Derek can remember it like it was yesterday:
At seven years old, he was sitting on the floor with both of his sisters, playing some stupid board game while their parents sat together on the sofa behind them. It was an unremarkable evening in every way, until Derek glanced up and spotted his mother running her fingers lovingly over a black mark on the inside of her left wrist. She usually wore a thick bracelet around it, so seeing it bare for the first time and discovering that the bracelet was evidently more than a simple piece of jewellery had his curiosity piqued. Without a word he'd abandoned the board game, clambered up onto the sofa and pulled on his mother's arm to get a closer look at the strange new discovery. The sight of his dad's name written on her wrist had confounded him, until Talia explained why it was there. With a patient smile she'd told him that everyone in the world had a soulmate, a person made specially for them by The Powers That Be, whose name would appear on your wrist on the morning of your eighteenth birthday.
For eleven years Derek waited impatiently for the day he would finally wake up with his own soulmark. But Fate can be capricious and cruel, as he'd discovered one cold December morning. Things wouldn't be as easy as he'd thought. He wasn't as lucky as Laura, who'd woken up a few years prior with a name belonging to one of the boys in her grade. A nice, simple, easy-to-read name, too—Nathan Jones.
But, no. The name on Derek's wrist was an abomination:
"What the hell kind of name is that?" Laura had asked when she saw it.
"I don't know..." Derek had said morosely.
"You're screwed, little brother."
Derek hunted high and low for the person to whom his soulmark belonged but never found them. It's a male name, he'd discovered when he looked it up online. It threw him for a loop for a while because, having never before looked at another guy that way, he'd always assumed that his soulmate would be female. In hindsight that was a stupid expectation, especially when, a few years later, Cora turned eighteen and quickly found her soulmate in another girl. This news had both delighted and upset him—he was happy for Cora, but to him the new soulmates were just another in a long line to find each other almost immediately after their marks appeared on their wrists, while Derek himself was still looking, years after his had shown up.
It's not exactly unheard of for someone to be alone for as long as Derek has, but it's not common, either. No one could keep their eyes to themselves whenever he dared to show his face in public, and on more than one occasion he'd overheard small groups talking about him. Their words weren't kind. They'd wondered what was wrong with him and, eventually, Derek found himself wondering the same thing. Maybe he was a bad person in a past life and this was his punishment. It was a thought he never shared with anyone else, not even Laura, his confidant. By the time he moved away from Beacon Hills, he never left the house if he could avoid it, not wanting to be subjected to any more ignominy.
* * *
- Tuesday, April 4th, 2017 -
Now, at twenty-six, Derek has stopped searching.
He hasn't given up, not really, but after watching all of his friends and siblings leave him behind he has grown weary of it all. He simply pushes all thoughts on the topic of soulmates to the back of his mind with everything else he doesn't want to think about. As he'd told Laura when she asked him about it, her usually mischievous eyes full of sincere concern, it would happen when it would happen, and nothing Derek did would bring that time forward.
With a sigh, Derek leaves the comfort of his bed when his alarm pierces through his cogitation. He only has an hour before he's due to arrive at work, at the 9-5 office job that was supposed to be temporary but has now been boring him to death for going on three years. He would hand in his two weeks' notice, like Laura keeps advising him to, but he honestly doesn't know what he would do if he moved on. He's stuck in a rut, he knows, one he tells himself almost daily that he'll finally hoist himself out of, but by the time he reaches his office building he always loses his nerve and goes through the monotony all over again.
It's an endless cycle.
Once he's all washed and dressed in a pair of black slacks and a white button-down shirt, Derek walks into the tiny kitchen of his apartment and curses when he lays eyes on his coffee maker. He'd left it on the countertop the previous morning, after it had spat out one final cup of coffee and died. He was supposed to purchase a replacement on his way home from work yesterday, but Laura had guilt-tripped him into going out for a ‘night on the town' before he got a chance—"The only time you leave your apartment nowadays is to go to work, Derek! I miss you..."
Unable to really focus in the morning without a fix of caffeine, Derek hurries to grab his bag, locks up his apartment, and storms the few blocks to the nearest coffee shop. He's been in there before, but not often—he still refrains from social interactions as much as he can, even though no one in the city knows about his missing soulmate.
As he waits in line to order, Derek looks around, quietly observing his surroundings to pass the time, and spots a man sitting at one of the small tables to his left, illuminated by the bright sunlight streaming in through the shop's large windows. There's nothing that really stands out about him right away, but for some reason Derek's eyes are irrevocably drawn to him.
The seated man looks a few years younger than Derek, with a slimmer build but maybe around the same height. His brown hair is unruly, like he'd rolled out of bed and done nothing to it, and his pale face is dotted with small moles. His eyes are the most fascinating colour, something akin to cinnamon and whiskey that Derek has never encountered before. His hands arrest Derek's attention next, fingers flying across the keyboard of his MacBook. The digits are long and slender, and Derek has never had a thing for hands but...damn.
The younger man is concentrating so hard on whatever he's typing that his tongue sticks adorably out of the corner of his mouth. He wears a red, long-sleeved plaid shirt, tight black chinos, and a pair of plain tennis shoes, the white material partially obscured by aged smears of mud and dirt. All of this hides a thin body that Derek suspects is still well-toned, a body against which he wants to be pressed. As soon as the image comes into his brain, Derek shoves it away. He isn't sure where it came from—maybe it's just loneliness creeping up on him, or maybe he's just exceptionally horny because it's been a long, long while since he last got laid. Whatever the reason, he doesn't want to entertain the desire.
It can be dangerous, as past experience has taught him. He's tried it exactly once, entering into a relationship with someone who wasn't his soulmate. She was in the same boat as him, several years past eighteen but without the person she was meant to be with. They'd had fun for a couple of months, but it wasn't what Derek really wanted and just left him feeling painfully unfulfilled. Ever since their amicable breakup, he'd resolved to stay away from relationships entirely until he found the man whose name was on his wrist.
Realising that he's still staring when the person behind him in the queue taps impatiently on his shoulder, Derek sees to his embarrassment that he's next in line and scrambles forward to give his order, the tips of his ears turning pink. A minute later, the barista slides a large cup of plain black coffee across the counter to him and, after handing over the money, Derek turns and heads for the exit, his steps quick because he's now in danger of being late for work. He spares a quick glance to his right and fights off disappointment when he discovers that the man from earlier has already left.
