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The second cup of coffee appears from out of nowhere.

Derek blinks at it for a very long moment before he has the sense to look up at the person who placed it on the table before him.

The guy who took Derek’s order at the counter stands over him, big brown eyes shining gold in the morning sunlight, slight smirk playing at the edge of his lips. He looks like the kind of troublemaking college student only seen in the movies, something a little too beautiful and effortless about him to be a realistic representation of the true thing.

“You’re welcome,” the guy says, muffled around the concerto playing through Derek’s headphones.

Derek pushes them off his ears to settle around his neck, and readjusts his glasses. “I didn’t order another one.”

“Yeah, but the one you did order is dying a very slow death from lack of attention. I figured you could use a fresh cup.”

It’s true. Derek’s been glaring at his laptop screen for nearly an hour now, silently willing words to suddenly appear across the displayed blank page. He knows that nothing is actually going to get written there until he moves his hands and starts typing, but so far all he’s been able to make himself do is stare and contemplate his utter failure as a writer.

In this time, Derek’s coffee has gone cold where it sits, untouched, by his elbow, and the women at the table closest to his are no longer bothering to hide their speculative glances his way.

Thankfully, the large headphones he’s wearing, paired with the murderous expression on his face, has so far been enough to deter anyone from bothering him.

Until now.

Derek scowls. He’d been worried about unwanted overtures from other patrons, not from the staff. “I’m not paying for that.

The guy shrugs. “Don’t worry about it.”

“What if I like cold coffee?”

“Then you would have ordered it iced. Dude, nobody likes room temperature coffee. Nobody.”

Derek doesn’t want to concede the guy’s point, and he definitely isn’t going to be thanking him, but he also isn’t certain how else to get rid of him while still getting to keep the fresh cup. Finally he just sighs, puts his headphones back on, and pointedly returns his glare back to his laptop screen.

He hears a muffled snort, and then the guy takes Derek’s old coffee with him back to the counter.

A few minutes pass and words still refuse to conjure themselves into existence on the page. Derek sips his new coffee and chances a glance up towards the front of the shop.

The place isn’t small, but it feels cozy all the same, converted from a quaint four-bedroom cottage style house. Everything is bright and warm and cluttered in a way that feels lived in, despite the fact that no one actually lives here. The scent of things baking is strong. The built-in shelves are half full of worn paperback books and half full of eccentric knick-knacks; the front porch is full of mismatched seating and overflowing flowerpots. Derek was immediately charmed despite himself.

The guy behind the counter has his back to Derek now, busy making more drinks, and so Derek takes the opportunity to study him a little more carefully. His shoulders are broader, and the muscles in his arms bigger, than his lean form initially suggested. His brown hair is tousled attractively, the effect apparently a happy accident, as the guy runs his long fingers through it for the third time in as many minutes. Derek wonders how old he really is. How he came to be in this town. How he came to be working in a coffee shop.

And then Derek wonders why he cares, and frowns back down at his keyboard.

He’s only been in town for about a week now. Only been outside his new house and out among the living for two consecutives days. His therapist back in New York gave him some pretty specific homework in regards to socializing that he’s supposed to have completed before their next Skype session, and so far Derek’s not fairing too well with it. He’s always been better with the written word than he is with the spoken.

Of course, even the written word has been eluding him lately.

He closes his laptop and starts to pack up. Any more human interaction than what he’s already stumbled through just isn’t in him today. He’ll suffer through Dr. Deaton’s disappointed face if it means he gets to go home and hide from the world until tomorrow.

*

The next day, Derek gets an entire sentence down and has to hide a smile in his coffee cup at the small accomplishment. It’s a start, and he’s learned to appreciate even the tiniest of steps forward.

Not two minutes later, a plate with a blueberry muffin on it gets placed on the table beside his laptop.

Derek blinks at it in confusion, and then looks up to see the barista from the previous day smiling down at him. Or possibly smirking. It’s hard to tell. There’s mischief in his expression but sincerity in his eyes.

Derek lowers his headphones. “What is that?”

“A double bacon cheeseburger, what does it look like?”

“I’m not paying for something I didn’t order.”

The smirk gets a little bigger. “Well good thing for you, celebratory muffins are always on the house.”

“And what am I supposed to be celebrating?”

“Whatever it is that made you smile just now. I get the impression that’s a rare event.”

Derek purses his lips in a tight line and looks away from the guy’s freckled face. From his constantly moving hands. His ill-fitting T-shirt with a picture of a storm trooper on it. “Listen,” he says stiffly, “I came in here to work, not to get hit on. So thanks but no thanks.”

“Uh, wait. What? I’m not hitting on you!”

Derek looks back up to raise a skeptical eyebrow. “So you give free food and drinks to everybody, huh?”

“Well if they’re new in town and look like their dog just died then yeah. This is called hospitality, dude. I’m being hospitable.”

“You’re being a nuisance and a distraction.”

“That kind of attitude is a really good way to get somebody to spit in your drink the next time you come in here. Not that I would do something like that. I’m just, you know, putting it out there.”

Derek sighs. “What’s your name?”

The abrupt subject change startles the guy. “What? Oh, uh. Stiles. Why?”

“So I know who to report when I speak with the manager.”

“Oh my god, do not do that! What the hell, man? God, I guess that’ll teach me to try to be nice to people. Here I am trying to counterbalance my natural asshole tendencies with good deeds and it just blows right up in my face. Fucking figures.”

“If you promise to leave me alone from now on, I’ll consider leaving your boss out of it.”

Stiles throws his hands in the air with a huff, “Fine! God!” and then he turns around and stomps off back to the counter and the small line of other customers waiting for him.

Derek puts his headphones back on and stares at his single typed sentence. He doesn’t eat the muffin, but he also doesn’t get any more writing done. He spends a few minutes fighting with himself over it, before just packing up and heading back home.

*

Dr. Deaton is decidedly unimpressed by Derek’s lack of progress in the socialization department when they talk the next day. And Derek’s agent is decidedly unimpressed by Derek’s lack of progress on his next book when they talk an hour later.

Derek’s very reasonable and adult reaction to all this is to hunker down on the floor in the middle of his new living room and spend the entire day eating cold Pop-Tarts and watching wildlife documentaries on his laptop, while surrounded by all of the boxes he still hasn’t unpacked.

If Laura could see him now, she’d probably sucker punch him. But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Laura’s not here to see him like this, won’t ever be able to see him again, and the weight of her death a year ago is still heavy enough that Derek sometimes feels like he can’t breathe with it over him.

The idea of a new home--one that didn’t feature constant reminders of his sister around every corner--and, with it, a new start, was what drove him to this place. A town he’d visited once while on a book tour at the local college, and then chose on a whim when desperate to get out of the city already.

He has no ties here, no connections, no friends. The only people he’s so far been introduced to are his neighbor, Candice, when she dropped off a welcome wagon gift basket... and now Stiles, the annoying guy who makes his coffee.

Derek doesn’t really mind this fact as much as his therapist seems to. Derek would be more than happy not to have to socialize with anyone ever again. To just leave that part of himself dead in the ground with Laura, since she was the only one who ever managed to pull it out of him anyway.

Even if that’s exactly what he knows Laura wouldn’t want for him.

*

“I swear I didn’t spit in it,” Stiles proclaims as he slides a steaming mug across the counter to Derek.

Derek rolls his eyes. “I just watched you make it. I would have noticed if you did.”

