“One drop of wine is enough to redden a whole glass of water.”
― Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame
None of it would ever have happened if Animal Control had just done their damned job.
As it was, Derek had been forced to take it upon himself to wrangle the dog that had spent the past week and a half climbing into his garbage cans at five in the morning every. Damned. Day. He'd been the one who had to drive it to the animal shelter; who'd had to smile through the haze of sleep deprivation as he answered questions from an overly-cheerful young man in a polo shirt with a paw print logo; who'd had to keep quiet while the entire front desk staff cooed over the dog's floppy ears like it was a newborn baby and not the beast from Hell that Derek knew it to be.
Whatever, it isn't his problem anymore.
It's Polo Shirt's rambling story, some nonsense about his childhood dream of finding a puppy waiting under the Christmas tree, half-overheard as Derek begins to leave, that has him turning around again. He's never wanted a dog—and now, wondering every morning if this is finally going to be the day he dies, the idea of any pet at all seems to be more pointless than ever—but suddenly he finds himself overrun with memories of his sisters, their wide eyes and pleading voices as they begged their parents for a kitten. It had been the subject of their dreaming and plotting for months, and though their parents had never caved Derek still remembers the attempts: the hand-drawn chore charts outlining litter-box maintenance and feeding schedules; spreadsheets of grooming and veterinary costs; pictures of kittens cut out of magazine advertisements and plastered over every available inch of the refrigerator doors.
The memories build and build, crashing over him in waves, until he finds himself standing in the middle of the cat room, fighting not to retch at the stench of the kennels that he'd walked past to get there. This room is lined with walls of cages that don't smell nearly as terrible as the ones outside; half of them are empty, and most of the cats in the rest are curled up and sleeping. Derek cautiously pokes a finger into the nearest one, skimming over the soft fur of a kitten that's half-sprawled against the bars.
Please ask for employee assistance before removing cats from their cages. The laminated yellow signs are plastered on the walls at regular intervals, and Derek pulls his hand away again.
There are only two cages of kittens, three or four tiny, fluffy bodies heaped on top of each other in both despite a good third of one wall apparently set aside for them. The rest of the cages have full-grown cats in them, and all of them in sight are either sleeping or gazing at him with the same look of feline indifference he remembers from his middle-school friend Tucker's tabby.
The door opens, bringing the barking outside back into sharp focus for a moment before it closes again. A middle-aged woman in another pawprint polo shirt deposits a bottle of cleaning solution on top of one of the cages and smiles at him.
“Are you looking to adopt a cat today, or are you just here for a fix?”
“Neither.” Derek tries to summon up his dealing-with-people smile, but his eyes feel gritty from lack of sleep and his face simply refuses to cooperate. “I just . . . my sisters always wanted a cat.”
“Well.” Her mouth twitches as if she isn't quite sure what to do with it, and she reaches for her spray bottle again. “Let me know if you need any help.”
Derek thinks that maybe he sees the appeal of pets after all; at the very least, they must be easier to talk to than people.
A choked, angry-sounding yowl pulls his attention to the left, and his shoulders tense. A huge, dirt-grey paw has snaked through the bars three cages down, batting at the air as another murderous shriek rings out. Derek's lips peel back in the beginnings of a snarl before he brings himself back under control; it's a cat, not a threat, despite what his overwrought instincts are screaming.
“Oh, that's just Quasimodo.” He turns to see the woman smiling cautiously at him again. “He's harmless.”
Derek lifts an eyebrow. “He doesn't sound it.”
“His bark's worse than his bite; or, ah, whatever the equivalent phrase is for cats. He sounds scary, but he's a marshmallow, really.”
Marshmallow isn't the word that Derek would use, he decides when he moves down to take a cautious look inside the cage. The thing is huge, mottled grey and black with long, thick fur that's patchy between the ears. Its face is squashed, like it ran face-first into a wall and got stuck that way; its eyes are a dim yellow, and the left one has a decided droop to it. It yowls again, still clawing at the air.
“Poor thing,” the woman is saying, “he's been here a year already. He's a special-needs case—he's got a heart condition that needs monitoring, and regular medication—it's just too much for most people to take on.”
Derek goes still and focuses his attention, sifting through the the fast, tiny heartbeats filling the room until he finds the one he's searching for, strong but not quite as steady as the others.
“What happens if no one takes him?” he hears himself asking.
“He'll have to be put down.” She sounds matter-of-fact, but there's a distinct edge of regret in her voice. “We don't have the funds to afford his medications very much longer; he's only made it this long because we took up a collection to pay for the last six months.”
He wonders how long the cat has, how many more people will come in looking and pass this one by. How long before someone with a solemn face and a stupid shirt takes him quietly into the back and slides a needle beneath its skin. Before he knows what he's doing he finds himself reaching out, pulling his hand back from the latch at the last moment.
“Can I take him out?”