* * *
- Wednesday, April 5th, 2017 -
Derek doesn't have a reason for visiting the coffee shop again.
As he waits in line he doesn't look over all the faces around him, searching for the awkwardly beautiful man he'd seen the day before. He doesn't, so he isn't saddened when, once he has that day's order in hand, he doesn't see him.
* * *
- Monday, April 10th, 2017 -
He keeps going.
For the next week Derek visits the coffee shop every morning, keeping an eye out for the intriguing man. Again he doesn't see him, so he walks despondently out of the shop, berating himself for acting so stupidly. He reminds himself that he doesn't know him, doesn't even know his name. He valiantly ignores the small voice in his head that points out that he wants to know him, until, because he's so caught up in his thoughts and oblivious to everything going on around him, Derek bumps right into him, coffee going flying.
"Oh my God, I'm so sorry!" the whiskey-eyed stranger exclaims.
"It's fine. It was my—" Derek starts, only to be interrupted.
"Fuck, your shirt!"
Feeling a burning sensation on his chest, Derek looks down to find that his front is covered in hot coffee, staining the fabric of his crisp white shirt an ugly brown and making it stick to his chest and stomach. Displaying that much of himself was definitely not in his plan for the day, so he folds his arms self-consciously over his torso in order to feel less exposed.
"Here," the stranger says, proffering a small packet of tissues.
Derek accepts them with a short, "Thanks."
He steps to the side of the pavement, partially to get out of the way of other pedestrians and partially to hide from the other man. The tissues are soon soiled the same colour as his shirt as he pats himself down, soaking up the excess coffee, and Derek is very much aware that the reason for his daily trips to the coffee shop is still standing nearby, watching him. He glances up and has to look away again because the younger man is biting his lips, lips that Derek wants to— No. He tamps that thought down as forcefully as he can.
"I'm Stiles," the stranger says once Derek has finished, holding out his hand.
Derek's fist closes around the soiled tissues, a hope he hadn't even realised he was holding dying a very painful death when he hears the name. He politely introduces himself in kind and prays that Stiles won't notice the tightness in his voice.
The other man's eyes go wide for a split second—the name ‘Bambi' pops into Derek's head—before he clears his throat and his countenance becomes inscrutable. "Sorry about...y'know," he says, gesturing to the large brown stain on Derek's front with the hand not wrapped around the strap of his laptop bag. "I was kind of in a hurry to get started on writing and wasn't looking where I was going. I slept in accidentally so I'm kinda behind schedule and my publisher will kill me if I don't get this book finished on time."
Now that they're actually talking, Derek finds himself a little tongue-tied. He's never been good at holding a conversation at the best of times, but it seems particularly bad in that moment. He feels like an idiot for wanting to bump into Stiles again, for hanging around the coffee shop like a stalker until he absolutely had to leave for work every day. With Stiles standing in front of him, waiting for him to open his mouth and say something, he suddenly wants to be anywhere else in order to avoid making even more of a fool out of himself.
"I can pay for dry cleaning, if you want," Stiles offers when Derek's words fail him, gifting Derek a shy smile that does funny things to his insides.
"Don't worry about it."
"Well...how about I buy you another cup of coffee sometime, instead?"
Derek is tempted. He's more tempted by this offer than he ever remembers being tempted by anything, but then Paige's face flashes before his eyes and he knows that he has to say no. Filled with regret, he shakes his head and fights the urge to take it back when Stiles' cautiously hopeful face drops.
"Sorry. I can't," is all the explanation Derek is able to give.
"Oh..." Stiles mumbles, fiddling again with the strap of his laptop bag. Derek gets the impression that this is a common nervous tic for the younger man. They both stand there for a few deeply uncomfortable seconds, until Stiles plasters a rictus smile on his face that Derek has no trouble seeing through. The stiff upturn of his lips makes Derek feel even worse about rejecting him. "Alrighty, then!" Stiles effuses with false cheer. "This has been fun and all but, as I said, I've got a book to finish and I'm sure you've got places to be, too, so... See you around, I guess."
With that, he scurries off.
Derek stares after him until he disappears amongst the other people on the sidewalk.
* * *
- Tuesday, April 11th, 2017 -
"What's going on with you, little brother?" Laura asks.
Both Hales are in Derek's apartment, sitting on the living room sofa with empty containers of Chinese takeout piled up on the coffee table in front of them. Derek had gotten back from another boring day of work to find that his sister had already made herself at home in his space—he seriously regrets giving her a key when he moved in—and now they're both trying to watch some trashy reality show that fails abysmally at being entertaining.
"Nothing," Derek denies, getting up to toss the Chinese containers in the bin.
"Don't lie to me," Laura needles, following him. "You're bad at it."
"Are, too. You've never been good at lying to people, Der."
"Shouldn't you be going? Y'know, to your actual home? I'm sure Nathan's missing you."
Laura huffs indignantly. "Don't be so antisocial. I'm only trying to help."
"I didn't ask for your help."
"So..." Laura hums, taking a wine glass down from one of the cupboards and filling it with cheap rosé. "There is something you need help with?"
"You're not going to drop this until I tell you, are you?"
Laura smirks. "You know me so well."
Derek rolls his eyes and gets his own glass of wine before migrating back to the sofa. "Fine... I'll tell you if it'll get your annoying ass off my back," he accedes, waiting for Laura to get comfortable to reveal his recent adventures at the coffee shop. Laura listens attentively and doesn't butt in once during the tale, something Derek had previously thought her incapable of. By the time Derek has finished, their glasses are both empty and Derek feels the welcome buzz that comes with drinking alcohol. He's always been a lightweight because he doesn't partake often, and no matter how much Laura pesters and teases him he can't see that as a bad thing. It's cheaper. The intoxication loosens his tongue, and before Derek knows it he's waxing poetic about Stiles' everything. OK, he thinks with a wince when he realises just how many compliments have poured from his mouth, maybe it's not such a good thing after all.
"You really like this guy, don't you?" Laura asks gently.
"Yeah, I do..." Derek admits. Damn you, alcohol.
"Then what's the problem? Just ask him out! Surely even you can't mess that up."
Derek shakes his head. "But...he's not my soulmate. It would never last."
"Do it anyway."
