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Where You Still Remember Dreaming

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The first time Derek feels it he’s curled up in a ball under a bridge, his tail tucked over his nose. He’s taken refuge under a soggy mass of cardboard boxes in a vain attempt to shield himself from the bitter New York wind. When sleep finally finds him he dreams about Laura again; dreams her sitting in the crook of the apple tree that grew in the backyard of their old family home. Branches creak in the breeze. Her hair falls in front of her face as she reads the book that’s open on her knees. The scent of honeysuckle is in the air. As he approaches she looks up, smiles sweetly. “Soon,” she says, “they’ll be here soon.” He feels strangely hopeful.

When he wakes it’s to thunder rolling overhead, the stale scent of vomit nearby, two guys arguing not six feet from his hiding place, and a feeling in his chest that he can’t begin to name. It tugs just below his rib cage, pulling insistently. Close by the argument is escalating, a drug deal gone wrong. He can hear raised voices and scuffling feet; the sharp tang of anger and fear floods his nostrils. There’s the unmistakable click-click of a gun being cocked and Derek scrambles to his feet, the makeshift shelter falling away; instantly the men break apart, scrabbling backwards in surprise. The taller of the two holds a pistol in shaking hands. “Holy shit, look at the size of that thing,” yelps the other.

Rain drums furiously on the bridge, it pounds relentlessly against the slick sidewalk, which glows sickly orange, bathed in reflected light from the streetlamps. In the distance there’s a sharp crack of lightning. Growling low, Derek takes a step forward, then another. A bullet zings past him, wide, and embeds itself in the bridge. Another hits the cardboard boxes. The guy must be high, he couldn’t hit a barn door. With a snarl Derek leaps forward and as one the men turn and race away down the road until Derek can no longer distinguish the rabbit-quick beat of their hearts from the driving rain. With an amused huff he trots back to the tattered remains of his hiding place and noses through it until he finds what he’s looking for. Gently he fits his mouth over the fraying strap of his duffel bag lifting it carefully.

It’s time to move on, he can’t stay in New York anymore. Call it instinct, call it magic, Derek doesn’t know what it is, but something is calling to him and he knows he has to follow it wherever it takes him. First though, he has to find somewhere less exposed and change.

-

 

Days turn into weeks, weeks become months, seasons change. Still it calls to him, a strange mixture of bone deep certainty and restless yearning. So far it’s led him across state lines, through towns and cities, over hills and plains, woods and deserts, on two legs and on four paws. He’s bedded down on park benches, shacked up in abandoned buildings, found long-forgotten caves and old animal dens to call his own for the night. Mostly he’s caught and killed his own food, sometimes he’s begged for scraps and once or twice he’s been forced to pick through trash. Occasionally he finds a town he likes and stays a few days, picking up a little work, cash in hand stuff, where they don’t ask too many questions. Most of the money he makes that way he puts aside in case of emergencies. The rest he ekes out on cheap food and drink, like the canned beans that he cooks on the camping stove Laura found in a thrift store a few years back. And all the while, thrumming under his skin like a second heartbeat there’s the knowledge that he won’t stay or settle down, he can’t, because there’s something waiting just over the horizon, something that is just for him. The surety of that knowledge has driven him across the breadth of the country and brought him here, to Beacon County, California.

Now, as he pads through the ancient woods of Beacon Hills preserve, that tug in his chest feels stronger than ever.

Above him the moon is nearly full, plump and silver in a dark cloudless sky. Derek lifts his head as the wind ruffles his fur, bringing with it all the scents of the forest. Eyes fluttering shut, he takes in the rotten sweet smell of decaying leaves, of fresh pine, of rich earth and, under all that, magic.

There are no hunters here, no hikers out this late at night, no other wolves lay claim to this territory. He shivers, skin creeping under his thick fur. The eyes of the forest are on him, every instinct tells him that he’s being watched. Still, he’s come this far, and he can’t stop now. The deeper he goes the older the trees become, their bark’s gnarled and knotty, branches grasping at the starry sky. Onward he goes, deeper and deeper, until the crackle of magic is a tangible thing in the air around him that makes his fur stand on end. It could be hours later, or maybe only minutes, time passes strangely in forests and in magical forests doubly so, but somehow he finds himself in a clearing lit by moonlight. A steep hill rises abruptly out of the ground before him, and he’s aware, with every fiber of his being, that this is where he’s meant to be. His stomach flutters with anticipation, like a child who knows that Christmas is just round the corner.

Barely daring to breathe he starts to climb the hill, picking his way over rocks and tussocky grass in the moonlight. At the top he finds the last thing he expected: an ancient tree stump, maybe eight feet across, the wood splintered and charred. He circles it cautiously, taking it in from all angles.

This, Derek thinks, disappointed, is this it? Is this why I’m here?

Around him the woods fall silent. Expectant. There is no sound. No scent carries on the breeze, because there is no breeze. Everything is still. All he can hear is the beating of his own heart, the hum and rush of his own blood in his ears. The ground around the stump is bare, giving way to bald patches of earth. He sniffs around the peeling bark, and that’s when he begins to realize, there are no insects, no fungus. Nothing grows here. There are none of the usual signs of decay. In a forest even an old tree stump should be teeming with life, but this is a cold, dead thing.

And yet.

He is meant to be here.

He feels it.

This place is for him.

With no-one around for miles, Derek tips back his head and howls long and mournful at the moon. A challenge. A declaration. He doesn’t know how or why he’s been brought here, but he’s going to find out.



-

 

Cupped between two hills and backing onto the preserve, the town of Beacon Hills is neither big enough to be interesting nor small enough to be truly friendly; once-modern buildings are tired and weather-beaten, bleached of all color under the relentless California sun. Once a bustling community, now it’s a podunk town with little to recommend it, a place people pass through on their way to somewhere else.

Derek finds an abandoned industrial park bordering the forest three miles out of town. All day, he watches from the safety of the trees but no-one comes out there, not once. The buildings are all empty, the roads that connect them devoid of any traffic and Derek can’t pick up the barest hint of human scent. Still, it’s night before he dares to pick his way through the ghost town and choose a building to call his own. Dank and airless, the one he settles on used to belong to the Beacon Hills Railroad Depot, and he makes a home in the rusting carcass of an ancient train car, curling up in a ball to sleep under the seats.

This level of isolation is perfect; as long as he’s careful, Derek can do as he pleases here without drawing any attention to himself. Something has called him, drawn him across the country and now that he’s here there’s an unerring sense of rightness that he can’t explain, can barely allow himself to indulge for fear of being disappointed. After all, Derek learned along time ago, he doesn’t get to settle down, that isn’t how his life works.

Most of his family were wiped out by Kate Argent when he was sixteen years old, leaving only Laura and him, a tiny pack of two whose only solace was each other. For five years they drifted like tumbleweed from town to town, picking up work here and there, sleeping in cheap motel rooms, traveling light and staying under the radar, refusing to even touch the insurance money for fear of drawing attention to themselves. He’d thought they were safe, but the truth is they’d been lulled into a false sense of sense of security. When Kate found them again, Laura hadn’t walked away, but she’d taken Kate with her.

It’s been three years since Laura passed and he became the Alpha. Three years of wandering, heartbroken and alone.

In his position, an alpha should feel the urge to bite, to claim, to create the pack they don’t have, to survive. Choked by guilt and grief, Derek hasn’t even tried. He hasn’t earned the right to be Alpha, it fell to him only when everyone else in his family died, and the idea of creating another pack? Of trying to replace the people he’s lost?

No.

If he had his way, he wouldn’t be Alpha. He didn’t want it three years ago, and he doesn’t want it now.

But life has never seemed to care what Derek did or did not want.

Life has never been that kind.

-


In the early hours of the morning, Derek risks exploring Beacon Hills proper for the first time. On four paws he pads through empty streets and peers into storefront windows, head tilted curiously. It’s pretty much what he expected: a cookie cutter town in northern California. This isn’t the first he’s seen and it probably won’t be the last. If there’s a reason he’s been led here, he can’t fathom it.

Nostrils flaring, he wanders on, silent and inquisitive. In this form his senses make everything sharper, more intense, tell a much richer tale than they do even in his beta form. The remnants of yesterdays scents are a tangle of trailing threads that run up and down Main Street, weaving in and out of stores and apartments, a slowly unraveling tapestry that tells him the story of the day before.

As he stares in the window of Martin’s, a rambling department store which has seen better days, the breeze carries a faint floral scent to him, comforting and strangely familiar. Without hesitation he turns tail and follows it to a crumbling apartment building three blocks over. This early though, there’s no-one around and the building is locked tight.

With a huff, he carries on down the street, passing a bar, closed now, but the sour smell of body odor and stale beer still lingers and makes him sneeze; he trots by quickly.

Rounding a corner, another scent hits him. Ears twitching forward, he sniffs the air, easily picking out cinnamon, butter and sugar as they waft toward him. He hesitates for a moment, battling with himself, but his stomach growls, winning the argument. Setting off at a brisk pace, he follows his nose down the street until he finds what he’s looking for: Beacon Hills Bakery. With it’s name stenciled on the window in elegant gold script and it’s blue and white striped awning, it has an air of shabby gentility completely at odds with the garish pink of the party store next door. Derek pushes at the bakery door with one paw but it doesn’t budge. It’s too early for them to be open to customers; there’s an alley to the right though, and darting down it he finds the entrance to the kitchen. Rearing on his hind legs he pushes against it with his front paws, it’s locked too, but there are voices coming from inside.

Dropping back down, he scratches at the door’s peeling paintwork with blunt claws and then butts his head against the solid wood hopefully.

As he listens the voices pause, then there’s the sound of footsteps coming closer and the door cracks open. A tall man, broad as a house, stares down at him with serious brown eyes before his face splits into a wide grin.

“Who is it, Boyd?” calls a voice.

“Well, I don’t know his name, but he seems friendly.” The door opens wider and Derek wags his tail as the man, Boyd, crouches down and reaches out with large fingers to ruffle Derek’s fur and fondle his ears. “He’s big, real big,” Boyd continues, “blue eyes too, could be part husky, I guess?” He sounds uncertain but not unfriendly. Tilting his head, Derek leans hungrily into the touch. Truthfully, he misses this, misses simple human contact. The wolf in him is greedy for it, the man too if he’s honest. And he isn’t a dog, has never and will never be one, but touch-starved and lonely as he is, he’s learned to take what he can get.

“Ugh,” says the voice, “We can’t—Don’t encourage him.” Derek cracks an eye to find a sour-faced guy with pale skin and curly hair glaring down at him.

“I know, I know,” Boyd replies. Withdrawing his hand, he stands and Derek whimpers at the loss of contact.

The sour-faced guy, Isaac, according to his name-tag, rolls his eyes. “Whatever you do, don’t feed him, we’ll never get rid of him if you feed him.” Turning, he disappears back into the kitchen and Derek flattens his ears, giving Boyd his biggest, most soulful puppy eyes.

Shaking his head ruefully, Boyd glances back, watches until Isaac’s out of sight and then, leaning to one side, he plucks a pastry off a waiting tray and offers it to Derek. “Don’t tell anyone,” he murmurs. Derek takes the pastry gently between his teeth, then pushes his head up into Boyd’s open palm in gratitude. “Yeah,” Boyd says, “I know. You’re a good dog. I can tell.”



-

 

Later, as Derek makes his way back through town, he picks up that floral scent again, and on a whim, follows it back to the old apartment building. He still can’t tell where it’s coming from, but there’s a girl with pale skin and a mane of frizzy blonde hair sitting on the stoop, clutching a mug of coffee to her chest. She looks up as he approaches.

Her mouth is turned down in a frown and as he comes closer, she eyes him, half suspicious. For a long moment they stare at each other. The scent of flowers is stronger here, even though there’s no obvious source. It reminds Derek of drowsy evenings in high summer, the creak of the old porch swing, his head resting on his mother’s lap, her fingers curled in the fine hairs at the nape of his neck. He blinks, and the memory is gone. Derek huffs out a sigh and pads closer to the girl slowly, giving her a chance to move away. As he nears he can hear her heart rate pick up, can smell the bitter tang of medication that laces her scent.

She mutters, “What do you want?”

Loneliness is wrapped around her like a well-worn blanket. It seeps from her every pore, saturating the air around her. And he knows it, recognizes it completely because he feels it so acutely himself. He gets close, as close as he can without actually touching, but she doesn’t lift her hand to pet him, as if she doesn’t have the energy, even for that small act of affection.

“All by yourself, huh?” she murmurs eventually, rising to her feet. “Me too, mutt. Me too.” With that she turns and heads back into the building. Derek watches her go, then turns tail and heads back toward the warehouse.

 

-

 

On his return he putters around the old depot for a bit, exploring it properly for the first time. It’s musty and old and most of it isn’t easily accessible to him in his current form, so, with a reluctant sigh, he lets the change ripple through him, stretching as he stands on two legs. Rifling through his bag, he pulls on jeans and the cleaner of his two t-shirts, dressing from habit rather than necessity.

It’s quiet in the warehouse, almost oppressively so, but he busies himself well enough, exploring the large space. He finds old tools left to rust on dusty workbenches. Further exploration uncovers a generator and, after fiddling with it a bit, he manages to bring it humming to life. There are a couple of offices, situated towards the rear. They’ve been emptied of all paperwork but the furniture’s still there and when Derek finally gives into hunger and grabs chips from his bag, he’s able to sit in an actual chair and eat at a desk. It’s promising. The biggest find, though, is a changing stall with an old rusted shower and a large mirror. Derek stands under the flickering fluorescent light of the bathroom and stares at his own reflection. His eyes are sunken, razor sharp cheekbones cut through a forest of facial hair. He runs one hand through his beard tentatively, barely able to recognize himself. It’s been at least two months since he last shaved, but he has a little bit of money set aside, and if Boyd is willing to sneak him the occasional pastry at the bakery, maybe he could spring for a razor, maybe even some Tide, then he could wash his clothes in the sink. It’s a good thought.

With a bit of encouragement the shower sputters to life and, in a moment of inspiration, he checks the restroom soap dispensers. There’s plenty left and Derek spends a happy half hour in the shower, watching weeks of ingrained dirt sluicing down his body in rivulets and disappearing down the drain. When he steps out of the shower, he looks clean for the first time in weeks. In the mirror the triskele tattoo on his back is stark against his skin.

Satisfied with his new home, he dries off as best he can, changes back into still-grubby clothes then pads through to the train car and sinks onto one of the seats. At times like this he misses his family more than he can say. What he would give to be slumped on the couch with Laura now, bickering over what to watch on TV, or sitting in the kitchen chatting with his dad while muffins bake in the oven. There’s almost nothing left of his old life though. The only tangible pieces that remain are three books that Laura, an inveterate bookworm, had in her school bag on the day of the fire. He’s read and re-read them again and again so that now the pages are brittle, spines cracked and faded, and any scent of Laura is all but gone. Grabbing his bag he pulls out Slaughterhouse-Five. It was Laura’s favorite. She used to read it aloud to him back when they were— before she— He can’t bring himself to finish the thought. Opening the book, he settles in for a quiet afternoon.

So it goes.

-

 

Evening draws in, the sun dipping low on the horizon as Derek finally puts his book down,  Billy Pilgrim is in the zoo on Tralfamadore. It feels like it’s okay to leave him there for the moment, he’s safe and for once, Derek appears to be too. Besides, the moon is full tonight and Derek is intent on exploring more of the preserve. It’s easy to slip straight into his wolfskin, to feel his joints crack, muscles tear and then reknit themselves as a rush of new information floods his senses. He inhales deeply, then stretches, letting himself feel the change completely.

When he lopes outside he doesn’t have far to go. The industrial park borders the preserve and trees have long since crept in to try and reclaim the disused buildings; in no time at all Derek’s swallowed by the shadows of the forest.

At first he passes unnoticed between the trees, listening intently to the sounds of life around him. Foxes and raccoons skritch about in the brush, mice scuttle through the bracken, an owl hoots softly overhead. Even though he’s alone, a packless alpha with no friends or family left, on nights like this it’s hard to avoid getting sucked into the reckless joy of it, the fierce feeling of freedom that always comes with this form around the full moon. He chases a squirrel through the undergrowth until it disappears up a tree, tracks a rabbit to it’s warren, paddles in a brook that burbles cheerfully as it cuts a path between the trees, before eventually stopping to lower his head and take a long drink.

Tonight, he intends to return to the stump and explore further. He needs to work out what it is about that particular place that draws him to it. Before he’s finished drinking, though, a prickle under his skin tells him there’s something nearby. Slowly he lifts his head, ears flicking up, inhaling deeply, he tries to catch a scent.

Magic. Derek can feel it thick in the air around him, and once again, an unnatural stillness has fallen over the preserve.

“AwoooOooo!” It’s faint, carried in on the evening breeze and followed quickly by a mocking laugh.

Derek shivers. It could be a coincidence, just some kids messing around in the woods late at night, drinking beer and howling at the moon.

“AwoooOooo” It sounds again, closer and then again, closer still. And just like that he knows.

This isn’t kids.

It’s meant for him.

He can feel it in his bones.

Climbing up the bank, he takes a few steps in the direction of the voice. The crackle of magic in the air is even stronger now, it calls out to whatever magic lives in him and makes him what he is, it sings to the blood in his veins. Makes him want to tip back his head and howl for a pack that he doesn’t have, will never have again.

He restrains himself, stands in the shadow of a spreading oak tree and listens, waiting to see what happens next. “AwoooOooo!” This time the voice comes from the branches directly above him, and it startles a growl from Derek. He rears on his hind legs, front paws stretched against the bark of the tree, trying to get a glimpse, but whoever’s there is concealed by the foliage, and they’re downwind, he can’t smell a thing.

“Down boy,” says a voice from above him. “You can’t get up here. Not on four paws anyway.” That last sentence seems to be whispered directly into Derek’s ear, but when he wheels around there’s no-one there. With a snarl, he backs away, his heart pounding wildly, adrenaline surging through him.

Above him, the voice snickers. The sound echoes until laughter seems to come from everywhere at once, resonating around the grove. Building until the woods ring with it, until Derek wants to cover his ears, wants to hide, wants to turn tail and run. Unbidden, a whine rises up in Derek’s throat and just like that the laughter stops.

The woods are quiet.

The only sound is his own ragged breath.

For one moment Derek wonders if he’s all alone, if he imagined it all.

He almost jumps when the voice speaks again from the branches above. “Where’s your pack, Wolf? Did you lose them?” The voice clucks it’s tongue disapprovingly. “Careless.”

The mocking tone makes something in Derek snap, and he goes from anxious to angry in seconds. A long growl, loud as thunder, rumbles out of his chest. It reverberates round the woods, makes the branches quiver, their leaves trembling. He can hear the rustle and scuffle of small animals rushing back to the safety of their dens, the pitpatpitpat of their frightened heartbeats.

“Enough.” The voice commands, and Derek finds he can’t help but obey, the growl dies in this throat. “Bad dog. These woods are private property and under my protection. You’re the trespasser, so quit treating me like I’m a mailman in your front yard.” Derek bristles, snapping his teeth, and the voice gives an exaggerated sigh. The canopy rustles above him and Derek snarls. “Bored now!” singsongs the voice. And just like that it’s disappearing through the treetops at speed, so quickly Derek knows he won’t be able to follow it even if he tries. Quieting, he strains to listen and can just make out it whistling, “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf,” as it fades into the distance.

 

-

 

On returning to the old train car Derek passes a restless night. When he startles awake a few hours later and pads outside, dawn is only just beginning to crest over the edge of distant hills. Nearby trees rustle in the breeze, calling to him, and he considers going for a run in the preserve, but then his stomach growls noisily and he sighs. Turning, Derek heads back to the bakery.

Seemingly unsurprised at his reappearance, Boyd welcomes him easily and, retrieving a couple of pastries, he places them in a dish on the floor for Derek to eat. Then Boyd sits in the doorway next to him, lights a cigarette with a silver lighter and inhales deeply. Smoke curls lazily from his mouth, as he sighs, head thunking back against the door frame. The cigarette dangles between his fingers and his scent is, not sad precisely, but an echo of sadness. Wistful, maybe.

Once Derek’s eaten his fill he rests his paw on Boyd’s knee in thanks and nudges Boyd’s free hand with his head until he gets the hint and starts scratching that sweet spot just behind his ears. “Where’s your owner? Huh? Where are they?” Boyd murmurs. “Are you lost?”

Derek lets his head sink onto Boyd’s lap and enjoys the unfamiliar feel of gentle hands and a kind voice. A low whine rises at the back of his throat, because Boyd is right: Derek is lost. A wolf without a pack always is.

 

-

 

There’s no scent calling to him this time, but he stops by the old apartment building on his way home nonetheless. She’s sitting on the stoop again, coffee mug in hand, still cloaked in sadness. And although he knows she’s seen him, she doesn’t acknowledge his presence. He pads up to her quietly and she ignores him. He settles at her feet, and she says nothing. He doesn’t beg for her attention and she doesn’t seem to want his. But she accepts the fact of him, accepts him sitting with her and doesn’t shoo him away or get up immediately and leave.

