Actions

Work Header

Look, Don't Touch

Work Text:


MP3 with music [02:47:18 | 153 MB]
MP3 without music [02:46:04 | 152 MB]

 

After the fire, Derek had been literally picked up and taken away by Laura, to New York, where no memories lay in wait to sabotage them, and when he reached 18, he had picked up again and gone to a whole other country to cope. He’d made his way through all of the EU over the years, finally crossing the channel and landing in England – London, to be exact. Which is where he’d met Jackson; a party given by a friend of his who attended the London School of Economics had taken an abrupt turn for him when he heard that mildly flat, but unmistakably American accent, and had breathed in the scent of someone from home. Home-home, not merely US home. He’d followed the scent and sound of the voice until he was face to face with a boy a few years younger than him, one with diamond-cutting cheekbones, aqua eyes and the most amazing laugh lines Derek had ever seen – the boy was coldly beautiful until he laughed, and then a sunburst of creases around his eyes lit up his face, and Derek was entranced. Fourteen years past the fire, and he still hardly ever smiled, let alone laughed, and here was this boy who laughed like it was his job.

He met the boy’s eyes and studied him, then raised his glass and tapped it in the universal sign of “Can I buy you a drink?” which was replied to with one of those smiles. And that was all it took.

Jackson moved into his flat, into his life, and into his heart. It was weird and scary and sometimes Derek hated it, hated that anyone knew anything about him or could even start to predict and heal his emotions. Jackson was sometimes arrogant, entitled, and once in a while, a full-blown asshole … but that was okay. Derek was an asshole way more often and Jackson would mince no words in telling him so.

There were things he held back; things he didn’t tell anyone, even Laura, who had flown to London at the news that baby bro had an actual boyfriend, met Jackson, and almost immediately thereafter taken him aside, being blunt in the way only Laura could be.

“He’s not right for you.”

“That’s your opinion, and it happens to be wrong. He’s amazing for me.” Derek’s voice had had an edge that had made Laura flash her eyes at him, forcing the blue of his own to glow. Alpha to beta, they’d stared each other down, and when Laura stepped back, it wasn’t because she’d changed her mind. It was because for the first time since the fire, Derek had stood his ground, and both the sister and the Alpha in her respected that.

She’d stayed only a couple of days, enough time to reaffirm her beliefs, but time for her to understand that there was only so much control she had anymore, and that Derek was a man and had to make his own decisions. A large part of her hoped he’d come to his senses before he got in any deeper.

That didn’t happen.

At a month and a day, Derek told Jackson he loved him. Okay, well, Jackson had said it first, in the shower after sex, but Derek had said it back, and meant it. Jackson had immediately emailed everyone he knew to tell them he had a boyfriend and he was a hottie, par excellence.

Laura called him to tell him he was out of his mind. He hung up on her. As his alpha, she had every right to kick his ass, but declined to fly thousands of miles to do so, although once he was on US soil again, there’d be nowhere he could hide. Derek accepted this.

At three months and four days, he broke down, and only because he couldn’t avoid it forever, he told Jackson he was a werewolf. Jackson was fascinated and wanted to know all about what it was like, what Derek could do, what he felt, about the moon, the sun and the truth, and finally asked if Derek would bite him too. When he was told Laura was the Alpha, the only one who could give the bite, he had looked dejected – Jackson wasn’t stupid and knew that Laura disliked him. Cue Jackson’s “Win Laura Over” campaign, one that entailed sending her flowers, gift certificates for spa days, emerald earrings that matched her eyes. Derek watched this, wondering if his sister could be bought, because that would make life going forward so much easier.

She was allergic to the flowers and sent the earrings back, saying they were much too expensive, that they were a gift for a lover not a sister, but kept the spa days cause saying no to a hot-stone massage was just stupid. Jackson was undeterred – one out of three was a start – and Derek found himself loving Jackson all the more for trying so hard.

At six months and five days, he shocked himself – and Jackson – by asking him to marry him. It was insane, really – he was insane – but he was in love, and this was real love, this time. This time, he knew what it was supposed to feel like, knew he was doing it right. Jackson said yes, he cried, and Derek laughed and rocked him, telling him yes, it was true, and sliding the silver and diamond engagement ring onto his finger.

He called Laura and told her the news, was met by stony silence, and this time, she hung up on him; he threw the phone across the room, shattered it, bought a new one and didn’t pass on his number on to his Alpha. His sister had apparently left the building, so now Derek was really and truly alone. Except for Jackson.

He clung.

At eleven months and four days, they boarded a flight for Beacon Hills, and home; home to their families and childhood friends. Well, Jackson’s. Derek’s only friend and relative wasn’t speaking to him, and all of Jackson’s friends were too young to remember him, or his sister, or Uncle Peter. Some of them vaguely remembered the fire from when they were in middle school, but didn’t associate it with Derek – and when they did figure it out, they would just mutter “Hey man, sorry about the fire,” to which Derek would nod and they’d nod and in male fashion, it would never be mentioned again.

Once in the city, they rented a large apartment; in a newly refurbished building downtown; Jackson had graduated and wanted to live somewhere near a big city, but not too near – he wanted to drive his graduation Porsche to his high-powered job and rip along highways in the early morning hours, and Derek couldn’t stand to live where pavement was his only option to run, so they compromised. Jackson wanted a house in a couple of years, and so did Derek. Maybe on Hale land – there was a lot of it and Laura was still in New York, not planning on leaving, so he was free.

He missed her, but he didn’t call, and neither did she.

At eleven months and sixteen days, Jackson’s friends – and Derek’s now, too, he guessed, even though being back in Beacon Hills had caused him to regress a little, becoming quieter, more reserved – decided to throw them a wild bachelor party. Jackson didn’t seem to notice the change but he was caught up in wedding planning and alone at night, things were still the same, still loving, still heated and sweaty and passionate. Jackson conceptualized, Derek ran in the Preserve, signed checks and pretended to care what kind of cake they’d have at the reception. Personally, he’d be fine with assorted Krispy Kremes but that idea was met with a “Ha ha ha, you’re so cute, try this raspberry compote.”

Derek hated raspberries, but he loved Jackson, so there was that and if his cake was raspberry compote-d, well, it was a small price to pay for those sunburst eyes.

And then, at eleven months and twenty-three days, there was Stiles.

& & &

“Friday night?” Stiles was scrabbling for his planner, where he noted all his appointments, the details, names and amount of cash paid, tips made. “It’s kind of short notice, isn’t it? It’s Wednesday already.”

“I’m sorry,” said the voice on the other end, sounding a little amused. “I didn’t realize the party was happening this Friday, I thought it was next, and so if I was calling you for that Friday, this would be fine.”

“So, we’re operating on time travel premises now and pretending that this Friday is next Friday? Are you a Time Lord? Will I be picked up in a Tardis? Should I wear a scarf?”

“You can wear a scarf if you’d like, as long as it comes off with everything else,” said the voice, still amused. “And no, not a Tardis. An Uber, if you’d like. I can’t even guarantee it will be blue.”

“Ah, dammit. Well, you gotta keep your hopes high and your ass waxed in this business,” said Stiles, finally locating a pen. “Details?”

He listened, taking notes in his own weird shorthand, and then nearly choked when he asked for the name of the grooms. Hale sounded vaguely familiar, but in the way that people you knew of in childhood sometimes did, but it was the second name that nearly sent him screaming. “Whittemore? JACKSON Whittemore? Please tell me you’re joking. I mean, truly, please.”

“No, not at all. Do you know him?”

No, he didn’t know Jackson. The kid hadn’t run his ass over regularly on the lacrosse field or shoved him around in the locker room for the first two years of high school until his dad, unable to shake the sadness that had dogged them since his mother’s death, had transferred to a town three away from Beacon Hills and moved them there, lock, stock and barrel. That had been the end of close contact with Jackson, but he was still all over high school sports news and had apparently never ceased being an asshole.

Yet he was getting married, while Stiles couldn’t find a date to save his life. Not a real one, not one that was based on his brain and heart, and not his ass, his pecs or his dick.

Life was a never-ending series of fuck you’s, or so it seemed to Stiles.

He pulled himself back. “Yeah, I knew him in high school; we played lacrosse on the same team for a couple of years. Charming guy.”

“Really? I find him a major asshole, a social-climbing parasite who thinks looking like a model makes up for a total lack of personality. Not charming in the least.”

Stiles paused, then snorted. “Okay, you’re right. He’s a dick.”

“Indeed. Speaking of dicks, I hear yours is very impressive, as is your ass, your arms and chest. I’m usually not a fan of ink, but yours seems to make a statement and only enhances your look, which seems to be baby hipster. I enjoy that. I think you’ll be perfect.”

The voice became brisk. “Alright, so I will trust you to work your magic and ensure all attending have something pretty to look at and talk about afterward. Your fee will be delivered to you by noon on Friday.”

“I have a Square for my phone,” Stiles offered. “Usually you can get me right before I go into the job.”

“No – I won’t be there, so I will have your funds sent over to the post office box listed on your website,” replied the voice, then paused. “There’s a bonus in it if you can turn Jackson’s fiancé on, and I do mean truly turn him on.”

“I don’t fuck the clients,” said Stiles coolly. “If you’re looking for someone who you can pay to play, I can give you a couple of names, but my dick is still mine. Look, no touch.”

“God no, I don’t want you to fuck him. Just be in his face. I hear good things about you, so I trust your judgment. If all goes well, the bonus will appear in your box by Saturday at noon. All right?”

Stiles licked his lips. “All right. Any other instructions?”

There were none, so Stiles hung up and looked down at his scribbled notes, neatly transcribing them into his planner. Jackson Whittemore, of all people. He needed to get his ass up and shake it for Jackson Fucking Whittemore, and if that wasn’t messed up, Stiles didn’t know what was. Still, having accepted the job, he scheduled an emergency wax; chest, genital, ass, checked on his supply of body oil and booked time in the tanning booth. Anyone who thought all he had to do was go to the gym and dance around for drunks was so, so wrong. He worked harder than most people he knew, including his best friend, who was a construction foreman; Scott had mighty muscles, but no rhythm in his soul. Plus, he was hairy as fuck.

But thanks to the wonder of black wax, Stiles was not. Scott had gone with him once to see what the fuss was all about, had gotten one strip down his chest pulled off, had screamed and fainted. Stiles had pictures, and would never let Scott forget.

He called him now, knowing Scott was on the drive home from his site in Sacramento, was bored, and had Bluetooth.

“Hey dude,” he said when Scott clicked in. “Guess who I’m stripping for Friday night.”

“Angela Merkel,” replied Scott without hesitation, making Stiles blink.

“The Prime Minister of Germany? Bold choice, and I would not say no, but no.”

“No, but no?” Scott was amused. “Okay … hint?”

“Most giant douchebag who ever played la …”

“Jackson???”

“You are good. Yes, Jackson. He’s getting married. Married, Scott! Him! Someone wants to marry that asshole and I can’t even get someone to go to “All You Can Eat Wing Wednesday” with me, and I’ll pay!”

“Hell, I’ll go to that, if you’re paying.” offered Scott, who never said no to food of any kind, and Stiles sighed.

“Yes, but will you put out afterwards?”

There was a pause. “I’ll cuddle if you want, bro, but no dicks. None. Not by accident, not cause “Oops, sorry, there’s my dick, ha ha this man-thong is too small,” or “Dude, check out this freckle – does it look normal to you?” Or …”

“I get it, I get it. I am desperate and sad and you hate my dick. Understood. But Jackson Fucking Whittemore is getting married. I’m devastated.” Stiles patted the nicotine patch on his shoulder, pressing it into his flesh as if to force the nicotine deeper. Obviously, he didn’t wear them while performing, but never would he need a fix more than Friday night. Fuck his life.

There was the unmistakable sound of Scott sucking down his 32-ounce Big Gulp and unwrapping a Ring-Ding, his constant driving companions, and Stiles waited till he could hear chewing, then swallowing. It was weirdly comforting.

“It sucks, dude,” Scott resumed. “Sucks balls. Who’s he marrying?”

“Uhm, Derek Hale. His sister Laura called to arrange the job.”

“Hale – wait, that was the kid who survived the fire out in the woods, right? Him and his sister, yeah, Laura Hale – my mom was in triage when the cops brought Derek in, because he was the only survivor from the family in the area. Wow, I hadn’t heard about them in years. Didn’t think they lived here anymore.”

Stiles furrowed his brow, mentally combing through his extensive file cabinet of facts – he was old school like that – and pulled up an image of a 16-year-old with black hair and rough skin, eyes red and swollen. He had been there in the Sheriff’s office, drawing on scrap paper and keeping out of everyone’s hair and had seen Derek Hale brought in, and had immediately felt terrible for him. He understood loss too well not to.

“I guess so,” he said after a moment. “I mean, unless there are other Derek Hales in this world, which is not impossible. But still, Jackson.”

“I know dude,” Scott comforted him. “But you know, maybe Hale is a giant asshole too and by getting married, they’re taking two pains in the ass out of circulation. Think of it that way. And hey, a chick who sends a hot male stripper to her gay brother’s bachelor party is kind of cool right?”

“Yeah,” Stiles admitted. “And she’s paying a LOT. I gotta up my game somehow, giver her her money’s worth.”

“Frosted tips,” Scott offered. “Go all N’Sync on them.”

“Fuck you, dude.”

Scott laughed. “You wish you could have this. But shit, there’s a speed trap up here and I gotta look sharp. Call you later, okay? Love ya lots, you pervy dick-shower.”

With that, Scott was gone, and Stiles sighed, then went over to the mirror. He looked pretty good, he thought, but still, tips? He shuddered. With his luck, they’d turn out orange, not blonde, and not a good, Day-Glo orange, just awful, muddy dark-to-light orange.

It was kind of depressing that he knew what that would look like – he’d once tried to dye his pubes blonde, and the resulting clown-orange had led to his first manscaping adventure. Ah, to be sixteen and dumb as fuck.

And then to be twenty-four and still dumb as fuck was even better.

Stiles groaned and headed into the shower to wash away the thought of Jackson Whittemore until he had to see him in person.

& & &

“I think it’s hella cool that you’re getting married, man,” offered Greenberg, who was only there, Jackson had assured him, to help offset the cost of the party. Another guest, another chip-in. Derek had offered to pay for the entire party himself, but Jackson had insisted on the traditional best man paying thing, so poor Mahealani was feting them in a swanky hotel suite and probably, thought Derek, eating Kraft Mac-n-Cheese and ramen for all three meals for the foreseeable future.

“Who the hell says hella anymore?” asked Jackson, already too tipsy and happy to be annoyed. “Dude, you’re 2002 and late. But thanks, I think it is too. Have you seen Derek? Is he not the prettiest? I mean, besides me.”

“I have, and yeah, he’s gorg,” admitted Greenberg. “You were always a lucky guy.”

“Right?”

Meanwhile, Danny was being accosted in the corner by Isaac. “Did you find a stripper?”

“And pay him with what? No, I didn’t. The best one in the area was already booked and the others were skeevy-looking. No worries, Whittemore will take off his shirt before long and jump out of a bag of chips or something.” Danny rubbed his neck, while Isaac pouted.

“No stripper. Jesus.”

“You go strip then, or pull out your gold card and start calling around, but you’re responsible for whatever walks through the door.”

