old, fairly narrow clawfoot tub/shower combo. It’s slippery and not really built for two. But Stiles seemed set on climbing into the shower after Derek, and Derek has a hard time saying no to Stiles when he’s excited about something.

Showering together results in Derek nearly falling out of the tub when Stiles’ loses his balance and has to grab onto Derek for support. Derek grabs onto the shower curtain rod and barely keeps himself upright and knocks his head into the nozzle. Hard.

Stiles laughs. “This always looks sexy on TV,” he says apologetically when Derek shoots him a betrayed look as he rubs his forehead. “But it’s a logistical nightmare, isn’t it?”

“It’s kind of a small space for two guys to be together,” Derek says once his head stops throbbing.

“Maybe your new place can have a bigger shower,” Stiles suggests, waggling his eyebrows at Derek. “Sex shower.”

Derek rinses the soap from his face. “I’ll be sure to mention it as priority one when I call a realtor. ‘Please make sure the shower is big enough so Stiles doesn’t kill me when he flails around.’”

Stiles sputters and squawks. “Listen buddy—”

“Buddy?” Derek asks, amused.

“Bucko,” Stiles amends.

“Not better, really.”

Stiles makes a face, and Derek laughs, pulling him slowly closer, no sudden movements so neither of them slips in the tiny space. “I’ll look for a bigger shower,” he murmurs against Stiles’ lips, gripping Stiles by his narrow hips, pressing their dicks together.

“That’s all I’m saying,” Stiles says and deepens the kiss.

**

They climb into bed after their shower and take a nap and fool around again. Both of them have very short refractory periods, werewolf and 18 year old as they are. Stiles is eager to “try all the things” as he said before he enthusiastically blew Derek upon awakening.

Derek offered to take him for a nice dinner in Santa Rosa once they finally got out of bed, but Stiles wrinkled his nose and said that would require Derek to wear something other than sweatpants, which he was firmly against. So they’re in the kitchen making spaghetti and meatballs.

Stiles borrowed a pair of Derek’s sweats and one of his henleys. His hair is still a little mussed from their nap, and he’s singing along, and not well, to One Direction.

Derek’s heart is full.

He encircles Stiles from behind, hooking his chin over his shoulder.

“I’m chopping here,” Stiles protests unconvincingly.

Derek turns his head into Stiles’ neck and inhales unselfconsciously. Derek’s scent is all over Stiles, and his wolf preens at Stiles smelling like he’s Derek’s.

“Such a puppy,” Stiles murmurs as he leans into Derek’s touch.

Derek laughs into Stiles’ skin. “Dog humor. High level.”

Stiles grins and turns his head enough to capture Derek’s lips in a kiss.

“You smell like me,” Derek says because he can’t help it. “Us.”

Stiles nods. “So to werewolves, true love smells like mixed jizz?”

Derek rolls his eyes. “It’s not just that.”

Stiles kisses him again. “Sure.”

“It’s hard to explain,” Derek insists. It’s not just the sex smells, it’s Stiles wearing Derek’s clothes, and sleeping in his bed. It mingles their scents until they smell less like individuals and more like something new.

Stiles bites his lip. “I like it. Even if I can’t smell it. I like it.”

Derek blushes. “Me too.”

They eat outside as the sun sets.

“This is romance,” Stiles says with a sigh. “Should we suck on the same strand of spaghetti like Lady and the Tramp?”

Derek smirks. “Pass.”

“So good,” Stiles says through a big bite of meat ball. “Back when you were living in abandoned buildings I never would’ve imagined you could make shit like this.”

“I couldn’t,” Derek admits.

Stiles swallows and stares at him for a few beats. “Why did you? You had money. Why did you live like that?”

Derek takes a deep breath. “There wasn’t just one reason,” he says finally. “At first because I wasn’t sure who was after me. Then because I was a fugitive.” He gives Stiles a pointed look. “And then because, uh, I maybe didn’t think I deserved to feel safe.”

Stiles makes a commiserating noise. “I hate that,” he says quietly. “I hate that you were alone like that,” he clarifies. “And that I didn’t to try to help.”

Derek gives him a small smile. “Not your fault,” he says. “I mean the reporting me as a killer maybe was your fault.”

Stiles squawks in protest.

“But the rest,” Derek says looking out over the ocean and letting the familiar scent of his home fill his senses, “the rest was me not knowing how to do anything but survive. To run or fight.”

Stiles nods. “I get that,” he says. “If I hadn’t had my dad, after, the uh, nogistune thing.” He stops and looks away, throat working like he’s trying to swallow down something painful. “I probably would’ve run. I felt like an asshole. And I was scared. I thought everyone hated me. You didn’t have anyone to keep you from running. But you stayed and fought anyway.”

“Poorly.”

Stiles shakes his head. “No way. You did the best you could. Sorry I was such a dick about it for so long.”

Derek huffs a laugh.

“That first time you were in my room, when you were a murder suspect, and you pressed me into that door—” Stiles stops and smirks at Derek. “Kind of confirmed my bisexuality for me.”

Derek presses his lips together and gives Stiles a look.

“You knew?”

“Well not the bisexual thing,” Derek admits. “But desire is a scent. So.”

Stiles groans. “Embarrassing.”

Derek laughs. “Well I kept coming to your house anyway. So that should tell you something.”

Stiles smiles. “Yeah?”

Derek may not have totally understood why he was drawn to Stiles, but he definitely was.

“That’s the Stilinski charm,” Stiles says smugly when Derek doesn’t respond. “Constantly reelin’ ‘em in.”

Derek rolls his eyes and eats another meatball.

