It started with the acrid scent of anxiety, acetous and familiar. It rolled off Stiles, wafted with every flutter of his clothes, every movement. It tumbled from him in clouds, like a fog machine at a club, or mist down a mountain. If once was an incident and twice was a coincidence, Derek waited until a third such day had passed before inquiring.
“Work stress,” Stiles said over dinner. He waved his fork dismissively, but ate heartily with little more conversation.
The silence was unusual, but if his appetite wasn’t affected, it must not have been too much of an issue. Still, the explanation didn’t sit well with Derek, whose wolf bubbled with its own anxious energy—a response to the distress of its mate.
That night, he took steps to reestablish, and reassure his wolf of, their shared intimacy. He lingered in Stiles’ space, grazed his fingertips over whatever bare flesh he could reach. Stiles batted his eyelashes and smirked, flirty and devilish, pulling Derek into a minty kiss in the bathroom just after brushing his teeth. But the heat didn’t catch. Despite how they kissed and touched and sighed after falling in bed together, Stiles smothered their lust with sweet affection and a reminder of how early he’d had to set his alarm.
“Love you, Der,” he said softly, pressing a last kiss to Derek’s hungering mouth. It felt like placation or distraction, and Derek’s wolf was left even more unsettled. Stiles turned over and settled beneath the blankets, his back to his boyfriend. While it wasn’t quite rejection, it didn’t feel like an invitation, either.
Derek rested his palm on Stiles’ hip until his heartbeat steadied in sleep, slow and even. Then he took his hand away and burned moonlight staring at the ceiling, listening to Stiles breathe beside him.
Two weeks into their stilted distance, Stiles came home smelling like perfume. It didn’t mask his anxiety—the scent that so saturated their apartment, no amount of laundering could get it out of even Derek’s clothes—but it tainted it, sweetened it like decay, like flowers at a funeral. The artificial saccharine tones were so strong, in fact, Derek couldn’t discern anything legitimately amiss beneath it; just Stiles’ own scent, hints of Derek, and strongest among them, Stiles’ anxiety. Stiles smelled a little tired, but that wasn’t necessarily new either.
“Everything okay at work?” Derek asked, rinsing vegetables for dinner in the sink. He had a dish towel thrown over his shoulder, and used it to dry his hands once he turned off the water.
“Yeah,” Stiles said, and his heart stuttered. “Everything’s fine.” He dropped his messenger bag unceremoniously beside the coffee table and collapsed into the recliner. The impact sent the perfume, the anxiety, the exhaustion into the air, and it reminded Derek of those timed air fresheners public restrooms sometimes had.
He struggled to keep his distaste from his expression as he approached his boyfriend and rested his chilly hands on his shoulders. The muscles beneath the crisp dress shirt were tight, probably aching. Derek dug his thumbs and the heels of his palms into the tightest parts, darkening his veins as he absorbed the consequent pain.
Stiles moaned, breathy and pornographic, and melted beneath the touch.
Any other time, Derek would have continued the massage, turned it something more sensual, something more sexual. He would have worked Stiles to a helpless, begging mess, unsure of whether he wanted to be wound up or wound down by Derek’s touch. He would have carried him into the bedroom and forgotten dinner entirely while he worshipped every inch of Stiles’ flesh. He’d have sucked bruises into his pale skin, left faint imprints of his teeth, and wrenched at least two orgasms from him before offering to order pizza.
Instead, Derek swallowed thickly, too embittered by Stiles’ neglect and distance to respond to the lust slowly seeping into his scent, and just worked his stiff shoulders until they were loose and no longer achy.
Stiles noticed. “What’s wrong, Der?” He looked up with imploring brown eyes and such a sincere sense of worry, Derek just sighed and returned to the kitchen.
“Nothing,” he said. “I’ll just finish up dinner if you want to shower or whatever.”
“No,” Stiles insisted, standing abruptly from the recliner. How determined he sounded meant all of Derek’s work to loosen his shoulders went to waste. He strode into the kitchen, and though he didn’t hinder Derek’s food preparation, his presence didn’t make it easy, either. “What’s going on? Your face did that shudder thing, like a door slamming. That hasn’t happened in years. What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” Derek insisted, though he couldn’t leave Stiles with such a short and vague answer. “My wolf’s just acting up, is all. It’s fine. Animal stuff. It’ll pass.” He was grateful Stiles couldn’t hear the lie in his heartbeat—it wouldn’t pass. His wolf was set on its suspicions—betrayal, rival, threat—and Derek just tried to mitigate the eventual fallout. He put himself to task chopping onions and peppers.
Stiles sighed, and stalked up behind Derek, easing the knife from his trembling hand with a familiar touch. Then he guided Derek to face him with fingers through his belt loops, his lips pursed, concentrating, observing, deducing in that way Stiles always did.
Derek yielded, though it disappointed him. He wanted to be angry, to fling the accusations at Stiles and let the wolf rage and howl and snarl.
“Talk to me,” Stiles pressed, gentle despite his firm grip on Derek’s hips. “What’s your wolf fussing over? What can I do to calm it down?”
“Be honest with me,” Derek grumbled. “You can be honest with me.”
Stiles frowned, confused. “I am honest with you.”