Isaac sighed but did pull out his phone and began thumbing through screens, while Danny rolled his eyes and got another beer.

Derek, meanwhile, had taken a spot on the arm of a wide chair, sipping his beer; he fully understood that this party was for Jackson and not him, but only because he had no friends here of his own. None. His side of the church would have been empty, which is why they’d opted for an outdoor ceremony, under a canopy, with guests everywhere to stave off that embarrassing fact.

He hadn’t invited Laura. He knew she would never come anyway.

He wasn’t being ignored at all – Jackson came through and cuddled with him now and again, and a lot of people – too many, actually – came over to congratulate him and engage in small talk. Derek hated small talk, but he understood social niceties after their time in London, and he managed to not embarrass himself too often. But he was still not going to be sorry when this night was over.

There was a knock on the door around 9 PM and since most of the guests were drunk – including his fiancé – Derek set aside his sadly-wolfs bane-less beer and got up to answer, not bothering with the peephole.

A second later, he kind of wished he had, because he was faced with an extremely fit guy, in a bowtie, tux front, and very, very skimpy black hot pants that left zero to the imagination – they were that tight, and shiny, and the guy was shiny too, from his thick, wavy brown hair, to his sharply contoured face, full lips, and cut, perfectly formed body.

Derek swallowed, and did he imagine the little twinkle in the guy’s eyes? It was hard to tell because of the black silk cutout mask, but Derek wasn’t focusing on the eyes. He was just taking in the goods.

Stiles tilted his head. “Hi,” he said cheerfully. “I hear someone ordered something sweet for dessert … namely, me. Gonna let me in?”

Before Derek could answer, Isaac spotted Stiles – although he didn’t know it was Stiles, for which Stiles thanked the pantheon of Gods who supported professional skin-showers – and whooped. “Stripper! Yeah baby!”

Stiles recognized Lahey, and Jesus God, was that Greenberg? And Danny and Marshall and Boyd and … Jackson. Fuck, it was him. Stiles had been hoping somehow it might not be.

Please God, do not let them figure out it’s me, he thought, and moved in, pushing his little silver room-service cart with his iPod and speakers on it past the still-stunned hottie in the doorway, and faced the group, giving the entire room a smile that seemed meant specifically for each one of them alone, a smile full of promise and simulated sex.

Jackson pushed to the front and looked Stiles over, not noticing a thing other than that ass, and grinned. “Room Service in this place is fucking awesome! Derek, come here!”

The pretty boy who had let him in made his way to Jackson’s side, and Stiles blinked; so this was Derek Hale? Really? Whoa.

Seriously, whoa.

“So, you two are the happy couple?” He hoped his voice sounded significantly different now than then, and then snorted at himself. Who amongst those assembled had ever listened to him say anything without interjecting, “Shut up, Stilinski,” after the second or third word?

“Yeah, me n’ Derek,” said Jackson, slurring only a little bit. “So, show us what you’re serving up!”

He and the crowd found that very witty, and Stiles smiled, not letting the smirk emerge, and quickly set up his cart for maximum sound, arranging the iPod and speaker, getting the grooms settled and turning on the music, taking a moment to orient himself, before starting to move.

” Concentrate on Derek,” the note inside his pay envelope had said. “Really turn it on for him, cause he’s very uptight and needs to relax. And remember, if you really get to him, there’ll be a little extra in it for you.” And now that he’d gotten a good look at adult Derek? Stiles was down for it.

Derek found himself sitting down on a small, upholstered luggage bench at the end of the bed with Jackson, while the guy shook his ass at him; the ass was perfect, like a Georgia peach, and Derek had to wrench his eyes away, feeling disloyal. In fact, this was all making him hugely uncomfortable – he wasn’t a super demonstrative or outgoing person to start with, and he’d had to be 'on' all night, and now a guy who was not his fiancé was in his face.

Literally.

Derek looked to Stiles’ left, a trick Stiles recognized; it was a way to appear like you were looking at someone without having to actually see them. He used it constantly, and damned if Derek wasn’t even better at it than he was. Well then.

He amped it up for the next song, a little more up-tempo, and during the chorus was when he actively started to dance for Derek. Sure, the other guys were moderately-to-very cute, and Jackson was still a ridiculously handsome asshole, but Stiles wasn’t interested in them at all. Even without the little note urging him on, he would have wanted to focus on him – so he did.

He laid it on thick, rubbing against him, making him look up at him, wiggling in-between he and Jackson, and when Isaac – of course – ripped off his tux front, Derek was face to face with the Superman insignia inked across his chest, and Stiles noted the look of appreciation that passed over his face. Whether it was for the Man of Steel or for Stiles’ pecs, he didn’t really care. He’d leap a tall building for Derek. In a single bound, even.

It occurred to him, however briefly, that he was getting a little too into it, but before he could pull back, someone was in his face. Jackson, to be exact.

“Dude, look, I know you’re supposed to be into us, but stay off my guy,” he growled. “Do your fucking job and dance for me.”

Stiles blinked, said nothing, and rubbed briefly on Jackson, giving him a faceful of shiny-clad crotch, and used that moment to tilt forward to give Derek more ass, and when he danced away, he was pleased to see a deep red flush staining Derek’s cheek above the beard.

Stiles had a six-song set, and as he got to the end of song five, his pants were bulging with cash, he’d had two proposals – one very indecent indeed – and had had to firmly remove four hands from his dick. And Derek was now watching him openly, no longer trying not to, or to look like he wasn’t.

“Look, but don’t touch,” he warned the handsy sorts, but smiled. “I’m just for show, boys.”

He caught a little smile at that, and smiled back at Derek, giving him a knowing wink and getting one in return.

And that was when Jackson, now very drunk, stood up and tried to punch him.

He almost connected, too, but Stiles was fast, and stepped back, causing Jackson to flail helplessly, and only be caught by a hovering Danny, who sensed trouble. Jackson had always been a jealous sort, and Danny had watched Derek warm up to the stripper, recognizing one Stiles Stilinski. Or rather, Mieczyslaw Stilinski, as his “official school record” had revealed.

Working in the high school guidance office was sometimes very rewarding, and Danny never forgot an interesting fact – like that name – but he’d always liked Stiles, and wasn’t about to out him now. Why in hell Stilinski was stripping with a GPA of 3.9 and past offers from three Ivy League schools was a mystery to him, but hey, to each their own.

“Think you better head out,” said Danny, passing Jackson off to Isaac, who looked disappointed that it was over. “Sorry, he’s drunk and possessive; it’s not you.”

“Fuck yeah, it’s you! Get off my man!” Jackson tried to swing again, but Isaac caught his arm. “Derek, do something about him, will you?”

Derek blinked and seemed to shake himself, then stood up and reached for Jackson, but not before giving Stiles an apologetic look; Stiles shrugged it off. It wasn’t that unusual for someone to get a stick up their ass when he got down to business, and he’d ducked bigger guys than Whittemore.

Stiles gathered his stuff up, shoving it in his backpack, and gave Derek another wink before letting himself out of the room, and taking a breath, punching the button for the elevator – thankfully it was at his floor and he stepped into it, the doors sliding shut noiselessly.

He leaned against the wall, belatedly noting the couple giving him the eye and realized he was still brimming with cash and mostly naked; he gave them a smile, muttered “Working boy,” and escaped into the lobby washroom the second the car stopped.

He went into the last stall, the biggest one, and changed swiftly, pulling out all the money and shoving it into the backpack, pulling on the baggy basketball shorts and hoodie he’d brought, and peeling off the mask, stashing it in his bag as well. He was dying for a smoke, and between not rustling when he walked and getting outside to his car, he wasn’t focused on anything else.

Addiction was a bitch, seriously.

His lack of focus was exactly why, two steps out of the washroom, he collided with one bearded, still-flushed Derek Hale, who was awkwardly loitering in the hallway.

“Oh, hey,” said Stiles, managing to not fall onto Derek by sheer luck, and giving him a smile. “Did I forget something up there?”

“Uh,” started Derek, then cleared his throat and started again. “Uhm, no, I just wanted to, uhm, say sorry. For Jackson trying to punch you – it was totally uncalled for and I’m really sorry.”

Stiles blinked. “Oh, God, don’t worry about it. It’s happened a few times. Sometimes I go overboard or someone is jealous and it happens. No worries. I’m fine, he’s presumably fine, or will be with a bottle of water, Advil and a nap. It’s all good.”

There was maybe three inches of space between them and Derek stepped back a little, still not comfortable with proximity, and Stiles understood. Contrary to what one would think with his line of work, he wasn’t okay with random touching. It was just a weird thing about him, one of many.

He shifted to his other foot, feeling more conspicuous in his slob clothes than his working outfit – this was a pretty upscale place, after all. “So really, thanks for checking, that was super nice of you, but it’s okay.”

Derek nodded. “All right, well, you got paid, right? I don’t know who hired you but you’re being compensated for your time, yeah?”

“Yes, I was paid. It’s all set. All clear, home free, whatever.”

Stiles felt extremely warm in his hoodie, but if he pulled it off, that’d be inappropriate, so he just tugged at the zipper and tried to not absorb more of Derek’s heat – the guy was a furnace, and also, was in his path; Stiles gave him his best encouraging smile, and Derek seemed to get it, and moved aside.

“All right, so thanks again,” said Derek awkwardly. “You were really good. Very talented.”

“Thanks, dude, Lots of practice. Congrats to you and the groom and all that. All the happiness, as they say.”

“Thank you.” Derek smiled for him, a sweet smile, white teeth in a sea of black beard, and Stiles felt a little jump in his stomach

“You’re welcome,” he murmured and stepped around him, heading for the door and not stopping till he was safe in his Jeep; he lit a cigarette and took a deep, hungry drag, needing it, then another until his shoulders relaxed and he could lean back and process.

It had been sweet of Derek to find him and ask after him, and Stiles figured that he’d handled it about as well as he could ever be expected to, which wasn’t very, although he hadn’t embarrassed himself too badly. Maybe not at all. That would be new.

He stayed there and smoked until he had calmed all the way down, and only then did he start up and head home, catching all the lights on the way.

& & &

“Dude, you cleaned up,” said Scott, sifting through the pile of bills on Stiles’ counter. “Maybe I should start dancing.”

Stiles was drinking orange juice from the carton in his underwear, cause why not, and poked at the bills. “I had a job Tuesday night too, so some of it is that, but most is from last night. They were a pretty generous group.”

“I guess so,” said Scott, taking the orange juice from Stiles and finishing it. “Again, maybe you have the right idea. Think I could do it?”

Stiles eyed him. “Well, you’re a giant pussy about waxing, so you’d have to cater to bears, and most guys our age are more twink-like. Also, you can’t dance. You have zero rhythm, but you do have a sweet ass and loose morals, so you might have a career yet. Let me know when you get tired of pouring concrete and I’ll hook a brother up.”

“I’m keeping it in mind, bro, trust me.” Scott leaned back and bit into the piece of toast Stiles had just buttered for himself while Stiles, unperturbed, popped another slice in the toaster. “So, was it Whittemore and that Hale dude, for real?”

“For real,” sighed Stiles. “Jackson is still attractive as fuck and a huge ass, and Derek, well, Derek is hot. I mean really, really, hot. Like see-him-and-drive-off-the-road hot. And Jackson is, shall we say, a tad possessive. As in, he tried to punch me when Derek started responding to me.”

“Shit, for real? Did you punch him back?”

“I’d like to keep working and getting jobs, so no. He was drunk and almost fell over trying, so no blood, no foul. It was kind of comical, but I’ll admit, I wanted to. I wanted to plant my combat boot in his groin, but I refrained.”

“Good man,” replied Scott, reaching for the second piece of toast and getting jabbed with a fork. “No, bad puppy,” Stiles told him, and munched, heedless of the glare he got in return.

“So, did he know it was you? Did anyone?” Scott got up and went to the cupboard for mugs, while Stiles flipped on the coffee maker.

“I think Danny might have suspected,” he admitted. “You know, Mahealani. But he didn’t say anything and half my face was covered, so maybe not. I figured if anyone would recognize me, it would be fucking Greenberg – lucky for me, he was hammered and seeing two or three of everything. But hell, I did not look like this in high school, so pretty sure I’m safe.”

“True, you did not. That was what, twenty pounds of muscle, a couple of thousand bucks in ink and one pink, spongy lung ago – really different now.”

Stiles raised one brow. “Just one lung?”

“Well, I figured you didn’t start smoking full-time until you were 21 and in the middle of the biochem wars at Yale, and you’re three years into winding up in an oxygen tent, so I think one lung is probably still serviceable.” Scott was now peeling a banana. “Those are just basic calculations, but still pretty accurate, I think.”

“Ah, the biochem wars,” said Stiles reflectively. “Good times, good times, until combat fatigue set in.”

“And you decide to walk away from an Ivy League education and into life as a professional mover and shaker … of your ass. Still a total upset in the Stilympics.” Scott shook his head. “No one saw that coming – if I was a betting man, I would have lost a bundle on you.”

“Ah well, good thing you’re not, because I couldn’t have afforded to bankroll you then, but now, baby, I could make it rain.”

“This isn’t rain, this is a freaking hurricane. Tropical Storm Stiles.” Scott eyed the bills, and Stiles eyed him. “You’re bringing this up again, why?”

“I don’t know – I guess I’m looking at a pile of money that was crowding your dick last night, and looking at the gauntlet of ink – actual gauntlets, which I like – covering your lower arms, and I wonder how we got here.”

Stiles poured coffee for them both, black for Scott, two sugars for himself, and sipped it, scalding hot. “You got here on that ratty old Honda that’s about to have a nervous breakdown and leave your ass stranded in the street, and I live here, so.” He shrugged. “What do you want me to say? This is my life, I chose it, and I’m okay with it. It’s what I want right now. I can go to school anytime, but my ass won’t be this tight forever. I’m making hay while the sun shines – out of my ass. See what I did there?”

Scott had to grin into his mug. “I see it, yeah. I just gotta check in with you periodically, you know? It’s in the rule book.”

“I know, and I appreciate it, bro. I do. I wish you wouldn’t mention my dick when you’re peeling a banana, but I get that when the spirit moves you to inquire about my lifestyle, your choice of snack isn’t always appropriate.” Stiles smiled back at him. “No, I know you wonder about me; you, my Dad, your Mom, random classmates from Yale who creep on my Twitter – I know. And I love you for it, I really do.”

Scott gave him a sweet smile and Stiles had to grin back, then went off to shower and get dressed; he had a bank deposit to make, groceries to buy and felt like going for a run later – the thought of the gym seemed oppressive today.

Scott left while he was in the shower, having taken two Pop-Tarts for the road, and Stiles rolled his eyes at the empty box before tossing it and heading out, but not before opening the door to a messenger and accepting an envelope from her.

Inside, Hear you earned this last night … by the way, I would have paid extra if you’d actually punched Jackson back. Maybe next time.

Stiles shook the envelope and five crisp $100 bills slid out; he blinked, but he wasn’t stupid and slipped two in his wallet, the rest into his deposit bag and headed out. He kind of wished he’d punched Jackson, too.

Maybe next time.