**

After dinner they walk into town to get ice cream. One of the seasonal places has opened to try to capture the spring break crowd. Although it’s still full of the same ratio of retirees and weekend beach house owners as usual, so they may have miscalculated this part of California’s appeal as a spring break destination.

“My mom always got butter pecan,” Stiles says as they peer into store windows and eat their cones.

Derek wrinkles his nose. Nuts and ice-cream don’t belong together in his opinion.

“Yeah,” Stiles agrees. “But she had some theory on how it best showed off the skill of the ice cream maker. Or something. I was a kid and just wanted ice cream so I was only half paying attention.”

Derek chuckles. “Peter likes rum raisin.”

“Ewww,” Stiles says with a disgusted face. “Figures.”

“My dad always got strawberry,” Derek says in a quieter tone. “Laura liked cookies and cream. My mom’s favorite was rocky road. And when Cora was a kid she liked bubble gum flavor. But I guess I don’t know what she likes now.”

Getting ice cream in town, sitting in the park on a nice day with ice cream dripping down their fingers, competing on the swing set to see who could get the highest, was part of his mom’s Hale Pack Integration Into Human Society Plan. She thought it was important to practice control playing with human kids in the playground (under her careful supervision), and she wanted them to understand the people their pack was meant to protect.

“Well, she’s coming this summer, right?” Stiles asks, pulling Derek out of his memories.

“Who?” Derek asks. “Oh, Cora? Yeah. Did I tell you that?”

Stiles smiles. “No, she did,” he admits. “She seems to hate me less now than she used to.”

“Not the Stilinski charm—”

“Yeah, baby,” Stiles says over top of him. “I’ve charmed both the Hales. You fell for it.”

Derek pulls him closer and wipes a smudge of his mint chocolate chip ice cream off his lower lip with his thumb and then follows it with his lips. When he pulls away, Stiles is looking at him with his big, amber eyes. They’re clear and bright, and Derek loves him. He cradles Stiles’ face in his hands and swipes his thumbs along Stiles’ cheekbones.

“Yeah,” he says finally.

Stiles’ cheeks pink up. “Aww, you’re not supposed to agree.”

Derek laughs. “Make up your mind.”

Stiles looks down at his shoes. His eyelashes are fanned out against his cheeks. “Seems too good to be true,” he says in a quiet voice.

Derek tips Stiles’ chin up with his fingers. “I love you,” he says, and tries to infuse his voice with the seriousness with which he takes those words.

“Yeah,” Stiles says in a quiet voice.

Derek realizes maybe he’s never told Stiles why. He’s been focused on his own response to his feelings and all the things they brought up in him. He’s had therapy and learned how to trust and how to be easier on himself. He’s been pre-occupied with that.

Derek smiles at him and holds Stiles’ hopeful gaze. “I’m not good at— you know. But, you’re my favorite person. You’re smart and brave and kind of an asshole. But in the best sort of way.”

Stiles huffs a laugh.

“I like you.”

Stiles makes an “aww” sound and kisses him gently.

Derek feels like he’s still not getting it. “I don’t like a lot of people,” he insists.

Stiles laughs. “That doesn’t seem as true anymore,” he suggests.

Derek supposes that’s true. But even if he’s let a few more people in, Derek’s never going to be someone that gravitates toward people easily, or trusts automatically.

“It’s a small club,” he says finally and bites his lip.

Stiles grins. “I’m president of the club.”

“You are,” Derek agrees. “And no we’re not getting shirts made.”

“What— that is not what I was going to say,” Stiles insists as Derek kisses him to shut him up.

That was totally what he was going to say.

**

Later they watch TV, and Stiles calls his dad and Scott.

Stiles’ heart rate ratchets up while he’s talking to Scott. Derek focuses on what he’s saying in the next room. Something about Liam and a fight. He sits up a little straighter as Stiles comes back into the living room.

“Everything okay?”

Stiles nods and chews his lip. “Yeah. Omega they had to run off. He attacked Liam outside of the bowling alley.”

“But they handled it?”

Stiles sighs. “They handled it.”

“You sound disappointed,” Derek teases.

“Nah,” Stiles says. “I mean, researching weird shit is fun,” he amends. “But watching people I love get hurt isn’t.”

Derek nods and holds out his hand toward Stiles.

Stiles walks over to him until he’s standing in front of where Derek sits on the couch.

Derek pulls him down until he’s straddling Derek’s lap. “Wish you were there?”

Stiles leans closer and rubs his nose against Derek’s cheek. “Nope.”

Derek buries his nose in the crook of Stiles neck. He inhales unselfconsciously and licks his pulse point. “Good.”

Stiles laughs lightly and scoots farther into Derek’s lap. “Let’s go upstairs and let our underwear places touch,” he says and winks suggestively.

Derek barks a laugh and rests his forehead on Stiles’ chest. “Why do I like you?”

Stiles runs his fingers through Derek’s hair. “You had reasons earlier tonight. Should I keep those on a list in my pocket? I think they were threefold.”

Derek groans.

“So is that a ‘no’ on going to bed?” Stiles asks and squeezes Derek’s neck.

“No,” Derek admits. “No, it’s not a ‘no.’”

Stiles laughs. “Well, c’mon then.

**

They get ready for bed like they’ve been sharing a nighttime routine for years. Stiles has a tooth brush he keeps at Derek’s, and they move around each other in the small space like a surprisingly graceful dance.

Derek likes so many things about having Stiles around, but it’s quiet, mundane domestic stuff like getting ready for bed that leaves Derek smiling while he’s flossing.

“What?” Stiles asks, leaning in the doorway while Derek finishes up.

Derek shrugs and rinses with mouthwash before flipping off the bathroom light. “Just, you know.”

Stiles climbs in his side of the bed, and when Derek just watches instead of following suit, Stiles pats the bed next to him. “You coming?”

