Derek bumps into Stiles three times the first week of February: twice coming out of the library with a large canvas bag leaking books slung over his shoulder, once in the fertilizer aisle at Marin Morell’s nursery a few miles out of town.
“Kind of far for you,” Derek says, when he’s holding Stiles’ bag of begonia bulbs in place with one hand and reaching to catch the watering can falling off of the top of it with the other. There are stacks of bags inside of Stiles’ cart, interspersed with the watering can and a new hose cap and a soft plastic bag of metal chains for hanging baskets.
“What?” Stiles says. “Oh, you mean—yeah. Yeah.” He’s holding two brands of fertilizer, one in each hand, like the physical sensation of their packaging will help him decide. Maybe it will. Derek gave up understanding hedgewitches a long time ago, and if the other hedgewitches can’t even understand what the hell Stiles is, Derek probably won’t be able to manage it.
Derek tucks the watering can behind the hose cap and adjusts the bag of bulbs so that it is more stably draped over the mulch beneath it. Stiles is still staring, frozen, with the fertilizer in his right hand beginning to droop. Derek has never seen Stiles this still, and Derek has known Stiles his whole life—Stiles’, that is, not Derek’s, since Derek had seven blissful years of silence on the earth, all on his own, before Claudia Stilinski gave birth and everything in Beacon Hills changed.
“Are you okay?” Derek asks, probably too gruffly because he’s uncomfortable. He stuffs his hands into the pockets of his khakis and lets his shoulders hunch forward. Stiles’ eyes are not really what Derek would normally characterize as piercing, but they’re gold and hard under the fluorescent lights.
“What, yeah, fine,” Stiles says. He returns his attention to the fertilizer.
“Are you—“ Derek tries again, before getting frustrated with being nice and understanding. “Are you supposed to be out this far?”
Stiles’ ears and cheeks turn splotchy and red. It’s not attractive. “Yes,” he says, lamely and three seconds too late. “I’m not actually completely constrained to the bounds of Beacon Hills, you know.” He narrows his eyes and squints at the package in his left hand. “Hmm, 28-0-5,” he says. “Too high?” It’s apparently a rhetorical question; two seconds later he’s putting the potentially highly nitrogenous fertilizer into his cart and returning the other to the store shelving.
Derek, hands in his pockets, radio crackling at his hip, is still in the way. “I didn’t mean—”
“Right,” Stiles says. He tightens his grip on the handlebars of his shopping cart. “Could you maybe get out of my way? I’ve got lots of stuff to get and a curfew.”
“Stiles,” Derek breathes, exasperated, “that’s not what I meant.”
“Of course not,” Stiles says briskly. He slams his cart into Derek’s left leg and then takes advantage of Derek’s instinctive full-body wince to wedge the cart into the suddenly open space. “Have a nice evening, deputy.”
To the empty air, Derek says, “It’s ten in the morning,” but Stiles is gone, with his cart of miscellaneous gardening supplies, and Derek still hasn’t managed to talk to him about anything more important than the weather or the health of Mrs. Kilbourne’s posse of cats since November 4th.
“Dammit,” Derek says to a rake propped against a display of terracotta pots, and then his radio half-shrieks with static and a fuzzed-out, “Deputy Hale?”
Duty calls. It’s not an excuse, Derek tells himself. He can talk to Stiles—tomorrow. Or the day after that. Beacon Hills isn’t exactly a hotbed of criminal activity. Derek always has free time.
Over turkey sandwiches that afternoon—Derek’s with extra pickles, the sheriff’s without mayonnaise or cheese—the sheriff says, casually and into his small Tupperware container of carrots, “Did you see Stiles this morning?”
Derek tries not to choke on a crumb of 12-grain bread and mostly succeeds. “Yes,” he says. “At Marin Morell’s nursery.”
“I’m surprised you were out that far,” the sheriff says blandly. “It’s not really in your patrol route, is it?”
The sheriff knows perfectly well that Derek doesn’t have a patrol route, and even if he did, it wouldn’t include Morell’s Nursery, considering that the shop and the three acres of woods that it rests on are such heavily warded territory that Derek’s nose perpetually itches whenever he gets near it. “No,” Derek says. He’s worked for the Beacon County sheriff’s department long enough to know better than to lie to the sheriff.
Derek makes it two more bites into his sandwich, the turkey crumbling in his mouth like ash, before the sheriff says, “Hmm,” and slips his reading glasses an inch further up his nose and turns down to look more closely at the case files that they’re purportedly reviewing for next week’s town hall meeting.
If he folded easily, Derek would’ve been eaten whole by his family long before this. But the sheriff is masterful at this—unsurprisingly, since he raised Stiles by himself and that’s a task that you couldn’t pay someone to do, as evinced by all of the babysitters, including Laura, that had shut their doors in the sheriff’s face during Stiles’ formative years—and a half-hour later Derek carefully folds up the plastic bag that used to hold his sandwich and says, “I didn’t know that Stiles could get that far into the woods.”
The sheriff grunts and scribbles something on the yellow legal pad squashed under his elbow. “Yep,” he says, just the right combination of weary and nonchalant. “The wards expanded a couple of days ago; he’s been testing them every night.”
The way he says it—it’s like he’s okay with Stiles pushing himself, pushing the wards that were fundamentally designed to keep the townspeople of Beacon Hills safe, and even though Derek knows that that isn’t true at all, he still bristles. “Every night?” he says, the tone of his voice unrecognizable.
Glasses slipping back down his nose, the sheriff pauses in his writing. “Yep,” he says. “He’s pretty excited.”
Derek looks down at his own legal pad, covered in his small, neat handwriting, carefully organized by indented bullets into main ideas and important points and small asides that are always necessary to keep a town hall meeting running properly and efficiently. “Right,” Derek says, hollowly. “Of course.” Stiles is excited when the blackberries are ripe enough to fall off of the bushes themselves and when Melissa McCall makes enough chiles rellenos to send leftovers to the Stilinskis and when a new Marvel movie comes out. Stiles seems to exist in a consistent state of low-level excitement.
The sheriff grunts again and goes back to his notes.
Derek answers a disturbance call on Atwood and helps Mrs. Gupta entice her grandson’s new puppy out from underneath her son’s car on Whiting Lane. He’s on his way back to the station, driving his cruiser down Fern and being careful not to look too closely at the houses on either side of the street when his car stops in the middle of the road.
“What the hell,” Derek says without much heat, and he can hear his words echo faintly outside. When he looks up, he sees Stiles, furious and red-cheeked and dressed badly for the February weather in a plaid button-down and a pair of worn jeans, jump the fence separating his father’s lawn from the sidewalk and make straight for Derek’s car.
“What the hell,” Stiles repeats, and Derek can hear the fury even in the tinny, muffled reverberation of Stiles’ voice inside the car. Stiles makes it across the street and reaches out to rip the driver’s side door open. “Are you fucking kidding me?” Stiles demands.
Derek feels at a disadvantage, strapped into his cruiser and at such an awkward height, so he unbuckles his seat belt and steps out onto the street. It’s not too cold for him, but he can see that Stiles’ toes are white and knobby and bare underneath the frayed hem of his jeans. “What’s the problem?” he asks, more rudely than he would of anyone else, but he can still hear the weakness in his voice.
“The problem?” Stiles echoes. “Oh my god, what is your problem? You’ve been hovering around here all day, I could feel you.”
Derek knows what he means, but the words still make his stomach twist guiltily. “I’ve been working,” Derek says, deliberately and slow. “There was a call about a disturbance on Atwood and then Mrs. Gupta—”
“I know about her mutt,” Stiles cuts him off. “Just—you seriously couldn’t have sent anyone else to deal with those? You were the only person at the station free to answer a call about a ‘disturbance on Atwood’?” Stiles’ hands are jabbing at the air and in Derek’s general direction but Derek can still see them curl, separately, into scare quotes. “We all know what the disturbance was.”
It had been Scott and Allison fighting about the paint color of the new nursery, just like it had been the last three times a member of the sheriff’s department had responded to a cranky neighbor’s summons, but Derek sticks stubbornly to his guns. “We take all calls seriously at the sheriff’s department,” he says, aware that Stiles will interpret that as condescending and unsure as to how to walk the line between being an asshole and not letting himself—whatever. Create false hope.
“You aren’t even technically a real cop,” Stiles shouts at him, tugging on his hair and then throwing his hands open in Derek’s direction. “Why are you here?”
“Because you broke my car,” Derek says. “What did you do to it?”
“Your car is fine,” Stiles says dismissively. “Besides, you were here long before I stopped your engine.”
Aggressively, Derek says, “Yes, for work,” and he takes a deep breath to steady himself and—the smell of earth, hot and damp and fresh and new, clings to Stiles like his usual scent of ink and dust. The legs of his pants are grimy, Derek sees now, and his fingernails are dark around the edges. The ground doesn’t fully freeze in Beacon Hills, but no one is stupid enough to try planting anything in February anyway.
It’s not the strangeness of the scent that catches Derek’s attention, even; it’s the familiarity of it. Dirt and leafy greenness and the faint chemical tang of fertilizer—they make Derek think of Stiles’ shirt crushed in his hand and the way that the thin skin stretching over the inside of Stiles’ bicep had felt soft and delicate under his teeth. So little of Stiles was delicate that Derek had to get the sensation in small, isolated patches.
“Oh, is that what this is?” Stiles says, gesturing to Derek and his cruiser, and Derek can’t build up much defense or indignation—or anything, really, except for the weariness that has been stuck fast in his bones since November. “Yeah, right, this is work. Of course it is.”
Derek is beginning to hate the way that Stiles says of course. “Mr. Stilinski,” he says, “I’m going to ask you to restart my car once.”
“And then what?” Stiles demands, eyes bright and harsh and mouth twisted into something unfamiliar and unforgiving. “You’re gonna arrest me?”
“This is unseemly,” Missy tells him, but Derek ignores her as he fills out the necessary paperwork. He has an endless list of useless bureaucratic things he can charge Stiles with; the only limit on them is how tired Derek will get of filling out forms before he’s done. Derek is a werewolf, though, and his stamina is impressive even for his species. He can file trumped-up charges against Stiles Stilinski all night and still be fresh for breakfast at his parents’ house tomorrow morning.
“This is police brutality!” Stiles shouts from the lock-up in the back, rattling the bars of the cell with the full force of his weight.
Derek leans around the corner and yells, “Stop shaking those, you’re not getting out.” He can actually hear where fondness would’ve once been thick in his voice; the open space is just flat.
Stiles frowns that half-pout that he uses whenever he feels thwarted in something. “My dad is going to kill you,” he says, but he doesn’t sound like he believes it.
“Probably,” Derek says under his breath. That’s not exactly a change of pace.
A few days later, Derek wakes up in the middle of the night to a thunderstorm. It’s the wrong time of year for anything to fall out of the sky except a disgustingly slushy rain-snow mix; Derek doesn’t even need to scent the air for him to know that magic is at fault. He stares up at the ceiling above his bed and sighs, full-bodied, as a flash of lightning turns the view of his backyard out of his bedroom window a deep purple.
Fifteen seconds later, when another bolt of lightning is followed by a series of cracks and the heady smell of burning wood, Derek reluctantly climbs out of bed and opens the large bay windows above the window seat. The trembling aspen in the backyard has lost some of its branches; they’re lying, smoking, on the pitted ground of Derek’s backyard.
Derek wants to go outside like he wants to tell his mother that she’s never going to have grandchildren. His face is fast becoming wet from the wind lashing droplets against his face. The backyard was already a mess, so the addition of a few half-charred branches isn’t exactly ruining its immaculate physique.
Another flash of lightning a little too close for comfort convinces Derek to retreat back inside. He picks up his phone and debates texting the sheriff before deciding that phone call, even at three in the morning, is the more polite option and therefore slightly more likely to get him what he wants.
“What,” the sheriff answers, sounding gruff and unhappy.
“You need to go wake Stiles up,” Derek says. “It’s thunderstorming.”
The sheriff groans, muffled probably by his hand. “Shit. I thought he grew out of this kind of stuff.”
Beacon Hills hasn’t had a winter thunderstorm in years. The last time one had threatened, thirteen months ago in the dregs of January, Derek had pinned Stiles to their bed and run his hands up and down Stiles’ waist until he sleepily came awake enough to put his arms around Derek’s neck and join in a few lazy kisses. The air around them had smelled like ozone and had been heavy with humidity and Derek hadn’t made it to work, in the morning; he’d stayed in bed with Stiles with the curtains drawn, waiting out the last of the lightning and for the glint to go out of Stiles’ eyes.