“Sure.” The woman reaches for the latch, holding it firm as the cat begins to heave itself against the door. “He's excited; you ready?”
He can control his healing well enough not to be worried about giving himself away if the thing scratches him to ribbons, and Derek figures that with a face and a voice like that, it's probably been a while since anybody's gotten close enough to even touch it. If it's living on borrowed time, it deserves at least the chance for a little bit of attention. If he gets torn up for his troubles, well. He's dealt with worse.
The thing lunges for him as soon as the door is open, letting out a terrifying screech, and Derek braces himself for the worst. Its paws are enormous, thumping like lead weights against his chest as it lets out another war cry and—
Purrs. The thing is purring, as loud as a freaking motorboat, and stretching up to rub its head against his chin. Derek stands frozen for a moment, disbelieving, before his hands come slowly forward. Its fur is surprisingly soft, and he buries his fingers in it as he strokes his way down its back. He catches its hindquarters on instinct when it springs out of the cage and onto his chest, shoving it face cold nose-first into the crook of his neck, and beneath the rumble of its purrs Derek can still make out the careful ticking of its heart.
If he leaves it here, it's going to die alone. It's a sentence he knows all too well.
“What sort of paperwork do you need me to fill out?”
They send him home with a complimentary bag of cat food; a small container of litter; a plastic bag with a folder full of literature about his new pet and several bottles of medication; and a flimsy carrier that barely supports the cat's heavy, wriggling weight. Quasimodo yowls the whole way, sounding like murder incarnate the entire time the car is in motion, and Derek finds himself torn between wanting to tear his own ears off and murmuring, “I'm sorry, okay, we'll be home soon” under his breath every ten seconds.
He gets everything upstairs in one trip, sacrifices one of the cardboard boxes from the cheap, build-it-yourself bed frame he'd finally bought last month to use as a makeshift litter box, and opens the carrier before the cat can bust his way through it. The outraged screeching stops immediately; Quasimodo pauses halfway out, looking around uncertainly before darting across the loft and leaping onto the couch to claw at the cushions.
“What the hell am I going to do with you?” Derek asks, reality suddenly crashing down on him.
He lowers himself into one of the chairs near the desk as his head begins to spin. He has no expectations of making it through the rest of the year alive; what the hell is he doing taking on responsibility for another living thing? It's bad enough that he has Isaac to look out for, but at least he knows the kid is capable of taking care of himself. But when he dies, this stupid fragile cat is going to be left all alone.
Derek pulls out the folder embossed with the shelter's logo, slides the instruction sheet for the cat's medication out of the pocket with fingers that are beginning to go numb. He needs two different pills a day, and a third one once a week. Maybe it's not too late to take him back, he thinks, or to ask Deaton if he knows of anyone who has the time and the patience and the projected lifespan to take on a responsibility like this. The money isn't an issue; Derek has more than enough money, and he'd be willing to help out with the expenses, even set something up for after he's gone, but he doesn't know why he thought that he could do this himself.
There's a heavy thump, and the desk rocks a little on its uneven, unsteady legs. Derek looks up to see Quasimodo picking his way delicately across the folder, sliding the papers halfway out under the weight of his paws. He lets out his terrible, growling meow again, and lowers his head to ram it gently against Derek's shoulder.
“You know, you sound angry all the time.” Derek reaches up, hesitant, and scratches lightly behind his ears. The purring ratchets up and Quasimodo shoves his head more firmly against Derek's hand. “I get that.”
He's going to have to talk to Deaton about ordering the pills he'll need, making sure he has the new bottles before the ones the shelter gave him run out. If Deaton knows he has a cat, then Scott will know. If Scott knows, he'll make sure things are taken care of after Derek's gone.
“You're probably hungry, right? C'mon.”
He tapes the medication instructions inside the cabinet next to the fridge and surveys the dishes inside. There are two chipped bowls that he'd picked up at Goodwill for a quarter apiece; he fills one with water, and Quasimodo winds around his ankles making soft croaking sounds as Derek carefully reads the feeding instructions on the cat food. The croaks turn to growling meows when he opens the bag, and Derek dumps a careful handful of food into the bowl.
“These are a little sad,” he mutters, running his thumb over one of the edges. He sets the bowls on the floor and runs a hand over the cat's back, feeling him arch into the touch even as he dives face-first into the bowl of food. “I'll get you some better ones. You gonna be okay here on your own for a couple of—” Derek straightens with a heavy sigh and scrubs a hand over his face. “I'm talking to a cat.”
He makes a mental list as he grabs his keys from the desk. New dishes, litter box, maybe a brush.
Derek glances at the couch on his way out.
Scratching post. Definitely.
It takes him two trips to get everything upstairs, and the cat tries to escape out the front door every time it opens.
