Stiles has a bandage slung under his chin like a disembodied helmet strap when Derek first meets him. It’s complemented by a chipped front tooth and a scrape of road rash across his cheek.
His eyes light up when he notices where Derek’s gaze has strayed and held and he says, “My aunt has this trampoline—she’s not really my aunt but Scott—he’s like my brother but with a different mom because I already have a mom so—” he stops abruptly, eyes darting away. “Had,” he corrects quietly and then he’s slumping past Derek and into the front hall without a backward look.
“Derek, close the door, you’re letting the cold air out,” his dad says behind him, head popped around the doorframe. He smiles at Stiles. “And how are you today, Mr. Stilinski? Ready to work, I hope.”
Stiles only shrugs and executes the same slumped shoulder procession into his dad’s study. His dad frowns, notices Derek still watching him and asks, “What are you up to?”
Derek shrugs. It’s summer and he’s got no plans, aside from avoiding Laura who’s hoping to impress her boyfriend by treating him like shit.
He doesn’t ever come up with a more involved one either.
He sits in the den, tries to find the “cold air” his dad was talking about. It keeps eluding him. He’s hot and sticky, sweat beading at the roots of the hair he never brushed this morning and dripping down to soak his temples. His shirt is bunched up under his shoulders and armpits from how far he’s slipped down the couch’s back and resting up above his navel despite some half-hearted tugging at it. He’s staring at the peel of the wallpaper next to the ceiling when his dad throws open the door to his study a full fifteen minutes early.
It’s enough to make Derek wiggle his shoulders against the cushions so he can sit up. His dad never lets the kids he tutors out so much as a second before time. He’s across the hall, rifling through the drawer of the small table next to the front door. He looks across and spots Derek watching him. “Oh thank f—Derek, go into my study and try to calm Stiles down, get him to count breaths with you, okay?” Derek must not move fast enough because he says, “Derek, do this for me now, all right?”
Derek slips off the couch, past his dad, and into a room that’s deafened by the sounds of choking breaths and sour with the smell of fear. The source of it all is a knock-kneed seven-year-old whose eyes are wide and scared. Derek runs over to him, his hands feeling clumsy and too big for his body when he rests them on Stiles’ drawn knees. He feels awkwardly put together, all ball joints and ill-fitting limbs, but he manages to croak, “You wanna count?”
Stiles’ chest is heaving and his fingers are twisting into the carpet, turning white, and he looks so scared that Derek can barely stand to meet his eyes.
He takes a deep breath and says, “One.”
Stiles doesn’t echo him. Tears are streaming down his red face and Derek thinks it might be some horrible combination of fear, embarrassment, and oxygen deprivation and then he’s pushing Stiles’ legs apart, yanking him up against himself and hugging him tighter than he’s ever hugged anyone.
It’s instinct and his own bubble of fear that has him crushing Stiles between his arms and his chest. He digs his fingers into Stiles’ back, grabbing at his shoulder blades, practically hefting him into his arms. He bruises Stiles’ neck with the point of his chin, the sides of their faces pressed tight together and then Stiles’ arms drop out from between them and Derek feels fingers clench and tug against his t-shirt, loosely holding onto it, and he pulls closer, Stiles’ forehead falling to his shoulder. All Derek can feel is the frantic beat of Stiles’ heart, in his fingertips, in his gut, in his own chest. The more Derek holds on though, the more it becomes a heavy thud rather than a rapid patter. He can still feel it in his whole body but Derek thinks—thinks—Stiles might be breathing okay again.
Stiles might try to pull away from him, Derek isn’t sure because he doesn’t give him the opportunity, locking his whole body around Stiles’.
“How is he, Derek?” his dad asks softly from behind them, setting something down on his desk. Derek half-turns and sees a squat pill bottle there. He doesn’t recognize it.
Stiles’ face is hot through Derek’s t-shirt. “‘M fine.” His voice has a kind of gummy quality to it. “Sorry, Mr. Hale.”
Derek hears more than sees his dad settle into his regular armchair. “You have nothing to apologize for, Stiles. I would, however, like to talk about what happened.”
Derek’s dad has a slow, measured voice that tends to get at the root of problems. It makes him good at his job, tutoring kids who get yanked out of school for bereavement reasons, but Stiles is still trembling and Derek clenches his jaw. “I think I should just walk Stiles home, dad.” It comes out more fiercely than he’d intended it but he knows it’s the right thing to say as soon as it’s out of his mouth.
His dad sighs but agrees.
Stiles tries to shake him off twice in the house and four more times on the road outside of it. “I can walk myself.”
“I don’t need you to follow me. I’m not going to—I’m fine now.”
“I know that too.”
Derek stops and squints, looking at Stiles. At the tight pinch of his mouth, the red high up around his ears and the back of his neck. “Why?”
He seems to think about it. Says, “I don’t need help.”
“Okay.” Derek pauses and waits for Stiles to start walking again to add, “But if you did, that would be okay too.”
They walk the rest of the way in silence.
Stiles’ house isn’t close and it isn’t far, unremarkable in nearly every way. Derek probably wouldn’t have seen it if he hadn’t been walking to it.
Stiles turns around at the door, glances off to the side at a white-gone-gray railing and a decrepit-looking rocking chair and murmurs, “Thanks.”
Derek shrugs and walks back to his house, a grin lurking around the side of his mouth the whole way.
When he closes the door behind himself, his dad is standing in the hallway, squinting at him. “How did you know that would work? Applying pressure to calm Stiles down?”
Derek shrugs again. “I didn’t.” His dad keeps looking at him so Derek adds, “I’m glad it did though.”
His dad’s stance eases and he smooths a palm over Derek’s shoulder. “Me too.”
“We’ll be late.”
Stiles shakes his head, grinning. “Your dad will get it. Last week he was telling me about this general who had this crazy, huge funeral just for his leg.”
“How’d he lose his leg?”
“It got shot off by a cannon and he decided, since it died in service to its country, it should be buried with full military honors.” Stiles gives him a sideways look. “Which means we can manage a crappy bird funeral.”
“If you’ve already decided it’s going to be crappy then—”
Stiles shoves him. “Don’t be a butthead and help me dig a hole.”
When they get back to the house for Stiles’ tutoring session they’re twenty minutes late, grinning, and covered in dirt.
“Why’d you come over?”
“Why did you sound upset on the phone?”
