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Stiles is standing dreamily in the cereal aisle of the Safeway on the outskirts of town, the fluorescent bulb over his head flickering ever so slightly out of beat with the indistinct pop music playing over the loudspeakers. It’s quarter past 9 P.M. on a balmy Tuesday evening, and the grocery store is almost devoid of customers.

Almost.

Man, he thinks, trying to make sense of the scene in front of him. You think you know a guy…

At the far end of the aisle, near the oatmeal and cream of wheat, Derek Hale is hunkered down in front of a bawling toddler, pulling funny faces at her. The despondent girl pauses mid-wail to take a deep, shuddering breath, her cheeks flushed and tear-stained, and then subsides as she catches a glimpse of Derek’s expression. He puffs out his cheeks and crosses his eyes at her, and she startles them both by giggling. The innocence of the sound is nearly eerie under the dead blue glow of the overhead lighting.

With a relieved huff, Derek’s face relaxes into a smile, broadcasting calm and soft reassurance. The little girl brushes away a few tears and grabs the sleeve of his old leather jacket in one chubby fist. Something in Stiles’ heart twists and flips over.

Derek’s smile quirks, and he cranes his head around as if searching for a familiar sound. His prodigious brow furrows when he catches sight of Stiles loitering by the Honey Bunches of Oats, drowning in an oversized hoodie and old flannel pajama pants. His eyes widen in recognition, and he bends to confer briefly with the little girl, who raises her arms and allows herself to be swept up onto the broad expanse of his shoulders.  Stiles tries, with very little success, to tamp down an absurd flare of jealousy.

“Stiles,” Derek greets cautiously, firmly bracing the toddler’s purple-legging clad calves against his shoulders. He needn’t have bothered; the kid has her arms wrapped in a vice grip around his forehead. The effect is by far the single most adorable thing that Stiles has ever witnessed, which is saying something– he’s had firsthand cuddle romps with the baby animal population of the Beacon Hills Veterinary Clinic. He’s fed bunnies. He knows high octane, premium grade cute when he sees it, and this is the real McCoy, even if the little girl is giving him the stink eye.

“Derek,” Stiles says dumbly, trying and failing to school his expression into one of cool nonchalance. “Fancy seeing you here. At the grocery store in Beacon Hills. With a toddler.”

“D’rek,” repeats the little girl solemnly, mashing her tiny hands into the perfect dark wave of Derek’s fringe.

Stiles surreptitiously counts his fingers to reassure himself that this isn’t some weirdly specific nightmare. He hasn’t been sleeping very much in the months following Allison’s death, and he wouldn’t put it past himself to conjure the hallucination of a child-friendly Derek Hale. It’s been weeks since he’s seen the other man, and he's only just come to terms with the fact that Derek had left town for good.

“Stiles.”

Derek is frowning, and Stiles realizes he must have zoned out for a moment. It’s been happening more and more these days, but it’s been a long time since anyone’s been around him long enough to notice.

“Sorry,” he says, blinking up at the absurdly cherubic face of the toddler.  She stares back at him with wide brown eyes, startlingly serious for one so young.

“She’s lost,” Derek says, gruff with impatience, which is, well, uncalled for, in Stiles’ opinion, but familiar enough to be comforting. “She wandered off and she can’t find her mom.”

“Oh, right.” Stiles focuses his attention on the kid, this time addressing her directly. “Sorry." Her bottom lip quivers, but she fights off another wave of hysterics with a valiant effort.

“Ma.” Her voice comes out in a little whisper, one fat tear slipping out from the corner of her eye and running down her plump cheek. It splashes into Derek’s hair, tangled now by tiny fingers, and the werewolf’s eyes go all wide and stricken.

“Stiles. Help. Me.” Derek grits the words out through an unconvincing smile, patting the little girl’s knee reassuringly. His eyebrows seem to be trying to translate the request into a much harsher demand, but Stiles isn't as proficient in eyebrow as he once was, and therefore much of the meaning is lost to him. The patting at least eases the toddler’s sniffling.