"That wouldn't be fair to either of us, or to either of our soulmates," Derek states, suddenly feeling restless. He gets up and begins pacing back and forth, running his hands through his hair out of frustration as his worries erupt. "Say I did. Say I asked Stiles out and things went well and we ended up falling in love with each other or something. What would happen when one of us met our soulmate? ‘Cause you know with my luck, when I started feeling comfortable in that hypothetical relationship, that's when we would finally meet. Then there'd be heartbreak and hurt feelings and awkwardness and just... No! It's a bad idea."
"OK, sorry I brought it up..." Laura says snippily.
With a sigh, Derek feels every ounce of agitation leave him in a heartbeat, leaving behind dejection. He flops back down on the sofa and throws an arm over his eyes, not caring about how melodramatic he's being. He hears Laura set her wine glass down on the coffee table and feels her shift closer, until the weight of her head rests on his shoulder.
"You'll find him, little brother," she tries to reassure, but the words sound hollow.
* * *
- Monday, April 17th, 2017 -
Despite what he told Laura, Derek doesn't quite manage to keep Stiles from his mind. He hasn't been back to the coffee shop since they literally bumped into each other, but, no matter what he's doing, Stiles is in his thoughts, keeping him distracted at all times. It makes him fall behind in his duties at work, makes him unable to take in more than one sentence when he tries to read before bed, and he can pretty much forget about sleeping.
Come Monday morning, Derek can't fight it anymore. Bypassing his new coffee machine, Derek leaves half an hour early and walks to the coffee shop, his heart beating faster in his chest when he sees that Stiles is already there, typing away on his laptop.
He has to stick to his guns.
What he said to Laura remains true, but there's no harm in looking, right?
Once he has his coffee, Derek sits down at the table behind Stiles and takes a sip, hoping that none of the other patrons notice how obviously he's staring and think him a creep. He kind of feels like one, so the conclusion would be valid. But still. From his position Derek can see the screen of Stiles' laptop, words appearing on a digital page as the younger man continues to type with a shocking amount of competency and speed. Next to the laptop is an open book, and after a few minutes of continuous observation Derek sees Stiles pausing repeatedly in his typing to look at something printed in it.
Just when Derek is about to get up and leave the shop, Stiles slams the book closed with a groan and runs a hand down his face. Derek can hear him mumbling to himself and can tell that his tone is annoyed, even though the words are too quiet to decipher. Whatever Stiles is writing apparently isn't going well, and Derek feels a spark of sympathy and immediately wants to do something about it. There's no one waiting to order at the counter, so Derek leaps up and, making sure to memorise the title of Stiles' book on his way past, catches the barista's attention. Without giving it too much thought, he orders a blueberry muffin and, once he has the plated baked good in hand, turns back around, his heart beating rapidly. Cautiously, he approaches Stiles' table and puts the muffin on the edge, causing Stiles' head to snap up, his mouth hanging open and an adorable blush appearing on his cheeks. Derek smiles sheepishly at him. "You look like you could use it," he mumbles, shuffling his feet awkwardly.
"Thank you..." Stiles breathes, eyes big and wide.
"N-no problem," Derek stutters, ensorcelled. "I should... I should go. To work."
Flustered, he runs.
* * *
Derek visits the closest bookstore on his way home.
It's a huge place, spanning a couple of floors with shelves packed in tight together, filled to the brim with so many books that the middle of each shelf dips under their substantial weight. Like a man on a mission, Derek heads straight for the Young Adult section, not caring that he's years too old to be the target audience for anything there. He searches the shelves for a specific book, his impatience growing until he spots the already familiar red spine he hasn't been able to get out of his head since he looked it up on his lunch break.
Plucking the paperback book from the shelf, he checks the front cover just to make sure it's the right one, the hand around his heart squeezing tight again when he reads Stiles' name—God, how he wishes that name was also written on his wrist. He walks distractedly to the checkout, his eyes scanning the back of the book for the short and sweet synopsis. The first book in a series, it tells the story of a teenage boy living in a fictional Californian town after he is bitten by a werewolf one night. Derek has never been one for fantasy stories—he's more of a true crime kind of guy—but he has to admit that the story sounds at least vaguely interesting. He doesn't know who he's kidding, though. He'd probably read the thing cover to cover even if the story sounded like complete crap.
"Sir? Is this everything?"
Snapping out of his daze, Derek finds the old man on the other side of the checkout counter eyeing him warily. He feels his cheeks colouring.
"Oh, yes. Just this," he replies, handing the book over to be scanned.
"That'll be $9.99 then, please."
After paying, Derek takes the book and leaves the shop with it tucked under his arm, already planning on spending the evening reading it in his favourite pair of sweatpants while sipping a cup of tea. If Laura knew of his plans, he'd never hear the end of it.
* * *
- Friday, April 21st, 2017 -
He was right.
Derek returns home from work, tired as he ever remembers being, and just wants to take a long, hot shower and then sleep for the entire weekend. This desire is just a pipe dream, because just as he's rummaging through his dresser for his most snuggly sweater he hears insistent knocking on the door to his apartment. With a frown he leaves the drawer open, clothes spilling out onto the floor, and goes to answer it. He barely suppresses a loud groan when he spies both of his sisters through the peephole.
Of course. Sibling Bonding Night.
How could he forget?
It's a tradition that was started several years ago now, when Derek and Laura first moved to New York. Cora hadn't wanted to join them, so, as a compromise, every couple of months she comes to visit for a few days so they can all catch up. It completely slipped Derek's mind that Cora's visit was coming up, and as such he is woefully underprepared. He doesn't have any alcohol apart from half a bottle of wine, nor does he have any snacks because he hasn't been grocery shopping since Laura cleared out his cupboards during her visit last week. Cursing, Derek takes a deep breath, steeling himself for the verbal lashing he's sure to receive, and opens the door. Immediately he gets a mouthful of Cora's hair as she jumps him, her skinny arms deceptively good at crushing the life out of him as they wrap around his torso.
"Yeah, yeah, I missed you, too," he mumbles, awkwardly returning the hug.
Cora smirks when she pulls back. "You'd better."
"Just get in, brat."
"Ever the charmer," Laura smirks, entering the apartment after Cora.
Derek rolls his eyes and closes the door behind her when she leaves it wide open. As he was expecting, a few seconds later there comes a loud screech from the kitchen. "Where's the food?! I'm gonna starve!" Cora shouts, storming back over to where Derek is resolutely not cowering by the door and smacking him hard on the arm. "You forgot, didn't you?"