Stiles huffs. Crosses his arms. “You better be good at this.”
“At being best friends. Because Scott can’t anymore. He’s moving away. Him and his mom. They’re leaving, going to Chicago to be closer to his dad and grandma. Which means I’m left with you and all your weird broody silences and the way you stand too close and stare at me a lot. So. You better be good.”
Derek isn’t sure what to say and he knows the way Stiles’ jaw is tight and thrust out means he’s trying not to cry. “I hope I am,” he says.
Derek clenches his fists, trembling from head to foot, glaring at Stiles, whose chest is heaving, face red from exertion and anger. “Maybe you’d better start giving me weekly report cards or something, since you’re always so pissed off at me.”
Stiles pushes him again and Derek falls back a couple steps, not expecting it. “I don’t need you to be everywhere. Just stop—stop trying to take care of me all the time. You’re making it worse. Every time you stand up for me, Jackson gets—”
“‘Stop taking care of you,’ right?” Derek thrusts out his chin, grinds his teeth. “I gave you my answer: no.”
Stiles’ eyes go flinty. “I’m not seven-years-old and having a panic attack in your dad’s study anymore. I can take care of myself.”
“You could then too.” Derek takes a few steps closer and he can tell Stiles is trying not to squirm. He’s never liked Derek’s inability to get personal space. “But you don’t have to. I want to take care of you.”
Stiles closes his eyes, his body tearing a shiver out of him. “Shut up.”
“We’re best friends, right? That’s what you said.” He clenches his fingers into Stiles’ biceps. “I get to be there. That’s part of it.”
“I hate you,” he spits, eyes granite now. Even as he says it, his hands are coming up to fist in Derek’s t-shirt.
Derek closes the last of the distance between their chests and says, “No, you don’t.”
“This was stupid.” Stiles laughs, chest bumpy with it, rolling in a way that reminds Derek of him not being able to catch his breath, of Derek not knowing what to do, of Stiles’ body as a solid weight against his own.
“It was your idea.”
Stiles laughs harder. “Yeah, well, it’s your job to talk me out of my ideas, remember?” He sits up too quickly and their generously-termed ‘raft’ nearly capsizes. He freezes until their lashed together planks of lumber and branches and sticks steadies again. He unties his shoes, rolls off his socks and yanks up his jeans to his knees.
Derek sits up after a second and does the same.
They let their legs hang over the edge and drift through the lake.
“We’re stuck,” Stiles says, laughter still in his voice from the first time he said it.
Derek shrugs, laying back on the planks again. It’s uneven and mostly uncomfortable under his shoulders and head. They’d found it on the shore. Neither one of them had thought to grab anything for an oar before pushing it out.
“We’ll have to swim back.” Stiles groans.
He’s still sitting up, arms behind him, palms splayed over bark and resin. Two of the fingertips of his left hand are next to Derek’s hip. Derek brushes his own up against them, then draws the backs of his fingers up the length of Stiles’.
Stiles has gone very still. “What are you doing?”
Derek shrugs, his thumb stroking over the back of Stiles’ hand. “Does it bother you?”
Stiles clears his throat. “That depends.”
“On what?” Derek looks up at him.
“On why you’re doing it.”
Derek brushes his thumb over Stiles’ jaw, then lets the backs of his fingers trail lightly down Stiles’ spine, pushing his billowing t-shirt back up against his torso. “I don’t know. I like knowing how you feel. Not just inside but… that you have calluses on the insides of your knuckles from your bike’s handlebars but your palms are soft and that I can feel the knobs of your spine if you sit up really straight and how you can feel your right knee click when you swing it really hard if you have your hand there. I like knowing you. Is that okay?”
Stiles is still watching him, searching his face for something. Finally he answers, “For now. For now, that’s okay.”
“That suit’s still at the lake house, isn’t it?” Derek’s mom turns to look at his dad. He’s eating toast over the counter and she’s finding opportune moments to whack him with her dish towel for it.
“Wasn’t it in that box in the basement that had the wasp nest in it?”
Derek’s uncle lowers the newspaper from in front of his face. “I still intend to sue over that.” He flips it back up, ignoring the breakfast on his plate and the ruination that Cora has brought to it. Bacon is floating in the run-off from the broken yolks and a little man made from toothpicks and sausage is surveying the destruction.
Laura bites into a grape and hands it to Cora with her teeth marks in it. “Here, he needs a hat.”
Cora grins, sticks a toothpick through it and into the sausage man’s head.
Derek’s mom waves his uncle off, still looking at his dad while they puzzle it out. His dad shrugs, looks back at Derek. “I don’t know, kiddo, I think it might be gone.”
“What do you need a suit for anyway?” his mom asks.
Derek shrugs. “There’s a Spring dance at school.”
“Oh,” she says, looking at him like she’s only just seen him standing there, “and you already have a date.”
His mom washes a dish she’s already washed, not looking at him. She asks it, “Are you going to ask Stiles to go with you?”
“As a date?”
“Yes,” she says, “as your date.”
“I wasn’t planning on it, no.”
His mom sets the already washed dish that’s now extra clean on the drying rack and asks, an odd expression on her face, “Is there someone else you want to take more than Stiles?”
Derek admits, “Kind of, yeah.”
His mom turns the water off, holds her hand there for an extra few seconds and then lowers it and says, “So tell me about them. Boy or girl?”
Derek tells her about Paige and how he doesn’t think she even likes him very much but he’d really like to take her and then listen to her play cello after.
“You need any help setting up your tent, Stiles?”
Derek drops his bundle of sticks by the fire pit Laura’s setting up. “He’s staying in mine.”
Laura’s head snaps up, outraged. “Derek not only gets to bring his boyfriend but they even get to sleep in the same tent together? How is that fair?”
His dad sighs, opening his mouth, but Derek gets there first. “Stiles isn’t my boyfriend. He’s my best friend. You would know what that was if you hadn’t stolen the boyfriend from yours.”
Laura stands up, furious, but the effect of her fury is ruined by her welling eyes. She spins on her heel and storms off out of camp, fists clenched at her sides.
His dad throws a knowing and disappointed look at Derek as he passes, following after her.
Stiles sits next to him when Derek angrily tosses himself down on a log in front of the fire pit. “Are you okay?”
“I shouldn’t have said that to her.”
“You were mad.”
Derek blinks at him. “No, I wasn’t. I’m just tired of her trying to guilt everyone into following rules she’s made up. She’s so spoiled by my parents because they love her best.”
