The first time Derek ever sees a merman, the creature is, of all places, on land.
On the beach, to be precise. His tail is flipping back and forth in the air as he squirms his way higher on the bank, arms straining as he drags himself along. It's beautiful, his tail. The most beautiful thing Derek's ever seen. It's a rippling, crimson color at its core, but iridescent, with every shade of the sunset in it depending on which way the light hits it. At least where it's not blanketed with sand. His upper body is the cool shade of the springtime moon, with hints of blue in its undertones.
He moves closer, warily. He's heard a few stories, though not many. Their pack has been an inland pack for generations. It was only a recent thing that they had expanded their territory to include a patch of forest that ran up to the great ocean's edge. The stories that got told around the campfire about merpeople were rather fantastical and inconsistent, since no one had any firsthand knowledge to keep the tales realistic.
Or so he hoped. The man didn't seem like the sort to strip his flesh from his bones. At least, not flailing about in the sand like that. And what he can see of his face looks focused, but in a way that suggests he's enjoying the challenge of… whatever he's doing. He pads slowly closer again, fascinated by the shimmering colors.
"What are you doing?" he asks.
The merman yelps and flails, tail whipping around with him and sending a spray of sand up at Derek. Instinctually Derek's hackles rise at the potential assault and he leaps back, claws and teeth bared.
But when he blinks clear of the sand and snarls at the offending party the merman is just staring at him, frozen and looking just as awkwardly defensive. The only sound is the slow wash of the surf on the shore down the beach from them and the faint whisper of wind through the thick evergreens that brings the scent of the forest out to tangle with the salty nip of the ocean air.
They stay that way for a long moment, then the tip of the merman's tail shivers and he relaxes a hair.
"You asked me a question, didn't you? Sorry," the merman says sheepishly, long eyelashes flicking down to his clawed fingers then back up to his face. "You startled me."
Derek lets the claws and fangs fade and the merman seems to forget that he's nervous and leans towards him, eyes bright with curiosity as they dart over his features, watching the transformation. His tail twitches, just the tip of it, sending the long translucent fins shivering and gliding along the sand.
"What are you?" he asks, voice soft in wonder, and Derek thinks this must be a first for the merman as well.
"Werewolf," he replies gruffly, surprised that it isn't obvious. Or at least familiar enough as a legend. "Who are you?"
The young man blinks at him. "Oh, wow I was totally rude, wasn't I? Asking what you were instead of who you were first. I really need to buff up on my interspecies salutations. Sorry, it's just the first time I've ever met a… a werewolf. Oh. Right. Um. I'm Stiles."
"Derek," he finds himself saying, distracted when the tail twitches again, drawing Derek's eyes to the beautiful shimmer.
"Cool," Stiles says, drawing Derek's eyes back to his face. Stiles's gaze shifts back up the bank, in the direction he'd been going when Derek had arrived and interrupted him.
"What were you doing?" Derek asks again.
Stiles glances at him warily, gnawing on his lip. He looks torn as he glances up the bank again.
"Just curious," Derek adds, lifting his hands slightly in a shrug.
Stiles sighs, pushing up on one of his arms to look up into the bushes again. "The shiny thing."
"What?" Derek asks, eyebrows drawing down in confusion.
Stiles glances at him again, looking embarrassed as he points. "There's something shiny up there. I wanted it. Not doing too good a job of getting it though." His mouth twists as he glances back at the receding shoreline.
"Something shiny," Derek deadpans.
Stiles shoots a playful glare at him, tail flicking. "Yeah? What, do werewolves not like shiny things or something?"
Derek squats down beside him, curious to get a little closer and stop looming over him. His toes dig into the sand as he shifts his balance and he sees Stiles's gaze flick down to them as he moves, eyes bright with curiosity.
"Not particularly," Derek replies.
Stiles looks at him skeptically, tip of his fins rotating idly so that they skitter along the sand back and forth.
Derek shrugs. "I don't have any shiny things."
"None?" Stiles asks, sounding shocked, eyes going wide.
Derek tilts his head, thinking through his meager possessions, then shakes his head, eyebrows lifting in amusement.
"None at all?" Stiles says. "Oh man, that's…" he shakes his head. "Awful."
He looks sad, Derek realizes. Like he's pitying Derek his empty life. He wouldn't be wrong about that either, though not for its lack of shiny objects.
Derek snorts. "I take it merpeople like shiny things?"
Stiles grins at him. "I'm pretty sure collecting them is our purpose in life."
Derek laughs. It comes out rough. Rusty. He actually doesn't know how long it's been since he's done that. There hasn't been a lot of laughter in his life lately.
Stiles gives his tail a little flick, a gesture this time he's sure. He's tilts his head with a wry smile and twitches his slim brows up. "No, yeah, I'm actually mostly serious."
