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The Hardest Thing In This World

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Derek hears him before he sees him. Hears him, even before he smells him. Sometimes he thinks he could pick out Stiles’ heartbeat anywhere. The steady, comforting thumpthumpthump that's become so familiar to him in the last year.

Still, he doesn’t move, stays where he is, sitting on a mouldering log as the dying rays of the sun trickle through the trees. The sky a blaze of red and orange that silhouettes the charred ruin of his old family home.

Not so long ago this place was filled with life and love and laughter. His parents. His sisters. His aunts and uncles. His cousins.

Family. Pack. The two words mean the same.

They’re almost all gone now.

The breeze shifts and he breathes in, picks up Stiles’ scent, warm and spicy, closer now.

“Hey,” Stiles says, stopping a couple of yards away.

Derek came here to be alone. To remember. To get away from the sad stares and stale platitudes, from the well-meaning people that seem to have dogged his steps since the fire. In the face of so much loss and guilt, every act of kindness feels like a knife wound, like he’s dying a death of a thousand cuts.

And people have been kind. So kind. The Sheriff took him and Laura in. The school has been supportive. The community have pulled together, held fundraiser after fundraiser for the poor Hale kids. He should be grateful. He is for the most part, and he’s said thank-you more times than he can count, but there are days when the word tastes like ashes on his tongue.

He’s grown so tired of being grateful, so tired of kindness, of pity.

He came here today so he wouldn’t have to deal with that. So he could process what has happened without having to put on a brave face.

And yet.

Right from the very beginning, when the Sheriff brought him and Laura home on the day of the fire and told them they could stay a while, Stiles has always been different.

Maybe because he lost his own mother at a young age, he seemed instinctively to understand the horror of endless kindness borne out of pity.

Maybe that’s why Derek doesn’t mind him being here now.

 

-

 

The first night after the fire, when they can still smell the ash on their skin, in their hair, the Sheriff sets Laura up in the guest room and puts a camp bed up in Stiles’ room for Derek. Lying there in the darkness, Derek listens to the pitpat of Stiles’ heartbeat, the unfamiliar sounds of a strange house, the wail of a distant siren and, buried under all that, the muffled sounds of Laura down the hall, trying not to cry. He wants to go to her. To snuggle up next to her like they used to when they were kids reading books to each other under the sheets with nothing but a flashlight to illuminate the pages. But he can’t. They are guests in a strange house. And he is responsible for the death of virtually his entire family. He opened the door to their killer and invited them in, and for what? Love? Sex? Because his ego was flattered by the attention of an older woman?

Across from him, Stiles rolls onto his side and stares at Derek. Even in the darkness, Derek thinks he can still make out the golden brown of his eyes reflected in the red light of the digital alarm clock. “You should go to your sister,” he says. Says it like a command, or maybe like permission, like he senses Derek needs it.

Slowly, Derek rises out of the creaking camp bed and pads down the hallway to the guest room. Opening the door, he creeps inside and slips under the sheets next to Laura.

It's dark but he can still see her as she turns to him, face blotchy and streaked with snot and tears. “It hurts,” she says, curled over, fetal, breathless with it. “It hurts so much.”

Gathering her in his arms, he lets her cling to him, lets his Alpha cry on his shoulder. Lets her cry for both of them. Lets her cry and cry and cry until there are no more tears, until she’s cried herself to sleep.

It’s five AM, and she’s breathing evenly when he finally extricates himself from her and returns to Stiles’ room, settling himself back onto the old camp bed.

The room is dull grey in the half-light of morning. In the bed opposite Stiles is an untidy sprawl of limbs. Mouth half open, drool trickling down his cheek. As Derek watches he snuffles, snores and rolls onto his side and away.

The house falls silent, but Derek can’t sleep.

 

-

 

“Derek.” Stiles doesn’t move any closer. He stands well back, gives Derek his space. “Do you want me to leave?”

Derek does not, but he can’t quite get his mouth to form the words. Instead, he shrugs. And Stiles, recognizing that as the invitation it is, moves a step closer.

The last year has not been kind to Derek's old home. The grass in the front yard has grown long, weeds and wildflowers spread unchecked, the windows are broken, wood splintered, tiles sliding off the roof, but the house itself is still there, standing scorched but defiant in the face of it all. A broken monument to all he has lost.

Eventually he and Laura are going to have to decide what to do with it. It can’t stay here forever, and yet the thought of it not being here any more is more than he can bear.

Stiles steps closer, reaches out a hand and places it gently on Derek’s shoulder.

A warm weight.

A comfort.