“You would’ve deserved it, though, is my point. But I restrained myself, like the decent human being I am.”

“A hero among men.”

“You know what? Hand that back over. I forgot to do the latte art of a dick on it for you.”

Derek picks the drink up and pulls it in close to his chest with both hands before Stiles can make a grab for it--though it’s a near thing--and then he carefully retreats to one of the rooms as far away from the front counter as possible. The tables are smaller back here, the seating arrangements designed more for conversation than for work or study, but maybe not being in Stiles’ direct line of sight will at least hinder the potential interruptions.

He gets a couple thousand words hammered out before he’s even aware that time has passed. It feels like a small miracle.

Writing used to be easy. Used to be like breathing. But, since Laura’s been gone, it’s felt more like fumbling for a solid foothold on an obstacle course climbing wall.

“Okay, so, this is not from me, and also I’m sorry. Sort of. I mean, sort of sorry but also completely not responsible for my role in what is now happening.” Stiles falls down into the armchair next to Derek but manages to hold a plate of apple streusel aloft over the chair arms between them with an unwavering hand.

Derek would like to pretend he doesn’t hear Stiles over the music playing softly in his ears, but he doesn’t think he’s going to escape whatever this is that easily. He tugs his headphones down, shoves his glasses back in place with a little more force than necessary, and turns to glare at the baked good before him. “I thought we had an understanding.”

“We do. You’re an ass who has something against random acts of kindness. Total understanding. But Mrs. Vasquez bought this and asked me to give it to you, and Isaac will totally rat me out if I refuse to serve a customer, so.” He shoves the plate in front of Derek’s face. “Here ya go, big guy. Free food, courtesy of random little old ladies and my desire to keep my job.”

“Why did she... I don’t even know who Mrs. Vasquez is, why is she buying me things?”

Stiles heaves a long-suffering sigh. “She said you looked sad. I tried to tell her that it was just a condition of your face, but she didn’t believe me. This is supposedly to cheer you up. Or whatever.”

“Well, I don’t want it.”

“Come on, man,” Stiles whines. “It’s actually really good, I swear.”

You eat it then.”

“I’m not allowed to sample the merchandise unless I’m on break, which isn’t for another hour.”

“Then come back in an hour.”

Stiles blinks dumbly at him for a startled moment. Then slowly narrows his eyes in suspicion. “Are you inviting me,” he says each word slow and careful, “to take my break with you?”

Derek flusters, sitting bolt upright in his seat. “No, I-- What? No. Just. Leave the stupid streusel and get out of my face already. I’m trying to work.”

Stiles gets up and heads back the way he came. But he keeps his eyes narrowed, watching Derek over his shoulder all the way out of the room.

Derek closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. There’s an itch beneath his skin that he can’t explain but that is obviously a direct result of his interaction with Stiles. His heartrate has picked up a bit and his fingers move to hover over the keyboard almost of their own accord.

Deaton would have a field day with this. But Derek tries not to think about that and just starts typing, not bothering to put his headphones back on.

An hour later, he’s written more than he has in the last couple months combined. It’s exhilarating, and a little terrifying, and not at all related to the fact that his brief conversations with Stiles this week add up to the most words he’s spoken to another human being other than his agent and his therapist in just as long.

Shit. Laura would definitely be laughing at him right now.

Laura would also be admonishing his general rudeness, and his lack of trying when it comes to being out in the world among other people. If there was one thing she hated most, it was when someone, Derek in particular, just didn’t even try in the first place.

There’s a wary expression on Stiles’ face as he cautiously approaches a few minutes later. Derek watches him and tries not to imagine what Laura would say about it.

“I’m just here for the free food. That offer still stand?”

Derek nods. Stiles takes the seat beside him and immediately dives into the untouched streusel.

There’s paint on his hands, Derek notices for the first time. No, ink. Splotches of black ink in various states of fading. The skin there looks like an abstract watercolor, spotted with freckles and moles and a dusting of hair.

“Feel free to keep ‘working’,” he says around a mouthful of pastry, sounding like he’d be adding air quotes if his hands weren’t otherwise occupied. “I’ll try to keep my distractive tendencies to a minimum.”

Derek looks back at his laptop screen, but he’s actually satisfied with what he’s gotten done today--a first in the entire year since Laura--so he closes the laptop and turns back to face Stiles. “I’m done now. I should probably head home.”

“Oh.” Stiles stops eating abruptly and stares for a moment. “Listen, I can leave if you really--”

“No. It’s okay. I would’ve stopped for the day even if you weren’t here.”

“...Alright. If you say so.”

Derek starts to pack up his things, and Stiles scrapes his plate with his fork, not looking at him.

Derek stands, ready to go, bookbag hefted over his shoulder, but pauses at the last second before moving away. It’s the trying that’s important, right? And Derek hasn’t let himself try for awhile.

He braces himself with a deep breath. “So, uh. Do you-- do you go to the university?”

Stiles freezes for the second time that day. Then slowly looks up. “Yes? It’s my last semester.”

Derek nods. “You going to keep working here after you graduate?”

“Oh, um, I don’t know yet? Maybe for a little while. Better money here than entry level somewhere else.”

Derek nods again. Has suddenly no idea how to respond without saying something unintentionally critical or dismissive. He has always been genuinely bad at this, but it feels like it’s gotten worse. He wishes they could go back to arguing, because that at least felt easy.

But he doesn’t think picking a fight is exactly what Deaton had in mind when he specified “conversation.”

“Okay,” he says awkwardly. “I’ll see you around, Stiles.”

Stiles regards him with a small, bemused smile. “Yeah, alright. See ya around, Tragically Grumpy Room Temperature Coffee Dude.”

Derek ducks his head to hide the short laugh that this startles out of him. “That’s a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it? Maybe just go with ‘Derek’ next time.”

Stiles’ expression turns into a pleased smirk. “And give you the satisfaction of having made my life easier? Fat chance.”

Derek shakes his head, and then heads out the door, amazingly still smiling.

*

On Wednesday, Derek starts to unpack the boxes in his kitchen. There isn’t much, but it’s slow going anyway. He’s not sure where to put anything, and the sheer amount of cupboard space in contrast to what little he owns is overwhelming.

This house feels like the kind of place to start a life, to start a family even, and that’s never felt more obvious or daunting as when Derek stares at an empty drawer and has no idea what to place in it.

He moves onto the living room instead, but gives up after an hour of fighting with the “some assembly required” bookshelf.

It’s dark outside when he wakes up from a dull nap, and he reminds himself not to give into the temptation to overly admonish himself about the lack of productivity. Appreciate even the smallest accomplishments, he reminds himself. And sitting on the grass of his front yard, under more stars than he ever could have seen back in the city, feels like one.

On Thursday, Derek sequesters himself in the basement of the university library and spends all afternoon researching several of the plot points of his novel. It feels good to finally dive into this thing so thoroughly, to immerse himself in all the details of this world he’s trying to create.

It doesn’t even stop feeling good when he gets recognized by the grad student manning the information desk. “Sorry, man, I wouldn’t have mentioned it, but a couple years ago my professor emailed your agent about a quote for his book? And rumor is that the quote he got back was that you couldn’t get past the first chapter.”

Derek feels his ears start to warm with a blush. “Oh. Well, I’m sure it was a fine--“

“It was a piece of shit and witnessing his outrage was one of the best moments of my college career. Thank you. I don’t think anybody had ever told that douche ‘no’ before.”