Derek shakes his head incredulously.
"What do werewolves do?" Stiles asks, tilting towards him, eyes bright with curiosity.
Derek scratches at his beard as he thinks it over, and Stiles's eyes are drawn to the motion, fascinated by the body-hair that's so different from his own. His chest and arms are bare of any of the dark strands that adorn Derek's body. He has brows that are dark in contrast to his skin but Derek can't tell if they're coated in hair or are a different coloring on his skin. His scalp bears a similar dark layer but it has a texture that is not quite like the hair he's used to. Eventually he tears his gaze away from staring and actually gets around to answering Stiles's question.
"Patrol our territory, support the pack. Find mates. Hunt." He shrugs. "I can't think of any more purpose to what we do than that, but then I'm not the best one to ask."
"Why?" Stiles asks him.
Derek glances out at the ocean, at the slow lap of inexorable and perpetual waves. It's a long, long story. But it's also a very short one. "I don't… fit in well. Not anymore."
Stiles quirks a sympathetic smile at him, and it's not a fake thing. He has a faint sadness around his eyes as his tail rolls slowly over on the sand, sending his fins sliding. "Me either. I mean, we do all those things too. But, you know. The stuff everyone else cares about just never seems as important to me."
"Except the shiny things," Derek says with a faint smirk.
"Obviously," Stiles says with a grin. He tilts his head to look at Derek's feet again. Derek takes the opportunity to gaze down at his tail again, to watch the way the sun shines on his skin and the way the musculature moves as Stiles breathes.
"This is so cool," Stiles breathes.
Derek flicks his gaze back to meet Stiles's and lifts his brows in agreement. "The first interesting thing that's happened to me all year."
Stiles's eyes widen. Then his face splits in a grin as his tail thumps against the sand. "Okay you have to tell me something I've always wondered. Do you, surface-dwellers I mean, do you really not know how to swim?"
Derek huffs a laugh. "Some of us do, some don't."
Stiles shakes his head. "So you're not born knowing? That's just crazy."
Derek shrugs. "Some people go their whole lives without ever seeing the ocean. Our territory didn't always border the sea. I've only swum in it a few times and never gone far."
Stiles hums, looking up at the dark green forest that seemed to stretch on forever in shades of viridian and burnt sienna with the occasional patch of sunlight. "I guess this is the furthest I've ever been on land so it can't be that strange." His nose wrinkles as he glances at Derek. "Do you really burn your food before eating it?"
"Well, we don't call it burning till it's inedible, but I suppose that's true. Most things we cook, yes. Tastes better that way I assure you," he says. "Makes the flavors more complex. Do you never cook things?"
Stiles shakes his head. "Kelp, fish and mollusks are pretty much all we eat. And they are delicious raw. Though I've never eaten them… cooked. So I suppose I can't say."
Derek tilts his head, poking at the sand a little. "I could make a fire sometime. We could try each other's foods."
Stiles grins at him. "Really? That would be awesome. I'm totally going to have to catch you something good. Do you like squid?"
Derek blinks at him. "Squid?"
Stiles rolls his eyes. "You haven't had squid. That is just. We should totally fix that." He glances up at the sky, the sun bright overhead. "Speaking of fire though, it's really hot."
Derek scratches at his stubble. It's actually pretty cold to him. He'd been considering donning a vest in addition to his loincloth before he'd come out this morning.
But for a creature that lived in the cool depths of the sea, it must seem terribly warm. Derek frowns at Stiles, realizing that he's looking a little off. His pale skin is going a little pink, and his tail seems dimmer now, like it's losing color.
"Are you all right?" Derek asks. "You look…," he trails off, not sure how to avoid accidentally insulting him.
Stiles glances down at himself. He's panting now, short little breaths. "Oh… uh. Not really." He glances back at the ocean, which has been receding with the tide. His eyes widen and his face starts shifting towards panic as he shifts, sitting up and staring down at the ocean, twisting awkwardly in the dried-out and loose sand. "Shit, I got distracted. I didn't know it dried so fast. I… shit. I don't think I can make it back."
It does look far for someone who has to drag themselves.
Stiles isn't looking so well at all now. "First time I go on shore by myself and I get beached. Fuck, I'm such an idiot. "
"Yeah, you are a bit," Derek says, earning himself a half-hearted glare. But he leans closer and lifts an open hand. "Can I help you?"
Stiles groans and puts his face in his fingers, looking embarrassed. "Yes. Please. Can you put me back in the water?"
Derek nods, pushing to his feet. Stiles sits up even more, flexing his tail up so that when Derek leans down he can get his arm under it. His other arm goes around Stiles's back. Stiles slides his arm over the back of Derek's neck, leaning his chest against Derek's.