For half an hour they sit together in companionable silence, each wrapped in their own thoughts. When she finally stands she says, “I’m not inviting you in. I’m not feeding you either. Don’t get any ideas.”

Derek lifts his head to look at her and chuffs out a sigh, watching as she disappears into the apartment complex. Then he gets up slowly and lopes back down the street, picking his way back through town to the warehouse before the sun can climb too high in the sky.

 

-

 

Despite the previous night's adventures, Derek returns to the preserve that afternoon, determined to find the hill with the stump on it and explore further. The forest is a different animal in daylight, but still beautiful. Sunlight trickles through the canopy of moss-covered trees, their branches heavy with bursts of brightly colored leaves that whisper gently in the breeze. It’s magic, Derek thinks, but a different sort than the night before. The sort of magic that all forests contain, that sense of peaceful freedom, a timeless escape from the drudgery of the world. Last night had been something different, the woods had thrummed with ancient power, heady, alive and dangerous. Day or night, though, there’s something about this land, something that calls to him. A feeling he doesn’t recognize, hasn’t ever felt before, but it thrums under his skin like electricity. Still, he can’t find his way back to the stump.

It’s late afternoon when he finally calls it a day, and returns to the warehouse; he slips easily into his human skin, hunger gnawing at his belly. There’s a grocery store in town. He noticed it yesterday. Checking his duffel bag he finds the inner pocket where he keeps his savings and tips out a mess of coins, a few screwed up bills and a bankcard that he only uses in an emergency. Gathering up the change, he dresses swiftly, then, after a moment’s hesitation he tugs on his leather jacket too. It’s hot outside, and a three mile walk lies ahead of him, but sometimes he needs that familiar armor.

 

-

 

Beacon Whole Foods, reads the storefront, Keeping Beacon Hills Healthy Since 1979. The facade is weathered wood. Painted red at one point, it’s a dusky pink now. Loose change weighing heavily in his pocket, Derek opens the door and steps inside. As he enters there’s a sharp intake of breath from behind the counter at the front of the store. Glancing over, Derek sees a guy watching him. He’s wearing a red t-shirt with the store logo emblazoned on it and a bulky plaid shirt over that; he has messy brown hair, a snub nose and the corner of his mouth tugs upward, like he’s amused at some private joke.

Ignoring him, Derek heads over to the back of the store and grabs the cheapest laundry detergent he can find, in the smallest possible size, and a pack of disposable razors. It’s a sizable chunk of his available funds. Wandering the aisles he allows himself a long, wistful look at the bacon, before turning away and searching out the canned goods. He’s trying to decide whether to treat himself to a can of pork and beans or whether to just stick to regular beans, when the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end; he’s being watched again. The guy from the front of the store is peering at him with wide brown eyes from behind a pyramid of Cap’n Crunch. When Derek catches his eye he steps out, hands jammed deep in the pocket of his jeans and nods at the can in Derek’s hand. He snarks, “Really, that’s what you’re going with?”

Slowly Derek places the can back on the shelf and turns to face him. His eyes flick over the guy, taking in bright eyes and a knowing smirk, and then down to check his name badge, but it’s covered in black tape. “Shouldn’t you be encouraging me to buy this stuff?” Derek asks.

Plump, pink lips part in a smile. “Yeah, but I’m a terrible employee, so—” Derek quirks an eyebrow and the guy’s smile widens. Idly he reaches out and scratches a mole-speckled cheek with a long finger. “I guess I figured your kind would like a steak or something, you know, probably organic because it’s less chemicals. Definitely eat it raw.”

“My kind?” Derek balls his hands into fists, can feel his claws pricking at his palms, heart pounding, gums tingling with the sudden need to shift. Taking a deep breath, he grits out, “What my kind likes best is to hunt. Make the kill ourselves. Eat the meat fresh.” He curls his lip into a smile that reveals a hint of fang.

It’s a lie, obviously. Raw meat lost it’s appeal years ago, because in the absence of a regular income and a kitchen it’s 90% of his diet. As a kid he might have thought that sounded cool. Now he wishes he could curl up in a house on a comfortable couch with a greasy pizza or, better still, a salad, but this asshole doesn’t need to know that. Derek runs his tongue over the tip of one sharp canine.

“Okaaay, message received,” the guy drawls, unimpressed. “What are you doing here anyway? After last night I figured you’d be—”

“Last night—” Derek’s hands drop to his side, and he takes a step back. “That was you?”

“Ding, ding, ding,” the guy says loudly, gesturing round at an imaginary audience. “We have a winner, ladies and gentlemen!”

Inhaling deeply, Derek catalogues the guy’s scent more closely. He smells of mint toothpaste, strong coffee and cheez-its but, under that, there’s something warm and spicy, something enticing; it makes Derek’s stomach swoop. He frowns. “You said the woods were private property. This is the town.” The guy rolls his eyes but doesn’t argue the point and Derek continues, “What are you, anyway?” Because whatever his senses are telling him, this guy can’t be human.

“You mean you can’t tell just by sniffing?” The guy raises an eyebrow. “I guess there are more things in heaven and earth, Balto, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” His expression is insufferably smug and Derek’s overcome with the urge to wipe that grin off his face, but he can’t, he can’t afford to draw attention to himself in a public place. Can’t afford to start a feud with a creature he knows nothing about.

“Whatever. Do you work here? Or do you wear the t-shirt because you’re a big fan of the store?” Derek plucks the can of beans back off the shelf. “Can I buy this stuff now?”

“Sure,” the guy bites out, and turning, stalks back towards the counter while Derek follows on behind still trying to place his scent. The more he focuses, the more he can pick out an edge. Something other. A tantalizing whiff of something not entirely human.

When he reaches the counter, the guy hoists himself up onto it and slides across, dropping down on the other side to stand behind the cash register. Derek places the can, the razors and the detergent down and then busies himself decanting his change while the guy rings up the shopping. He operates the cash register without even looking at it, his narrowed eyes on Derek the entire time.

“Do you always introduce yourself by hiding in trees?” Derek asks, when he can no longer stand the scrutiny.

“Only if I think the person I’m introducing myself to could rip my throat out with their teeth.” The guy’s smile is a knife edge, tantalizingly sharp. In that moment there’s something almost feral about him, dangerous, his eyes glitter dark and beautiful against pale skin. It triggers some half-forgotten memory in Derek: a warning from his mother maybe, or a tall tale told by Uncle Peter on a Hunter’s Moon.

“Fae,” he breathes.

The guy stiffens slightly, as he bags up Derek’s groceries, but he doesn’t confirm or deny.

“I’m right,” Derek persists. “I’m right, aren’t I?”

“Half-Fae,” the guy admits grudgingly.

“So are there more of you round here?” Because that would be a disaster. A packless Alpha stands no chance against the might of the Fairy Court.

The guy taps his fingers against the counter and levels a long look at Derek before replying, “Just me.” And his heartbeat is steady, but that doesn’t mean much.

“I don’t want any trouble,” Derek says.

“Stay out of my woods at night and you won’t get any.” The guy shoves the bag across the counter to Derek. “What’s your name? I can’t keep calling you Balto.”

“What’s yours?”

“Stiles.”

Derek raises an eyebrow. That isn’t his real name. There’s no way. But now he thinks about it, he has a vague memory of someone, probably Uncle Peter, telling him that with the fae, names have power. “I’m Miguel,” he says.

“Lie.”

“Are you trying to tell me your real name is Stiles?”

Stiles runs his tongue across his teeth and considers Derek carefully. “Fair enough,” he says, “Miguel it is.”

Grabbing his groceries and pocketing the change, Derek turns to leave; he’s nearly at the door when Stiles calls out, “By the way, Miguel, if you’re interested, it’s two for one on bags of kibble at the pet store down the street.”

Derek doesn’t look back, doesn’t hesitate, just raises a hand and flips him off on the way out.

 

-

 

Chapter Text

Later that night Derek stands under the flickering light in the bathroom and hacks away at his facial hair with a pair of stiff, rusty scissors he found in a desk drawer. Using some of the remaining soap from the dispenser he carefully shaves himself with one of the disposable razors, only cutting himself twice. When he’s finished he barely recognizes his own reflection; staring at himself in the mirror he runs one hand self-consciously over smooth, tender skin.

It’s something.

It’s progress.

Turning the faucet on full, he pushes scuzzy soapy hair down the sink and wipes it clean. Then reaching down, he grabs the bottle of laundry detergent and twists the lid open.

 

-

 

They’re baking apple danish when Derek arrives at the bakery the next morning. His dad used to bake apple danish, used to pick the apples fresh from the tree in the back yard, used to make his own pastry too. Often he’d let Derek help. Even now, Derek can remember standing in the kitchen next to his father wearing an over-large apron, both their hands dusted with flour, as his dad showed him how to knead the dough just right. He’d always let him sneak a taste of the apple filling once it cooked down.

Boyd serves Derek a danish that’s warm and sticky on a clean plate, and he gulps it down in two big bites. A few minutes later Isaac joins them. He scowls pointedly down at the crumbs on the empty plate, before sighing deeply as he sinks down next to Boyd. Taking out his silver lighter, Boyd lights a cigarette and inhales deeply, while next to him Isaac fidgets, glaring down at Derek all the while.

“I said we’d never get rid of him.”

“Yup.”

A pause.

“Maybe we could open a tab, then when we finally find out who owns him—”

“No, Isaac. Jesus .”

“But—”

“You worry too much.”

“You don’t worry enough.”

Frowning, Boyd reaches out a hand and finds the sweet spot just behind Derek’s ear and Derek cats into it shamelessly. “It isn’t a big deal.”

Frustration and anxiety roll off Isaac in waves, and Derek isn’t great with people, never has been, but he knows enough to recognize that this isn’t really about him. Leaning over, he rests his head on Isaac’s knee, ears flat. Isaac stares balefully down at him, but Derek whines low in sympathy and tilts his head a little inviting Isaac to pet him.

“I know there’s a lot going on for you at the moment, but not everyone in this world is out to screw you over,” Boyd chides gently.

“Fine—” Isaac bites. He lifts a hand, lets it hover, before reaching down to touch Derek’s fur gently, pets it once, twice, and then pulls it away. “Fine,” he says again, softer.

Watching them with lazy curiosity, Boyd takes another long drag on his cigarette. “Anyway,” he says,  “I don’t think he has an owner.”

“What makes you say that?” asks Isaac. “He doesn’t look like a stray.”

Boyd shrugs. “You think? He hasn’t got a collar though and besides, he’s thin.”

“Thin? Seriously?” scoffs Isaac. “He’s huge. Look at him. I could ride him like a horse.”

“He’s a big dog, but he should be bigger. If you press here you can feel how pronounced his ribs are.” Boyd pushes fingers down between the bones applying gentle pressure. “Besides,” he adds, “he’s lonely. I can tell.”

Isaac’s eyes linger on Derek thoughtfully, but he doesn’t say anything else, and they wait for Boyd to finish his cigarette in silence.

“Later, boy,” Boyd says, when he’s finished. Reaching out he ruffles Derek’s fur affectionately as he stands, then disappears into the kitchen, and Derek stands too, ready to leave.

“Wait!” Isaac hisses, glancing back furtively to check that Boyd is out of sight. Reaching through the doorway he grabs a danish and offers it to Derek. “Don’t look at me like that,” he mumbles, heart fluttering nervously in his chest. “Boyd’ll never let me live this down if he finds out.”

Taking it in his mouth, Derek wags his tail gratefully, then decides to take it with him to his usual spot. She’s already there, hands cupped protectively round her coffee mug, but she double takes when she sees him approach. “Whatcha got there, mutt?” She leans down to take a look. “Is that apple?”

Derek wuffs an affirmation and settles down to eat it, his tail beating lazily against the sidewalk. The girl takes a long sip of her coffee, watching him with sharp eyes. “I prefer apricot myself,” she says.

-

 

“Dogs need meat,” Isaac announces as Derek arrives at the bakery the next morning. “Too much pastry isn’t good for you. So—” He produces a plate of thick cut bacon, crisp and glistening with fat. Derek’s mouth waters, tail thumping furiously. It’s been too long since he last ate bacon. Isaac places the plate down and then puts a bowl of water next to it.

When Boyd joins them a moment later he huffs out a laugh. “So much for not encouraging him, huh?”

Bacon grease all over his muzzle, Derek’s barely listening as Isaac snipes back, “You shut up. If we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do it right.”

“I’m not judging!” Boyd chuckles, holding his hands up. “Feed him what you want!” And Isaac seems mollified.

Later that morning, as Derek leaves, Boyd sneaks him an extra pastry anyway.

 

-

 

Afterwards, Derek joins the girl on her stoop. She’s pale and drawn, even more quiet than usual, but when he sits at her feet something in her scent settles, less astringent than before. He thinks maybe she’s glad to see him.

“You’re not gonna give up, huh?” she mutters. Derek edges closer so he’s pressed up against her ankles and the sour smell of loneliness dissipates further. “Okay,” she says, “Okay, good to know.”

They stay like that for a while, drawing comfort from each other. At least, Derek hopes that’s what’s happening as he dozes at her feet; he’s so relaxed he doesn’t register the approaching footsteps or the taptaptap of a heartbeat until the door to the apartment block opens behind them.

“Hey, Erica,” says a frustratingly familiar voice. “Thought I’d be the only one up this early— well hey now, who is this?”

Eyes narrowing, Derek’s head jerks up and he glares at Stiles, who stares straight back at him, one eyebrow raised, mouth twitching like he’s trying hard not to laugh. Huffing out a sigh, Derek looks away.

“Uh— hey, Stiles,” Erica says. She sounds casual, but Derek can hear the way her heartbeat speeds up and doesn’t miss the faint pink flush high on her cheeks either.

“Awww, is he yours?” asks Stiles slyly. And Derek won’t acknowledge him again, won’t give him the satisfaction.

“No! No. He’s just a dog who keeps showing up. Out of nowhere. I don’t know who he belongs to.”

“Big guy, isn’t he? And look how fluffy!” It’s a step too far, Derek can’t help himself. He turns his head to stare stonily at Stiles, who grins delightedly. “If I pet him do you think he’ll bite my hand off?”

“No.” Erica frowns. “He seems friendly enough.”

“Hah! You think so?” Crouching down to take a seat next to Erica on the stoop, Stiles rolls up his sleeves revealing strong forearms and reaches out with one hand like he’s thinking about doing it. Derek narrows his eyes, lip curling up to reveal razor sharp teeth. “Yeaaaaah, you know, I’m not gonna risk it,” Stiles says, pulling his hand back. “What’s his name?”

“I told you, he isn’t mine.”

“Bah! Every dog has to have a name. What about Lassie?” Derek growls low in his throat.

“I don’t think he likes it,” observes Erica.

“No? Balto? Fido? Rex?” He pauses significantly. “Or maybe something more unusual, like, say, Miguel?” He waggles his eyebrows and Derek snaps his teeth.

“Remind me never to let you name anything. You’re really bad at it,” Erica says flatly.

“You think?” Stiles turns the full force of his grin on her and her blush deepens.

“Definitely.” She tilts her head forward, letting her hair fall in front of her face.

“Well,” Stiles replies lowly. “You’ll just have to come up with something then, I have faith in you.” He nudges their shoulders together and something in Derek bristles at the familiar gesture.

“You should,” she says, lifting her head and meeting his eyes in a challenge. “I’m awesome. I totally named all three of my family’s guinea pigs when I was a kid.”

“Yeah?”

“Piggylicious, Sugarsnap pixiebell and Eleanor Roosevelt the fourteenth.” She counts them off on her fingers.

“Eleanor Roosevelt the fourteenth?”

“Seven year old me thought it sounded fancy.”

“She wasn’t wrong. Did you hear that?” Stiles says, ducking his head to address Derek with an infuriating smirk. “You’re in safe hands.”

In that moment, Derek really wishes he could roll his eyes, but it isn’t possible in this form. He settles for meeting Stiles eyes with what he hopes is an icy glare.

Stiles grins back at him, tongue flicking out to wet his lips. “Anyway,” he says, “I gotta run, Finstock’ll kill me if I’m late opening up the store. See you later, Erica!” He flashes her a quick grin. “Later, Pooch.” Derek snorts in disgust.

They watch together in silence as Stiles hurries down the street and rounds the corner. “That’s Stiles,” Erica says to Derek under her breath. “He’s—uh, he’s kinda cool, I guess.”

Derek huffs out a sigh and flops down onto the floor at her feet, sulking.

-

 

So it goes on. Days turn into weeks and nothing changes. A month passes by and there’s no big revelation, no one moment that explains to Derek why he’s here, or what he should be doing. He can’t seem to find the stump again, however thoroughly he searches the preserve, and maybe he should be disappointed, but truthfully, it doesn’t feel like it matters. There’s something about this whole place that settles him. Most mornings he hangs out at the bakery getting fussed endlessly by Boyd while Isaac feeds him mountains of food, then he goes around to sit with Erica for a while, keeping her company. When he absolutely has to, he goes to the grocery store to buy food and bicker with Stiles.

 

-

 

“Steak tips?” Boyd says one morning, his eyebrow quirked in amusement as Isaac places a bowl down in front of Derek.

“What? They were on sale!” Isaac’s prickly as always, but his cheeks pink and he hovers over Derek watchfully as he eats. “Do you think he’s putting on weight?”

“Yeah,” Boyd says reaching down and running a hand through Derek’s fur. “Definitely. You’re doing good.”

“Just didn’t see the point in letting good food go to waste,” Isaac sniffs, but he looks pleased. He smells pleased too. After Derek’s finished eating he lies down at their feet and Boyd fusses him some more while Isaac looks on.

 

-

 

Erica seems to be warming up to him. It’s there in little things. Her posture’s more relaxed and open, the bitter tang of loneliness that laces her scent seems somehow less, and she talks to him, tells him little snippets about her life as she drinks her morning coffee. That’s how he knows about the paper she’s trying to write that’s kicking her ass at the moment, the extra long shifts she pulls at the coffee shop on Elm, the fact that she’s epileptic and trying a new meds regimen, and how difficult she’s finding it to sleep in this heat because the AC in her apartment is broken and her super is dragging his feet to fix it.

Most days Derek lays at her feet dozing lightly, his tail thumping a lazy tattoo against the sidewalk as he lets her words wash over him; sometimes he brings a pastry from the bakery to gnaw on while he listens. Laura was always the talkative one in his family, Uncle Peter used to say she could talk the hind leg off a mule and he wasn’t wrong. No-one spun a tall tale quite like Laura, no-one could coax a smile from Derek like her either. She always seemed to know how to stop him brooding, how to make him laugh at his own ridiculousness. At least, until the fire that is. After that, well, Laura didn’t talk so much, didn’t smile so much either. Neither of them did.

And the thing is, it isn’t as if Erica reminds him of Laura. Erica’s words are a weapon that she wields against a world that infuriates her. She’s all sharp edges, brutal sarcasm and brittle pride. There’s nothing comfortable about her, but she calls to something deep in Derek. After the fire he and Laura collapsed in on themselves like a pair of imploding stars, until all that was left was a black hole of grief that sucked them both down. They didn’t seek justice or revenge. Didn’t try and expand the pack. They stopped fighting. Stopped really living. Derek thinks in a similar situation, Erica wouldn’t know how, no matter how frail her body is, or what the world throws at her.

The first day he met her, he’d assumed she was depressed, and maybe in some ways she is. She’s lonely and sad and often sick, but, underneath all that, she’s funny, and determined and above all else, fucking furious.

And he likes it. He likes her. He thinks his family would’ve too.

 

-

 

“Back again?” drawls Stiles, arms folded across his chest as he leans back against the counter.

“Problem? I thought we established you were the guardian of the forest, not the grocery store.”

“Har har.” Stiles raises an eyebrow. “I’m just trying to figure out what you eat. You’ve been in here, what? Once a week for the last month, buying the same thing each time.”

“You’re memorizing my purchases? Should I be flattered or concerned?”

“You appear to survive on nothing but beans. It’s probably why you look so grumpy all the time. So let’s say I’m concerned on your behalf, and on behalf of the local rabbit population, which you’re probably decimating on a nightly basis.”

“Actually I prefer squirrels,” Derek says, mostly because it’s true.

A startled bark of laughter escapes Stiles’ lips. He squints at Derek. “You know there are deer in the preserve right?”

Deer are too big. There’s too much meat and Derek has nowhere to store it, to kill one would be wasteful, but he isn’t about to explain that.

“Are you giving me permission to hunt deer in your woods?”

“Why not?” Stiles shrugs. “I’m feeling generous.”

