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Won't Do Me No Good Washing in the River

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Length: 00:54:30

 ~*~

Ain't going back to Barton Hollow
Devil gonna follow me e'er I go
Won't do me no good washing in the river
Can't no preacher man save my soul

- "Barton Hollow" by The Civil Wars

Stiles has egg salad sandwiches waiting when Derek finishes changing the oil in the truck, but Derek isn't careful enough, doesn't keep his face in check when the smell hits his nose, and Stiles says, "What?" His eyes are sad, his shoulders slumped.

"You don't like celery," Derek says, reluctantly. He's tried to stop telling him this stuff, unless Stiles catches him out. It's starting to hurt them both too much.

"Oh. Sorry," Stiles says, and sets his sandwich down on the plate, pushes it away.

"No, it's fine. Eat," Derek tells him, and eats his, even though he hates celery, too.

~*~

"It's weird, you still smell like him sometimes," Isaac said, a week before Derek left Beacon Hills in the middle of the night. "A lot. Like he hasn't been gone that long."

"I haven't gotten rid of his things," Derek said, using the excuse of taking his change from the cashier as a reason to avoid looking at Isaac.

It wasn't a lie, so Isaac didn't question it.

~*~

Stiles has nightmares sometimes, and Derek wakes to Stiles' thudding heart and clammy skin pressing tight against him. Derek never asks what they're about, because he doesn't think he can bear to know. Instead, Derek soothes him with his hands and his mouth, lets Stiles bury his fear in Derek's body, because it's the only time he ever really asks Derek for anything.

But Stiles never seems any different the morning after a nightmare, like it doesn't stick with him once the sun comes up. He makes breakfast--Derek long ago ceded most of the cooking to Stiles--and drinks coffee out of a chipped Space Ghost mug Derek bought for a quarter because Stiles picked it up and looked at it twice when they were in the thrift store. Derek watches him eat while trying not to look like he's watching him eat, because Stiles is too thin all the time now, skin stretched tight over the bones in his wrists, the knobs of his spine. So Derek counts every forkful that goes into his mouth, gives him a piece of his own bacon, and toasts him another English muffin to eat while Derek cleans up.

And then when that's done Stiles just sort of…waits to see what will happen next.

Neither of them work—Stiles can't, and Derek isn't going to leave him alone all day. They'll be okay as long as they don't go crazy with spending. They have a lot of spare time.

The house is immaculate, the yard pristine, the truck shiny enough to floss your teeth in the reflection. Their socks are all paired, the bird feeders are always full. Derek has chopped enough firewood to last ten years, for the fireplace they never use.

There's a lake nearby, icy cold, fed from the mountain snow melt, suitable for swimming only on the hottest days, of which there are few. They drive there sometimes and just sit and eat lunch. Other times, they go for long hikes, walking for miles with nothing but the sounds of their own footsteps and the woods around them. Derek has to remind Stiles to put on sunscreen, to wear the right shoes so he doesn't get blisters, to drink water. It's like Stiles has no concern at all for his own personal well-being, or maybe he just expects Derek to shoulder that responsibility.

Derek figures he probably should, since he's the reason Stiles is here at all.

~*~

"I've been hearing rumors," Deaton said, two months before Derek left town in the middle of the night. "I would advise you to deal with your grief the old-fashioned way."

Derek barked out a laugh. "You think you need to tell me how to deal with grief?"

Deaton didn't look the least bit abashed. "I suppose not. But remember, Derek: you never get back what you lost."

~*~

Deaton was right.

This Stiles isn't the Stiles who shared an apartment and a bed and an aloe plant with Derek, who laughed with his whole body at any stupid thing, who drove his Jeep through Beacon Hills like he owned the town. This Stiles keeps trying to sleep on the wrong side of the bed, until Derek finally gives in and switches. This Stiles sits and stares aimlessly out the windows for hours at a time, and never asks to go anywhere, never asks why they live the way they do.

This Stiles has no will to live.