Derek silences him with a look. He’s known since he was a kid that Laura was their parents’ favorite. And he’s pretty sure Cora figured it out even earlier. It used to bother them but it doesn’t anymore. Or, well, not most of the time. He likes having his own space. Laura’s always seems to have his mom and dad hovering around the edges of it.
“Her boyfriend’s a total loser and I don’t want him here,” Derek says. He doesn’t tell Stiles that he’d called them fags the last time Derek had seen him, or that Derek had bloodied his nose for it. Stiles didn’t like when he did stuff like that.
“It didn’t bother you then? When she called me your boyfriend?” Stiles digs the toe of his sneaker into the dirt, shuffling it back and forth.
Derek zips their sleeping bags together, rubs the afterimage of flames from behind his eyelids and lays down next to Stiles, staring up at the apex of the tent. “It’s too bad your dad couldn’t make it,” he says after a long stretch of quiet. It’s an opening to talk about him, if Stiles wants to take it.
That’s a ‘no’ then.
Derek looks over to see Stiles picking at the zipper of the bag. He rolls onto his side. “Landmine.”
Stiles’ lips quirk a bit and he rolls over too, so he’s facing Derek. “What if you lived though?”
“Then I could have an elaborate funeral for all my fallen limbs.”
Stiles laughs. “Hemlock.”
“That paralyzes you first.”
Stiles parts his lips, then shrugs and rolls over. “You kill me then, how would you do it?”
Derek rests his chin on Stiles’ arm and says, “I wouldn’t.”
“That’s not how the game works.”
Derek reaches over Stiles’ still body and tangles their fingers together. “Yes, it is. I don’t kill you in the game.”
Stiles tries to shake his hand loose but Derek doesn’t let go. “Stop it.”
“No.” He turns his face down into Stiles’ arm and presses his mouth into a slight kiss over the sleeve of his t-shirt. “I love you. I’m not going to kill you, not even for a game.”
Stiles yanks away from him, fluffs the pillow up under his head and says, “Well I’m keeping you away from landmines then.”
Derek laughs and rolls onto his back again. “Fair enough.”
He wakes up the way he always wakes up when he and Stiles fall asleep together, pressed tight up against him, like he can’t get close enough to him. Like he’s trying to make sure Stiles can breathe in his sleep too.
Stiles’ face is pressed into his chest, Derek’s arms slung around his shoulders. He feels when Stiles wakes up. “Sleep okay?”
Stiles extricates himself. “Fine.” Then he’s on his feet and out of the tent.
He doesn’t seem to like waking up with Derek, not since the first few times at least, but he also doesn’t argue about it anymore. Derek can’t help what his body does at night, no matter how mad Stiles gets about it. And he thinks they both like being in bed with someone anyway.
Laura’s still asleep by the time he comes outside and Stiles is missing, just his dad sitting by the remains of last night’s fire. He smiles when he sees Derek. “Come sit down, kid. You and Stiles sleep all right last night?”
“You mean after Laura finished screaming over that bush that looked like a bear? Yeah.”
His dad chuckles. He’s sipping instant coffee and staring off into the trees when he says, “I wanted to talk to you about yesterday.”
Derek manages not to roll his eyes. “I already apologized to Laura.”
His dad waves it away. “I knew you would. I’m talking about—you know it would be okay with your mom and I, right?”
Derek looks at him, waiting for him to continue.
He chews his lower lip then makes himself stop, sets his cup down. He looks straight into Derek’s eyes, clasping his hands together between his knees. “If you and Stiles decided you wanted to be together, as more than friends. That would be okay with us, you know that, right?”
Derek smiles, relieved. “I know, dad. But we really are just friends.”
“All right. But I wanted to have said it. Wanted you to really know that. To know that your mother and I’s support and love is not so arbitrary as to be thrown off by who you fall in love with.”
Derek’s smile widens. “I do.”
“Why are you avoiding me?”
“Don’t lie to me, Stiles. We don’t do that. You don’t lie to me.”
“You really think that, don’t you? You are so fucking naïve, Derek.”
Derek grabs his arm as he turns away, ripping him back around. “Stop it. Stop trying to piss me off and just tell me what’s wrong. You can’t run me off now any more than you could when I was eight.”
Stiles yanks his arm away and swallows convulsively. The empty gas station is full of the crackles and static of dying electricity, bleating its own soft protests after the all-day strain. Derek’s still wearing his employee vest and Stiles is gripping the strap of his backpack so tightly it’s going to leave imprints in his palm.
The door’s locked for the night but they’re hidden in the hallway to the break room anyway.
Stiles’ eyes are shadowed when he asks in a hollow sort of voice, “Are you seeing her again?”
“Whatever her name is, the tuba player or oboist or whatever it is. Are you going out with her again?”
Derek’s thrown. Whatever he expected, this isn’t it. “I don’t know. Maybe.” He huffs; this is such a stupid question. Their friendship seems to be disintegrating around them for reasons he doesn’t understand and Stiles is trying to change the subject. Or maybe he’s not changing the subject. Derek’s eyes widen. “Do you not like her? Or maybe you like her too?” No, then he would’ve used Paige’s name probably.
Stiles snorts, shaking his head.
Derek steps closer to him, chests almost bumping. “Stiles, if you don’t want me to see her again, I won’t.” He holds onto Stiles’ biceps. “Is that what you’re so mad about? I don’t care about her, idiot, I care about you.”
Stiles collapses face first into his chest, digging into Derek’s sternum with his forehead. “Please don’t.”
And Derek’s not sure what he’s referring to but he knows, no matter what, he’s not seeing Paige again.
“Did you spend the night again, Stiles?”
Stiles smiles tightly as he comes down the stairs behind Derek. His hair’s tousled and there are lines on his cheek from where Derek’s shirt had been crumpled up beneath it. “Sorry, Mrs. Hale, I—”
Derek’s mom waves away the rest of his words. “You know you’re always welcome.” She smiles at Stiles in a way she’s never smiled at any of the other friends or teammate’s of Derek’s she’s met.
She relates to Stiles in a different way, one Derek doesn’t understand or question.
“Thanks,” Stiles says, awkwardly rubbing his elbow.
“How many pancakes this morning, Mr. Stilinski?” His dad’s never quite gotten out of the habit of thinking of Stiles as his student. Derek thinks Stiles likes that though.