Derek rolls his eyes. He still isn’t convinced that the woods belong to Stiles. Normally if woods are claimed territory he can tell, can feel it like an itch under his skin; and this land calls to him, welcomes him, like it wants him here. Besides, he’s been out to the preserve almost daily for a month now and not come across Stiles again. Still, Stiles is watching him now, eyes searching his face for something, eventually he clears his throat awkwardly and says, “How long are you planning to stick around, anyway?”

Blinking in surprise, Derek hesitates before replying, “A while, I guess.” As long as it takes to figure out why he’s so fucking convinced he needs to be here. Frowning, Stiles rings up the items and starts to bag them up. “Why?” Derek asks, “Is that a problem?”

Stiles’ hands hover for a second over Derek’s shopping. “No,” he says slowly, but his reply comes a moment too late.

“But?”

“But most people like us don’t stay around here long.”

“Why not?”

Stiles’ heartbeat ticks up and he wets his lips. “I don’t know,” he says lightly. “I guess you’d have to ask them.”

“But you’re here.”

“Yes,” Stiles says brightly. Too brightly. His hands are busy with the shopping again. “Yes I am. And now you’re here too. Look at us! The only two supernaturally inclined dudes in town. We should start a club or a secret society.”

“A club?”

“Yeah, we could have a secret handshake and everything!”

“I don’t know.” Derek sighs, pretending to consider it. “Will there be a clubhouse?”

Stiles snorts. “Uh, yes. Of course. And we’ll have to think up a name that really embodies our dynamic, like, oh, I don’t know—” he gnaws on his lower lip. “Grumpy and Sparkles.”

Scrubbing one hand over his stubbled chin, Derek raises an eyebrow thoughtfully, then says, “Which one am I?”

Stiles bursts out laughing, shoulders shaking with it and when he finally calms down, the way he looks at Derek, it’s like he’s only just seeing him for the first time. “You’re pretty funny, Miguel.” Derek shrugs, trying not to feel pleased. There’s something about Stiles like this, posture loose, smile open, eyes sparkling with laughter, all of that earlier tension gone. “Do you know Palmer’s?” Stiles asks casually, leaning forward on his elbows against the counter.

“The bar? Yeah, why?” Reaching out, Derek tugs the grocery bag towards him, and clutches it to his chest.

Stiles’ eyes drag appreciatively over Derek’s body before flicking up to meet his eyes. “Thought we could go for a drink this evening.”

“A-A drink,” Derek stutters, nearly dropping the bag in surprise. He adjusts his grip, clinging on to it for dear life. One of the bean cans buckles slightly beneath his fingers. “Like—like a date?”

“Sure.” Stiles shrugs, leaning back. “You’re attractive. Especially now you’ve lost the mountain man beard. Not that I mind a beard, or stubble at least, but when I first met you it was a little too Hagrid-y, y’know?”

“Uh—” The thing is Derek has dated two people in his life. The first one, Paige, died in his arms when she was sixteen after the bite failed to take. The second, Kate, burned his family alive in their beds. That’s it. That’s the sum total of Derek’s dating history. After those two disasters he kind of tamped that part of himself down. Repressed it. Which isn’t to say he’s been a monk. Back when Laura was alive, they’d stay a little while in a town, pick up some work, and he’d go out to a bar or club and hook-up with strangers. Always strangers. After Kate he set himself two rules: No-one who knows his name. No-one who knows where he lives. It’s been so long since he’s allowed himself to think of something as simple as a date that he’s blindsided. “I—uh—”

Technically he could go on a date with Stiles and he wouldn’t be breaking either rule.

“It doesn’t have to be a date, if you don’t want. We can just go as friends. It’s fine.”

“I—” Derek stares blankly. Objectively Stiles is attractive. Probably. He has nice eyes, a full mouth, and Derek likes the way he smells. “One drink.”

“Yeah?” Stiles face splits into a wide grin.

“Just, getting to know each other a little better. That’s all.”

“Okay.” Stiles’ eyes flick over him again, but he looks away quickly. “Sure. Shall we say seven?”

Ears burning, Derek nods. “S-Sure. Yeah. I’ll, uh, yes.” He can feel Stiles’ eyes on him as he bolts for the door.

 

-

 

Even though Derek tells himself that it’s just a friendly drink, he still washes his clothes that afternoon and hangs them out to dry in the baking hot sun. He takes a shower, then stands in the bathroom for longer than he’s comfortable to admit, fiddling with his hair, trying to make it look okay. That’s all he’s going for, just okay. Just, a person who has made a basic amount of effort with their appearance: presentable. If possible he wants to avoid looking like a hobo that sleeps in an abandoned rail car and who has, on occasion in the last few weeks, eaten a squirrel. It’s no good. His hair is a little too long, there’s a cowlick that won’t lie flat no matter what he does. If Laura were here she’d— but she isn’t, and he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He dresses quickly; pulling on his leather jacket he buries his hands deep in the pockets as he sets out.

Palmer’s is kind of a dive, and every time Derek walks past the outside he gets the urge to sneeze. He arrives dead on seven to find that inside it’s dark, dingy, and stinks of alcohol, stale sweat and piss. Green leatherette stools sit at the bar, there are dark booths lining the walls and the place is empty save for a couple of older guys sitting in a corner booth nursing their beers. One big and burly, the other lean with hard eyes, they stare at him as he walks in, but he ignores them. Going over to the bar, he orders a beer and then sits on one of the stools, it has a loose thread, the seam is popping at the edges, and he can see foam starting to spill out. He digs at it absently with a finger. He doesn’t even know what he’s doing here. In this bar, in this town, in California, even. God, he’s such a mess. Should he trust Stiles? Gut instinct tells Derek that he can, but Derek’s learned the hard way that when it comes to people, his instincts aren’t good. Some part of his brain is warped, like a funhouse mirror it twists and distorts people’s true selves, and he ends up trusting when he should run or fight instead.

Maybe he should cut his losses, chug his drink and just—

“Hey,” Derek blinks, looks up to find Stiles standing beside him, and despite all his misgivings Stiles’ scent is a welcome relief after the olfactory assault of the bar. He leans forward slightly, breathing in.

“Hey,” he says after a beat.

“I wasn’t sure you’d show up.”

“Why not?”

Stiles shrugs. “Thought I might have scared you off.”

“Because you’re so terrifying to an Alpha werewolf,” Derek grumbles under his breath, embarrassed to admit how close he just came to running away.

“Hey, I can be pretty damn terrifying if I want to be,” Stiles says, gesturing to the bartender for a beer. “Freaked you out in the woods that one time, didn’t I?”

“Uh, no.”

“Besides,” Stiles barrels on, ignoring him. “I think you’re one of those people who’s more worried by social occasions than anything else. You’d probably face down a hoard of zombies without batting an eye and then hide under your bed because someone invited you to a party.”

“That’s—” Derek swallows. “I don’t—”

Stiles settles down on the bar stool next to Derek and pulls it in a little closer so their knees are knocking together. “Don’t be offended. I have no filter. My mouth is always running on, but I don’t mean anything by it. You’ve just gotta learn to tune out a good thirty percent of what I say. Or that’s what Scott always said.”

“Scott?”

“Best friend.”

“Does he live ‘round here?”

“Used to.”

And there’s something about the way he says it which makes Derek ask, “He move away?”

“Nobody stays forever.” Stiles smiles tightly. “Speaking of which, what are you doing here, Miguel?”

“Umm-you invited me?”

“I mean here, in Beacon Hell.”

“Hell?”

“I joke. Ignore me. What brings you to the wonder of Beacon Hills. Jewel of Northern California and well known tourist hotspot.” He makes a sweeping gesture that takes in the dilapidated bar.

Derek shrugs, not sure what he should say. Whether he should say anything at all. “Just passing through I guess.”

“You’ve been here a month.”

“So?”

“So, much longer here and you won’t be passing through anymore.” Stiles takes a long swallow of his beer.

“I just—like it here.”

Stiles chokes. “You like it here?” he splutters, coughing up beer violently. Derek reaches over and bangs him on the back until it passes.

“Is that so surprising?”

“It’s kind of a hole.”

Derek has lived in several holes. Literally. He says, “The bakery’s good.” Stiles shrugs noncommittally. “And I like Erica. The woods are nice.”

“Nice? Really?

“You don’t like them?”

“I mean. I guess. If you think trees are cool or whatever.” Stiles toys idly with a beer mat, observing Derek out of the corner of his eye. “So is this a date or not?” Now it’s Derek’s turn to almost choke on his drink, he’s still coughing when Stiles continues, “It’s just you kind of left it vague earlier, and when it comes to this shit, I’m a cards on the table kind of guy so for my own sanity I have to ask, am I barking up the wrong tree here?”

Once he’s finished spluttering, Derek scowls. “Barking up the wrong tree?”

“Poor choice of words,” Stiles waves a hand airily, “You know what I mean.”

Rolling his eyes, Derek sighs. He’s kind of dreaded this question, but it’s a fair one. Grudgingly he admits, “I—I’ve hooked up with guys before.”

“Okaaay.”

“And women. I’m not— I don’t really have a preference.”

“So you’re bi?”

“I don’t—” Derek glares down at the sticky surface of the bar and concentrates on peeling the label off his bottle. Sex and relationships, it’s all tangled up into a knot inside of him that he doesn’t know how to unpick and explain to himself, let alone apply a neat label to. “I don’t know what I am. I haven’t really ever—y’know—” I haven’t allowed myself to think on it, let alone feel. I haven’t even been on a date in eight years, and I don’t know what I’m doing, is what he’s struggling to say. And either Stiles is telepathic or he has some hereto unknown handbook concealed about his person which allows him to interpret the half-formed thoughts Derek’s trying to express, because he nods like he gets it.

“Okay, well, let’s start with the basics. Do you find me attractive?”

Derek shrugs and glares down at the cold, soggy pieces of the label that he’s rolling between his thumb and forefinger. “I mean, I guess.”

“Thanks,” Stiles says drily. “Your enthusiasm is overwhelming.”

“Your—uh,” eyes are pretty, your hair looks soft, the quirk of your lips, the strength in your hands. “You smell good,” is what he blurts out, and then ducks his head, wishing the ground would swallow him.

“Good, like: Mmmmm. That squirrel was good, but I’m still feeling peckish and could sure use something bigger. Or—”

“I mean good.” Derek interrupts, lifting his head to glare at Stiles irritably. “I like the way you smell. I don’t eat people. Jesus.”

“Okay. Fine. Sorry.” Stiles says, but he doesn’t sound sorry, and he looks deeply pleased. “I like your eyes.”

“My-My eyes?”

“Yeah. They’re multi-colored. Unusual. Plus light eyes and dark hair is always kinda hot.”

“Uh-Thanks?”

“You’re welcome.” He smirks round the lip of his bottle before taking a sip.

Derek clears his throat awkwardly; for his own sanity, he needs to change the subject. “So, you said you’re half fae. Which half?”

“Left,” Stiles says, deadly serious. Derek glares flatly at him until he explodes with laughter. “Just kidding. My mom. My dad was human.” There’s something in his tone when he speaks about his father. Proud and fond, but Derek didn’t miss the ‘was’ in that sentence and he changes the subject.

“So, fae, huh? Do you have a magic wand?”

“Har har. Yes. It has a star and pink glitter and ribbons.” He rolls his eyes. “I’m also friends with Tinkerbell.”

“Wow. Friends with a celebrity. I’m impressed.”

“It’s not all it’s cracked up to be. She was never the same after Peter left. Hit the booze hard.”

“Shame.” They both grin.

“A wand, though?” Stiles scoffs. “Cheap shot. Honestly. That’s how this is gonna go down? I mean, it seems like you spend half your life as an actual wolf, but have you ever lifted your leg and pissed against a tree?” Derek opens his mouth then shuts it again. “Oh my god, you totally have, haven’t you?” Stiles looks gleeful.

“You said it yourself, I can change into a wolf,” Derek points out, “When I’m in wolf form and I need to, y’know—” he trails off.

“So is there other stuff, too? I mean, have you ever humped someone’s leg because you were happy to see them? Sniffed another wolf’s butt?” Derek glares at him. “Well?”

“No,” he grinds out.

“Aww, don’t be embarrassed,” Stiles leers. “I still think you’re hot. Play your cards right and later I’ll let you take me back to your doghouse.”

“What? And then you’ll show me your fairy ring?”

Stiles collapses with laughter. “Miguel,” he says, leaning over and touching Derek’s arm. “Maybe I’ll even let you sniff it.”

And in spite of himself, in spite of the fact he’s blushing like a teenager. Derek grins.

The conversation flows a little easier after that, and Derek’s nowhere near the stage where he’s going to invite Stiles back anywhere, but this, the two of them sitting together and chatting, is the most normal interaction he’s had with anyone in months, years, maybe even since Laura died.

They drink another couple of beers together. The bar never really seems to get any busier, and when Derek comments on it Stiles just shrugs. “It’s a Tuesday, Miguel,” he says, like that explains it.

The only thing that spoils the evening slightly is the two guys in the corner. Throughout the evening Derek can feel the eyes of the big burly guy boring into them, or more precisely, Stiles.

“Who are those two?” Derek asks eventually, nodding at them.

Glancing over his shoulder Stiles grimaces. “Big guy is Ennis Johnson, tall skinny one is Crawford Lahey.”

“Ennis has been staring at you all evening. Like he’s Wile.E.Coyote and you’re the Roadrunner.”

“Hah! Accurate. Fortunately for me, everyone knows the coyote never wins.”

“Does he ever give you any trouble?” asks Derek, locking eyes with Ennis over Stiles’ shoulder.

“Nothing I can’t handle.” Stiles doesn’t even glance back at them, like they’re not worth his time. “So, one more drink and then I’ll have to go. I’m opening the store tomorrow. Again.”

“Okay.” Derek drags his eyes away from staring Ennis down and shoots Stiles a small smile. “This was fun.”

Stiles nods. “It was. It’s kinda nice to be myself for once.”

“Yeah,” Derek agrees, “I know what you mean.”

Later that evening he walks Stiles back to his apartment building, they linger on the steps talking, and it’s familiar and strange all at once. The last time he stood on someone’s doorstep after a date, it was Paige and he was fifteen. He’d chanced a kiss that night and then grinned madly to himself all the way home.

As they stand together in the balmy night air he thinks about leaning in and kissing Stiles. Imagines making out with him in front of his building like a couple of teenagers, and there’s a moment as they’re saying good-bye when he thinks Stiles is imagining it too. The thing is, despite all the flirting, and despite how much he likes Stiles, he has rules. Rules that he’s put in place for a reason. And even though hooking up with Stiles now wouldn’t technically break either of them, he knows in himself it would break them in spirit. Stiles knows him. Knows more about him than anyone has in a long time and Derek can’t risk it. In that moment he tells himself that this was never a date, not really. This was just two people getting to know each other a little better. That’s all. He needs to set the boundaries close now and stick to them.

He sticks out his hand and, after a pause, Stiles takes it. “Thanks,” Derek says, gruffer than he means to be. “This was fun.”

“Yeah.” Stiles says, shaking his hand. “Fun.”

“I should go. See you around, Stiles.”

He definitely isn’t imagining the look of disappointment on Stiles face when he says, “Oh, sure. I guess I’ll see you around, Miguel.”

 It’s for the best. Romance is a luxury Derek can’t afford, that’s what he tells himself as he walks back to the warehouse alone.

 

-

Chapter Text

After another night of restless dreams, Derek wakes with an uneasy feeling gnawing at his stomach; he can’t settle to anything, circles the warehouse restless and irritable, body one long line of tension. When he pads outside, the position of the sun in the sky tells him he’s overslept; it’s too late to go to the bakery now, by the time he arrives they’ll be close to opening. There’s still time to visit Erica though, and once he thinks that, he has to do it. Needs to. Can’t shake the idea for a moment.

The pace he sets is quicker than usual. That strange tension doesn’t leave him and only grows worse the closer to town he gets until his instincts are screaming: EricaEricaErica , and badbadwrongtrouble . It grows in him, heavy like the air before a storm, until he’s running, lightning quick, four paws thundering against the asphalt, every muscle straining with the effort, the need to see her and make sure she’s okay.

A block away he hears the sound of something shattering in the distance, a choked off noise, a heart beating quick and scared, and if someone asked, he couldn’t say what he was expecting, but when he rounds the corner onto her block to find her lying on the ground convulsing, he isn’t surprised. Her cup is smashed, jagged shards scattered all about; the bitter smell of coffee carries on the air, and alongside it, the iron tang of blood. As Derek approaches he can see it oozing, thick and sticky from her temple. She must have hit her head as she fell.

Time seems to slow as he runs to her: every sense attuned, taking in the sound of her pulse, the look of her skin, pale and clammy, her scent sour with pain.  Reaching her, his first instinct is to shift, but he has no clue what to do, no experience with seizures, no idea how to help her and no phone to call anyone. Besides if he shifts, he’ll be a naked man crouched over an unconscious woman and there’s no way that ends well.

No, he needs help and he needs it now. So he follows his instinct and does the one thing he can do, the one thing he’s avoided doing where another living soul can hear him for nigh on eight years in an effort to remain hidden.  Tipping back his head, he howls as long and loud as he knows how. The sound echoes high, piercing through the quiet morning, bouncing off buildings and causing a flock of birds to rise startled from the rooftops above and circle the air nervously. He howls again, desperate, and the windows rattle in their frames.

Nobody comes, but that makes no difference. Head tipped back he howls again, and again, and again. Because nothing else matters, someone somewhere is going to hear this and come find them, even if it’s only to complain about the noise.

It feels like hours pass as Erica jerks helplessly on the ground next to him. In reality it’s probably only a minute at most before the door to the apartment block bursts open and Stiles stumbles out, clothes half buttoned, hair sopping wet. Almost immediately Boyd and Isaac skid round the corner together, panting, hands and faces streaked in flour, eyes wild.

They’re here. They’re all here.

In that moment, Derek’s so relieved he could cry.

Boyd and Isaac race forward and Stiles is already barking orders. “Quick! Help me roll her on her side,” he calls and Isaac stumbles forward blindly to help him while Boyd pulls out his phone to call 911.

“We need to get her into the recovery position and cushion her head. Here!” Stiles tugs off his misbuttoned shirt. “We’ll use this. Don’t put anything in her mouth.”

Pale but determined, Isaac nods, behind him Boyd is speaking to the dispatcher, giving them as many details as he can.

Backing out of the way, Derek takes refuge behind some large trash cans. Now the initial surge of adrenaline has passed, he’s shaking, legs barely able to hold him up. The three men hover over her watchfully, and within minutes an ambulance siren can be heard in the distance. In no time at all it’s here and the EMT’s are climbing out and after that he can’t see what’s happening. There are too many people, too much noise, too many scents all crowding in at once, overwhelming him.

When he was little he used to hate crowds, used to hate the cacophony of noises and scents that he couldn’t tune out, his momma used to put him in ear defenders, just to help. He can still remember her, cradling him in her arms and whispering, “Pick one. One scent or sound. One that feels safe. Pick one and focus on that,” and it had always helped. Now, instinctively, he hones in on a scent that’s warm, spicy, and reassuring. Breathing deeply he lets it settle him, then tunes back into the thump of Erica’s heartbeat, still beating too fast, but strong and there. She’s going to be okay. She has to be, Please, he thinks, please let her be okay.

He hears Stiles’ voice say, “I’ll ride with her in the ambulance.” And before he knows it the EMT’s lift her in, Stiles follows and the door to the ambulance shuts behind them. The sound of her heartbeat fades as the ambulance drives away, the comforting scent dissipates and then as quickly as it began, it’s over, and it’s just he and Boyd and Isaac, standing there watching the ambulances tail lights bounce down the road and away.

As one Boyd and Isaac turn to look at each other. “Well,” Isaac says, “that was dramatic.”

Nodding slowly, Boyd looks around until he finds Derek ducking behind the trash cans. “Hey, come here, boy!” he says, crouching down, and after a moment's hesitation Derek trots toward him. “You did good,” Boyd croons, running his fingers through Derek’s fur. “You did real good.”

“Yep,” Isaac agrees, looking down at them both with something approaching fondness. Then says, “We should get back to the store, I think I left the kitchen door open. And we were already behind this morning, before all this, and there are bear claws in the oven that will burn if we’re not careful. And Mrs. Mendes is coming to collect her cake today and I still have to finish the sugar roses.”

Boyd rolls his eyes, gives Derek’s ruff one last squeeze then rises to his feet. “Come on, boy!” he says, “I think you earned yourself some bacon. And it just so happens Isaac has some ready and waiting.”

“Less talking, more walking!” calls Isaac, already striding ahead of them.

“The only reason we’re so behind,” whispers Boyd conspiratorially, “is because he was worried when you didn’t show this morning. He kept stopping to go outside and see where you were.”

“I can hear you,” snipes Isaac.

“Yeah,” Boyd says, a slow grin spreading across his face. “I know.”