Derek swallows round the lump that’s appeared suddenly in his throat and stubbornly rebels against the instinct to lean into that touch.

 

-

 

Derek barely remembers that first few weeks after the fire. Funerals. Life insurance. The investigation which shows, definitively, arson as the cause. His stumbling confession to Laura and then to the Sheriff about Kate and his own role in the deaths of his family. The continuing police hunt for her. The way everyone takes such pains to tell him that it isn't his fault. He was, is, a minor. She’s an adult. “You are not responsible, son, you know that right?” That’s what the Sheriff tells him, eyes soft, as he clasps Derek's arm in a firm grip. Derek has to look away.

“It isn’t your fault,” Laura says with fierce conviction, whenever he alludes to his own guilt. “It isn’t.”

His therapist, Ms. Morrell, repeats that mantra too, but he doesn’t want to hear it. After one particularly frustrating session with her, where he’d sat in stony silence watching the minutes tick by, refusing to speak, he arrives back at the Stilinski’s house and stomps up the stairs to the room he shares with Stiles. Not for the first time, he wishes he could have his own space. That he could just be left alone with his guilt and his anger and let it consume him.

Stiles startles, looking up from the his laptop as Derek slams the door open, a black cloud of grief and rage hanging over him. He can still remember the look on Stiles’ face the first time he confessed to them all about Kate, about what he’d done. He can remember the way Stiles’ wide amber eyes bored into him, lips pursed in a thoughtful frown. He’s looking at him that way now.

“What?” Derek snarls. It’s two days till the full moon and he's adrift. The wolf simmering just below the surface as Derek clings desperately to his anger to keep from going under. He sneers, “Are you gonna tell me it wasn’t my fault too?”

Stiles blinks. “It--”

“I don’t want to hear it.” He jabs a finger at Stiles, then stomps across the room and throws his leather jacket onto the rickety camp bed. “I don’t want to hear another fucking person tell me that it wasn’t my fault.” He picks up the glass of water that Stiles keeps on his bedside table and lobs it against the wall where it smashes, water dripping down the skateboard print that’s there.

A heavy silence fills the room and Derek feels the hot sting of shame prickling him. He shouldn’t have done that. Stiles hasn’t actually done anything wrong. He doesn’t deserve to bear the brunt of Derek’s anger. But Derek can’t contain it, can’t live with the weight that’s crushing him and the only way he knows how to deal is to lash out. Frustrated, he drops down onto the camp bed, elbows on his knees, head in his hands, lump burning hot and bright in his throat.

Stiles just watches him, Derek can feel his eyes on him as he clears his throat, can smell his fear in the air as he says, “As a kid, I was a real handful, still am probably.” He gives a nervous, self-deprecating laugh. “ADHD y’know? I ran my mom ragged. She could barely keep up with all the trouble I got into. When she--uh--when she got sick, with fronto-temporal dementia I blamed myself. Spent a long time telling myself that if I’d been a better kid, an easier kid, she might not have--” he swallows.

It isn’t the same, that’s the thing. Derek gets what he’s trying to do. But it isn’t the same. “That was a disease, Stiles,” he says, voice tired and wrung out. “She would have got that anyway, even if you weren’t a little shit. There’s no way it was your fault. They’re not comparable--”

“I needed to feel guilty though,” Stiles says quickly, like he just has to get it out. “I needed to be angry. Eventually I recognized that her illness was nothing to do with me. That it would have happened anyway. The universe it shitty like that sometimes. I know. But at the time-- I dunno, man, I just needed to be allowed to feel it, it was all part of me--” He makes a sweeping gesture with one arm. “--working through it. You’re right. It’s not my fault. I had fuck all to do with my mom’s dementia. She would have got sick anyway. Even if I’d been an angel. But. At the time me feeling guilty and angry was just how I needed to feel to-- make sense of it.”

“Stiles--”

“She would have found a way to do it anyway,” Stiles says, and Derek goes still. “Kate Argent. She wanted to kill your family. God knows why. She’s a fucking psycho. She wanted to kill your family and she would have found a way to do it anyway. And that isn’t your fault, just like, y’know, with my mom.” He takes a shaky breath. “And people are gonna keep telling you it isn’t your fault, because it’s true. But I get it. Right now you need to believe it is. Right now you need to feel guilty and angry. That's how you need to process this big impossible thing that's happened. But just keep in mind. She would have found a way to do it anyway, with or without you.”

Stiles trails off breathing hard. The words that tumbled out of him lie between them, loud in the silence of the room. And that lump in Derek's throat is burning brighter now. Making it impossible to swallow, impossible to speak-- but he tries anyway.