"Maybe..." Derek admits carefully.
Cora pouts and smacks him again. "Bad Derek! Bad!"
"I'm not a dog!"
"All men are dogs," Laura says sagely from her position on the sofa.
"Even Nathan?" Derek challenges.
"So," Cora says pointedly, glaring, "what're we gonna do for food? Since someone here obviously doesn't love us enough to keep us well-fed."
Derek opens his mouth to give an indignant reply but is interrupted by Laura:
"Don't be so hard on him, Cora. Our dear brother's been very, very busy these past couple of weeks," she explains, the playful glint in her eyes only getting brighter when Cora perks up and stares at her excitedly, obviously waiting for more details.
"Laura, don't—" Derek tries.
"You see," the elder Hale goes on, grinning, "he's been pining."
Cora squeals and bounces up and down. "Ooh! Who is it?!"
"Some guy he met in a coffee shop," Laura replies, looking particularly smug.
"Really, Derek? That's so cliché!"
Laura clutches a hand to her chest and swoons dramatically, falling backward until she's lying lengthways on the sofa. "The heart wants what it wants!"
"So, when's the wedding?" Cora chirps.
"I hate you both," Derek mumbles.
* * *
"Hmm, what's this? ‘Teen Wolf'..."
Alarmed, Derek looks up from the glass he's washing to see Laura examining Stiles' book with a bewildered expression on her face. He stands there frozen for a second, vacillating between making a desperate grab for the book and trying to play it off nonchalantly and hoping for the best. Making a scene like the first option would likely just intrigue Laura further, so he settles on the second, keeps his head down, and tries to regulate his breathing. He's so focused on listening for Laura's next words and watching her out of the corner of his eye that he doesn't pay attention to what he's doing—the glass in his hands is already clean but he starts scrubbing it all over again anyway.
"Doesn't sound like your usual type of book, Der," Laura muses, cracking it open and scanning through the first couple of pages. "Yup, definitely not your type at all... And it looks and smells new but the spine's cracked in several places. Very interesting."
Derek doesn't rise to the bait.
"I seem to remember you telling me that your little crush was a writer, too, when you were gushing about him. Fascinating coincidence, that."
Cursing his sister's perspicacity, Derek finally sets the glass upside-down in the drying rack next to the sink and dries his hands with a dishtowel. "I have no idea what you're rambling on about," he cavils, already one hundred percent done with this conversation. Wistfully, he wishes that Cora would hurry up in his shower so that he can escape in there, but neither of his sisters' nightly ablutions have ever been short.
"Remember when I told you that you were a terrible liar?" Laura smirks.
"Shut it. It's nothing."
"Looks like someone's been reading this a whole lot."
Derek turns away, embarrassed. "Seriously, s'just a book."
"Whatever you say," Laura singsongs.
She settles back into the sofa cushions, curling her legs beneath her, and props the book open on the armrest. With nothing better to do, Derek potters listlessly around the apartment and cleans, stubbornly ignoring the knowing looks Laura sends his way as she reads. It's tense, the only sounds made being the rustling of pages turning as Laura progresses quickly through the book and the muted sound of the shower from behind the door of Derek's en suite bathroom. Every few minutes she'll make a comment about the book, relaying honest reactions that mirror the ones Derek had the first time he'd read it.
"Man, Jackson's a total dick."
"Oh, Scott's kind of a dick, too. Lovely."
"This werewolf guy is as socially inept as you, little brother!"
"This kid needs to stop pining after Lydia and move on already. It ain't gonna happen! He's too good for that stuck-up princess anyway..."
"Chris majorly needs to get that stick out of his high-and-mighty ass."
"I hate Kate so much. That whole family is just trash."
"Wow, so this dude killed his own niece to help him get revenge? What a psycho."
By the time Laura finishes reading, Derek has resorted to reorganising the stacks of DVDs he keeps in the cabinet below his TV, just to have something to do. He can hear her setting the book down on the coffee table but doesn't turn around, keeping his eyes on the DVDs currently resting in his lap.
"You can't avoid me forever, you know," Laura says, amused.
"I'm not avoiding you," Derek deflects. "You're getting paranoid in your old age."
Laura throws a small cushion at the back of his head. "Hey! I'm only four years older than you!" she laughs. "Now, seriously, about this book..."
"Laura, can you not?"
"Can I not what, little brother?"
"Pester me. I really don't want to talk about this anymore."
"Talk about what?" Cora asks as she finally comes back into the room, dressed in Derek's fluffy maroon bathrobe. Derek would be scandalised, because he doubts she's wearing anything beneath it, but by now he's used to his sisters usurping his belongings.
In an uncharacteristic show of kindness, Laura doesn't tell Cora about Stiles' book. Instead, she sends Derek a look that clearly says, "You owe me for this," and changes the subject, using Derek's position in front of the TV as the perfect opportunity to begin a debate on which movie they should watch. Derek, feeling grateful, doesn't even try to put in his two cents, knowing that he'd just get overruled anyway because he loves his sisters too much to put his foot down on something so trivial.
* * *
- Monday, April 24th, 2017 -
"You sure know how to send mixed signals."
Derek, having been minding his own business in line at the coffee shop—he just can't stay away, damn it—releases an unmanly yelp and spins on his heel to find that Stiles is right behind him, black laptop bag slung over his shoulder like usual. "What?" he asks stupidly, his heart not slowing down even when the shock has worn off. It keeps beating fast for a completely different reason, one that has absolutely nothing to do with their close proximity.
"You, turning me down and then buying me that muffin to cheer me up the other day," Stiles explains. "You're like, the king of mixed signals right now." The corner of his mouth turns up in a lopsided smile but his eyes are nervous, like he's worried Derek won't want to talk to him again after how mercurial he has acted from the get-go.
"Oh... Sorry," Derek says lamely.
"So, you gonna run away this time?"
Stiles' smile becomes unfettered. "Are you asking or telling?"
"Telling," Derek responds, trying to inject confidence into his voice. He fails, making Stiles' smile widen even further—something Derek didn't think was possible.
They spend the rest of the wait in silence, and Derek is bemused to discover that it isn't at all strained. He orders first and is just reaching for the back pocket of his jeans to get his wallet when Stiles steps up next to him and gives his order to the barista, too, confusing everyone present. "What...what are you doing?" Derek asks quietly as their drinks are prepared, standing there with his arm still bent behind him at an odd angle.