 

-

 

Shaken by the events of the morning, Derek ends up hanging out with Boyd and Isaac at the bakery for most of the day. They set a bowl of water down by the back door and he lays just outside taking refuge in the shade; throughout the day whichever one of them is in the kitchen keeps up a steady stream of chatter, telling him about their customers or bringing him things to eat. It’s more comforting than he can express. Boyd comes outside to smoke at lunchtime and brings Derek a bear claw, then sits and runs his fingers through Derek’s fur in a steady, soothing rhythm.

“I still can’t get over what you did this morning,” Boyd muses eventually, hand moving to scritch under Derek’s chin. “Or how we heard you, so clear. I knew it was you. I knew you needed us. I felt it.” Leaning into his touch, Derek shuts his eyes tight and tells himself that he did enough, that Erica’s going to be fine, but he’s lost too many people over the years, and he can’t help the doubts that nag at him. Moments later Boyd’s phone beeps and, fishing it out of his pocket, he thumbs at it, pulling up a message. Cracking one eye open Derek angles to get a look at the screen, but Boyd’s already standing.

“Isaac,” he calls, immediately. “I got a message from that Stiles dude.”

“Stiles?” Isaac sticks his head through the doorway, hair tousled, flour smudged down one cheek.

“Yeah,” Boyd says. “You know, the guy from this morning, the one who went to the hospital with the girl. I gave him my number, told him to let us know how she is.”

“Ohhh. Yeah. What did he say?”

“He says she’s gonna be okay. They’ve patched her up, they’re just reviewing her meds or something, and then she’s gonna be sent home.”

Isaac nods. “Cool. That’s great.”

“Do you think we should, like—” Boyd trails off, flicking the ash from his cigarette to the ground. “I don’t know, like, get her something? Like a get well soon gift or something?”

“Um—” Isaac shrugs. “I—I guess. It isn’t like we know her.”

Ducking his head, Boyd scrubs a hand over the back of his neck. “I mean, I wouldn’t say—” his voice cracks and he clears his throat. “I’ve—uh—seen her around, she works at the coffee shop on Elm. Her name’s Erica. We’ve talked, she’s uh—pretty cool.” Derek chuffs in amusement, and Boyd reaches down absently to scritch his fur.

“Oh.” Isaac brow crumples in confusion and then he says, “Oooohhhhh. Okay, then. Yes. Go for it. Get her a gift.”

“From both of us?”

Isaac raises one eyebrow. “I mean, if you want? But won’t that kind of defeat the purpose?”

“What do you mean?”

“You want to ask her out, right?”

“Hah! Nooo! No. I mean. Maybe. That’s—” he sighs. “Is it creepy?”

“Not so creepy now I know you’ve actually spoken to her before.”

“It isn’t like—she probably doesn’t even remember me.”

Isaac sighs. “You’ll never know if you don’t put yourself out there. Text this Stiles guy. Ask him if she likes cake. Play to your strengths.”

“You don’t think Stiles is—y’know—” Boyd looks at him. Significantly. Isaac stares back blankly and Boyd sighs. “You don’t think he’s her boyfriend?”

“Oh. I hadn’t thought of that. Text him. Ask him.”

“No!”

“Not, like, ask him , ask him. Just text a reply implying that she’s his girlfriend. Like, ‘if you and your girlfriend need anything over the next day or so, let us know.’ or whatever. He’ll soon let you know if they’re dating— And if they’re not?” He jerks his head. “Then you make your move.”

“I—” Boyd tilts his head to one side, considering. “I can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“Because,” Boyd groans, “It’s fucking weird.”

“No it isn’t!”

“Isaac, it’s awkward as hell. Forget it. I’m not going to do anything.” He takes one last drag on his cigarette and tosses it to the floor, grinding it out with the toe of his sneaker.

“Faint heart never won fair lady,” Isaac sniffs, heading back inside.

“Helpful,” Boyd grumbles, rolling his eyes. Then he bends slightly, one hand ruffling Derek’s fur and Derek gives his hand a sympathetic lick.  

 

-

 

When Derek finally treks back to the warehouse it’s late afternoon and he’s still wired. At the entrance he pauses, inhaling deeply as he catches a whiff of a now familiar scent, warm, enthralling and unexpected.

Stiles.

Stiles is here.

Here.

Why?

Heartbeat ratcheting up a notch, Derek approaches cautiously, careful not to make a sound. He finds Stiles perched on top of the train car engrossed in Derek’s copy of The Princess Bride, but he looks up as Derek approaches, even though Derek’s sure he didn’t make a sound.

“Aha! You’re back. Knew you couldn’t stay away forever.” Closing the book, Stiles jumps down from the roof easily and tosses it onto one of the seats, where it slips to the floor, pages fluttering open. “Erica’s fine by the way,” he says. Derek glares at the book, a growl rumbling up and out of his chest and for one moment Stiles glances around in confusion. Spotting the book, he flushes pink. “Oops. Sorry about that.” He crouches down and picks it up. “Hey, why don’t you go and change into something less fluffy? Then we can talk.”

After the other night, talking should sound good. He likes Stiles, he does, more than he should, even. But Stiles is here uninvited, in the one place that Derek has managed to find for himself, his private space. Where his things are. That book that Stiles is handling once belonged to Laura. And it doesn’t smell like her anymore, but it shouldn’t smell like Stiles. It shouldn’t. He knows it’s stupid. Can tell himself again and again that things aren’t important, people are. But truthfully? Derek has almost nothing left. One pair of jeans, a couple of t-shirts. A camping stove. Three books. The hand-me-down leather jacket his dad gave to him on his sixteenth birthday, even though it was way too big and is still too long in the arms. Derek doesn’t have much, but what he has is his. And he isn’t ready to share it yet, may never be.

A low rumbling noise reverberates round the room and it takes Derek a second to realize it’s coming from him.

“I didn’t go through your stuff,” Stiles says awkwardly. “The book was out on the chair is all, and I got bored of waiting.”

It isn’t good enough. It isn’t. Bored? Bored? Eyes fixed on him, Derek growls lower, louder, the sound echoing off the walls.

“Okay! Okay. I overstepped. I should have, I don’t know— well—I have no idea how I could’ve contacted you. Dude, do you even have a phone?” Derek snaps his teeth, and Stiles raises one hand in supplication, the other still clinging to the book. “Not the point, okay. I’ll—I’ll go.” He puts the book down gingerly on the seat and edges around Derek to the door. Teeth bared, Derek stares after him. Still as statue, he listens to Stiles’ retreating heartbeat, to fading footsteps that carry him away, leaving Derek alone in a vast empty room with only the ghosts of his past to comfort him.

 

-

 

A week goes by and he doesn’t contact Stiles, avoiding the grocery store like the plague. It’s for the best. Whatever it was between them, it’s nothing. It’s less than nothing. They don’t even know each other’s real names. This is the universe telling him to back away and whenever he feels a smidgen of remorse, he squashes it down fiercely. No good can come of pursuing a relationship with Stiles, friendship or otherwise, so it’s better to nip it in the bud. Better to end it here, before it’s even begun, before he starts to care for someone only to have them leave, only for him to be betrayed and disappointed, or worse, disappoint them.

Even if Stiles turned out to be different, it doesn’t change anything. People close to Derek get hurt, they die. It’s like he’s cursed.

Holding Stiles at arm’s length is the right thing to do.

That’s what he tells himself.

 

-

 

“You want this one?” Derek turns his head to the side, refusing to take a bite. This is the most frustrating thing about his wolf form: The complete inability to communicate with people. Boyd sighs, the hand holding the danish drops to his side, he fishes his lighter out of his pocket with the other turning it idly between long fingers. “Okay, I’m just gonna take my break.” Derek stares at the danish wide-eyed, whining pitifully. Puffing his cheeks out, Boyd offers it to him again, and again Derek turns his head to refuse it. He has a plan dammit. A plan.

“Do you want it or not?” Boyd asks, frustration bleeding through his tone. He isn’t getting it and there’s nothing else for it. Derek slips past him into the kitchen.

“Woah,” Boyd says, “You are not allowed in there. No dogs in the kitchen.”

Ignoring him, Derek places a paw on top of the stack of paper bags under the counter and stares at Boyd. He nudges the bags with the tip of his nose, and then gazes longingly at the danish, willing Boyd to understand. For a long moment they look at each other.

“Are you— Are you trying to tell me you want this—to go?” Boyd pinches the bridge of his nose. Derek yips in relief. “I’m going crazy,” Boyd mumbles under his breath, “I’m going fucking crazy.” He places his lighter on the kitchen counter, crouches down to grab a bag and places the danish inside. “There,” he says,  standing up and tnd turning to Derek. “I don’t know why the hell a dog would want—Heeeey!”

It’s too late. Derek’s already nosed the lighter off the counter and got between his teeth. “Hey!” Boyd calls, “That’s mine!” They stare at each other, Boyd clutching the paper bag, Derek with the silver lighter held gingerly between his teeth. “Okay,” says Boyd, stepping forward. “Good dog. Good dog. Just drop it.” He takes another step forward. “Just drop it for me,” he cajoles. “Goooood dog.” Slowly he reaches out one hand, edging closer, slowly closer and with each step Derek backs away, just as slow, away, away, backing towards the door, right back until he’s standing in the doorway. They’re still staring at each other. Staring. Staring. Staring. Derek’s holding every muscle tight. “Juuuuust drop it,” Boyd breathes and Derek almost feels bad.

Almost.

Almost, but not quite.

When Boyd lunges forward it’s already too late, quick as the wind, Derek’s through the door and away.

It isn’t far. Just a few blocks away, but Derek can hear Boyd swearing as he chases Derek down the street, breathless and infuriated. In no time at all Derek’s skidding round the corner and charging towards Erica who’s back in her usual position on the stoop, a tiny pink scar just visible against her hairline. She nearly drops her coffee in surprise as Derek bounds up the steps and takes refuge behind her back, Boyd hot on his heels.

Stumbling to a stop, Boyd leans over, resting his hands on his knees and pants out. “Is—Is he yours?”

Erica’s eyes narrow. “Why?”

“He stole my lighter.”

Ever since she got a out of hospital almost two weeks ago, Erica has been making an extra fuss of Derek. She taken to grooming him, brushing his fur until it shines, brings him a bowl of water every day in a shiny new bowl and even bought him kibble from the petstore, which he eats because he doesn’t want to offend her, even though it tastes like ass. She’s attached. Attached to the point where she’s talking about putting up lost dog flyers, and if no-one responds she might take him in as a pet. A pet . The only saving grace in all of this is that Stiles hasn’t been around to hear it, because the jokes at Derek’s expense would be swift and brutal.

Then there’s the fact that Boyd, having admitted his epic crush on Erica, is now openly pining. Every day this week Derek has had to listen to him wondering whether he should say anything. Whether he should drop by and see if Erica’s okay. Whether it would be too weird. Whether she’s dating Stiles. Whether she’s allergic to cake. Allergic. To. Cake.

Obviously it’s possible. People have all kinds of allergies. Lactose intolerance being one of them. But still. Still. It’s driving him insane.

He can’t take it anymore. He is neither a pet nor a therapist. So, he’s hatched a plan. A devious, cunning plan that Laura, fan of cheesy rom-coms and stalwart viewer of the Hallmark channel, would have loved. He just needed to wait until Boyd tried to offer him an apricot danish, and then… well. The rest was surprisingly easy.

Turning to look at Derek, Erica commands, “Quit hiding behind me, mutt!” Derek dips his tail and slinks down the steps to stand between her and Boyd. “Do you have his lighter?” Derek whines, flattens his ears, eyes wide and pleading, it’s the same look that has had Isaac sneaking him extra bacon all week. The corner of Erica’s mouth lifts in a smile, eyes softening. “Drop it,” she says firmly, holding out her hand, and Derek releases the lighter, letting it fall into her open palm; he puts his head on her knee, and heaves a deep, remorseful sigh. “Urgh, it’s covered in dog slobber, sorry,” Erica says, handing the lighter back to Boyd.

“It’s—uh—it’s fine,” Boyd clears his throat. “So, uh, is he yours?”

“No, I mean. I’d like him to be. But he just showed up one day a couple of months back.”

“Yeah, same. He turns up at the bakery every morning.”

“The bakery? The one on Maple or...”

“Maple.”

“You work there?”

“I own it. Co-own it. Me and my buddy Isaac.”

“That’s so cool. I wondered where this one was getting all his pastries from. I figured he was stealing them from whoever owns him. Raiding their cupboards or something. I was so jealous. Like, where’s my pastry, mutt?”

“You—uh—you like stuff like that?”

She snorts. “Who doesn’t?”

“You—uh— you want this one?” Boyd holds out the bag sheepishly.

“Really?” The paper bag rustles as Boyd hands it over and Derek lifts his head to sneak a peek. “Oh my god, apricot? That’s my favorite.” She smiles up at Boyd, bright and beaming.

Grinning bashfully, Boyd watches as she takes a bite. He clears his throat. “It’s uh— I hope this isn’t weird, but it’s really good to see that you’re okay.” Erica’s chewing slows and she looks up at Boyd, confused. “I was here the other day, well, me and Isaac, when you—” he trails off, “I called the ambulance.”

“Oh my god,” she mumbles through a mouth full of danish. “Thank-you so much? How did you even?”

“He” Boyd gestures at Derek, “howled and we heard him. I—I’ve been meaning to drop by ever since and see how you were but I didn’t want it to be weird—” he ducks his head, and Erica grins.

“Totally not weird.” she says, squinting up at him. “I know you, right? Bean House. Iced mocha, extra whip.”

“Yeah!” The relief in Boyd’s scent is overwhelming. Derek flops down between them as the two of them chat.

Laura would be proud.

 

-

 

Over the next few days it’s clear that Boyd and Erica are growing closer, increasingly they both smell happier and more like each other. It’s nice to see a little joy, a little normalcy, and even nicer to think that he might have played some part in it. In other ways, though, it just reinforces his own loneliness. That slow ache in his chest that has been growing recently. The need for family. For pack. For a mate. Maybe that’s why he finds himself walking past Beacon Hills Whole Foods on his way home from the bakery that Friday, maybe that’s why he slows down, takes a deep breath, and lets himself pick out the one scent that’s become so familiar to him for all the wrong reasons. Peering through the store window he picks out Stiles straight away. He’s leaning carelessly against the counter as he makes conversation with a tall, burly looking guy who’s buying a carton of milk. Stiles has one eyebrow raised and that goddamn infuriating half-smile playing across his lips; Derek’s stomach sinks like a stone.

The window muffles the conversation a little, but Derek has no problem hearing Stiles say, “No thanks.”

“Well, what about Sunday?” the guy says. “Come on, Stiles, don’t be a cocktease.” Derek stiffens, eyes raking over the guy. There’s something about him, the way he holds himself, the hulking mass of him, something familiar, and then he remembers—the guy from the bar the other week. The one who had spent the evening watching at Stiles.

“A cocktease?” Stiles drawls, “Ennis—”

“Stiles.”

“Didn’t your momma teach you not to call people names?”

“Hah! Cute. Look, we both know you want it, okay? I’ve seen the way you look at me. So why pre—”

“Yeaaaaahh. I’m gonna stop you there, before you say something we’ll both regret. Take your milk and go home.”

Ennis scowls and Derek waits with baited breath to see what he’ll do, eyes flicking between the two men. Ennis dwarfs Stiles, he’s nearly a foot taller and broader even than Boyd. Yet Stiles seems unphased, almost bored, like there’s no threat there at all, and Derek can see the moment Ennis reads that in him, the way his cheeks pale, eyebrows drawing down in fury. “Well now, Stiles, y’know I don’t think I will go home,” he says slowly. Reaching out, he wraps thick fingers around Stiles’ wrist. “It’s pretty quiet in here today and if Sunday don’t suit you, maybe we’ll just go out back now. You can get down on your knees and put that pretty mouth to good—”

Derek’s through the door before he can think, a snarl rumbling up out of his chest loud as a freight train, his teeth bared.

“Jesus!” Ennis spits, dropping Stiles’ arm like a hot brand and rearing back in surprise. “What the hell?!”

“Oh for fucks sake,” says Stiles.

“Oh my god,” Ennis moans, “It’s rabid. Look at it! Look at its eyes! Red eyes!” He stumbles back behind a gumball machine. “Shit! I left my shotgun in the car.” Flailing he grabs a fistful of candy bars off the shelf behind him and flings them in Derek’s general direction. A pack of Red Vines bounces off Derek’s nose.

“Stop throwing the merchandise around!” Stiles commands. He glares flatly between them. “Rabid,” he mutters as he hoists himself over the counter and drops down to stand between them; Derek prowls forward, hackles raised, eyes fixed on a now whimpering Ennis who smells faintly of urine. “Ennis,” Stiles says, voice perfectly clear. “Calm down and stop throwing stuff at my— my dog.”

“Your-- Your dog?”

“Yes,” Stiles says, turning his gaze to Derek, expression inscrutable. “This is my dog—Fluffy.” The low rumbling growl that’s echoing out of Derek’s chest stutters as he turns his head to stare. A sly smile creeps over Stiles’ face. “Now, Fluffy! Stop scaring Ennis, he’s a bully and an asshole but he’s just leaving. Right, Ennis?”

“He’s yours?” Ennis repeats dumbly.

“Did I stutter?” Stiles stalks toward Derek, irritating smirk firmly in place. “Look at him,” he coos crouching in front of Derek and leaning in close. “He’s so adorable. Just a big softy. How could you think he would hurt anyone?” Stiles reaches out a hand and mutters under his breath, so only Derek can hear, “Dude, bite me, and I swear to god you will regret it.” He needn’t worry, as soon as Stiles’ fingers curl in his fur, something settles in Derek, warm and safe and right. In that moment the urge to bury his muzzle into the soft cotton of Stiles’ t-shirt and just breathe is overwhelming, but he resists. “See,” Stiles says, relief evident in his voice. “He’s fine.”

“Right,” Ennis’ eyes don’t leave Derek, he starts to edge past the counter, giving them both a wide berth. “Right, I’ll just—”

“Don’t forget your milk.”

“Yeah—Yeah of course!” Ennis snakes out a hand to grab it off the counter and, clutching it to his chest, he sidles warily past them. Derek snaps his teeth at him as he passes and, dropping all pretense, Ennis runs for the door and barrels through it, letting it bang shut behind him.

Stiles’ eyes follow his retreating figure, and for one moment, Derek thinks his pupils seem to expand, swallowing the iris and sclera entirely, but then Stiles blinks and they’re normal again. “Enjoy your sour milk, dumbass,” he mutters, as Ennis scrambles into an old red pick-up truck and peels away in a screech of rubber.

As the noise of the engine fades Derek’s increasingly aware of how close he and Stiles actually are. They’re leaning into each other, Stiles’ fingers still running through Derek’s fur, and this close, his warm, spicy scent is comforting and overwhelming all at once. “Well now,” Stiles murmurs, “for future reference, I’m more than capable of handling Ennis, okay? I don’t need you to rush in and defend my honor or rescue me.” Long fingers fondle the silky fur around Derek’s ears and it’s annoying how good it feels. “Okay, Fluffy? You understand?”

Derek lets slip a disgruntled growl.

“Oh, you better not be complaining about the name,” Stiles chides. He gets to his feet, leaving Derek bereft of contact. “You deserve worse than that for the stunt you just pulled. What if Ennis had tried to call animal control, huh? What then, genius?”

Narrowing his eyes, Derek tries to look haughty, but his tail droops treacherously, betraying him. Stiles is right. He risked exposure. It was all kind of stupid. He was operating on some kind of base, possessive, instinct to protect, rather than thinking clearly.

“Yeah, that’s right. You know what you did,” Stiles says firmly. “Now, don’t get me wrong because I’m really pleased to see you, and I hate to be that guy, but this store has a strict no dogs policy and I don’t think Finstock differentiates between dogs and shifted werewolves, so if he catches you in here he’ll flip his shit. Which means you’ve either gotta shift or you gotta leave. Which is it gonna be?”

Derek doesn’t need to be told twice. Already, he can feel the a slow creep of embarrassment. Why did he feel the need to walk past in the first place? Why did he rush in here? Why did he give in to that sudden, primal drive to protect what’s his. Stiles isn’t his. Not even close. He slinks toward the door. Stiles holds it open and calls after him, “Good to know you care, though. I appreciate it!”

Mortified, Derek scurries back to the warehouse, his tail tucked between his legs.

Chapter Text

A lingering sense of shame keeps Derek from returning to the warehouse immediately. He knows he’ll sit there in the silence replaying the confrontation in the grocery store again and again, so instead he heads straight to the preserve. He runs through the woods on four paws until his muscles are sore, breath burning his lungs, but he can’t outrun his own embarrassment. When he returns in the early evening, it’s to find Stiles lurking outside the entrance. He’s reading something on his phone, but he looks up as Derek approaches and offers a hesitant smile.

“Hey,” he says. “I didn’t— I didn’t go inside, and if you want me to leave, I will. But I think we should talk.”