“She might not have succeeded though, if I--if I hadn’t--” Derek curls over with a punched out noise and, for the first time since the fire, he starts to cry. Great, gasping, heaving sobs that won’t stop coming.

“Shit.” There’s the sound of scuffling feet and then Stiles is there, all around him, warm, spicy scent enveloping him, arms wrapped clumsily around him in a tight hug. He sits there with Derek, saying nothing, just rubbing circles across Derek’s back as he sobs, until Laura gets home. Then quietly backs away as she takes over. Derek’s barely aware of the click of the door as it shuts behind Stiles. He and Laura cling to each other, finally crying together for everything they’ve lost.

 

Time limps by, grey days bleed into each other. Derek had assumed that he and Laura would move on eventually. Get their own place, maybe even leave Beacon Hills. They talk about it sometimes in hushed whispers once Stiles and the Sheriff are in bed. Trying to work out where they should go or what they should do. Laura mentions going to New York. Starting afresh. Losing themselves in the anonymity on the city. It never seems to happen though.

Then one day, the Sheriff and Stiles sit them down round the old pine table in the Stilinski kitchen and tell Derek and Laura they’re welcome to stay permanently.

“Laura, you only have half a year of high school left,” the Sheriff, John, he keeps asking them to call him John, says. “It makes sense to stay local if you can. We have the room as long as you don’t mind sharing with Stiles." This last part is addressed to Derek. "We'll get a proper bed for you."

“I don’t--” Laura begins, then trails off, glancing at Derek. “That’s really kind of you. But I--uh--I think we need to discuss it together,” she says eventually. Swallows. “In private.”

The Stilinskis glance at each other, then back at Laura. “Yeah, of course,” the Sheriff says. “No problem.”

 

“Well this sucks,” Laura says, as soon as the door to the guest room closes behind them. “They’ve been so kind to us. How are we gonna turn them down without--”

“You want to turn them down?”

Her mouth goes slack as she stares at Derek. “You don’t?

He shrugs. In those first few days after the fire he would have turned them down in a heartbeat. He would have said the idea of staying anywhere near Beacon Hills was unthinkable. Too painful. Haunted as it is with the ghosts of his family on every corner. It still feels like it should be too much.

Some days it is.

But he isn't blind. He sees the way it helps Laura to be here. As Alpha, her connection to the territory is stronger than his. She draws her strength from it and if they leave she’ll be adrift. Besides, the Sheriff is a calm, capable man with a kind heart, he’s taken Laura and Derek under his wing. Laura deserves that. Deserves support. Deserves to finish high school and go to college. She deserves not to have to take on responsibility for everything, for him, just yet. She deserves a future.

It occurs to him all in a rush that this is one way he can give that to her. A way to atone.

“We should stay,” Derek says, sick with his own certainty.

“Stay?” She looks at him, eyes wide with surprise. “Here? But--”

“You should finish high school. Go to college. Mom and Dad would want that.”

“And what would you--”

“I’ll stay here, keep going to Beacon Hills High for now, and then when you go to college, I’ll follow.”

“You mean you’ll transfer? Enrol at a high school near my college?”

He shrugs. He doesn’t really think it matters what he does--high school is pretty much a bust for him now. There’s no way he can claw his grades back to what they were pre-fire. He isn’t even sure he wants to. “Or get a job,” he says, “earn some money. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you--”

“Hey. Stop that.”

“What?”

“If it matters that I finish high school and go to college then it matters that you do too.”

“Laura--”

“You’re smart, Derek.”

He huffs out a sigh and doesn't miss the way her lips twist in disappointment.

“How about this,” she says after a moment. “How about I complete high school. Then I stay on here until you complete high school and then we both apply to colleges together? That way we don’t have to be apart. I don’t want to--we need to stick together--”

“But--”

“You used to want to be an archaeologist, remember?” She nudges him. “Just like Indiana Jones.”

“I was ten, Laur,” he says sulkily.

“Well, not archaeology then. Whatever. You'll think of something. I mean, God knows it’s hard enough to think about tomorrow, let alone the future and we don’t have to make any decisions about college right now. But you should know I’m not going to let you give up,” she says it fierce, voice trembling. Hands balled into fists. “We both have to keep fighting, Derek. We have to keep fighting. We have to live otherwise she’s won. You get that right?”

He’ll stay with her wherever she goes. A loyal beta. Whatever she wants, whatever she needs, he’ll do, he’s promised himself that a million times since the fire. He just didn’t expect her to want this.