“Yeah,” Derek says, and hangs up. The sheets on his bed look like tufts of meringue and make him feel physically ill if he looks at them for too long. Instead, he stretches out on the window seat, his neck awkwardly propped on an uncomfortably stiff throw pillow, and waits for twenty minutes. By minute eighteen, the clouds have cleared and the moisture has gone out of the air. The carcass of the trembling aspen is still there, though, keeping company with the hard nugget in Derek’s chest that makes it hard for him to breathe.
He wakes up with his alarm at five-thirty to a cloudless sky. There’s a text on Derek’s phone, from the sheriff: thanks.
Derek deletes the message so fast he dents one of the buttons on his old brick of a flip phone. A few fruitless minutes are lost trying to reshape it with one of his claws, before he just gives it up and goes for his morning run. He rarely uses the # key anyway.
Laura predictably gets on Derek’s case about his phone. How she even knows is beyond him—when they had been kids, they’d joked often about how Mom hadn’t needed her keen werewolf senses to know if something was up, but Laura neither has nor wants kids and she’s only three years older than Derek. Also, he never takes his phone out of his pocket, but she knows.
“You’re a dinosaur,” she tells Derek before dinner’s really underway, as she’s chopping a few extra walnuts for the salad and Derek is attempting to evenly drizzle olive oil over the arugula and spinach blend to his father’s exacting standards.
“Shut up,” Derek says. “It’s a phone. As long as it works, I don’t get what the point of having a fancier one is.”
His father says, “It’s a status thing,” and then, “you missed a spot. No, over there.” He sighs and then not very gently pushes Derek away from the large salad bowl, relieving him of the bottle of olive oil. “Why don’t you go help your mother set the table? I’ll rescue this.”
“It’s olive oil,” Derek says, exasperated and feeling ganged up on, but he dutifully joins his mother in the dining room. She has everything well in hand; being used to Derek’s father’s perfectionism, she’s sitting at the head of the table, making an origami swan out of a paper napkin.
“Take a seat,” she offers generously, eyes focused on the napkin. “I’m sure the delicate babies in the kitchen will need another ten minutes before the salad is ready for us to eat.”
“You will thank me,” Derek’s father calls from the kitchen. “This will be a delicacy to be savored, Talia!”
“Right,” Derek’s mother says dismissively. She finishes the final fold of the swan and flourishes it in Derek’s direction. “Ha! Next time we host a dinner party, on the other side of never, I’m going to be well-prepared.” She gets a good look at Derek’s face and puts down the swan on the place setting in front of him. “You don’t look good, hon.”
Derek lies stiffly, “I’m fine.”
General werewolf rules of behavior would have his mother give him the courtesy of pretending not to know that he’s lying. General werewolf courtesies aren’t really things his family practices, unfortunately. “Oh,” she says sympathetically, “it’s these expanding wards, isn’t it? He’s not going anywhere, Derek.” How do all of the people in Derek’s family know things before he does?
“Except for the part where he already left,” Laura mutters in the kitchen. It’s just low enough that Derek barely catches it; she must at least be trying for subtlety, which is something new and exciting from Laura. A second later, she says, louder, “Ow, fuck, Dad!”
“If your mouth can’t be civil it won’t be getting any of this meal,” Derek’s father says placidly.
Derek’s mother leans towards him and rests her hand on top of his, her palm warm and calloused. “The house, Derek—”
“It’s fine,” Derek lies again, more aggressively this time. “I’m not selling the house, Mom.” His head aches whenever he looks at it straight on, the small yellow house that used to be his and Stiles’. Stiles had wanted blue trim and the front door to be painted a deep forest green; Derek had planned on doing the last of the painting in the spring, when the weather warmed up and dried out enough to make house-painting a reasonable weekend activity instead of a doomed one.
The trim is white, now. It doesn’t look bad. It doesn’t even look incomplete, not in an emotional sense. Derek still hates the house, though, irrationally and terribly. Stiles had uprooted the baby trees when he left, along with the wisteria cuttings from his mother’s collection he’d been trying to coax onto an arbor, and Derek had destroyed the rest of the back garden through direct application of neglect and hatred. It’s the kind of house that needs a garden around it, to give context to its color and vibrancy.
The only thing that hurts worse than looking at the house is the thought of selling it and letting someone else set down roots in Stiles’ garden or spackle over the holes Derek had accidentally left in the kitchen walls when he was trying to hang up his collection of hectographs. So few things hurt, now, that Derek has to savor what he can. The blankness he feels in the corners of his heart terrifies him.
“It’s fine,” he repeats. Unlike Stiles, he doesn’t think that if he repeats the words enough times they’ll become true, but the only way to win with his family is to out-volume them on whatever subject is currently at hand.
Laura breezes into the room, holding a steaming pan of mashed potatoes in one bare hand and a bowl of chicken breasts in the other. “Know what isn’t fine?” she asks, interrupting his mother as she’s in the process of opening her mouth. “Your phone, Derek. Let me take you to the mall this weekend and help you pick out something designed this century, okay?”
Of all the evils currently arrayed before Derek, letting his sister pick him out an expensive, easily broken phone is actually the lesser one. “Whatever,” Derek mutters with ill grace as she and his father, bearing the mythical salad, take their seats. “If you’ll stop taking my choice in technology personally, sure.”
Laura hands him the chicken breasts and a pair of tongs from her seat across the table; when he takes them from her, she sticks her tongue out at him. “Baby,” she says.
“Children,” his mother says warningly.
Presenting the red plastic bowl with a definite flourish, Derek’s father asks, “Salad?” with totally sincere cheerfulness. Every cherry tomato is perfectly coated in an equal layer of olive oil. Derek has never before felt morally defeated by an appetizer, but it seems in keeping with the rest of his week.
Derek doesn’t run into Stiles for the entirety of the next week. He doesn’t want to, of course, but it’d been hard, in the past, to avoid him; Beacon Hills isn’t a one-horse town, but it isn’t San Francisco, either. There are two grocery stores and only one of them sells both the weird, organic brand of macaroni and cheese that Stiles likes and has a wide selection of local predatory wildlife available at the butcher’s. Derek has awkwardly stood across an aisle from Stiles seven times since November and they’d reached for the same Cara Cara orange mid-January, but suddenly Stiles no longer purchases his groceries at Raley’s.
Stiles’ scent has been gone from the house for a month, but now it begins to vanish from other places—Raley’s, first, and then park down the street where Stiles had infrequently gone running when he worked up the motivation, and eventually even the sheriff’s car. Derek lost the right to wonder what the hell Stiles is doing on November 4th, and the curiosity isn’t exactly killing him; he just worries for the safety of Beacon Hills. The last time Stiles had withdrawn this far, his mother had just died and Stiles had ended up setting three barns and an old wooden bridge on fire in his sleep.
On Thursday evening, exactly a week after Derek had taken Stiles into custody and the sheriff had gotten a pinched look on his face that said Derek was going to eventually pay for that—even if the sheriff had initially laughed so hard at the sight of his son behind bars that he’d choked on a craisin—the sheriff pulls rank and sends Derek, alone, to the monthly meeting at Beacon Hills Town Hall.
That’s revenge enough. Jackson Whittemore isn’t exactly mad with power, but he isn’t particularly subtle about how much he enjoys being mayor and running the open town hall meetings, either. Stiles had had a laundry list of things he disliked about Jackson that he’d brought up whenever he thought the subject should be revisited, but Derek doesn’t mind Jackson so much. In all other things he might be petulant and pouty, but he’s good at getting the meeting under control and matters sorted. Derek appreciates someone who can do that, in light of the total chaos in which his family lives.
Town hall meetings are always a huge mess, with lots of small-town egos and petty disturbances aired out for the biggest gossips in the town to witness. Having prepared for this, Derek brings last month’s Bon Appetit, filched from his father before Laura could commandeer it for the waiting room at her clinic, and reads about brining techniques until it’s time for the update from the sheriff’s department.
The townspeople of Beacon Hills want to know how the two new succubus deputies from Chico are doing—fine; they’re flashy but competent and they’ve been consistently toing the line about getting consent before feeding on anyone—and if the sheriff wants to attend their region’s yearly law enforcement fair in Redding again on the town’s dime, which he does.
His report wrapped up, Derek is getting ready to return to his seat and a detailed article on how to cure meat at home when Helen Martin, head of the hedgewitches’ council, stands and asks if the sheriff’s department is considering getting the wards keeping Stiles Stilinski inside the town borders reaffirmed now that they’re expanding on their own.
Most of the available air is sucked out of the room with an audible hiccup from Melissa McCall, who looks furious two seats to the left of where Helen Martin is standing, lightly tapping the pointed toe of her shoe against the wooden floor. “Excuse me?” Melissa hisses, and Scott, to her left, slaps out a hand to keep her from rising from her seat.
“I can’t comment on the status of an open investigation,” Derek says blandly, “and the wards on Stiles Stilinski are part of one.”
Helen Martin isn’t uncouth enough to have facial expressions likely to give her wrinkles, but her face gains a general air of being scrunched unhappily. “I think we have the right to know whether or not the sheriff plans on releasing a dangerously uncontrollable power on the region without taking proper precautions.”
She barely manages to finish her sentence before Scott and his mother are leaping to their feet and shouting, in almost perfect unison, “Dangerous?”
Yelling always has a domino effect on town hall meetings; it’s going to be basically impossible now to calm everyone down before they’ve shouted their fill. Derek swallows a sigh and sits back down in his uncomfortable wooden chair. From where it’s positioned at the front of the room, Derek can see that Jackson, at his podium, is checking Facebook on his iPad and Melissa McCall’s finger is shaking as she points it at Helen Martin and says, “Don’t you dare try to say that Stiles is dangerous just because he’s a spark. He’s never hurt anyone in Beacon Hills.”
The two other members of the hedgewitches’ council on either side of Helen Martin also take to their feet. All three of them are impeccably dressed, in designer suits and with diamond jewelry glinting out from under their shellacked hair. Hedgewitches always dress well. Except for Stiles, of course, who dresses like a colorblind three-year-old, but if anything that’s a manifestation of his frustration with the eternal question of whether or not a spark qualifies as a hedgewitch.
It looks like the town hall meeting is shaping up to being a rehash of the greatest hits of that particular argument in its many varied forms; Derek pulls out his shiny new phone since the Bon Appetit is sitting on his chair in the audience next to Scott and thumbs open his email, a little awkwardly. Laura has been trying to organize a family dinner so she can introduce her new boyfriend to their parents, but making sure that everyone is available is proving fairly difficult. The new email in that thread is from Laura, with an attached PDF of her schedule at the clinic.
I’m also free Tuesday, Derek replies, his thumbs feeling swollen and too large for the tiny keys on the touchpad of his phone, and so he’s not paying attention when the bitterness in the room suddenly spikes and Helen Martin hisses, “He shouldn’t be alive in the first place,” and the noise rapidly drops off. Everyone sitting in the first few rows swivel in unison to stare at Derek.
This is the problem with towns like Beacon Hills, especially when you’re an adjunct werewolf deputy with a mostly-human sheriff’s department and you were shacked up with the town’s magical pariah—your life and its traumas are incredibly transparent.
“Right,” Derek says, standing and dropping his phone his pocket. “The sheriff’s department isn’t going to answer any questions about the wards on Stiles Stilinski at the moment because they are part of an open investigation and that information is not publically available. You’re free to speculate,” but I would heavily recommend against it, his tone suggests.
Helen Martin’s mouth flattens. “Excuse me, Deputy Hale,” she says, but Derek picks up his legal pad and tucks it under his arm and steps off of the stage to make his way out. “Excuse me!” she calls after him; Derek ignores her as he walks up the middle aisle between the rows of folding chairs and exits the room. Beacon Hills Town Hall is on the small side, and the only reception room large enough to hold a town hall meeting is on the ground floor—Derek is outside in seconds, and then he keeps going, past his car, across the street, and then right into the woods behind Beacon Hills Middle School’s playground.
He thinks about shifting but it doesn’t feel right; he ends up tucking himself under a tree and pulls his knees up so he can drape his arms over them and rest his forehead against his left forearm. The quiet sounds of the forest, waking to the new spring, and the comforting smells of dirty and dying things and the bite of cold keep him from giving in to whatever is happening in his chest and swelling up into his throat.
“Fuck,” Derek whispers into his knees, and he waits for hours for the pain that never comes. The build-up into nothing is the hardest part.