Derek swallows and nods. “Yeah.” He pulls his shirt off and tosses it in the laundry basket.

Stiles whistles softly. “You did the thing.”

Derek climbs into bed. “What thing?”

Stiles scoots closer and runs his fingers lightly over Derek’s chest and stomach. “Unveiled all this.”

Derek rolls his eyes and sets his phone on the bedside table.

Stiles throws his leg over Derek and then settles himself on top of him, propping himself up with an arm on either side of Derek’s head. “This feels very much like we’re married and tonight is Business Time.”

Derek laughs and skims his hands down Stiles’ sides. “Business time?”

“You know,” Stiles says. “Flight of the Conchords? ‘It’s business, it’s business time!” he inexplicably sings the last bit.

Derek furrows his brow. “I’m lost.”

“Dude,” Stiles says and sits up completely, staring down at Derek excitedly. “Seriously? Flight of the Conchords. They’re so good. And there’s a show. You haven’t seen the show?”

Derek shakes his head and bites back a smile. Derek has never had physical intimacy be this way. Ever. It’s like one long conversation that includes words and touching and sex acts and more talking and laughing and other Stiles-based ridiculousness. He had no idea what his sex life had been missing was narration. Or more accurately, he had no idea what his sex life was missing was Stiles.

“I have not seen that show,” Derek admits. “Or heard the… band? I assume since you were singing it’s a band?”

Stiles nods and rubs his thumb back and forth on the skin above Derek’s belly button. “It’s taking, like, every bit of my self control not to get up and get my laptop and play it for you.”

Derek huffs a laugh. “You can. I’m not stopping you,” he says and takes his hands off Stiles and holds them up in surrender.

“Nah,” Stiles says and rolls Derek’s nipple between his fingers. “I want, this. Business Time. With you. Now.”

“Do we have to call it that?” Derek asks and pulls up on Stiles’ t-shirt to get him to take it off.

“You sure have a lot of rules about what we can and can’t call sex stuff,” Stiles says as he pulls his t-shirt over his head. He collapses on top of Derek quickly like he’s trying to hide himself from Derek.

“Business time and rubbing our ‘underwear places’ together aren’t exactly mood setters,” Derek says and drags his fingers down Stiles’ back.

Stiles has his face hidden in Derek’s neck, and he mouths at it lazily.

Derek rolls them over, using a bit of his strength to coax Stiles onto his back in a swift movement. “I want to see you,” he says softly.

Stiles closes his eyes and makes a protesting noise. Derek doesn’t understand why he’s embarrassed. Stiles is lean, his limbs long and wiry. He doesn’t have the physique of someone who lifts weights, but he’s strong, and his skin is pale and perfect. He smells incredible too, and it takes a lot of restraint not to immediately stick his nose in Stiles’ armpit and his crotch and breathe him in in what is undoubtably the more animal part of his nature trying to take over.

Stiles pops an eye open. “Are we done with this part?”

Derek leans over him and kisses his chest. “Why are you embarrassed?”

Stiles groans but doesn’t answer.

Derek sweeps his tongue over Stiles’ nipple. “I’m into it,” he says and rubs his hands down Stiles’ sides. “Clearly. You just referred to this as business time, and I’m still here, right?”

Stiles grins and cups Derek’s cheek with his hand. “True.”

“But we can do this however you want,” Derek says. “If you want to wear a shirt, you can wear a shirt.” He drags his finger tips lightly over Stiles’ stomach.

“N-no,” Stiles says and bites back a moan.

“Good,” Derek says and follows his fingers with his tongue. He drags the waistband of Stiles’ sleep pants a little lower and licks the newly exposed skin.

Stiles groans. “Fuck, Derek,” he says as Derek sucks a mark next to his hip bone.

Derek noses the obvious outline of Stiles’ dick through the fabric of his pants.

“Take ‘em off,” Stiles says and scrabbles at the waistband.

Derek grabs his wrist. “It’s not a race.”

“It should be,” Stiles grouses.

Derek smirks at him and runs his tongue down the length of Stiles’ fabric covered-dick.

“Oh dear god,” Stiles groans.

Derek teases him a little bit longer and then shows mercy and pulls his pants all the way off.

Finally,” Stiles breathes. “Touch me.”

Derek gives him a look. “Stop trying to turn this into bad porn.”

Stiles grins and winks at him exaggeratedly. “Touch my love stick, baby.”

Derek ignores him and licks the head of his dick.

“Shiiiiiit,” Stiles breathes out as Derek slowly slides his mouth over his length.

Stiles moans unselfconsciously as Derek drags his tongue up the underside of his dick as he pulls off again.

“Want you to fuck me,” Stiles says quietly, as Derek works his hand in the path his mouth just followed. “If you want,” he adds and smiles shyly.

Derek’s stomach twists at the openness of Stiles’ expression. “Yeah,” he says, voice rough.

Stiles reaches his hand out and tugs on Derek’s arm. Derek obliges and moves up his body and kisses him. Stiles kisses back like he’s desperate for it.

“Kinda nervous,” Stiles admits in characteristic honesty, centimeters from Derek’s face.

“We don’t have to,” Derek says. “Or we can do it the other way, if that’s less intense for you.”

Stiles smiles and rubs his thumb along Derek’s chin. “I want to do that way too sometime. Yeah?”

Derek nods and knows with certainty he’d do this however Stiles wants to, or wait forever. It’s not about sex. It’s about Stiles.

“But now,” Stiles continues and presses his lips quickly to Derek’s. “I want to do something with you I’ve never done before. Want our first time to be like this.” He bites his lip, and Derek is overwhelmed by how beautiful he is. His cheeks are flushed, and his mouth is red. His eyes are warm and searching.