& & &

Standing in line at the pharmacy to purchase alternatives to the vice that kept him calm and relatively focused was not the ideal place to run into your clients. Actually, no place was ideal, and for that reason, Stiles usually worked out of town, at least 25-50 miles from Beacon Hills, so the chances he’d meet people while he was living his regular – or irregular – life were slim. He’d broken his rule for the Hale-Whittemore event simply because the money was too good to pass up, and frankly, his chances of running into Jackson at the Target pharmacy were low. And he didn’t run into Jackson – he ran into Derek.

Well, not literally; he was in line, and Derek was in the other line, and he glanced up when he felt eyes on him, and the shock of recognition was intense. Derek’s eyes were intense. The spike in Stiles’ pulse was intense.

If he’d wanted to get his heart rate up, he could skip running altogether and just gaze across the aisle.

He managed a small smile and a nod, trying to not look obvious, but that didn’t stop him from checking what Derek had, which was a two-pack of Advil and what looked like multivitamins. Of course he’d have to be a healthy sort.

Stiles shifted the box of Nicorette patches to his less-evident hand and winked at Derek, then looked ahead.

Derek felt odd just nodding to the guy that his fiancé had nearly punched the night before, and even though it was uncomfortable, he had promised Jackson he’d try to be a little more social. He licked his lips and when Stiles looked his way again, he smiled. “So, trying to quit smoking?”

Obviously, Stiles hadn’t managed the transfer of goods too smoothly, and sighed. “Not really, but I don’t smoke when I’m working, cause just no, and I don’t want to smell of smoke when I get to my jobs, so I gotta patch it up. The clear ones can blend in pretty well with my skin, so it’s a business expense.”

“Ah, I see. My sister Laura goes through boxes of patches every week; she’s been trying to quit for years now, unsuccessfully so far. She’d feel your pain.”

Sister. Laura. Laura Hale. A dusky, smoky voice on the phone, sounding alternately amused, fond, and resigned. An older sister who wasn’t thrilled with her brother’s choice. Stiles could not blame her at all.

“Give her my sympathies. They say it takes an average of nine times to try quitting, so I have nine in reserve, like a cat. I wish her well – don’t think I could navigate life without my crutch, sad though it is. And expensive. And increasingly socially unacceptable.” Stiles nodded. “You get used to standing in the rain, hunched over like you have a bad case of untreated scoliosis and sucking in nicotine till your lungs punch their way out of your back and slap you around.”

Derek blinked. “That’s an interesting visual – also, sounds like Laura. She lives in the northeast, so she stands outside in rain AND snow.”

“Snow is a bitch, and slush is worse,” commiserated Stiles, and had to grin because they were having a conversation, he and Blackbeard the Pirate, aka, Captain GUH. “Again, my sympathies – been there, done that.”

The line moved and Stiles stepped ahead, but so did Derek. “So, is your guy all right?" Stiles felt obligated to keep the conversation moving. “Bet he had a mighty hangover this morning.”

“He does, which is why these.” Derek held up the Advil. “And again, sorry for how he acted.”

“Again, it’s fine. I understand. If I were him, I’d have been hugely annoyed by me too. You were kind of getting into it at the end there.”

Derek flushed. “I was just … well, it … you were right in my face and you were shiny and well …”

“Aren’t those pants boss? They cost an ungodly amount of money and keep paying for themselves over and over,” said Stiles proudly. “And I was in your face, totally in there. Hard to ignore a shiny butt in your face, even when you’re super in love with your dude.”

It was Stiles’ turn, and he smiled again at Derek and paid for his patches. He figured Derek would be gone by the time he was done, but no.

There was no choice but to awkwardly exit the store together and in tandem, slide on sunglasses against the now-clear sky. “Well, then, have a good day and good luck in your marriage,” Stiles said, needing to make a clean getaway, then added, “You look good together. I’m sure you’ll be really happy. Jackson always did like the pretty ones.”

He waved as he walked away, not thinking about what he’d said, leaving Derek looking after him, wondering how much about Jackson the dancer really knew.

& & &

Too much, as it turned out, cause in the next couple of days, Stiles found himself with his old friend – not darkness, no, but obsession with a capital O. He routinely obsessed about many things; his life choices, his brand of spray tan, the risks of genetically modified food, and whether waist training was a real thing, but his favorite thing to focus on had always been people. Good, bad, assholes, saints – Stiles thought about them all. Jackson actually fell into two categories – pompous and asshole, so he got special consideration. Stiles’ relatively short time at BHHS had given him more than enough exposure to Jackson and people like him to last a lifetime. He’d never been like them, and even had things not happened how they did, with losing his mother, his father moving them away, he never would have been part of that crowd. Not enough looks, not enough money.

But that was then and this is now, as S.E. Hinton would say, and now, Stiles had both the money and the looks, and he was living large. Alone, sure, but large. Kind of. It beat working with a lab and wondering every day if you’d discovered a new disease, were infected and if you were going to shut down Taco Bell with an epidemic that had nothing to do with their dicey chalupas. But everywhere he went, people checked him out on the street, and he never left a job with less than four or five hundred dollars in tips, usually more, this in addition to his fee, which rose with his market value. Stiles was a savvy investor – in himself. The gym, the ink, the expensive haircuts, the teeth whitening, the waxing? He was his own stock.

And it was a bull market.

He honestly didn’t understand what someone like Derek saw in someone like Jackson; pretty, sure, but vapid, materialistic and with a cruel streak that Stiles had experienced firsthand. He had to assume that he didn’t display these less than charming character traits with his boyfriend, and possibly, there was more to Jackson. Stiles had almost been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, until the failed punch. That showed him that Jackson was still a child, with a child’s jealousy, but also that he was more than a little insecure. Stiles hadn’t even been close to pulling out his full arsenal of “Yeah, you wanna fuck me” at that party, and yet, Jackson had lost his shit.

Age did not equal maturity, apparently, and money had never meant class. It gave him a little hope, but not a lot, cause despite all those factors, Jackson had found someone not only to date him, but marry him, be with him forever (ideally) and love him no matter what.

Stiles’ boyfriend-less, friends-with-benefits-less, dateless status had never seemed so stark to him before, and he hated this feeling. And once more, hated Jackson, which was ridiculous. He was 24 years old, for God’s sakes, and totally responsible for his own life. Letting some past high school bully get to him now was just beyond stupid.

He needed to go for a run, clear his mind; he slapped on a patch, some running shorts, trainers, and a ratty tank top and headed out.

& & &

At eleven months and 24 days, Derek sat on his side of the bed, reading the New York Times and watched Jackson slowly recover from a night of tequila shooters and general idiocy beside him.

He’d seen Jackson be an obnoxious drunk before, but chalked it up to, well, being drunk, and okay, his fiancé had a jealous streak – Derek had known that, and it’s not like this was the first time he’d seen it. Hell, he himself was a jealous sort too, and he supposed he’d displayed it too, but never in such a public way as last night. Danny had assured him that this was just how he was, and Jackson was in love, knew Derek was hot, and just didn’t appreciate the stripper being so friendly. And that had kind of made him feel better, but then he’d seen the stripper being a normal, approachable guy in Target, in jeans and t-shirt, no g-string in sight, full face. A nice face, a handsome face with a sweet smile.

Derek found himself thinking a lot about that smile, and it made him uncomfortable, because for nearly a year now, he’d looked at no one except Jackson. He could admit other guys were attractive, but that was as far as it went.

Jackson finally sat upright for more than a minute, drank the rest of his bottle of water, and groaned, getting up and going to the bathroom, then making his way to the bed and flopping across Derek, heedless of the sports section which was, unaccountably, extolling the merits of the NY Mets, which Derek, a diehard Yankees fan, found hilarious. “Get your moments in the sun, lads, while you can,” he thought. “Won’t last long.”

He wedged the paper out from under Jackson and stroked his platinum hair, a relatively new affectation, and looked down at him. “Gonna live?”

“Think so,” Jackson mumbled. “God, I feel like shit. And my shoulders are sore as fuck. Was I lifting while drunk again?”

“No, you were punching while drunk,” said Derek dryly, rubbing said shoulder. “Specifically, you tried to punch the stripper.”

“I did?”

“Twice, as a matter of fact.”

“Shit … well, he must have deserved it,” yawned Jackson, and Derek just looked at him.

“What could he have done to deserve it? When is that justified? I’m interested.” Derek looked down at him. “All he did was his job, which was to entertain both of us, and you lost your shit on him and tried to punch him. If you’d connected, it would have hurt, and he could have sued your ass, and all because you didn’t like his ass in my face.”

Jackson blinked. “Well, it must have been pretty bad for me to get that mad.”

“Maybe tequila is not your friend. He was a nice guy and you acted like a dick.”

Derek had never said anything like this to Jackson before, but then again, he’d never had to, and didn’t particularly like saying it now. This guy had saved him from a loveless, isolated existence and here he was, calling him a dick.

In his head, he heard Laura laughing, her derisive, “I told you so.”

He licked his lips. “I appreciate that you want me all to yourself, and I love you for it, but try to refrain from punching guys, okay? You tell me not to be antisocial, but that kind of was.”

Jackson sighed. “Okay. I’m sorry. I’d apologize, but no idea who the fuck he was, so …” He shrugged and rolled over so his face was buried in Derek’s stomach. “He was just some guy.”

Derek had been willing to let it go, until that statement, and he stopped stroking and blinked. “He was some guy who was entertaining us and doing his job and you tried to hurt him. Literally hurt him.”

A groan from below. “Der, let it go, okay? I said I was sorry. It’s over, I don’t know who he is, and he could care less, I’m sure. Probably gets it all the time. When you spend your life shaking your ass in guys' faces for money, you see a lot of jealous guys. Who cares? He got paid. Dunno by who, but someone. Next time Mahealani cries poverty to me, I’ll be like, “Yeah, bite me.” He looked up. “Who said you could stop petting, huh?”

Wordlessly, Derek started petting again, and when Jackson had to go pee again, he got off the bed and started changing. He felt restless and needed to run.

From the bathroom door, he heard a sigh. “Dude, I cannot go running right now. I feel run over by a cement truck.”

Derek bit back the retort that rose to his lips, settling for, “It’s fine, I just need to get some air. Rest up, get some food in you, and I’ll be back later.” There, that sounded better than “I didn’t fucking ask you to go,” didn’t it?

It did. Derek pulled on his shoes and grabbed a hoodie just in case, and went out, shutting the door a little harder behind him than he had to.

In the street, Derek stretched, and walked to the nearest side street, crossing it before starting to run, towards the Preserve and the relative freedom from everything around him; wedding plans, fiancés, angry sisters and disturbingly hot dancers – or so he thought. Until he heard a rustling to the right, and a moment later, the steady thump of feet and the pounding of a strong, healthy heart just off his path – they’d intersect in a moment.

He already knew it was Stiles; his scent was that distinct. Soap, shampoo, some sort of musky cologne, smoke, coffee. It was, frankly, kind of intoxicating, and he’d smelled it this morning, too – it returned to him now in a kind of rush, and he slowed down just before they would have collided.

Stiles, earbuds in, just barely skidded to a stop before he was plunged headfirst into the chest of another jogger, and blinked when he realized who it was, pulling out the buds. “Shit, bro, sorry,” he gasped, and pushed his hair back. “I can’t seem to stop nearly colliding with you, huh?”

Derek had reached out to steady them both, his fingers locking around heavy biceps, and it took a moment for him to let go, and only did so when he was sure Stiles wasn’t going to fall over. “Uh, no, I guess not. I should maybe stop sneaking up on you though. That might help.”

Stiles grinned. “Well, you do seem to be right there fairly often in the last twelve hours,” he agreed, and wiped his forehead. “Obviously, you are not hungover, if you’re out here getting your heart rate up. No fiancé?”

Please God, let there be no fiancé catching up to them, because Stiles was not in the mood to spar with an asshole now. He could, sure, but it would be more of an effort than he wanted to make. But God apparently liked him today.

“No, no fiancé. He’s still in no shape to move around much.” Derek tried to not look too obvious as he took Stiles in, but it wasn’t easy; the guy had a hell of a body and a killer smile. “I just was tired of being cooped up while he moaned and groaned.”

“Jackson was never much for sucking it up,” said Stiles absently. “He liked to whine, and like the squeaky wheel, he usually got the grease.”

“You know him?” Derek raised a brow, and Stiles cursed inwardly. Fuck.

“I knew him briefly in high school,” he hedged. “We had a few classes together, and played lacrosse – him first line, me bench. He was pretty damn good on the field." And a total fucking asshole off it he added mentally. He couldn’t tell if Derek was aware of that or not, or if he even cared.

Derek nodded. “Huh, interesting – I suppose I should introduce myself, yeah? Derek Hale,” he said, offering a hand. Stiles shook it, and reluctantly replied, “Stiles Stilinski.”

“Stiles?” Derek gave him a little smile. “Nickname?”

“Very much so. My real name is a nightmare to pronounce, spell or reveal to others, so I save us all the trouble and just don’t. It’s nice to meet you, though, Derek. I remember you from when I was younger – thought the name sounded familiar and then I saw you and was pretty sure it was you.”

“Really? I figured I was a lot older than you.” Derek pushed his hair off his forehead, and Stiles shook his head. “Not really. You were like, sixteen and I was ten, so I’m twenty-four now, making you what, thirty? Nice round number.”

“Yeah, thirty … and sixteen. So, you must have been around for the …” Derek stopped, surprised at how hard it was to say that simple word, still.

“Yeah. I was there at the police department that night – my Dad was the Sheriff at the time, and I hung out there a lot because it was cheaper than hiring a babysitter.” Stiles paused, hesitating. “Sorry for your losses. Sincerely. I uh, lost my mom a while back, so I know it hurts a whole lot.”

He didn’t elaborate, and Derek was glad all he had to do was nod and mumble, “Thank you.”

Stiles nodded too, and slipped his earbuds back in. “Heading further in or back towards town?”

Derek looked up. “Further in. I go to the end of the logging road and back.”

“Whoa, hardcore. That’s better than ten miles. You must be a beast.” Stiles smiled and thumbed his battered personal iPod.

Derek had to grin at that. “You have no idea.” Really, Stiles didn’t. “You up for it?”

Stiles blinked, then grinned back. “I’ll give it a go. When I collapse you can either leave my prone body on a bed of moss or carry me back over your shoulder. You seem like a sturdy lad, so I’m willing to bet you can do it. Just dump me in front of Aroma Joe’s and ring the bell on the door.”

“I can do that,” nodded Derek, and they both paused to stretch a moment, before starting out onto the path that led to the logging road, running side by side, both slipping into their zones, while still being acutely aware of each other.

For someone with Stiles’ multiple bad habits, he had wind, and he kept up with Derek easily enough, making it to the end of the logging road and part way back before he had to stop and lean against a tree. “Good thing I don’t have a job tonight,” he managed, breathing hard. “I might collapse onto one of the guys and get punched again. Almost punched, excuse me."

Derek was breathing a little harder than normal too, and snorted. “I am sorry about that,” he said. “He was an asshole to you last night.”

“Not just last night,” muttered Stiles, and then rubbed his face, “Scratch that, sorry.”

Derek looked at him curiously, then raked his hands through his sweat-wet hair. “No, don’t. Has he been an asshole to you in the past?”