Twenty minutes into dinner, it’s incredibly obvious to everyone except Laura’s new boyfriend that he’s just a placeholder as Laura gets over Daphne Martin. Derek tries very hard not to say or think anything that might give it away, and his parents are on their best behavior—or whatever approaches that, at least—but it’s Laura who keeps messing up.
“Laura,” Derek says, when she and he are in the kitchen ostensibly collecting cutlery for the dessert that her new boyfriend—Kris? Karl? Kent?—had brought with him in a box from the Cheesecake Factory. Derek’s father had actually recoiled from the package before getting himself under control and accepting it with a pained expression on his face.
“What?” Laura demands tonelessly.
Normally, Derek relies upon Laura goading him for them to get anywhere in a conversation. As she picks through their mismatched collection of forks and spoons for enough for their shitty dinner party, she has a stubborn set to her shoulders that indicates that she’s not going to be helping Derek with this at all. “Do you—he’s an accountant.”
“Yes,” Laura says with exaggerated patience. “Well-done, Derek.”
“Daphne’s an accountant,” Derek prods. “Does what’s-his-face work at Hopkins and Boyd?”
Laura says, “Jesus, there’s more than one accounting firm on the face of the planet, Derek.”
“Yeah, but in Beacon Hills?” Derek points out. “There’s only the one.”
“Where Daphne no longer works,” Laura says, “so whatever point you’re trying to make doesn’t matter.” She shoves her fistful of forks at Derek and goes to fill up the red kettle for tea and coffee. “Derek, you’re not good at the third degree and it’s showing really obviously.”
“Yeah, I’m obvious,” Derek mumbles under his breath.
Laura drops the kettle onto a back burner with a loud crash and leans into Derek’s space to say, eyes artificially bright, “I know that we were going to be the heartbreak twins together, dork, but Daphne’s gone and she’s not coming back. I’m sure as hell not going to L.A., so I have to get my shit together.” Whatever she sees in Derek’s face makes her go a little softer, as soft as Laura ever really gets. “It’s harder when they’re still around for you to see, isn’t it?”
“You’re not over Daphne,” Derek finally says. Being subtle isn’t something at which Derek is particularly adept, and this conversation isn’t going where he wants.
“No,” Laura agrees, her voice steady like her heart isn’t beating loudly and arrhythmically in her chest. She leans back against the stove and crosses her arms over her chest. “Are you over Stiles?”
“Yes,” Derek says. “I don’t—get to choose. It’s just—I just am.”
“Right,” Laura says skeptically. “You just are. Twelve hours locked in a basement with Kate Argent and you just are—”
“I didn’t get to choose,” Derek says loudly over her. “You’re the one who got the chance to go with Daphne to L.A. No asked me what the fuck I wanted, but Daphne spent a month trying to convince you—”
Laura hisses, “Giving up my family wasn’t a choice, dickface,” and they’re glaring at each over, tense as the kettle begins to hiss, when their mother leans into the room.
“Lighten it the hell up, children,” she says. There’s a smile on her face but Derek isn’t tricked at all into thinking that she’s happy with either of them. “We have a guest and you’re being loud, even for human ears.”
“Sorry, Mom,” Laura says, with a twin smile of intensely false happiness on her face. “Ask Ken if he wants cream in his coffee, won’t you? Derek can bring in the forks.”
Ken, squished into the seat that normally belongs to Cora on Laura’s side of the table, is talking loudly to Derek’s father about golf when Derek reenters the dining room with his mother. His ears are flushed and he keeps going to adjust his tie where it’s clasped around his neck. Derek still thinks he’s kind of an asshole for even wearing a tie in the first place, but impressing the Alpha of Beacon Hills is a big deal to humans, especially if you want to date her daughter.
Daphne hadn’t dressed up for her first dinner with Derek’s family after she and Laura had begun officially dating, but Daphne and Laura had been friends since childhood and it’d probably have been ridiculous for Daphne to act like she was actually being vetted. Besides, Daphne is a Martin and a hedgewitch and never looks sloppy.
“Uh-huh,” Derek’s father says, shooting his mother panicked eyes. “That’s—a great set of irons.” What Derek’s father doesn’t know about golf could fill encyclopedias.
If Ken’s confused by what is probably a totally unrelated comment, he doesn’t seem to be one to let it get to him. “Right,” he says. “That’s a very good way of looking at it.” He turns his attention to Derek’s mother and beams at her. “Can I give you a hand with anything, Mrs. Hale?”
“It’s Talia,” Derek’s mother says. “Take a fork. Do you like cream in your coffee?”
Derek offers him a fork and Ken grasps it like a lifeline.
Perhaps most surprisingly, there isn’t any fallout within the sheriff’s department about the town hall meeting for two whole weeks. Helen Martin files an official request for information, of course, which Derek has the personal honor of denying via a letter on official Beacon County sheriff’s department stationary, but the sheriff doesn’t taken the opportunity to pull Derek aside and there isn’t any gossip about it within Derek’s considerable range of hearing.
That grace period ends on a Monday afternoon, when Derek walks through the front door of the sheriff’s department and can immediately hear, with crystalline clarity, one of the new succubus deputies say to the other, “Apparently it’s a curse.”
Derek pauses in the door; there are many kinds of curses, of course, but there’s only one in Beacon Hills that gets rehashed with any kind of regularity.
“Get in or get out,” Missy says waspishly. “You’re letting the heat out.”
“Sorry,” Derek says automatically. He steps into the lobby and lets the door swing shut behind him.
“A curse?” the other succubus says. His name is Marcus; he and his wife had moved from Chico because he’d been getting a lot of the bad kind of heckling within the magical community of Butte County for being a male succubus. “But curses can be broken.”
His sister, Greta, whispers, “Well, not this one,” and her voice sounds like every other benign gossiper on the face of the planet. She’s not being malicious, just curious about her new coworkers in her new town, but her curiosity and faint glee at finding the source of all of the tension in the sheriff’s department burn against Derek’s nose and inside his ears. “They were together for like eight or nine years, and then—nothing. Not that it’s his fault. Werewolves mate for life, everybody knows that. Take that away and you’ve got less than nothing.”
At this point, Derek might as well have werewolves mate for life written across his forehead and carved into the wood of his front door and embossed in gold on the side of his car. His name is always spoken in conjunction with that phrase, because the townspeople of Beacon Hills aren’t fundamentally mean and they never want to blame him, directly, for the total dissolution of his relationship with Stiles.
“But he just left?” Marcus says. He sounds bewildered. “What, right away?”
“It’s not like I have a fucking timeline, Marcus,” Greta says. “But Danielle says they tried and everybody could tell it was too hard and it was killing both of them. So Stiles moved back in with the sheriff.”
“But—he left?” Marcus repeats. By all accounts, Marcus is a pretty good deputy and generally a smart guy, but he currently sounds like a total idiot. Derek goes to stand by the corkboard where people pin pictures of missing pets and tries to look like he’s reading them. Sometimes, when they both have an afternoon off, Derek will collect Scott and they’ll drive around looking for the pets that have been missing for a while—Derek can usually track them, but the animals get skittish around him and Scott can calm them down. He stares at a photograph of a ratty-looking greyhound and can’t read its name, although he stares at the letters for at least fifteen seconds. Hopefully some time in the next half-minute Marcus and Greta will stop talking about him and he can go into the deputy bullpen and pretend like he hadn’t heard them.
Greta sighs. “Yes, Marcus. He left. His boyfriend was no longer physically capable of loving him, so he left. Jesus Christ, it’s not impossible to believe.”
“But,” Marcus says, “you can see it—he’s still—”
“Yeah,” Greta says. “He is. It’s kind of sad, right? I wouldn’t stay, loving somebody that couldn’t love me. Why the hell should he have done it?”
Derek reaches up and rips down a handful of missing pet posters. As he turns on his heel and walks back out the door, he can hear Marcus say in the deputy bullpen, “No wonder he’s such an asshole.”
“Which one?” Greta asks, and she and her brother are still snorting as Derek slams the door shut behind him and makes for his car. They have a right to wonder about their coworkers and their lives, and everyone in Beacon Hill feels the need to be concerned about Stiles because he’s potentially dangerous, but Derek is still overwhelmingly angry—hugely, stupidly angry, the kind of angry that had gotten him in trouble as a teenager, when he’d been frustrated with his sisters and his parents and how fucking terrible a werewolf he’d been.
When he gets into his car and throws the missing pet posters onto the passenger’s seat next to him, Derek realizes that he’s brought along a collection of thumbtacks and one of them is stuck into the meat of his thumb. He hadn’t even felt it stick him.
Derek dials Scott’s office number and wedges his tiny phone into the curve of his shoulder so he has a hand free to pick at the thumbtack. His fingernails are cut too short to do much of anything; he grows a claw on his index finger and wedges it under the lip of the thumbtack as Tian, Scott’s high school intern, answers the phone with a cheerful, “Dr. McCall’s office, how can I help you?”
“It’s Deputy Hale,” Derek says. There’s a residual growl in his voice that he can’t seem to do anything about.
Tian and her parents are human; she squeaks slightly and says, “One second please,” in a high-pitched rush and then she puts the receiver down against some kind of metallic surface and shouts, “Dr. McCall, Deputy Hale is on the phone for you!” Derek rolls down his window and throws the thumbtack out into the parking lot, where he meanly hopes Greta or Marcus run it over and puncture a tire.
“What's up?” Scott asks when he picks up the receiver. “You want to talk about the thing?”
“No,” Derek says, even though he doesn’t know what Scott is talking about, because Derek rarely wants to talk about anything that needs to be delicately handled. “Do you have some time free to do a sweep for pets?”
There’s the sound of clacking keys and the slow whir that the vet clinic’s ancient PC makes when it tries to do something more complicated than run MS Paint; finally, Scott says, “Yeah, I have to run out to the McCormicks’ tonight to check on Plentiful Spring but I’m free for a few hours. You want to pick me up or—”
“Yes,” Derek says and hangs up. The vet clinic is technically fifteen minutes from the sheriff’s department but Derek makes it in about nine. When he shifts into park and rests his hands against the steering wheel to wait for Scott, he realizes that his fingers have indented the plastic of his steering wheel and the tendons on the backs of his hands are standing out like mountain formations. He concentrates on breathing evenly.
Scott comes out of the front door of the clinic, a leather jacket slung over his shirt and tie. He looks more hassled now than he did a few weeks ago, when Derek had responded to the noise disturbance and found Allison slinging tiny pots of paint samples at Scott’s head, shouting about indirect gendering. “We are not painting the nursery blue!” Allison had yelled when Derek had pulled into the driveway of their house. She’d been clearly audible even to human ears, because the window to the nursery was open to let out paint fumes. “Everything we have for this baby is blue. The baby is going to grow up to be a dolphin.”
Derek had waited until Allison had stopped yelling to get out of his car, at which point Scott was promising to pick up a gallon of Mediterranean Sunrise from Reese’s Hardware in the morning. “Yellow’s nice,” Allison had said more calmly as Derek had knocked on their front door. “I like the way it brings out the warm tones in the baseboard.”
Compared to how Scott had looked when he’d answered the door, dotted with paint and with a bruise the size of a penny on his forearm from a deflected paint sampler, he’s currently sort of a wreck. “Hey,” he says tiredly as he pulls open the passenger’s side door to Derek’s car. “These the posters?” He scoops them up as he settles into his seat, shuffling them in his lap. “Mimi Steinberg’s upset about their bichon, she’ll be happy if we can find it.”
Derek grunts and pulls out of the parking lot in a squeal of tires. “What are the breeds?”
Out of the corner of his eye, Derek can see Scott rub the bridge of his nose and then shake his head slightly. “Um,” he says, rifling through the posters. “The Steinberg’s bichon, Brett Kopitar’s lab mix, Nomi Marcus’ orange tabby, and the kiss’ black cat.”
“Since when has the kiss’ cat been missing?” Derek demands. He doesn't wait for Scott to answer, and instead grabs the relevant poster out of Scott’s hands. It’s grades above the other ones, which are mostly handwritten and photocopied or clearly made in PowerPoint; this one has an obvious design scheme, which screams you will die. Across the top is MISSING CAT, followed by a picture of a very irritable-looking small cat and a description. Along the bottom is PROPERTY OF BEACON COUNTY’S REYES KISS and even though the lettering isn’t conspicuously ominous, Derek still gets a moderate case of goose bumps.