He'd gone to the Target in the next town over, because it seemed like his best bet to get everything all at once. He'd loaded a litter box and an extra-large bag of litter into the cart, tossed in a brush that said it was the consumer-tested best for long-haired cats, and a pair of nail trimmers when he saw them hanging on the next peg over. A package of catnip toys he'd tossed in on a whim; they were three for two dollars, which had seemed like a bargain for keeping the thing occupied with minimal disruption to him. The dishes had been next, and when everything in the Pets aisle had proved to be ugly, obnoxiously cutesy, or both, he'd headed for the Housewares section instead.
There'd been nice ones on the clearance end cap, pretty ceramic bowls that faded from vibrant green to deep, pure blue. They'd only come in a set of four, tied up with a slightly frayed blue ribbon. He'd added them to his cart, figuring he could give the ribbon to the cat, and throw the old bowls out altogether.
Everything had gone fine until he'd finally found the scratching posts. He'd taken one look, realized that they were asking twenty dollars for some carpet stapled to a fucking wooden post, and turned right back around again.
Which was why, on his second trip upstairs, he's loaded down with a few couple pieces of scrap lumber, an armload of carpet remnants, and a staple gun.
It takes him a while, and since even the new toys can't keep the cat's attention away from what he's doing for long, he ends up working around a curious armful of fur as he tries to attach the main post to the base. In the end he has something serviceable, and while the cat's temporarily distracted by mauling the scrap of ribbon Derek's thrown his way, he finishes it off by stapling the tail of one of the catnip mice to the top so that it dangles in what he hopes is an enticing display.
That's about the time he realizes he has no idea how to get the cat to use this thing in the first place.
Derek waves a hand, and Quasimodo levers himself off of his back with a rumbling, growling squawk. His head collides with Derek's palm, and the rest of his body follows, drawing Derek into a long stroke down the length of his spine. Then he's climbing into Derek's lap, his feet sharp points of pressure on Derek's thighs as he situates himself so that his butt is wedged into the gap between Derek's knees.
“Hey. No . . . hey.”
Derek snaps his fingers, trying to draw the cat's attention, and lets his claws slide slowly out. Quasimodo just tilts his head and snorts quizzically; Derek chooses to take that as a good sign. Carefully, he reaches out, scraping his claws over the carpet-covered post. After a moment he does it again, digging a little deeper this time, letting the fibers of the carpeting catch and tear.
The cat yowls, executes some sort of wriggling flop that lands it on its back braced against Derek's knee, and starts to purr.
“If you keep clawing up the couch we're gonna have an issue,” Derek says, but he retracts his claws before he rubs a hand over the soft, mottled fur on the cat's belly, and listens to the rhythm of its heart.
It's extremely, profoundly strange to have the cat around.
It starts with being woken by insistent screeching interspersed with loud purring, and a fuzzy head shoved under his chin at seven every morning. Derek gets into the habit of crawling out of bed immediately, after learning the hard way that the noise wasn't going to stop until he got up. With the bowls scrubbed and filled with fresh food and water, he usually takes a mug of coffee outside onto the narrow balcony; it isn't too hot yet, that early, and everything seems fresh even in this crappy part of town.
When he goes back inside, though, the cat is just there. He follows him around the loft, winding his way around Derek's ankles and yowling periodically. When Derek sits, he's there jumping up to sprawl across his lap or on top of whatever work Derek has spread out over the desk at the time. Coming home at night, he finds the cat waiting for him at the door, reaching up and screeching for attention; braced on his hind legs, his front paws reach the top of Derek's thighs, and every so often he loses patience and just leaps, forcing Derek to catch him as he rumbles in satisfaction.
Derek buys half a dozen packs of treats designed to disguise the pills the cat needs to take, and has to change where he keeps them three times after he finds empty, shredded packs abandoned on the floor.
And two weeks after he brings Quasimodo home, Derek remembers why their parents never let his sisters get a kitten.
“I thought it might interest you to know, I've been—what the hell is that?”
Derek lifts an eyebrow as Peter stops dead halfway across the loft, staring at Quasimodo who's just leapt off of the desk with a heavy thump.
“That's a cat.” Derek turns back to his book. “You weren't kidding about your resurrection impairing your abilities, were you?”
“Why,” Peter grits out, “do you have a cat?”
“According to certain legends, they're supposed to ward off evil spirits; I thought it might keep you away.” Derek looks up again, disbelieving, to see Peter baring his teeth as Quasimodo approaches him, yowling in a way that Derek recognizes now as hopeful despite it sounding like a feline death threat. “That wasn't supposed to be serious. Don't tell me you're scared of a cat.”
“I'm not afraid, you idiot; I'm allergic.”
Sure enough, even from where he's sitting Derek can see that Peter's eyes are turning a shade of red that has nothing at all to do with an Alpha shift. Peter bares his teeth again, dropping his fangs and growling for good measure. The threat is slightly undermined when he stumbles back away from the cat, but when his claws come out Derek hears himself issuing a snarl of his own.