Stiles shrugged. “A long time ago,” he said, deflecting. “I mean, no one is exactly a prince in high school and I was a pretty easy target for someone like Jackson; I wasn’t as good at our sport as him, I was a nerd – that hasn’t changed, really – and his kind liked to take out their rich-boy existential angst on people like me. But that was a long time ago, we’ve all grown up since then, and it’s not like he knew it was me. And speaking of that?”

Stiles looked up at Derek. “I’d rather he didn’t know. I have a different life now, and high school is in the past, and I have nothing to do with him now. I mean, hell, when I was offered the job and found out it was him, I almost didn’t take it, and then thought fuck it, gotta move on, make the money, all that adulting bullshit, you know? And the money was good, so I went with it. Figured anyone there wouldn’t equate skinny, pale string bean Stilinski with this.” He waved at himself. “I would hope not anyway, because I’ve worked my ass off to leave that guy behind, physically at least.”

He straightened up then. “So, if you’d keep that on the down-low, I’d appreciate it.”

Derek looked at him intently for a moment, then nodded. “Sure, of course. I won’t say anything. I just, I’m sorry. I know I keep saying that, but I am, cause hearing about and seeing that side of Jackson last night – I didn’t know, you see? I’ve never seen that side of him.”

“Good! Good, I hope you never do.” Stiles palmed the sweat off his neck. “Look, Derek, we were teenagers and teenagers are assholes. Flat out, stone-cold assholes who don’t think about the big picture – kids have tunnel vision, most of them. And although Jackson was the most repeat offender, he’s not the only one who was on my ass in high school both before and after we moved out of town. So, it’s not fair to judge him for that, cause I’m sure he’s different now.”

God, he was such a good liar; his father was right, he should have gone into law.

He gave Derek a smile, his patented 'that crap was forever ago' smile, and cracked his knuckles. “Gross, I know,” he said, the smile more genuine now. “Ready to head back, or would you have been there already if not for my lack of stamina?”

“Pretty much, yeah,” said Derek, but he smiled too. “You know what would increase your stamina?”

“Don’t even say it.” Stiles pushed up his sleeve. “Seriously, don’t.”

This patch was white and on it was written, THIS IS NO SUBSTITUTE, GODDAMMIT!

Derek snorted, then laughed out loud. “I’m sure it’s not,” he commiserated. “But good on you for trying, at least. A lot of people wouldn’t even go that far.”

“Yeah, I’m fucking hero of moderation,” sighed Stiles, then shoved his hair back again. “Ready?”

“Ready.”

Stiles didn’t fall behind, and when they reached their mutual starting point, he took several deep breaths before straightening up and looking around. “Well, this is where I began, so I guess it’s a fitting ending as well. For now, anyway, till it’s time to haul my ass to the gym. I should go tonight, but all I want to do is watch Netflix and eat pizza.”

“The original 'Netflix and chill' before it meant sex?” Derek smiled and toweled off his face, and Stiles gave him a rueful smile. “For some of us, it still means that.”

“You don’t have a boyfriend? Or girlfriend? Sorry, don’t mean to assume.”

“Oh, you’re not,” sighed Stiles. “No, no anyone. I am a sadly celibate stripper, and if you don’t think I understand the great irony of grinding against engaged couples, then you would be very wrong. Irony and I are old friends – we watch a lot of TV together.”

He smiled a little, and draped his own towel around his neck. “Thanks for the run and the company,” he offered. “I’ll see you around, I guess? Remember, no telling your guy, okay? I like my life the way it is.”

“I’ll remember,” promised Derek, and watched Stiles head off down the street, pulling his hoodie over his head and sadly, hiding that body. But what was worse, thought Derek, was that someone wasn’t getting the benefit of his personality. Sure, maybe they hadn’t spoken a lot, but Derek was much better with people than he ever let on, and he was sure there was a lot that went on behind those eyes.

& & &

At eleven months and 27 days, there was the encounter at the bookstore in Elk Grove, where Stiles spotted a dark head with a prominent cowlick in the film section, and thought it looked familiar, and then realized that yes, yes it was, and it belonged to an adorably scruffy runner who was flipping through a book about the making of Apocalypse Now. He hesitated a moment, looking around for the inevitable sidekick, but Derek was alone, which kind of didn’t surprise Stiles. He wasn’t sure Jackson could read anyway.

“Martin Sheen almost died from a heart attack during that film,” he said over Derek’s shoulder. “Nearly lost his mind, too.”

“He did indeed,” replied Derek, who was somehow not surprised to find this guy in a book store, and had, in fact smelled Stiles as soon as he came in. “And Marlon Brando was a giant pain in the ass; $3 million for four weeks of work and he didn’t bother to come to set for the first four days.”

Stiles was impressed. “The name was intended to make fun of hippies.”

“George Lucas was supposed to direct. Imagine if all the enemy soldiers had been replaced by storm troopers?”

Stiles grinned. “No one would ever have gotten killed – storm troopers are truly terrible shots. Film buff, are we?”

Derek shrugged. “I’m not a terribly social person, and I like movies with a lot of backstory – the more fucked up, the better.”

“Me too, dude. Me too!”

Over coffee – Derek’s treat – they learned that they both loved the New York Times crossword puzzle, thought scones were pretentious – but delicious – and that both thought David Lynch was a genius and only hoped the new Twin Peaks was half as good as the original. They had both watched way too much Dexter’s Lab and could both do an enviable rendition of “Didi, you idiot!” They joked about forming a book and cartoon club and calling it Uncle Morty’s.

They parted, promising to find each other’s user names on Words with Friends and commence kicking each other’s ass, exchanging numbers. Neither elaborated on why.

& & &

At eleven months and thirty days, Stiles was working out at Gold’s Gym in Rio Linda, bench pressing his best weight yet, when he realized that his spotter had been dismissed and replaced with a cowlick on a scruffy head attached to an unfairly developed neck, perched atop a furry chest. Not just scattered patches of hair, but a veritable forest of hair, and Stiles would have dropped the weights on his neck and choked himself if they hadn’t been lifted smoothly away and set back on the rack. He looked up, trying to catch his breath, while Derek folded his arms.

“"Adelaster" is totally a word and you challenging me was a wasted move,” he told Stiles. “It’s a provisional name for a plant whose flowers are as yet unknown.”

Stiles blew out a breath and reached up for the weights again. “Fine. I don’t know where the hell you pulled that out of, but the next time you want to bloviate, do it on your own time.”

Derek grinned. “Of all the things I’ve been accused of in my lifetime, speaking windily is not one of them. Hell, I hardly talk at all.”

“You do to me,” pointed out Stiles, letting his arms descend slowly towards his chest, and Derek shrugged. “I like you, apparently. My sister would be amazed to hear me use words with more than one syllable. She’s sure I only communicate in grunts and sighs.”

“You’re a guy,” huffed Stiles, straining. “That’s what we do. Well, that and scratch and pass gas. Also, we don’t communicate effectively, are inconsiderate, and shy away from buying tampons.”

He held the weight for a moment, then pushed it back up, into Derek’s waiting hands, and lay there, dying silently, while Derek considered, and had to nod. “Buying tampons is unpleasant,” he had to admit, and Stiles snorted before saying meanly, “Does Jackson use Plus or Super-Plus for his heavy days?”

A second later, he was about to apologize when he heard a muffled sound and realized Derek was laughing into his bent arm, which allowed him to laugh too. “Sorry, sorry.”

“Don’t be,” replied Derek, and rubbed his face. “I should be sorry for laughing, but I’m not, which says nothing good about me. As penance, however, do one more set.”

“Are you kidding? I’m dying here,” muttered Stiles, and Derek smiled. “That’s what you get for using the word “ultracrepidarian” to describe me in casual conversation. I admit to being duly impressed, but I am not a know-it-all, smartass. C’mon, one more set.”

Stiles groaned, but did the set, trying to not be distracted by the hairy chest, cause goddamned if that wasn’t his number-one guh factor when it came to men. Maybe it was all that extra testosterone, but shit.

He finished and sat up, rubbing his face and hands with the rough cotton gym towel, then looked up at Derek. “I’d ask if you were stalking me, but unless you slipped a tracking app onto my phone while I was despairing over a six-letter word starting with Z and ending with A I don’t know how you managed it.” He blew out a breath. “The word was “zeugma” by the way and means …”

Derek smiled. “To use the same word in more than one sense at a time.”

“Jesus, and you say you’re not a know-it-all.” Stiles stood up, then sat down on the bench again cause his arms felt like jelly – whether from exertion or excessive exposure to chest hair, he didn’t know.

“Okay, so I lied,” said Derek, reaching for his own towel and wiping his hands. “But no, I am not stalking you. I enjoy reading and working out, and apparently, so do you. The Second-Hand News in Elk Grove was a place I remembered my mom going to when I was young, and this Gold’s is one of the better ones, clientele-wise – less meatheads.”

Stiles sat back. “I wouldn’t say I enjoy working out, but okay, you got me.”

It took a good few minutes for Stiles to get to his feet and make his way to the next machine, while Derek, who was deep into the special hell known to all as Leg Day, headed to the next stop in his circuit of pain. In that manner, they canvassed the gym, Stiles finishing before Derek, and heading off to the sauna, where he sprawled against the hot wall, a towel across his lap, and closed his eyes, wondering if it was all worth it, or if a skinny nerd boy was the worst thing he could have been.

After a bit, the door swung open and the wooden bench bowed as 190 pounds – give or take – of sheer muscle and chest hair dropped down next to him. Stiles could smell Derek; his sweat and cologne was its own delectable scent and if he wanted to bottle it, Stiles would buy a case. He doubted that he smelled as good – sweat, more sweat, smoke, and possibly ivory soap. Possibly.

“I can’t believe you can walk after that workout,” said Stiles, turning his head, eyes still closed. “If I tried to do that, I’d need paramedics halfway through the circuit.”

Derek laughed. “I like leg day.”

“Masochist. Check.”

Another laugh. “Well, to each their own. Maybe I like pain.”

“Look at your choice of fiancé,” deadpanned Stiles, then sighed. “Sorry. I’m an asshole when it comes to him. Ignore me.”

Derek really wanted to know what more there was to the Stiles / Jackson story, but Jackson would wonder why he was bringing up someone Derek shouldn’t even know, and Stiles felt guilty every time he mentioned Jackson because there were obviously still raw areas there. Derek tried to think of who else to ask, and realized he had the perfect option, and would be seeing him soon.

He turned to Stiles, who had rivers of sweat running down his chest, making the tattoo stand out, and not meaning to, reached out and touched it. Stiles’ eyes flew open and he jerked away instinctively, making Derek pull his hand away as though electrocuted as Stiles sat up, nearly losing his towel in the process.

“Shit, sorry, sorry,” Derek managed, putting up his hands, and Stiles wiped his face with the back of his hand.

“No, no, it’s okay, I was just startled. Not used to being touched, I guess. It’s fine.”

There was a silence, during which Derek flushed and looked down at his hands, and Stiles cursed his startle reflex. “Derek, it’s fine, seriously. Checking out the tat?”

Derek’s face was bright pink, and Stiles handed him a bottle of water while he waited out the uncomfortable silence until he couldn’t stand it – about fourteen seconds. “You like it?”

“Yeah, I do, and it looks really vivid right now.”

“Well, with the amount of ink embedded in me, I hope so. Saturation plus here, dude.” He smiled. “Were you wondering why?”

Derek swigged his water and nodded, finally looking at him. “Why Superman?”

“Well,” said Stiles thoughtfully. “Clark Kent was just this guy who lived in the middle of nowhere and never really felt like he belonged. He knew he was different, but didn’t know how for a long time, and when he did find out why, he was a little – or a lot – overwhelmed. And it took him some time to understand himself and like himself, be proud of who he was. I can relate. Plus, he’s been my favorite superhero since I was small, so it seemed fitting, and it makes me stand out. It’s big and bold and people tend to remember it.”

“Ahh,” said Derek, understanding, then smiled. “He’s my favorite too.”

He was rewarded with a return smile, and they were companionably quiet until they could both manage to hobble out of the sauna and into the showers. Stiles leaned his head against the tile and tried to not look to the left, where Derek was splashing around like an otter.

It wasn’t easy, but given the snarky comments he’d made about Jackson, his own sense of ethics and his belief that he didn’t deserve anyone as amazing as Derek, he refrained.

Stiles might be into self-denial, but he wasn’t stupid and knew when he was falling for someone.

& & &

At twelve months and two days, Derek was grumpy and Jackson was nowhere to be found.

“I can’t believe we’re doing this.” Derek gestured to the tabletop filled with little pink – “they’re mauve, Derek, like the raspberries – it’s all part of the theme!” – net bags, black and white ribbon and piles of Jordan almonds. “Or rather, I can’t believe we are doing this. Shouldn’t the genius who came up with this whole gift bag thing be the one who’s oh, making the gift bags?”

“In theory, sure,” said Danny, taking a sip of his beer. “But if you don’t know by now that Jackson Gray Whittemore disappears like smoke every time there’s work to be done, I worry about you.”

Derek grunted. “Does seem that way, doesn’t it?”

“That’s because it is that way,” said Danny, then shrugged. “At least I didn’t have to buy all this stuff this time, which is a help. If that was the case, these almonds would be my breakfast, lunch and dinner for the next few days.”

He flushed a moment later. “Sorry, that wasn’t classy to say.”

Derek set down his half-filled bag. “Danny, let me reimburse you for that party,” he said firmly. “Had I known what he had in mind, I never would have let you pay in the first place – you’re a grad student who works in the local school district, not Elon Musk. How much? I mean it.”

Derek pulled out his wallet, but Danny shook his head. “No. I knew when I agreed to be Jackson’s best man that I was on the hook for a fuck-ton of money and I did it anyway. He’s an ass clown, but he’s my best ass clown, so it’s cool. Don’t worry about it.”

He filled his bag, while Derek eyed him. “At least let me pay for the stripper.”

“I didn’t pay for Stilinski,” said Danny absently, threading ribbon. “Doubt I could afford him.”

Derek put his bag down. “You know who that was?”

More flushing for Danny. “Uhm, yeah, I think so – we went to school together and he was a nice guy. I’d heard he changed course pretty abruptly in college, came back to Beacon Hills and next I know, he’s dancing in a club in Sacramento. That was a couple of years ago now though, and it seems like he’s in business for himself. Who knew that kid could move like that?”

“Not you, huh?”

“Not anyone who ever knew him,” replied Danny, tying the bow and setting another bag aside. “Stilinski was this skinny, pale kid with a buzzcut who always seemed to be tripping over his own feet and who talked like an Italian grandma – all hands and waving. He played lacrosse, he and his best friend, Scott McCall – they were definitely second string, but they worked hard. It’s just that you had big guys like me, Jax, Lahey, Marshall – they were smaller and lighter. But fast, I’ll give Stilinski that. But what stood out about Stilinski was how fucking smart he was. His mind made these incredible connections, and he could figure out any problem in any subject. He was excellent in math and science, he was amazing at forensics – but again, his Dad was the Sheriff, first here and then in Rio Linda. They moved there around the end of sophomore year.”

Derek blinked. “You know a lot about him.”

Danny shrugged. “I liked him, he was fun. Never shut up. Ever, ever, and it bugged the living shit out of Jackson – he was always telling him to shut the fuck up already, and if Stiles didn’t, well …”

Danny stopped and sighed. “Well, he and Jackson didn’t get along, is the easiest way to describe it.”