“I hope no one in Beacon Hills was stupid enough to steal the mascot of a kiss of vampires,” Scott says. “That’s some dangerous shit.” He takes the poster back from Derek and says, “Erica’s going to drain somebody,” in a resigned kind of voice.
Derek personally thinks that Boyd and Isaac will probably keep her from doing something hugely illegal, but if Scott doesn’t know that by now he’s not going to learn it from Derek. “We’ll stop by the preserve, go from there,” Derek says instead. “Buckle your seatbelt.”
“Okay, mom,” Scott says equably. Derek gives him an unhappy eyeball, and Scott responds by pointing at his own face. After a few seconds, Derek realizes that he’s gesturing to the dark circles under his eyes. “Do you know what these are from?” Scott asks. “Not my wife, or my future child. These are from Stiles.” There’s a lot of exasperation layered over the fondness in his voice, really enough to almost drown out the fondness altogether.
“Okay,” Derek says, in a way that means shut the fuck up.
“I get that everything sucks,” Scott continues, ignoring Derek’s warning just like Laura and Derek’s parents always do. “I don’t get why you’re not trying to break it, though.”
“It’s not that kind of a curse,” Derek says immediately, and then he hears Greta’s voice in his head and he wants to beat himself to death with a car door.
Scott nods. “Right, right, and you’re still not going to try to break it?” He frowns at Derek. “I thought you were Kirk.”
“What,” Derek says.
“Don’t front, I’ve been to your house and seen your collection of TOS DVDs,” Scott says. “What happened to not believing in no-win scenarios? You’re the most stubborn werewolf on the face of the planet. Even Stiles didn’t believe you about Kate, and you still put an illegal wiretap on her hotel room.”
“Kate Argent,” Derek reminds him, “was a psychopath.”
“Yeah,” Scott agrees, “so if you were right then, why aren’t you being a stubborn ass now?” The car slows as they approach a four-way intersection with a stop sign. Scott takes advantage of Derek glancing in his direction to raise an eyebrow. “Kirk, right? You’re Kirk, and Stiles is, like, McCoy or whatever. Maybe Spock. He’s annoying enough to be Spock.”
“McCoy is plenty annoying,” Derek mutters under his breath. He parks moderately illegally on the side of the road and climbs out of his car. “The kiss’ cat first, to keep Erica from committing homicide.”
Scott slams his door shut and nods. “Sounds good,” he says. He sounds unruffled, like Scott always does after having emotional conversations. Derek wants to simultaneously rip a tree out of the ground and beat someone to death with it and drown himself in Beacon Creek.
Derek cracks his neck and rolls his shoulders back before closing his eyes and concentrating on particular smells—male cat, with the layered absence particular to neutered ones, the crumbly dirt smell of vampire, and the specific ones relevant to the Reyes kiss and Erica Reyes in particular.
They end up driving out of the preserve back into town, on the way lifting Nomi Marcus’ tabby out of a Dumpster behind the shitty motel on Hudson, until the scent of the kiss gets strong near Beacon Hills Elementary and Derek parks his car in the nearly-empty parking lot. School is over for the day and the fields behind the school are deserted, abandoned for indoor sports practices. Derek passes the tennis courts and outdoor track at a brisk walk, until he ends up in a spurt of growth clinging to the edge of the property line and there, under unseasonably strong lavender and impatiens, he catches the hard scent of neutered male cat.
“Scott!” Derek calls.
“Right here,” Scott says. “What, is he around? Leo! Leo!” Scott pulls a packet of cat treats from the pocket of his jacket and crouches down to pour a few into his palm. He puts one on the ground and backs away, tugging Derek by the leg of his jeans. “He shouldn’t be as skittish around you, not if he lives with the kiss, but let’s not freak him out.”
Derek says, “Whatever,” and backs away, letting Scott work his veterinarian magic on the undergrowth and whatever is hiding inside of it. Laura, who as far as Derek is concerned is one of the least personable people on the face of the planet and terrifying because of it, has the same way with the kids that come into her clinic. “I have depths, asshole,” Laura had said the one time Derek had been stupid enough to mention it. “Unlike you, who are moody jackass on the surface all the way to the insides of your soul, I am capable of being cheerful and personable.” She had punctuated each adjective with a hard punch to Derek’s shoulder.
After three minutes of bribes and Scott’s low murmur, Leonardo emerges in a slow creep from the bushes and nibbles on the first of the proffered cat treats. Despite the fact that he weighs approximately three pounds soaking wet, Leonardo looks like the kind of cat other cats wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley.
Irritated for lots of reasons, all of them justified, Derek pounces and grips Leonardo around the middle of his torso with one hand. Leonardo screams, dropping the wet, half-chewed treat onto Derek’s left shoe, and he twists himself in half to better sink his teeth into Derek’s wrist.
“Mother of fucking,” Derek growls, and Leonardo responds by flipping up his back legs and burying his rear claws into the other side of Derek’s arm. The demon is clearly made of silly putty instead of flesh; he scratches at higher up Derek’s forearm with his front claws and they sink through the thin khaki of Derek’s uniform shirt like it’s paper.
“Leo!” Scott scolds. He hooks his thumbs into the hinge of Leonardo’s jaw in an attempt to dislodge his grip, but all that does is piss the damn cat off more. Derek’s uniform shirt is blossoming red in patches up his arm and Leonardo is hissing satanically and overlaid on that is Scott’s gentle murmuring.
To Derek’s left, Stiles says, “Jesus Christ, guys,” and Derek jerks to the side, nearly flinging Leonardo to the tender mercies of the running track.
“Fucking fuck,” Derek hisses as Leonardo’s teeth somehow manage to sink deeper.
“How many werewolf adjunct deputies does it take to capture a kitten?” Stiles asks. “Clearly they should’ve provided you with backup.” He’s two feet above Derek’s head, arms propped on top of the tall wooden fence that lines the sheriff’s backyard.
“I’m backup,” Scott says. He frowns thoughtfully and presses somewhere under Leo’s jaw. The cat’s mouth springs open like a clam and Scott takes the opportunity to rip him away—gently—and off of Derek.
The scratches sting like hell and Derek’s shirt is a mess; he rips off the sleeve at the elbow and flexes his arm. There’s no familiar ache from healing flesh. Derek’s arm looks a little bit like the ground venison from the butcher’s station at Raley’s.
This time it’s Stiles who says, “Fuck,” quietly and meaningfully.
“You’re exceptional backup,” Stiles bitches at Scott when he opens the front door to the sheriff’s house and flings a roll of gauze at Derek’s head. Leonardo and Nomi Marcus’ tabby are sniffing each other and probably scratching up the interior of Derek’s car; Derek is holding his arm against his chest so he gets blood on his already-ruined shirt instead of the sheriff’s driveway. “Great job, A++, would see that bullshit again.”
“Shut up,” Derek says. He unrolls a loop of gauze and rips it with his teeth. “Hold this.” He shoves the gauze back at Stiles and starts to wind the gauze around his arm haphazardly. In his defense, Derek has never bandaged a wound in his life.
Stiles makes an annoyed noise high in his throat and says, “You are fucking incompetent,” and bats Derek’s hands away. “What the hell is this? Did you even clean these? What the fuck is wrong with you?” Derek had, in fact, licked the blood off of his arm on the walk around the block to the front of the sheriff’s house, but Stiles doesn’t look like he wants to hear that. “Christ,” Stiles mutters, and he disappears into the house.
Derek immediately turns to leave and is stopped by Scott’s hand on his chest. “Back it up,” Scott says. He points at a dilapidated wicker chair half-hidden under an arbor that looks new and smells like fresh paint and mulch. “Sit down.”
Huffing through his nose, Derek sits on the chair. It rustles, as if seriously considering dumping him on his ass, before it settles. Stiles reappears with a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and more gauze; a white roll of medical tape is in the chest pocket of his flannel shirt, distended like an arc reactor from his chest.
“Shut up,” Stiles says, uncapping the hydrogen peroxide and gripping Derek’s wrist with his hand, turning so the worst of the bite marks are facing upwards.
Derek looks at Stiles’ fingers on his wrist and wishes he could feel something. “I didn’t say anyth—holy shit.”
Unimpressed, Stiles continues to pour a steady stream of hydrogen peroxide over Derek’s arm. He rotates Derek’s wrist gently, moving up to cover the claw marks near the inside of Derek’s elbow. After the first harsh bite, the hydrogen peroxide just burns, low-level, like a constant scratching. Stiles releases Derek’s arm to go back inside and he silently returns with a bottle of water, with which he wipes off the remaining blood, before wrapping Derek’s arm in gauze and binding it off with medical tape.
Stiles is a little pale from all of the blood and open flesh, but he slaps the last of the medical tape into place and leans back on his heels. “Good as new,” he says. His tone is inscrutable so Derek goes to his smell, which is mostly of dirt and exhaustion and faintly, like it’s fading slowly, the familiar pre-storm air of ozone.
It’s not like Kate took everything from Derek, when they made their deal. She took the parts of Derek that were overwhelmed every day by Stiles and his brightness and magic and the long, slender lines of his fingers; she took their future, together, and any future Derek might have had apart from Stiles if they had broken up for normal reasons. Derek can still look at Stiles and see the things Derek once loved and wanted from him—he can recognize Stiles’ scent as familiar and safe—but the love itself, the physical ache in his chest that is simultaneously heavy and carbonated, is gone.
Derek misses that more than he misses Stiles. It’s not exactly a competition; he can’t value Stiles the same way anymore.
“Thanks,” Derek says.
“Are we—going to ignore this?” Stiles asks. “You know, the way your super badass and very convenient advanced healing decided to take a couple of vacation days?”
“I’ll talk to Mom about it,” Derek says. If he looks at Stiles for too long, the paleness of his throat and the brightness of his eyes make Derek remember. In some ways the remembering is worse than the feeling. It’s the remembering that makes Derek feel so fucking guilty all the time. He’d done what he’d done with Kate because it’d been the only way to keep her from destroying his pack, but he hadn’t—it’s not like he’d wanted to lose Stiles. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Don’t worry about it, he says,” Stiles repeats. “Don’t worry about it? What exactly about this is supposed to be unworthy of fucking worry, Derek?”
Aggressively, Derek says, “Why don’t we talk about your wards, then, Stiles?”
Scott says, “Um, guys?” and Stiles climbs out of his crouch to loom over Derek. Even with the breath of his shoulders and the shade of the sun streaming from behind him, darkening his profile, he’s one of the least intimidating things Derek has ever seen.
“Fine, asshole,” Stiles says, “okay, let’s talk about my wards. Fifteen weeks ago, when my boyfriend came home and told me that he didn’t love me anymore, I had a little bit of a magical control problem, and apparently my wards recognized that and now they’re expanding.” He uses scare quotes around ‘recognized.’ “I have no fucking idea why and the hedgewitches’ council would rather burn me at the stake than ask questions, so. Your turn.”
Stiles’ voice has been so even that the harshness of your turn makes Derek want to flinch. He shrugs instead, to get the tightness out of his shoulders. “My healing was fine this morning.” He raises his thumb to look at it and, yeah, the hole from the thumbtack is completely gone. “I haven’t heard of something like this before.”
“Have you?” Scott asks Stiles quietly, maybe to make it into an academic question instead of a personal one. “Read about it, I mean.”
“No,” Stiles says. He smells like anger and summer storms but his hands are relaxed as he crosses his arms across his chest. “I mean, dying wolves, the ones at the end of their lives, they don’t heal as fast, but it’s only centuries’ worth of wear that can do that. Derek’s not even forty.”
“I said I’ll ask Mom about it,” Derek says. “It’s probably—Leonardo was in a patch of wolfsbane or something.” Even he can hear the thinness of that excuse in his voice; Leonardo hadn’t smelled like wolfsbane at all.
Stiles’ eyebrow pops up. “Right,” he drawls. “The cat was in wolfsbane. In my backyard.”
It’s almost habit to correct Stiles—it’s your father’s, not yours—but Derek’s tongue is stalled. Stiles lives with his father now. That reminds Derek, though, about the garden. “Should anything be growing now?” he asks. “I mean—you smell like—roots. Mulch.”
“What I smell like,” Stiles says faux-pleasantly, “isn’t any of your fucking business, Derek.” He nods at Scott and turns on his heel to go back inside. Now that Derek has called attention to it, though, the air around the sheriff’s house feels more like deep spring than the end of winter. It’s still too early and cold for the kind of growth that Derek can smell and feel, even. The soles of his feet itch in his boots, like they’re too warm.