There’s something about him, eyes limned gold in the dying light, rumpled brown hair that looks soft to the touch, the way his t-shirt stretches taut across his shoulders, the warm spiciness of his scent. It makes Derek’s stomach swoop treacherously.

Trotting past him into the dim warehouse, he keeps his nose held high.

“So, uh, should I follow you?” Stiles calls after a beat. Derek doesn’t reply, but as soon as he’s out of sight he lets the change ripple through him and dives for some clothes. From outside he hears Stiles say, “Or maybe I should stay out here—” Another pause. “Or I can go, I guess, if you want?”

“I’m coming,” Derek croaks, carefully pulling the zipper up on his jeans and shoves his sockless feet into his boots, not bothering to lace them. Then he grabs the cleanest of his two t-shirts and starts to tug it over his head as he walks back out to meet Stiles.

“Ah,” Stiles breathes, looking relieved. “So we are talking again, huh?”

“We were never not talking.” Which is a lie and they both know it.

Stiles shoots him a disbelieving look but obviously decides not to push his luck. “So, I brought you a gift. To apologize.” He holds out a flat black rectangle and Derek reaches for it reflexively.

“You don’t need to apolo-- wait, you bought me a phone?”

“Nah, it’s my old prepaid one. I have a contract now, so this one is just sitting there.” Stiles’ fingers are warm, they linger as he presses the phone into Derek’s waiting palm.

“I—I can’t—”

“I put some credit on it.”

“But—”

“Take it,” he says. “I’ve programmed my number in. You should have someone you can contact in an emergency. You should—” Stiles trails off, staring down at his scuffed red chucks.

“Thanks,” Derek says awkwardly.

Taking a deep breath, Stiles lifts his head and shoots Derek a rueful grin. “I also wanted to say, it was amazing. What you did. With Erica.”

“I didn’t do anything. You were the one who knew what to do.”

“You called me. Us. The guys from the bakery and me. We all felt it.”

“You mean heard,” Derek says and Stiles shrugs. “You’re the one who helped her,” continues Derek firmly. “Even in my human form, I wouldn’t have known what to do. Not like you did.”

“You would have done something,” Stiles says, “and anyway, that’s why I’m giving you a phone. If you need something, some one, then use it. I mean, I know you can’t exactly carry it around with you when you’re all wolfified, but you should have someone you can call on.”

Derek nods slowly, fingers clenching round the old phone. “Okay,” he says.

Stiles smiles, relieved. “There’s a charger too,” he says. “It’s in my car.” He nods at a pale blue Jeep that Derek hadn’t previously noticed, it’s parked a little ways down the road.

“Okay,” Derek says again. He doesn’t know what else to say, but Stiles turns and walks to his car and Derek follows dumbly after, feet slipping in his unlaced boots. He’s experiencing some kind of internal crisis and it isn’t because he’s been given a gift per se. Boyd, Isaac and Erica have been doting on him for weeks after all, but they’re all operating under the belief that he’s stray dog. No-one has ever done something like this for him though, not since-- well-- before the fire. More to the point, he hasn’t had a phone in three years. The last one he owned broke just before Laura died. He never bothered replacing it because he didn’t have anyone to call.

Reaching through the Jeep’s open window, Stiles snags a plastic bag off the seat. “The charger’s in there,” he says, handing it to Derek. “You should call me if you need me, okay?”

Derek nods, staring down at the charger and the old phone. It isn’t even that it’s a phone. It’s what the phone represents. The idea that there’s someone out there in the world who knows who he is, what he is, who doesn’t mind hearing from him, who maybe even cares. He doesn’t really know what to say, how to respond. While increasingly he longs for friendship, for pack, he’s been a lone wolf so long, he isn’t sure he knows how to do this .

“Thanks,” he says, even though he’s already said it before.

“It’s okay,” Stiles shrugs and looks away. “The—uh—the other thing I meant to say,” he clears his throat. “You need to be careful. Ennis isn’t dumb, but he is mean. You risked a lot rushing in there this morning like you did.”

“I can take care of myself,” Derek mutters, a slow blush creeping over his cheeks.

“Yeah,” Stiles says, voice a little firmer. “And I can take care of myself, you need to remember that. That doesn’t mean we can’t have each other’s backs, we just have to be smart about it. And you weren’t smart today.”

Derek shrugs sulkily.

“I mean it, Miguel. Otherwise I’m gonna have to boot you out of the club.”

“So what, it’s just going to be Grumpy, now? No Sparkles?”

Stiles shakes his head, smirking. “You shush, or I won’t let you in the clubhouse.”

They grin at each other, and then Stiles clears his throat awkwardly, shuffling his feet. “Well,” he says, “I better get going. Is it okay if I text you occasionally? Just to check in?”

“Sure.” Derek nods.

“Cool.” Stiles opens the door to the Jeep and slides in. “I’ll see you around, okay?” The engine coughs and sputters to life. Derek watches as he turns the car around, driving slowly down the long dirt road and away.

 

-

 

The first text comes through the next day.

I just read that in order for a new wolf cub to urinate the mother has to massage it’s belly with her tongue? Is that true?

Derek blinks down at his phone. It’s a question. A ridiculous question, but a question nonetheless and Stiles clearly expects a reply. Derek’s finger hovers over the screen for a full minute before he responds.

How would I know?

Uhhhh, because you’re a wolf.

Yeah a WEREwolf.

Same diff

Then the next day:

Ennis came into the store today and I swear I have never seen that guy look more terrified. Like he expected you to jump out from behind the counter and rip his throat out. Hilarious.

Derek doesn’t reply to that one. Every now and again he replays that incident at the grocery store in his mind’s eye, can see the ugly, hungry expression on Ennis’ face as he’d gripped Stiles’ wrist. The more he thinks on it, the more he comes to the conclusion that Ennis got off lightly. He even toys with the idea of seeking the guy out and making some kind of threat, maybe scaring him a little. He spends the afternoon imagining various scenarios. later that day though, Stiles texts again, distracting him.

I’m bored, Miguel. Come down to the store and help me build the Millennium Falcon out of diet soda cans

Finstock pays you to do that?

Finstock doesn’t have to know

It's his day off

Anyway he lacks vision

Vision?

Yeah

Whenever I try and liven this place up he complains

He objects to my grocery themed puns

My karaoke Tuesdays

Costume themed Fridays

I was a giant beet btw

Not that Finstock was impressed

Always raining on my parade.

Derek blinks down at his phone

Grocery themed puns?

Most of the customers loved it!!!

Most?

One little complaint and Finstock makes me stop

Ah...

You wanna taco ‘bout it?

:D :D :D

It’s nacho problem. I know you don’t really carrot all

That isn’t true. I’m just trying to cornsider both sides.

Think about it from Finstocks pearspective.

He probably felt he needed to draw a lime somewhere

Oh my god. You better crumb over here right now :D :D :D

The thing is, part of him wants to, he really wants to, but he’s spent so long telling himself that he shouldn’t want, that he shouldn’t have, that he doesn’t deserve-- it feels wrong--

It feels too big.

Too scary.

He wants to be ready to reach out and take whatever Stiles is offering, but he isn’t sure how to be.

Can’t already have plans he texts back. Which is a lie, and he knows Stiles will know it too. Turning the phone to silent, he goes to sit in the train car and read a book.

When he finally does check his phone later, Stiles hasn’t messaged him back. Derek gets it, he does. He knows how he comes across. Hot one minute, cold the next. Stiles hasn’t done anything wrong, that’s the truth of it-- it’s Derek that’s broken. It’s Derek that’s taught himself to treat small acts of kindness and friendship the way most people would treat an unexploded bomb.

Two days follow without any contact from Stiles. Maybe he’s legitimately busy, maybe he’s pissed at Derek, either way, Derek feels bereft. More than once he sits staring at the phone, finger hovering over Stiles’ contact details willing himself to think up something clever or witty to text.

But Derek doesn’t have anything.

There are no funny work anecdotes, because he doesn’t work. He can’t ask what Stiles thinks about a TV show or tell him some funny story about his day, because he doesn’t own a TV and there isn’t anything to tell.

Derek’s a blank.

On the third Stilesless day, he spends the morning with Boyd, Isaac and Erica as usual, then comes back to the warehouse and spends the afternoon with Slaughterhouse Five open in front of him while he stares listlessly into the middle distance.

You’re sulking, Der. He can almost hear Laura’s voice say it, teasing, gentle. The way she used to be before the fire.

Looking down at the book in his hand he sees it’s open at a  passage she underlined carefully in pencil in the years after the fire. “How nice--” it reads, “to feel nothing, and still get full credit for being alive.”

For years after the fire that’s all there was. The dull, iron-grey skies of a feelingless existence. Drifting numbly from one day to the next.

Now though---

Now things are different, or they could be.

So, he can almost hear Laura say, what are you going to do about it?

The phone beeps with a message he dives for it, hands shaking, book sliding to the floor.

They played Don’t Stop Believin’ on the radio and now I can’t stop singing it. It’s gonna be in my head allllll day

Staring blankly down at the phone, Derek gnaws at his lip, half relieved. Without letting himself think too much, he taps out a reply:

What do you want me to do about it?

Stiles response is immediate.

is a little sympathy too much to ask?

sorry you had to listen to an awesome song

you mock my pain!

A smile spreads across Derek’s face at the reference. Heart fluttering wildly in his chest, he replies:

Life is pain highness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.

:D

And just like that, they’re texting each other relentlessly again.

This time Derek doesn’t turn his phone to silent.

 

-

 

A week later and they’re still texting each other every day. Several times a day, even. Derek has even bought more credit for the phone using his bankcard. The money in that account comes from his family’s life insurance and he hardly ever allows himself to spend it, but-- but he’s starting to let himself believe they wouldn’t mind if he spent it on this.

That maybe, just maybe, it’s allowed.

 

-

 

Friday morning he arrives back from the bakery to find a message from Stiles already waiting for him.

 

>:(

whats wrong

my jeep

It died today

I don’t think they’re gonna be able to fix it this time.

Last time I tried to take it to the garage they warned me

And today there was smoke Miguel

And a loud bang

And now it wont start

Even if they could fix it I can’t afford to pay for it this month

Derek stares down at his phone, tapping a finger against the case. As a kid he used to love cars and bikes.

‘Derek loves things that go,’ his mom used to say to people, ruffling his hair fondly. “The faster the better.’

What young Derek wanted more than anything was a Camaro, sleek, black and powerful. However when his parents bought him a battered Fiero for his sixteenth birthday, he was over the moon. He spent ages, not just driving it, but poring over the owner’s manual, learning  everything he could. Eventually, he even managed to get a job at the local garage on Saturday morning’s, making coffee and cleaning up after Herb, the grizzled mechanic who owned the place. Grouchy and irritable at first, in the face of Derek’s overwhelming enthusiasm, Herb had soon been won over and started teaching Derek what he knew. Derek soaked up the information like a sponge. He’d come home from work on Saturday’s and then go straight out to the Fiero all afternoon, lovingly taking care of it, tuning up the engine, fixing it up, polishing the hubcaps till they gleamed.

“Son, I reckon that car is worth more now than it was when we bought it,” his Dad had said to him one day, clapping him on the back warmly, and Derek had about burst with pride.

After the fire, as he and Laura drifted aimlessly from town to town, he’d had all kinds of jobs. He’s good with his hands, finds physical labor soothing, wants to feel tired at the end of the day. He’s worked behind bars, on construction sites, even, briefly, as a rodeo clown. His favorite thing, though,  was to get a job at the local garage in whatever podunk town they found themselves.

Blue overalls and the smell of engine oil.

In another life, one where there was no Kate and no fire, maybe that’s where he would be now. Maybe he’d even own his own garage.

But the truth is, ever since Laura died he hasn’t touched a car.

Hasn’t thought about it.

Hasn’t wanted to.

I could take a look at it for you he types, hands shaking. Then hits send, feeling brave.

Seriously?

I know a little about cars, depending on what it is I might be able to fix it

You are officially my favorite werewolf

Wow. Thanks. Is that out of all the werewolves you know?

Don’t be like that sparkles. Come over tomorrow I’ll cook you dinner and you can take a look at the jeep

Deal?

Fine. I’ll try and fit it into my busy schedule

A couple of hours later, though, Stiles texts again.

BTW, Unrelated to tomorrow, do you have any big plans tonight?

Howling at the moon?

Hunting down hapless squirrels?

Or are you busy perfecting your brooding face in the mirror at your fortress of wolfitude?           

All of the above

Har har.

7.30 outside my apartment building. Be There!!!!!!

Don’t eat too many woodland creatures beforehand

Derek stares down at his phone with a frown.

 

He almost doesn’t show.

It’s with a degree of trepidation that he arrives outside Stiles’ apartment complex that evening, wearing a newly washed t-shirt, his hands buried deep in the pockets of his leather jacket, curled into fists. Is this a date? It didn’t quite sound like a date, but Derek isn’t a great judge of these things, so he’s tried to do his hair as best he can.

He texts Stiles when he arrives, and then stands awkwardly on the stoop. The evening air is warm, sky beginning to pink as the sun dips lower. In the distance he can hear the rumble of cars. Across the street someone has a window open and music playing as they cook, the smell of chili wafting on the evening breeze.

A few moments later he hears Stiles’ voice chattering, the tell tale skip of two heartbeats coming towards him, the first belongs to Stiles, and the other, well-- Derek glances towards the front door in confusion as it opens to reveal Stiles and Erica.

“Miguel!” Stiles cries, throwing his arms wide. “You came! Erica, this is Miguel. He’s a friend of mine. He’s joining us this evening.”

“A friend, huh?” Erica says, eyes flicking between them, one eyebrow raised.

“Miguel, this is Erica, she lives in my apartment block and her boyfriend works at the bakery on Maple,” Stiles says with a knowing wink.

“Uh--” Derek opens his mouth, then shuts it again. He has no idea what’s happening.

“You know, the bakery where we’re going this evening to be guinea pigs for the new recipes they’ve been devising.”

“Ohhh!” Derek says, forcing an awkward grin. Aware that he hasn’t really acknowledged Erica yet, he turns to her and says,  “Nice to meet you, Erica.”

“You too,” she replies as Stiles loops one arm through each of theirs enthusiastically and chivies them down the street.

“Oh my god,” he croons, “I am looking forward to tonight sooooo much.”

“I’m so hungry,” Erica says, “I haven’t eaten since lunchtime and I happen to know that Isaac has made cookies.”

Derek smiles wanly, trying not to freak out. Or at least, trying not to let it show.

“We should get there quicker,” Stiles says, dragging them along. “We’re not going fast enough. I’m huuuungry.”

“So, have you ever been there before?” Erica asks and it takes Derek a beat to realize she’s addressing the question to him.

“Uh, yeah all the--I mean no. I mean I-- uh-- I don’t know?”

“Riiiight.” Erica says looking at him strangely as Stiles stifles a laugh behind his hand. Derek can feel himself blushing awkwardly.

It doesn’t bode well.

 

-

 

Even though he’s eaten his bodyweight in cakes and pastries there previously, Derek has never walked through the front door of Beacon Hills Bakery before. It’s a novelty to open the blue-painted door, listening to the little bell that jingles merrily as it swings open. The store has a big glass counter which during the day is presumably filled with cakes, breads and pastries of all descriptions. The cash register that sits on the counter is a big old fashioned brass one that has a couple of dents, but has been lovingly restored and polished till it gleams. The walls are painted a pale blue, black and white framed photographs of cakes and pies hang on the walls, somehow managing to look both artsy and delicious, and there’s a big chalkboard hanging at the far end, with SPECIALS written on it in large letters, it’s currently empty.

“You’re here!” Boyd calls bustling through from the kitchen, a dishcloth slung over one shoulder. “Hey, babe!” His face breaks into a wide grin at the sight of Erica and they lean across the counter to greet each other a kiss. That done, he turns to Stiles and Derek. “Stiles, great to see you, man. Who’s your friend?”

“Miguel,” Stiles replies, patting Derek’s arm. “He’s going to help out too, he’s a big fan of your work.”

“Really?” Boyd asks, casting a bemused glance at Derek. “Oh man, I feel terrible, I usually recognize all our regulars.”

Derek shoots Stiles a pointed glare, the tips of his ears burning. “He’s never walked through the door before, but I bought him one of your bear claws the other week,” Stiles says, “Don’t feel bad.”

“Ahhh. Well, the more the merrier,” Boyd says, flipping part of the counter up, and ushering them through. “Isaac’s out back. Come say hi.”

Erica loops her arm through Boyd’s and they disappear through the back of the store and into the kitchen. Stiles is about to follow on, but Derek grabs him by the arm and hisses, “What’s going on?”

“Uh--” Stiles glances down at where Derek’s clutching his arm in a death grip and then back up at Derek’s face with confusion. He whispers, “We’re going to eat some tasty cakes. Was that not clear?”

“Yeah, okay, but why am I here?”

“Because I invited you?”

“But--” Derek releases Stiles’ arm, his hand dropping to his side, feeling a little lost. “But they don’t know me. They don’t want me here.”

“Ah!” Stiles says, tapping the side of his nose with his finger. “But they do know you. They just don’t know they know you. And if they did know they knew you? They would definitely want you here.” Derek scowls and Stiles continues, “You could do something about that, y’know?”

“Are you seriously suggesting I out myself as a werewolf, right now?” he hisses.

“Yeah,” Stiles says, deadpan. “That’s what I’m suggesting.” He rolls his eyes. “Don’t be so obtuse.”

“I’m not--”

“You know what though?” Stiles says thoughtfully, tapping his chin with one long finger. “Get to know them a bit like this, and I bet you could tell them.”

“Really?” Derek snaps, “And are you gonna tell them who you really are?”

“Our situations aren’t comparable. You’re a wolf. I’m fae.”

“So?”

“So? Do I really have to spell it out for you? Wolves are pack animals, Miguel.”

Derek drops Stiles’ arm like he’s been burned, and stumbles back a step. “You don’t get it, it isn’t as simple as--”

“I’m not saying you have to bite them, Jesus. It’s just-- I know you care about these people. They care about you. You’re acting like I’m suggesting some outrageous thing, but they’re clearly already pa--”

“You don’t get it. It isn’t safe,” Derek bites out, cutting him off. “My life isn’t safe. I’m not safe. And if they find out what I am, their lives won’t be safe either.” Stiles snorts in derision, and Derek rounds on him angrily, whispering, “You don’t know me. I could be a serial killer.”

“No,” Stiles shakes his head firmly. “No you couldn’t.”

“But--”

Stiles steps closer, chin jutting out determinedly, barely a sliver of air between them. Close enough that the smell of him fills Derek’s nose, makes him want to tug him into his arms and never let go. Derek swallows hard refusing to meet his eyes as Stiles says softly, “I may not know everything that’s happened to you, Miguel, but I know you . I see how you are with these guys. How much you care. You’re a good person.” The corner of Stiles’ mouth tugs up in a smile, and before Derek can respond he ducks forward, pressing a quick kiss against Derek’s cheek. Immediately, all the anger, all the impotent rage drains out of Derek, leaving him feeling bruised and empty. “Now,” Stiles says, “do me a favor. Try and enjoy this evening. Remember, you’re a fearsome alpha werewolf, not a drama llama, okay?”

“But--”

“Try and enjoy it for what it is. And remember, this is a fun, social occasion, nobody is suggesting you bite anything except the baked goods provided.”

“Maybe I want to bite you,” Derek mutters darkly.

“Promises, promises,” Stiles says with a wink. He squeezes Derek’s arm one last time and then disappears into the kitchen, leaving Derek staring after him dumbly. He lifts his fingers and presses them against the spot where Stiles kissed him.

A few seconds later, Boyd sticks his head through the doorway and says, “You okay, dude? You should come through, Isaac just took the first batch of cookies out the oven, and we need your opinion.” With a shaky sigh, Derek follows him through to the kitchen.

 

-

 

“So there are salted caramel cookies, raspberry and white chocolate danish, and chocolate and pecan brownies, to start with,” Isaac says gesturing to the counter in the kitchen, which is piled high with more food than five people could ever hope to eat. “Boyd’s been experimenting with bread, so we’re gonna need you guys to try that too, but it’s still in the oven.”

Stiles, Erica and Boyd fall on the food quickly, grabbing cookies and danishes, but Derek hangs back in the doorway, looking on, arms folded tight across his chest. Across the room, Stiles picks up a danish and takes a bite, then grins at Derek, who looks away ears burning.

His cheek still tingles where Stiles kissed him.

“Hey,” Isaac says, sidling over to him. “I’m Isaac.”

“Miguel.” Nobody should make that much mess eating a danish, Derek thinks. It shouldn’t be possible, fae are supposed to be graceful, elegant creatures.  Not spewing crumbs everywhere while they laugh riotously as Erica makes a dick joke.

“So you’re Stiles’ friend.”

“Yeah.” There’s a smear of raspberry filling across Stiles’ cheek now.

Isaac clears his throat. “So, how do you two know each other?”

“We--uh--just kept running into each other, I guess.”

“So you gave up and figured that the universe was trying to tell you something?”