He stares down at his own hands, takes a deep shuddering breath to try and settle himself, then another. It’s one thing to devote himself to her future, but to try and be invested in his own? That's something else. “It’s just--It’s just so hard,” he says, voice hoarse. “I--I don’t know if I can.” A fat tear plops onto his hand, then another, then another and he realizes they're coming from him. There are days when he doesn't know how to get out of bed in the morning. Days when the guilt and grief choke him and he's sure he'll never be able to do anything other than aimlessly exist from minute to endless minute. Anything more seems impossible. He doesn't know how to tell Laura that though. He's almost scared to look at her, but when he finally dares to meet her eyes, he sees tears streaking her cheeks too. “Just let me help you," he begs, "I’ll support you. I’ll get a job. You go to college-- you deserve it. I’ll--” She reaches for him, tugs him in, shushing him like a small child.

“I get it. Okay? I get it. There is nothing in the world more difficult than this. But Derek--” She pulls back a little, and the look she gives him is painfully familiar. “They’d want us both to live up to our potential. It isn’t just my future, it’s both of ours. And we are going to take it. With both hands. We are gonna live lives that make our family proud. I swear to you.”

As she glares fiercely at him, he feels that familiar frisson of sibling irritation, and yet at the same time, standing there like this she looks so much like mom it hurts. 

“Okay,” he says, not even sure he can do it, but knowing he has to try. At that Laura pulls him into a tight embrace, hugs him so tight his bones creak. He buries his face in her hair and tries to breathe. For a long while they just stand there, Derek trying to make himself believe he can do what she's asking.

He wants to. Wants to be that person if he can. And maybe that's half the battle.

“Y'know, if we’re gonna stay here,” she muses after a long moment, “we should probably tell them that we’re werewolves.”

He stiffens in her arms. “I don’t think that’s--”

“Der, if we stay here, we could be putting the Stilinskis at risk. They deserve to know what they’re getting themselves into. They have to have a real choice."

He can’t argue the point, and, when they go downstairs and make the big reveal, the Stilinskis take the news surprisingly well. It's Derek who has a panic attack. After all, the last time he trusted someone with this secret it cost him his family. 

It's Stiles who crouches down on the floor next to him and coaches him through it, completely unafraid, even though he now knows Derek's a werewolf.  "It's okay," Stiles whispers fiercely. "It's okay. Focus on breathing. In and out. In and out. Slow. Steady. It's okay. We've got you, Derek. We've got you. I've got you."

Somehow it feels like a promise.

 

-

 

“Thought I’d find you here,” Stiles says, hand still resting on Derek’s shoulder, his spicy warm scent, a tantalizing comfort. “Laura went to check the cemetery but I kinda had a feeling this is where you’d be--” He trails off.

A breeze rustles the leaves.

In the distance a bird warbles sweetly and another answers.

“It’ll be a year tomorrow.”

Stiles swallows. “I know.”

 

-

 

They’re both juniors, but somehow he and Stiles never really hung out before the fire. He’d been aware of Stiles existence, sure, but he’d never really paid him much mind. Up until the fire, Derek had been popular, captain of the basketball team, decent grades, attended all the right parties, that sort of thing. Stiles was the Sheriff’s son, gangly and awkward, smart-mouthed and off-putting. They didn’t mix much.

Now all that’s changed.

The thing is, other than Laura, almost everyone else in Derek’s life tiptoes around him. The teachers seem reluctant to push him too hard in case he breaks and the other students keep a wary distance. None of his friends know what to say, so mostly they say nothing, send him pitying glances.

When people do talk, it’s to pat his arm and tell him he’s doing well. Tell him he’s so brave. Tell him that his parents would be proud.

It makes Derek feel sick.

He hates it.

Hates them.

Stiles though-- Stiles is different.

He doesn’t sugar coat things. Doesn’t treat Derek like he’ll break, even when he's leaning over Derek's sweat-soaked sheets, waking him from a nightmare. 

Somehow he just seems to get it. On his better days, Derek thinks maybe they get each other. There’s an understanding there. A connection.

The more he gets to know Stiles, the more he admires him. The more he relies on him.

Stiles is intelligent, highly intuitive and fiercely devoted to the people he cares about, and over the next few months he becomes something more than just the clumsy kid Derek’s forced to share a room with. At some point, Derek isn’t sure when, it becomes Stiles’ heartbeat that he focuses on in order to fall asleep. It’s also Stiles who badgers and cajoles him through his midterms, making up flashcards and grilling Derek on everything from World Hist to Chem. It's Stiles who always gives Derek his pudding cup when they sit next to each other in the cafeteria at lunchtime, because he knows Derek has a sweet tooth. Stiles who bickers with him and calls him on his shit, when he gets too maudlin or too angry, when he starts to feel he can't keep going. Stiles, with his terrible jokes and overabundance of snark, who coaxes the first smile out of Derek since the fire.  Something about Stiles' scent, his presence, the sound of his voice, soothes something deep inside Derek.