Derek laughs. “Glad I could be of service then.”

The guy offers his hand across the stacks of books on the countertop between them. “I’m Boyd. And if you ever need to check anything out of this place, just let me know. There are a lot of restrictions if you aren’t faculty or alumni, but I got you covered.”

“Thanks,” Derek tells him, genuinely grateful and immediately at ease in the other man’s presence. It’s been a long time since that’s happened.

Bolstered by the interaction, Derek decides to walk through town that evening instead of driving straight to his destination. He prefers walking, misses how much of it he did while living in New York, but has been wary of running up against any unwanted small town friendliness.

As the sun sets and his feet kick up dust on the side of the road, he’s glad he made the decision.

The corner grocer’s is something like half bodega and half farmer’s market, converted from an old gas station that still has an antique gas pump sitting in the middle of the dirt-packed parking lot. Much like the coffee shop, Derek was first drawn in by the kitschy charm of the place, though he likes to tell himself it was simply easier than driving the extra couple miles to the much larger chain store.

He recognizes the blonde girl at the register as the same one who’s usually on duty when he stops by. And the floppy-haired guy stocking shelves Derek has definitely seen riding his bike into work at breakneck speeds most evenings. The familiarity pleases him. Like maybe one day he might be considered a regular. Might know their names and they his, a casual reminder that he really has made a new home for himself.

But that hasn’t happened yet. As it is, the guy mostly ignores Derek in favor of getting his job done, and the girl blatantly stares at Derek’s ass while snapping her gum.

“Could you double bag it?” he asks as she rings him up. She lifts an eyebrow at him, curious more than judgmental, though he shuffles his feet awkwardly anyway. This is the most he’s ever said to her beyond a curt nod whenever she dully tells him to have a nice day on his way out the door. “I walked here,” he explains.

“No problem,” she nods.

When he gets home and unloads his groceries, towards the bottom of the plastic bags is an item he knows he didn’t pay for, and somehow didn’t notice get tucked inside.

Derek unfolds the reusable canvas shopping bag, staring at the night sky stenciled across its front, and feels a warmth in his chest he hadn’t even realized was possible anymore.

*

The drink appears before Derek can look up from his wallet to order it.

“Don’t worry, it’s not free. I just know your order by now. Not that a double soy latte is all that hard to remember.” Stiles smirks at him from across the counter.

Derek rolls his eyes and sets the money on the counter. “Thank you.”

Stiles puts a hand to his heart in mock astonishment. “Oh my god, he learned manners! Alert the freaking presses.”

“Shut up,” Derek scowls, and pretends he doesn’t enjoy Stiles’ responding laughter nearly as much as he secretly does.

The written word comes frustratingly slow to him today, but he doesn’t feel his usual combination of self-pity and self-hatred over it. Instead, he puts his laptop and headphones away, readjusts his crooked glasses, and takes his drink out onto the coffee shop’s porch for a change of pace.

It’s a relatively quiet time of day, the foot traffic practically nonexistent on the tree-lined sidewalks. Derek lets his mind wander over trivial things while watching a thunderstorm start to roll in from off in the distance, and he breathes in deep the fresh, spring air. There is something grounding about the moment, about its lack of import, about the easy comfort it offers, even while Derek is out in the open and surrounded by the evidence of other people.

Stiles’ voice behind him half an hour later is not nearly as surprising as it should be. Or as intrusive as it once was. “You’re gonna get soaked if you stay out here.”

Derek just breathes in again, fills his lungs to capacity with the earthy scent of oncoming rain, and then takes the final sip of his coffee. “Does this warning constitute another random act of kindness? I thought you’d given up on the good deeds where I’m concerned.”

“Nah, man. I just saw that you walked here, and if you wait too much longer to walk back that laptop’s not gonna survive. I take my electronic devices very seriously.”

“So you came out here to pester me for the sake of my computer.”

“And your headphones. They look pricey.”

“Careful, Stiles, you almost sound like you care.”

Stiles snorts. “Out of the two of us, I think you’re the one who’s more adverse to that idea.”

Derek hums in mild acknowledgement. There’s a long, drawn out silence, but Stiles doesn’t go back inside, seemingly content to watch with Derek the wall of dark clouds steadily moving towards them.

“I take it you’re a local,” Derek offers into the oddly comfortable quiet.

“Born and raised.”

“And liked it enough to stick around for college, huh?”

“Well.” Stiles shrugs, and when Derek cuts a side glance over at him, he’s got his hands buried deep in his pockets, an uncomfortable furrow in his brow. “I was at Berkeley for awhile. It was alright.”

There’s a story there, but Derek doesn’t know how to ask for it. Doesn’t think it’s his place to, anyway, as much as he finds his curiosity piqued.

Maybe it’s enough to feel that curiosity at all. Derek can’t remember the last time he felt his interest stirred so easily over something that wasn’t a book.

“Anyway, I need to get back inside,” Stiles says after a time, shuffling his feet like he doesn’t particularly want to go. “But I give it about ten minutes before you’re cursing the heavens for ever inventing the water cycle.”

Derek huffs a quiet laugh and gets up. Stiles catches his eyes just as he’s halfway through the door and Derek’s making his way down the porch steps. Derek nods at him and Stiles nods back, and the exchange feels... Not charged exactly, not heavy with anything, but definitely not meaningless.

He makes it back home just as the rain starts up. On his doorstep waiting for him is a casserole. The note taped to the Tupperware container offers a belated welcome to the neighborhood and invites him to stop by and say hi at the knitting circle that meets biweekly.

Derek doesn’t knit. And he doesn’t really like casserole. But he finds himself smiling anyway. He finds himself taking it inside and making a note on his calendar for when the next meeting is. Just in case.

*

When they next Skype, Dr. Deaton asks Derek to start keeping a list. “Every time you find yourself feeling settled in your environment enough that you start actively thinking about a future in that environment, I want you to try to reflect on what prompted the feeling and record it.”

Derek’s skeptical that this will accomplish anything, or that he’ll even be present enough at any given moment to remember to do it. But he keeps an extra notebook on hand anyway, and barely a couple days later is surprised to find that he’s filled a whole page.

The list starts with a hastily jotted down: Finished chapter three outside in the yard, under the stars. And ends with a startlingly enthusiastic: The grocery store clerk’s name is Erica! She offered it unprompted when I thanked her for the bag. Walked home afterwards, made dinner, and finally put together the bookshelf.

It’s pleasing to see it all laid out like this, these relatively small moments adding up to what feels like the start of something.

He’s still immersed in the sensation that afternoon at the coffee shop, slowly making his way through the two thousand word goal he set for himself for the day. He’s nearly there when a voice breaks through the music from his headphones.

“Hey, man. Never noticed you around here before.”

Derek looks up from his laptop screen, ready to scowl the intrusion away, only to find Boyd towering over him with a cup of coffee and a friendly smile.

The answering smile that spreads across Derek’s own face is unusually effortless. He makes a mental note to record the moment. The fact that this is only the second time he’s interacted with Boyd but he already feels like he’s found a potential friend is somehow not nearly as surprising as the fact that the idea of a friend doesn’t inspire in him any anxiety.

Laura would be proud.

“Well it gets me out of the house, so.” Derek shrugs as he removes his headphones, hoping the truth behind the words isn’t too obvious. Boyd doesn’t need to know that this is the one place he ever manages to go besides the library and the grocery, and only because he actively forces himself.