Because he isn't living, really. Stiles is done living, finished up that task two years ago on a beautiful summer day, a day when no one should have had to die screaming. The Stiles who lives in this house is almost him, but not quite. There are a hundred things different about him, most of them little, but enough that Derek notices them. Enough that Derek can't ever forget this isn't the same Stiles they buried in Beacon Hills.

~*~

It was Derek's fault Stiles died.

Scott was the only one who said it to his face. 

~*~

They have a satellite dish and a four wheel drive truck, and that's enough to take care of acquiring everything else. They download books and movies and music, watch all the television they want. Stiles likes crime procedurals, sits riveted to every flavor of CSI and Law & Order, and maybe someday that'll stop feeling like a knife in Derek's gut.

The nearest town is barely a town, but it has stores where they can buy food and clothes, a restaurant with good burgers, a bakery with great donuts. Everyone is friendly, but not too friendly. Derek and Stiles keep to themselves, because they have to, and because their house is isolated, clinging to the side of the mountain, on the edge of hundreds of acres of wilderness.

The perfect place to hide a body, Derek thought to himself once, and had to clamp his hands down over his mouth so he wouldn't scream.

~*~

"You need to hang tight, man," Boyd said, two days after the funeral. "Don't do anything stupid."

He didn't wait for Derek to answer, just squeezed his shoulder before he walked away, because Boyd always had Derek's back, and never wasted time repeating himself after he'd made his point, but the look on his face said he suspected it was already too late.

He was right.

~*~

The silence is the hardest part.

Stiles sleeps a lot, eight or ten hours every night, and then naps for a few hours most afternoons. He curls up on the couch, dull and listless, if Derek makes him get out of bed before he's ready. It's not worth it. Derek leaves him alone, finds other things to do.

Derek likes to be in the house, though, when Stiles wakes up, because the first thing he does is find Derek, lean against his back while Derek does the dishes, or sit on his knee at the kitchen table while Derek opens the mail. That's one thing that didn't change--Stiles came out of the ground craving Derek's touch. He still sleeps every night cuddled into Derek's side (the wrong side, the wrong side--but it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter, Derek tells himself).

Stiles loves jigsaw puzzles now, so Derek buys them by the dozens. He puts them together on a crooked folding table from the thrift store, while Derek sprawls on the couch with his sock feet in Stiles' lap and watches nature shows. Stiles chews on his bottom lip, permanently chapped, and turns the pieces over in his bony fingers, and goes hours without saying anything.

Derek fucks him relentlessly sometimes, just to hear him make noise, to hear him say his name.

~*~

They fought, only three hours before Stiles died, because they argued all the time back then. It was just who they were.

"Listen to me! I'm right!" Stiles had shouted, but Derek had been so sure.

No, not sure. Stubborn.

~*~

Stiles never gets angry about anything now, but he never smiles, either.

~*~

Two days after Stiles died, someone found his phone in the park and helpfully called the first number they saw in it, which was Derek's.

The ridiculous, implausible hope that flared in Derek's chest when he saw Stiles' name, heard the jaunty ringtone Stiles had assigned to himself, died a wrenching death when Derek answered and it wasn't him. Of course it wasn't him. It couldn't be him. He was at the funeral home, being patched back together so they could bury him whole in his favorite T-shirt.

"Keep the phone," Derek told the helpful stranger, and then deleted Stiles from his contacts.

~*~

Derek spends full moons with the local pack, which is tight-knit and friendly. Their alpha is a tall, sturdy, gray-haired woman whose husband is about twenty years her junior and always looks smugly content when Derek sees him. Derek envies him sometimes—his place in the pack that requires little from him, but still offers status and security, and the fondness in his wife's eyes when she looks at him.

Her name is Danita and she was wary of Derek at first, skeptical of his intentions, but she agreed to talk to him. All the tension went right out of the room when Derek walked in, leading Stiles by the arm, and he didn't even have to give the speech he'd practiced, because Danita took one look at them and said they could stay. Derek hadn't needed werewolf senses to know she pitied him. Everyone in that room pitied him.