“Oh, yeah. Sorry.” Stiles blinks rapidly, trying to focus. He figures he has nothing to lose by accepting the absurdity of the current situation as reality. His nightmares tend to be a lot bloodier. “Hold on, I used to get lost in this grocery store all the time. Follow me.”

He abandons his empty shopping basket, cramming his hands into his pockets as he leads them back down the aisle. He hasn’t been all that hungry lately, anyway. 

“We’re gonna go find your mom, okay?” he mumbles, giving the little girl an awkward half smile. Her lip quivers again, but she nods and rests her chin on the crown of Derek’s head.

“‘Kay,” is all she says, voice barely a whisper.

A strangely heavy silence overtakes the mismatched trio as they make their way to where Stiles remembers the manager’s office being, past the condiment aisle and through the processed meat and freezer sections at the other end of the store. He feels the weight of Derek’s gaze on his profile, but can’t think of a single thing to say.

“Did my Ma leave?”

The question is stage-whispered, meant for Derek alone, but it makes Stiles’ heart seize in sympathy nonetheless. Derek casts another glance in his direction before swinging the little girl down to rest on his hip, the better to talk to her.

“No,” he says softly, meeting her eyes with grave earnestness.

“Sure?” The toddler lays her cheek on the smooth plane of Derek’s chest, her soft dark curls catching against the scruff on his chin.

“Yeah,” Derek replies, running one fine-boned hand soothingly down her back. “I'm sure. People don’t leave the ones they love behind, and I’m sure your mother loves you more than anything.”

He cuts Stiles an unreadable look, and for some reason it makes Stiles’ heart twist. He stares at the grubby linoleum tiling as they walk on, trying to ignore the blossoming heat in his cheeks.

They hear the commotion as soon as Stiles leads them out of the frozen food aisle, and the little girl instantly perks up. Near a discreet door sporting a Manager plaque, an elderly store clerk is attempting to console a hysterical young woman. She has her hands balled into fists at her side, and her pretty face is blotchy with tears. Like mother like daughter, Stiles thinks, just as the woman looks up and spots them.

“Hannah,” she sobs, rushing forward to snatch her daughter out of Derek’s willing arms, holding her close and laughing through her tears. Her words are a litany of where did you go and never do that to me again and you scared me. Stiles wonders if this was how his mother had felt, the first time he’d wandered off.

“She was over by the cereal,” Derek says awkwardly, and the young mother beams at him, her blotchiness smoothing out into an even flush.

“I can’t begin to thank you enough,” she says roughly, resting her hand on the swell of Derek’s bicep. Hannah is gabbling about how Derek let her sit on his shoulders, and she could see the whole store, chubby hands flailing in her excitement.

Derek smiles softly at the little girl, the tips of his ears going pink, and Stiles watches Hannah’s mom fall in love right then and there. Something in his stomach turns to lead. He gazes at the three of them, so colorful and beautiful and alive, and feels like an audience member, like there’s a unbreachable divide separating them, and even if he tried he could never—

“Sir, can I help you with something?” The harried store clerk smiles at him nervously, clearly ready to clock out and go home. Stiles blinks at the polite disinterest in the man’s eyes, then glances back to where Hannah is laughing up into Derek’s smiling face, her mother pressing a kiss to her curls, sitcom happy.

“Oh,” he murmurs. “Nah. I’m fine.”

Stiles drifts back up the aisle, ignoring the frozen dinners and tubs of ice cream. He stares at his hands as he shuffles along, wondering abstractly why there doesn’t seem to be any substance to them. The chill of the industrial freezers bites into his limbs, seeping deep into his bones, settling like iron around his heart.

There’s a pimply kid behind one of the cash registers, and he waves lazily as Stiles makes a break for the exit. Stiles thinks he might have shared a class with him last year– AP History? Calc? He can’t remember. He nods in lukewarm recognition and picks up his pace, counting under his breath, curling and uncurling his fingers in rapid succession. Tepid night air spills across his face as he passes through the automatic door, nearly at a run.