“Hurt my cat,” he says, slamming his book closed as he lets his own eyes flash red as well, “and we're going to have a serious problem.”
Peter's glare is interrupted by a violent sneeze, and he waves a hand to show blunt, human nails. “I'll just go,” he says viciously, “before my airways close off and I asphyxiate.”
“That would be a shame,” Derek says beneath his breath as the door slams closed, and stands, shaking his head at Quasimodo still yowling and pawing hopefully at the door. “You have zero survival instincts, you know that? It's something to work on.” He leans down and picks him up, however, scratching beneath his chin just to hear his purring ratchet up. “Good boy,” he murmurs, heading over to the couch.
He scratches behind Quasimodo's ears for nearly half an hour before they both fall asleep, the cat a heavy, solid weight on his chest.
“It's fine, I'm fine.”
“You're not fine, you're bleeding.” Scott's voice has a shrill edge to it as he bundles Stiles in through the loft doors.
“Hardly at all anymore. Besides, you're one to talk. And Derek's pretty clawed up, too. This is . . . ” Stiles looks down at the gash on his arm, turns a greenish sort of pale, and averts his eyes again. “Totally no big deal.”
“We'll heal a hell of a lot quicker than you will.” Derek comes back from the kitchen, first-aid kit in hand, and passes it off to Scott. “Here.”
“What the hell—ow, Scott, jeez!”
“What the hell is that?”
“You're really gonna tell me you don't recognize a first-aid kit when you see one?” Derek raises an eyebrow; he barely has the energy for that much, but he can't afford to rest yet. There's an entire strategy to reevaluate now, with Peter gone missing and another Alphas dead. “You of all people?”
“Hah-ha, wiseass. I'm talking about that.”
He raises the arm that Scott isn't currently tending to, and Scott and Derek both follow it to the sprawling network of carpet-covered posts, platforms, and tubes tucked against one of the walls.
“Looks like a cat tree.” Scott's eyebrows lift towards his hairline before he turns back to patching up his friend. “Must be nice being loaded; those things cost a fortune.”
“Less expensive if you make it yourself,” Derek says, pulling the city map out from beneath the books and files scattered over the desk. “The raw materials don't cost much.”
“What, do you have a side-business building pet furniture now?”
Derek throws a quelling glance Stiles's way. “No, I have a cat.”
Stiles almost chokes.
“I told you Derek got a cat!” Scott says, and Stiles shakes his head violently as he coughs.
“Did not. There's no way I'd forget old Red Eyes here adopting a fluffy little kitty cat, and even the Alphas aren't cruel enough to steal a memory that hilarious. OW!”
“Sorry!” Scott says again, frantically holding onto Stiles's arm. “Stop moving!”
“So, where is it? C'mon, I wanna check out the furball.”
Derek sighs, dropping his head. He wants to sleep, not engage in more pointless conversation, but he's known both of these two long enough by now that he knows he's not going to get a choice about either one of those things. He straightens again and glances towards the top of the armoire, where he can hear a heartbeat ticking away beneath slow, sleeping breaths.
“It's time for his medicine anyway.”
He has a batch of treats already made up for nights like tonight, when he's too tired to even deal with the idea of fiddling with the tiny pills. They're tucked away in the metal canister with the tightest lid; as soon as he opens it he hears a familiar yowl, followed by a pair of shouts that are startled and terrified by turns. Derek snorts, heading towards the ruckus and the sound of Quasimodo jumping to the floor.
“What the hell?” Scott yelps.
“Why is everyone I know afraid of cats?”
“That's not a cat,” Stiles says, looking horrified, “that's like a . . . a lynx. Or a gremlin.”
“Here, Mo.” Derek crouches down and holds out the treat, scratching at his favorite spot behind his ears when he scarfs it down.
Derek stands again, shoulders hunched inward just a bit as he moves back to the desk. “Short for Quasimodo.”
“You named him Quasimodo?” Scott's frowning down at Mo's face when Derek looks back. “Dude. Not cool.”
“I didn't name him; that's the name he had at the shelter,” Derek says, barely resisting the urge to roll his eyes.
“Yeah, but you know you don't have to keep the name he already had, right?” Stiles leans down to extend a cautious hand, snatching it back again when Mo lets out a murderous sound and pads towards him. “I'm just saying,” he adds, eyes glued distrustfully to the cat's eager approach, “you could pick something a little less ridiculous. Something you like better, you know?”
“We have work to do,” Derek says with a glare.
“It should be in the third volume. Gertrude, would you—”
“Would you stop calling me that.”
“I've told you.” Derek glances over at him, reaching for a pen as Scott breathes helpless laughter into his sleeve. “I don't really think 'Stiles' suits you. I like 'Gertrude' better.”