"She seemed nice," Stiles had said vaguely, when they got back in the truck. He knew all about werewolves by then—knew Derek was one—but was largely indifferent to it. That had worked in their favor this time. They were no threat to anyone.

Stiles slept through the first full moon while Derek paced from room to room, listening to Danita's pack howl and yip. They didn't come near the house, even though it was technically their territory. Respectful.

The next time, Derek slipped out for a few hours in the middle of the night, and Stiles never even knew he was gone. Now, Derek leaves well before dusk, always on foot, so Stiles has the truck in case of an emergency. He comes back in time for breakfast.

Derek's grateful for the pack's acceptance. He and Stiles had to get far enough away that the remaining wolves in Beacon Hills--all bitten, all young, because Peter conveniently disappeared the day of the funeral--couldn't sense Derek at all, or tell where he'd gone. Even so, Derek himself, both a born wolf and the alpha, had lived with shadows of his old pack in his head for months, fleeting twinges of emotion, disjointed dreams. Being around Danita's pack helps, even if it isn't his own, and never can be.

Danita's pack has humans among them—happy, bright-eyed humans who've never had to go to war—who drink around a big bonfire, laughing and gossiping and dozing until their wolves come back. They always tell him Stiles is welcome, but Derek never asks him to come. He keeps the full moons for himself, a chance to wrestle and howl and roll in the dirt. An excuse to stay away all night.

Derek is used to living with ghosts, has done so most of his adult life, but he's never felt more haunted than when he's lying in bed next to Stiles.

~*~

A letter came in the mail for Stiles, a month before they left Beacon Hills in the middle of the night. Something to do with grad school, and that was what made Derek realize the enormity of what he'd done, of everything he'd taken from Stiles twice. Once by getting him killed, and then by bringing him back.

He ran it through the paper shredder in the spare bedroom, the one Stiles had always insisted they use, because he was a cop's kid and he knew the damage it could cause when a stranger pretended to be you.

~*~

Derek finds the notebook stashed away in the pantry, behind the energy drinks Stiles likes--the ones Derek told him he likes--and a giant bag of generic Froot Loops. There's a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pen stuck in the wire coil, bright green ink smudged on the rubber grip.

It's not the first pen Stiles has used. The pages are full of scribbles in several colors of ink and also, for a few pages, pencil.

liked grape jelly

played lacrosse

met Derek @ sixteen

read all the Tolkien books

The notes are hastily scribbled, some nearly illegible, and Derek can picture Stiles sneaking in here to record them, bracing the notebook on the canned goods shelf, afraid of getting caught. They fill page after page, all the bits and pieces Derek has given him, intentionally or not.

As he scans the list, seeing stuff he's sure he never uttered out loud to Stiles, it dawns on Derek that even when he hasn't actually said anything he's been offering Stiles his favorite foods, buying him his usual clothes, nudging him toward a hundred different things without even really realizing what he was doing. He thought he was helping Stiles remember.

But Stiles isn't remembering anything. He's memorizing.

Derek puts the notebook back. He fumbles it closed and slides it back behind the Vitamin Water. The last thing he sees as it's falling shut in his hands nearly sends him to his knees.

Derek loved him

Derek loved him. As if Stiles is writing these things about someone else. And that's the problem, isn't it? He is.

The wan, vacant thing that lives in Derek's house--the living, breathing cadaver that's written down the details of Stiles' life like a set of instructions--isn't really a person at all. It's just an empty shell Derek has tried to fill up with his memories of Stiles.

>

~*~

"I nearly went crazy when I thought I'd lost her," the old man said, after Derek handed him a thick stack of money for a tiny bottle. Through the window, Derek could see the old man's wife sitting on the porch swing, lazily rocking herself with one foot, watching the kids across the street toss a football back and forth.

She had looked peaceful, content, a perfect picture of afternoon repose. Derek hadn't known any better, then.

~*~

It takes a few days for Derek to work up the nerve to get the notebook out again. He wants to burn it. He wants to keep it forever, so he isn't ever this foolish again. He forgot, for a little while back in Beacon Hills, that he doesn't get to be happy. He forgot that he ruins everything he touches.