“Uh, how many are up for grabs?”
His dad grins and starts counting out an obscene amount of carb-cakes for him.
“Mom, can I have the car tonight?”
Her eyebrow perks. “What do you need it for?”
“I have another date with Tara.”
His dad’s expression goes wooden and his mom says, “I suppose that’ll be all right, but I expect you back by eleven on the dot.” Derek’s brow furrows as she pats Stiles’ hand consolingly after she’s handed over the keys.
Stiles gets up off Laura’s bed and follows Derek to the open door. Derek stares at Laura for a few extra seconds after he’s walked through it, trying to decipher what they might’ve been talking about. Laura’s upside down, legs on her mattress and hair spread out over her carpet. Her eyes are slightly narrow, and giving nothing away.
When he still doesn’t move, she says, “What? Go after your boyfriend and get out of my room, Lurch.”
Derek rolls his eyes, slamming her door behind him.
Stiles is waiting in the middle of Derek’s room when he comes in. “Hey,” he answers back.
He sits on Derek’s bed and taps the bobblehead Boba Fett on his nightstand that he gave Derek five years ago. “Come here, okay?” he says, patting the spot next to him.
Derek doesn’t hesitate.
Stiles turns into him. Derek meets it and Stiles’ arms wrap around his shoulders, nose rubbing into his neck, mouth on the line of his shoulder.
Derek circles his arms loosely around Stiles’ waist. “You know you’re scaring me, right?”
Stiles looks up at him. Derek hadn’t turned on the light in his room when they’d come in and the sun doesn’t reach this side of the house this time of day so it’s gloomy, Stiles’ features kind of washed out by it. All Derek can see clearly is the flutter of eyelashes over Stiles’ searching eyes. Derek brushes the tip of his index finger up against them on both sides. Stiles blinks and leans back. After a long moment, he heaves out a huge breath. “I know.”
He starts to pull farther away.
Derek yanks him back, close, again. “I don’t want you to go anywhere.”
Stiles’ lips twitch weakly. “I know that too. Let’s just lay down, okay?”
Derek nods. He pulls Stiles into his arms, likes the feel of his breath against his skin, the warmth of his cheek, his shin curving around Derek’s. His arm is stretched out across Derek’s waist and Derek finds the hand at the end of it and plays with his fingers, the backs of his pressing against the insides of Stiles’. “I’m still doing all right, aren’t I? At the best friend thing?”
Stiles turns his face into Derek’s ribs, rubs his nose there. “Too good.”
Derek smiles and reaches up with his free hand to scratch his fingers through Stiles’ hair.
“Here you are.”
Stiles smiles, but not at him, more an abstract sort of smile. “How goes the latest conquest?” he asks around a billow of thick smoke.
The reverberation of the Whittemore’s sound system can only just reach this far, making the air around them pulse. “Momentarily suspended. Been looking everywhere for you instead.”
Stiles laughs. “The amount of not sorry I am about that, man, it’s almost staggering.”
“You’re getting high.”
“Skills like that, we need to get you looking for Carmen Sandiego. Finally get that broad taken care of.”
Derek smiles, lays down next to him on the dewy grass. The sounds of the party are fainter than the music and it’s nearly possible to forget where they are. Not even the house is in view, just grass and trees and stars. “Give me a hit.”
Stiles props himself up on his elbow. “Have you ever done this before, you curfew-obeying, never-even-jaywalked freak of nature?”
“Have you?” Stiles certainly looks as if he has and Derek doesn’t want to analyze the way that makes something in his chest pinch. He’d never even told Derek about it.
Stiles leans closer to him, grinning hugely. “Don’t like that, do you? I do have a life outside of you, Derek Hale.”
Derek turns away from him. He doesn’t know why Stiles seems so proud of that. Like Derek’s some weight, some burden on him or something. He starts to get up. “Fine.”
Stiles grabs him by his shoulder and says, “Here,” holding out the joint between them. “Take a shallow hit first, it’s strong and it’ll burn if you take too much. Then hold it in your lungs as long as you can.”
Derek does as he’s told. The reflex to cough is there but he manages to stop it from taking hold.
They pass it back and forth twice more before Stiles says, watching the darker silhouettes of tree branches waving against a star-punched sky, “That was a shitty thing for me to say.”
“Kinda, yeah,” Derek says.
He scratches his elbow. “I didn’t mean it.”
“Why’d you say it then?”
Stiles scrunches up his nose. “Because I’m in love with you. And I’m petty. Mostly because I’m petty.”
Derek sits up without thinking about it. “Fuck. Fuck.”
Stiles sits up too, but much slower. He’s staring at Derek. “Whoa. I don’t think I’ve ever heard you swear before. You profaned. You are a profaning profaner. I am so telling your mom.”
Derek stares back at him. “Stiles, fuck, stop acting like—”
Stiles takes a long drag, then waves the smoke out of his face after exhaling. “You’re late to the party on this, D.”
“I,” Derek swallows, “I don’t—”
“I know.” Stiles lights up the roach, the flame coming closer than Derek likes to his fingers. “S’why I’m petty, of course.”
Derek stares down at his knees. They don’t feel like they belong to him. He fists his hands into the sides of his hair. He’s made this so much worse. He’s all over Stiles, which he’s never really thought anything of until right now and, goddammit, he’s told him everything about the girls he’s been with because—because they’re best friends and he can’t imagine not telling Stiles something. “Fuck, I’ve—touching you and, you must have thought—”
Stiles shrugs. His calmness is almost insulting somehow. “That maybe you were into me and not just some big alien with no concept of personal space? For maybe a day or two, but I know you, you’ve always been an alien.”
Derek grabs Stiles’ hand, the one not holding the roach. “You know that I do love you though, rig—”
Stiles laughs, shaky. “Yeah, that’s worse, not better.”
Derek shakes his head. “Sorry. Sorry.”
Stiles shrugs again.
“I feel like shit.” Maybe he shouldn’t say that but he means it and Stiles started this painful honesty thing tonight.
Stiles knocks his shoulder. “Welcome to the club.” He raises an eyebrow. “See why I tried to restrict your access for so long?”
Derek nods, throat dry. “Yeah, I do.”
Stiles leans his back up against the ball of Derek’s shoulder, the crown of his head against his temple and says, “I’m sorry I did this to us.”