“Oh my god, fine. Fine! You've made your point, okay? Call your weirdo cat whatever you want; it's a fine and noble choice. Quasimodo Hale, the first of his name. Now can we drop this?” Mo screeches and Stiles turns his attention back to him, scrubbing a hand over his belly again. “Sorry, man. I'm on it, we're cool. Yeah, who's a good boy?”
“I like him,” Scott declares.
Derek's lips tilt up at the corners. “What's not to like?”
Looking back on the past few years of his life, Derek can't remember ever feeling more pathetic than he does right now, standing at the edge of a brightly-lit Target aisle as he stares at a pair of sweatpants.
Derek doesn't lounge. It's hard for him to imagine the luxury. Not the time, so much. It seems like that's all he's had in recent memory: long stretches of time, of waiting in between bursts of violence. Waiting for an attack, waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for everything to finally just be over. He's used to having time, but never without a strain of tension running through it, reminding him to keep his guard up. There's an alarm on his door for a reason, and what's the point of putting on clothes that won't hold up if you have to run again?
And yet here he stands, with a box of cat litter in one hand and a new pack of tank tops in the other, because his last decent one finally bit the dust last week, staring at a pair of goddamn sweatpants like he's choosing between the red pill and the blue.
Because things have been almost . . . quiet, lately. With Ethan's defection the Alpha pack is down to two who've crawled off to lick their wounds and regroup, and they've all had a couple of weeks to go back to life as normal for once. More often than not Derek's finds himself with no sense of danger nagging at the back of his mind, nothing to occupy him but a quiet day on the couch, reading a book with the cat purring in his lap. And he's been thinking that his jeans, tight enough to keep anyone from finding an easy grip to take his legs out from under him, might just be as uncomfortable to sleep on as they are to wear.
It might be nice for Mo to stretch out on something softer, he thinks, and he can tell just from looking how soft these pants would be, how they'd warm with his body heat and tangle comfortably around his calves. It's a tempting picture. Before he can talk himself out of it, he finds himself reaching past the pale grey towards the back of the rack where the handful of remaining black pairs are hanging. There's nothing but a few smalls and one 2XL left, and Derek pulls his hand back, surprised by the disappointment curling bitterly in his stomach.
It was just a whim, anyway. If they don't have his size, it hardly matters.
He's about to walk away when he realizes that they do have his size after all, hanging out of order at the front of the rack. Derek hesitates, unsure, eyeing the grey material like he's sizing it up for battle, before he realizes that he's reached a level of pathetic that he can hardly even believe exists. Is he seriously reconsidering an item of clothing that no one will ever see him wearing, because of the color of all things?
His one consolation as he snatches the hanger off of the rack and stalks towards the checkout, is that at least no one was around to witness this particular failure of rational thought.
The pants get abandoned on his bed when he gets home, forgotten while he greets Mo with a thorough ear-scratching and scrounges up something to eat. He eyes the bank of windows as he eats a bowl of cereal, wondering how hard it would be to clean some of the grime away to let in a little bit more light. Checks his phone to make sure he hasn't missed any messages about potential mortal peril. He spends a couple of hours sketching out an idea for a PVC piping run up near the ceiling, something big enough for a large cat but too small for a possible threat to follow after him; Mo likes being up high even if his survival instincts are shit, and Derek figures this will at least give him an even shot at coming out alive if the loft gets overrun again.
Finally he sighs, scrubbing a hand over his face as he stalks towards his bed. He doesn't know why he's making such a big deal out of this, why this stupid pair of sweatpants looks like nothing so much as a coiled snake. One more deep breath, and then he strips out of his jeans, feeling briefly foolish in just his t-shirt, underwear, and socks before he snaps the tag off of the waistband and pulls the sweatpants on.
They feel . . . good. Comfortable, but hardly momentous. He still feels like him; like nothing, after all, has changed except his clothes.
He honestly doesn't know what he expected.
An hour later he's sitting on the couch, holding a book in one hand while he rubs behind Mo's ears with the other, when Isaac pushes the door open. He glances over, steps faltering when he sees Derek.
“Uh.” He blinks once, twice, and Derek stifles a sigh when Isaac's eyes dart down to his legs. “Having a night in?”
“Nothing much else to do right now.” Derek lowers his book as Mo stretches out, giving a low, threatening grumble and reaching out towards Isaac in a bid for more attention. “Did you need something?”
“A change of clothes. And, um.” He shifts his backpack on his shoulders, uneasy. “I was sort of thinking I might . . . crash here tonight. I didn't think you'd be home, and you know.” Isaac nods at the cat in Derek's lap. “Mo gets lonely.”
“You know you don't need to ask, right? This is still technically your place, too.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I know, but I haven't really been here much and I didn't want to . . . presume. Or something.” He waves a hand towards the stairs. “I'll just.”