But there's one thing he's always been good at, isn't there?

Derek sits at the kitchen table with a glass of milk and reads the notebook from the beginning, getting angrier and sadder with every page, but that's good. He's got to get angry at himself, let the rage build, remember what he's good at, because he can't be weak and he can't be soft and he can't be sentimental if he's going to put Stiles back in the ground.

Now Derek knows there's something worse than killing someone you love, and that's killing them twice.

~*~

Stiles opened his eyes again for the first time nine days after he died, tucked warmly into their bed, Derek curled loosely around him, wanting him to feel safe and protected when he woke up. It took Stiles another day to move on his own, two more to finally speak.

His first words were, "Don't let go." Derek gently helped him turn over, and Stiles burrowed into Derek's chest, his hands grasping weakly at Derek's shirt, and Derek felt one cruelly brief moment of relief before Stiles said his next words, which were, "I can't remember your name, but I don't want you to let me go."

It wasn't like Stiles was a blank slate. He knew how to tie his shoes, make a grilled cheese, operate the TV remote. He knew who won the last World Series, and why Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver were divorced, and all the words to "Hit Me Baby One More Time," but the rest of it, the memories and life experiences that made him Stiles, didn't come back right away.

Derek did what he could to help, trying to remind him, to fill in the blanks without overwhelming him. He didn't want to go too fast, make him remember too much all at once, and that was a handy excuse to be as selective as he wanted when it came to what he shared and what he didn't. He'd tell the others later, Derek decided, when Stiles was stronger and remembered more, when he was more like his old self.

But that didn't happen. Progress was slow to non-existent, and the longer Derek kept Stiles a secret the harder it became to make himself tell everyone else. He imagined confessing what he'd done, and then on top of that confessing that Stiles had already been back for weeks, and then on top of that confessing that Stiles was having trouble remembering a lot of important things. Derek couldn't bring himself to do it.

Stiles probably wouldn't have cared, even if Derek had explained it to him. He never questioned anything, never wanted to know more than Derek told him. He had no curiosity about anything, and that was how Derek knew just how bad things were.

Derek had known what he did was wrong—even the old man had reminded him of that as he took Derek's money--but he'd thought when Stiles was finally back, when he was walking among them again and grinning like his face would split and driving them all crazy with his constant questions…Derek had just figured everyone would forgive him. Having Stiles back would be worth it, to all of them.

As he'd emptied the little bottle into the steaming bathtub, Derek's biggest fear had been that it wouldn't work at all, his next biggest that Stiles would be left with scars from the wounds that killed him. But it did work, and when Derek pulled him up out of the water Stiles looked good—unblemished and whole. And he smelled good. He smelled perfect.

On the outside, Stiles was fine. It was the inside that wasn't right.

 >

~*~

Later, Derek will barely be able to think about what might have happened if he hadn't made himself read every last page in Stiles' notebook. How close he came to--

Halfway through, it changes. The words Stiles has scrawled on the pages go from being things he's written about someone else—the old Stiles he doesn't remember—to being about himself. They go from being a list of facts to a list of confessions, each one more heartbreaking than the last.

I always feel like I'm wearing someone else's clothes.

He doesn't tell me things I should know anymore. I think he gave up.

I think he'd be happier if I were gone.

He has pictures of us and when I see them it looks like me but it doesn't feel like me.

I think I died. I think I died and he brought me back but I'm not right.

I love him but he doesn't love me. He loves the other me.

Derek stares at the last one, and his heart just hurts. Stiles is trying so hard to be what Derek wants him to be, and it's making him miserable. He's sad and frustrated and scared, and a million other unpleasant things Derek would have sworn he'd walk over hot coals if it meant Stiles never had to feel them for a minute, and yet here he is, the cause.