Derek’s eyes are burning again and he finds Stiles’ hand and holds it, brushing his thumb over his knuckles. “You didn’t do anything to us.”
Stiles’ voice sounds thick and Derek thinks he might be crying but he can’t see his face to be sure. “I put an expiration date on it. You know that.”
Stiles turns around, pressing into Derek’s hand with his to do it. The crown of his head is replaced by his forehead at Derek’s temple. “Derek.”
Derek turns into him, kisses him and says, “No. We’ll figure something out.”
Stiles pulls away from him after letting their lower lips brush together, drag and stick and separate. “Don’t do that. Don’t kiss me.”
“Fine,” Derek says, gripping tighter. “Don’t leave me.”
“You want to tell me.”
“So tell me.”
“Derek, come on, you want to be best friends so treat me like your best friend.”
Derek sits up. It puts his knee between Stiles’ thighs. Stiles hasn’t let him get this close for months. He shifts closer, puts a hand on Stiles’ waist, then around his shoulders, pulls him into a hug. “I don’t want to hurt you more than I want us to be best friends.”
“I know,” he huffs. He rests his cheek on the ball of Derek’s shoulder. “Tell me anyway.” He leans back and his grin is wide but the skin around his eyes is tight. “You lost your virginity; it’s a thing. A right of passage thing. Brag or something.”
Derek shakes his head. “No.” He pulls Stiles close again and drags them both down on the bed. “Stay over tonight?”
“Only if you tell me about it.” Stiles clenches his jaw. He’s not letting this go.
Derek sighs and separates from him, rolling over onto his back.
Stiles pokes him in his ribs. “Hey.” Derek looks over at him. “The only way this works is if we can still be friends.”
“We don’t have to talk about this though.”
“Derek, we do.” He settles close to Derek again, the way Derek likes, with his cheek to Derek’s chest and his arm across his stomach. Derek strokes the shell of Stiles’ ear as he sighs. “We start editing ourselves, you start making this landfill of ‘things I can’t say in front of Stiles’ and we’ll just end up one huge dumping ground. I love you, I’m in love with you and it sucks, it sucks so fucking much I feel like I can’t breathe most days, but it’ll get better because it has to get better and the only way for that to happen is to face it.”
Derek doesn’t say that he’s the one who’s supposed to make Stiles feel like he can breathe. Instead he says, “Okay. Okay,” he says again, and he starts talking.
“What are you doing here?”
Derek crumples the already crumpled paper in his hand. “Are you fucking kidding me, Stiles?” Stiles takes a surprised step back and Derek storms past him, past the shared living space and into what he immediately knows is Stiles’ room. Even without all the Star Wars paraphernalia, it smells like him. He strides to the opposite side of the room and waits.
Stiles walks in after a long while and shuts the door behind him.
“A note? Not even to my face?”
Stiles looks like he wants to cover his eyes but he doesn’t. “I know,” he says, wobbly. Then stronger, “I know. It wasn’t fair, I know, and it’s worthy of being an O.C. moment or something but I just. I couldn’t. Because if you asked me, you know that if you asked me—”
“When have I ever asked you to do anything that wouldn’t be in your best interests too?”
“Maybe you thought it would be!”
Derek turns away angrily, sinks down on Stiles’ bed and crushes the note in his hand. “So instead you did all this yourself? You packed up, transferred schools and moved half a state away all without telling me.” His throat burns and then his eyes and he drops the note Stiles left on his bed onto Stiles’ floor. He rubs the heels of his palms into his eyelids. They come away wet.
“I couldn’t do it anymore.”
“I wouldn’t have made you,” Derek bursts out. “I would’ve helped you. I would’ve been there for you. I wouldn’t have let you run away with a fucking note that says, ‘I’m sorry I can’t.’ I would’ve made you give me a lot fucking more than that. I am making you give me more than that. You do not get to end a decade-long friendship with a four-word note, you goddamn asshole.”
He knows he’s crying now because his cheeks are cold and he knows they’re cold because they’re wet.
“You should be,” Derek snarls.
“I am. Look at me.”
Stiles is standing in front of him now, looking down at him. His eyes are bright even in the dark and he looks miserable. “I am.” His hands tug at the shoulders of Derek’s coat and pull him up to his feet and Derek lets Stiles hug him. Though he doesn’t really. He always holds onto clothes and not Derek. He’s always done that. Derek’s fingers grip and bruise and dig into Stiles’ skin but Stiles just wrinkles his shirts and jackets and hoodies, fingers twisting up in fabric.
“I told you I’m petty. I wish I wasn’t. I wish I was better than that but we both know I’m not. I hardly got any time with you after you and Jennifer moved in together and I know that’s more on me than you. Or her. And, I swear, twenty-three hours a day all I wanted was for you to be happy, and I genuinely felt happy for you that you were, but then that other hour would come along and—I don’t like myself during that hour and I don’t think you would like me either and it did what we always knew it was going to do. It got too hard.”
“There’s no part of you that I don’t like. That I don’t want to know. You’re wrong if you think anything else.”
“You don’t know the kind of shit I wanted to pull.”
“No.” Stiles steps away from him, rubs his forehead. “I can’t believe you drove all the way here in the middle of the night.”
“I can’t believe you left without saying a fucking word to me.”
Stiles winces. “I know. I messed up.”
“Yeah.” Derek looks around. He’s trying not to be so angry. So scared. “The place looks nice though.”
Stiles snorts. “It’s not quite big enough to qualify for ‘shack’ status but, yeah, it’s one of the closest halls to campus so.” He shrugs.
Derek sits back on the bed again and tugs at Stiles’ hand. “So tell me what classes you’re taking, what your roommate’s like, how the food is here. Tell me anything. Tell me all the things you’ve wanted to tell me since you stopped telling me things.”
He moves over so they can lay next to each other on Stiles’ tiny twin.
“You can tell me your stuff too, you know.”
Derek brushes the backs of his fingers down Stiles’ spine and shakes his head. “I never stopped telling you things.”
The next long weekend, Derek calls Stiles. They text in single sentences and only what’s needed as he drives in. He meets Stiles on campus and they sit on the back of a bench and watch people play frisbee in the quad.
A few people come up and greet Stiles. All of them seem mystified by Derek.
The second time it happens, Derek says, “He had no idea who I was.”
“Do you tell people who I am?”
Derek shrugs. Of course he does. Why wouldn’t he?