He's back down ten minutes later dressed in clothes similar to Derek's, though the pants are short enough to skim the tops of his ankles. The shirt he's wearing is an old one of Derek's; he wonders how long it's been since Isaac's gotten clothes for himself, for anything but the image he's determined to present to the world at large. He's carting an ancient laptop under one arm, and hesitating at the bottom of the stairs.
“The outlet upstairs is jacked again,” is the first thing he says, “and my computer doesn't really hold much of a charge anymore.” He eyes the other end of the couch hopefully. “Would you mind if I plugged it in here to watch a movie?”
Derek blinks. “That's . . . yeah, fine.”
“Cool.” Isaac darts over, fiddling with the cord before he settles against the cushions and opens the computer. “I've got headphones, so—”
“You don't have to.” Mo has slid out of his lap like water, hind legs still draped over Derek's thigh as he stretches across the middle cushion towards Isaac like he thinks he's being sneaky. Derek buries a hand in the soft fur over his belly. “If you want to, that's fine, but the sound won't bother me.”
“Oh.” Isaac glances at the screen, computer still slowly booting up. “Did you want to watch, too?”
Derek shrugs. “It's your place too,” he says, digging his fingers in until Mo's purring ratchets up higher. “If it bugs me, I can move.”
“I borrowed Inception from Stiles.”
“Really.” Derek doesn't bother to hide the doubt in his voice. “And does he know about that?”
Isaac shrugs unrepentantly, placing the laptop on the coffee table.
“It still counts as borrowing if I give it back eventually,” he says. They sit in silence as he loads the disc, before his eyes dart over to Derek's sweats again, and he clears his throat. “Are those new?”
“Yeah.” Derek opens his mouth again, but closes it when he realizes he doesn't really have anything else to add. Isaac just nods, however, and turns his attention back to the screen.
“They look comfortable.”
“I can pick you up a pair,” Derek hears himself offering before he knows he plans to say it. “Next time I'm out; just let me know.”
“Cool.” Isaac's smiling now, small but real. “Thanks,” he says, and starts the movie with a click of a button.
They have to turn the volume up all the way to cover the sound of Mo's purring, but it can't drown out his occasional happy screech when Isaac reaches down to scratch beneath his chin.
There's a list taped inside the cabinet, next to the instructions for Mo's medications.
No seafood, stomach can't handle it
Allergic to organic cedar-chip litter, breaks out in hives
Able to break into most containers; keep treats in latched canister
Brush at least twice a week
He's figured everything out through trial and error, but he doesn't see any reason to make someone learn it all again after he's gone. The easier he can make the transition the better it will be for everyone. As the weeks have gone on, the notes he's added to the list have started getting longer.
Hold tight while trimming his claws or you won't be able to catch him again for almost two days
Afraid of heights? Gets stuck on top of the armoire and cries until you lift him down.
Not afraid of heights. Running a con to get more treats; just leave him up there and he'll get down fine on his own.
Needs the bed left unmade or some dirty laundry to sleep in while you're gone, or he'll cry loudly enough that the downstairs neighbors will complain to the Super.
Derek stands in front of the cabinet now, pen in hand. There's only about an inch of space left, and it's not nearly enough. He could add a second sheet of paper, but even as he considers it he realizes that he simply doesn't know how to explain all of the things that Quasimodo's new owner will need to know. How to find the spot just behind his right ear that makes him melt into a puddle of purring, contented fuzz; how to listen for the slight uptick in his heartbeat that tells you the medication's still working; how it might frighten you the first time you trip over him or step on his tail, that you'll feel guilty and a little lost when he hides under the bed, and a little bit surprised when he comes out later to climb all over you as if nothing ever happened; how much of a relief it will be that he always does come out, always seems glad to have you there.
Mo loves people, is almost aggressively affectionate towards anyone and everyone who sets foot inside the loft. He always gravitates back to Derek before long, though, settling in his lap or at his feet, pressing against him in silent reassurance. He waits for Derek to get home, even when Isaac is already there, and leaps at him with a happy, screeching yowl.
Derek closes the cabinet, pen abandoned on the counter, and heads back into the main room. Mo is sprawled out on the rug that Derek bought last week, soaking up the sun that's pouring through the windows as his tail twitches lazily, and Derek lowers himself down beside him. The sun is warm on his shoulders and on the fur he cards his fingers through; Mo stirs with an ugly chirp and shoves his head against Derek's palm, purring loudly.
“I guess maybe I'd better stick around,” Derek says, and if his voice is a little unsteady there's no one but the cat there to hear it.
He lays himself down on the carpet, mirroring Mo's stretched-out pose. The floor is hard but the sun sinks into him like a balm, easing muscles he hadn't even realized were tense, still and always. He wakes up an hour later with Mo a heavy sprawl across his stomach, moving easily with his breathing. Derek feels warm and loose, and somehow lighter than he can remember having felt in years.