They walk back to Derek’s car in silence and then he gives up and pushes Scott up against the side of his car. “Scott,” Derek says, using his good arm to pin Scott’s chest. “Why is Stiles’ garden awake.”
“Personal space, dude,” Scott says waspishly. “It’s not your business, okay?” But his heart kicks over the words, Scott’s particular and recognizable brand of half-lie. Derek has heard it hundreds of times over his lifetime, usually with regards to who finished the last bottle of Blue Moon or beat Stiles’ high score on his PSP.
“Oh, it’s my business,” Derek assures him. He grows in the canines, just enough to make his eyes flash blue. Intimidating Scott isn’t easy, but—is Stiles doing something stupid and dangerous? He’s particularly adept at both of those things. “What is wrong with Stiles’ garden, Scott.”
“Nothing’s wrong,” Scott says, which he believes. “He’s trying something. You should leave him alone, Derek. He’s not having a great time, and you arresting him a few weeks ago was a dick move.”
Scott isn’t wrong, which is what prompts Derek to back off. He turns his attention to the cats in his backseat. Leonardo is sitting on top of Nomi Marcus’ tabby, staring at Derek with beady, judgmental eyes. There’s blood smeared across his black chin, drying against his throat. He opens his mouth in a delicate yawn as Derek bares his teeth.
“Let’s get the hellcat back to Erica,” Derek growls. “We’ll talk about this later, Scott.”
“Uh huh,” Scott says with palpable relief. “Yeah—later.”
Derek means to be direct in asking his mother about the interlude with Leonardo, but when he drops by his parents’ house with a lemon pound cake from the bakery in town as an enticement cum apology for the terrible mess that had been the dinner with Ken, Peter and Paige are in the kitchen and Miles is sprawled with his collection of toy cars across the front hall.
“Hi Derek,” he says, looking up and narrowing his eyes on the white box in Derek’s left hand. “Is that cake?”
“Yes,” Derek says. “It’s for your aunt and uncle.”
“I could have a little piece,” Miles says feebly. “They wouldn’t notice it if I take it from the bottom.”
There might be a world where Derek is capable of telling one of his myriad younger cousins no, but that world is not this one. Derek drops down into a crouch and begins to pick at the ribbon the bakery had tied around the box to keep it shut on the drive. “Are your parents here?” he asks, although he can hear the low, delighted murmur of Peter and Paige tag-teaming someone in the kitchen. It might be Laura; she’s talking too quietly for him to make out the exact words.
“Yeah, they’re talking to Laura.” Miles hasn’t blinked or looked away from the cake box. “Is that lemon?”
“Only one piece,” Derek says, quelling. “It’s for everybody.”
“I thought it was for Aunt Talia and Uncle Marc,” Miles points out. “Also for me in secret.”
There’s not really anything Derek can say to that; instead of trying, he puts down the bakery ribbon and opens the top of the box, exposing the cake to Miles’ unblinking stare. Derek is trying to figure out the best way to break off a piece without disturbing his father’s precise tastes in pastry presentation when the man in question appears down the hall, wiping his hands on a dishtowel. The door to the kitchen swings back and forth on smooth hinges behind him; in a sudden wave, Derek can hear Peter say, “You don’t do brooding quite as attractively as Derek, dear.”
“What’s this?” Derek’s father asks briskly. “Do I smell cake?”
Derek straightens up immediately, trying not to let blatant guilt seep out of his pores. “Yeah, it’s for you and Mom,” he says, tilting the box so that his father can see what’s inside.
“Also for me,” Miles says, aggrieved. “Derek, you said it was also for me.”
“In secret,” Derek reminds him, not that Miles has inherited any sense of shame from either of his parents.
With a stupidly smarmy grin, Derek’s father relieves him of the box of cake and tows him in for a quick hug. “Apology accepted,” he says into Derek’s ear. More loudly he announces, “Derek’s brought cake! Can someone put on the kettle?”
“I actually wanted to talk to Mom in private,” Derek tries, but his father has already waved Miles and his collection of toy cars into the living room and Derek can’t do much but trail behind them feeling impotent. Each member of his family operates like a force of nature and Derek can only ever follow in their wake, either picking up the pieces of their mess or asking them to turn their blunt force on a particular aspect of his own life. He hates asking them for help; Laura in particular gets really insufferable about it.
Laura has never looked less insufferable than she does when she bursts into the living room with six mismatched mugs on a tray with a box of Twining’s Lady Grey teabags. Paige is right behind her, holding the kettle, and Peter follows at the end with forks and plates. “Get the cake server from the kitchen, will you?” Derek’s father says absently, presumably to Derek’s mother.
The tray of cups goes down on the coffee table with a crash and Laura, scowling but trying to hide it behind a really terrible blank expression, picks Miles up around his midsection and begins to tickle him mercilessly. “Laura!” he shrieks, writhing and holding a toy car in each hand. “Laura!”
“What’s the magic word?” Laura demands, sounding a little better after Miles’ hysterical laughter.
“Daddy,” Miles whines, “Daddy, what’s Latin for ‘stop’?” He has to take a breather midway through his sentence because Laura’s fingers dig under his armpits and his shrieks become almost deafening.
Peter hands Derek’s father the plates and pauses, pretending to think, as Derek’s father distributes a fork for each plate. “I don’t know,” he hedges, and Laura’s tickling becomes more frenzied.
“Daddy!” Miles cries.
Snapping his fingers, Peter points at Paige and says, “Can you remember, love?”
Paige, occupied with pouring an equal amount of water into each mug, shrugs. “I know the Sanskrit,” she says, “but the Latin’s beyond me.” When Laura renews her assault, Paige takes a second to wink at Derek.
“Oh, right!” Peter says, when the noise coming out of Miles’ mouth is on the verge of becoming ear-shattering. “Subsisti.”
“SUBSISTI,” Miles yells. “Subsisti, Laura!”
Feigning disappointment, Laura unlatches her arms from around Miles’ torso. “You got me,” she says sadly. “You knew the magic word.”
Miles wriggles out of Laura’s arms and dashes for Paige, immediately latching his arms around her stomach and trembling with exhausted enthusiasm. “Mommy, I’m free,” he says into Paige’s stomach, “Do I get tea?”
“Not this kind, hon,” Paige says. She looks at Derek and asks, “Can you get him some of the iced tea in the kitchen?” Even though Paige isn’t a werewolf and has only been a Hale for ten years, she has the Hale matriarch telepathy down to an art form; Derek’s mother is in the kitchen, picking through drawers presumably for the cake server.
“I swear to God he moves shit around so I can’t find it,” his mother says, slamming a drawer shut and reaching for the one to its immediate left. “’The cake server is where it always is, Talia.’ Bullshit.” She rattles the contents of the drawer aggressively and then looks at Derek over her shoulder. “What’s wrong, baby?”
Derek sighs and, resigned to discussing this within the hearing of the rest of the family, holds out his arm so she can see the gauze. “I got mauled by the Reyes kiss’ cat and it didn’t heal.”
His mother frowns and lets the drawer close. “Was it wolfsbane?” She comes closer and molds her hands over the air above the gauze like she’ll be able to feel what’s wrong. “No, it doesn’t smell like aconite. Just fresh and unhealed. Derek—why didn’t you tell me things were this bad?” His mother reaches to cup his chin in her palm. They’re the same height, because his mother is a tall woman; she doesn’t even need to exert effort to look into his eyes.
“Things aren’t bad,” Derek says, half-lying. “Not—worse, at least.”
“It’s not healing because you’re not letting it,” his mother says. She frowns, but he gets the impression that it’s not at him directly. “Derek, you know that we’re grateful for what you did to save us from Kate Argent.” She doesn’t say it like there’s a but at the end, but there has to be. No one has thanked Derek without immediately following that up with an expression of regret for what happened between Derek and Stiles as a direct result of Derek’s decision.
His mother doesn’t say anything.
“You’re welcome,” Derek finally says, a little tentative because he’s not sure if that’s what she wants.
She sighs and folds Derek into a hug, careful to keep her body away from his injured arm. “We are, baby,” she says into his forehead. “Every day, when we see Miles playing with his cars and Peter being a jackass and Cora sends us an email from Atlanta, we’re grateful that you kept us safe. You had to make a terrible, terrible choice and you made it and you saved us.”
Derek hadn’t even recognized the full weight of the guilt against his chest until it loosens a little, enough to let him hug his mother back. “I love you,” he tells her.
“I love you too,” she says. “Don’t ever think I don’t.”
Derek waits for a few minutes, lets his body get used to her warmth and her strength, and then he tells her, “The cake server is with the rest of Gram’s silver in the china cabinet in the dining room.”
“I’m going to kill your father,” his mother says conversationally.
Derek’s arm heals slowly—human-slow, like the paper cuts that Stiles had gotten on a weekly basis and bitched about while doing the dishes—and the sheriff puts him on desk duty and doesn’t ask questions, either because he doesn’t want to know or Stiles already filled him in.
Staying in the sheriff’s department offices gives Derek the chance to readjust to Greta and Marcus and it also tones down the gossiping, as everyone knows that he’ll be able to hear every word spoken in the entire building. There’s still gossip, of course—there’s always gossip—but now it’s probably done at Heather’s café down the street and, as Heather had been one of the friends Derek had lost in the split, avoiding the café is second nature to him at this point.
There haven’t been any other midnight thunderstorms or aggressive complaints lodged by the hedgewitches’ council, so Derek has no idea what’s currently happening with Stiles’ wards and no interest in remedying that. If there’s a problem that Derek needs to be made aware of, the sheriff will tell him.
Stiles comes into the sheriff’s department on a Wednesday, messenger bag slung across his chest and three flannel shirts layered on top of a Swamp Thing tee in deference to the cold snap sweeping through Beacon Hills. “Hey, Missy,” he calls out when he steps through the front doors, but Derek can smell him seconds before that. “What’s happening? How’s the new baby?”
“Penelope and Renee are doing fine,” Missy says, sounding bemused and irritated by it. “As is little Oliver. Which you would know, if you had come to the damn christening.”
“Helen Martin would’ve tried to stake me with a scrying crystal,” Stiles replies cheerfully. “I didn’t think blood splattered everywhere screamed ‘festive new-baby occasion,’ but hey, that’s just me. I made that charm you asked for, though.” Even though Derek stares down at the files on his desk and tries to concentrate, he can hear Stiles rustle through the contents of his bag before huffing a brief, triumphant noise. “Just nail it above Olly’s crib with the raised part facing outward. You don’t need to say, like, a chant or anything, but it’ll work best if you put it up at twilight.”
“Thanks, Stiles,” Missy says, sounding a little bit constipated about expressing affection. Stiles tends to bring that out in people.
“I’m happy to do it,” Stiles says warmly. It’s true; Stiles has always liked being approached as helpful, rather than being shunned as a medical and magical mystery. “Give your daughter and her wife my best, okay? And tell them good luck—the charm only helps with dreams, it’s gonna do fuck-all to actually make Olly sleep through the night.”
The sight of Stiles doesn’t do anything to Derek, not like it’d used to, but Derek still braces himself for the moment when Stiles steps around the front desk and into the deputy bullpen. He and Stiles can’t seem to coexist without arguing anymore, which isn’t technically different from what they’d been like when they were together. There’s just this underlying thread of bitterness, now, that makes everything sharper and more difficult.
“Hey, good morning,” Stiles says to the deputy bullpen at large, a sweep that includes Greta and Marcus, who are both sitting on top of Greta’s desk and sharing a carton of strawberry yogurt, Ji-woo, swearing at the copy machine, and Tara, doing actual work at her desk like someone who’s fucking competent at their job.
The sweep pointedly does not include Derek, which is something he’s simultaneously grateful for and annoyed by. At least, he is until Stiles pauses by Derek’s desk on his way to his father’s office to say, “Morning, Derek.”
When Derek reluctantly tears his eyes from his work to look up—for politeness’ sake and workplace contentment, nothing more—he sees that Stiles is smiling down at him. It’s a small, close-mouthed smile and it takes Derek a stupid amount of time of staring to realize that what’s weird about it is that it’s genuine.
“Morning,” Derek grunts.
Stiles’ smile briefly widens as acknowledgement and then he keeps going. He’d stopped by Derek’s desk for maybe six seconds, hardly any time at all, but Derek knows without looking that the eyes of every deputy in the room are on him. Reaching for the mouse of his computer to wake up his monitor, Derek says, “Don’t you all have work you could be doing?” It comes out as more of a growl.