“Okay,” Derek says. “Have you, uh, like to yourself ever?” he asks and reaches for the bedside drawer.

Stiles nods. “It’s not an easy angle, with like fingers or whatever. Porn lies.”

Derek laughs and pops the cap on the lube. “A good rule of thumb in general, I think.”

Derek slicks up a finger. “You sure?”

“Yeah,” Stiles says quickly. “Just, you know. Just go slow.”

“If you hate it we can stop,” Derek offers. He’s hated sex at times in the past. Not sex in general, but he’s certainly hated specific sex moments with specific people. Hated how disconnected it’s felt, how removed he’s felt from the moment. He’s hated how he felt after, empty and lonelier than when they started. And then there were more pleasant experiences, too. It hasn’t been all bad. Derek just wants their first time together to be good.

“I’m not gonna hate it,” Stiles says sucking in a breath as Derek slowly presses a finger inside.

“Relax,” Derek instructs as he feels Stiles’ body automatically tense at the intrusion. “Look at me.”

Stiles does immediately. His eyes fly open and find Derek’s, and he smiles nervously.

“Just you and me,” Derek says gently. “You can even sing the little business song if that helps.”

Stiles laughs, and Derek feels him relax incrementally.

It’s easier but still much more stilted than things normally are between them. Derek leans over and kisses him. “We could open the window,” he says as he pulls back. “See if the seagull is around. Ask him if he wants to watch.”

Stiles grins. “He totally does,” he says and then moans as Derek crooks his finger to hit just the right spot inside. “Shiiiit.”

“Better?”

Stiles nods vigorously. “Keep— keep making that happen,” he instructs.

It’s better after that. Derek goes slow enough to get him used to the feeling of something being inside of him, even shows him how good that can feel.

“C’mon,” Stiles coaxes after several minutes of just Derek’s fingers and some messy making out. “Dicks. Asses. Do it.”

“Multiple dicks?” Derek asks as he eases his fingers back out. “I just have the one.”

Stiles rolls his eyes. “C’mon,” he whines.

“Okay, okay,” Derek says and takes his underwear off. “Do you want me to—” he gestures to the drawer where a box of condoms awaits, should that makes Stiles feel more comfortable.

“Werewolf immunity, right?” Stiles asks breathlessly.

“Right,” Derek agrees. “But still messy regardless. And definitely still your choice.”

“Want to feel you,” Stiles says, flushed. “Please.”

Derek bites back a groan. He’s been hard and ready since he first eased his fingers inside Stiles, but he still tries to play it somewhat cool. He squirts more lube onto his dick and coats it stroking slowly.

Stiles bites his lip. “Hot,” he croaks, probably meaning to sound smoother than he does.

Derek smirks and spreads Stiles’ legs wider. “Like this? Or on your stomach?”

“Like this.”

Derek nods slightly and rubs the head of his dick around Stiles’ hole.

“Fuuuuck,” Stiles groans. “I just— fuck.”

Derek smiles at something actually rendering Stiles inarticulate. “I wish you could see what this looks like.”

Stiles groans again. “Me too. Put a mirror on your ceiling.”

Derek laughs and leans over and kisses him. “Ready?” he asks against Stiles’ lips.

“Yeah.”

Derek presses just the head in, just to let Stiles get used to it.

“Shit,” Stiles breathes out. “Sex is happening.”

Derek grins. “It’s been happening, but glad to see you’re still with me.”

“But now it’s really happening,” Stiles says and tips his head back as Derek slowly eases his way inside. “Oh shit, Der. Shit. God, I love you. Shit.” His fingers are scrabbling at the bed spread and reaching up and touching Derek and then back down to the bed again like he doesn’t quite know what to do with them. It’s a weird feeling, Derek knows. Hard to prepare for completely, but Stiles is doing so much better than Derek did the first time he did this.

“You okay?” Derek asks, staying still and waiting for Stiles to be comfortable.

Stiles shifts around a bit and gives Derek a little smile. “Yeah. You can— you know, do stuff.”

Derek chuckles. “Moving okay?”

“Yeah,” Stiles says and runs his fingers down Derek’s arms. “Move.”

Derek obliges on a deliberate stroke almost all the way back out and then in again, slow and smooth.

“Jesus,” Stiles says under his breath, a low whine.

“Derek,” Derek corrects with a smirk.

Stiles rolls his eyes.

Derek laughs and thrusts harder, earning a punched out string of swear words from Stiles. It’s been awhile since he’s had sex. He wasn’t really in much of a sex head space after what happened with Jennifer. But everything is heightened with Stiles and so much better than he ever remembers it being before. He forgot about the tight, perfect heat and the feeling of being sheathed in another person, of the intimacy and closeness. He concentrates on hitting the spot that seems to make Stiles keen, tries not to bust too early from the look on Stiles’ face or the sound of his moans.

Stiles erection flagged during the first couple of minutes of adjustment, but now it’s back and straining against his stomach, purple and somewhat painful looking. He grabs onto it and squeezes.

Derek leans over and kisses him, a swell of affection in need of escape. “Love you.”

Stiles smiles. “Yeah ya do,” he says and then moans as Derek strokes into him at just the right angle. “Oh fuck, baby.”

Derek didn’t think he’d want to be anybody’s baby, and would’ve possibly made fun of Stiles if he’d tried it out at any other time. But right now, in the moment, it just makes his heart twist.

“I’m not—” Stiles says and then his head flops back as he works himself vigorously. “I’m gonna, oh shit, Derek. Fuck,” he says and then he comes, striping his stomach.

The face he makes and the sounds that come out of him push Derek even closer, as does the involuntary clench his orgasm gives Derek’s penis.