One, two, three, four, five. One, two, three, four, five–

For a spilt-second he thinks he sees a familiar dark silhouette lurking in the shadows just behind the Jeep, hears the dry rustle of bandages and inhales the sharp, salty iron tang of blood.

Let me in! Let me in! Let me in!

Stiles blinks hard and scrubs a shaking hand across his eyes. When he looks again, there are only shadows, nothing in them but weeds struggling through asphalt and the remains of someone’s littered Happy Meal.

“Stiles!”

The call is loud and coming from directly behind him. Stiles nearly jumps out of his skin. He whirls to face his attacker, stumbling back until the comforting bulk of the Jeep hits his shoulder blades, a shout stuck somewhere just inside his mouth. He scrabbles for the door handle, trying to simultaneously fish his keys out of his hoodie pocket with his other hand. The insistent thud of his heart hammers in his throat, a wounded bird just below his Adam’s apple.

A few feet away, Derek freezes in his tracks, hands held out as if to calm a frightened animal.

“Hey,” he says, voice as soft as when he’d spoken to Hannah. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“Hi,” Stiles replies, forcing himself to take a deep lungful of air. The panic is receding, ever so slightly, trusty embarrassment rushing forward to take its place. “Uh, hey.  Hello.”

“Hello,” Derek repeats slowly, one eyebrow making the traitorous climb towards snark. “You ran off.”

“Yeah,” Stiles agrees, then frowns. “I mean, no. You had everything under control, I wasn’t, like, essential to the reunion.”

“Virginia wanted to thank you,” Derek says, matching him frown for frown.

Doubtful, Stiles doesn’t say, remembering the glow on her face as she’d given Derek her thanks.

“Ah,” he mutters, instead. “I’m sure she’ll survive.”

Derek watches him for a long, still moment. Stiles wishes he could make out more of his expression, backlit as he is by the fluorescent lights of the supermarket. Stiles allows the silence to draw out until the urge to fill it overwhelms him, like an itch under his skin.

“So, it was–,”

“When was the last time you slept?”

“–nice seeing you,” he finishes lamely.  He’d finally relaxed enough to slump forward off the side of the Jeep, but he tenses again when the question registers. Derek takes a cautious step forward, peering into his face. Stiles ducks his head, overly-conscious of the pallor of his skin and the bruises under his eyes.

“I’m fine,” he says, stiffly. “It’s all good.”

“Right.” There’s that eyebrow again. Stiles can’t decide if he hates that eyebrow or wants to lick it. “That’s why you look like the poster child for chronic insomnia.”

“Napoleon Bonaparte suffered from insomnia during times of great stress,” Stiles mutters, looking anywhere other than Derek's unimpressed face. “I think he’d probably be a more appropriate poster child.  Or Abe Lincoln. He used to take long walks at night to tire himself out. 'Poster child' is such a weird phrase, by the way. Did you know–,”

“Stiles,” Derek growls.  “When. Did. You. Last. Sleep?”

Derek is suddenly much closer, and Stiles can feel the heat radiating from the werewolf’s body even through the thick cotton of his own hoodie. Some of the ice leaks out of his bones, and he has to forcibly halt himself from face-planting into all that comforting warmth. In the dim, ugly light of the parking lot, Derek is the realest thing that Stiles has ever seen, and the rest of the world seems washed out in the face of his technicolor. Stiles thinks that if he could get closer, if he could just touch him, then maybe everything wouldn’t feel so cold, or so awfully gray.

“Keys,” Derek demands briskly, holding out an expectant palm.

“What?” Stiles stares at the proffered hand like he’s never seen one before. All things considered, it's a nice hand to stare at.

“Give me your keys, Stiles. I’m taking you home. I can’t believe your dad let you drive like this.”

“He’s at work,” Stiles mutters, mind still whirling with confusion. “But didn’t you drive here? Like, in your own separate car, I mean? How are you going to get back to…wherever it is that you’re staying?”