Derek tapped his fingers. “So, he was a bully and an asshole, is what I’m hearing.”

“He was … he and Stilinski were oil and water. And Jackson had the popularity, the strength, and when he wanted to be mean, he had lots of ammunition. It was like survival of the fittest in high school – you know that it’s Darwin in action there.”

“Is he why Stiles moved?”

“No. I mean, no, I think there were lots of reasons. Stiles’ mom died when he was in elementary school after a long illness, and his dad worked long hours – I think they wanted a fresh start.”

Derek was quiet, still tapping his fingers. “You said he was smart, yet he’s doing this for a living.”

“Oh, Christ yes, he was super smart and I heard he went to Yale on a scholarship, but maybe two years later, he was back here, and that’s when I saw him dancing in a club in the city. I was out with some friends and this really fit, hot guy with a Superman tattoo across his chest and a matching g-string came out and he was jaw-dropping. I was in love, dude.”

Danny smiled a little. “I asked to buy him a drink but he said no, and smiled, and when I saw that smile and heard the voice, I knew it was Stiles. I kept it to myself though, because he usually wears some sort of costume so obviously he doesn’t want people to make the connection. The mask the other night didn’t surprise me at all.”

“So, Jackson doesn’t know who he is?” All this information was just making Derek more curious and if Danny was willing to talk, he was willing to listen.

“Fuck no. Jackson is the last person I’d tell, even if Stilinski hadn’t been in your face the other night. Look, obviously, Stiles wants to keep this part of his life quiet, so I respect that, given his and Jackson’s history, especially, although Stiles could probably kick his ass now.”

Derek was quiet then, before getting up and going to the window, rubbing his neck. “What I’m hearing is that I’m engaged to a bully,” he said softly. “Someone who took pleasure in tormenting another person and didn’t let up until the kid actually moved away from his own hometown.”

Danny got up too, scrubbing hands through his hair. “Who you’re engaged to is a guy who, despite all his money, had to get his love and validation at school because there was none at home, and who took out his anger about that inappropriately sometimes. He was an asshole, I won’t deny. But he graduated, went to England, got himself counseling, and made new friends, worked on himself, and then met you, someone who loves him for him. How he acted at the party was atypical of him now. He loves you. People can change, you know? You did.”

Derek jerked his head around to look at Danny, who stared back at him. “You were totally withdrawn, angry, suspicious when Jackson met you. He called me that first night, woke my ass up and told me he’d met this guy and he was messed up, but that he felt a connection and he wanted to keep seeing you. And he did, and you eventually let him in, and fell for him and it was fine till you met a reformed nerd with a sweet ass. Don’t question him now, Derek. He doesn’t question you.”

Derek was silent, and then took a breath. “All fair points. I just didn’t like that. I don’t like bullies.”

“Who does? But it was years ago now.”

Another pause, while Danny got another beer for them both, and when he handed it to Derek, Derek looked up at him. “Why did Stiles leave Yale and a scholarship to do this for a living instead?”

“Not sure. I heard he just walked out of his dorm one day with his backpack and got on a bus and headed back across the country. No other explanation. You’d have to ask him.”

Derek nodded. “All right. And look, all you say makes sense. Maybe it’s just all this weird wedding stuff that has me a little anxious. I would have married him in a clerk’s office, but he wanted all this, and it’s just not me at all. It’s for him.”

“Of course it is. No one in their right mind would willingly be spending a sunny Saturday with pink gift bags and almonds – you love him.”

He smiled, and Derek smiled back. “They’re mauve, Derek,” he said in his best exasperated Jackson voice, then sighed. “I do love him. Thanks for telling me this stuff though – fills in some blanks.”

“Sure Derek,” replied Danny and they got back to work, grumbling occasionally, but finally getting them all done and into boxes, then polishing off the beers and watching the Twins crush the Stingrays on ESPN.

& & &

At twelve months and four days, Stiles sat with Scott in a coffee shop – not Second-Hand News, cause that was sacred now – and told him about Derek: how they’d become friends, how they worked out together, exchanged dumb movie trivia and inside cartoon jokes, and how Derek usually seemed a little crabby when they met, but would then come out of his shell – ha! – and they’d have great conversations about a whole bunch of things, and how weirdly compatible they were on some levels. He told him how gorgeous Derek was, how he had all the physical qualities he found hot in a guy. He told him that Derek laughed when Stiles slipped and made jokes about Jackson.

In short, he told him that he’d totally fallen for a taken man who was not only engaged, but engaged to the one person Stiles still held a grudge against in this world, to which Scott paused over his coffee cup, nodded, and said, “That sounds about right.”

Stiles buried his face in his hand. “What the fuck am I gonna do?”

“I don’t know, dude.”

“That’s helpful,” grumbled Stiles and dumped more sugar into his coffee, stirring it into the ungodly sludge he called Colombian roast and Scott called gross, which he did while watching Stiles pile sugar packets into neat little stacks, followed by aligning all the silverware on the table and arranging the brown recycled napkins into a pleasing fan shape.

“If you wanted helpful, you should’ve called my mom or your dad,” Scott pointed out. “Both problem-solve like it’s their job.”

“Scotty, that is their job.”

“Right, so they’re really good at it.”

Sometimes, Stiles wondered if Scott had taken a few too many sacks of cement to the head, but he held his tongue – for a moment – then sighed. “Give me options, obvious or not.”

“Only if you promise to listen, not interrupt and no eye rolling, finger-drumming, sighing, or pursing your lips.” Scott drained his coffee and waved to the barista to bring him more, cause apparently, he was going to need all the fortification available for this crisis. “Promise, or I’ll be silent as the grave over here.”

Stiles nodded reluctantly and forced himself into expressionless silence.

“Okay,” Scott started, freshly caffeinated. “One, you tell him how you feel and he says, “Thank God, cause I’m madly in love with you too, and Jackson is a giant douchecanoe. Let’s run away together and live in a cabin in the woods that I will build with my own two hands with only your love to sustain me.”

“I like that one,” said Stiles instantly. “Let’s go with that.”

Scott ignored him. “Two, you tell him how you feel and he says, “Wow, Stiles, that’s super-flattering and you’re hot as a Montana wildfire, but I’m taken, sorry, but I’d still like to hang out if you want to cause you’re super-cool.”

“Why Montana?” Stiles wanted to know, and Scott shrugged. “Why not?”

Stiles waved at him in a “carry on” motion, and Scott took another sip of his latte with a double shot of espresso, a drink Stiles was forbidden from ordering around him because he couldn’t take the way Stiles’ mouth and brain immediately synced to become some mutant version of the Flash. Just couldn’t do it.

“All right, so three. You tell him how you feel and he gets weirded out, flushes, stammers, says he’s taken and you two probably shouldn’t talk anymore, and then he model-walks out of your life and you never see him again.”

Stiles nibbled on his lip. “Four?”

“He punches you out and you wind up in the ER, where invariably my mom sees you or finds out from her spies in other hospitals and tells your dad and then, you have to explain to him why some guy kicked your ass.”

“Number one is still my favorite,” sighed Stiles, “although two is maybe more likely. Or definitely more likely. He’s not going to leave Jackson, even if he did like me that way because he loves that big asshole and he’s a noble kind. You know, the “let’s work it out” kind. And I am the “not worth losing a lover over” kind, so that’s that.”

“Stiles …” Scott paused and Stiles held up his hand. “If you tell me one more time that a relationship isn’t everything in life, your mom is gonna be seeing you come into her ER. You can’t say shit, cause if you’re not working or spending the odd moment with me, you have your tongue down your girl’s throat. I don’t want to hear it.”

“I wasn’t going to say that,” lied Scott, who had been. “I just wish …”

“What? What do you wish?”

“That things would be easier for you sometimes,” said Scott softly. “That someday, something wonderful and not stressful and exhausting would happen for you.”

Stiles had been ready to be combative, but Scott’s words deflated him. “I wish that too, Scotty. You have no idea.”

There was a short silence before Scott spoke. “Do you ever wish you could just go pick up your life at Yale again? Meet someone like you? They’d still take you back in a minute.”

“I don’t want someone like me. I want the opposite of me. I don’t need another nerd in my life – I’m all the nerd I can handle, and then some.” Stiles swept the sugar packets back into the container and set it down hard on the table. “And no. I mean, I have thought about it, but I don’t want to live my life in a lab. I don’t want to be buried in books unless they’re the books I want to read. All my life, I’ve been the spazzy geek, the know-it-all, the motormouth. No one cared about anything except what I could write on a whiteboard, what research I could do, how I could bring up a group grade. I just gave, all the time. Fuck that. If what I am to people is that shallow, then goddammit, I’ll ply the shallowest trade ever – skin trade. And I’ll be damn good at it.”

He waved a hand at his body. “I make more money sticking my ass in some guy’s face and rubbing against him at one party than I would in a month in a lab job. And I do more good this way, frankly; no one ever eyed me or cheered for me to “take it all off!” when I was in flannel and toting two backpacks across campus. And I like it. I like the way they look at me.”

Stiles took a deep breath, then exhaled. “But at the same time, Derek seems to like the nerdy part of me, the part that can keep him on his toes with word games and movies and who cheers him on when he’s doing leg presses and runs with him, goes swimming in the brook in the Preserve with him. He just seems to like me. All of me. No one else ever has.”

He pushed back from the table and set his shoulders. “But that doesn’t matter, cause he’s not free and although I still can’t stand Whittemore, I don’t mess with other people’s men. I wouldn’t want it done to me, so I don’t do it with others. Even though he doesn’t deserve Derek. Even though he doesn’t deserve anyone.”

“Maybe he’s changed,” offered Scott, and Stiles snorted. “People don’t change, Scotty. Not underneath. He didn’t even know it was me at that party and he took a swing at me. Imagine if he’d known … your mom would have had two cases to deal with. So no, he hasn’t changed. He’s just gotten better at hiding who he is inside.”

“Well his talents must be Oscar-worthy to fool someone into marrying him,” said Scott, reaching for the last of Stiles’ blueberry muffin and last bit of butter. “Especially someone who’s not also a dick.”

“Or he just has the same shit luck that he’s always had.” Stiles shook his head. “The Jacksons of this world always win, Scott. Always. This is the lesson to take from my situation. It doesn’t matter what I do or don’t do, because Jackson will still take the prize – Derek.”

“He will if you don’t tell Derek how you feel,” said Scott. “If you keep silent, then he will definitely win.”

“You sound like my father,” sighed Stiles. “Just exactly like him.”

“He’s a smart guy,” shrugged Scott. “And he’s right.”

Denied a double shot of espresso, Stiles had no rejoinder for that, and a moment later, got up with Scott and walked him out to his truck, refraining from lighting up until Scott had hugged him, told him to text him when he wanted to play Dishonored II, and promised to let him know if Allison had any life-changing suggestions; Stiles refrained from rolling his eyes – as promised – and merely nodded, waving good bye and then making his way back to the Jeep, sitting inside it and finishing his cigarette, and then smoking a few more.

He’d never get to kiss who he wanted to kiss, so who cared what his breath smelled like?

& & &

At twelve months and eight days, Derek was standing on a stool in a fitting room while a tailor fussed with the hem on his expensive wedding tuxedo pants; they were buying, not renting cause a tux was a “classic investment,” according to Jackson, and therefore they could have them perfectly tailored down to the last detail, and honestly, had there ever been grooms that were as handsome as they were? He’d asked this of the mirror where the second tailor was working on his inseam, and Derek, overhearing, had just smiled and shaken his head, cause no, there probably hadn’t been.

He hated standing still though, and had to be told twice to please stay in one spot, and didn’t realize he was scowling until a soft laugh interrupted him – his eyes flicked up immediately to meet an identical ice-green gaze in the mirror.

Laura.

A moment later, there was an indignant yelp from the second fitting room and a, “Hey! That’s my car you’re towing!” and she laughed again. “So easy,” she said, shaking her head. “Seriously, so easy.”

She moved over to Derek, still standing stock-still, and looked up at him. “You look good,” she said, inspecting him. “A little beardy, but you never liked shaving anyway. Probably because you were what, ten years old the first time you had to?”

The tailor looked between them, and then made a wise choice to go look for the exact shade of black thread he’d need for the hem, and disappeared into the back, while Laura leaned against the wall. “So, you’re seriously going through with this. Seriously, really and truly.”

“Yes, I am. Really and truly.” Derek knew she could tell when he was uncomfortable, would be listening for his heartbeat and breathing, and he tried to steady both. “In two weeks.”

“I know. I didn’t receive my invitation yet, but I assumed it was lost in the mail.” She smiled slowly. “I know my baby brother, my only living relative, wouldn’t not invite his sister and Alpha to the biggest event of his life so far. Or rather, biggest happy event. Right?”

Derek took a breath. “You hate my fiancé.”

“Hate is a strong word, Derek, and a mostly wasted emotion. I don’t like him particularly, and am absolutely sure you could do better, but it’s not my life, is it? I don’t have to love him, merely tolerate him, and that, I can do.”

“You just had his car towed.”

She shrugged. “Big deal. He can afford the tow fee and incidentally, the meter HAD run out in his space. I merely hurried things along to get a moment with you. Sorry, not sorry.”

She smoothed his shirt front, and then touched his cheek. “You two are the handsomest grooms, by the way – he was right about that.”

Derek swallowed, and stepped down off the stool, into Laura’s waiting arms and slid his around her, breathing her in, his grip tightening, burying his face in her hair.

They stood like that for a long moment, before both letting go, both of their stances considerably more relaxed now, and Laura took a new tack. “I’d ask you to lunch, but it’s short notice and I am sure Jackson will be most unamused, but how about we meet for a run later, at the edge of the Preserve? A real run, our kind of run. Want to?”

Their kind of run meant shifting and going wide and far into the woods, and despite himself, a wide grin broke across his face. “I’d love that … oh wait. I’m supposed to run with Stiles later.” He looked around, but no Jackson – yet. “But I can do my regular run in the woods with him, and still meet you for a longer run, if that’s okay. You could meet him,” he offered. “You two would probably get along. You’re both smartasses.”

Laura laughed. “I’d like that,” she said, pleased. Very pleased. Her plan was working better than she could have hoped. She’d known from her research that Stilinski was an overachiever from the start, but this was excellent.

Jackson hurried in then, flushed, but paled a little at the sight of Laura, which solidified her good mood. Greatly so.

She smiled, showing the tips of her fangs, and Jackson blanched.

& & &

Stiles was really not in the mood to run; he’d strained a back muscle at the gym, and laid up on his couch, had made the mistake of checking the Facebook page of one of his lab group buddies from Yale and had been blindsided by the news of a discovery they’d made – largely due to his earlier research from two years ago – that might make a definite contribution to eradicating genetic defects. And if that wasn’t enough, he’d been further numbed by the news that Adam, a boy he had really, really liked once upon a time, had been killed a couple of months ago while walking home from the lab too late at night. Walking, because driving was an unacceptable form of carbon emissions, yet he’d never turned a ride home in the Jeep down. And that night, he would have probably been in the Jeep after a late study session in the lab and away from the drunk driver of an Audi who had swerved over the middle lane, jumped the sidewalk and hit him, killing him instantly.