And this Stiles isn't the same Stiles Derek lost, but Derek was wrong: he's not just a shell. He's his own person--he's just been buried under all the stuff Derek's heaped on him without realizing it was hurting him. Derek had thought he was helping Stiles uncover his old self, but instead he's been slowly suffocating him under the weight of his longing for a person who is never coming back.

The old Stiles is never coming back. For a moment Derek feels grief so raw and familiar he can barely stand it.

But this Stiles is here and he loves Derek. He does. It's not just another check mark on the list, another thing he has to pretend to remember—it's something Stiles has known right from the moment he opened his eyes, along with the words to cheesy pop songs and how to make a grilled cheese. One of the first things he said was, "Don’t let me go."

Stiles is different now in a lot of ways, but the core of him is still there, because Derek was wrong about that, too--all the things Stiles can't remember aren't what made him Stiles. He'll always be Stiles, even with all new memories and experiences and interests and likes and dislikes, because he'll always be stubborn and resilient, and he'll always love with his whole heart, every time, even when the other person doesn't deserve it.

Derek has been so focused on fixing him--on looking through him to focus on the Stiles in the past—that he forgot to live here in the present with him, to just love him as he is now.

Stiles died because Derek didn't listen to him. He's listening now.

~*~

"I miss him, too, you know," the sheriff said, six weeks after Stiles died. "You could come around." He looked haggard, and his eyes were always red, and his hands shook every time he saw Derek.

That was the hardest one, the sheriff.

~*~


Sometimes I think he's afraid of me.

He says we were happy before. I believe him.

He must have loved me a lot to bring me back. I wish I could remember it.

I don't know how to make him happy.

He's beautiful.

I hate Vitamin Water.

~*~

"You should talk to him," Isaac said, an hour before Stiles died. "Before we leave."

Stiles was outside with Scott and Allison, checking the weapons one last time, still angry. Boyd and Isaac were in the house with Derek, double-checking Google Maps.

"We'll be fine," Derek said.

~*~

Stiles sits on the front steps sometimes, hunched down over his bent knees, and watches the ants and the beetles crossing back and forth on the gravel path. He used to like to sway back and forth on the porch swing, but Derek took it down last fall. "Rotting," Derek said, gesturing at the perfectly good wood, and Stiles didn't question it.

He's still thin, his shoulder blades two visible ridges even through his sweatshirt, and the back of his neck looks so pale and vulnerable that Derek has to put his hand over it. Stiles leans into him, as always, wiggles his way under Derek's arm.

Stiles pokes at the ants with a stick and Derek finally tells him the truth, all of it. Every last, brutal detail, because he owes him this, after what he's done. He tells him about the day in the park, the fight just before, the old man with the bottle. He tells him how he used his bare hands to dig Stiles' body out of the cold, damp dirt they'd heaped on top of his coffin, gagging at the smell of the chemicals, the thick black stitches holding Stiles together where something bigger and stronger than Derek had torn him apart. He tells him about the old woman and the porch swing, and the letter from grad school.

But that isn't the hardest part. The hardest part is telling Stiles how he really feels about him, the ugly, twisted-up mess of it, and how confused Derek is all the time. There's the old Stiles and the new Stiles and maybe a Stiles who never existed and never will, and he doesn't even know which is which anymore, and he's sorry. He's so sorry.

Stiles cries.

It's the most emotion Derek's seen from him in years.

>

~*~

"I know someone who can help," Peter said, the day after Stiles died. In his right mind, Derek never would have listened to him.

But Derek was pretty fucking far from his right mind.

~*~

>

They spend the next two days like overly polite strangers. On the third night, Stiles has a nightmare, but this time he inches over to the edge of the bed and hugs his pillow. When Derek reaches for him, Stiles shrugs his hand away. He rebuffs him again the next morning, and Derek doesn't try again.

"If I asked, would you—undo it?" Stiles asks him a few nights later, in the dark, a foot of cold and empty bed between their shoulders.

"Yes," Derek says. And he would. He almost did. But now he'll only do it if that's what Stiles wants.

Stiles is quiet for a long time, and Derek starts to wonder if he was hoping for a different answer, and then Stiles asks, "Would you let me go? Somewhere else?"