Stiles sighs. “It’s not a ‘you’ thing,” he says. “Or, well, it is but—I didn’t like the shit people said about you.”
“What does that mean?”
“When it would all come out, y’know. The things people said, I just. Like you did something wrong because you don’t love me back.”
“I do love you.”
“Don’t. Don’t do that. I asked you not to do that.”
“I know,” Derek says, because anything else would be a lie. He can’t say he won’t do it again because there’s a bone-deep feeling of wrong that follows those words. Like Derek is somehow less invested in them, when he’s the one who’s been chasing after Stiles from the day they met.
He’s always wanted this more. Always.
Stiles turns to look at him. “You’ve done everything for me. You do everything for me. I was such a crappy, angry little kid after my mom and you never cared about that because you only cared about me.” His eyes go owlish; he swallows. “Now there’s this, and there’s this one thing you can’t do for me and the things people would say about that, how they’d villainize you for nothing, I couldn’t listen to that anymore.”
Laura and her new boyfriend arrive at the lake house barely two minutes before Stiles, who blows in loaded with duffel bags and is only laden down further by Derek’s mom the second he’s through the door. She claps a hand to one cheek and a kiss to the other.
His dad follows with a brief, smart handshake that ends in an embrace while Derek’s uncle knocks a bag out of Stiles’ other hand and replaces it with a tumbler full of scotch. “Rematch,” he says with a dark smirk, clinking their glasses together. As though it hasn’t been two years since the last time they’d tried to drink each other under the table. Two years since anyone in Derek’s family had laid eyes on Stiles.
Two years since Derek had.
He could use a drink himself.
Cora lifts the duffel Peter liberated from Stiles’ shoulder and then is sweeping him upstairs with a, “Let’s go, deserter,” so he can drop the rest of his bags off.
Laura leads the new guy over to Derek, who’s trying to pretend like seeing Stiles again hasn’t undone him, and says, “This is my baby brother, Derek, and this is Derek’s girlfriend, Braeden. This is Pierce.”
Pierce greets them both with a winning, slightly self-conscious half-smile and then glances up the stairs. “And the guy who brought Christmas with him? How’s he related?”
“That’s Stiles, Derek’s soulmate. We weren’t sure we’d ever see him again, hence the enthusiasm.”
Derek opens his mouth, ready to scowl and scold but Laura’s already turning away. Because she hadn’t been taunting him. It had rolled off her tongue as though that was how she’d always referred to Stiles.
Maybe it was.
It takes Stiles another fifteen minutes to come downstairs again and then he’s hopping onto the couch next to Derek, offering a fist bump to Braeden and leaning into Derek’s side. He’s grinning and warm and he’s been so fucking missed that Derek’s afraid to breathe. There’d been calls and texts and cards on birthdays and emails but nothing like this. Not in years.
At dinner, Derek’s mom says, “We’re so glad you could make it, Stiles.”
Stiles shifts in his seat for a moment; it bumps his shoulder with Derek’s. He glances over at Derek but doesn’t quite meet his eye. “You can only resist this guy for so long.” He brightens and adds, “My dad should be up mid-week. He wanted me to thank you again for the invitation.”
“It’s the family lake house,” Derek’s dad says with a shrug. “You know you’re both included in that.”
“Thought I’d find you out here.”
Stiles’ shoes and socks are piled up on the dock next to him and he’s loosely holding the neck of a wine bottle between his legs. “Yeah. You know me well.”
Derek’s not sure if he imagines the resentment in that sentence or not.
Stiles clears his throat. “Where’s Braeden?”
Derek sits down next to him. “She left a while ago, wanted me to tell you that it was nice meeting you.”
“That hard to compete with Brosnan, was it?” He sobers, says, “Was that your idea or did she actually have to go back?”
Derek shrugs. “Little of both. She had work, offered to call off if I wanted her to.” Derek squints, trying to see the opposite bank but it’s impossible in the dark. “I didn’t want her to.”
“I could’ve handled it,” Stiles says.
Derek’s mouth purses. “I don’t want you to have to handle this week. I want you to be here, I want you to want to be here.” Stiles’ smell is familiar and his pulse is a rhythm Derek knows with his own heartbeat and he doesn’t want this to go away again.
“I’m here. I’m trying.”
Derek rests his forehead on Stiles’ shoulder, swallowing the lump in his throat. He slips his arm into the gap between Stiles’ side and his elbow, sliding his forearm up against Stiles’, tangling their fingers up together and resting them on Stiles’ thigh. “I wish you didn’t have to try.”
Stiles’ eyes go squinty too and he takes a long drink from the bottle.
“I’ve thought about this a lot and I think I’ve got it, hear me out, okay?”
“Okay,” Derek says, feet slipping on the slimy rocks at the lake’s bottom.
Derek wades nearer to him. “I don’t like that one.”
Stiles splashes water at him. “It’s perfect and you know it.”
Derek shakes his head. “I don’t like it.”
“There’s no way to intervene in that. It’s all internal.”
Stiles laughs. “See, this is our problem. You’ve convinced yourself you’re the Peter Parker, Steve Rogers, Scott Summers, All American Superhero in our dynamic all because you saved me from a panic attack when we were kids.”
Derek swims over to him, hands finding Stiles’ waist then wrapping around his back. He laughs softly into Stiles’ ear, “Don’t kid yourself, Stilinski. I am your superhero.”
They drop the wine bottle into the recycling can by the road and meander back to the house, laughing and swaying and breath smelling sweet. They find towels waiting for them on the porch and Stiles drops his bundle of clothes on the deck and flops, wetly, into the rocking bench. Derek sits down next to him and, together, they rock it.
They both stare out at the stars and try to keep the creaking to a minimum. Derek has no idea what time it is but he knows it’s well after midnight.
Finally he asks, “How’s the guy?”
Stiles stops, starts pushing his toes against the wood again after a moment or two, and says, “How’d you know?”
Derek shrugs. “Laura might stalk you on Facebook.”
He rolls his eyes. “I’m never even on Facebook.”
“Yeah, but your guy is.”
Stiles drops his head back against the bench. “Of course he is.”
“He’s built like a linebacker, or a distant cousin to Hagrid.”
Stiles chuckles reluctantly. “Nicely done with the Rowling reference.” He sighs. “I thought you said Laura was the one stalking him.”
“As if I could stop her from telling me about it.”