Stiles could have changed things if he had been there; he would have been dating Adam by now and they’d live in a safer neighborhood or on campus in an apartment, and he would have made the genome discovery that Mikelson had made instead of him.

He’d wrenched himself up off the couch and looked at himself in the bathroom mirror. Built strong, his back and front covered in tattoos, wild hair, a pile of money, and making no contribution to the scientific world whatsoever. That discovery should have been his.

It should have been his mother’s – through him – and for the first time since he’d come home to Beacon Hills, he let himself experience the regret that despite his careless words to Scott, always lurked beneath the surface.

“Fuck, Mom, I am so sorry,” he said, voice thick, though it was only him alone in the bathroom. “I’m taking all that you gave me and wasting it, just because I was tired of being invisible. Now I couldn’t be more visible and it’s so empty.”

He rubbed his face. He looked like he had it made, but he didn’t; he was still confused, often sad, mostly angry, and now, he was unsuitably in love with another man’s fiancé.

He’d never told Adam he cared for him and now Adam was dead and would never know.

His phone buzzed insistently in the other room, and he swallowed around the lump in his throat and saw the text. Hey, still running with me? There’s someone I want you to meet.

Oh God – he didn’t think he could handle anyone else today, but he could also feel that bunny smile through the phone, and none of this was Derek’s fault.

 

Sure, at five at our usual spot. And please tell me the someone isn’t Jackson.

 

That was something he couldn’t take today, he knew this. Or any other day, for that matter.

 

No, no, someone you’ll like. See you at five! :)

 

A smiley face from a frowny guy; Stiles had to grin a little and put his phone back down before gulping down a tasty cocktail of ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and a Xanax to give him that relaxed, don’t-give-a-fuck glow.

At ten to five, Stiles was out the door in slightly nicer basketball shorts than usual and a tank top that was still new, and had his buddy Supes on it. The shorts were red, his running shoes too, it all worked out.

He made it to their spot and started stretching, and was using a tree for leverage when Derek leaned over his shoulder and sniffed. “New deodorant? No bromidrosis.”

Stiles started, then rolled his eyes. “First, I’m gonna make you wear a bell around your neck, and secondly, no, I don’t smell sweaty or gross – yet. Nice word though, just like how you accused me of advanced ignavia when I did not return your move in 1.5 seconds last night on WWF. I hate to tell you, but some of us do occasionally have to pee, or go outside for a smoke, or get a drink from the fridge. Don’t be so fucking impatient.”

Derek laughed. “Just impatient?”

“I’m running low on cool words, what can I say? Back to Google, I guess.”

He looked Derek up and down. “You look different,” he said, and Derek shrugged. “I got a haircut this morning,” he offered, and Stiles squinted against the sun.

“I see no change.”

“I don’t like change so I make sure it’s exactly the same every single time. I trimmed the beard – maybe that’s it?”

“Also the same,” replied Stiles, and Derek grinned.

“Exactly.”

“You are so weird. Most guys shave to change it up and get haircuts for the same reason. They either want a change, can no longer see due to overgrown fringe, twigs are getting tangled in it, they got a bad millennial dye job or their SO makes them. But you do it to maintain exact status quo.” Stiles shook his head. “But then again, if I looked like you, I’d never change a thing either.

“I’m just your basic guy, Stiles,” said Derek, shrugging, his cheeks tingeing pink and Stiles snorted. “Sure, your garden-variety hottie, you’re a dime a dozen. Except that most people who look like you would not be caught dead in a bookstore, playing word games with dorks or looking up obscure words to fuck said dork up – and laughing. Most hotties would face themselves in the mirror at the gym, and you look away like Kramer after 24 hours of secondhand smoke have made him all craggy.”

“Well,” Derek considered. “There’s nothing hot about being dumb, you’re a worthy opponent – more than – and I’d rather look at other things in the gym other than myself. I know I can lift, I don’t need to watch it. And secondhand smoke is a killer.”

“Don’t I know it,” nodded Stiles. “That’s why I stick to first-hand smoke and cut out the middleman.”

Derek laughed. “You’re impossible.”

“What, just impossible?” Stiles wiggled his brows at Derek, who snorted.

“Maybe I need to hit up Google, too.”

That made Stiles smile and they stretched quietly together, then started out, heading towards the brook, while Laura, sitting nearby under a tree, listened in, her smile widening with every exchange.

She had already observed Stiles walking to the meeting place, and had let her eyes wander over his face, his hair, his body, all approvingly. He was beautiful and didn’t know it, and he had brains to back up the looks, which were secondary, unlike Jackson, for whom looks were all he had. He’d had the opportunity to develop depth, but a few sessions with a British therapist – ended because they were boring and hard – and a few drunken talks with Danny Mahealani about his parents not showing him love and instead giving him a Porsche was better than nothing, but there was no way he’d ever touch Stiles when it came to feeling true emotion, true pain and loss, true empathy – all the things her brother needed, whether he accepted it right now or not.

And honestly, Derek was a dick when it came to Words with Friends, so if Stiles could handle that and give as good as he got, he had her approval already.

She listened to them crash through the woods like a couple of triceratops, shook her head and got up, taking her own route to the brook.

& & &

“FUCK!

Stiles winced at how loud his voice sounded in the stillness, and then grimaced, pressing his hand against his lower back and muttering some more.

“What is it?” Derek had been ahead of him, but had circled back at the epithet and laid a hot hand on his shoulder. “You hurt?”

“No, I just, I pulled a muscle yesterday and it hurts like hell,” grumbled Stiles. “It hadn’t been feeling too bad but I must have pushed it, and I can’t really do that, because I have another party booked this weekend. Well, an inquiry, I need to call them back when I get home.”

“Oh,” said Derek, momentarily discomfited at the thought of Stiles stripping or dancing for another group of guys. “Well, work is good, yeah?”

“Yeah, while I got it, I gotta work it. Save my pennies for the day gravity hits me and it all falls down. Arches, belly, balls, you know, the works.”

Derek chuckled and batted Stiles’ hand away, kneading the muscle that had tightened up. “I think you have a few years before it all goes downhill. You’re what, 23, 24?”

“Twenty-four,” replied Stiles, then moaned – actively moaned when Derek squeezed. “Oh, fuck me hard,” he muttered and closed his eyes, while Derek’s eyes, in contrast, opened wide – then darkened to beta blue.

He took a breath, glad that Stiles’ back was to him, and he watched the muscles play under the fabric of his tank as he continued to knead, till Stiles sighed. “That’s fucking brilliant, thank you.”

“I always said Derek was good with his hands,” said Laura, emerging from a copse of trees, and making Stiles almost jump out of his skin. She noted it and laughed. “I’m sorry. I’m Laura Hale, Derek’s older sister. We were going to go running as well, but he wanted to get in his time with you first. I can see why.”

Stiles wrinkled his brow, cause her voice sounded oddly familiar and in a moment, he knew why; she really had been the voice on the phone, the voice booking him for the job. Did she know him, or had this been planned all along or was it truly some kind of weird coincidence?

It took a moment to find his own voice. “I’m Stiles,” he said, extending his hand. “It’s nice to meet you. I didn’t know you lived around here.”

“I don’t. I flew in from New York for baby brother’s wedding in a couple of weeks, and just wanted some time to settle in and maybe go out and look at the old place, see if it can be rebuilt. It seems a shame to just leave it there, half in ruins.”

Stiles felt Derek’s hand tense and stop at that, and Stiles stepped away, rubbing his own back. He wanted to know if Laura had known it was him, had specially picked him because of Jackson, and as he met her eyes, he realized he didn’t have to ask. He knew.

He was supposed to come between them.

 

“Yeah, I knew him in high school; we played lacrosse on the same team for a couple of years. Charming guy.”

 

“Really? I find him a major asshole, a social-climbing parasite who thinks looking like a model makes up for a total lack of personality. Not charming in the least.”

 

“Okay, you’re right. He’s a dick.”

 

“Indeed. Speaking of dicks, I hear yours is very impressive, as is your ass, your arms and chest. I’m usually not a fan of ink, but yours seems to make a statement and only enhances your look, which seems to be baby hipster. I enjoy that. I think you’ll be perfect.”

 

“There’s a bonus in it if you can turn Jackson’s fiancé on, and I do mean truly turn him on.”

 

“I don’t fuck the clients. “If you’re looking for someone who you can pay to play, I can give you a couple of names, but my dick is still mine. Look, no touch.”

 

“God no, I don’t want you to fuck him. Just be in his face. I hear good things about you, so I trust your judgment.

 

Stiles swallowed hard – Derek had gotten past his moment concerning Laura’s plans and was now eyeing him with concern. “Are you okay?”

Stiles shrugged. “Just hurting. I’ll live.”

Laura watched him, knew he’d made the connection, and now his smell wasn’t just sweat and base arousal – her brother’s fault, no doubt – but also anger and dismay, which hadn’t been her intention at all. She wondered if he’d tell Derek, if Derek would believe him, and if she should do damage control now. She hadn’t honestly thought Derek would get this far with Jackson. She’d thought he might like the kid, decide to try him out, and then realize playing the field was much more fun than being engaged. She hadn’t expected them to click like this.

Or for Stiles to fall for her brother, because the smell of desire was all over him – both of them.

She nibbled her lip. “Anything I can do to help?”

Stiles met her eyes. “No. I’ll be fine. I always am.”

He turned to Derek. “I’m gonna walk back, and you and your sister can finish your run and I will see you whenever. I know your next two weeks are super busy and you probably won’t have time to hang out, so maybe a couple of games of Words when you can fit them in?”

Derek looked between his sister and Stiles; he smelled regret and anger, and a whole host of other emotions, and Stiles was withdrawing and Laura looked like she knew she’d fucked up.

A series of thoughts were coalescing in his brain, but before he could finalize them, Stiles was speaking. “It was nice to meet you, Laura – have fun at the wedding. And Derek, thanks for the mini-massage. I’ll see you.”

He turned and was stopped by Derek’s voice. “Stiles … wait, I thought we could maybe … I don’t know, grab a bite or something? Your stomach was rumbling earlier.”

Stiles turned around and gave him a little smile. “Nah, I’m fine. I’m gonna head home, take a shower, take something and probably lay on the couch, steeping in my own hebetude. Take care.”

He turned again, and walked away, trying – and mostly succeeding – in looking like the self-sufficient, mostly-proud young guy he was, but he wasn’t fooling himself. Once he got home, it was gonna be all over. But he’d keep it to himself. No Dad, no Scott, no anyone. This was his private sadness.

He’d finally been used for his looks instead of his brain, and the result would be the same; once Derek figured it out, he’d hate him and think he was in on the idea of breaking them up. It wouldn’t matter how many bench presses, how many lattes, or how many anecdotes about National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation they’d shared – Derek would hate him, blame him.

He sat in his jeep and touched the heavily-inked gauntlets on his forearms, tracing them down to the top of his hands, and then turned his wrist over, where the Justice League seal sat, looking at the scars it covered, scars only he could now see. He didn’t want to be that person again, ever, but right now, he felt that same, sick, shaky, pit of the stomach twist he had when he made those scars.

Over a boy, a boy who was now gone from this earth.

But that would never happen again. This whole thing was fucking stupid and he hadn’t done anything wrong – he hadn’t told Derek how he felt, and thank God. Thank GOD. If he’d followed his instinct, stopped him by the brook in the fading light and told him, “I’m sorry, but I think I’ve fallen for you and I know you’re engaged, and I’m a shit for telling you this, but I love you. I’m in love with you, Derek Hale.”

If he’d done that, everything would be a thousand times worse.

At least a thousand times.

& & &

At twelve months and nine and a half days, Derek was once again not speaking to his sister; she had owned up to all of it – to hiring Stiles because she’d known he and Jackson had been at school together, had done a little judicious asking around and found that they hadn’t exactly been the best of friends, and had deliberately sought Stiles out and booked him on short notice just to try and drive a wedge between he and Jackson because, as she reiterated over and over, “He isn’t right for you, Derek! It will be a shallow, unrewarding relationship and it’s gone way past its natural end point and you know I’m right!”

She was adamant that Stiles hadn’t known anything – he had been hired to do a job, and yes, he’d known it was Jackson, but that she had paid him well and requested that he pay special attention to Derek. He had done his job, and obviously, despite that, Derek and Stiles had formed a friendship. Stiles wasn’t trying to break them up or hurt anyone, was he? He was being Derek’s friend and that was what Derek needed more than anything, right?

Derek was beyond angry, beyond betrayed. He accused her of not letting him live his life, of trying to control him and told her that a good alpha, like their mom had been, would never, ever stoop this low. That had stopped Laura in her tracks, and made her cry, and that’s when Jackson had come home from meeting with the band for the reception and thrown her out, told her to leave and that as long as she upset Derek, not to come around. She replied that she was his Alpha.

“But you’re not mine,” said Jackson evenly. “So get the fuck out of my house.”

She had left then, leaving her brother angry and torn and probably in a space to get closer to his intended than ever, to bond more, and worse, she’d upset her little brother again, when all she wanted was who was best for him.

And from all she’d seen and sensed, who was best for him was a former lab geek turned supermodel-level stripper who was also a doll of a person and who now probably also hated her and thought Derek would hate him.

God, she’d fucked up, and Derek’s comment about their mother had hurt. Baby brother may have been hurt, but damn, he knew how to give as good as he got.

She tried to call Stiles, but all she got was his voice mail. After two hangups, she left a message.

“Stiles, it’s Laura Hale. I’m sure you don’t want to hear from me ever again, but I just wanted to tell you that although this whole thing was cold-hearted on my part, I just wanted my brother to make a better decision about the rest of his life and not another bad one. He kind of hates me right now, and I suspect you do too, and I’m sorry. I did tell Derek none of this had to do with you, and that your friendship or whatever this is with you two is a real thing.”

The message ran out, and she called again. “Derek smiles when he mentions you, which he does a lot, and I know you two have similar interests. I could tell you liked him today, I believe he likes you too, and just, even if he does this reckless, dumb, wrong thing with Jackson, would you keep being his friend? He needs that. And again, I’m sorry. I was trying to be a mom to Derek and not a supportive sister. I … I, yeah, am sorry. Thank you.”

Stiles listened to these messages later in the night, when he sobered up enough to understand them, and then promptly opened another bottle of discount-bin whiskey and slipped back into oblivion. She could say sorry all she wanted – she didn’t control how Derek thought. Or how he thought.

& & &

Stiles wasn’t surprised when there was no word from Derek; no messages in their game, no texts, no invitations to run. He wasn’t at the gym when he normally went – early, like Stiles, who didn’t like gawkers and didn’t go for the meat market atmosphere – and he wasn't at Second-Hand News – the barista asked him about Derek.

“Your friend hasn’t been here in like, three days,” she said, handing him his cup. “Did he go vegan and swear off coffee?”

Despite Stiles’ foul mood, that made him snort. “I hope not. That would be troubling.”

“Right? I’d die without my coffee.”

“I hear you, but I don’t know where he is.” Stiles stirred and looked around for the sugar; she tilted her head.

“You two were cute together.”

"We weren’t together.” Where was the fucking sugar?

“You looked like you were. All giggly and sharing magazines and making movie jokes; it was sweet.”