"Yes. Or." Derek has to stop and steady his breathing. "I could go."

Stiles doesn't say anything else before he falls asleep, but it's a little better after that, less tense, and Derek has a terrible suspicion that all this time Stiles has felt trapped. It makes a difference to Stiles, knowing he has options.

Derek spends another week waiting for Stiles to decide what he wants, and it's torture but he's not going to tell him that; he's done trying to influence him. All Derek can do is what he's always done: keep living, keep doing, wait for what comes next and then try to live through that, too. He fixes a leak in the roof, replaces the bathroom faucet. If he's the one who has to go, he wants to leave Stiles in a house that will hold up.

They take a trip into town on a windy fall day, a mail and groceries run ahead of an expected storm, with a stop at the thrift store on the way home. Derek's as quick and efficient as always, grabbing a couple pairs of jeans and a how-to book about raising chickens before he looks for Stiles, who always dawdles over the jumbled shelves of cheap kitchen goods and battered knickknacks. For a few seconds Derek doesn't see him—can barely smell him over the thrift store miasma--and his heart is suddenly in his throat, certain Stiles has bolted. Finally made his decision, and his decision was to abandon Derek in Saver Town, walk out of Derek's life with nothing but the clothes on his back. Stiles doesn't even have any money. He doesn't even have a wallet.

Then a big, barrel-chested biker moves just enough and Derek's knees nearly buckle with relief when he sees Stiles at the back of the store. There's a red and orange flannel shirt draped over his arm, and he's chewing on his bottom lip, lingering over the sweaters. Ugly, old man things in shades of pea green and faded burgundy and dull brown.

Derek walks over and nods as Stiles touches the green one. "That looks warm," he says, as casually as he can. No influence.

Stiles hesitates, eyes flicking from Derek to the sweater, and then he plucks it off the rack, looking both terrified and determined.

>

~*~

Derek sat in the front row at Stiles' funeral, between the sheriff and Scott. Sat dry-eyed while they both broke down, his fingers clutched tight around the tiny bottle. Waiting.

~*~

Stiles' flannel shirts get pushed to the back of the closet, until finally Derek shoves them in a trash bag and drops them off at the thrift store, back from whence they came. They're replaced with more sweaters.

Winter comes all at once, nearly a foot of snow falling overnight, and Derek comes back from the next full moon with frost clinging to the scruff on his face, snow packed into the treads of his boots. Stiles' hair gets long and shaggy, curling against the back of his neck, and he doesn't cut it. He asks Derek to get them some snowshoes, and they spend hours waddling through the woods, pushing each other over now and then just to keep things interesting.

Derek puts away the old pictures, replaces them with new ones he prints from their computer, badly taken selfies full of Stiles' ugly cardigans and Derek's stubble. Spreads peanut butter on celery and gives it to Stiles as his snack. Throws away the Vitamin Water, and doesn’t buy more.

They have a fight.

It takes forever to get started, because Derek keeps backing down, apologizing, refusing to rise to the bait. The thought of fighting with Stiles ever again makes his stomach heave. But Stiles goads him, insults him, until they scream at each other, and Stiles throws the salt shaker at Derek's head, and tells him he hates him, and Derek thinks, This is what I deserve.

Stiles fists his hands in Derek's shirt and Derek doesn't even try to defend himself, and a few minutes later they're fucking for the first time in months, rutting against each other on the kitchen floor, and right before he comes Derek says, "Please don't make me leave. I can't lose you again."

>

~*~

"You can't hide forever," Erica said, eleven weeks after the night in the cemetery, the day before Derek and Stiles left town in the middle of the night. Derek's blood had turned to ice water, and he opened his mouth to deny everything. Then she said, "Just because he's gone doesn't mean we're going to let you lock yourself in your house and never come out."

She was right, though. They couldn't hide forever. Not in Beacon Hills, anyway.

~*~

They argue a lot after that, about every little thing, and Stiles bosses Derek around, and Derek gets pissy about it, and Stiles throws popcorn at his head, and it's the best Derek has felt in a long time.