“Point.” Stiles sits up, palms on the edge of the seat, fingers curling around the bottom. He takes in a heavy breath but doesn’t say anything.
“So. Is he a football player?”
Stiles shakes his head, his laugh more breath than sound. “Not for lack of trying on the school’s part though. The coach must come up to him daily to see if he’s changed his mind or to offer a new incentive. He doesn’t get organized sports at all though. He’d rather play WoW or study German.”
Stiles is quiet for long enough that Derek prods, “What else?”
He huffs. “I don’t know, Derek. He’s a stereotype-defying, Ms. Pac Man-playing wizard who’s majoring in astronomy and has kindness coming out of his pores. He’s—he’s good, y’know.”
Derek hunches his shoulders, asks, “Does he love you?”
“He says he does, yeah.”
Derek squints, looks away. “I didn’t catch his name.”
Stiles rubs his eyebrow with the flat part of his fingertips. “Onaona. Everybody calls him, ‘Min,’ though. Short for ‘minnow.’”
Derek smiles. “Bet that was your doing.”
Stiles laughs and doesn’t deny it.
Derek lets out a huge breath and Stiles stands up, pulling his towel with him and rubbing it into the side of his hair, leaning back against the railing across from Derek in his boxers. Derek closes one eye, water threatening to run into it, and looks up at him. “If it makes you feel any better—and I don’t know if it will, it might make you feel worse, and I don’t mean for that but—I’m really fucking jealous.”
Derek shrugs. “Because he knows you better than me. Because you spend more time with him than you do with me, because he’s a part of your life that I have nothing to do with and I hate that. He’s a living reminder of how far apart we are now and it sucks.”
Stiles looks away, over his shoulder, at the moon’s reflection off the damp leaves below. “I’m sorry I haven’t been around. I just—I needed. I needed to forget you for a while.”
Derek stands up. “Do you still need to?”
Stiles’ nostrils flare and he tilts his head back and stares straight up. “I don’t know. Probably. But I don’t want to do it anymore.”
They’re quiet and careful on their way up the stairs and Stiles enters and exits the guestroom in under a minute. He knocks his shoulder into Derek’s, not hard, on his way past and scoffs at the door of Derek’s room. “Cora moved my stuff.”
He drops his wet towel outside the door, tosses the bundle of his clothes by Derek’s dresser and bounces down on the bed, springs squeaking.
Their boxers had dried ages ago.
Derek flops down next to him. “Now you know why she bothered to help you upstairs.”
Stiles rolls onto his side, away from him, and Derek follows him, wrapping an arm around him and slipping the other under Stiles’ pillow. Stiles grabs his hand first, twisting their fingers up together.
Derek presses a kiss to his bare shoulder.
He wakes up with his thigh between Stiles’ legs and a hard-on pressed to his hip, Stiles’ mouth near his nipple. Derek touches under his chin, lifting his head.
Stiles wakes up slowly, groggy, eyelashes thick and figures it out faster than Derek would’ve expected.
He tries to pull away and Derek says, “Maybe I could try—”
Stiles pushes, hard, away from him and says tightly, “If you want us to be friends, you never finish that sentence.”
They don’t touch again but Stiles doesn’t leave the bed, laying on his back and staring up at the ceiling. After a while, they fall asleep again and the next time they both wake up soft and close enough that Derek can count Stiles’ individual eyelashes.
Braeden breaks up with him when he gets back into town. She’s not the first girl to mention his emotional unavailability.
Or the first one to bring Stiles into it.
“We broke up.”
Derek looks away from his textbook and back to Stiles. It’s unspoken between them that if they’re both home then they’re video chatting, even if there’s no chatting involved. They’ve been mostly silent for the past three hours. Stiles is pulling at a thread near the zipper on his hoodie. Derek frowns. “I thought you were solid. He met your dad last month, right?”
Stiles glances up, notices Derek is looking and lowers his gaze again under the guise of yanking at the thread. “He wanted to move in together after this semester is over.”
Derek closes his textbook. “And you didn’t want to?”
“I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
Derek sits up. “Okay. What do you want to talk about then?”
Stiles smirks. “Segway accident.”
“Do they even sell those anymore?”
“Keep him out of trouble, will you?”
“Always, sheriff,” Derek answers dutifully.
“Suck-up,” Stiles mutters under his breath, shoving his elbow into Derek’s ribs.
“You,” the sheriff says, making Stiles blink at him, “behave yourself.”
Stiles rolls his eyes. “Come on, dad, do I really seem like I’m on a madcap romp here? I got a week off school and came down here to do laundry.”
“Yeah, yeah, isn’t that how Weekend at Bernie’s starts? If I catch you with a corpse in here—”
“Oh my God, go to work, old man.”
The sheriff closes the door behind him and Stiles shakes his head and plods off to the kitchen to check on his pizza rolls, feet bare and the neck of his t-shirt stretched so much that it shows both his collar bones.
Derek drops his duffel by the door.
“You didn’t have to come,” Stiles calls back to him.
“Are you kidding? This is the wild spring break I’ve been after for years. I’m assuming you have a t-shirt cannon here.”
Derek follows him into the kitchen and hops up on the counter.
“How’s… what’s-her-name?” Stiles asks, face scrunched up like he actually is trying to remember and not attempting to be dismissive. Derek doesn’t blame him, they have been kind of rapid fire lately.
“Damn. That one lasted, what? A few weeks?”
Derek shrugs. “Something like that.
“Trying to put together a girls-only baby naming book or something?” Stiles asks with a huge grin.
Derek pushes him away by his face. “Har har. What about you?”
Stiles looks off to the side, somewhat guilty. “Min and I are kind of talking again.”
“I know, I’m a shithead. I’m going to have to swallow every word I’ve ever said about Jackson as my hypocritical repentance. It’s gonna go straight to my ass too, that crap always does.”
“Well there was Halloween. I told you about that.”
“About getting drunk and making out with your ex-boyfriend. When you were all around brilliant, yes, I remember.”
“I was Inspector Gadget so there was some brilliance, okay, Judgemental Judy.”
Derek snorts and motions for him to continue.
“We have the same Poli Sci elective this semester and, I don’t know, we always got along and he thought maybe he just moved too fast for me and we could try again and—”
“You didn’t say yes.”
“I didn’t.” Derek’s almost relaxed when he winces and adds, “But I didn’t say no either.”
“But you know that’s not why.”