The loft is empty, or at least it had been empty every time Stiles went to check on it in the past few months. Either Derek’s found new digs, or he isn't planning on remaining in Beacon Hills. For the first time, Stiles wonders why he came back at all.

Derek rolls his eyes and then glances around to make sure they’re alone in the parking lot.

“I’m a werewolf,” he drawls, once he’s sure the coast is clear, and there's the thickly laid sarcasm that Stiles has been missing so much. “We can run very, very fast, often for long periods of time. Now give me the damn keys, you look like you’re about to fall over.”

 “I’m good, I told you,” Stiles insists, but he’s fumbling the key fob out of his pocket and tossing it clumsily into Derek’s waiting palm before the sentence has finished crossing the distance between them. “This is only to make you feel better. I could get back fine on my own.”

Truth be told, his eyelids feel like lead, but Stiles tells himself it’s the principal of the thing as he scuttles around the hood of the Jeep and climbs into the passenger’s seat. He buckles himself in and watches Derek acquaint himself with the car, smiling privately when the werewolf has to pull the driver’s seat forward an inch or two.

“What,” Derek asks, turning the key in the ignition and bringing the car to life. He fails to use proper inflection, as always. For some reason, this makes Stiles’ smile widen.

“Nothing,” he says, shrugging sleepily. The chill has drained from him completely, leaving his limbs heavy and warm. “I guess I just didn’t think I’d ever see you again.”

Derek stills, his hands firmly at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel. Heh. Nerd.

 “Why’s that?” he asks blandly, like he’s bored, but his brow is furrowed and there’s a frown tugging at the corners of his mouth.

“Dunno.” Stiles fights off a yawn, letting his head fall back against the headrest. It’s a struggle to form even simple thoughts, let alone whole sentences.  “Just figured after everything that I— after what happened. I just figured you’d want to get the hell out of dodge permanently, that’s all.”

His eyelids are so heavy. It’s becoming harder and harder to keep them open. After a beat, Derek puts the car into gear. His face isn't any more scrutable in profile.

“Get some sleep,” he says, reversing the Jeep out of the parking spot and pointing it in the direction of the main road.

Stiles wonders if he dreams the gentleness into Derek’s voice.

 

2.

 

Stiles wakes up the next morning in his own bed, completely at a loss as to how he got there. For one disorienting moment he wonders if he’s hungover, if he and Scott had smuggled some of his dad’s whiskey out to the preserve and gotten stupid while talking about girls and the upcoming lacrosse season. The world seems so simple for that sliver of time, fuzzy and brand new. Then, with a lurch, the memories come flooding back; the sound the blade made as it slid into Scott’s abdomen, Lydia’s scream, Allison’s pale, lifeless face…

Stiles chokes back bile, shoving the comforter off himself and tumbling out of the bed in his haste to get up. He hits the floor hard, his lungs constricting as he struggles for air, the bedclothes tangled around his legs. He’s distracted from the oncoming panic attack by a rap on his bedroom door.

“Hey,” Derek says, standing in the open doorway. His skin is golden in the sunlight, his eyes very clear. He surveys Stiles as he lays panting on the floor, and then slowly shakes his head, as if to say, I’m not even going to ask. “Do you want breakfast?”

 Stiles gapes at him from his supine position, any kind of brain function arrested by the sight of him. He’s dreamt about Derek Hale in his bedroom countless times since the werewolf first entered his life, but the reality of him now, after the previous year’s ugliness, seems impossible.

“What?” he gasps, finally. “I mean– what?”

“Breakfast,” Derek clarifies, enunciating the word slowly and clearly, like Stiles is hard of hearing. “I hear people eat it in the mornings.”

“Dr. Bennell knew this day would come,” Stiles breathes, still staring at the other man in wonder.

“What?” it’s Derek’s turn to ask now, his brow wrinkling in honest confusion.