"Paying for your coffee," Stiles apprises.
"OK... But why?"
"I still owe you for making you spill it before, remember?"
"Well, when you put it that way."
Deciding to push his luck, Derek follows Stiles over to his usual table and sits down opposite him, his fingers staying wrapped around his too-hot coffee cup. He expects Stiles to take out his laptop and begin working, but instead the younger man sets the bag on the table, places his elbows delicately atop it and rests his chin in his palms. He peers at Derek appraisingly, making Derek shift restlessly in his chair because being the subject of anyone's undivided attention has always made him uncomfortable. "You're staring," he murmurs, taking a sip of his coffee and wincing when the nearly scalding liquid hits his tongue.
"I can't help it," Stiles chuckles. "It's not often I have company this handsome."
Derek's entire face goes red.
"Oh, and you blush! Handsome and adorable."
"I'm not— I'm not adorable..." Derek mumbles, slumping in his chair.
"Agree to disagree."
Stiles keeps staring for a while, making even more blood rush to Derek's face, before finally taking pity on him and averting his gaze. Or at least lowering its intensity. "So, Derek," he begins, removing his elbows from his laptop and taking a large swig of his iced cappuccino. "I always see you dressed in those slacks and fancy button-downs, looking all sharp and dapper. What d'you do for a living?"
"Nothing, really," Derek says, grateful for the new topic. "I just work in an office building close to here. It's actually pretty boring, to be honest."
"Why not do something else then? Something you enjoy?"
Derek smiles wanly. "Laura, my sister, asks me that whenever we see each other."
"And what do you tell her?"
"I dodge the question, usually."
"Well, let me ask you this: What are you good at?"
Derek bites his bottom lip as he thinks. "I played basketball in high school, but I didn't really want to make a career out of it. I don't think I have any skills apart from that."
"Now I know that's not true! You just haven't discovered them yet."
"Even if I did..."
"You wouldn't know how to move on? Hey, I get it," Stiles empathises, brazenly reaching across the table and covering Derek's hand with his. Derek looks up at him then, uncertainty painted across his rugged yet pretty features, but Stiles doesn't retract his hand. "Before I moved to New York, I had a job at one of the local stores in my hometown. I was fresh out of school and didn't really know what I wanted to do with my life, so I just sort of...drifted, hoping that something would, I don't know, fall into my lap. But that obviously didn't happen. It was hard—believe me, I know how hard it can be—but eventually I decided that enough was enough. I found some of the short stories I used to write as a kid and, with my dad's encouragement, I decided to have a proper go at it, just to see where it would lead. I quickly discovered that I loved it, and after writing my first book and getting rejected by about thirty different publishers, I finally caught a break. Now I've almost finished writing my second book and I'm insanely happy with the direction my life is heading. Especially today." He winks.
Derek looks down at their hands. "Sounds nice."
"The only thing stopping you from doing that, too, is you," Stiles points out, his thumb rubbing soothingly back and forth over the back of Derek's hand.
"Well, when you figure it out, I'd love to hear about it."
Huffing amusedly at the insinuation that they'll be talking like this again in the future, Derek pushes himself up in his seat and leans forward to engage properly in the conversation. He checks his watch quickly and, when he sees that it's almost time for him to get to work, finds that he doesn't care. "How's the book coming along?"
Stiles brightens instantly. "Oh, it's going really well, actually!" he beams, his eyes crinkling in a beatific smile. Derek thinks it's like looking into the sun. "I may have recently bumped into a new source of inspiration for a character I plan on introducing in the book after this one, who's going to act as a sort of foil for my protagonist. Tell me if they sound familiar—he's tall, has dark hair, a beard, muscles that make him look like a damn Greek god, and he's incredibly good-looking. That description ring any bells?"
Derek blinks, nonplussed. "You're putting me in your book?" he bleats.
"If it's alright with you."
"That's...flattering, I suppose," Derek accepts uneasily, rubbing at the back of his neck with his free hand. "Your main character's called Scott, right?"
Stiles goes to answer but then pauses. "You read my book?"
"No," Derek denies, blushing again.
Stiles raises an eyebrow.
"What did you think?"
Derek barely stops himself from revealing that he has already read it seven times in the week since he purchased it. In fact, he's missed out on hours of sleep because he stayed up ludicrously late every night just to read it all over again, a point he was glad Laura didn't push past a single comment on the book's worn spine. "It's not something I'd normally read, but I liked it," Derek answers, playing idly with the lid of his coffee cup. It's probably lukewarm by now, but he doesn't want to waste time drinking it when he could be talking to Stiles. "Scott's kind of a dick, though. Those were my sister's words, but I agreed with her."
"Yeah, well, the person he's based off of can be kind of a dick, too, so I'll take that as you both saying I did a good job," Stiles laughs, removing his hand from Derek's and transferring it to his cappuccino. Derek feels an irrational surge of jealousy. "I think this is usually the point when you run off to work, no?" Stiles comments.
Derek looks at his watch again. "Yeah..." he sighs. "I really should be going."
The smile on Stiles' face becomes tinged with sadness. "Don't let me keep you," he says. "This was fun, though. We should do it again sometime."
"Yeah, we should," Derek agrees readily.
"Same time tomorrow?"
"Count on it."
* * *
- Monday, May 22nd, 2017 -
For the next four weeks Derek and Stiles meet in the coffee shop and sit together at what has now unofficially become their table. Sometimes they talk about anything and nothing. Sometimes they just sit there in companionable silence while Stiles makes the final edits to his manuscript. They don't exchange numbers or addresses, their only contact with each other staying those thirty minutes every weekday morning, and after that first conversation it becomes an unspoken rule that they don't discuss anything truly meaningful again. Derek feels like they're in some sort of stasis, neither moving forward nor backward in their hesitant friendship.
Of course, that's when Stiles has to leave.
"Book tour," he explains gloomily one morning, his mocha going untouched.
"Shouldn't that be a good thing?" Derek asks, ignoring the sudden tightness in his chest.
"Yes, it is. But..."
"But we won't see each other for a while," Derek finishes with a slow nod, feeling his desire for his own beverage dissipating, too.
"A month, depending on how it goes."