Stiles sighs. “I know.” He closes the oven door, glances at the clock, sets the timer on the microwave and then gets up next to Derek on the counter. “But he took better care of me than I did.” He leans his head onto Derek’s shoulder.
“Where are we applying to grad school?”
Derek can’t see Stiles’ face, just the top of his head where he’s flopped over on his back in front of his computer screen. “‘We?’” he parrots, rolling over.
“Yeah, ‘we,’” Derek says, “I’m not doing this separate schools thing again. Are you?”
Stiles pops upright again, staring down at his mousepad. He looks up after a few careful seconds and meets Derek’s eyes. “No. No, I’m not.”
Lydia Martin is the teaching assistant for Derek’s first ever graduate level course. He goes to the professor’s office hours and is certain within fifteen minutes of speaking with her that he will never be as smart as she is. She gives him a few websites to look at and at least five texts that she recommends for outside reading if he really wants to understand the curriculum and sends him on his way.
By the end of the semester, he’s seen her more often than his roommate and if they’re not friends then they’re at least something adjacent.
“I’m supposed to be getting ready for a date with Jordan, Hale.”
“And I’m supposed to be learning Population Genetics. We all have things we’re supposed to be doing, Martin.”
Lydia sighs, sits down on her bed next to him and yanks the textbook out of his hands.
“So, I don’t get it, are you, like, in love with her or—”
“We’re friends, Stiles. You know, that thing you do where your junk doesn’t really come into it?”
“I wouldn’t know what that’s like.” Derek glares at him and Stiles lets out a huge squawk of laughter. He’s been drinking so everything’s funny to him right now, even his own pain. His eyes get softer and he looks away but doesn’t relent. “Okay, but, like, special friends or—”
Derek rolls his eyes and repeats, “She has a boyfriend.”
“For now. What? Don’t look at me like that. She’s into you.”
“No, she isn’t.”
“Yes, she is. It’s pretty much physically impossible not to be because you’re—”
“I’m going to use a word here and you are not allowed to ever again mention the fact that I used this word.” Stiles pop a Hershey’s kiss into his mouth. “You’re… chiseled.”
“Oh God, seriously?”
“Shut up! You are. It’s been proven by science and spectrometers and… Nargles and—It’s a fact. That’s my point. She’s into you because that is the law of this land and all lands and also the Queen’s lands.”
“You’re officially brain-dead.”
“Oh, hey, brain death! Have I used that one?”
“Have a pleasant Valentine’s Day?”
Derek smiles. “Yeah. I watched Stiles eat—or at least chew—a whole box of chocolates, we got slightly drunk and then played ‘Best Ways to Die’ until four in the morning.”
Lydia blinks at him. “You know a friend of mine was asking if you were single. From that, I still have no idea what to tell her.”
Derek shrugs. “I am.”
“What’s your deal with Stiles again?”
“He’s my best friend. We’ve known each other since we were kids.”
“Yes. But what, exactly, is your relationship?”
Which is when Derek realizes he’s never been able to download the whole thing to anyone aside from Stiles, and he’s suddenly desperate to. He and Lydia both miss their next classes and they’re quiet for a long time after he’s finished. Then she says, “So you aren’t really. Single, I mean.”
“Lydia,” he starts, exasperated, “did you not hear me when I said that even though I want to, I just can’t… physically. I’ve tried, I want—”
She glowers at him. “You don’t have to have sex to be in a relationship, you know that, right?
Derek blinks at her because, no, he didn’t know that.
“How do you think asexuals have relationships?”
“They don’t… do they?” He shakes his head. “Even if they do, I’m not asexual. I love sex and I love having sex with women.”
“Okay, but do you love women or do you love Stiles? You said you’ve had a lot of relationships with women while you’ve known Stiles. I’m willing to bet that none of them have been as deep or as real as your connection to him. Because it sounds like your relationship with Stiles fulfills all of your emotional and romantic needs while you date women to fulfill your sexual ones. Or am I wrong?”
“Now you just need to ask yourself if you think you can change that.” She looks at him and amends, “Or if you want to.”
“What if we dated?”
“What if leprechauns controlled the weather and manatees only ate anchovy-flavored jellybeans?”
Derek’s brow furrows.
Stiles shrugs. “I just figured this was a new game, called, ‘Who Can Say the More Outlandish Thing,’ because it could be and then we could just never talk about this again.”
“I’m serious about this.”
Stiles sighs and drops his head back on the bus seat. He finds Derek’s arm instead, propped up behind him. “What.”
“I was talking to Lydia and—”
“Oh this should be good.”
“Can you just shut up and listen?”
“I’ve only ever been broken up with, you know that?” Stiles blinks at him, expression turned inward like he’s shuffling through the demises of all Derek’s relationships to figure out if that’s true.
“The reason is almost always some variation on the theme that I’ve never seemed invested to begin with. And they’re right. Because I already am invested. Invested in you, in us. Stiles, I’ve dropped everything to follow you across the state, I’ve shown up at your house to spend spring break doing laundry and eating pizza rolls, I’ve changed schools to be with you and I’d do it, all of it, again because there never was another option. Not for me. You’re my life. You have been since I was eight-years-old.”
Stiles chews on his lower lip, hitches his backpack up higher on his lap and says with hooded eyes, “You’re not gay.”
“But I am in love with you.” Derek reaches for his hand and Stiles lets him cup theirs together. “I don’t have everything to give you but I do have that.”
Stiles drops his head back again. “So we, what?” He’s derisive and skeptical and dismissive. “Fuck other people and love each other?”
“It’s what we’ve been doing, isn’t it?” Derek stares at him, serious. “Maybe if we were doing fine on our own, if we had happy and successful relationships to our names, it would be different. Instead all we’re doing is fucking up other people and ourselves. Lydia says that I might only ever have romantic feelings towards men, or only for people that I’m already emotionally invested in, and there’s a good chance that I might never be able to merge romance and sex into one person. It’s hard to know for certain if that’s right because it’s only ever been you for me. You fill that space. I don’t know a lot of things with certainty and I have no idea if this will work or if it will blow up in our faces but I do know that you’re the love of my life. I’ve never been confused about that.”
“You mean that, don’t you?”
Derek presses his nose into Stiles’ temple, nodding. “I know I’m yours too.”
Stiles tightens his grip on Derek’s hand, his own slightly sweaty. “Okay. Okay then. We’ll try.”