“Come on,” Stiles encourages, sweaty and breathless. “Come in me.”

Oh fuck, that’s hot. Derek whines and feels it building from his toes up into his legs and then he’s spilling inside Stiles. His wolf howling with the satisfaction of filling Stiles with his come.

Stiles moans again and reaches out for Derek as he thrusts with the last of his orgasm. “Oh shit that feels weird.”

Derek smiles, uncharacteristically out of breath. He slowly pulls out and watches in an embarrassing amount of satisfaction at the white trail that dribbles out of Stiles.

Stiles makes a face at the sensation, but smiles as Derek stares in wonder.

“I should’ve known you’d like that,” he says and pulls Derek closer, kissing him hard. “Was it good?” he asks pulling back slightly, biting his bottom lip.

Derek nods. “Yeah. Really good.” He’s surprised Stiles has to ask. “For— for you?”

Stiles lips form a slow grin. “Yeah. Of course I don’t have anything to compare it to, in the dick/ass sex genre—”

Derek bites his neck playfully earning a laugh. When he pulls back again Stiles is smiling softly at him. He swallows and turns his head to the side, looking away.

“What?” Derek asks, concern heightened by the contemplative scent Stiles is suddenly giving off.

Stiles swallows again and when he turns back his eyes are shining. Derek rubs at the corner of Stiles’ eyes with his thumbs.

“What?” he asks again.

Stiles bites his lip and shakes his head. “Sorry.”

Derek furrows his brow, worried he’s missed something that upset Stiles. “Are you hurt? Did I—”

“No,” Stiles says and grabs onto Derek’s wrist where his hands are still on Stiles’ face. “Just feeling overwhelmed maybe. It’s a lot.”

Derek smiles hesitantly.

“Last time I had sex I thought I was going to die, thought maybe I was going out of my mind. It was— it wasn’t this.”

Derek feels a flash of anger, a sympathetic surge for Stiles alone in Eichen House, scared and confused.

Stiles takes a deep breath. “But this— it’s. It’s good.” His smile wobbles a little, but his scent is sweeter.

Derek is overwhelmed by how much of Stiles he’s allowed to see. He gets the jokes, the Business Time references, the exaggerated smarmy winks. And he gets the vulnerability, the tears, the raw emotion. He’s never had all of someone before, never wanted it. He never knew it could feel like this. Never knew how deep his affection would run, how deeply protective he would feel.

He stares down at Stiles, unsure how to articulate all of that. So he kisses him, just a gentle press of lips.

“I love you,” Derek says softly when he breaks the kiss.

Stiles nods, a little of his usual bravado returning. “You gave me the business,” he says, smirking.

Derek huffs a laugh and rests his forehead on Stiles’ shoulder.

**

Derek wakes up slowly the next morning. Stiles is pressed along his side as a sweaty, hot mass. His mouth is hanging open, a little bit of drool pooling on his pillow, and when Derek slides his hand along Stiles’ waist he snuffles and mumbles something incomprehensible.

Derek grins and kisses his forehead.

“Don’ go,” Stiles mumbles and shifts impossibly closer. His voice is a croak, and he doesn’t even open his eyes. Derek’s not completely sure he’s actually awake.

“I’m not,” Derek says and rubs his hand along Stiles’ back. He was thinking of getting up and running, but Stiles in a warm bed is hard to leave.

Stiles hums and makes a clumsy sort of kissing face, like he’s hoping he’ll magically collide with Derek eventually.

Derek chuckles and closes the distance between them and kisses Stiles. “You’re asleep.”

“Nuh uh,” Stiles insists, eyes still closed.

Derek rolls his eyes, but rearranges them so Stiles is the little spoon and Derek is curled around behind him. He strokes a hand along Stiles’ bare thigh and then wraps it loosely around Stiles’ dick.

“Mmm,” Stiles murmurs.

Derek kisses his neck, dragging his teeth back up the path he just made with his lips. He starts a slow slide up and down Stiles’ dick.

Stiles smiles and turns his neck a little so he can see Derek’s face, eyes half lidded. “Hi,” he croaks and kisses Derek, stale morning breath and all.

They make out and when Stiles comes, he returns the favor for Derek, fully awake by then so there’s an uptake in conversation.

Derek comes and is lying on his back, looking up at the ceiling and breathing heavily when Stiles flops down on top of him.

“Let’s have a naked day,” Stiles suggests and bites Derek’s pec.

Derek smiles and grabs Stiles’ ass. “We’re going to Eunice’s tonight.”

“Well, okay,” Stiles says. “Until then.”

Derek squeezes Stiles’ ass. “Okay. What do you want for breakfast?”

“Not oatmeal,” Stiles says and props his chin up on his fist on Derek’s chest.

“Pancakes and bacon?”

Stiles grins. “Perfect.”

**

Derek has no problem being naked, so he stays that way a lot longer than Stiles. Derek makes them breakfast and they eat it in bed while watching things on Netflix. Stiles pulls on a pair of sweatpants when he gets up to get something downstairs.

“Oh, so naked day is over?” Derek teases as Stiles leaves the room.

Stiles pokes his head back in and sticks out his tongue.

“Naked day is just naked Derek day, isn’t it?” Derek hollers as Stiles pads down the stairs.

Stiles bursts back into the room a half a minute later, carrying his backpack. “Every day should be naked Derek day. Let’s be real.”

Derek rolls his eyes and pulls Stiles down onto the bed.

They spend the rest of the day that way. Derek reads his book while Stiles does a little homework. Derek stays mostly naked, and Stiles leaves his sweatpants on “because it seems weird to study World War II with my junk hanging out.”

They shower late afternoon and put on clothes to go to Eunice’s house for Stiles’ late birthday party.