“I hear ya. I’m on my lunch break from the library and was a little desperate for a change in scenery. Not a whole lot else within walking distance that can offer that.”

“So I’m discovering. It’s nice though. I like this place.”

“Yeah, me too. Hey, I only have a few minutes, but I don’t suppose you’d want some company? Or are you hard at work on the next best seller?”

“I could use a break.” Derek gestures to the seat across the table from him, and Boyd sits happily. Out of the corner of his eye, Derek catches Stiles at the counter pause his work to outright stare at them.

“You mind me asking what the new book’s about? Or is that need-to-know only?”

“I don’t mind.” It would be a lie if this were any other day of the week, but Derek feels oddly at ease. “I’m not very far into it yet, but the basic idea is... Well, it’s about hope, really. Losing it, finding it again. Sorry, I know that doesn’t tell you much.”

Boyd quirks an eyebrow. “It tells me enough. Bit of a departure from the doom and gloom of your earlier work, isn’t it? Where’d that come from?”

“I guess I didn’t have as much need for hope in my life before now. But recently... I figured that if the world’s not going to offer it up so freely anymore, I should probably start creating my own.”

It’s only now, speaking all this aloud, that Derek realizes the truth of it. And that his struggles to put words on the page have possibly been linked to his struggles to put hope down on the page along with them.

Boyd eyes him evenly, and then nods once. “I like that. I bet it’s gonna be amazing.”

They talk for a little while longer, and it’s good. Derek is pretty sure Stiles watches them from the counter with narrowed eyes through their entire conversation, but he doesn’t come over, even well after Boyd has left.

Derek finishes writing, packs up and heads home, feeling strange about the lack of interruption from the barista. But it doesn’t overshadow how nice it feels that Boyd let him know that he’d be on afternoon shifts the rest of the week if Derek wanted to stop by and say hi.

He adds Boyd to his running list when he pulls out his new notebook, turning it into less of a bullet point and more of a journal entry. It feels almost like he’s writing it for Laura’s sake instead of Deaton’s.

This idea must strike a chord somewhere in him, because halfway through writing, his tone starts to change and it becomes more of a one-sided conversation.

So he writes to Laura now, and a switch gets flipped in him the moment he realizes he’s doing it. Because Derek never wants to have to write to her about things that would make her sad, things that would disappoint her. Which means he needs to start accumulating more moments to tell her about that would make her smile.

*

Erica reminds Derek a little of Laura, but not enough that it hurts. She’s sarcastic and biting like Derek’s sister was, but her teasing is always a little tentative, more of a request for Derek to tease back rather than a push for him to.

Their interactions remain brief and only ever while she’s ringing up the fresh produce and cuts of meat he’ll be cooking for dinner that evening. But it becomes a welcome part of his routine. A casual reminder that he isn’t as alone in the world as he likes to pretend, and that he’s slowly growing to appreciate that idea more and more.

He’s become considered a “regular” far sooner than he could have predicted or hoped for. For such a small thing, it feels enormous.

A couple weeks into this, Derek leaves the grocery to walk back home, his canvas bag filled to the brim, but stops short in the middle of the parking lot.

There, leaning against a baby blue pile of junk that could almost be mistaken for a Jeep, is Stiles. He cringes when he spots Derek, and then pointedly directs his gaze back down at his phone, like it didn’t happen.

Derek rolls his eyes and approaches anyway. “You know, being inside the store usually helps with making purchases. You can see the price tags a whole lot more easily.”

Stiles snorts. “I’m not here for groceries. I’m just waiting for my friend to get off work.”

“Erica? Or the guy with the crooked jaw?”

“Crooked jaw,” Stiles laughs. “You know, I used to give him shit for that? But then he grew a six pack so now me and flabby self have no room to talk.“

As far as Derek can tell, “flabby” is not a word that should ever be applied to Stiles. Even swamped by a loose T-shirt and an open flannel, Derek can still make out the definition beneath.

He clears his throat and quickly averts his gaze when he realizes he’s staring. But Stiles doesn’t seem to notice, his own eyes instead locked one the starry sky image on the canvas bag Derek’s carrying. His expression has gone unreadable, his shoulders tense. “Did you buy that?”

“Oh, uh, no. It was a gift?”

Stiles starts to fidget. “Right. Yeah, of course. I didn’t think it was really your style.”

Derek frowns. “I wouldn’t be using it if I didn’t like it.”

Stiles frowns back at him, his eyes searching Derek’s face for something that Derek can’t begin to guess at. Then he sighs. “Sorry, it’s just...” He trails off and then gestures vaguely at Derek with both hands. “I made it.”

Derek blinks, taken aback. “You what?”

“The bag, I... Well, not the bag itself. I bought those. But the picture. I drew it and screen-printed it. Uh, Scott, my friend, he got the manager to agree to sell them. I did some T-shirts for the university bookstore, too. It’s... I mean it’s just a hobby. I don’t actually expect to make a living drawing shit. And my degree is in engineering actually, so. Yeah. That’s a Stiles original you got there.”

He grabs the back of his neck and ducks his head, not quite embarrassed, but a weird sort of uncomfortable that Derek hasn’t seen on him before. “I love it.”

“What?” Stiles startles. “I mean. You do?”

“It’s beautiful.”

Stiles’ discomfort turns more bashful, a light blush coloring the apples of his freckled cheeks. Derek wants to trace the warmth with the tips of his fingers, and he swallows thickly at the realization.

“Hey, do you, uh,” Stiles shuffles his feet. “Do you need a ride somewhere?”

“No, I--“ Derek stops himself and remembers to try. “Alright. That’d be nice. Do we need to wait for your friend?”

“Nah, he’s got his bike, he’ll be fine. I only ever pick him up when I’m going out of my mind with boredom and want to con him into playing video games instead of studying.”

Stiles grins, and Derek feels light-headed at the sight.

The ride is quiet, broken only by Derek’s stilted directions. When they pull up to his house, it feels like no time at all has passed, and Derek is oddly disappointed. He stares at the bag of groceries, wondering if he bought enough to offer to share the meal he makes with them. Wondering if he has the courage to ignore the low thrum of anxiety in the back of his mind and actually speak the words. Probably not. He never has before.

“Okay, I have a confession.” Stiles interrupts Derek’s thoughts, and Derek looks up in time to catch him licking his lips, eyes resolutely still straight ahead at the windshield. His profile, set against the moonlight and a distant street lamp, is... ethereal.

“When I first came up to talk to you, I wasn’t just trying to be nice. I might’ve had an ulterior motive.”

Derek feels his blood run cold. He had hoped that Stiles wasn’t just... But no, of course not. Derek’s an idiot. Stiles saw a pretty face, and...

Stiles draws in a deep, fortifying breath, and then turns to face Derek and lets out in a rush, “I know who you are.”

“...What?” Derek stares dumbly, mind fumbling to catch up.

“I saw you speak at the university a couple years ago, and your books are amazing, and so I was totally going to try to get an autograph out of you or something. But then you turned out to be sort of a douchebag, and so I didn’t want to bother trying anymore. And now... you’re not as much of a dick? Which makes me feel bad for lying.”

Derek has no idea what to do with this.

Except, maybe, to be brave in return. “Are you hungry?”

Stiles does a double take. “Am I-- Yes?”

“I’m about to make dinner. You could join me? As an apology.”

“An apology for me being a weirdo fan?”