“Basically.”

“I won him over with my excellent customer service skills when he came into the store!” Stiles calls.

He’s licking raspberry jam from his fingers and Derek needs to look away now, he needs to, but he can’t. He rams his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket and takes a deep breath. “Jesus,” he mumbles.

Next to him, Isaac huffs out a long sigh. “I didn’t realize this was couples night,” he mutters, “I woulda brought someone too.”

Derek drags his eyes away from the hypnotic sight of Stiles eating, to protest. “We aren’t--”

“Really? You haven’t taken your eyes off each other since you walked into the kitchen,” Isaac says flatly.

“That’s not--true.” It might be true. It probably is true. “We aren’t together.”

After leveling a long look at Derek, Isaac huffs an amused sigh and pats him on the arm, saying, “You should try the cookies. I make good cookies.”

“But--I--”

“A cookie,” Isaac says. “You won’t regret it, I promise.”

 

-

 

He doesn’t regret it. The food is delicious. All of it. Just as it always is. And, once he gets over his initial discomfort, it really is nice to actually talk to these guys for once. They accept his presence easily, naturally, and soon he feels almost as at home with them as he does when he’s full wolf.

The only thing is he has to keep pretending he knows less about them than he does. Several times over the course of the evening he’s forced to bite his tongue, but it isn’t until Erica starts bemoaning her super that he actually slips up and says, “Did he ever fix the AC?”

“Yeah, thank God.” she says, and then double takes. “Wait, how do you know about that?”

“I mentioned it to him,” Stiles says swiftly, nudging Derek in the ribs, hard. “After all, he’s my super too.”

“Oh yeah, well--” Erica carries on ranting about her super and Derek heaves an internal sigh of relief.

Later once the food is eaten, Boyd and Isaac invite them upstairs to the little apartment they share above the bakery and they sit around playing cards and drinking the remains of a bottle of Jack. Derek can’t get drunk, can’t get even a little bit buzzed, but he feels almost high, warm and content in a way he hasn’t for the longest time. He can’t bring himself to care that Isaac wipes the floor with them at poker; after all, he comes a close second and besides, Stiles spent half the game with his legs stretched out, foot pressed warm against Derek’s calf, a soft smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. Without that distraction, Derek likes to think he may have fared better.

After they’ve played a while and finished the Jack between them, they decide to watch a movie together. Erica and Stiles take the couch, while Isaac sinks into an armchair, but Derek offers to follow Boyd out into the kitchen and help make them all something to drink. It’s the tiniest little kitchen Derek has ever seen, little more than a couple of cabinets, a sink, a fridge and an ancient looking stove. The place is bare except for an old clock on the far wall and a couple of fading photographs stuck to the fridge with chunky magnets. Boyd goes over to the stove and grabs the kettle. Boyd’s never been one to talk much, and honestly, neither is Derek, so once Boyd’s filled the kettle and put it on the stove to heat, they stand there for a little while saying nothing.

“Good game tonight,” Derek says, finally breaking the silence.

“Yup,” A smile tugs at the corner of Boyd’s mouth. “Good for Isaac anyway. Although you didn’t do too bad.”

He has Uncle Peter to thank for that. On rainy afternoons he used to sit down with Derek, Cora and Laura and teach them poker. Even now Derek can picture the old pack of red-backed bicycle cards that lived in the end table drawer. The scent of buttered popcorn. Rain drumming against the windows in the den, as Peter coached them how to bluff, count cards, keep a poker face. Clearing his throat, Derek swallows thickly and asks, “Have you lived in Beacon Hills long?”

“All my life.”

“Huh.”

“What about you, are you from round here?”

“Just passing through.”

“You and everyone else.”

“What d’ya mean?”

“Well,” Boyd leans against the kitchen counter. “Back in the day, way before I was born, Beacon Hills used to be a big deal, apparently. Or at least, it used to be a bigger deal then it is now. Now,” he shakes his head. “Now it’s a nothing town. No industry. No jobs. No future. People don’t really move here anymore. It’s like” he trails off.

“Like what?”

“Like a long slow death, I guess. More and more stores are boarded up. The buildings are crumbling. The people are tired, apathetic. Like the town is soulsick.”

“Your bakery seems successful.”

“We’re breaking even because we’ve managed to get a decent rep not just here, but across county too. If the store hadn’t come with this apartment, though, we would've had to fold a long time ago. As it is, we’re just about keeping our heads above water. I think Isaac’s worried that if it fails he’ll end up having to move back in with his dad.”

“Would that be so bad?”

“His dad is Crawford Lahey,” Boyd grimaces. “Grade A asshole.” The name sounds familiar, but Derek can’t place it.

“Does he live nearby?”

“Yeah. I mean. He doesn’t tend to bother us here, but he’s still around. He got fired as the school swim team coach and now he and his buddy, Ennis, spend their time getting drunk and making trouble.” And that’s when it clicks. He saw Crawford at the bar with Ennis on that first night at the bar with Stiles.

“What kind of trouble?”

Boyd shrugs. “Picking fights, throwing their weight around. Basically they’re both bullies.”

The kettle starts to whistle and Boyd turns the stove off saying, “There are mugs in the cupboard over there, do you mind?” He gestures at the cupboard by Derek’s head and, opening it, Derek finds a selection of mismatched cups. “Thanks man,” Boyd says, taking them from him and places them on the counter. Then reaches for a box of sleepy-time tea.  “So, if you’re not from round here, where are you from?”

“Uh, all over, I travel a lot.”

“For work?”

“I’m between jobs at the moment.”

Boyd shrugs, “What about family?”

“I don’t--They’re not-- It’s just me,” he says, voice tight.

Boyd nods slowly. After a long pause he gestures at a picture of a little girl that’s stuck to the fridge. She’s maybe three years old, grinning widely at the camera and wearing a bright yellow dress. “That’s my little sister, Alicia,” Boyd says wistfully. “She died when I was ten. It’s just me and my mom now.”

“I’m sorry,” Derek says, after a beat.

“It is what it is,” he sighs. “I miss her like crazy, but I like to think she’s looking out for me, even now.”

Nothing so far in Derek’s experience suggests to him that the dead look out for the living. If he believes anything now, it’s that the dead are dead, and the living are alone. “I’m sure she is,” he says gently.

They make up the drinks in silence, but it isn’t uncomfortable. Boyd has the knack of letting a  moment breathe, rarely seems to feel the need to fill silence with needless chatter. It’s one of the things Derek’s come to appreciate most about him over the last few weeks. When they finally carry the drinks through to the others, Erica and Stiles squash up on the couch to make room for Boyd. Isaac’s slumped in the armchair, eyes fixed on the screen.

After a moment’s hesitation, Derek sits down at Stiles’ feet, back pressed up against the the couch, shoulder nudging against Stiles’ leg. The only light in the room is the dull glow of the TV screen, the scents in the air are thick and familiar, filled with affection. With a deep sigh, he slouches, lets his head tilt to the side and rest against Stiles leg. Immediately he hears Stiles suck in a sharp breath, heartbeat ticking up. A moment later, Stiles rests his hand tentatively on Derek’s head, and when Derek doesn't move away, he starts to run his fingers through Derek’s hair in a steady rhythm.

Breathing deep, Derek feels the last of the tension he’s been carrying slip away.

 

-

Chapter Text

It’s almost midnight by the time Derek and Stiles make their way down the rickety staircase from Boyd and Isaac’s apartment and out into the cool night air, the ink black sky above them filled with stars, the moon waxing gibbous.

“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Stiles says glancing at him as they make their way down the alley and out onto the street.

The road is dimly lit by street lamps, silent now, except for the rumble of one lone red pickup truck that crawls slowly past them and then off into the distance.

Derek feels loose, relaxed, that heavy knot of tension that has sat squarely in his chest for as long as he can remember feels somehow lighter. The whole evening sits in his memory complete,  warm and golden, soft as a kiss. He glances towards Stiles who is looking at him expectantly, elbow bumping up against Derek’s companionably as they make their way down the street in the direction of Stiles’ apartment building.

“Yeah,” Derek says with a small smile. “It was okay.”

“Okay?” Stiles stumbles, gaze turning to a glare. “Only okay ?”

“It was--” In the last few days, Derek’s begun to realize that riling Stiles is something he enjoys. He keeps expression carefully blank. “It was fine.”

‘Fine,’ Stiles mouths, and then snorts, rolling his eyes. “Oh, I get it, you’re one of those people.”

“Those people?”

They turn the corner onto Stiles’ block. “Y’know, the people who can never admit to liking something or having a good time, or showing enthusiasm. One of those people who has to constantly undersell everything in case actually liking something means they’re not cool.”

“That’s a big accusation.”

“The food was amazing, the company was great, and you enjoyed yourself. I can’t see why you don’t just admit it.”

“I said it was okay.”

Stiles stops dead in the street outside his apartment building and glares at him. “And how would you describe the Mona Lisa or Michael Angelo’s David? Are they okay too?”

With a deep sigh, Derek stops too and turns to face him. “Stiles--”

“The Grand Canyon? Leonard Cohen? Spongebob?”

“Spongebob?”

“Don’t fuck with me, Miguel. Spongebob is awesome.”

“Right,” Derek makes a big show of puffing his cheeks out, and then releases another put upon sigh. “Okay if it’ll make you feel better.” Stiles waves his hands as if to say, go on. “Alright,” Derek says, “Are you ready? This evening was—” he pauses for dramatic effect, and Stiles scowls. “---nice.”

“Oh my god,” Stiles throws his hands up in the air. “I take it all back. I was wrong about you. You are in fact, a complete asshole.”

“Yup.” Derek grins toothily.

“I hate you, I really hate you.”

With a throaty chuckle, Derek makes a big show of leaning forward and inhaling deeply through his nose, nostrils flaring; Stiles scent is rich and heavy, thick with affection and tinged with arousal. Arching an eyebrow he says,  “Is that right?”

“Oh my god,” Stiles blushes, “Stop that. Seriously. So much hate for you right now.”

“If you say so,” Derek says, turning smugly away, deeply pleased. Victory is short lived though, and he yelps and jumps about a foot in the air as Stiles jabs him in the ribs and tickles him.

“Aha!” Stiles looks gleeful. “The big bad wolf is ticklish?”

“No,” Derek says, turning back to face him and folding his arms over his chest. He wills himself to keep his voice steady.

Stiles’ hand darts out again and Derek tries not to, but he flinches, he can’t help himself.

“I think yes,” Stiles says, grinning maniacally. “I think—” his hands dart out again and Derek takes a step back.

“Stiles!” Derek growls out.

“But you’re not ticklish, right?” With that he lunges forward.

“Exactly.” Derek says, dodging him easily. “So don’t bother. Don’t waste your time.” The last word comes out as an undignified squeak, because Stiles has pounced again. What follows is an extremely ungainly scuffle, with Stiles trying to tickle wherever he can reach and Derek trying to restrain him at every turn with limited success. It’s like trying to hold on to water. Every time he thinks he’s managed to get hold of him, Stiles seems to slip through his fingers while simultaneously using his own long fingers to catch Derek under his armpit, on his side, the soft skin of his belly, light touches that make Derek’s insides hot. They tussle for a little while but eventually Derek’s superior weight and strength win out and he finds he has Stiles pressed up against the wall of his apartment building, arms pinned over his head in an iron grip, their foreheads almost touching as they try and catch their breath.  

“Miguellll,” whines Stiles, squirming against him. “Let me goooo.”

“No tickling,” Derek grinds out, not loosening his grip.

“Seriously,” Stiles says, breathlessly, shooting him a heated look. “You’re the worst. The fucking worst. I hate you.” He’s flushed and indignant, eyes bright with the heat of battle as their chests heave. His breath on Derek’s cheek, the warmth of him, the smell of their scents combined: it’s all calling to something deep in Derek.

“Why is it so important to you that I had a good time tonight anyway?” Derek mutters, heart hammering in his chest.

“Why is it so important to you to play down your enjoyment?” Stiles counters, his tongue darts out to wet his lips and helplessly Derek tracks the motion with his eyes. “Just admit it, you had a great time.”

“I did admit it!”

“Fine. Okay. Nice.” He spits the last word like it’s poison, and his hips cant out in little rabbity thrusts as he struggles against Derek’s hold on his wrists.

“Don’t,” Derek mutters, looking away.

“So,” Stiles leans in, “let me go then.” He says it softly, breathes it into the shell of Derek’s ear, and it sends a shiver down Derek’s spine. It’s all a game, Derek realizes, he isn’t really holding Stiles at all, the crackle of magic in the air tells him that. Stiles is playing, he could probably free himself whenever he wanted to which means… which means he doesn’t want to. He wants Derek here, close. So close. The combined scent of their arousal is overwhelming and Derek wants to bury his face into the crook of Stiles’ neck and whisper all the words he’s too afraid to say out loud.

“I—” Derek says helplessly. And Stiles just watches him, gives him a look that seems to strip his soul bare and reveal all the wriggly squirming unpleasant parts of Derek, cutting him open and leaving him raw.

“I like you, Miguel. I like you a lot.” Stiles says it soft, says it serious, like it’s something weighty and important. Something that matters. Like Derek matters.

Derek stares at him. “I--I like you too,” he says, eventually. At some point, he isn’t sure when, he must have released his grip on Stiles, because he realizes now they’re both just standing there, watching each other intently.

“Well,” Stiles says, with a small smile. “Well, okay then, that’s good.” He tilts his head to the side, exposing the long, mole-speckled line of his neck, and Derek swallows, ducks his own head and looks away, fists clenching, claws pricking his palms, wolf close to the surface.

Reaching out a hand, Stiles cups Derek’s cheek, turns his head so he has to look at him. “I’ll see you tomorrow, okay? Come around four. You can take a look at the Jeep,tell me how bad it is. I’ll make dinner. Just us.”

Derek inhales, nods shakily. “Just us.”

“Awesome,” says Stiles. He leans in to press a quick, chaste kiss on Derek’s cheek, before letting go and stepping back. “Okay,” he says, looking flushed but happy. “I guess I’ll see ya tomorrow, Miguel!”

Derek nods again, dazed, watching as Stiles makes his way up the steps to his building, he turns as he reaches the door and looks back at Derek with a smile that’s small but genuine. Lifting his hand, Derek offers up an awkward wave, and Stiles’ smile widens. “Night,” he calls, as he opens the door. “Sweet dreams!”

Derek doesn’t reply, just stands there, listening to the sound of Stiles heartbeat as he climbs the stairs, opens the opens the door to his apartment and goes inside. The sound of the apartment door clicking shut startles Derek out of his stupor, he feels light-headed, dizzy with a strange feeling of disconnect and euphoria.

With a sigh, he turns on his heel, stepping out to cross the street. He’s so distracted he nearly walks straight out in front of an old red pickup truck that’s rattling along the road, stumbling to a stop, he holds out his hands in a gesture of apology as it slows and drives past him. Then, head full of nothing but Stiles, Stiles, Stiles, he makes his way back to the warehouse.

Above him the moon shines bright and almost full against the dark sky.

 

-

 

After a long shower and a restless night’s sleep, Derek spends the following day filled with nervous anticipation. In the morning he goes to the bakery as usual, then spends a little time sitting with Erica. By 9.30 though, he’s back at the warehouse with six and a half hours to fill before he’s due to meet with Stiles. He washes his clothes and hangs them out to dry, then decides to try and settle down and read but can’t concentrate at all, so he ends up pacing the warehouse restive and anxious, trying to find some way to occupy himself. Eventually he finds a few old newspapers in a desk drawer that he’d missed and spends a fruitless few minutes trying to focus on the crossword. It’s no good. Nothing seems to work, his mind keeps drifting back to Stiles, like a compass unable to point any other way than due north. Frustrated with himself, he gives the crossword up as a lost cause, strips off, changes into his wolf form and goes for a run through the preserve. Even that, though, lacks the joy it normally would, and soon he starts home.

It’s as he’s picking his way back to the warehouse that he suddenly realizes: if he’s going to be a guest at Stiles home for a meal, he should probably bring a gift or a bottle of wine or something. He hasn’t much experience with this stuff, but he has a vague notion that’s what people do.

Suddenly anxious, he races back to the warehouse, dresses quickly and walks into town, loose change jingling in his jacket pocket, determined to get something. He finds a liquor store on a previously unexplored side street, but everything in there that looks nice is out of his price range and the stuff that he can afford probably tastes like vinegar.

Heart plummeting he tries Martin’s next, but after twenty minutes aimlessly wandering past racks of clothes, fancy patterned china and obscure kitchenware, he’s no closer to finding anything.

He’s walking down Maple when he spies an offer in the window of the party store that makes him huff out a surprised laugh. Cheap plastic fairy wands for 99 cents. On a whim he goes in and buys one, slipping it inside his jacket pocket. It feels kind of an asshole thing to do really, his instincts tell him Stiles will laugh though and he’s fast discovering he likes making Stiles laugh.

Of course, as he walks out the door of the store he realizes he’s right next door to the bakery, and he nearly facepalms in frustration, because of course, it’s obvious, he could get something for dessert.

He pushes the door open and the bell jingles merrily. Isaac’s behind the counter but he looks up as Derek enters and proffers a small smile.

“Miguel, good to see you. How are you?”

“Uh--hey,” Derek says, jamming his hands in his pockets and stepping closer. There are all manner of cakes and pies and brownies, pastries and breads all sitting in neat rows behind the glass counter.

“God, I think I’m still a little hungover,” Isaac says, “I swear I had to scrape myself out of bed this morning. Looking back, I think the bottle of Jack was probably a bad idea.”

“Heh, yeah--” Derek swallows.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Isaac tilts his head, eyeing him shrewdly. “You kinda look a little pale and clammy.”

“Yeah, I’m--I’m fine.”

Isaac arches an eyebrow. “Okay,” he says, eventually. “Well, what can I get ya?”

Swallowing, Derek, blushes as he says, “I have a--uh-- a date, tonight. Well, not-- it’s-- I’m going to dinner round at---and I think, maybe, dessert?”

There’s a decent pause while Isaac translates the broken sentence into something that makes actual sense. “With Stiles?” he asks, and Derek shrugs. Isaac continues, “You should definitely get the triple chocolate brownies, those are his favorite.”

Relieved, Derek nods. “Two please,” he says, and Isaac bags them up for him.

 

-

 

It’s four o’clock exactly when Derek pushes the doorbell for Stiles’ apartment, and, after a brief pause, Stiles buzzes him up.

Derek climbs three flights of stairs and makes his way down a dingy corridor to find Stiles standing in a doorway waiting for him.

“Miguel! Come in.” He waves Derek through airily. “Hang your jacket up there.”

He gestures to a coat rack and Derek shrugs off his leather jacket and hangs it next to a bright red hoodie and a grey jacket. Glancing about the room he takes in Stiles’ apartment with surprise. Whatever he was expecting, this isn’t it.

He’s in one long room, a tiny kitchenette at one end, just a few cupboards and the basic kitchen appliances with a small table and two chairs tucked in a corner. The rest of the room is probably supposed to be a living room but it’s, well, Derek isn’t quite sure what it is. There’s a sagging orange couch in the middle of the room. A boxy TV sits squat on a cabinet that’s filled with DVD’s and games. The far wall is lined with bookshelves heaving not only with books, but nick-nacks: tacky ornaments, photographs, a tarnished sheriff’s badge, a Mets cap and a bunch of stuff that Derek mentally files away as ‘occult paraphernalia’. It’s the plants though. That’s what really stands out. They’re everywhere. Flowers, shrubs and succulents in little pots, dotted on every available surface, wedged between the books. Larger ones sit in planters around the room and on the coffee table. Most impressive is a vine that clings to one wall, creeping along the top of the bookshelves, and up over the window, delicate tendrils wound round the curtain rod in a way that must make it almost impossible to close the curtains  The whole room smells fresh and floral. And he realizes with a jolt that this is the scent that he smelled the day he first met Erica, the one that led him to the apartment block in the first place.

“You okay?” Stiles asks.

“It’s, uh—It’s really something,” manages Derek, eventually.

“What can I say? I have a green thumb.” Which is an understatement. This hodgepodge of a place doesn’t know whether it’s an apartment, a thrift store or a botanical garden. Everywhere Derek looks there’s some new thing crying out for his attention.    

“Is that a Sega Genesis?” Derek wonders aloud, gazing awestruck at an ancient looking games console by the TV.

Stiles nods. “Sometimes I like to bust out Golden Axe or Altered Beast for old times sake,” Stiles looks at it fondly. “I also have a SNES, a Gameboy, a PS2, an X-box 360, a Wii, and even the latest Playstation. They’re all around here somewhere.”

“My uncle used to have a Genesis,” Derek admits. “We were never allowed to play on it. He always said we were too young.” Peter had guarded it zealously, told Derek and his siblings that it would be an antique of the future. Of course, in the end, it had burned along with everything else.