Stiles stays in the sheriff’s office for a few hours, doing God knows what, and Derek has never been more grateful in his life that the sheriff’s office is soundproofed against preternatural senses. He gets an almost absurd amount of work done, burning through the shitty post-case paperwork that he normally doesn’t have time to do at the office. Tara looks pleased each time Derek brings over a completed file, starting by saying, “Thank you,” and, five or six cases down the line, adding, “This is great, I wish everyone handed in their paperwork on time.”
Greta, still on top of her desk but now, at least, alone, says, “Hey! I hand in my paperwork.”
Marcus leans back in his chair and throws a pen at her head. “I hand in your paperwork,” he corrects. “Speaking of which, Ji-woo found three separate troll sightings in the tip line. Do you want to go check it out?”
“I love me some trolls,” Greta says, taking a leap off her desk, and she and Marcus shrug into their coats and unlock their guns from the bottom drawer of their desks. Marcus is the elder by about four years but they’re both incredibly attractive the way only succubi can be, with dark, curling hair and blue eyes thickly framed by lashes. They never lack for feeding partners; their first week in Beacon Hills, Derek had answered a disturbance call that turned out to be a sixteen-year-old tuba player from Beacon Hills High School attempting to break into Greta’s apartment to offer himself as one.
Derek might’ve felt something for either of them, once—at least a twinge as acknowledgement that they’re the two most attractive people he’s ever seen, objectively speaking. But subjectively speaking, the most attractive person in the room for Derek has been Stiles since Derek turned twenty-four and found himself staring at the sheriff’s seventeen-year-old son for far longer than was professionally sound or good for his health. Derek can’t just replace that, even if Greta had made it clear to him on her arrival that she was good for an occasional hook-up and, with his werewolf stamina, he wouldn’t even feel much of a pinch.
“Later, losers,” Greta slings over her shoulder as she and Marcus head out. A few minutes later, Ji-woo goes around with a collection for things needing to be returned to the crime lab, and then the bullpen is blessedly silent except for Tara’s dedicated clacking and Derek’s pen scribbling over his reports.
It’s after Tara’s left for lunch that Stiles finally reemerges from his father’s office, still in three ridiculous flannel shirts and without his messenger bag.
“Hey,” he says, leaning a hip against Ji-woo’s desk across the aisle from Derek’s.
“Hello,” Derek says curtly, only sending him a brief glance.
“How’s the arm?” Stiles asks. He has eyes, he should be able to see the bandage from three feet away.
Derek shrugs and studiously examines the written guidelines at the top of the form he’s filling out, making sure that he’s following the proper format for citing previous cases in other districts. “It’s healing,” he says. Well, it is.
“Right,” Stiles says drily, “I can tell by that inexpertly tied gauze.”
“I don’t have another arm,” Derek says, bending down to rifle through the files in his middle drawer. Where the hell is the case file for the hag kidnappings in Sierra County last year? “It’s not an easy thing to do one-handed.” He didn’t lend it to Greta and Marcus, did he? That would’ve been incredibly stupid, as they lose case files all the time. Greta’s car is like a black hole.
“I know,” Stiles says. “Human.” He waves his hand; Derek isn’t looking at him directly, but he can see it out of the corner of his eye as he goes through the files in his middle drawer more slowly, looking for the distinctively ugly puce file folder that the sheriff’s department in Sierra County for some inscrutable reason prefers.
He must’ve given it to Greta or Marcus. Derek stands up and makes his way to Marcus’ desk, which is arranged catty-corner to Ji-woo’s. Doing so requires passing Stiles, who waits until the last second to reach out and grip Derek above the elbow. “Hey,” he says again. “You’re going to get gangrene and become the first one-armed werewolf at this rate. Let me.”
“It’s fine,” Derek says flatly. He twists his arm out of Stiles’ grip and focuses on the top of Marcus’ desk; if he doesn’t, he’ll think about the threads of panic running through him because Stiles’ touch does nothing, Derek’s body sits quiet and unmoved under his hand and that’s never been true. That wasn’t true when Stiles was fifteen and Derek quietly hated himself because he was twenty-two, for fuck’s sake, and it certainly wasn’t true when Derek woke in the middle of the night to Stiles’ broad palms scrabbling over Derek’s chest as thunder crackled overhead.
He’s waiting for Stiles to lose his temper and begin yelling, but Stiles instead says, with the quiet kind of power that his father has perfected, “Let me look at your arm, Derek.”
Derek obeys with ill-grace, grumbling and shoving his forearm vaguely in Stiles’ general direction. “I’ve got stuff in my bag,” Stiles says. “Just—don’t leave.” He disappears with a quick flail, the way Stiles always propels himself through the air. He’s back before Derek has finished rooting through the controlled chaos of Marcus’ desk, holding gauze and a roll of surgical tape and a few packets of antibacterial wipes.
“Park it,” Stiles says, grinning fleetingly at Derek and gesturing with a fistful of antibacterial wipes to Ji-woo’s desk, where Derek reluctantly rests his ass. Stiles steps in to begin unwrapping Derek’s terribly applied gauze, his head bent and his fingers picking industrially and carefully at the peeling tape. “Is this masking tape?” he asks with healthy disbelief.
“It’s not like I need surgical tape lying around,” Derek says.
“Yeah, but it’s—it’s still in the cabinet under the sink in the downstairs bathroom,” Stiles says. His voice is so fucking quiet. “I didn’t need to take it with me.”
Derek can’t remember the last time he even went into the downstairs bathroom. The half bath off of the kitchen had been used mostly for dinner guests or Stiles when he was too muddy to make it upstairs after messing around in the garden. When Derek is home—which is mostly just to sleep now that he eats the majority of his dinners with his parents—he always uses the master bath.
“Oh,” Derek says.
“Well, now you know,” Stiles says. He’s the closest that he’s been in month, so much so that the scent of warm dirt clouds Derek’s nose and coats the inside of his mouth. For someone who edits textbooks for a living, Stiles doesn’t even smell like ink anymore. It’s all wisteria and impatiens and begonias, elderberry and black walnut and fertilizer. When Paige had been pregnant with Miles, she’d smelled like this—full, blooming, ripe. Instead of a baby at the center of Stiles, though, it’s the spark.
Stiles presses a thumb to the inside of Derek’s elbow, smoothing the new surgical tape into place, and Derek realizes with an awful lurch that he’s tilted forward, his nose almost in Stiles’ hair, and he’s breathing so deeply that he can hear it rattle through his lungs. He’s gulping like a person drowning, like if he cycles air through his alveoli enough he’ll be able to pick apart the delicate strands of lilac and huckleberry that live in the wrinkles of Stiles’ skin.
“You’re good,” Stiles says. His voice cracks in the middle. “Watch yourself, big guy.” There are four packets of antibacterial wipes left and Stiles tucks them into the breast pocket of Derek’s uniform shirt before stepping away. “I was totally seriously about infection, yeah? Dad’ll kill me if his best deputy gets taken out by Erica’s cat.”
Stiles disappears so fast that Derek’s head is still spinning. He feels the first hints of queasiness, like he’s just swallowed a sprig of wolfsbane and let it root in his stomach. It just never makes it to full-fledged nausea; the self-hatred and anger that Derek is anticipating never come. Waiting for them is like being teased onto the edge of the worst orgasm in existence.
“Hey,” Tara says. She’s standing next to her desk, peeling off her coat and frowning at Derek. “You okay, hon?”
“Yeah,” Derek lies, raspy. He can’t even smell Stiles’ shadow; he would think he hallucinated the whole thing if he couldn’t feel the weight of the antibacterial wipes in his pocket.
There’s another thunderstorm that night. Derek wakes up to the rattling of the rain against the windowpanes. The lightning is clustered far off, over the preserve, and the sound of the thunder takes a long time to travel. Derek thinks about calling the sheriff, but the wounds in his arm ache with the change in barometric pressure and he’s too cranky and tired to find his fancy new phone wherever the hell it’s charging.
When Derek wakes up the next morning, his backyard is a muddy mess and there are green shoots coming out of the wrecked middle of the trembling aspen. Derek has never seen a tree recover from the kind of damage that Stiles’ last storm had put the aspen through; he’d been reluctantly planning to driving out to Marin Morell’s nursery to convince her or her brother to give him an estimate on how much it would cost to have the tree removed.
Derek tries not to think about what the tree might mean. He has so much practice avoiding things these days that it doesn’t even take much effort. He finishes his coffee, puts on a clean uniform, and drives himself to the station for another thrilling day of paperwork and Greta and Marcus’ endless bickering.
Laura, who is theoretically still dating Kent or whatever, misses four nights of family dinners before she comes by the station on what Derek hopes will be the last day of his being desk-bound. He hasn’t had to wear the bandages for a few days now and the scratches look to be closing nicely and cleanly, no sign of infection now that Derek has found the tub of medical supplies underneath the sink in the downstairs bathroom and been applying its contents regularly.
Maybe it’s an excuse not to have to see Stiles again, but Derek is very disinterested in losing his arm, so it could just be sheer self-preservation.
It’s clear which one Laura would think it is. “Lunch!” she says brightly as she swings into the deputy bullpen at half twelve. “Put your coat on, bro.”
Derek thinks about pretending not to see her, but there’s a manic look in the corner of Laura’s eyes and he thinks she might try to bodily wrest him out of his chair if he doesn’t agree and Derek doesn’t want to get into an embarrassing physical altercation with his sister in front of his coworkers. They’d all seen him run background checks on Cora’s last three boyfriends, they don’t need any other reason to find him weak.
Huffing, Derek peels himself off of desk chair and reaches for his jacket. “Where?” he asks.
“Out,” Laura says. “I got some sandwiches and lemonade from Heather’s, let’s go have a picnic.”
“In March?” Derek grumbles. Beacon Hills is still going through an improbably lengthy cold snap; Helen Martin’s petitions to have Stiles’ wards reexamined had started up again a few days ago, along with so much meteorological data that Danielle and the rest of the crime lab had refused to perform their own analysis without pay and a half to compensate for their trouble.
Laura laughs, badly and too loud, and slings an arm around Derek’s neck. “Babe, it’s always picnic season,” she says. “I know you haven’t had a Rueben from Heather’s in, like, six months, so I got you two.”
The idea of Laura going out of her way to do something nice for Derek puts him on his guard. He can see her doing it without ulterior motive for his birthday or Christmas, but Laura’s idea of kind sisterly behavior is usually to force Derek to do something he doesn’t want but what she deems healthy, like babysitting Miles while Peter and Paige go on a two-week vacation to Guadalajara or cleaning his gutters.
The gutter option seems increasingly likely as Laura takes a left out of the sheriff’s department parking lot, just like Derek does every night when he drives home after work. “Laura,” Derek says repressively, and she scowls at him.
“Excuse you, I am listening to this,” she says, turning up NPR so loudly that Derek’s eardrums throb and he can barely hear himself complaining inside his own damn head.
The segment isn’t even over when Laura parks in front of Derek’s house and turns her car off. “Come on,” she says, turning her falsely bright smile on Derek. “We’re having a picnic.” She grabs a brown bag from the backseat that smells like canola oil and potatoes and gestures for Derek to pick up two plastic bottles of lemonade from the cupholders between them.
Laura leads Derek around to the backyard and plunks down on the bottom step of the stoop that leads to the kitchen door. “Gimme a lemonade,” she says, “I had Missy’s grandson in this morning and that kid’s got lungs like a fucking banshee. I had to shout to be heard over that and my throat’s shot.”
Derek dutifully drops a bottle of lemonade into her lap and steps over her sprawled legs to tuck himself in between Laura and the railing. She keeps talking about her morning at the clinic as she fishes out one of the Ruebens for Derek and something that smells spicy and rich for herself. Laura has an addiction to hummus; it’s probably one of Heather’s myriad veggie wraps. She does a good trade in vegetarian and vegan staples, according to Stiles.
“Mmm,” Laura hums in the back of her throat. “God, that’s good. Okay, so.” She swallows a mouthful of lemonade and says, looking at a particularly ugly muddy pit instead of Derek, “Mom thinks you need space.”
“What, from you?” Derek says. “Our family doesn’t know what the word means.”
“She thinks,” Laura continues, speaking loudly for the first few words, “that you need space to figure out your head. Because you’re guilty that you chose to save our lives instead of your relationship with Stiles.”
Derek’s Rueben is probably good, but he can’t find it in himself to unlock his jaws enough to take a bite of it.