“An apology for being a douchebag to a weirdo fan. I’ll even sign a book for you.” This is the most Derek has tried in he can’t even remember how long and it’s... exhilarating. Also terrifying. He’s not sure if he wants to laugh or throw up.

Stiles hesitates. “You really don’t have to,” he says, but he sounds like he wants to say yes.

“I want to. Maybe I can get your autograph too. This bag might be a collector’s item one day.”

Stiles barks a sharp, surprised laugh at that, and when he looks at Derek again his eyes are glittering with what Derek can only describe as delight. “Alright. Cool. Why not?”

And it’s... a little bit wonderful, to be honest.

Stiles teases Derek for all the unpacked boxes still lying around, but stops and eyes the newly built, if still empty, bookshelf for a long time with a thoughtful expression on his face.

He offers to help cook, and Derek is reluctant at first. But once they get started, side by side at the counter, Stiles’ mere presence fills up the entire kitchen as though it were somehow filling up all that empty cabinet space as well.

They eat on the porch, under the stars, and Derek never wants to eat anywhere else ever again. The conversation is steady, but soft. Not as overwhelming as Derek had feared. Towards the end of the meal, he feels comfortable enough to ask Stiles one of the many questions that has been filling his head since he first saw him at the coffee shop. He wants to know everything about this man, from the way he takes his coffee to the things he dreams about.

“So. Why the local university?” Derek asks, setting his plate aside on the porch. They’re both seated beside each other on the steps, close enough that their elbows occasionally brush.

Stiles shrugs, and it’s a little stiff, but he doesn’t shy away from the question like Derek half expected. “I was at Berkeley for a year and a half. But then my dad... He’s a cop, and he got shot on the job. He’s okay, but he had to take a leave of absence and, you know, the medical bills kept piling up, and then he had to take a desk job because of his leg, and so... Well, I came back here to help. He’d kill me if quit school entirely, but I’ve got a full ride here, so all the money I make slinging coffee can go into things like the mortgage or whatever.”

Derek finds himself drifting closer to Stiles so that he can gently bump their shoulders together.

Stiles turns his head to look at him with a soft smile. “It’s been good, though. I mean, I always wanted to get out of this town for at least a little while. See the world, completely baffle a whole new crop of teachers at the Ivy League level. But it’s been good. My best friend, Scott, we grew up together and he’s still in town too, so there’s that. And my art. I was going crazy trying to get any work done at Berkeley, crammed in a tiny dormroom with an asshole roommate, but here I’ve got a studio. Well, sort of a studio. Nothing fancy, like I said, I know I’m not gonna ever make a living off this, but it’s... It’s good. I might not have meant that a year ago, but I do now.”

“I’m glad.” Derek smiles, genuine and unencumbered. Stiles stares at him for a long moment, and Derek doesn’t look away.

“Are you good?” Stiles finally asks, barely above a whisper.

Derek sighs, tearing his gaze away for fear that he might do something stupid if he doesn’t. “I’m... getting there.” He tilts his head back and looks at the sky. “I’m better than I was.”

“Do you think... Not to overstep, and you can tell me to fuck off if you want, but can I make a suggestion for how to get a little better?”

“Alright.”

Stiles smirks. “Dude, you gotta put your books away already! A writer with an empty bookshelf? It’s been bugging me since I got here.”

Derek laughs. “Like I said. I’m getting there.”

Stiles’ eyes glitter with reflected moonlight. “Do you mind if I help?”

Surprisingly, Derek finds he doesn’t mind at all.

They spend the next hour before Stiles leaves sorting through books together, lining the shelf with them until it nearly overflows.

*

Spring showers pick over the next few days, keeping Derek indoors more often than not. On the days when he does make his way outside, he ends up at the library rather than the coffee shop. He gets a good chunk of work done there, even if he does feel a little guilty for it.

It’s not that he’s avoiding Stiles. Not... exactly. But he worries about distractions, especially when he’s right in the middle of an unexpected uptick in his progress, and Stiles is nothing if not distracting.

Boyd, on the other hand, is a steady and easy presence in the background, never interrupting Derek’s work, but always there for conversation and comradery whenever Derek chooses to initiate it.

With Boyd, there’s none of the weight that there now seems to be with Stiles, even if it only exists in Derek’s head. Derek’s anxiety never spikes around Boyd, but right now it feels like just a stray glance from Stiles will set him off.

Whether that will then inspire more bravery in Derek or inspire a panic attack, he truly doesn’t know. And the not knowing has him even more on edge.

So maybe he is avoiding. It’s as much self-preservation as cowardice.

Not that it entirely works. For as much as Derek’s hoping a lack of Stiles will help him concentrate on his writing, the thought of Stiles ends up permeating every word anyway.

After nearly two weeks of this, Derek decides that his word count is high enough that he’s no longer justified in cutting out distractions from his life. It’s a scary decision, but somehow not a hard one.

Derek waits to pack up his things at the library until Boyd’s shift is over, and then they walk together to the coffee shop during a brief break in the rain. Even with Derek’s nerves fraying more and more the closer to the place they get, the walk itself is the kind of unwittingly pleasant that he’ll be writing down later.

Stiles’ expression when Derek greets him, however, is stony, and he doesn’t so much as glance in Derek’s direction through the entire transaction, let alone communicate beyond a curt head nod. He rings Derek up, hands him back his change, and then turns around to start making his drink without a word.

Who he does look at is Boyd, giving the man a death glare Derek is absolutely certain Boyd did nothing to deserve.

“Lovers quarrel?” Boyd asks as they stand out on the shop’s porch, sipping their drinks and waiting for the rain to let up again.

Derek nearly chokes on his coffee. “Excuse me?”

“The guy in there at the register. You break his heart or something? I’m a little surprised neither of our drinks are laced with arsenic, the way he was looking at you.”

“He didn’t look at me at all.”

Boyd snorts. “Yeah, not when you could see him.”

Derek’s not an idiot. He knows that this current predicament is his own doing. If Laure were here, she would have cajoled him into going to see Stiles days ago so that this wouldn’t have happened.

But Laura’s not here. And Derek is starting to understand that maybe that doesn’t have to mean that Laura’s efforts are all gone with her. Maybe he can do this himself. Maybe he can try.

Derek sighs. “I guess I should talk to him?”

Boyd smirks. “Brave man.”

Stiles doesn’t seem willing to talk, though, when Derek gets back inside. Derek stubbornly waits him out for a few minutes, finishing and then tossing his coffee, until Stiles leaves a coworker to man the counter and heads to the back rooms to wipe down tables.

Tables that apparently have wronged Stiles even more than Derek has, judging by how viciously he scrubs his dishrag over them. Derek watches him for a moment from the doorway to the room that is otherwise unoccupied. The tense set of Stiles’ back muscles as he scrubs is hypnotic, but also maddening.

Derek wants to ease that tension somehow, to soothe the obviously building ache. There’s a couple of feet between him and Stiles, and Derek has never wanted so much to bridge the distance, and has never felt further away from knowing how to.

“I... I’ve been working,” Derek says at last, in lieu of a greeting. Better to get right to the point.

Stiles straightens, turns around, and crosses his long arms over his broad chest. Specks of purple and blue paint cover his forearms. “What,” he responds flatly. Derek’s never seen such an unimpressed expression. Well, maybe on Laura. She was always pretty good at “unimpressed.”