“Well, if you want to see what you’ve been missing out on we could fire it up after dinner?” suggests Stiles pulling Derek back to the present.

And, yes. Dinner. Right. Because Stiles is cooking. For him. Because he’s a guest.

“This is for you,” Derek says abruptly, shoving the paper bag with the brownies toward Stiles.

“A gift? For me? Seriously? Why? You’re already fixing my car!”

“Well--yeah, but I don’t know if I’ll actually be able to do that and--”

Stiles shakes his head, but he looks delighted as he opens the bag, “Oh my god, chocolate brownies? Awesome!” He goes through to the kitchenette and places the bag on the counter. “I swear,” he says, “Making friends with Boyd and Isaac isn’t doing me any favors. I think my calorie intake as tripled in the last month.” He looks as lithe as he always has done, slim and lightly muscled, not an ounce of fat on him, and his ass--

Stiles turns, catches Derek staring and grins. “I--uh--” Derek says, quickly. “I got you something else too, wait a minute.” He goes back to his jacket and fishes a second paper bag out of the inside pocket. Then hands it to Stiles who is now hovering behind him.

“Oh my god,” Stiles says, “Another gift? Seriously? Are you wooing me? Is that what this--” his voice dies in his throat as he actually opens the bag. Then he starts to laugh, shoulders shaking. “Asshole,” he says as he pulls out the plastic wand Derek found for 99 cents at the party store. It’s silver, with a star on the top that’s decorated with garish pink and purple gems. Stiles twirls it expertly between his fingers and then with a flourish points it at the front door, which immediately slams shut. “Look at that,” Stiles drawls, “It works.”

“You thought it wouldn’t?” Derek says, mock offended. “I paid top dollar for it.”

Smiling broadly, Stiles shakes his head in amusement, then walks across the room and places the wand gently on a bookshelf right next to the Sheriff’s badge which he reaches out to touch like it’s a compulsion, fingers lingering briefly on the burnished metal, scent turned wistful. After a moment he half turns, glancing at Derek. “So,” he says, “what now, Miguel? Can I get you a drink or--?”

Derek swallows. “You, uh, want me to take a look at the jeep?”

“Straight down to business, huh?” Stiles looks at him fondly. “Okay, well, let’s go find my baby, she’s parked out back.”

 

-

 

Stiles sits on the curb keeping up a steady stream of conversation while Derek opens up the hood of the jeep and puts her through her paces with a sense of mounting horror. Only magic could have kept this thing running as long as it appears to have been, he’s sure of it. Every time he sucks in a breath through his teeth or mutters, “Holy shit,” under his breath, Stiles visibly flinches.

“So,” Stiles asks, when Derek finally puts the hood down with a grimace. “What’s the verdict, can she be saved?”

“Well, your EGR valve needs replacing,” Derek says, “And your head gasket has blown. You need a new alternator and the radiator has a leak. Also your bumper is literally tied on with string and your rear passenger side window isn’t a window, it’s just saran wrap and duct tape. But I’m assuming you knew that.”

“Okay, okay,” Stiles says, nodding, “But those are all fixable things, right?”

“I mean--” Derek hesitates, he knows exactly what it’s like to love a car this much. “I suppose-- technically. Although it would probably be cheaper to just buy a new--”

“Sshhhh,” Stiles hisses clamping himself to the side of the jeep like a limpet, and glaring at Derek. “Don’t let Roscoe hear you say that.”

“Stiles--” Derek begins.

“I’m just gonna have to start saving. How much d’ya think it’ll cost?”

Derek takes in a hissing breath through his teeth.

“That much, huh?” Stiles says dolefully.

“Sorry,” Derek says, and he means it.

Stiles smiles weakly. “Thanks, Miguel.”

 

-

 

Back up in Stiles apartment, Derek stares down in dismay at his t-shirt, which is now covered in smudges of engine oil and grease.

“You wanna borrow one of mine?” Stiles asks, looking him over critically.

“Yeah, please.”

Stiles disappears through a door that must lead to the bedroom and comes back a moment later with a blue and orange striped t-shirt. “I don’t know if it’s gonna fit,” he says, then adds. “You may wanna wash up in the bathroom first, otherwise you’re just gonna get this one dirty too. This way--”

Derek follows him through a doorway near the bookshelves and down a narrow corridor. They pass Stiles bedroom on the right, door slightly ajar, and opposite that is another door.

“In there,” Stiles says, gesturing. “I’ll put the t-shirt here for you.” He hangs it on a hook behind the door and then says, “I’m gonna go get on with dinner. Shall I get you a beer ready?”

“Yeah,” Derek says, “thanks.”

Stiles’ bathroom is small, white, cleanish, and also filled with plants. Derek’s beginning to sense a theme.

He cleans himself off as best he can, his hands and forearms are smudged but the grease comes off with soap and water. His t-shirt, though, is beyond saving and will definitely need a wash in an actual washing machine.

Stiles’ t-shirt, is, well, tight, and no amount of pulling it down seems to make it better.

“Stiles,” Derek says, as he stands in the doorway to the living room, scowling. “I don’t think this fits.”

Looking up from where he’s chopping vegetables, Stiles takes in Derek’s appearance and then laughs. “Yeah-- okay-- point taken. My bedroom’s opposite the bathroom. T-shirts are second drawer down in the dresser on your right. Good luck!” He offers Derek a sloppy salute.

Two minutes later, Derek appears reluctantly wearing a bright blue t-shirt with stud-muffin written on it. It’s the baggiest t-shirt he could find  and it’s still way too tight. Stiles takes one look at him wearing it and collapses with helpless laughter, “Oh Miguel, but it’s so appropriate!” he sputters.

 

-

 

After that, Derek stands in the kitchen, idly sipping his beer and listening to Stiles talk while he prepares the food. He offers to help, but Stiles brushes him off. “No need. It’s a one man job. Enjoy your beer.”

Derek wanders toward the big window on the far side of the living room, it looks out over the rooftops of the smaller buildings on the opposite side of the street. Street lamps are spread out below in every direction, beginning to blink on cheerily as the evening draws in. There’s something warm and heart-wrenchingly familiar about being here, in an actual apartment, filled with all the trappings of real life and domesticity. He can’t remember the last time he was inside looking out on the world like this, can’t stop the warm golden feeling that spreads through him. If he could stay here forever he would.

With a sigh he turns away and wanders over to the bookshelves. They are filled to bursting: old grimoires with cracked spines, books on history and magic, botany and science, old classics like Moby Dick sit alongside modern novels like The Kite Runner. He shifts his attention to the odd assortment of photographs that are scattered amongst the shelves. And they are odd. Up close he discovers that they are almost all cut from travel brochures, stock images of mountains, city skylines lit up bright against the night sky or the impossibly white sand of Caribbean beaches. Hidden among these are two actual photographs in a double frame. The first was obviously taken on an old polaroid camera years ago, it’s a faded picture of a girl with long red hair wearing a distinctive print dress that looks like one of those cubist paintings. She’s caught in profile, face half turned away, and there’s a light leak down the center that turns the colors golden. The second picture is older still, a black and white photo of a young guy with dark hair in his early twenties maybe, he’s sitting on a stoop dressed in a pinstripe suit and a fedora, looking for all the world like he’s just stepped out of one of those movies Derek’s’ mom used to like. Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, that kind of thing. The guy smiles up at the camera crookedly, eyes bright with laughter.

“Okay!” Stiles calls from the kitchen. “Come sit down, dinner’s nearly ready.”

“Does it matter which seat I—”

“No! Either is fine,” Stiles says. Potholders on, he opens the oven door and lifts out a steaming  dish of mac and cheese which he places on the stove top. Derek’s stomach growls. “Take a seat, take a seat.” Stiles waves a hand at him, and Derek pulls out a rickety chair and sits down while Stiles flits about the kitchen, muttering things like “Plates, knives, forks, where are the fucking forks?” It makes Derek feel kind of guilty.

“I could set the table if you—”

“No, I’ve got it,” Stiles insists, bringing over plates and cutlery and setting them on the table, followed by a massive bowl of salad, a bottle of dressing and then, finally the mac and cheese.

The pasta looks good, but Derek reaches for the salad. He’s heaped half the contents of the salad bowl onto his plate before he realizes Stiles is sitting opposite, watching him, one eyebrow quirked in amusement. “Uh—did you want?”  Derek makes to offer him the bowl.

“No! No. Continue.” Feeling self-conscious, Derek puts the salad bowl back down awkwardly and under Stiles watchful gaze, serves himself some pasta before passing it to Stiles. “Eat up,” Stiles says, as he reaches for the spoon to serve himself. “Don’t wait for me.”

And Derek finds he’s too hungry to be polite. The salad is everything he’s been dreaming of: plump tomatoes, crisp lettuce, creamy avocado, cucumber, grated carrot. He doesn’t even bother with the dressing, he’s just so grateful to finally be eating vegetables again. “S’good,” Derek mumbles gratefully. “Thanks.”

Stiles watches, a wry smile spreading across his face as Derek blissfully savors a tomato.

“So,” he says, “Where are you from originally? I’m betting not California.”

For one moment, Derek’s grateful he has a mouthful of food. He chews slowly, considering how to answer. “New York.”

“The Big Apple, huh?” Actually his family lived upstate, but Derek lets the assumption slide. “Hey,” Stiles says eagerly, “Ever go see a Mets game?”

Derek shakes his head. “Sorry,” he says, “my dad was originally from Chicago, so we were all Cubs fans. He took us to Yankee Stadium once or twice to see them play.”

Stiles screws up his face in disgust. “Yankees? Ugh.”

Derek grins. “What about you? Have you always lived in Beacon Hills?”

“Uh, pretty much,” Stiles takes a sip of his drink and looks away. “Lame, huh?”

“No.” Honestly if Derek’s family hadn’t been wiped out in a fire he thinks he would never have strayed far where he grew up. “It’s nice to have roots. I don’t—I don’t have that any more. I miss it. Why? Where do you want to go?”

“Oh god, anywhere. Everywhere. See the world.”

“Well, what’s stopping you?”

Stiles give a disgruntled bark of laughter. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m the guardian of a magical forest.”

“So— you’re what? Bound to the land?”

He sighs. “It’s complicated.”

“Complicated?”

“Yeah, I--” Stiles pulls a face, then sighs. “Let’s say it’s a temporary gig, or it’s meant to be. Supposedly there’s someone the land belongs to-- they’re gonna show up and claim it eventually, I’m just,” he gestures expansively, "taking care of it for them.”

“And when they show up?”

“Then--well-- I’ll be free, right?” his scent turns bitter,  heartbeat skipping erratically. “I can finally go and see the world like I always wanted to, get out of Beacon Hell and never look back At least, that's the plan.” He forces a brittle smile and Derek can’t help but think of all the little pictures in cheap frames on the bookshelves, beaches and cities, mountains and deserts, some of them new, some of them faded with age.

“How will you know?” he asks. “How will you know who the land belongs to.”

“Ahh, well, there’s a whole--” Stiles raises a hand, index finger extended like he's going to write something. He makes an aborted little swirling motion but then checks himself. “--a whole thing. I’ll know. Trust me.”

He doesn’t seem inclined to say more, and Derek lets the subject drop.

 

-

 

After they’ve washed the dishes together Stiles nudges Derek with his elbow and says,  “So. time for some retro gaming, huh? We should play Altered Beast. You’ll like it. It’s thematically appropriate. And it’s two player, c’mon.”

“Thematically appropriate?” Derek asks. He side-eyes him hard, but follows him to the couch.

“Why can these werewolves shoot fireballs?” Derek grumps a few minutes later, staring at the screen.

“You’re just jealous,” Stiles says, “You wish you could shoot fireballs.”

“Har har. Werewolves are already awesome. They didn’t need to be all extra about it .”

“Are you seriously complaining that the game designers didn’t research werewolves thoroughly enough?”

“Maybe.”

“Well wait till you get to become a weredragon on level two or on level three, when you become a werebear who attacks people with bubblegum.”

Derek turns to look at Stiles, heedless of the game. “Weredragon? Werebear? Seriously. That’s not even a thing.”

“So you say. Pay attention. The zombies will get us. Anyway you’re wrong, we used to have a werebear in Beacon Hills back in the day.”

“Did he attack people with gum?”

“She. And mainly claws, if I recall,” Stiles says, jerking the controller as he hammers the buttons.

They play Altered Beast for a bit longer. It’s a quick game, and once Derek gets the hang of it they zoom through it in no time. Then Stiles insists on setting up the SNES for a game of Super Mario Kart.

“I like this better,” Derek says, as they zip over the Donut Plains together. “Altered Beast was culturally insensitive.”

“Dude, you literally just bought me a 99 cent wand from the party store,” Stiles points out.

Derek’s silent for a long moment. “Okay,” he concedes. “You may have a point.”

 

-

 

They play retro computer games late into the night, sitting on Stiles’ sagging couch, as the shadows creep in around them. The only light the dull flicker of the TV screen. And slowly, ever so slowly, they drift further towards the middle until they’re pressed shoulder to shoulder, thigh to thigh, elbows knocking into each others sides as they jerk the controllers this way and that. And when they finally switch off the consoles, Derek thinks he should probably leave, it’s nearly eleven and he really should be getting back, but then Stiles stands up and says. “Do you want to watch the Princess Bride with me? I have the DVD here somewhere.”

He looks uncharacteristically nervous saying it, hands jammed in his pockets, shuffling foot to foot, maybe because he has an idea that this story means something to Derek, he knows Derek has the book after all. Derek finds he can’t say no.

“How much can you quote from memory?” Stiles asks, DVD remote in hand, as he settles back down next to Derek, pressed just as close as he was before.

“Uh. Quite a bit, I think.”

Not as much as he thought, is the actual answer. He’s read the book way too many times in the last eight years, and hasn’t seen the film in nearly a decade. But Stiles seems to know all the words, mumbles along with them under his breath and Derek can’t help glancing at him. Finds himself watching Stiles more than he’s watching the movie, the dark sweep of his lashes, moles speckled across clear, pale skin, pink lips curved upwards in a bright smile. He’s beautiful. Sharp and soft all at the same time. Everything about him draws Derek in, makes him want, and he’s— he’s looking at Derek. He’s totally caught Derek checking him out.

“You okay?” asks Stiles.

“Yeah—Yeah of course.” Derek clears his throat, trying not to blush through sheer bloody-mindedness. Hurriedly, he turns his head back to the television, and tries to think about something else, anything else. He’s gonna concentrate on the TV, that’s all.

“True love, ” Inigo announces on screen, “You heard him. You could not ask for a more noble cause than that--”

His eyes drift back to Stiles like their magnetized, but this time he finds Stiles is looking back at him, a knowing smirk on his face.

“Sonny, true love is the greatest thing in the world—” Miracle Max replies.   “Except for a nice MLT—”

They’re both smiling at each other helplessly now and when Derek breathes in, all he can smell is them, warm and safe and home. With a shaky breath he leans in, closing the distance between them.

For the last few weeks, Derek has been very carefully not thinking about what it would be like to kiss Stiles. Now he’s actually doing it, it feels like that was a mistake. Like if he’d let himself think about it more, he would have been prepared. Because it feels like nothing is enough, there’s that familiar crackle of magic in the air that he always gets when Stiles is around, sizzling potential just under his skin that seems to heighten his own senses, so everything about Stiles, about them, comes into sharper focus. Until all he can think, or touch, or taste, or smell is just them, them, them, winding each other up, drawing each other closer, holding each other tighter, like it’s a fight to see who can crawl closer into the other’s skin. Before they know it, Derek has pushed Stiles back, pressed him into the couch, caging him with his arms.

Something about Stiles draws the wolf in Derek to the surface in a way he can’t explain or begin to contain. His teeth worry at Stiles’ neck, marking that pale skin up, nice and pretty, but it isn’t enough. Nothing is enough. He snakes one hand between them hand hovering over the zipper on Stiles jeans. “This, okay?” he mumbles thickly.

“Yesss,” Stiles hums, voice sounding almost sub-human. It reminds Derek of that first meeting in the forest, when he didn’t have a face to put to the voice and as Derek pulls back, panting, he sees Stiles’ skin is almost gleaming in the dark of the room, teeth sharp and white, eyes dark, the pupil has expanded to swallow the entire eye. Stiles clutches at him, fingers digging sharply into the meat of Derek’s arm. He’s beautiful. Feral. Breathtaking. “Don’t stop,” he says fiercely, pulling Derek in closer. “Don’t you dare stop.”

With a little growl of frustration, Derek finally manages to get the zipper free, underwear down and has Stiles' warm, thick, length gripped firmly in the curl of his fist. “You too,” Stiles mumbles as he arches into the touch, gingers gripping Derek's back tightly. “Together. Together.”

Derek lets go of him and, with shaking hands, pops the button on his own jeans, wrenching the zipper down and then reaching between them with one large hand, he grips them both tight. His hands are still trembling at the first stroke, the feel of them together soft skin and hard flesh straining into each other. He can feel the urge to shift pressing down on him, fingers itching with it, almost dizzy with the rush, the smell, the feel— He buries his face in the damp skin of Stiles’ neck, as his hand starts to work them both, fighting the change.

“No. Don’t hold back,” Stiles says fiercely, taking Derek’s face in his hands, and forcing him to look at him. “Don’t hide. Don’t hold back. You don’t need to hold back. I wanna see you. The real you.” Derek’s eyes flicker red, fangs dropping down. Stiles’ back bows immediately and just like that, in a few messy thrusts, it’s all over for both of them.

For a long moment they cling to each other, breathing heavily. Derek drops his head onto Stiles’ shoulder and tries to pull the wolf back under control. Stiles shoulders start to shake, he’s laughing, Derek realizes. “What’s so funny?” he mutters looking up.

“I think you’re gonna need to change, again,” Stiles says, gesturing to the studmuffin shirt with a grin.

 

-

 

They take turns freshening up in the bathroom. While Stiles is in there, Derek gets changed into a different t-shirt, this time pale gray and definitely, definitely too tight.

He’s already pulling on his boots and his leather jacket. when Stiles comes back into the living room dressed in plaid pajama pants, chest bare save for a fine, long silver chain around his neck, that Derek hasn’t previously had opportunity to see, it has a silver acorn charm hanging from it.

“You’re not gonna stay?” Stiles says, face falling.

“I--” Derek hesitates. “Not tonight? I don’t have any of my stuff here, and--”

“You can use my toothbrush. You can borrow my underwear too.”

“It isn’t that,” he has a feeling that if he stays here he’ll never want to leave again. Already part of him doesn’t. He needs space, though, to clear his head, to think, to process what just happened. But at the same time, he desperately doesn’t want to hurt Stiles. “I’ll come by tomorrow, if you want?”

“Yeah?” Stiles smiles, soft and a little sad.

“Definitely,” Derek says and leans in to kiss him. “I want to.”

 

-

 

Curled up under the train car seats asleep, his tail tucked over his nose, the rumble of a familiar engine wakes Derek at around 3AM that night, and for one moment, half-awake and hopeful, he thinks it might be Stiles’ jeep. Then he realizes it couldn’t be, the jeep is broken and besides, there are two heartbeats outside. He hears heavy uneven breathing and a hissed curse as the car’s doors open, his heart sinks like a stone.

“I’m telling you, I saw him come out here the other day!” hisses Ennis under his breath in a way that’s probably supposed to be stealthy. Probably would be, if Derek weren’t a werewolf. Derek scrabbles to his feet, lets the change ripple through him and starts blindly searching for his clothes.

“Out here?” Says another voice, one Derek doesn’t recognize. “Where there’s no water. No food?” Derek fumbles the fly on his jeans, then pulls on his t-shirt in a panic.

“No food? Don’t be dumb, Crawford there’s a preserve full of food. Deer. Rabbits. That wolf is eating to his heart’s content.”  There’s the sound of more doors opening and closing. Metal scraping against metal. Whatever they’re doing it doesn’t sound promising.

“But I thought that Stiles kid said it was his dog.”

“He says that,” Ennis makes a disgusting wrenching noise and spits, and sometimes werewolf hearing is the worst, because Derek can still hear it, the crackle of phlegm on his lungs, the wet sound as it hits the dirt. “He’s lying though. That ain’t no dog. I know dogs.”

“Yeah, but--”

“I’m telling you, Crawford. This is something else. I saw--”

“I know,” grumbles Crawford. “Burning red eyes. You said that already. I just-- wish you would save the liquor until after lunch.”

“I wasn’t drunk! Okay. Just. Come with me. We’re gonna take a look around.” There’s the heart-stoppingly familiar sound of a gun-cocking. And the last time Derek heard that, Laura died. For a moment he’s paralyzed with fear, but he forces himself to move, fingers trembling as he jams his books and clothes haphazardly into his backpack. Eyes sweeping the warehouse, as he tries to remove any and all traces of himself as quickly as possible.

“Ready?” Ennis says, and there’s the tell tale crunch of footsteps against gravel. Pulling his jacket on and his bag over his shoulder, Derek slips silently into the dark recesses of the warehouse through to the offices at the back, where there’s a back door.