"Well, congratulations. I'll be wanting a signed copy," he jokes with false cheer, trying to keep his disappointment out of his voice. He stands up and offers a smile, but he can tell it doesn't reach his eyes when Stiles doesn't return it. He isn't certain why but, even though they will be parting for just a month, to Derek it feels like they're saying goodbye to each other in a much more permanent capacity. When he walks out of the coffee shop and heads to work, it's as though he has just left a part of his heart behind.
* * *
- Monday, May 29th, 2017 -
Derek feels lost.
Without even realising it he'd fallen into a routine—he'd wake up half an hour earlier than he used to, get ready, and then meet Stiles at the coffee shop. A week after Stiles leaves, though, after spending every morning sitting at their usual table by himself, staring at his coffee cup like it held all the answers to his problems, he'd had enough. New York City had always fascinated him growing up. It held so many possibilities, so much life and vibrancy, so many different and unique people going about their business at all hours of the day. It all seems painfully dull now, and he can't figure out why Stiles is the cause. There were feelings, of course, feelings that never should have developed in the first place, but Derek hadn't thought they were intense enough to drain the world of colour. How wrong he was.
Now, after getting a week off work and booking the first flight out of the city because he isn't able to stomach it anymore, Derek is back in his hometown of Beacon Hills, standing in front of his childhood home. It's been years since he was last there and nothing has really changed, but to Derek things still seem different somehow. It takes him a while to realise that the house, his mother's car—the whole damn town, even—aren't what's different. It's him.
Just as he's about to walk up to the door, it opens and a voice calls his name.
Looking up, Derek spots his mother standing on the threshold, dressed in a white blouse and a pair of light-blue jeans. After the surprise wears off, her face splits into a wide grin and she rushes toward him, her dark hair swinging wildly where it's tied into a ponytail at the back of her head. Derek nearly falls over when she throws her arms around him in a bone-crushing hug. As it is, he staggers back a few steps before dropping his suitcase with a weighty thud and embracing her back, his eyes closing as he is transported back to his childhood by the scent of her floral perfume. He used to hate it, but now... It's comforting.
"I wasn't expecting you!" Talia says, pulling back and narrowing her eyes playfully. "Why didn't you call to tell me you were coming?"
"It was a spur-of-the-moment decision," Derek replies.
She must see something in his face, because her countenance softens and she slings an arm around his shoulders. "Well, you must be tired after your flight. Come on inside," she says, waiting for him to pick up his suitcase before leading him toward the front steps. "It's been a while since we last spoke—honestly, Derek, not even a phone call for your poor mother? Tsk, I have to rely on your sister to inform me of your wellbeing, and she's more than willing but it would be nice to hear it from you once in a while. Anyway, enough with the guilt trip. We must have a lot to catch up on, hmm?"
"Yeah, we do..."
"Well, how about you get settled while I make some tea, and then we'll talk, OK?"
* * *
Derek's bedroom is pretty much how he remembers leaving it when he and Laura moved to New York, likely preserved with love by his mother. The pale-blue walls are decorated with peeling posters of his favourite movies and bands and a couple of family photographs; his desk is piled with ephemera of days long past, school books and essays and even the old, barely working laptop on which he'd grudgingly written them all; his large bookcase is still filled with the vast majority of his books, everything he couldn't take with him to the city because moving already cost a fortune without them; there's even a grubby basketball sitting in one of the corners, where it was put when he lost interest in the sport near the end of his senior year.
Setting his bag down on the navy-blue sheets of his bed, Derek unzips it and takes out the clothes he'd packed hastily the previous evening. The top drawer of his old dresser is empty, so he shoves the clothes in there, planning on staying until he has to return to work. Once his toiletries are laid out on top of his bedside table, ready for when he prepares to go to sleep later, he sits on his bed and thinks.
"What are you even doing here?" he asks himself, lying back and staring at the plain white ceiling with his arms thrown above his head. "Pathetic..."
"I definitely agree with you on that."
Lifting his head, Derek spies his uncle leaning against the door frame. He glares.
"Now there's that grumpy face I've missed so much!" Peter smirks.
"Ugh, fuck off," Derek groans.
"Aww, what's wrong? Not pleased to see me?"
"Not even a little bit?"
"You've hurt my feelings now, Derek. I hope you're happy."
Peter throws his head back and releases a hearty laugh. "Ah, this takes me back!" he grins, exacerbating Derek's irritation. "It's just like old times, when you were a surly teenager sulking alone in here, convinced the world was out to get you. I see the old adage about age being just a number has proved true in your case."
"Please get out."
"No can do, nephew. Your mother's waiting."
"Great. You've told me, so now you can go. Finally."
"As prickly as ever, nephew," Peter snarks, rolling his eyes.
"Just for you, uncle."
"Well, now don't I feel special?"
* * *
Derek enters the kitchen to find his mother already sitting at the small circular table, two cups of camomile tea steeping in front of her. She plays absentmindedly with the string of her teabag but drops it when she sees Derek enter. "Uncle Peter is a menace," he tells her, taking off his leather jacket. He slips it over the back of the chair opposite hers before joining her and pulling his cup closer.
"Don't I know it," Talia snorts. "Just be glad you didn't have to live with him when he was a teenager. He was even more of a nightmare than he is now."
Derek shudders. "Sounds horrible."
"Oh, it was. He had quite the ego, even back then."
"And yet you still live with him. You're a masochist, aren't you?"
"Oh, darn! You've found me out!"
"So, dear son of mine who never calls," Talia begins, taking a sip of her tea, "what brings you back here? Not that I'm not happy to see you, of course—you're always welcome, you know that. I just get the feeling that something's changed."
Derek's smile fades and he looks down. "Yeah, it has..."
"Laura tells me you've met someone."
"What?! She did?"
"Now, now, don't get upset. She just worries. We both do."
"She's too nosy for her own good."
"She's just looking out for her baby brother."
Derek huffs. "Still annoying."
Before he can stop himself, Derek ends up spilling everything to his mother. How he'd spotted Stiles in his local coffee shop and been drawn to him. How he and Stiles had eventually met in the street and how he'd tried to stay away after learning that Stiles' name wasn't the one written on his wrist. How he struck up a friendship with Stiles after he could no longer resist the force that was inexorably pulling them together. How Stiles had left for his book tour and taken a piece of Derek with him, leaving Derek to miss the person who, against his better judgement, he was swiftly beginning to love. His mother stays silent throughout his tale, though a curious expression does appear on her face near the end.