“That’s why I haven’t been coming around. I’ve been trying to get my next book done.”

“I thought that’s why you were coming around. To work. Here. And now you’ve stopped.” Stiles’ fingers clench around his biceps, digging hard into the muscle. “Because of me.”

“What? No. I-- Well, yes, in a manner of speaking. But it’s not--”

“I made you uncomfortable. I get it. It’s fine.” Stiles’ voice is clipped, sharp. His anger is sounding more and more like a response to several other feelings he won’t let near the surface, but that his big brown eyes are starting to betray. “I’m sorry for, once again, making the mistake of trying to be friends. I should’ve learned my lesson the first dozen or so times I got my efforts thrown back in my face.”

Derek doesn’t know what to do. Doesn’t know what to say. All of the words that he’s never been any good at speaking aloud anyway, they all turn to ash on his tongue, and he’s not sure he could even write them down anymore.

And just like that, he feels like he couldn’t write down anything. Like any progress he’s made the past few weeks has been for nothing. The thought chokes him. Some part of his brain registers it as nonsensical, but the rest is too busy trying to make his lungs work.

Derek clenches his hands into fists and closes his eyes as tight as he can. He breathes through his nose, counting silently in his head as he does, and focusing on the small familiar sensations that might help ground him: the weight of his bookbag on his shoulder, the pinch of his glasses as they start to slide down his nose.

“Woah, dude.” When he opens his eyes Stiles’ expression has turned slightly concerned, though wary, as if he expects to get hit if he lets his guard down too much. “Are you alright?”

Derek jerks his head in a sharp no. And then takes a step back, breathes again, and nods a yes. He opens his mouth to explain, or to apologize, or... something. But nothing comes out.

Stiles frowns at him, bewildered.

“Sorry,” Derek manages. “I just. I need to try this again tomorrow.”

“...Okay?” Stiles still looks frustratingly guarded, but his confusion and concern are warring with his defenses.

Derek opens his mouth and closes it without sound. He nods again, and then turns around and heads outside.

The renewed downpour doesn’t stop him. He walks quickly home anyway, soaked through before he’s even halfway there.

*

Derek’s laptop is unscathed, but only because a water-logged notebook seems to have taken the hit.

The same notebook that Derek’s been steadily filling with Dr. Deaton’s list turned damn positivity journal slash letter to Laura. God, he’s an idiot. What was even the point of any of this if a single speedbump can send him spiraling?

But no. That’s not fair. One bad day doesn’t automatically negate all of the good ones.

Derek carefully lays the notebook out on the kitchen counter to dry. Even if he can’t salvage it entirely, it still counts for something.

That night seems to go on for a lifetime. Derek doesn’t sleep. He half-heartedly attempts to, and when it doesn’t work he paces around his still only half-unpacked living room, trying to come up with the words he needs to settle himself.

He opens up a new document on his laptop, and a new notebook from out of his desk, but they both remain blank. He goes outside and looks up, but the rainclouds block the stars.

In his head, as he stands before his overstuffed bookshelf at four in the morning, he can almost hear Laura. Use your words, Derek, she tells him with a roll of her eyes and a fond, if irritated, smile.

“I don’t have any,” he mutters into the stillness of his dark and very empty house.

We both know that isn’t true.

Derek draws in a steadying breath and pulls from off the shelf a copy of one of his own books. He sits down on the floor right there and starts writing across the title page before his lingering anxiety and doubts can catch up enough to stop him.

Sometime the next afternoon, after a restless nap and a shower, Derek heads outside. The rain has stopped, though the world is still damp and gray.

Stiles looks relieved to see Derek when he walks through the door of the coffee shop. Suspicious, but definitely relieved. “Hey,” he greets when Derek gets to the counter. Already an improvement over the last time.

Stiles glances around to check for anyone within earshot. There’s no one, but he still leans a little closer across the counter between them. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. Yeah, sorry about--” Derek runs a hand through his hair. It’s overdue for a cut. “Sometimes, I just... I need a moment? To collect myself. And sometimes that moment lasts for several days at a time. I can be a little slow when it comes to, uh, to people.”

Stiles gives a small, encouraging smile. “I get that. I occasionally need a moment myself.” He shuffles his feet and grabs the back of his neck. “And hey, look, I’m sorry too. I was a dick. I just-- I get self-conscious pretty easily? And I jump to conclusions. And then I panic about it, and then I get angry about panicking and take it out on everyone else, and... It’s a whole thing. You are not the only one with issues, buddy, is all I’m saying.”

Derek smiles back at him. “Good to know.”

“So whatever your reasons for setting up shop somewhere else to work...” The pale skin of Stiles’ cheeks blush a light pink, but his expression is determined. “You don’t have to explain yourself to me. Obviously. You’re free to write wherever you want. And if I do ever, like, make you feel--“

“You never made me uncomfortable,” Derek interrupts. He grips the strap of his bookbag to anchor himself, and glances around surreptitiously to see if he’s holding up any new customers. But they remain blessedly undisturbed. “I was staying away because of you, but it was because I... Well. Because I wasn’t sure I would be able to keep my eyes on my computer screen if you were in the same room.”

Stiles startles back, as though the force of his surprise would’ve sent him tripping over his own feet if he hadn’t been standing perfectly still. He blinks owlishly, opening and closing his mouth a couple of times without sound.

Derek lets himself feel tentatively hopeful about how well this is going, but he also feels like he might pass out from nerves. Before the latter can happen, he pulls from out of his bag the book he wrote in last night and holds it out across the counter. “I, um. I never did sign a book for you.”

There is a lengthy pause as Stiles just stares, frozen in place, and Derek starts to wonder if he’s fucked up again. But then Stiles slowly reaches forward and gingerly accepts the gift. He handles it like it was made of glass and he’s afraid of breaking it. Or maybe like it was a bomb about to go off. Could go either way.

Stiles trails gentle fingertips across the book’s cover, but doesn’t open it up. Derek’s not sure if he’s more disappointed or grateful for that.

When Stiles’ gaze snaps back up to catch Derek’s, whatever heavier emotions that had almost been visible behind his eyes for a second there are now carefully tucked away, and an easy smile replaces them. His shoulders relax. His relaxed joy is practically contagious.

“Well, fair’s fair," he says with a smirk. “Now I have to sign something for you, too.” He winks, and slides right back into the happy, vibrant, genuine version of himself that Derek has been missing.

“I’d like that,” Derek says, adjusting his glasses, and then readjusting them just to have something to do with his hands. “I didn’t bring the bag with me, though.”

“I’ll do you one better than a tote bag. Just give me a couple minutes to clock out and you can walk me home. I got a whole studio full of shit you can pick from.”

“You don’t have to--” Derek starts, but Stiles interrupts him, raising Derek’s book up between them.

“A signed one of your books is worth way more than one of my stupid prints. Let me do this for you, dude. I... I want to. If you’re up for it.”

Derek nods in acquiescence, unable to help the smile that tugs at the corners his mouth. “I’m up for it.

*

Stiles’ “studio,” it turns out, is really just the half of his father’s two-car garage that isn’t taken up by a County Sherriff’s issued SUV.

There’s a blue tarp laid out across the concrete floor beside an old tool bench built into the wall. A rudimentary screen printing press takes up most of the counter space. The shelves above it are overflowing with a disorganized array of paints and dyes and inks, mason jars of brushes, paint-encrusted stencils stacked on top of each other.