Derek lifts him. He's surprisingly heavy, though nowhere near difficult for Derek to lift. His tail is pliant and smooth to the touch where it isn't sandy, muscle flexing as it curls around Derek's arm and hip automatically. It's absolutely stunning up close, every little scale a shimmering prism as he turns and starts walking down to the water.
"I'm going to be such a laughingstock," Stiles whines, head tipping against Derek's shoulder.
Derek snorts, "I won't tell anyone if you won't."
"Yeah?" Stiles asks shyly.
Derek doesn't understand why it's a surprise, or why it would matter since Stiles is the only merman he has and possibly ever will meet. But he finds he doesn't want to tell anyone about any of it. He wants to keep this adventure with Stiles to himself. He nods, and wonders if Stiles feels the same way.
"Deal," Stiles says, fins brushing against Derek's calf.
When they reach the water he kneels down, setting Stiles into it.
Stiles groans with pleasure, going limp and rolling under the surface immediately. Derek watches, stunned as he rolls away with the pull of the surf, then disappears entirely, moving so easily through the heavy push of the water towards the deep.
For a long moment he stays there, kneeling, staring at water he can't see through, surprised at the abruptness of it. He wonders if that's the last he'll see of Stiles. Just like that, gone. He feels a sharp pang of regret at the thought. He should have many opportunities to come here, though, now that this is their territory. Maybe they'll meet again. He stands, getting ready to return to the woods.
But then, much further than he'd expected, he sees a head and shoulders pop up amid the waves. Not gone. They disappear with the next swell, but within moments he sees the dark streak hurtling towards the shore again under the waves. Stiles pops up again as he nears. He opens his mouth, but then his face pinches in annoyance and he ducks back under the water again without speaking.
He rolls up with the next wave, then digs his hands in the sand to plant himself as the water washes away. Derek watches as the gills in his neck flare and water rushes out of the ones below his ribs. Then all of them seal away into his pale skin, leaving nothing but a set of faintly blue-tinged lines. He coughs a little, sucking in a deep lungful of air through his mouth. "Surface breathing is so weird," he says, taking another deep breath.
"I'll take your word for it."
Stiles rolls his eyes, laughing faintly. "So hey, thanks. You really saved my scales there."
Derek shrugs, but a small pleased smile is creeping onto his face.
"Are all werewolves this nice?" Stiles asks, grinning when Derek sits down beside him again even though the water is a bit chilly.
"No," Derek says with a short shake of his head. "Werewolves aren't known for being nice."
Stiles's tail flicks in the shallow water, swirling it a little with a faint splash. His smile is wide and lopsided as he looks up at Derek. "Huh. So I found the special one."
"I'm not known for being nice either," Derek points out. Which is true.
But Stiles just waggles his head in a gesture Derek doesn't really understand, then grins at him. "Nah. You're the special one. I found you and I'm keeping you all for myself."
The thought sends a splash of pleasure through his chest. The thought of being someone special, of having someone all his own. It's certainly not in a way he ever would have anticipated, but all the ways a Were usually might have had such things are closed to him now. Derek digs at the wet sand absently with his fingers, leaving little clawmarks in the earth that get washed away with each wave. "Okay," he finds himself saying, glancing back up at Stiles with a tiny, hopeful little smile.
Stiles's tail quivers again. Though he thinks this is a different gesture this time. He's not sure.
"Huh," Stiles says, smiling at him and blinking. "Good."
There's a howl from the woods, far off. Back at the main camp. Stiles blinks at him in interest.
"Dinner call," he says.
"Ohh…," Stiles groans, looking down at his taut belly. "Dinner. That is an excellent idea."
Stiles pushes back with the next wave, slipping with it into the deeper water.
"When can you-," they both say simultaneously.
Stiles laughs, turning to face him, treading in the shallow water with ease.
"When can I see you again?" he tries again, smiling up at Derek with those crackled golden eyes.
He doesn't have any responsibilities that he can't shuffle around, other than tonight's hunt. "Tomorrow, the next day. Any time you'd like."
Stiles looks pleased. "Awesome. I'll… I think I can come tomorrow. And… well I guess if something comes up I'll just… keep coming back here when I can."
"Same," Derek says.
And then with the next swell of wave he's gone, just a shadow darting away under the dimming sun and churning waves.
Too late Derek remembers the reason Stiles had climbed up onto the shore in the first place. He turns, scanning the edge of the treeline as he walks back.
The shiny thing, as it turns out, is an abandoned glass bottle, a deep green. It's a small flask with a bit of detailing, like those used for liquors or perfumes. It's pretty. Not something a wolf would keep though. No practical utility in it. To them it's just trash really. But Derek brushes it off and takes it up anyway.
He'll hold onto it. Just in case.