He can trust Stiles, he thinks that's what it is. Trust him to be honest. Trust him to have Derek's best interests at heart. Trust him to care. 

Seven months post fire the full moon hits and Derek finds he can get through it just by focusing on Stiles' scent and the sound of his breathing. Anchor, he thinks to himself, looking at Stiles sprawled out on the bed opposite his mouth slack in sleep. 

Just that day they’d sat together on Stiles’ bed, studying for the the upcoming Biology test-- Anatomy and Physiology.

“Hey, Derek,” Stiles said, flipping over a page of his bio textbook to reveal a picture of the human skeleton. “Why didn’t the skeleton go to prom?” He'd waggled his eyebrows ridiculously. “Because he had no body to go with.”

It was a shitty joke, one Derek had heard a million times before, but there had been something nice about sitting there with Stiles, warm and safe in the room they share. Something that made him feel soft and indulgent. So quirking an eyebrow he'd leaned over, pointed at the skeleton’s arm and said, “Humerus.”

At that, Stiles threw back his head and laughed, loud and free as sunlight had streamed through the window, illuminating the gold of his eyes, the long line of his throat.

The sight had made something twist in Derek’s chest, warm and sharp and real.

Now, across from him, Stiles rolls over snoring gently and all Derek can feel is hopeless affection.

Stiles is his anchor, yes, but maybe something more too.

 

-

 

“Can I take a seat?”

Derek nods jerkily. Stiles gives Derek’s shoulder squeeze, then releases it and takes a seat next to him on the log, saying nothing.

As they watch a rabbit lopes out of the brush a few yards away and starts nibbling on a dandelion, oblivious to them and the looming shadow of the house.

“It wasn’t my fault,” Derek says, trying the words out on his tongue for the first time.

It feels like it might be true.

 

-

 

He doesn’t talk about it much with them, and Derek doesn’t ask, but he knows John is still investigating the fire, gathering evidence, looking for Kate.

Eight months after the fire he comes home one night, walks up to where Derek, Laura and Stiles are all sacked out on the couch watching random shit on Netflix, grabs the remote and switches off the TV.

There’s something about the look of him, the air of grim satisfaction. The slight hint of nervousness in his scent when he turns to look at them. Derek almost knows before he says it, but he still can’t believe his ears.

“We got her,” John says. “We got her. And we have all the evidence we need to put her away for a long, long time.”

Laura bursts into tears.

 

-

 

Testifying against Kate had been terrifying. Humiliating. Necessary. It brought back all the memories that had started to dull a little into sharp focus.

And yet.

Here they are.

The day before the anniversary of his family’s death, and today she was sentenced. Tried for arson, eleven counts of murder and sexual assault of a minor. Guilty on all counts.

As soon as the judge handed down the sentence, Derek turned on his heel and ran from the courtroom without another word.

Ran and ran until his muscles burned and his feet ached.

Ran and ran until he found himself here.

Back at the beginning.

Ground zero.

And now, inevitably, Stiles is here too. Sitting beside him. As it should be.

“It wasn’t my fault,” Derek says again, with more conviction. And he knows he’s crying now, but he can’t stop.

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Stiles turn his head to look at him. “That’s right,” he says, and his heartbeat doesn’t waver.

Derek turns to look at him then. There are tears clinging to Stiles’ eyelashes,  his eyes gleam almost beta gold in the sunlight. He’s beautiful and strong and kind and funny. He’s sarcastic and clumsy and kind of an asshole.

Derek loves every bit of him. Wholly and completely.

Knows without a shadow of a doubt that he wouldn’t be here right now without him.

Somehow between the two of them, and Laura and the Sheriff, Derek has found something he never thought he’d have.

Stiles is not a wolf, but he has the heart of one.

He’s family. He’s pack. He could be mate.

Taking one last look back at the ruin of his old home Derek reaches out tentatively. Takes Stiles’ hand. Tangles their fingers together. Grips tight. Says, “Can we go home now?”

Stiles, leans into him, a warm press of heat against his side, smiles soft, says, “Of course.”

They turn and walk back through the trees to where Stiles has parked the Jeep.

Hand in hand.

Together.

-

 

The hardest thing in this world, is to live in it.

Be brave.

Live.

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