Derek misses his bed more than he'd ever thought he possibly could. He'd thought that he could go back easily; that years of sleeping in the cramped backseat of his car, on burned and fragile floorboards, on cold concrete and mildewed train bench seats had prepared him for the discomfort he'd be facing. But as he climbs the stairs to his loft all he can think about is soft sheets and pillows and an actual fucking mattress; of getting out of his clothes and into something decently comfortable. And yes, all right, of feeling his cat curled up and purring against him. A purring cat is soothing, and he's man enough to admit it.
His footsteps slow as he approaches his apartment, strange scents teasing his nose as they drift out through the gap beneath his door. Strange, but not unfamiliar, and he slides the door open with a deliberate bang that has the three boys inside startling awake out of what looks like it was a deep, deep sleep.
“Whaz—'s an attack?” Stiles demands, as Mo scrambles off of his climbing tree with an ear-piercing yowl and jumps up into Derek's arms. “'re we under fire?”
His limbs flail in uncoordinated alarm until he rolls himself off of the foot of Derek's bed, landing on the floor in a messy heap. Scott and Isaac are already crouched beside the couch and the desk respectively, half-shifted despite the bleariness that hasn't quite faded from their eyes.
“What,” Derek says with what he thinks is admirable calm under the circumstances, “are you all doing here? At three in the morning?” He glares pointedly at Stiles as he gives in to Mo's insistent purring and scratches beneath his chin. “In my bed?”
“Dude!” Scott straightens, letting himself shift back as he slumps back against the arm of the couch. “We thought you were dead!”
“I didn't think he was dead. I told you, didn't I?” Stiles scrambles to his feet. “I totally didn't think you were dead.”
“I was pretty sure,” Isaac offers.
“So you all decided to squat in my apartment?”
“We were . . .” Scott folds his arms over his chest, glancing at the others before turning back to Derek. He lifts his chin defiantly. “We weren't sure, so we were getting ready to . . . rescue you. If we could.”
Derek stares from Scott, to Isaac, to Stiles, and back to Scott again.
“Just as soon as we, you know.” Stiles bobs his head awkwardly. “Figured out where you were.”
“And were sure you weren't dead.”
“Dude, would you let that go?”
Derek gives in and carries the cat over to the couch, collapsing so that Mo can sprawl out over his chest. “Do I even want to know why you thought I was dead? And yes, Stiles, I know you didn't believe it, congratulations.”
“You've been gone for three days,” Scott protests.
“Yeah,” Derek says slowly. “The landlord asked me to keep an eye on a warehouse downtown in return for fast-tracking getting the wall fixed.”
“You know, I knew something was different,” Stiles says, at the same time Scott fixes him with an incredulous stare and demands, “How the hell was anyone supposed to know that?”
“I left a note.” Derek turns to Isaac. “I put it on your laptop screen so that you'd be sure to see it.”
“All you said was, Don't forget Mo's medicine while I'm gone, instructions are inside the cabinet.” Isaac's has his arms wrapped tight around himself, and he can't quite seem to look Derek in the eye. “And then there was that whole list of stuff about him taped up next to it, all kinds of stuff about how to take care of him. It sounded like you . . .” He glances at Derek and quickly away, face flushed. “Like you weren't coming back.”
“Which obviously doesn't make any sense,” Stiles counters, moving to the desk and gathering up an armful of papers and what look like maps of the city. “I told you guys he was the 'blaze of glory' type.” He shoots Derek an exaggerated wink. “Go down fighting or not at all, right?”
“Why did your—” Scott's yawn is wide enough that Derek can hear his jaw crack. “—landlord want you watching a warehouse, though?”
“It's his cousin's, and apparently there have been some break-ins lately, inventory going missing. I think he thinks I'm in the mob.” Someone snorts; he doesn't know or care who, and he presses his fingertips against his tired, gritty eyes. “I didn't think—” He looks up again. “I really didn't think anyone would have an issue with me being gone for a few days.”
“Well, you've always been kinda dim,” Scott says with a grin. “We should get out of here. C'mon, Stiles.”
“Stay,” Derek hears himself saying, and stands up, depositing Mo on the floor. “It's the middle of the night, you'll crash if you try to drive home now. The couch pulls out into a bed.”
“The couch . . .” Stiles turns to level a truly evil glare at Isaac, who actually backs up a step, eyes wide.
“I didn't know!”
They keep bickering as Derek goes to brush his teeth and the three of them wrestle the fold-out bed into place, sniping punctuated by Scott's protests and muffled laughter by turns. By the time he leaves the bathroom Stiles is already passed out and snoring on the bare mattress, with Scott not far behind.
“Isaac,” Derek says softly, drawing him to a halt halfway up the stairs. Isaac looks back over his shoulder, his face carefully blank.
For a moment he doesn't know what to say. “I'll leave a better note next time.”