“As I’ll ever be,” comes Crawford’s voice.

“Okay. I figure if a wolf has been round here they’ll be signs.”

Crawford doesn’t say much, just grumbles imprecations under his breath, apparently too low for Ennis to hear.

Derek finally gets to the rear entrance, an old door that he’s never actually tried to open before. Slowly he tests it, pushing against it. It swings open, creaking ominously, and he stops immediately, heart pounding. It’s okay, they didn’t hear anything. They’re too busy talking to each other as they go through the main office, rifling through drawers, all pretense at stealth gone.

“I don’t know, Ennis.” Crawford says with a sigh. “I can’t see anything here.”

“You think? There’s dog hair under that train car seat, and look what I just found in the bathroom.” Derek can hear a triumphant note in Ennis voice. There’s the thump of something being put on a desk.

“Disposable razors?” Derek’s heart sinks.

“Yup. Out in plain view. Recently used, too.”

“So what, there’s a guy living here with the wolf? Or are you saying that we’re hunting a wolf that likes to shave?” Crawford sniggers at his own joke.

“You joke,” Ennis says, “but mebbe we are.”

“Seriously?” Crawford says. “What are you trying to say?”

“I’m saying I’ve been on Google, learnin’ a few things. Spoken to a few people. Spent the last few days watching, waiting.” He chuckles, and it’s a horrible wheezing sound. “Let’s keep looking, see what we find.”

“But--”

Derek’s heard enough, he eases himself through the door, careful not to make any noise.

Fingers shaking, he pulls out his phone and calls Stiles as he runs silently back around the outside of the building, past Ennis beaten red pickup truck, and down the dusty road that leads back to town When he looks back, he can see the bright beam of flashlight arcing against the dark windows of the warehouse behind him.

 

Chapter Text

“I’ll come and get you,” Stiles’ voice, groggy when he answered the phone, is now sharp with anxiety as Derek sneaks through the abandoned industrial park. “Whereabouts are--”

“You can’t,” Derek hisses, cutting in. “Your jeep’s broken, remember? And even if it worked they’d hear you coming a mile away. I’ll run, and I’ll stick to the shadows; I’ll be with you before you know it.”

“I don’t need my jeep, dumbass,” Stiles spits. “I can--”

But Derek doesn’t want to argue, doesn’t have the time or the patience. “Just stay put,” he says, and then ends the call, immediately switching his phone to silent.

Heart pounding he picks his way past abandoned buildings out onto the open road into town. Flat, featureless countryside extends on either side of the road leading from the industrial park, broken up by nothing except the occasional spindly tree or scrubby bush. The only thing in Derek’s favor is the roads are barely lit at all, and he doesn’t need them to be. Eyes flickering red, he hoists his bag more securely over his shoulder, takes a deep breath, and runs.

He’s almost there, he can see the lights of Beacon Hills laid out in the valley before him like a galaxy in miniature, when, in the distance, he hears the rumble of an engine approaching from behind. It’s still a ways off, but getting closer all the time. Without a second’s hesitation he veers off the main road. The ground beneath his feet dips sharply, and his feet scrabble over loose stones as he tries not to lose his footing on the rocky escarpment. After a moment’s undignified flailing he skids to a stop and crouches low, still within view of the road, but hopefully far enough back the car headlights won’t illuminate him.

It’s an agonizing three minute wait, the time seems to stretch on for hours, but eventually the car passes. Just as Derek suspected, it’s Ennis’ truck. Holding himself still, he wonders how many times has that truck passed him by him without him realizing. Pickup trucks like that are a dime a dozen in country like this. In the last few weeks, though, he’s grown too comfortable, allowed himself to settle, to tentatively put down roots, and in doing so he’s gotten careless.

‘I’ve been on Google,” Ennis had said, “learning a few things. Speaking to a few people.”

How much does he know? Who has he been speaking to? Derek can’t be sure and the uncertainty gnaws at him. It could be nothing, or the town could be swarming with hunters tomorrow.

He waits until the noise of Ennis’ truck has faded, and then he scrambles to his feet and heads towards the twinkling lights of Beacon Hills. Towards Stiles. Towards home.

 

-

 

The door to Stiles’ apartment building is open and he stands silhouetted in the doorway, arms folded across his bare chest; the silver chain round his neck glinting in the light of the hallway. As Derek approaches Stiles’ expression pulls down in a frown which only gets deeper the closer Derek gets. He slows his pace, suddenly uncertain of his reception. Climbing the steps to Stiles’ building, he stops on the penultimate one, so Stiles is just a little taller. The silence between them is damning.

“I said I’d be back,” Derek says.

Stiles glares at him flatly. “You--” he jabs a finger at Derek’s chest. “Hung up on me. Unacceptable.”

“Stiles--”

“And then you didn’t answer any of my other calls!”

“I had to turn my phone to silent. I couldn’t risk--”

“You could have been dead in a ditch! Shot full of wolfsbane! Strung up somewhere being tortured! I wouldn’t know!” He flails angrily.

“Stiles--”

“I mean I get it. It’s only Ennis, and you’re an Alpha werewolf, but still! We agreed to have each other’s backs. That’s what the cellphone was for.”

“We do!” Derek says, “I’m here! I called you, I came to you for help.”

“Hmmmph.” Stiles folds his arms back across his chest and looks away, slightly mollified. “Well,” he says eventually, “you can’t stand out here all night. Better come in.”

Derek follows Stiles retreating figure up the stairs to his apartment in silence. As soon as they get into the apartment and the door closes behind them, Stiles pushes him up against the wall, so his duffel bag digs uncomfortably into his back, and kisses him, licking into his mouth with barely repressed fury. Derek’s helpless against it, mouth opening easily, hands sliding down to Stiles hips, pulling him in close.

“You should have stayed,” Stiles pants when he finally pulls back, glowering. “You should have stayed here when I offered.”

And Derek gets what he’s saying but he doesn’t regret his decision. “If I had, they would’ve found all my stuff,” he counters. “My books--”

“Oh for god’s sake,” Stiles pulls away completely, right back until he’s out of Derek’s reach. “Because we can’t have anyone touching those damn books, can we? You get you’re more important than them, right? They’re just stupid books!” With a disgusted snort he turns away, fists clenched in his hair.

The scent of Stiles’ anger and frustration is thick in the air, almost as heavy as the silence.

“They used to belong to Laura.”

Stiles back goes rigid but he doesn’t turn to face him. “Laura?”

“My sister. When--” Derek swallows painfully. “When I was sixteen hunters set my house on fire with my almost my entire family inside. Everyone died except me and my sister, Laura. The books were in her school bag on the day of the fire. Afterwards, she became Alpha but we had nowhere to go. For a long while we drifted from town to town, working jobs here and there, staying under the radar. It was tough, but we still had each other, y’know? And.then three years ago--” He can’t get his mouth to form the words.

Slowly, Stiles turns to face him, expression raw, guilty. “Three years ago?”

“Uh-- three years ago, those same hunters caught up with us again. And my--uh-- my sister--my sister died protecting me.” He can’t stop the way his voice breaks as he says the words, hasn’t ever said them aloud before to anyone, so hasn’t practiced them, can’t make them sound even  or natural or anything other than what they are: wretched, sad and guilt-ridden. But Stiles-- well Stiles deserves an explanation, and Derek wants to give him one. “Laura died to save me--” he says again, and the words seem to reverberate up and out of him, big and impossibly sad. “And that’s why I’m weird about the books. I’m-- I’m sorry.” He feels numb all over, inside and out.

“No--” Stiles says, taking an abortive step forward, arms half out like he wants to hug Derek but isn’t sure if he should, if it would be welcome. “Nononono. Okay? You don’t have to apologize. I was worried, and sometimes that worry is expressed in assholeish ways, but it’s--you have nothing to be sorry for. Losing people--” He glances across at the bookshelves on the far wall and sucks in a breath. “It’s the worst,” he says, turning back to look at Derek. “The fucking worst. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, Miguel.”

“It’s Derek,” Derek says. He doesn’t mean to do it, but as soon as he does, he’s glad. Because the truth is he feels so tired. Tired of running and hiding. Tired of games. Tired of being anything other than what he is. Tired of pretending to himself he isn’t invested in this thing with Stiles, when the truth is, despite himself, he’s all in, has been for a while. “My name is Derek Hale.”

“Derek,” Stiles repeats softly, reverently, and it tugs at Derek’s chest: the first time anyone has said his real name in years.  Slowly Stiles takes a step forward, then another, then another, until he’s close again. Tentatively he lifts his arms, giving Derek a chance to back away. When Derek doesn’t move, Stiles wraps them tight around him in a warm hug. Derek leans into it, going slack, like a puppet whose strings have been cut. WIth a sigh he buries his face in Stiles’ shoulder and just breathes.

 

-

 

He isn’t sure how long they stand there for, but the sky on the horizon is pink through the living room window when they finally break apart. Stiles looks at him, eyes glassy, cheeks flushed, hair sticking up in all directions, and Derek wants to kiss him, but he doesn’t.

“You want a drink?” Stiles asks, rubbing his nose with the back of his hand. “I have cocoa.”

“Sounds good,” Derek says and follows him into the kitchen, sticking near as Stiles makes their drinks, unwilling to give up that physical closeness just yet.

They sit together at Stiles’ little table, the same table they’d shared a meal at just hours before, this time sipping their drinks in silence. Maybe it should feel uncomfortable or awkward, to be there like this in the golden-quiet of early morning, but it doesn’t. It feels natural. Perfect.

Eventually Stiles drains the last of his cocoa, scrubs a hand over his face and yawns. “Thank god I don’t have to work tomorrow. We can both sleep in. Come on.” He stands and hesitantly offers his hand to Derek, who takes it. Then Stiles leads them through to his bedroom, which is dimly lit by a bedside lamp, covers still thrown back where he must have rushed out of bed as soon as he got Derek’s call. “Make yourself at home,” he says, “I need to piss.” And he wanders across the hall to the bathroom.

Looking about himself, Derek takes in Stiles’ bedroom again. He saw it just yesterday, but he didn’t really take the time to look at it; at the time it had seemed rude to snoop. In truth it's just as cluttered as all the other rooms in the apartment. Boxes piled up against the wall. Shelves filled with books. Plants everywhere. Clothes sticking out of half open dresser drawers, and mountains of dirty laundry piled upon the floor. Still, it’s warm and safe and smells better than anywhere Derek’s had to sleep in a long time. Stripping quickly, he folds his clothes in a neat pile and stacks them on the dresser. Then he walks to the bed and lays down on it carefully. The comforter is thick, the mattress soft and giving, it creaks gently under his weight and instinctively he knows he won’t be able to sleep on it. He’s used to hard floors; nights spent curled up in a ball in enclosed spaces with only his fur to warm him.

“Stiles,” he calls, sitting up abruptly. “Are you allergic to dogs?”

There’s the sound of the toilet flushing, and Stiles calls back, “No, why?”

Derek lets the change ripple through him and by the time Stiles entering the room he’s already standing on four paws, tongue lolling out happily.

“Seriously?” Stiles says staring down at him, expression half amused, half pissed. “Are you serious right now?”

Derek wuffs an affirmation, wagging his tail.

“So, what? You’re gonna sleep in my bed-- like that ?”

Derek just looks at him, eyes wide, ears flat to his head, and Stiles sighs. Moving past Derek he walks to his bed, sinks onto it and wriggles under the covers. “Up to you Der-bear. Can I call you Der-bear?”

Derek whines.

“Okay,” Stiles says, yawning so loudly his jaw cracks. “No Der-bear. I hear ya.” He rolls onto his side, props himself up onto his elbow and stares down at Derek. “So,” he says, “where are you gonna sleep?”

Derek looks about the room, considering, before finally padding over to the strip of floor by Stiles’ bed, one of the small avenues in the room not filled with clutter. He lies down, curling himself into a ball. Above him the bed covers rustle as Stiles reaches out and switches off the lamp. Then he reaches down absently to pet Derek’s fur. The bed groans as Stiles settles himself, but he keeps his hand steady on Derek’s back, warm and heavy. Comforting.

“This okay?” Stiles mumbles, but Derek doesn’t reply. Lulled by the steady pitpat of Stiles’ heartbeat and soothed by the scent of the room, he finds he’s already drifting off to sleep.

 

-

 

The next day, Derek wakes late and in increments. The first thing he becomes aware of as he drifts into consciousness is how warm he is, warmer than he’s been in weeks of sleeping in the drafty warehouse. Opening one eye the barest hint, he takes in the sunlight which streams through a crack in the curtains, warming the patch of carpet he’s sleeping on. Looking over at Stiles’ alarm clock he sees it’s already three in the afternoon. He’s slept, and he’s slept well. One ear flicking forward lazily he lifts his head, yawning. Stiles’ bed is empty and Derek blinks blearily at it, brain still muzzy with sleep.  Gradually he realizes he can hear the sound of someone moving about the apartment as music plays through tinny speakers. If he really concentrates, he can hear Stiles singing along under his breath. Nostrils flaring he tilts his head to the side and scents the air, there’s the smell of bacon and pancakes. That’s all it takes for Derek to realize he’s actually awake after all. A few minutes later he walks into the living room on two legs, fully dressed in yesterday’s clothes.

Stiles doesn’t notice him as he enters the room. He has his back to Derek as he stands over the stove, turning bacon over in the pan, and shaking his ass in time to whatever pop song it is he’s listening to. So Derek stands in the doorway and watches quiet and appreciative.

It isn’t until Stiles flips a pancake and then spins round on his heel, waving the spatula and singing along loudly with the chorus that he notices Derek at all.

Immediately, he flails backwards, nearly knocking the frying pan off the stove top, hand clutched to his chest. “Motherfucker! We need to put a bell on you. Or, y’know, you could announce your presence upon entering the room, like a normal human being.”

“Not a human being,” Derek says with a toothy grin. “Besides, if I did that I might have missed the show,”

“Uh-huh,” Stiles says smirking as he turns back to the bacon. “You like what you see?”

Derek doesn’t bother to answer, instead he stalks across the room and presses up against Stiles’ back, hooks his chin over his shoulder, hands resting lightly on his hips. “All looks good to me,” he says and Stiles grins.

“Damn right. Now, try some bacon.” He picks up a strip between his thumb and forefinger and offers it to Derek, who takes a bite, lips brushing against Stiles’ fingers.

“Tastes good,” Derek pronounces, and drops a kiss on Stiles’ shoulder by way of thanks.

“Mmmhmmm.” Stiles slips the spatula he’s holding under a pancake and deposits it onto a waiting plate. “I’d say I’m a good cook, but it’s bacon. I don’t think it’s possible to fuck up bacon. It always tastes good. Can you make coffee while I plate up?”

Derek can, and he does.

 

-

 

Later, once Derek has pushed his empty plate to one side, Stiles, who is still shovelling food into his face, gestures to him and says, through a mouthful of half chewed food, “So, what are we gonna do?”

“About Ennis?”

“Yup.” Stiles licks the bacon grease off his fingers as he leans back in his chair.

“Well,” Derek says, “I think he knows-- or suspects at least.”

“That you’re a werewolf?”

Derek nods. “He said he’d been googling, talking to people.”

“That doesn’t have to mean he knows you’re a werewolf. Maybe he’s been googling how to deal with big dogs. Or what to do when you piss your pants in terror. That kind of thing.”

Derek rolls his eyes. “Yeah, but Crawford was talking about a wolf with red eyes, and there was this whole conversation they had about wolves sh--” He pauses and considers what he’s about to say. “It doesn’t matter. He knows.”

“So what? You think they’re gonna try and mess with you?” Stiles leans forward, eyes fixed on Derek.

“Ennis and Crawford I can handle. From everything I’ve heard, no one likes them. If they start running their mouths off people won’t believe them, and it isn’t as though can hurt me. If Ennis has been in contact with actual hunters though--”

“Hunters have a code though, right? You haven’t done anything wrong.”

“My family hadn’t done anything wrong. Kate Argent still slaughtered them.”

“Argent?” Stiles sits up straight in his chair, looking at him sharply. “As in the oldest hunting family in the country?”

“You’ve heard of them?”

“Yuh-huh. They’re well known. I thought they followed the code though.”

“I can’t speak for all of them, but Kate definitely didn’t.”

Stiles sinks back in his chair, gnawing his lip. “Okay,” he says eventually. “So, and I'm just spit-balling here, what’s the worse case scenario? That Ennis has somehow put two and two together and  managed to find out about werewolves on the internet. Maybe talked to hunters, maybe even found Kate--”

“Impossible.” Derek says. “Kate’s dead.”

Stiles raises one eyebrow. “You’re sure?”

“Laura killed her. Ripped her throat right out. I saw it with my own eyes.” Laura had ripped Kate’s throat out as Kate had shot her through the heart with a wolfsbane bullet.

Stiles swallows. “And the other Argents, they haven’t come for you? Like, to avenge Kate or--”

“I’ve been careful,” Derek says simply. Because the truth is, in the months after Laura’s death, he lived in fear of black SUV’s descending on whatever town he found himself in, half expected it. So he’d spent a lot of time living off the grid. No phone. No friends. Only using a bankcard if it was absolutely necessary. Hell, half the time he didn’t even live in an actual building. He’d made himself invisible and he’d been good at it.

“So,” Stiles says, thoughtfully, “basically, what we’re saying is: If Ennis have somehow managed to contact the Argents we’re screwed. If it’s some other hunting family then--”

“--then it’s my word against Ennis and Crawford, and hunters aren’t going to believe a were.”

With a sigh Stiles stares down at his plate, he picks up his fork and twirls it restlessly between his fingers. “So,” he says eventually, “what are you gonna do? Leave?”  The way Stiles says it, he’s clearly going for casual, but Derek can hear the bitter, hurt edge to his voice and it gives him a moment’s pause. All this time he’s been thinking that their relationship is unequal, that Stiles is attracted to him, sure, but has also been kindly looking out for him, taking him under wing, because he can see Derek needs help. Seeing him here, like this, shoulders slumped, the sour scent of sadness coming off him in waves, it occurs to Derek that maybe he isn’t the only one who’s lonely.

Stiles has mentioned more than once that he’s the guardian of this territory. How long has he been here? That first night they spent together at Palmers he’d said that no-one stays forever. His dad. His friend Scott, and how many others? Derek steals a glance at the Sheriff’s badge, at the double frame on the bookshelves that contains the only photographs of actual people, both faded now with age.

“If I left would you come too?” He asks the question even though he’s certain he already knows the answer.

Stiles swallows, still playing with his fork. When he finally meets Derek’s gaze he looks shattered. “I wish I could. I--I want to--”

“Yeah?”

“Oh god, so much. There’s so much I want to see. There’s so much I want to do.” He breaks off, choked. “And to be with you, that would be--” he gestures broadly, unable to articulate everything he’s feeling. “But--”

“But you can’t--”

“I can’t leave this territory.”

“Then I’m staying.” In the end it’s just that simple and as he says it he feels the relief, the rightness of his decision flood him. It isn’t just that he gets to be with Stiles, the truth is: he likes it here. He’s made friends. He cares for Boyd, Erica and Isaac. This place suits him in a way he can’t even begin to explain.

“Really?” Stiles looks across at him, hopefully.

“Yup.”

“And if hunters come?”

“Then we’ll deal with them, together.”

“You’re sure? I mean it could be dangerous. You’re a lone Alpha--”

“No. I’m not. You’re my pack,” Derek says, and as he says it, he realizes it’s true. That it's been true for a while.“And Boyd, and Isaac and Erica. You may not be wolves. Three quarters of you may not even realize I’m a werewolf, but you’re it. I’m not leaving.”

Stiles gives a short, sharp,  bark of laughter. “So we’re just gonna--”

“We’re gonna sort this shit out.”

“You mean that?”

“Yup.”

“Just like that?” Stiles’ voice is disbelieving, expression hopeful.

“Just like that.”

“I--Okay.” Stiles doesn’t seem to know what to say in the face of Derek’s new found certainty. His jaw works soundlessly for a few seconds and then he says, “Well then, I think the first thing we need to do is find out what Ennis and Crawford know.”

“How?”

Stiles taps his fingers against the tabletop, deep in thought. “I mean, the easiest way is probably to break into Ennis’ place and take a look around.”

“Sounds risky.”

“Not really,” Stiles smiles. “That’s the thing about a small town like Beacon Hills. Everyone knows everyone else’s business. Today is Sunday, and I happen to know that on Sunday, Ennis and Crawford will be spending the evening drunk at Palmers, watching the game. Then they drive back at around midnight drunk as skunks and spoiling for a fight. We go over around seven and Ennis’ place should be empty.”

“Okay,” Derek says, standing to his feet. “Sounds like a plan. Where does he live?”

“He has a place a few miles outside town. It’s pretty isolated, which is good news for us." Stiles grins broadly. "And before you say anything, don’t worry about how we’re gonna get there. I got us covered.” 

 

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