The snow melts, and Stiles sleeps a little less and talks a little more. The hollows under his cheekbones fill in, and his skin turns brown from the sun. The notebook disappears from the pantry, and Derek doesn't ask where it goes.

Stiles finally starts asking questions--about his past, and Derek's past, and their shared past—and Derek realizes that all this time he mistook Stiles' silence for acceptance, when that wasn't the case at all. Stiles has always been smart, and he knew something was off, must have known it right from the start. He knew there was a reason they lived like they did, never saw anyone else. It wasn't that Stiles didn't notice or care—it was that he didn't want to know. Now he wants to know.

Telling Stiles about Derek's family is hard, but Derek tells him the whole story--the whole horrifying story--because he's done hiding things from him. Derek sees the moment when Stiles figures it out: it isn't Stiles who doesn't have anyone else, it's Derek. He has no family, because Peter hasn't really been family since the fire, and Derek hasn't been able to sense his betas at all in ages, which means Scott's their alpha now.

Stiles has people he can go back to, though, who would welcome him home, who probably would have welcomed him home in a heartbeat years ago, if Derek hadn't been such a coward. And while Derek would be content to stay here in the mountains forever with no one but Stiles, hanging around the periphery of a surrogate pack, it's not his decision. It's up to Stiles.

Derek doesn't have anyone's contact information anymore—he destroyed his phone and got a new one when they left Beacon Hills—but the Sheriff's Department is easy enough to Google. There's a picture of Stiles' dad on the front page, looking paternal and trustworthy. Derek can barely stand to look at it, guilty and ashamed, but Stiles touches the screen with one trembling finger, and the expression on his face is a mixture of confusion and longing. He doesn't know the man in the picture, but he wants to.

"I think—I might need some time," Stiles says, but he keeps the tab open, there in the corner of his browser, and Derek sees him looking at it once in a while. It's probably only a matter of time before they make the long drive to Beacon Hills, and when they get there Derek's going to have to tell the truth again, but that's okay. He's getting better at it.

~*~

"What if I never remember?" Stiles asked him, sixteen days after he died, seven days after he opened his eyes again for the first time. His teeth were worrying at his bottom lip, fingers anxiously tracing the veins on the underside of Derek's forearm.

"You will. I'll make sure you do," Derek said, because he didn't know the right answer was, It doesn't matter, I want you here either way.

~*~

There's a blue moon in July, and Danita's pack has an extra big party for it. Derek, feeling more nervous than he'd ever admit to, asks Stiles to come with him, and he does. Everyone goes out of their way to say hello to Stiles, and tell him they're glad he's there. Stiles accepts a beer, takes a seat at the bonfire, and immediately gets sucked into the mish-mash of conversation. He squirms, face scrunching up, when Derek tries to kiss him goodbye, and as Derek lopes off into the trees, Stiles is already trading werewolf gripes with someone else's human boyfriend.

When Derek and the others come crashing back into the clearing hours later, Stiles is a little drunk and a lot glad to see him. For the first time, Derek has someone there to greet him, to hand him his pants and squawk when he rubs his grimy face against a clean one, to tumble into bed later and burn off the last of the full moon running through his veins.

Another summer winds down, the third since Stiles died, but in their house it feels like spring, like rebirth, like starting over. Stiles is finally unstuck from that place where he wasn't the old Stiles, but he wasn't anyone else yet either. All those months sitting next to him on the couch, and Derek never saw it: Stiles with his puzzles, trying to make all the different parts fit, to create a whole picture from jagged pieces that didn't make any sense on their own. Stiles has it figured out now, now that Derek lets him choose his own pieces.

And he's not trying to make Derek happy anymore. But somehow, that's exactly what happens anyway.

Derek runs his fingers through Stiles' crazy hair, making it stick up even more, and grabs a handful of his old man sweater, and kisses the smile on Stiles' face.

"I love you," Derek says, and it's true. It's true again.

>

The End

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