By the time Derek has finished, their tea is cold.
"That's quite the predicament," Talia says.
Derek hums noncommittally.
"Have you told him how you feel?" she asks gently.
"No..." Derek sighs. "I haven't."
"Are you going to?"
"Yes. No. Maybe." Derek resists the urge to punch something. "Honestly, I don't know what I want to do. It's just— We're not soulmates. It's wrong on every level. But..."
"But it still feels right."
"I honestly don't know what to tell you, sweetheart. I just hate to see you so sad like this," Talia laments, getting up and putting both of their half-empty cups in the sink. Once they're both filled with water, she turns around and leans against the counter, her eyebrows pulled tight together as she ruminates over Derek's current problem. "OK, I'm going to have to agree with Laura and say that you should just tell Stiles," she informs Derek eventually, surprising him. "I know you're worried about the possibility of finding your soulmate after the fact, but it's not exactly unheard of for people to never meet theirs. Unfortunate as it may sound, it's not the end of the world. Even if you and Stiles aren't soulmates, that doesn't have to stop you from being happy together if you don't want it to. In fact, a friend of mine from college never found her soulmate, and she's still been happily married for...16 years now, I believe. If you care about Stiles as much as I suspect you do, you have to tell him."
"But what if he doesn't feel the same?" Derek asks, his voice small.
"Then at least you'll know."
"You make it sound so damn easy."
"The important things never are, I'm afraid."
* * *
- Sunday, June 4th, 2017 -
After a week of doing basically nothing in Beacon Hills, returning to the hustle and bustle of New York is jarring. The colours still don't seem as vibrant as they had before Stiles departed for his book tour, but they're not as faded as Derek had left them in his egress. He still hasn't decided what he should do about his feelings for Stiles, but his mother's words stay in the back of his mind as he sticks his key in the door to his apartment. He knows he'll reach a conclusion soon, but, since Stiles will be gone for another three weeks, and since Derek has no means of contacting him before he gets back, he leaves that choice for another day.
Of course, he should have expected that he wouldn't get to relax just yet, because Laura is on him as soon as he opens the door. She startles him, getting right up in his face with a glare so powerful that Derek shrinks back under the weight of it.
"Why are you here?" he croaks.
"Oh, I don't know. Take a wild guess," Laura fumes, hands on her hips.
"Wrong! Well, kind of. But that's not what I was getting at."
"Can I please just put my stuff away before you start yelling at me?"
With a roll of her eyes, Laura steps aside. "Fine."
Taking temporary refuge in his bedroom, Derek kicks the door to behind him and trudges over to his dresser. He takes as long as possible to put his clothes and toiletries away, refolding every garment even though it's all still folded meticulously from when he left Beacon Hills. When the last pair of underwear has been placed back in its home, Derek reluctantly heads back into his apartment's main space, his eyes instantly locking on to where Laura sits on the sofa with a tall glass of wine clutched in her hand.
"So, little brother," she drawls, crossing her legs. "Spill."
"I just— I had to get away for a while," Derek explains succinctly. He sits down on the other end of the sofa, keeping some distance between them.
"That's all you have to say to me?"
"I don't know what else you want from me."
"I want you to apologise for leaving so abruptly, especially without telling me first," Laura chastises, downing half of her wine in a gulp so huge that Derek feels sorry for her liver. "One day you were here, fine if a bit moody, and the next you were gone. The first I knew about it was when I came over to check on you the day after you left and found some of your clothes and your stuff from the bathroom gone. I nearly had a heart attack until I called mom and she told me you were back home with her and uncle Peter. That wasn't a very nice experience, Derek. How would you react if our positions were reversed? You act all distant but I know you love us and would freak the fu—"
"—uck out— Wait, what?" Laura blinks.
"I said I was sorry."
"No, I heard you. I was just expecting to have to pry it out of you."
Derek shakes his head. "You're right. I should've told you I was leaving," he agrees, looking at where his hands are clasped in his lap. "I just...panicked."
"Well, thank you. Just tell me next time."
"So, did getting away help?"
"It did, actually," Derek says, tearing his gaze from his lap and offering his sister a smile. "I still miss him, and I'm still kinda putting off deciding what to do about that until I absolutely have to, but mom gave me some advice that put things into perspective."
"So, are we good?"
Laura pats him on the shoulder. "Yeah, we're good."
* * *
Later that evening, Derek heads down to his building's lobby to check his mailbox. He finds a whole week's worth of stuff there—letters, bills, a postcard from one of his friends from high school, and a flat rectangular package. He doesn't remember ordering anything recently, so with his curiosity aroused he takes it all upstairs. Dumping his paper mail on the coffee table for tomorrow, Derek grabs a pair of scissors from one of the kitchen drawers, cuts into the package and tears it open, thinking that if Laura has begun having her purchases delivered to his address again, he's going to commit sororicide.
What he finds inside is nothing of the sort.
It's a brand-new copy of Stiles' second book. Derek takes it out and runs his hand reverently over the green front cover, his eyes stinging suspiciously when he opens it to the first page and reads the handwritten message right in the centre, below the title:
I know you were only joking when you said you were expecting this that day in the coffee shop, but you said you liked the first one so I figured, why the hell not? I hope you enjoy this book, too, and that you're not missing my awesome self too much while I'm away. ;) I look forward to seeing your stupidly perfect face again when I get back.
Derek rereads the note a dozen times until it all sinks in. The fact that Stiles cared enough to send this to him touches him in a way he hasn't been touched in a long time, so much so that his legs threaten to give out and he has to drop back onto the sofa before they do. His chest feeling tight, Derek scans his eyes over Stiles' note one final time before closing the book and putting it down on his lap. He knows what he has to do.
* * *
- Saturday, June 24th, 2017 -
After three weeks of hell, Derek stands in JFK International and waits for Stiles' flight to arrive. He shouldn't be there, shouldn't even know when and where Stiles is returning to the city, but Laura had insisted. As soon as he told her that he was planning to tell Stiles how he felt, she'd disappeared and come back the next day to thrust a small piece of paper at him, on which was written Stiles' flight information. She wouldn't tell him just how she'd managed to get her hands on it, but, as the flight he has been waiting for appears on the Arrivals board, he can't help but be grateful.