The theme of the evening is apparently Stiles’ Favorite Things. The table is decorated with disconcerting cut outs of Derek’s head on popsicle sticks poking out of the various foods and bowls of candy, along with pictures of Stiles’ favorite superheroes, Star Wars characters, a picture of Maureen that Derek is pretty sure she added herself. There’s a banner of pictures of plaid flannel shirts with Happy Birthday spelled out, a letter per shirt. There’s Mountain Dew and curly fries and even a bowl of corn nuts because Eunice’s hobby is teasing Derek. There are vases full of red vines and pixie sticks. It’s kind of overwhelming, and it clearly took a lot of time and effort.

Stiles’ eyes widen when he sees the dining room, and that Eunice and Maureen are both wearing plaid flannel shirts and Paul and Dorothy have on superhero t-shirts.

“Holy shit,” Stiles says reverently as he surveys the scene.

He’s rarely completely silent unless he’s surprised, and he doesn’t seem to know what to say.

“This— this is—“ he swallows and grins at Eunice. “You rock.”

Eunice laughs lightly and grabs his face and kisses him square on the lips. “You only turn 18 once,” she says. She hands him a Mountain Dew and pushes him further into the room, where he gets snagged by Maureen and they move on into the living room.

“I think he likes it,” Derek says to Eunice. He feels a little emotional, and he’s not sure why.

“He deserves to feel special,” she says and squeezes Derek’s arm. “I know he already had a party back home, and you’ve probably found all sorts of ways to celebrate together—” there’s a disturbing smirk Derek ignores— “but we wanted to do something for him too. It was a group effort.”

Derek nods. “Well,” he says awkwardly. “Thank you.”

Eunice kisses his cheek quickly. “Go save him from Maureen.”

Derek smiles and complies. There’s a whole group in the living room. There are people from the library and the book club that Derek thinks Stiles has only met a couple of times. But clearly it’s an excuse to have a party, and in a quiet town that usually draws a crowd.

“Any more nightmares?” Maureen is asking him quietly when Derek approaches.

“Not really,” Stiles says. “A few bad dreams once in awhile, but nothing like before. I think what we did worked.”

“Good,” she says with a smile. “I’ve researched a few more spells we could try if that stops working, and I think when you go to college we should ward your dorm.”

Stiles nods. “Yeah okay. Thanks.”

“Any excuse to get in your bedroom,” Maureen says with an exaggerated wink.

Stiles groans. “I should’ve known. Save me Derek!” He leans against Derek and slips their fingers together.

As much as a party can be a good party, Derek enjoys Eunice’s tribute to Stiles’ favorite things. It’s slightly embarrassing that he’s the focus of a lot of the decor, but Stiles keeps cackling and nudging Derek when he comes across another “Eunice surprises Derek in the library” picture poking out of the bowl of Chex mix.

Later, after a few of the guests have trickled out, Eunice insists she wants to play the “human game” and so Stiles indulges her by helping to open the brand new Cards Against Humanity box. He hands her the rules.

“Oh honey,” Eunice says almost immediately. “If we have to remember when the last time we pooped was to start this game, I think the elderly are screwed.”

Stiles laughs loudly and takes the rules from Eunice and explains the basic premise of the game to everyone, dealing each player ten cards and showing everyone a couple of examples of how a round could go. It takes a few tries for it to click with everyone, but by the time the game ends, everyone is laughing and shouting over each other.

The house is noisy and joyful and it feels like family to Derek. Like pack, even. A year ago he wouldn’t have imagined he’d find a place with a group of people his grandparents’ age in a tiny town on the coast in northern California, yet he’s here, settled, thinking about maybe buying a house and making it official.

“I want to keep the decorations,” Stiles tells Eunice as they help her clean up after most of the group has gone.

Eunice smiles. “Sure thing, sugar. Leave me a couple of the Derek popsicle sticks, though. I want to stick them in the plants at the library.”

Stiles grins. “Obviously,” he says and gives her a tight hug.

She sends them home with a bag of her homemade Chex mix and several pieces of cake.

Stiles is quiet on the way home, and doesn’t break the silence until they’re climbing into bed and setting their phones on the night tables and taking off their shirts.

“That was—“ Stiles starts and then swallows. “I can’t believe they did all of that for me.”

Derek turns onto his side and rests his head on his arm. “She’s been planning that for weeks.”

Stiles nods and is quiet again for several moments. “It was just me and Scott for so long,” he says finally. “People tolerated me because they liked Scott. We were a package deal. Everyone— I talked too much and pushed too hard, and Scott was the only one who could take it.”

Derek smiles and strokes his fingers down Stiles’ arm. He doesn’t know what to say. That’s how he treated Stiles at the beginning too. He was always making jokes and needling Derek in life or death situations and Derek didn’t know how to handle someone who didn’t seem to take anything seriously.

Except he’s learned that isn’t why Stiles does that. It’s a defensive mechanism, a way to keep people from noticing his fear.

Stiles watches Derek, big eyes focused on him, searching for something. “And now there’s you,” Stiles says finally. “And all of them,” he says and gestures expansively toward the direction of the town. “Makes me think maybe I’ll be okay when I go to Berkeley in the fall. Maybe I’ll even make some friends.”

Derek leans closer and kisses him. “You have more than just Scott back home, though.”

Now I do,” Stiles agrees and stays close to Derek. “But Eunice and all of them, they’re friends I made because of me. Not because we all fight evil in the evil things hub of California.”

“But that’s how most people make friends,” Derek counters. “That’s the equivalent of making workplace friends. Eunice is my workplace friend. People rarely walk up to each other and just go, ‘hey, saw you across the room. We should be friends.’”