“If you want something sweet, tell me where the sugar is,” grumbled Stiles, and she blinked, but looked around, then reached under the counter and plopped a giant handful of Domino’s packets next to his cup. “Enjoy.”

Stiles immediately felt bad as she walked away, but goddammit, they hadn’t been a couple!

He stirred in the sugar, then swept up his mess, wrote, Thank you, sorry for being a crabass on a napkin with a sharpie, leaving it on the counter and headed home to mourn. And drink. And maybe watch some Survivor.

He was doing just that, wondering how in hell some of these people lived with themselves, if it was really possible to get high off of cactus juice, and what if they used poison ivy leaves to wipe with when his iPad lit up and his gameboard appeared.

 

HaletotheD plays: “Mulligrubs.”

 

(Stiles had laughed forever over that username, thinking Derek was being smutty, but no one had been more embarrassed than him when Stiles pointed out how it sounded.)

Stiles looked at the board for a moment, then typed.

DupeofSupes plays: “Lalochezia.” It seemed fitting, since he cursed a lot, and Stiles was surprised, yet not, at the little stutter in his chest when he saw Derek’s username pop up.

 

HaletotheD plays: “Alextihymia.”

 

Okay, so that one was new, and Stiles googled on his phone, pulling up the word, then read the definition and sighed, then opened a chat window.

 

Damn you, you made me look that one up – no fair! But actually, same. And while it seems dumb to ask if you’re okay, given your word choice … are you?

 

Derek was lying on the floor of the bedroom; he’d been doing sit-ups when the words had popped into his mind, which wasn’t surprising, cause part of his brain lately was always occupied with looking for new words to throw at Stiles. He’d never found anyone else who liked doing that too; his sisters had laughed him off and he had stumped his father a long time ago and taken the Scrabble crown as his own. And Stiles was a formidable opponent who seemed to love words like he did. He’d used “aporrhoea” on him one day, just to see if he’d smile or just look at him like he was nuts – most people had, even in England, where they at least acted smarter than the rest of the world – and Stiles had looked at him questioningly, tilting his head, and said, “Did you just use a fancy word for farting on me? Did you? Cause you know the rule – he who smelt it, dealt it.”

He had grinned at him then, and in that moment, Derek had fallen a little in love with him, and that feeling had only continued to simmer in his belly, occasionally boiling up when Stiles particularly delighted him by getting his jokes, talking books with him, or making silly faces at him when he was spotting Derek on weights. Then the fire would flare and Derek would have to look away, afraid his feelings were written all over his face.

He thought about that now, and typed back. Not really; sister really upset me and I’m trying to just walk it off. Sit-up it off, I guess. How about you?

Stiles thought a moment, and decided to be honest, cause what good would come of lying? Not telling Derek how he felt wasn’t a lie. It was an omission at worst. But being honest about feeling bad was better than pretending it was all okay.

 

Not that good, really. I feel bad about last night. I feel like things got twisted up and I didn’t mean for them to and I feel like it looks like I was lying to you or something and I wasn’t. I swear.

 

Derek rubbed his face. Can we talk about this over coffee or a drink? I have questions and maybe you do too and talking here is awkward. I know you have a job soon but if you have time, I’d rather meet up.

Job is Saturday night. I’m free now if you want. If you can get away – coffee or a drink, it’s past 5 PM somewhere right?

He sent the message, relieved when Derek replied back and asked to meet him at New Jack’s, a bar in Wilton, a couple of towns over, about a twenty-minute drive. Stiles was briefly disappointed that Derek didn’t want to go right here in town, but realized that Jackson knew people everywhere in Beacon Hills and probably in Rio Linda too and probably didn’t want to deal with people seeing them in a bar together.

Stiles hauled himself up and got dressed, sniffing to make sure he smelled okay, and stopped at the ATM, a Circle K to get gas and smokes, and headed towards Wilton; he figured it was a small town, he’d find the bar. And he did, arriving a little before Derek, which gave him time to lean against the building and have a smoke before going inside.

He was lost in thought, and once again, Derek snuck up on him, making him jump and glare at him. “Bell! You’re getting one!”

Derek looked tired, thought Stiles, a little worse for the wear, but he probably did too, and so when Derek smiled for him, Stiles smiled back. “You can attach the bell to the collar Jackson thinks I should wear,” he said as he waited for Stiles to finish up. “It should go very nicely with it.”

Stiles groaned. “Please, I don’t want to hear about your kinky BDSM nightlife,” he said. “Collars, whips, cock rings? Better left to the imagination, thanks.”

“Oh shit,” said Derek, startled, then snorted. “No, nothing like that. He seems to think I’m a little independent these days and would like to put a collar and tracking chip on me, and can’t imagine why I’d object.”

“Because you’re not a dog?”

Derek briefly thought of his father calling him his little pup, and had to shake his head to clear the thought away. “Basically, and also, because I’m not property, so …”

“I feel you. I mean, not that I would know what it’s like to be that wanted and kept track of, but I can see it getting old fast. But anyway, what the fuck do I know about relationships?”

Stiles took a final drag off his cigarette, butted it out and tossed it into the trash and followed Derek into the bar, which hadn’t been refurbished – or, Stiles was willing to bet, cleaned – since the 1970’s and he looked around. “Kitschy,” he said, deadpan, and Derek shrugged.

“Can you see any of our circle in a place like this?”

“I don’t have a circle, Derek,” replied Stiles. “I barely have two dots to connect with a straight line, let alone a circle. But no. I cannot see Jackson and his cronies, also your cronies at this point, in a place like this.”

“I don’t have cronies,” retorted Derek, and sighed. “I have one friend, one sister and one fiancé. Not really crony material.”

Stiles wondered if he was the friend, and decided not to ask. They sat down at a booth, which was all cracked leather and the lingering scent of tequila, and ordered beers, which came with sourdough pretzel bites and mustard. Nice touch.

Stiles took a sip of his beer – Bud, on tap – and watched Derek play with his coaster, flipping it around in his fingers like he’d never seen one before. After a moment, he looked over at Stiles and licked his lips. “So, uh … Laura told me that she hired you, that you knew it was Jackson but didn’t know who I was – I don’t know how she knew that, but anyway – and that she asked you specifically to work on me to make Jackson jealous.”

He looked to Stiles for confirmation, and Stiles nodded. “That’s true. She didn’t identify herself and she paid in cash, so I didn’t figure out who it was till a while ago. But she did mention Jackson, I did know who he was, and she mentioned you. I thought your name sounded familiar but it was Scott who put it together for me. I remember seeing you and thinking that Jackson really did get everything.”

Now it was Stiles’ turn to fidget, but he chose to shred a napkin instead. “So I did as I was told; I concentrated on you, you mostly looked through me, and finally, you paid attention and we remember what happened after that.”

“I do,” said Derek. “I followed you, and saw your face and then kept seeing it. At first by accident, then on purpose and I haven’t regretted a single second of it.”

That wasn’t what Stiles expected, and he looked up as Derek continued. “Even if you hadn’t had everything in common with me, even if you hadn’t been charming and hot as hell, I would have still wanted to keep talking to you, because you get me. No one has gotten me in years.”

Stiles didn’t know what to say; he opened his mouth and closed it again, then again, till he figured he looked like a caught fish on dry land, and took a breath. “I like you,” he said finally. “I really, really like you, and I know I can’t cause you’re taken and in love and all that, but I do. I know it can’t go anywhere, and you probably don’t even want it to, but I could fall for you so hard, I really could.”

He already had, but he didn’t think Derek needed to know that.

Derek held his gaze, and then reached for his beer, draining half of it and setting it down again, fingers curled around the glass. “Could you?”

“Yes. I could.” Stiles realized his free hand was curled into itself under the table and he forced his fingers to relax.

Derek kept his eyes fixed on the table. “Good to know, I guess.”

“Yeah, isn’t it?” Stiles wasn’t sure what to do with that response and figured it meant that it was nice to have guys fall for you and not have to reciprocate. He felt cold, suddenly, like a fire inside of him had gone out, and the cold turned icy when he realized that was exactly what had happened.

He pushed out of the booth, standing so suddenly that the table rocked and he had to steady it with one hand, which kept it from shaking. “I have to go,” he said, voice barely audible, and pulled a twenty out of his pocket, tossing it on the table. “Beer’s on me. Congrats again on your wedding, and I’m sorry it got weird with us. Really sorry.”

Derek half-stood and called after him. “Stiles!”

But he was gone, threading through the tables and out the door, fumbling for his keys and jamming them into the ignition, making the Jeep whine in protest, but it started and he pulled out of the parking lot, not looking, lucky he didn’t get hit on the way out. He didn’t head back to Beacon Hills, but to his father’s house in Rio Linda, letting himself in with his key and going to the couch, wrapping himself in his mother’s ancient afghan and burrowing into the cushions, hiding as he had when he was a little boy.

He wished he could hide there forever and never have to get up and face his life again.

For a long time now, it had been okay, his life. He’d been okay with going from intense to mindless – that had been the plan. After Adam and the non-relationship he had created in his mind, all he’d wanted was to be wanted, even if it was only for a moment, even if the guys were drunk off their asses. For those moments, he could pretend he was powerful – maybe he even was. And he took their money gladly, put it in the bank, went to the gym, worked on himself, made sure to give it his all, worked on his brand. And he was fine.

Except now, he wasn’t, and it was because once again, he’d let himself feel things, and he knew damn well feeling was the enemy. For him, anyway – for others, it seemed like a lovely experience, but that was them and he was, always, always himself.

No matter how much he wanted to be someone else.

& & &

At twelve months and twelve days, Jackson was eyeing Derek approvingly. “I love that color on you,” he said, meaning the cranberry-red jersey Derek was wearing under his black silk sport jacket. “You look amazing, babe.”

“Thank you,” replied Derek, making sure he had his wallet, then deciding to just use a money clip cause the pants Jackson had bought him were not forgiving to wallet-shaped lumps on one’s ass. “You look beautiful too.”

Jackson smiled for him, the sunburst crinkles reminding Derek of why he’d made a beeline for this boy in the first place, that night in London. Cause when Jackson smiled, you could ignore the other small things that came with weddings and planning and micro-managing everything in your joined life and the like. You could ignore the snooping on your phone for incriminating text messages, pretend to not know who the hell “Dupe of Supes” was on your game, which you’d stupidly left on your iPad when you went to a bar and fucked something up which was precious to you in a way you couldn’t explain to your sunburst baby, and didn’t even try, so you shrugged and said, “some guy who likes weird words too,” and then gave your fiancé spectacular head to help him forget everything and stop badgering you.

Of course, that didn’t stop Derek from thinking of everything Danny had said, everything Stiles had not said, and wondering still who the real Jackson was, if he was seeing him correctly, if there were more red flags he should be paying attention to. And try as he might, shutting off his mind was just not something Derek could do, and God, didn’t he wish he could.

Another trait he shared with a certain brown-eyed boy with tattoos and lips to die for.

“Ready?” said Jackson, jingling his keys. “Are you gonna drink? Cause if you are, we need to put this in the parking garage and call an Uber later, or just take a cab in the first place.”

He waited for Derek, who shrugged. “I don’t feel like drinking, so you go crazy and have fun, okay?”

Jackson rolled his eyes expressively. “As much fun as I can have at a joint bachelor-bachelorette party for Greenberg of all people. I mean, Greenberg!”

“He seemed like a nice guy to me,” offered Derek, shrugging. “I talked to him a little at our party.”

“You didn’t know him in high school,” replied Jackson, as they left the apartment. “He was beyond nerd. He was almost in Stilinski territory, God help him.”

Derek had been trying hard to forget that name, and hearing it was jarring. “What was the matter with Stilinski?” he asked carefully after a moment, and Jackson, already belting himself into the driver’s seat of his 2016 Porsche, snorted. “What wasn’t?”

“That’s not very specific,”

“Specifically, Stilinski was a big-mouthed know-it-all who had a fucking answer for everything, and was annoying as hell. He was the kid who asked a question at the end of class so the teacher was late dismissing us, the kid who blew up his experiment in chemistry and covered everyone around him in neon yellow foam, probably toxic. He was this scrawny first line wannabe who sucked balls at lacrosse but didn’t give it up and let someone else have his spot. Coach had a weird soft spot for him, so he stayed, even though he was useless.”

They were on the street now, heading to the other side of Beacon Hills. “Plus, his father was the Sheriff,” Jackson continued, having warmed to his subject. “So, you know the kid was a fucking narc on top of it all.”

“You know this for a fact?” Derek was careful to keep the incredulousness out of his voice, if not his eyes, which were thankfully not easy to read in the semi-dark.

“Whenever shit happened, whenever someone got busted, he was there,” said Jackson flatly. “Hovering, him and his little shit of a buddy, Scott McCall. It’s like they knew, so they must have been the cause, right? He ratted out a friend of mine who had some coke – I know, we were dumb, we were sixteen! – and he got caught with it at a party by a deputy on a noise complaint. I mean, how else would the cop have known?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Teenagers running around with white powder under their nose, maybe,” Derek gritted out. “Might be a clue.”

“Oh bullshit,” said Jackson dismissively, missing the tone. “He told on us, must have. But we got him, me and Marshall. We got him after practice, pretended the Coach had asked us to get some extra equipment from the shed, and little suck-up Stilinski volunteered – we knew he would. We waited for him by the shed and when he was opening the door, we jumped him. Beat his little ass into the ground.”

Jackson laughed. “Jesus, you should have seen him. He’s lucky we let up when we did; Marshall was all for taking out his knees, but I stopped him, figuring he needed to be able to stumble home. We’d broken a couple of ribs, he had a black eye, split lip. Nothing that wouldn’t heal. We said he’d fallen off his bike again and nothing happened. Then we got lucky and he moved, like a month later.”

Derek closed his eyes so Jackson couldn’t see them in the dimness because they were glowing blue and his claws were curling into his palm, digging into the flesh; he could feel his features fighting to change. He breathed. He breathed and squeezed his eyes shut until they ached.

God, if he’d known any of this back in England, he wouldn’t be here now, would he? Would he have been able to be okay with it if Jackson had sat him down and explained that he used to be a person who wasn’t very nice, who was a bully sometimes, who had done bad things and felt appropriately sorry about it and was working to be a better person? Would that have been enough? He didn’t know, but it didn’t matter, because it hadn’t happened that way.

What had happened was that Laura had been right. Laura had been fucking right all along and he hadn’t seen it, hadn’t wanted to see it, hadn’t been able to bear the thought that he’d made another terrible mistake in choosing someone. But here it was, all the things Stiles had never elaborated on, because, why would he? And how could Danny fucking lie to him the way he had? He had to have known.

Loyalty was apparently stronger than truth in Beacon Hills, California USA.

He wasn’t aware that they’d arrived, until, “Derek? Hey, we’re here. You all right?”

No, he was not all right. He was so far from all right that it wasn’t even funny.

He concentrated, and when he opened his eyes, he was sure they were back to normal; he turned his head and Jackson didn’t jump, so he blinked, then nodded.

“Okay, because you got really quiet there. Figured you were shaking your head over that nerd, and since I was too, I let you be.” A smile. “Let’s go in.”

Numb, Derek let his hand be taken possessively and led into the house, a sudden shock of light, noise and heat surging around him. For a dork, Greenberg and his intended had a lot of family and friends, and they had all turned out in force to celebrate the nuptials, scheduled a week after theirs.