As the time ticks down, Derek moves over to the gate and stands off to the side, away from the crowd of people waiting for their loved ones and relatives. Nearly all of them have items clutched in their hands, small gifts no doubt intended for the people who should be getting off their plane that very moment. Should he have brought something, too? Flowers, perhaps? He worries momentarily before deciding that, no, flowers wouldn't have been a good idea. That would be way too forward. Besides, even though he's never been good with words, Stiles deserves to hear how he feels from his mouth and not from some cheap gift that would die in a week. Shoving his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket, Derek keeps his eyes trained on the doors, impatient for them to open because the anticipation feels like torture to him.
A few long minutes later, people finally start spilling out.
There's excitement and joyful crying and about a dozen other emotions as those around him reunite, but Derek doesn't hear any of it. Not when he spots Stiles trailing at the back of the new arrivals, looking tired and rumpled with his carryon hanging on the end of his limp arm. The younger man doesn't notice him at first, but then Derek moves into his path and Stiles' eyes light up with recognition.
"Derek?" Stiles breathes.
"Hi," he says shyly.
Time slows down briefly as people mill around them, and then Stiles comes closer. "This is a surprise. I didn't think I'd see you until tomorrow morning."
"Yeah, well... Thank my sister."
"You wanna help me get my bags?"
With a nod, Derek falls into step next to Stiles until they reach baggage claim. He thinks while they wait for Stiles' bag to appear, trying to settle on the best way to broach what will undoubtedly be a difficult conversation. If Stiles notices him acting strangely he doesn't say, something for which Derek is exceedingly grateful. He still hasn't made up his mind when Stiles moves forward and grabs a large bright-red suitcase from the conveyer belt, causing him to agonise over his own ineptitude when it comes to words. Now that there's nothing else to focus on, Derek can almost hear his precious time dwindling, his confidence slipping away the longer he leaves his confession. When Stiles extends the handle of his suitcase and places the wheels on the floor with a smile, Derek feels the last shreds of his resolve fade.
"Fuck it..." he says under his breath.
Stiles tilts his head to the side, confused. "What?"
Instead of answering, Derek throws caution to the wind, fists the front of Stiles' graphic T-shirt and crashes their lips together. Stiles startles against him and for a few seconds doesn't kiss him back. It's enough time for Derek to regret his actions, but then, before he can disentangle himself, Stiles' body loses its rigidity and his lips press more forcefully against Derek's. It's not his first kiss, and it sounds stupid even in his own head, but somehow Derek suddenly understands all those dumb stories about seeing fireworks.
"That was unexpected," Stiles pants when they eventually part.
Derek chuckles quietly, bowing his head.
"What took you so long?"
"What d'you mean?"
"I've been waiting for you to do that for weeks now," Stiles says, pressing their foreheads together. "I guess you really did miss me, huh?"
"Something like that, yeah..."
"Well, whatever the reason, I'm happy you made a move."
Derek sighs and takes a step back so that he can look at Stiles' face without going crosseyed. "I just... I didn't want to screw things up," he explains, letting everything pour out of him. His voice becomes strained the longer he goes on, until he's rambling and not even pausing to breathe. "I tried to keep my distance from you after we met because I was so sure it wouldn't end well, but I just couldn't stay away. Simply being friends was enough for a while, but then hanging out every day made everything worse and I was still falling for you and you sent me your book and I know we're not soulmates but I didn't care anymore—"
"Hey, wait a minute," Stiles interpolates. "We are soulmates, though."
Derek is flabbergasted. "W-what? No we aren't."
"Yeah, we are. I thought you knew and just needed time to come to terms with it."
"Are you serious?"
Stiles rolls up the sleeve of his flannel shirt and, sure enough, there it is, written on the pale skin of his wrist in black ink:
"But...how?" Derek gapes, reaching out to trace the letters with shaking fingers. He almost expects them to rub off under his touch but no, his name stays there, permanently printed on the inside of Stiles' wrist. "I don't have your name, though."
Stiles frowns. "Let me see."
Derek pulls up the sleeve of his jacket and holds out his arm for Stiles to inspect. The younger man shakes his head when he sees the name, and Derek thinks for a moment that he was right, that there has been some cosmic mistake and his name is on Stiles' wrist but Stiles' isn't on his. But then his companion releases a short bark of laughter that bemuses him but allays most of his fears. "What's so funny?" he enquires tentatively, allowing his sleeve to fall back into place when Stiles lets go of his arm.
"That's my name," Stiles chortles.
"Yeah. My real name. Wow, we're both idiots."
"Your real name isn't Stiles?" Derek asks hopefully, ignoring the insult.
"Nope. It's a nickname I've had ever since I was a kid because my actual name was too hard for anyone but my parents to pronounce," Stiles explains, smiling. "I was named after one of their relatives but it obviously never stuck. And then, when I got my publishing deal, it was decided that I'd stick with the nickname to avoid confusion and hopefully help my books sell better. God, I'm so sorry I put you through all this! It didn't even cross my mind that this mixup could've happened someday. We could've avoided this ridiculous tiptoeing and been together for weeks now. That's pretty embarrassing. But hey, at least we're here now, right?"
"Right," Derek agrees, feeling elated because he doesn't have to hold himself back anymore. Stiles is actually his, and he is Stiles'. He has been for months, truthfully. Then, he groans. "Laura's going to love this..."
"That's your older sister, right?"
"Yeah. She'll probably be able to stretch this ammunition out for years."
"I can't wait to meet her. She sounds like quite the woman."
"She is. I can't believe this is actually happening."
"Been pining for me for a while, huh?"
"More than you know," Derek admits bashfully, looking at his shoes.
"Ugh, you're so freaking cute!" Stiles exults, making Derek's face redden even further. "I must be the luckiest soulmate on the whole damn planet."
Derek says nothing but reaches for Stiles' hand and interlaces their fingers.
"Yup, so cute..."
"Oh, shut up," Derek mumbles. "You ready to get out of here?"
"Definitely," Stiles replies.
Hands still linked, they push through the crowded airport until they reach the equally crowded street. The ache in Derek's chest is completely gone, replaced by a contentment so profound that he is unable to wipe the smile from his face. He probably looks like a complete dork, but a glance to his right reveals that Stiles is in the same boat, so he doesn't feel too bad about it. "What do you want to do now?" Derek asks as they stroll leisurely along, lost in their own world.
"Well, I don't know about you, but I could really go for some coffee."
"Are you asking me out on a date?"
"Maybe. You interested?"
"I'd love to."