“Ha,” Stiles says and huffs a laugh. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

“Relationships change,” Derek adds. “We started out as—” he rolls his eyes but says it anyway— “fellow fighters of evil things in the evil things hub of California. And now—”

“And now we touch our underwear places together,” Stiles finishes with a smirk.

Derek rolls his eyes. “I’m going to ban dick touching if you don’t stop calling it that.”

“You lie,” Stiles says and scoots closer. “You totes want to touch me in my private underwear place too much to cut me off.”

Derek shakes his head and tries to appear resolute. “My point,” he says imperiously, “is. My point is, we may have started out as people fighting the same battle, and that’s all we were. But things change. We became friends and now,” he says and stops. “And now.”

Stiles smile spreads. “Yeah,” he says softly and presses his lips to Derek’s gently.

Derek swallows. “I love you.”

“I know,” Stiles says, smirk firmly attached.

Derek laughs softly and rolls his eyes.

**

About 7 Months Later…

“I’m here,” Stiles calls out as the door slams.

Derek smiles and continues chopping onions.

Stiles keeps talking as he moves through the house, dropping his bag and coat as he goes. Derek can’t hear everything he’s saying but it’s something about his Psychology class and a paper he managed to turn in two minutes before it would’ve been late.

“There you are,” Stiles says when he finally sees Derek. “Onions,” he adds wrinkling his nose. “Sexy.”

Derek laughs. “Tacos tonight.”

“Awesome,” Stiles says and kisses Derek’s neck, crowding close.

“Eunice and Stan are coming over too,” Derek reminds him, because Stiles’ hand has traveled lower.

Stiles groans and playfully bites Derek’s neck. “Eunice is such a cock block.”

Derek scrapes the chopped onions into a bowl. “Stan has a house he wants to show us tomorrow.”

“On the water?” Stiles asks, jumping up to sit on the edge of the counter.

“Yep. A little north of here.”

“Stats?”

“Three bedroom, three bath, a study, big living room, nice kitchen.”

Stiles grins and steals a chip. “Outdoor space?”

“A deck,” Derek says and eats the chip Stiles holds out for him.

“How much?”

“A lot.”

“I just like hearing you say it. It’s like a very particular sort of porn.”

Derek washes a tomato and grabs a serrated knife and rolls his eyes. He points to his laptop on the counter. “The listing is open.”

Stiles grabs the laptop. “Damn,” he says with a low whistle, reading the page.

“You knew my price range,” Derek grouses. Stiles is teasing him, but it’s still somewhat embarrassing. He’s just recently felt comfortable spending his inheritance.

Stiles tucks his foot around Derek’s thigh and attempts to pull him closer. He cups Derek’s hips when he’s near enough. “I just like that you’re buying something you want. It’s good,” he says and leans further in. “Kiss me. I missed you.”

Derek keeps his lips just out of reach. “Maybe you just want me for my money.”

Stiles narrows his eyes. “Look, mister. I’ve been jerking off to thoughts of you since back before I knew if you had indoor plumbing and was completely mystified by how you smelled so good all the time when you may or may not have bathed regularly.”

Derek smiles. “Your shower when you were at school,” he says and then presses his lips against Stiles’.

“Mmuh mmmew mit!” he says, muffled against Derek. “I knew it,” he clarifies as he pulls away. “Busted.”

“Not busted if I have to tell you I did it,” Derek says and goes back to his tomato chopping. “Can you set the table? They’ll be here in a few minutes.”

“It’s just Eunice,” Stiles says dismissively. “She doesn’t care.”

“Eunice and Stan,” Derek reminds him. “And probably Gawain.”

“Stan needs to get used to how we operate if he’s going to be part of the inner circle,” Stiles says, but hops off the counter anyway. “This is a grab your own plate out of the cupboard kind of household!”

This might be,” Derek says and gestures around the small cottage. “But if I spend millions on a beachfront home things might change.”

Stiles sighs dramatically. “I knew money would change you.”

Derek laughs as the doorbell rings.

Stiles runs to answer as Derek finishes the chopping. He hears Stiles hugging Eunice and making semi-awkward chit chat with Stan, who Stiles has only met a couple of times prior, in the library and on a previous visit home when he went with Derek to meet Stan at a house showing 45 minutes south of town.

They appear in the kitchen a few minutes later, Stiles carrying Gawain in his arms. Derek shakes Stan’s hand and gives Eunice a kiss on the cheek.

“Beer? Or I made a pitcher of margaritas,” Derek offers as he wipes his hands on a towel. He puts out the salsa and guacamole along with chips and sets a water bowl down on the floor for the dog.

“I never turn down a margarita,” Eunice says while Stan settles for a beer.

It’s a good evening after a few awkward moments at the beginning where no one is quite sure of their new dynamic. Stan’s a stoic guy. It’s one of the reasons Derek chose him as his realtor. They can drive from house to house without feeling like they have to talk at all.

But Stiles is a nervous chatterer, so he seeks to fill the empty conversational spaces with jokes that are more awkward as his discomfort grows.

By the time they’ve finished their tacos and are playing cards, though, things have loosened up a bit. Stan mentions his son went to Berkeley which piques Stiles’ interest, and then they’re talking about favorite Berkeley restaurants and the best routes to get out of town without getting stuck in traffic.

Eunice teaches them a new game. Usually when Derek plays cards with Eunice’s group they play Hand and Foot because it’s a good game for a group, but they learn how to play Whist instead.

“So do you want to meet at that house tomorrow, then?” Stan asks as he and Eunice are leaving.

Derek nods. “Yes. Thank you. 1:00?”

“Works for me,” Stan says, passing Eunice the dog before he shakes Derek’s hand and then Stiles’. “Thank you for the invitation tonight.”