Spray painted across the back of the closed garage door is a larger version of the night sky scene on Derek’s tote bag.

Stiles catches Derek eyeing it and smiles in a self-deprecating sort of way. “Yeah, that was kind of a whole theme for me for awhile? I don’t know.” He grabs a sketchbook from off the workbench, where it was buried under an old toolbox, and flips through it until he lands on the page he’s looking for to show Derek.

It’s a similar sky as the other two, but more detailed, fuller, and strangely majestic. It’s... perfect.

Derek stares for long enough that Stiles starts to fidget. So Derek turns the page to admire the rest of the work in the sketchbook. It’s all beautiful, in various states of completion, but with obvious talent even to Derek’s untrained eye. But he still keeps coming back to the same piece.

“This one,” he finally tells Stiles. “I want this one.”

Stiles gives him a skeptical, surprised look in return. “Uh, are you sure? I’ve got other stuff.”

“I like this one. It makes me feel...” Derek searches for the words. For once they come to him almost immediately. “It makes me feel known.”

Stiles outright stares at him at that, his eyes wide with what Derek can only describe as wonder, though he doesn’t understand the source of that wonder. If anything, Derek’s the one who’s full of wonder right now. At Stiles, at the artwork around him, at the warmth in his chest that seems to be growing exponentially.

Without warning, Stiles breaks into sudden movement, setting the sketchbook aside and lifting his shirt up over his head.

Derek sputters an inelegant, “Uh, what are you--”

But, Stiles’ shirt now in his hands, it becomes suddenly obvious why he did it. Across his left pectoral is a tattoo of the exact image, just as full, just as perfect, as the one on the page. More so.

Derek lifts a hand, about to reach out and touch it, before he remembers himself and pulls back. “Oh,” he says dumbly.

Stiles turns somewhat bashful, as if just now remembering himself as well. Though he has absolutely no reason to be insecure. His body is the kind of compactly muscular that most would call beautiful. Lithe and effortless and solid. Derek wants to touch not just the tattoo, but everything. The tapered waist, the broad shoulders, the dip at his clavicle, the trail of hair that leads down from his belly button into his fitted jeans...

“Like I said, it was a theme.” Stiles huffs a nervous laugh. Then he moves to put his shirt back on, but this time Derek does reach out, his limbs acting as if of their own volition, to place a hand on Stiles’ forearm and stop him.

“...I’m not good at this,” Derek says, after a charged and lengthy silence.

Stiles’ breath hitches. “Good at what?” he asks, and it comes out barely above a whisper.

“I... Would you read what I wrote? In the book I signed. I wrote you something.”

Stiles swallows, rough, Adam’s apple bobbing. He bends down to his backpack and pulls the book out to open it, bright eyes eagerly scanning Derek’s handwriting.

Derek closes his own eyes and goes over in his mind the words that have been burned there since he put them down on the page.

For Stiles.

I think I’m writing this note for myself as much as for you, and I’m sorry for that. But bear with me, if you’re willing.

My sister, Laura, used to be the only thing that could pull me out of myself. The only person who knew how to get me to open up around others. And then she was gone, and I thought that part of me was gone with her.

But ever since I came to this town, ever since I met you, it’s as though, as much as I try to shut myself away again, people keep offering to pull me out anyway. Sometimes in the smallest, most seemingly insignificant ways. But every time that I decide to let them--every time I let you--it feels like I’m honoring Laura’s memory. It feels like I’m keeping a part of her alive in a way that she genuinely would have wanted.

I don’t want to keep shutting myself away. Not anymore. Not if I can help it. And whenever I can’t help it, I find that I still want to continue letting you pull me out, for however long you are willing to do it.

Thank you for that. And for everything else.

Derek Hale

“Derek...”

He opens his eyes at the sound of Stiles’ breathless voice, but can’t quite force himself to look up any further than Stiles’ torso. Even that is pushing it.

Stiles steps forward and takes one of Derek’s hands in one of his own. His long fingers are splotched with ink, some of it faded and some of it new. Derek never wants to let go, but that particular desire is a relatively recent one, and it still hits him hard enough to wind him. Especially now that the reality is here.

It’s all just... so much. And Derek didn’t expect to get here so fast, to get here at all. But there Stiles’ hand is, fitting in Derek’s own like it was made for it. There Stiles himself is, not pulling away but stepping even closer, his pupils dilated and a flush making its way from his cheeks down his neck and heating up across his chest, dappled around his tattoo.

Derek realizes suddenly that he’s trembling, and has to close his eyes again. “I... I think I need to take another moment,” he says, though he holds onto Stiles’ hand all the tighter. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. Please don’t be sorry for that, okay? How long of a moment?”

“I don’t know.”

“Alright. Will you call me when you’re done? I mean, when you’re ready?”

Derek nods. Stiles lets go of his hand to tear off a corner of a blank sketchbook page and scribble a phone number on it. Then he carefully extracts the night sky picture that Derek asked for, signs it with a flourish, and hands both papers to Derek.

Derek holds them carefully, knowing they are more than just the sum of their parts. That they are something precious he’s been entrusted with, against all odds.

Stiles raises the garage door, and Derek nods a silent goodbye before walking away at a steady clip.

Fuck. He's always walking away from Stiles, isn’t he?

He decides on his way home that this will be the last time.

*

Finishing the first draft of his next book is a revelation. One Derek honestly didn’t dare to hope he’d reach.

He finishes unpacking the house that same night. It’s a satisfying feeling as well, but... not as much so as he was expecting. It’s as though something is still missing, an empty space he’s forgotten to fill, a puzzle piece short of the full picture.

And perhaps it shouldn’t be as clear to him what that piece might be. Or perhaps it should’ve been clear the entire time. But he knows what’s missing the moment he admits to himself that something is.

He knows, and he isn’t afraid.

He calls Stiles.

Dinner is awkward at first. Stiles is keyed up more than usual and Derek’s words are stilted, fighting against him whenever he reaches for them.

So, as soon as they get everything into the oven, giving them a good forty-five minute wait before the meal is ready, Derek grabs his water-damaged but still functional notebook and bravely asks, “Can I show you something?”

Stiles follows Derek out into the middle of the dark front yard, raising a bemused eyebrow when Derek sits down in the grass, though it's barely another second later before he joins him there.

Derek looks up at the sky. Stiles mimics him at first, but then lowers his gaze back to Derek when Derek begins to speak.

“I’ve written some of my best chapters so far out here,” Derek tells him, a secret he finally wants shared. “I think it’s the stars. There are so many of them, I get dizzy with it. But it feels... I don’t know. I suppose I should feel small when faced with the universe, but it’s the opposite. Coming out here, I feel, for a moment, like I’m doing something worthwhile and important. Because any act of creativity and humanity must be worth more than we can even comprehend if it was able to come into being amongst all of that space and stardust.”

Stiles is openly staring at him when Derek dares to check, Stiles' eyes huge and pupils blown in the low light. His soft pink lips have gone slack, and his knuckles are white around two tight fistfuls of grass.

Derek ducks his head and opens the notebook he has in his lap, but he doesn’t quite know anymore what he intended to do with it. Share it? Hold onto it for support? He runs his fingers down the pages and pages of writing, feeling the indentation of each mark his pen made against the pads of his fingertips. It’s such a grounding sensation that when Stiles puts his hand on Derek’s arm, all Derek can feel is the warmth of the gesture, and none of the nerves.