“Okay.” The corners of his mouth lift just a little, and he nods his head at the upper floor. “I'm gonna go to bed.”
Derek hits the lights and climbs into bed, relaxing back onto the mattress as Mo leaps heavily onto his chest and settles in with a puffing sigh. His heart ticks uneven but steady against him, and another trio of heartbeats echoes in his ears from around the loft, surrounding him with the sound of something almost like pack.
“This is bullshit,” Boyd says tightly, wincing as Deaton swabs the sucker-marks on his chest with some sort of foul-smelling salve. “There's no way the lake should even be big enough to have something like that in it.”
“Stiles says he's pretty sure it was summoned. He and Lydia are—ow!”
“Sorry!” Allison says, fingers flinching for just a moment before they steady again and she moves in with her own cotton swab. “Hold still.”
“They're looking into it,” Scott finishes. “There was something about moon cycles and celestial positioning, too, but I didn't get to hear all of it.”
“If something else is coming, it shouldn't be for a few more weeks.” Derek holds up his phone. “Stiles texted while we were busy with the . . .”
“Giant demon octopus?” Isaac suggests, poking curiously at the bandages around his bicep.
Derek shrugs and looks at Deaton, who seems to be giving the idea serious consideration.
“I'll take a look at the sample you brought back,” he says, glancing at the tarp-wrapped tentacle tip sitting on the exam table. “See what I can figure out from that.”
“All right.” Derek pockets his phone. “Isaac, do you need a ride back to the loft?”
“Wait,” Scott frowns. “Deaton hasn't looked at you yet.”
“I'm fine.” He's met with a roomful of skeptical looks and he huffs out a sigh, rolling his eyes and tugging his shirt up to show them his side. There's nothing left but a line of pale pink, slightly warm marks. “See? All healed.”
“Cool.” Boyd leans forward a little, trying to get a better look. “That an Alpha thing?”
“Probably.” He lowers his shirt again. “Isaac, do you need a ride?”
“Uh . . .” He looks at Scott and Allison, hesitant. “We were thinking about maybe going to see a late movie, if there's no, like . . . immediate threat.”
“All right.” Derek pulls out his car keys. “Make sure you don't let Mo out when you get in.”
“Hey. Derek.” Scott catches up with him before he makes it to the door, tugging his own shirt into place. “I wanted to say . . .”
Derek waits, eyebrow lifting when Scott hesitates. “Yeah?”
“You seem . . . I dunno. Better, lately.” He shrugs, looking a little bit awkward and uncomfortable. “It sounds weird, but it's nice to see. I'm glad.”
“Thanks,” Derek says eventually, not sure how else to respond, and Scott just nods decisively.
“You know, if you wanted to come with us to the movie—”
“I think I'm gonna just head home.” The keys jingle in his hand before he gives a shallow nod. “Thanks for the offer, though.”
“Sure. Are we all still meeting up at your place tomorrow?”
“Yeah. I want to find out what Stiles and Lydia came up with.”
“Cool, I'll see you then.” Scott smiles as he turns away. “I'll bring some donuts!”
Derek turns it over and over in his head as he drives back across town, as he parks his car, as he foregoes the elevator to take the stairs up to his loft. It's not as if he doesn't know what Scott means; he feels lighter than he used to, more at ease. When he'd called for help tonight—and he had called—he hadn't been surprised when the others answered. Sometime in the past few months, he'd stopped waiting for the other shoe to drop.
That someone has noticed isn't even the surprise it would've been, once. Derek just isn't completely sure when any of it happened.
Mo screeches at him when he slides the door open, and Derek bends down to scoop him up. It's nearly time for his evening pill, but Derek takes a minute to scratch at his ears as he looks around the loft.
The wall is patched up, solid brick with a set of pretty French doors that the landlord had put in as he muttered something about improvements to the structure and a possible raise in the monthly rent. Derek's been thinking about getting a futon to put in there, somewhere for people to sleep when they're over late; or maybe even moving his own bed in, surrounded by four solid walls and a door that latches shut. There are a couple of hanging plants dangling from the cat run he's installed around the top of the room—cat grass and a small pot of catnip that Mo can easily reach. There are rugs on the floor, light from the streetlamps streaming in through the windows, and an entire set of dishes in the kitchen now that are neither chipped nor cracked.
“It looks pretty okay in here,” he says to Mo, who shoves his squashed-up face against Derek's chin in response. “You've done a number on the couch, though.”
Mo gives a yowl that sounds suspiciously like, don't give me that, it was a piece of crap when you grabbed it off the curb, and Derek shrugs. Maybe it's time he gets a new one. Something sturdy and comfortable, with wide cushions and plenty of seating. He thinks about catalogs and furniture stores, delivery services and movers, and waits for a sense of futility that never shows.
“Tomorrow,” he finally says, with Mo purring loudly as Derek carries him into the kitchen. “Maybe the others will help me pick something out.”