Derek found a corner to hang in, a drink clutched firmly in a hand that he had to concentrate on keeping human – a resolve that lasted till he spotted Danny. When the other man walked by his alcove, Derek’s free hand shot out and jerked him in.

“Hey, Derek – hell of a grip you have on you,” said Danny, then registered Derek’s expression and swallowed. “What’s up?”

“You lied to me,” Derek growled. “You told me that Jackson just mocked Stiles once in a while, and conveniently left out the full-scale beating that he and that fucking Neanderthal Marshall so kindly gave him after deciding – with no evidence – that he’d ratted out a cokehead friend of theirs. The fuck is wrong with you?”

Danny had paled under his tan. “He told you about that? Shit, I was blood-sworn to secrecy about that forever, but then again, you are marrying him.”

Derek’s expression prompted his own to change. “You are, right?”

“You’re a dick,” said Derek tonelessly. “You and all your friends. Fucking assholes and thugs and if I were you, I couldn’t be fucking looking at myself in the morning with anything but shame.”

He pushed past Danny, and was about to leave the house and walk home, when the entertainment showed up. And the entertainment was a very fine male specimen who catered to both men and women, apparently, and who, Derek knew, had a large tattoo of the symbol of the Son of Krypton on his chest. It was covered, but Derek knew it was there.

As repugnant as he found Jackson at this moment, he circled through the kitchen and emerged close to Jackson – just in case.

Stiles was having his own existential crisis in the meantime; how the fuck had Greenberg, of all people, found someone to marry him? How had he fallen in love, and gotten to this point when Stiles couldn’t even keep a friendship afloat? Whittemore had been bad enough, as bad as it got, but now there was Greenberg, too? Was everyone in the world a better catch than he was?

He’d considered cancelling when he got the confirmation email from the best man, detailing name and address, and then leaving the country, but he’d raised his rates at the start of the fiscal year – he was smart like that – and they’d agreed to his price, so here he was. Work ethic on point, he thought, expertly masking what showed of his face. If he had nothing else, he had a healthy bank account for someone his age.

Since he had the ladies tonight, he alternated some Shawn Mendes, some Liam Payne, some Martin Garrix, and then a softer touch with Ellie Goulding – he liked Your Biggest Mistake for the females – it was completely appropriate tonight. Coming here was probably his biggest mistake, he thought, and then the thought was cemented when he spotted Jackson.

And Derek, who was near Jackson, but not beside him, not holding his hand or pressed against him, and his face looked like a thundercloud. Stiles had always liked that image, but hadn’t thought it was a real thing. Apparently, he was wrong.

He didn’t acknowledge Derek in any way, just started dancing, mask firmly in place – both of them – and all was going well, until the bride got handsy and pulled off his shirt, revealing the full “S” emblazoned on his chest. Unfortunately for all involved, she was sitting almost directly in front of Jackson, who got a full view of Stiles’ exposed chest and arms; Stiles could almost see the neurons firing in his wee brain as he made the connection between him and the “affectionate” dancer from his party. And he’d had just enough whiskey to remember being pissed about it.

Stiles tried to back off for the other’s sakes, if not his own; he may have been thin and had no discernible muscles when he was sixteen, but that was eight long years ago, and things were not as they once had been. But Jackson was having none of it, pushing past the bride, pushing Danny away from him and heading for Stiles, who decided to up the ante by pulling off his mask and showing Jackson exactly who he was dealing with.

Jackson stopped dead for a moment, disbelieving, before his lip curled. “Stilinski.”

“Long time no see, Whittemore,” said Stiles evenly. “Not long enough, but what can you do?”

Jackson wasted no time with pleasantries. “You little fuck! You were the one all over Derek! What’s the matter, can’t get your own man so you want to try and take mine? Good fucking luck!"

Oh, I almost had your man, thought Stiles. If he was a different kind of man, I’d be in his bed right now, and wiping my ass with your silk boxers.

“I see your anger issues haven’t improved,” he said casually, deciding on his course of action. “You’re still a douche and a bully, and all the culture in Europe can’t make a decent man out of a piece of shit like you. You can’t be helped. Fated to forever be the poor little rich boy, oh boo hoo, hoo. Mommy and Daddy don’t come to games, they just buy baby boy a new car.”

Stiles smiled. “At least my dad came to my games, no matter how busy he was. Always.”

Former teammates of his, ranged around the room, all winced, because regardless of whatever Stilinski’s Kryptonite consisted of, he’d sure found Jackson’s, and no one was surprised when Jackson lunged at Stiles, who didn’t duck, didn’t deflect, or run, but met him head on with a right hook that would leave a serious mark on that pretty face.

And they were down, Stiles giving as good as he got – better, even, because he was letting go, his anger issues were a match for Jackson’s any day, and it was a good few moments before anyone could get close enough to pull them apart once, then again.

There was blood – a lot of it – and Greenberg’s fiancée was screaming, and there was noise all around them and Stiles yanked away from the hands pulling him away – Danny’s. He stared at Danny for a minute, and Danny swallowed. “I’m sorry, Stiles,” he whispered. “I am so sorry, I should have backed you up back then. I fucked up and I will regret it forever.”

Stiles blinked and nodded mutely, and then strong hands were on his shoulders, pulling him out of the room, down the porch steps, wrapping a blanket stolen from a linen closet around him, warm and scented.

“Stiles,” whispered Derek. “Can you focus? How many fingers am I holding up?”

“Eighteen,” whispered Stiles back. “Indubitably, eighteen.”

Derek snorted. “The last time I heard that word was on an old cartoon with those two gay chipmunks, what were their names?”

“They were gophers, their names are Mac and Tosh, and they’re not gay – they’re British.” Stiles winced, cause his lip was split – again – and he licked at it while Derek laughed at him, low and rumbling in the quiet.

“British and gay. Trust me, I know my gay cartoon characters.”

“Well, go you, then,” muttered Stiles, and that’s when Derek kissed him. Kissed him hard, heedless of the blood, or Stiles’ muffled gasps, kissed him till his own lips were bloody and swollen from being sucked on and bitten and only then did he pull back, and even then, only enough to guide him to the Jeep, which smelled so much like Stiles, and to deposit him into it, going back into the house for Stiles’ backpack and keys.

He saw Jackson being tended to by Danny and a few others, including Marshall, and before he gathered up Stiles’ stuff, he made his way over to Marshall, spoke his name. When the guy looked up at him, Derek decked him, his swing connecting with jawbone, which broke with a sickening crack, sending the guy sprawling.

“You know what that’s for,” hissed Derek, and then looked at Jackson, bloody and catching his breath; Stiles had gotten in a lot of solid punches and he was hurting. “I’ll deal with you later. Here are your fucking keys,” he added, dropping them onto Jackson’s lap and grabbing the backpack before leaving again, this time for good.

Stiles didn’t protest when Derek slid into the driver’s seat, but did ask how many beers he’d had.

“One, maybe two,” replied Derek, re-familiarizing himself with a stick shift. “I’m fine, trust me.”

No wolfsbane in the beer, but he had time to explain that to Stiles later. He had a lot of things to explain to him later. But now, there were other things that were more important.

Like carrying Stiles upstairs to his apartment and taking the keys from him when he struggled with the lock, then closing and locking it after them, pressing his back against the door while he watched Stiles watch him, and after a moment, drop the blanket, standing there only in his black g-string, still dripping money. Derek didn’t even have time to laugh before he was being pulled close and kissed again, guided stumbling to the couch, and had an eager, inked twenty-four-year-old climbing on top of him.

“We should wait,” Stiles managed between kisses. “Right? This is wrong.”

“I don’t care,” murmured Derek. “Consider this righting a wrong.”

“Wordplay now?” Stiles laughed against his lips, and then again at the mighty black brows shooting up.

“Wordplay later – foreplay now.”

Stiles was flipped over onto his back – he was strong, but Derek was stronger, and he let himself be manhandled, and didn’t even care when Derek pulled off his favorite g-string – with his teeth – and made it rain, like a bad rap video.

They slipped and slid on sweaty currency as it crumpled and ripped underneath them, stuck to their skin and was summarily coated in a way that probably meant money laundering – in the old sense – was going to be necessary.

Stiles didn’t give a single fuck, other than the one he was having right now, and clung to Derek, hands and mouth all over him, barely giving him time to recover before wanting more, more, more – he couldn’t help it. He was dying of thirst and Derek was a fountain. Or a river or a large bottle of Poland Spring, something; something he needed. And he had a weird feeling that Derek needed him, too.

At three AM, Stiles got off Derek long enough to peel bills off him and set them aside, laughing at how the ink had run and imprinted itself on Derek’s skin, and long enough for Derek to turn off his phone and shove it under the couch, promptly forgetting it, cause all he could think, see, hear or taste was Stiles.

& & &

At twelve months and fourteen days, Derek and Jackson officially called off their engagement and Laura went to the apartment to collect Derek’s belongings and the gifts that had already arrived, so she could send them back to the givers. When Jackson tried to bully her into telling him where Derek was, she growled at him, flashed her eyes and bared her fangs. And beta or no, Jackson backed off, and looked down, avoiding her eyes when she handed him exactly half of the joint bank account in a manila envelope.

He still couldn’t believe it was over, after more than a year, over something – or someone – so stupid, and when Derek finally answered his phone, he had to hold it far away from his ear cause Jackson was alternately screaming and crying, and despite how much he hated Jackson, Stiles had to leave the house when they were talking, using the time to clean out the plethora of shit in his Jeep, then going and washing it, vacuuming it out and spraying half a can of Febreze in it until it smelled like a person with some self-control owned it.

When he came back, Derek was sitting on the floor in the kitchen, looking wrecked, and Stiles felt his heart twist a little as he sat down next to him and reached for his hand.

“I’m sorry,” he said softly. “I know it wasn’t all my fault, but I feel responsible.”

“You’re not. You’re absolutely not responsible for any of this,” said Derek quietly. “You didn’t ask to be bullied years ago, you didn’t ask to be part of Laura’s plan, you didn’t ask for Jackson to try to hurt you once, and succeed in hurting you the second time. You didn’t ask to fall for me, or me for you – it just happened. It could just as easily have happened the other way around. He could have found someone better for him than me.”

“But he was good for you – for a while. He helped you break out of your shell, helped you get past some of the social anxiety, and you guys had great sex, right?”

He hated saying that, or even imagining it, but he was sure that was the case.

Derek looked down at their linked hands, and squeezed. “We did,” he admitted. “It was great while I thought I was in love, but once I met you, it was different. And after what Danny told me – or rather didn’t tell me – it became even more different. You can’t base a relationship on sex – it has to encompass a lot more than that, and it took a tragedy and meeting the right person for me before another tragedy happened to make me understand that. Kate took what felt like everything from me, and Jackson would have eventually have taken what remained. And I couldn’t look at him anymore, knowing that he really didn’t think he’d done anything wrong in being immeasurably cruel to you. So none of that is your fault, Stiles. Don’t take it onto yourself, okay? You beat yourself up about enough other things already.”

“Oh, you have no idea.”

“Oh, I think I do, and if not, I will soon enough. I want to know everything about you.”

Stiles raised his eyes and met Derek’s as Derek lifted their clasped hands and kissed the knuckles, then pulled him onto his lap and wrapped his arms around him.

“You’re probably going to regret that particular wish,” whispered Stiles.

“Nah, not a chance,” Derek whispered back, and kissed him.

& & &

At twelve months and twenty days, the day of the wedding came and went, and Derek and Stiles spent it in bed, watching a Shadowhunters marathon, eating spicy buffalo wings and cheering for Malec while Jackson took Danny on the honeymoon trip to Aruba. Derek hadn’t wanted a refund, didn’t even want to meet to discuss it, and had given his blessing to them going together. While they were gone, Derek went to the apartment with Laura and moved the rest of his stuff out, putting the few furniture items he’d chosen in storage, and moving the rest into Stiles’ apartment. Sure, they were moving fast, but Derek felt like he had forever to make up for and Stiles wanted him there – he didn’t assume. He was told so, over, and over again.

& & &

At twelve months and 25 days, Laura and Derek explained to Stiles what they were; Stiles was fascinated and a little freaked out, but asked questions, and asked Derek and Laura to shift for him – they were beautiful and he was in awe, and though it would continue to be a source of fascination and concern for him, he was okay with it. More than okay, really.

On that day, as Stiles processed, Laura pushed ahead and did something difficult – she pressed her brother about that night fourteen years ago, and for the first time, Derek talked about the fire, really talked about it. When he was done, he was cradled by Laura and a clearly emotional Stiles while he cried for what felt like hours. But it didn’t matter, because he had his family back; it hadn’t taken Stiles any time at all to make his home in Derek’s heart.

Laura made the decision to transfer out to Sacramento – her company had a satellite office there – and to rebuild the burned house. It was a hard time for Derek, at first – even being near the site was traumatic for him – but he and Stiles began making it their running touchpoint, and after a bit, Derek could prowl around in the ruins and not choke up, not cry. After a bit, he could feel his mother and father still there, sometimes hear their voices, and it soothed him.

Because they were in this together, Stiles took him to his mother’s grave with him too, and they would clean up the weeds, leave wildflowers there, and talk. It was there that Stiles told Derek about going to Yale, how he’d thought he’d be in his element, but how much work it was, how much pressure there was on his group to perform, how exhausted he always was. He told him about Adam, and how either he was the most oblivious guy in the world, or Stiles was the worst flirter in the world, and how when he’d finally gotten up the courage to say something flat out, Adam had met someone else and fallen for him.

He showed Derek the scars that were nearly invisible under the ink, and Derek had examined them from every angle, then pressed them against his cheek, like he was willing some of his love into the cuts, as if that could cure them forever.

To be honest, it almost did.

And then Derek told him again how much he loved him, how his life with Stiles was all he could have ever wanted, and asked him to stay with him forever. Whether Stiles became a world-famous stripper or won a Nobel Prize in genetics, all Derek wanted was to be by his side and be the one Stiles came home to every night.

Stiles was more than okay with that.

& & &

At one year and six months, Stiles and Derek picked up and moved southwest to Stanford, where Stiles had been approved to transfer into their genetics program, and he picked up his studies again, spending his days in the lab, and his nights at home with Derek, who was going for his master’s in History at Cal State. The nights spent studying together meant everything to Stiles; looking up and over at Derek tapping away on his little blue notebook while he was making outlines or syllabi for his students – he was a teaching assistant – gave Stiles a warm feeling that often flared into flame and they’d made a mess of both their notes, many times. Neither one cared.

At three years and eight months, Stiles graduated summa cum laude from Stanford, and from his spot on the stage, he could look out at the audience and see his father, Melissa, Scott and Allison, Laura, Derek and their new baby daughter, Dianna Claudia Hale, who had arrived just days before Stiles was to get his diploma. He and Derek had known from the start that they wanted children, and when they were offered the chance to be able to adopt their little girl, an orphan left after a werewolf pack decimation in Oregon, they had jumped at the chance, school or no school. She was gorgeous and already so aware and curious, and Stiles knew he’d never been more in love with anything in this world than he was with her and her Daddy.

Looking out at them, he felt like Superman, and never had his tattoo meant more to him than on that day.