“I’m going to kiss you,” Stiles whispers, “and if you don’t want me to, please tell me now.”

Derek smiles. Doesn't bother holding it back. And he lets himself be kissed.

It’s as much a revelation as finishing his last book was.

And when he lets himself kiss Stiles back, it feels like even more of one.

Their dinner is burnt by the time they make their way inside, not-so-discreetly adjusting themselves as they go.

Oh thank god,” Stiles mutters when he sees the blackened remains of their meal, and then jumps Derek right there in the middle of the kitchen.

Derek’s mostly empty house feels full to bursting.

Stiles is as sarcastic and relentless and playful in bed as he is everywhere else. He doesn’t so much direct Derek as find ways to help Derek direct them both.

“You are so fucking gorgeous,” he breathes as he makes his way down Derek’s body, pressing an open mouth to every spot he comes across, occasionally teasing with tongue or teeth.

“I could say the same thing about you,” Derek barely chokes out right before Stiles wraps his plush lips around the head of Derek’s cock.

It has been... far too long since Derek’s been intimate with anyone, and everything feels more intense than he remembers it. Or maybe that’s just because this is Stiles. Stiles who is currently giving the most enthusiastic blowjob Derek’s ever seen outside of porn. The noises he makes are wet and wanton, and he’s palming himself through his underwear frantically like he’s going to come from this even before Derek does.

Derek pulls him off and up, until he can kiss Stiles soundly and roll them over until he’s caging Stiles in with an arm on either side of him. Stiles’ hips buck up against his, and Derek hisses at the contact.

“This isn’t going to last long,” he murmurs, barely pulling away, and then immediately ducking down to worry a spot on Stiles’ neck with his teeth.

Stiles sucks in a sharp breath and lifts his hips again like he can’t help himself. “No judgement here. I’m so close it’s embarrassing. We can slow down for round two.”

And so they do. Getting off quick and sloppy within the next few minutes, like teenagers that have never had their dicks touched by another person. Talking in secretive whispers for long minutes afterwards while tracing each other’s bodies with their hands and committing everything to memory. And then setting a heady, leisurely pace as Stiles finds the lube and starts opening himself up before Derek, their eyes locked with an intensity that builds and builds and builds all the way through Stiles sinking down onto Derek’s now throbbing cock and riding him slowly for who knows how long until they both unravel.

Sometime in the middle of the night, cleaned up and lazy, but not quite ready for sleep, Stiles reaches over the side of the bed and grabs his discarded jeans. From out one of the pockets he grabs two markers, one red and one black.

“If you draw a dick on me, I’m kicking you out.”

“Aw, where’s the trust?” He starts drawing on Derek’s back in pleasant, spiraling lines along the outsides of the triskelion tattoo already there. It’s oddly relaxing. Almost meditative.

“Do you think I could read your new book when it’s finished?” Stiles asks quietly, as he finishes whatever picture he’s made across Derek's skin.

Derek yawns. “It’s finished now.”

“Oh, dude, congrats. I know you were... uh, struggling? Or is staring at your laptop without typing for hours on end all part of your process?”

Derek laughs sleepily, turns over, and wraps both arms around Stiles, pulling him into his chest. “No, you’re right. I was struggling. This particular book was a lot harder than any of my others. You can read it once I edit it a bit. Is that alright?”

“Of course. Would you tell me about it, though?”

Derek remembers the way he’d vaguely described the story to Boyd the only time he’s ever tried to explain it outside of his own head. Hope, he said. It’s a story about hope. Which is still true, but it’s... more than that.

“It’s about grief, and learning to live with it. It’s about how hopeful just the act of letting yourself live can be.” Stiles buries his face in Derek’s neck, humming encouragement. Derek holds onto him, and doesn’t plan on letting go anytime soon. “It has a happy ending. And a mostly happy middle. A sad beginning, but. The parts where it hurts are how you get to the parts that make you smile. There wouldn’t be a middle or an ending at all without..." Derek sighs and kisses the top of Stiles' head. He smiles as he falls asleep. " Without a beginning.”

*

The school year ends and Stiles graduates. It doesn't change much. He keeps working at the coffee shop, and he keeps making his art, and he spends more time at Derek’s place than his own. It’s barely been a month together, but Derek’s already considering asking him to move in.

He doesn’t, though. He knows better than that, even if he’s never really been in a serious relationship before. Stiles has never been in one either, which is mind-boggling to Derek, but he seems just as determined to make this first time also be the last one as Derek is.

Derek does make plans, however. Plans for how Stiles might fit into this home of his even more than he already does. Plans for when Derek's new book eventually gets a release date and he has to go on tour again, but maybe this time with a guest who wants to be there more than he does. A guest who deserves to see as much of the world as possible.

And even if not all of these plans come to fruition, it feels enormous that Derek’s made them in the first pplace. That he keeps making them, thinking ahead further than he's ever let himself before.

He starts small. Well, “small” being relative to everything he eventually wants to do. He empties out what few things are in his garage to set up a studio space much larger than what Stiles has at his father’s, and he gives Stiles a key to access it. Deaton is floored by the news. Stiles is beside himself.

Over the course of the summer, Stiles paints as often as Derek writes. Which is steadily more and more often, to the point that Derek’s going to have another manuscript done in record time. Stiles keeps the garage door propped open at night so that he can see the yard while he works, or maybe so that Derek can see him from where he’s set up on the lawn. Either way, Derek's never felt so at home.

With Stiles’ hesitant permission, Derek sends photos of some of Stiles’ work to the few people in New York his agent says know more about art than she does.

Dr. Deaton continues giving Derek homework that Derek takes far too long to complete. But he goes to the knitting circle, where one of the younger members, Kira, is teaching him how to make a hat. He invites Boyd over for dinner, and after a quick stop at the grocery on the way, spends the rest of the night laughing over Boyd’s immediate heart-eyes for Erica.

He reads and he writes and he beams whenever he manages to provoke a full-bodied laugh from Stiles, whether intentionally or not. Stiles beams whenever he manages the same. They argue and they fuck and they spend long nights lying in the grass of Derek’s yard, making up their own constellations. And it all adds up to a life that Derek didn’t fully believe he could have until now. A life that he didn’t know he could even want enough to try for. A life that would make Laura smile to hear about.

The thought makes Derek smile himself, even as he stares at a blank page on his laptop screen and doesn’t yet know what words to fill it with.

He only looks up when a second cup of coffee suddenly appears beside his first one.

Standing over him, Stiles grins.

Derek bites down on how wide his own smile wants to get in response, and removes his headphones while pretending to scowl. “I didn’t order a second.”

Stiles readjusts Derek’s glasses for him. He runs long, ink-stained fingers through Derek’s hair. “Yeah but your first one is probably cold by now.”

“Still trying to flirt with me by giving me free food, huh?”

“I’ll have you know I only started flirting with you after you rejected all of my free coffee and muffin overtures.”

“And now?”

“Now I don’t need to flirt because I get to go home with you at the end of my shift either way.” He waggles his eyebrows ridiculously.

“And yet,” Derek nods at the new drink.

Stiles shrugs, and then leans down to kiss Derek’s cheek. “And yet I just can’t seem to help myself.”

Derek smiles, watching fondly as Stiles heads back to the counter. When he turns back to his laptop that smile is still firmly in place when faced with the blank page. He takes off his headphones and sets them aside. He takes a sip from the new cup of coffee.

He starts writing.