“Mom’s basically never wrong,” Laura points out. “But I have a theory.” She looks at Derek in time to catch him rolling his eyes and she bares her teeth at him. “Who here went to medical school, genius? So shut up. I think that you’re letting Kate Argent mess with your head, because you think you don’t deserve Stiles anymore. If you just tried—”
“Every time I look at him, Laura, there’s nothing there,” Derek interrupts. “How the fuck am I supposed to interpret that?”
Laura takes a bite of her hummus wrap. “Okay,” she says, and she sounds misleadingly calm. “Why won’t you sell the house, then?”
Derek flinches back from her, full-bodied. “I’m not going to sell the house,” he says stiffly. The thought of it makes everything in his body ache, like he’s been hit by a car or walking pneumonia.
Raising an eyebrow, Laura presses, “Because—you’re particularly attached to the furnishings?”
“It’s my house,” Derek hisses. “Why would I sell my house?” He doesn’t really want the rest of his Rueben anymore, although the first bite had indeed proved to be delicious.
Laura’s eyes are heavy with sympathy, and Derek has never actually seen her express it before; he doesn’t know what to do or where to look as she leans forward to pat his arm above the worse of the scratches. “Derek,” she says, sounding like their mother, “you’re going to drive yourself up the wall if you stay here by yourself. You didn’t even really like this house, when you first moved in. What’s the problem?”
“Nothing,” Derek snarls. She’s right; he didn’t really like the house, in the beginning. It’d been on the okay side of dilapidated and Stiles had made it clear that he expected Derek to pull his weight in renovations, which Derek had—completely understandably—resented. “I don’t see the point in moving.”
“There are other houses,” Laura says. “Ones with smaller yards, closer to Mom and Dad or where you work.”
Derek looks down at where Laura’s fingers are curled over his bicep, her neatly shorn nails digging into flesh. “I don’t—“ he tries, but he can hear the lie in his heartbeat before he even finishes it. What the hell is Derek going to do with a yard? He’s terrible at gardening.
“Yeah?” Laura prods.
“I’m fine,” Derek finally says. “Why move if I’m fine?”
“Oh my god,” Laura says fervently, tightening her grip. “Listen, you emotionally crippled moron, you are clearly not fine. I want you to think about why the fuck you’re living in a house that makes you so obviously miserable and how, when I remind you that you are an adult who can sell a house and move, you refuse to listen.”
Wincing at the press of her nails, Derek tries to shrug her off. “The house doesn’t make me miserable.”
“Why won’t you sell Stiles’ house, Derek?” Laura shouts in his face.
“It’s our house, Laura!” Derek yells back at her, and she releases his arm so abruptly that Derek jerks back into the railing.
“Not have a choice, my ass,” Laura says. She’s savoring her words now, the same way she’d savored the Calvin cycle when she’d finally managed to memorize it her senior year of high school and promptly sat on top of Derek to recite it at him. “You’re still in love with him, asshole, and the only thing Kate Argent did was make it impossible for you to tell. Jesus Christ, this is worse than when you two got together the first time.”
Derek has honestly never met a more frustrating individual in his entire life. “I’m not,” he tells her. He knows how he feels around Stiles, the total blankness and lack of opinion that claws down his throat. Derek had spent so long in love with Stiles that he can trace how it’d felt along the lines of his body, the places in his chest that burned and how his fingers tingled when he was near Stiles, close enough to hear his heartbeat and want to touch. He doesn’t feel it anymore but he can remember how loving Stiles felt.
Dropping her wrap, Laura leans forward and traps Derek’s face between her palms. She squeezes tightly and gets hummus all over his face, probably. “You are,” she says seriously. “You are just as head over heels for that boy as you ever have been. I have a mirror, I know how it looks when you’re actually trying to put yourself back together.” She tilts her head to where Derek has lifted his injured arm to push her off. “Sometimes healing doesn’t manifest because of guilt, babe.”
“It’s healing,” Derek points out.
Laughing, Laura says, “Wow, yeah, okay. I never thought I’d miss the mouthy asshole sixteen-year-old you, but I really do. Because this angst thing you’ve got going on for no apparent reason? It’s not cute, babe.” She waggles his chin back and forth. “I think you need to talk to Stiles, Derek. You’re expending all this energy on convincing yourself that you don’t love him, so I guess it’s understandable that you’ve forgotten this, but—Stiles is the stubbornest human being on the face of the planet. If you think moving out means that he gave up on you, Kate Argent clearly exchanged our family’s safety for your frontal lobe.”
She lets go of his face, taking the opportunity to smear more hummus onto his cheek. “I’m serious, babe. Talk to him.”
The thing about Laura, beyond her just generally being annoying as shit, is that, like their mother, she’s rarely wrong.
Stiles answers the door with, “He’s not home.”
“I’m—here to talk to you,” Derek says, awkwardly stuffing his hands into the pockets of his khakis and trying not to shuffle his feet like a high schooler asking his crush to Homecoming. “Can I come in for a second?”
Shrugging, Stiles steps aside and gestures Derek into the living room. “Yeah, okay,” he says. “Um, no offense, but what are you doing here?” Like always, he fails miserably at appearing even vaguely casual.
Derek thinks about dissembling for a moment, but he’s not patient enough for that. “Laura told me to come,” he says.
Stiles blinks at him twice and says, “Already?” and then, “Okay, okay,” and exhales loudly. “Okay, cool, yeah, we can do this now.”
“Do what?” Derek asks. Just because he has to let his family run his life doesn’t mean he particularly enjoys being manipulated.
“Do you want to sit down?” Stiles asks, sweeping a hand towards the couch. “Something to drink? Some tea?”
“No, Stiles,” Derek says through his teeth, “I don’t want to sit down and have tea. I want to know why the hell I’m here.”
Stiles assures him quickly, “We can do it standing, sure,” and then stops talking for a minute, running a hand down the back of his neck and fiddling with the hem of his t-shirt and then tapping his foot. Derek is faced with the overwhelming urge to turn around and leave.
“Don't waste my time,” he says to Stiles with what he tells himself is remarkable patience.
“Right,” Stiles says, eyes snapping back to Derek’s and his face flushing red. “So—Kate Argent’s deal, with you, about not killing your family if you gave her whatever she wanted. Um, let’s just say, theoretically, that her curse isn’t unbreakable.”
Derek resists the urge to rub his forehead. Werewolves shouldn’t even get headaches. “She and I made a deal, Stiles,” Derek reminds him flatly. “If I go back on that, then what? What if she comes back for my family?”
“We can take care of them,” Stiles promises. “I swear to God, Derek, we’ll protect them. You can feel them, right, how my wards keep expanding? It’s because I’m getting more powerful. Probably not enough to protect all of Beacon County, but definitely enough to keep our family safe. You just—you just have to let me.” His voice breaks over the last sentence. His eyes are glittering but he hasn’t started to really cry, not yet.
Derek rubs his chest with the heel of his palm, angry and thwarted and so fucking unsure and scared. “I can’t lose them,” he says. “My pack—it’s more than family. It’s me. They’re part of me, without them I’m not—who I am.”
“Derek,” Stiles says, “I know. Okay? I know.”
“No, you don’t!” Derek says. For fuck’s sake, Derek barely understands pack dynamics. “How the hell can you know what that’s like?”
“That’s you,” Stiles shouts back. “You’re more than family to me, you always have been. Yeah, my magic’s getting bigger and my wards are expanding and God knows what the fuck else is going to happen, maybe I’ll grow some fucking horns—but without you? It’s this big fucking nothing, in the middle. I’m sorry, because I know that everybody talks about it like wolves mate for life and this is because you fell in love with me and it’s a onetime thing for you. But it wasn’t just you, who made us like this. It was me. Whatever the fuck I am, I made it like this for us. There’s nobody else for me and there’s nobody else for you and when you’re not around I’ve got this fucking absence in me.”
It’s such a perfect description of how Derek feels that it doesn’t even hurt; it slides off, just like everything else has since the beginning of November. “You—” he says, and then he can’t think of how to keep going.
“You feel that, don’t you?” Stiles says. He’s finally crying. “I love you so much, I know I do, I know what it feels like but it’s gone, from me. I need it back. Daphne left Laura and she’s still okay, right? She’s dating that guy in Boyd’s dad’s firm, Karl or whatever.”
“It’s Ken,” Derek corrects.
“Right, yeah,” Stiles says wetly, “Ken. Laura’s going to be okay. It’s not like that. ‘Wolves mate for life,’ that’s bullshit, it doesn’t explain what’s happened to us. I’m like a fucking zombie, it’s a shitshow. All I do is work. I read the second Twilight book, because I wanted to see if all that hole in the chest shit was right. Derek, I read a fucking Twilight book. Like, if nothing else describes the fucking dire straits I’m in, that should.”
Derek doesn’t know what to do with his face or his hands; his heart is stupidly adrift from his brain and Stiles’ words mean something, he knows they do intellectually, but he can’t feel the impact of them as they hit. “I know you want to fix this,” he says, staring into Stiles eyes, red and swollen and his lashes clumped darkly. “But I can’t let you if it’s going to hurt—”
Stiles interrupts, “I think—okay, so, bear with me? But I don’t think the curse completely worked, when Kate cast it. I know you’re worried that she’s going to wake up and suddenly her power source is gone and she’s going to come gunning for you, but—Derek, I don’t think it worked. Not enough to replace the power kick she’d have gotten from killing your family. It might’ve, but she was taking your love for me and I don’t fucking let go of things.”
Stiles reaches for his hand and Derek flinches backwards, a half-step, before letting Stiles lock his fingers in the front of Derek’s uniform shirt and inexorably drag him towards the kitchen. “Look,” Stiles is babbling, “it worked in the sense that your love is gone from your brain, you can’t feel it. I think that part was successful. But I kept reaching back for you and—some of it must have gotten through. I don’t know if it was my magic or what, but you got some of my love. I know you did. Laura told me that you won’t sell the house.”
“When the hell did you talk to Laura?” Derek asks in a daze as Stiles pulls him past the fridge and kicks the back door open. Derek is hit in the face with green, the scent of the roiling power of nature that’s been clinging to Stiles’ clothes since February. “Jesus Christ, Stiles.”
“Like, a week ago,” Stiles says dismissively. He doesn’t sound stuffed up anymore but when Derek looks at him there are still tears on his cheeks, making his skin damp and pink and his mouth a puffy, bitten red. “I was working—I’ve been working on this since the beginning of February.”
On the surface, the sheriff’s backyard looks like what most of the other gardens on his street must look like: baby trees still stripped of leaves, bricked-in flowerbeds with neat rows of early flowers, layers of fresh mulch packed around the base of lightly budded shrubs. It looks like a garden waiting for the warmth to begin. It smells like the middle of May.
“There aren’t even that many flowers,” Derek says blankly. He can smell lilacs, which makes sense because they’re planted to flank the door, but the bushes look like they’re still hibernating. Stiles’ fingers are surprisingly warm against Derek’s front, and when he flicks a look at Derek over his shoulder, his pupils have blown out and his irises are just rings of gold.
“Not anymore,” Stiles agrees. “I finished putting everything back here through an accelerated year’s growing cycle last Tuesday. It was the only way to make sure that they’d take. Dad came back while I was raking up the leaves a few weeks ago and threatened to disown me.”
Derek can’t imagine that the baby trees had produced that many leaves in the first place, but he’d never participated in Stiles’ gardening. It had seemed intrusive, like Derek was stepping in on something he didn’t understand. Stiles doesn’t have werewolf strength but he’s strong, for a human, and he’d never really needed Derek’s help with any heavy lifting.
“Not that I don’t appreciate the lesson on garden maintenance,” Derek says, “but what am I doing here, Stiles?” If he looks at the lilac bush he doesn’t have to look at Stiles’ blown, liquid eyes and put himself through the trauma of wishing he still found him attractive, still wanted him in his life and in his bed.
“It’s pretty simple,” Stiles says. His fingers spasm against the fabric of Derek’s shirt and Derek can hear some of the fibers tear. “I need you to plant a rosemary bush.”
“I’m a shitty gardener,” Derek reminds him.
“You’re just not practiced,” Stiles says dismissively. “It’s—it’s easy.” His voice cracks in the middle of easy, which is what would’ve clued Derek in that this is important even if he couldn’t read the tension in Stiles’ bearing.
Derek reaches up and unclasps Stiles’ fingers from his shirt. “Will you tell me what to do?” he asks. There’s a tremor running through Derek’s hands, as if he’s invested in the outcome of Stiles’ scheme, but he’s not, he can’t be, if he were invested then he’d have wanted Stiles long before this. He’d have tried to reach for Stiles during the long, empty months of winter when Derek couldn’t even open the door to Stiles’ home office because he wanted it to ache and instead it meant nothing.