Derek smiles at the formality. “We’re glad you could come.”

Eunice hangs back briefly as Stiles is walking Stan to the door. “Thanks, sugar,” she says sincerely and squeezes his arm. “Will you be around for Thanksgiving?” The dog looks at him from Eunice’s arms like he’s been wondering too.

He scratches Gawain under the chin. “We’re going to Beacon Hills,” Derek says, still getting used to the idea of negotiating holidays with someone.

“As you should,” Eunice says decisively. “I’ll save you a turkey sandwich.”

Derek smiles. “You bringing me lunch?”

Eunice laughs brightly and Gawain licks her cheek. “Don’t get used to it.”

“I know better than that,” Derek says as they move toward the door where Stiles and Stan have paused to wait for them. “See you Monday.”

Eunice passes Stan the dog and then gives Stiles a tight hug and whispers something in his ear before kissing him on the cheek. “Don’t wear Derek out, now,” she says over her shoulder as they walk to their car. “He gets moony-eyed and distracted after you’re in town, and I need him sharp.”

Stan groans and shakes his head.

Stiles laughs, head thrown back. “No promises,” he says and squeezes Derek’s ass exaggeratedly. “Gotta fit a whole week’s worth of lovin’ into one weekend.”

Derek and Stan exchange sympathetic grimaces as their oversharing significant others continue to banter about Derek and Stiles’ sex life.

Once the car has finally pulled away, Stiles grabs Derek’s hand and pulls him toward the house. “To the bedroom!”

“The kitchen still needs to be cleaned up—”

“Ugh. Leave it.”

“Are you going to clean it up tomorrow? Because the taco meat’s gonna be crusted on the pan.”

“Fine,” Stiles says dramatically. “Now c’mon. Tonight we’re gonna make love, you know how I know?” he quotes an unfortunately familiar refrain. “Because it’s Friday, and Friday night is the night we usually make love. Aww yeah. It’s business time, baby.” And then he proceeds to break into a loud version of the song, doing a weird shuffle dance as he backs toward the stairs, complete with lower lip biting and an exaggerated eye brow wiggle.

It shouldn’t be sexy or endearing, but improbably it is. “Improbably Sexy and Endearing” could be the title of their relationship thesis, Derek thinks as he follows Stiles up the stairs.

Stiles is still singing about how brushing their teeth is part of foreplay as he heads into the bathroom to do just that.

Once Stiles has climbed into bed, Derek takes off his shirt and pants. “Next thing you know I’m wearing absolutely nothing except for my socks. And you know when I’m down to just my socks what time it is.”

Stiles looks up from his phone, eyebrows raised, smile growing. “It’s business time!” he finishes. “Look at you playing along. Get over here.”

Derek smiles and gets into the bed next to Stiles. “Okay but none of this only making love for two minutes nonsense.”

Stiles pulls his shirt over his head and throws it on the floor. “Oh fuck no,” he murmurs against Derek’s lips. “We’re actually good at this. Sorry Jemaine.”

Derek flips the light off and then pulls Stiles on top of him. “This week went okay though?”

Stiles nods. “Project completed and turned in. The next few weeks are gonna suck until exams though. I probably won’t be able to come next weekend.”

Derek nods. “’s okay,” he says and kisses Stiles. They’ve done pretty well with the distance. They fought at first because Derek had a hard time accepting that Stiles really wanted to come visit as much as he insisted he did. But now he tries to take Stiles at his word about knowing what he needs and wants. “I could come over to Berkeley for a night or something, if you have time.”

Stiles grins. “We could do dinner Friday night. I’ll need to study most of the day Saturday though, and I have a group thing Sunday morning. I hate group projects. Have I mentioned that?”

“You have. Repeatedly.”

“I hate group projects,” Stiles says again and kisses Derek, sliding his lips down his jaw. “And you’re okay going to Beacon Hills for Thanksgiving?”

“Yeah,” Derek says. “Your dad and Scott would be disappointed if we didn’t.”

“Thanks, baby,” Stiles says quietly, the nickname twisting Derek’s stomach like it always does. “And Christmas? I was thinking I’d like to be in Beacon Hills that first week. With you, if you’re okay with that. And then come back here for the rest? New Year’s and stuff?”

Derek smiles and nods once. He’d go anywhere for Stiles is the thing. He’s still not great at articulating that. But he hopes he’s gotten better at showing it.

“Ring in the new year with the olds?” Stiles asks. “Maybe in a new house?”

Derek swallows. “Yes to the olds. Maybe to the new house. We’ll see after tomorrow.”

Stiles smiles and kisses him again.

Derek has a good feeling about the house. He’s looked at enough so far to know what he does and doesn’t want, and this one seems like a good combination of space and location with a need for minimal updates. He doesn’t mind a few projects, but he doesn’t want to gut and redo an entire kitchen or add an entire bathroom.

He wants Stiles to like it, too. Because even though they’re still a long way from talking about forever, Derek has a good feeling about their chances. Things aren’t perfect, but nothing ever is. Derek’s proud of how they’ve managed to negotiate the boundaries of their relationship and while they fight sometimes, they’ve gotten better at fighting fair and learning about each other in the aftermath.

“I love you,” Stiles says softly, almost like he can read Derek’s mind. He’s looking down at Derek, face open and full of affection, and Derek’s heart is full.

“You too,” Derek murmurs, leaning up to kiss Stiles.

“Now,” Stiles says, pulling away slightly. “I think someone promised someone else business time. And baby, I would like to give you the business.”

Derek rolls his eyes. “I guess business time is better than talk of rubbing our underwear places together.”

Stiles grins. “Growth. For both of us.”

Derek huffs a laugh and pulls Stiles closer.