Derek shook his head and tried to step around Stiles, but Stiles wouldn’t have it. He stepped along with Derek, boxing him against the kitchen counter. “Derek,” he insisted. “I am honest with you.”
“Then why did you come home smelling like perfume?” Derek snarled. His wolf, like any wild animal, wouldn’t remain compliant in its cage for long. His eyes flashed and his fangs descended when he grabbed Stiles bodily and buried his face against his neck, taking deep, gulping breaths of his boyfriend’s scent.
Stiles let him; still, but not stiff; worried, but not fearful.
“You smell like someone else,” he rumbled. His claws extended, but they pierced neither cloth nor flesh, flexing helplessly and safely away from Stiles. “You smell like you’re lying. Why are you lying?”
“Because I didn’t want this to happen,” Stiles murmured. His muscles relaxed in Derek’s hold, and he tentatively ran his hands up the wolf’s flanks, sure and steady in his touch. He understood the wolf better than Derek often gave him credit for, and it quieted when Stiles soothed it.
“What do you mean?”
“There’s a woman at work,” Stiles said.
Derek growled, heckles rising. Stiles kept rubbing his sides, as if Derek hadn’t reacted.
“She’s new and really talented and really…flirty,” Stiles explained. “I’ve told her about you—hell, most people tell me to shut up about you—but she’s persistent. But my hands are tied, Derek, because ‘that’s just how she is’ and ‘she’s too valuable’ and ‘the department needs her, so suck it up, Stilinski. Do whatever you have to in order to keep her interested.’ So I stopped putting up much of a fight about it and…I just…”
“…just what?” Derek pressed, nuzzling beneath Stiles’ jaw. He dragged open mouthed kisses against his throat, rubbed Stiles’ pale skin pink with his scruff—scent marking him.
“I feel so dirty, coming home to you after a day with her,” Stiles admitted. “It doesn’t feel right to touch you or kiss you or, or sleep with you.”
“Are you doing that with her, instead?” Derek asked, low and challenging and resigned.
“No!” Stiles said quickly. “God, no! Jesus, Derek, how could you—? Why would you—? No.” He eased himself out of Derek’s embrace, mindful of his claws—as if Derek would ever hurt him—and stormed into the living room.
Derek followed, wounded, but curious, and willed his claws and fangs to retract.
Stiles pulled out his work laptop, turning it on. Its fan whirred to life, and his fingertips flew across the keys. Typing typing typing, sometimes clicking. Tap tap tickety tap. “Here,” he said, spinning the computer to face Derek. “That’s my work email. All the official correspondence between me and her, and me and my bosses. Go on,” he challenged, offended. “Read them if you don’t believe me! I’ve been trying to get her to leave me alone, and I’ve done everything in my power to make that happen.”
“An email will neither confirm nor deny an affair, Stiles,” Derek said.
Sputtering indignantly, Stiles rose from the couch, where he’d sat to access the laptop, and all but shouted, “I’m not having an affair, Derek! I love you! I can’t control other people; I can only control myself. I can only stop her from rubbing all up on me after she’s already started. I can only stay away from her for so long, because I’m stuck training her.”
Derek wasn’t swayed.
Stiles made a strangled, helpless sound in the back of his throat. “What do I have to do to convince you? Can’t you hear my heartbeat? It’s steady, Derek. I’m not lying.”
It wasn’t steady. Stiles was stressed, tired—it always made his heart a little irregular. And Derek knew what he’d smelled on him, what he’d so desperately tried to cover up in the kitchen just a few moments prior.
“Why don’t you believe me?” Stiles pleaded.
Derek dropped his gaze.
“Fine,” Stiles said, defeated. He pulled a small notepad and pen from his messenger bag, hastily scribbling something on its front page. “This is the password to the security system of the office. You can watch the camera footage yourself to see how things are. And I’ll leave my email up, so you can read those too, if you want.” His steps towards Derek were tentative, but he stopped just short of touching distance. “I’m going to go take a shower and turn in. Look at everything yourself first, then decide if I’m lying, okay? Please.” He took those last few steps and pressed a kiss to Derek’s cheek. “I love you, Derek. Just you. We’ve been through too much. You mean too much for me to throw it away over some new hire at my job.” Then he left the living room, sadness the only scent in his wake.
Derek waited until the shower ran before lifting his gaze to the laptop and password sitting on the coffee table. A few keystrokes and he’d know for certain whether Stiles was seeing someone else. Not sleeping with—no, Derek would have scented that miles away—but developing feelings for someone, realizing someone was a better match…that was different. Derek couldn’t smell that.
But…he loved Stiles, and he wanted to trust Stiles.
Once upon a time, his mother told him love was actively choosing someone every day. Choosing to be with them, choosing to love them, choosing to trust them. It came as naturally as breathing to Derek: choosing Stiles, loving Stiles, trusting Stiles. Like air filling his lungs, he didn’t notice its absence until he choked. But like when Stiles had panic attacks, the air was there, despite how he couldn’t breathe, and maybe Derek was panicking. Maybe he just needed to stop and take a breath, intentionally focus on and feel the air fill his lungs. Maybe he just needed to stop and trust Stiles, intentionally focus on the foundation of their relationship and feel the love between them.
Derek left the laptop open and the password untouched. Turning towards the bedroom they shared, he left the emails unread.