“Of course,” Stiles says briskly, rubbing at his left eye with a bent wrist. He kicks his foot in the direction of a rosemary bush, its roots wrapped in a ball of sackcloth, sitting on a patch of pale, wintered grass beyond the lilacs.
“Do I need a trowel or anything?” Derek asks, walking to the bush. It smells weak and sickly but the curls of its fronds are the same vibrant green that Derek recognizes from the pots his father has lined up on a windowsill in his parent’s kitchen.
Trailing after him, Stiles says, “No, it’s—better if you use your hands.” He had his in the pockets of his jeans, like he’s cold, but Derek is so hot that he’s sweating through his uniform shirt. The still-healing scratches on his arm prickle and pinch.
“Where?” Derek asks. He picks the bush up in a crouch, cushioning the base with one hand and holding it where the twine holds the sackcloth closed in the other.
He’s expecting Stiles to lead him to the center of the yard, maybe somewhere else obvious, but Stiles points beyond Derek, to a small patch of empty space between a pack of early irises and a spindly-looking huckleberry bush, nestled in along the shade offered by the tall fence. “There’s fine,” Stiles says, his tone striving for lightness and sound instead crushed and scared.
Derek settles at a squat with his back to Stiles, putting the rosemary plant on the ground to his right and digging his fingers into the open dirt. It’s cold and hard but his fingers are strong; he starts pushing up dirt and makes an enquiring noise about the size of the hole.
“A little bigger,” Stiles says, strangled-sounding as he hovers behind Derek. “That’s deep enough, you want the crown to be above the ground, it’s okay to make a mound around it.”
Little flashes of shivery heat are still running through Derek’s veins; he wants to undo the buttons at his throat but he’s covered in dirt up to his wrists and he needs to unpick the knot of twine holding the sackcloth in place. He can feel pricks of sweat along his hairline, dampening his collar at the back of his neck. There’s no breeze.
Stiles moves closer, narrates, “Loosen up the roots a bit—be gentle, you don’t have to, like, set them free or anything you just don’t want them locked together. Yeah, that’s good. Hold the crown as you pack around it. Try to spread the dirt evenly as you go, because otherwise you’re going to end up with something lopsided and pathetic.” He chokes on a laugh, maybe because it seems inappropriate. “Don’t pack it rock-hard, you need to let it breathe, but not too loose. If you press your fingers against the ground you need it to give a little, but not actually depress.” Stiles is, unsurprisingly, pretty terrible at giving directions. Derek dutifully presses, lifts his hand and sees an imprint of his own fingers, and packs more dirt a little more tightly in a circle around the crown. He doesn’t even recognize his own hands, turned brown and muddy from the combination of dirt and perspiration.
“Yeah,” Stiles says quietly, when Derek has tested the ground again and there’s a little spongy give to it and his fingers come away cleanly. “That’s it.”
Derek hadn’t realized how much he was anticipating the curse being broken until he sits back on his heels and doesn’t feel any change at all. He’s depressingly familiar with thwarted expectations after the last few months; he tries to tell himself that this isn’t any different than all the other times Kate Argent’s fucking curse hung him out to dry, and he maybe even believes it a little bit.
“Derek,” Stiles chokes.
Still crouched over his heels, elbows on his knees, Derek half-turns and looks up at Stiles. His irises are completely gone, just black pupil to the whites of his eyes, and he’s fucking glittering along the edges of his profile where he’s blocking out the sun, like he’s been dipped in liquid light and left to dry. Derek’s punched in the throat by the smell of Stiles’ blood, ozone and baking soda, right before Stiles tackles him into the huckleberry bush, his hands scrambling along Derek’s shoulders.
It’s not even a kiss, at first, just a bruise, and then Stiles’ mouth slackens and Derek automatically takes advantage of that, years of muscle memory sending his tongue into Stiles’ mouth to sweep out the taste. His ears pop and his head swims like vertigo, unsure if he’s upright or lying down and not caring because it’s Stiles, warm and home and glowing, and Derek can’t let him up to breathe because Derek needs him back, in Derek’s chest. It takes a long series of hard, aching kisses for him to calm down, to realize that he’s gasping because he hasn’t been breathing. It feels like if he exhales, Stiles will leave with the carbon dioxide.
“Holy shit,” Stiles says into Derek’s mouth, “it worked, oh my god, it worked,” and he breaks into hysterical, triumphant laughter. “I didn’t think it was going to work,” he adds later, when Derek has buried his mouth in Stiles’ throat and is working on a mark that’s too high for collars, right over where Stiles’ scent is the strongest. Derek has a hand over the back of Stiles’ head to keep him in place; Stiles is trembling. “We’re so lucky that worked, I don't know if I’d have been able to think of something else.”
Even Derek’s knees feel lightheaded. The rosemary plant that is half-crushed under Stiles’ thigh smells better now, healthier and stronger, and the huckleberry might be blooming over their head. Derek doesn’t want to take his eyes away from Stiles’ skin long enough to check. It doesn’t really matter. Stiles is going to come home, now, and save all the huckleberry bushes in their garden that Derek has let die from malicious neglect.
“Thank you,” Derek breathes into his mark, tonguing the words onto Stiles’ neck. “I love you. Fuck--Stiles.”
The sheriff makes Derek go to the April town hall meeting, even though Derek has been an exemplary adjunct deputy for the last month and has, as far as he’s aware, done nothing worthy of such a punishment. He’s brought Bon Appetit again, and this time he carries it with him along with his legal pad of notes when he goes to the front of the room. He knows better than to think this is going to go smoothly.
After he finishes reading off the summary of what the sheriff had learned and plans on implementing from the law enforcement fair in Redding, Derek issues a broad reminder that people need to keep their kids from trying to break into the Reyes house on full moons if they want to keep them from becoming blood donors, and then he asks what he’s been loathing all morning, which is, “Any questions?”
Helen Martin rockets to her feet. Derek sighs.
“As the issue of Kate Argent’s curse has been resolved,” she begins, glaring at Derek like she’ll be able to flay his skin from his bones from across the room, “Stiles Stilinski’s wards are no longer part of an open investigation.”
Melissa McCall makes eye contact with Derek and rolls her eyes heavenward, mouthing, Are you sure you can’t arrest her? Next to her, Scott hisses, “Mom,” and elbows her in the side.
“Please ask your question, Mrs. Martin,” Derek says, not bothering to hide how bored and irritated he sounds.
“We all know why Claudia Stilinski implemented the wards on her son after his birth,” Helen Martin begins, which means she’s planned a lengthy speech. Derek shifts his weight from one foot to the other and wishes he had a way of subtly opening his magazine without anyone noticing. “There hasn’t been a spark of his caliber in the Pacific Northwest since Philippe Riopelle died in 1892.”
“Thank you for the history lesson, Mrs. Martin,” Derek says. “Can you please ask your question?”
“What I want to know,” Helen Martin counters loudly, “is why, with full understanding that Claudia Stilinski was a hedgewitch of immense knowledge and capability, the sheriff’s department is unwilling to recognize that the expansion of Stiles Stilinski’s wards acts directly against what his mother set in place at his birth?” She half-turns, now addressing the full company of townspeople present in the audience. There are a lot of them; Heather has been taking bets all week as to how long it would take Helen Martin to bring up Stiles’ wards at the town hall meeting. The winner gets free coffee and omelets for two weeks. “Sparks are by definition dangerously uncontrollable, and letting one go uncontrolled in our town is a recipe for disaster.”
There are grumbles from a few corners—Melissa McCall’s, notably—but while Derek waits out for silence before he responds, there’s a fuss in the far back and his mother stands up.
“I’d like to address Helen’s concerns, Derek,” she says, and there’s no way in hell Derek is going to refuse her doing that. “On the matter of Stiles Stilinski being dangerous and uncontrollable,” she begins, and bless Derek’s mother because she doesn’t need emphasis or scare quotes; everyone in the room shuts up immediately, “we need to recognize that Claudia’s wards have not been broken or dismantled, but instead grown in reflection of the growth in Stiles’ powers. That seems to me to indicate that Claudia knew her son would outgrow his original wards as he aged, and she made provisions for that.”
Helen Martin’s face is too stiff to go fully sour, but her mouth tightens.
“As for concerns about Stiles burning down any more barns,” Derek’s mother continues with a spot of wry humor, “he filed notice with the sheriff’s department two weeks ago about a protection spell around Beacon Hills to prevent the return of Kate Argent. I would think such a spell would indicate that Stiles is neither dangerous nor uncontrolled. His willingness to engage with warlock of Kate’s caliber seems, to me, to indicate that he is more interested in protecting Beacon Hills than destroying it.”
Derek’s mother isn’t saying anything that’s news to anyone in the room, but judging by Helen Martin’s face she’d been anticipating rolling over anyone who brought up the protection spell. The Alpha of Beacon Hills isn’t someone who can be steamrolled, even by a hedgewitch of Helen Martin’s standing.
“Thank you,” Derek’s mother finishes, and she sits down.
“Does that answer your question, Mrs. Martin?” Derek asks, and he’ll deny to his dying day being in that moment what Laura accuses him of over dinner the next night, which is bitchy as hell.
She’ll make Stiles laugh so hard with her impression of Derek that he almost chokes on a lima bean.
“Yes,” Helen Martin says, blank-faced.
Surrendering the floor to Aolani Mahealani, the director of the neighborhood watch network, Derek returns to his seat next to Scott and pulls his phone out of his pocket. How’d it go? the waiting texts from Stiles reads. Did you rip Helen Martin’s throat out with your teeth?
Derek replies, laboriously slow because he’s still having philosophical differences with his phone’s keyboard, Fine. I think you won Heather’s pool.
YES, Stiles sends back within seconds. I’d promise to share but I know how much you hate omelets (you freak). Can you pick up some ground venison from Raley’s on your way home? I’m making meatloaf.
I thought we were going to Mom and Dad’s for dinner.
Derek’s phone is on vibrate but Erica still glares at him from three rows over when it goes off. If you want me to fuck you in front of your parents, sure, we can go to their house for dinner. I kind of thought you’d like my plan better, but if you’re dying for your dad’s rice pilaf I guess we can make do.
Probably a few seconds too late, Derek tilts his phone so that it’s mostly shaded by his hand and no longer visible to any prying eyes. Fuck, Stiles, he types, and it comes out Duck, style, which is what Derek gets for still not having uninstalled autocorrect.
Fuck Stiles is right, Stiles replies. So buy some fucking venison and come home. I know you don’t want to stay for the rest of the town hall monthly fiasco. Fake urgent sheriff business and COME SEX ME UP.
Derek doesn’t bother pretending urgent sheriff’s department business; as Aolani Mahealani finishes her update and Jackson steps up to deliver a short sound bite from the mayor’s office, Derek slips out of his chair and up the side aisle to the door.
As Derek drives to Raley’s, picks up a pound of ground venison, and returns home, he gets a series of text alerts that he refuses to read for reasons of vehicular safety. He parks in his driveway and pauses to read them as he unbuckles his seatbelt.
I’m totally serious, I finished the edits for that middle school ancient festivals textbook and I am horny. As. Hell. I don't remember learning about this many fertility ceremonies in school.
Did we make Beltane plans this year? I hope not because that trembling aspen needs all the help it can get.
Derek please tell me Helen Martin and her alley gang of hedgewitches didn’t beat you up behind Raley’s.
How fucking long does it take to buy some deer, Christ.
Did I tell you I love you this morning before you left? I was still asleep, I think.
I love you
I’d love you more if you stopped SITTING IN OUR DRIVEWAY AND CAME INSIDE
I swear to God I will finger myself in this window so all of our neighbors can see if you don’t get out of that damn car
Stiles doesn’t make meatloaf. Derek can’t really find it in himself to complain when they end up having flash frozen pre-cut curly fries for dinner at one in the morning, standing over the stove and burning their fingers on the cookie sheet. “What is it about curly fries that are so perfect?” Stiles slurs, mostly naked and still flushed red down his chest. “I’d suspect warlock conspiracy but—they’re too good to be the product of evil.”
Derek couldn’t give less of a damn, but he reels Stiles in for a kiss, tasting of stale paprika and salt, mouth too hot and slightly dry and perfect. “Love you,” he says, because he can. He likes the way it feels.
“Love you too,” Stiles says absently, pecking him on the mouth twice and then going in for another fistful of curly fries.