“You’re in my bedroom,” Stiles accuses, in lieu of explaining pulp horror films to an increasingly irritated Derek. “I was in my bed. Why do I not remember getting into my bed?”

Derek shrugs his wonderful shoulders unhelpfully.

“I tried to wake you up when we got here, but you were out cold.”

Stiles looks from Derek to the bedclothes wrapped around his knees. Horrified realization is creeping over him like a second dawn.

“Did you…did you carry me up here from the car? Did you tuck me in?”

Derek shrugs again, looking uncharacteristically unbothered by the whole situation.

“Sleeping in that junk heap would have seriously messed up your back,” he says, like it’s that simple. “Look, do you want to eat or not?”

“Pancakes,” Stiles demands, determined to ride out the wave of Derek’s apparent goodwill. He counts his fingers as surreptitiously as possible— one through five, all present and accounted for, no extras. When he glances back up Derek is watching him, face set in unreadable lines. Stiles waits for him to comment, but all he says is:

“Banana or chocolate chip?”

 

3.

 

Sheriff Stilinski comes in from the night shift to find his son fully dressed for the first time in weeks, eating a double stack of banana-chocolate chip pancakes at the kitchen table with none other than Derek Hale. Stiles grins in welcome when the Sheriff walks in, looking pale and thin, but well-rested for the first time in recent memory.

“Derek,” John acknowledges, surprise coloring his voice. He’d thought the kid was long gone. “Fancy seeing you here.”

“Sir.” Derek stands, offering his hand for John to shake.

“Hey, dad,” Stiles says around a mouthful of pancake. “You gotta try these.”

The Sheriff walks around the table to ruffle his son’s hair, marveling at the way Stiles fails to flinch away from the casual touch.

“Smells good,” he says, clocking the mixing bowl soaking in the sink. He raises an eyebrow at Derek.  “Homemade?”

The mental image of the werewolf puttering around their kitchen making breakfast is nigh unthinkable, but the proof is being happily inhaled by his son. John supposes that in a world inhabited by banshees and werewolves, Derek Hale feeding Stiles pancakes hardly merits a reaction.

“They’re amazing,” Stiles insists. He hits Derek with an expression of purest sincerity. “I’m sorry I laughed when you said you could make pancakes.” He turns his gaze back to his father, eyes narrowed. “You can have one.”

“They’re whole wheat, they’re not that bad,” Derek protests, rolling his eyes when Stiles kicks him under the table.

“One,” Stiles says ominously, and it’s been so long since his son has bothered to harangue him about his diet that the Sheriff decides to let him win this battle.

“Don’t mind if I do. Stiles, you have chocolate all over your shirt." He nods at the smeared fabric, failing to hide a grin at Stiles’ cry of dismay. Can’t have the kid getting too tyrannical, he thinks.

Derek conceals a smile behind his coffee mug as Stiles bemoans the stain on his vintage tee, like he’s not sure smiling is something he’s allowed to do. The Sheriff gets himself a mug and a plate and joins them at the table, accepting the coffee pot from Derek with a nod of thanks. He watches the two young men bicker in thoughtful silence, plowing his way through what is, admittedly, a truly fantastic pancake.

Derek is a masterclass. He prods Stiles into life whenever he seems in danger of getting too into his head, distracts him from any topic darker than a lengthy comparison of Loony Toons versus Nickelodeon. The Sheriff tries to recall the last time his son was so animated while talking about such frivolous things, and draws a blank. Maybe during his sophomore year, when he was over the moon about Lydia Martin agreeing to go to that dance with him, and– oh.

John chokes on his last bite of pancake, interrupting Stiles mid-rant. He waves both boys off as he clears his windpipe, washing the bite down with coffee.

“I’m fine,” he rasps, batting away Stiles’ hands. “Just went down the wrong pipe, carry on.”

“See,” Stiles says smugly to the table at large, “one was enough.”

“Stiles, you had five,” Derek retorts. He seems to be watching the Sheriff out of the corner of his eye to make sure that he doesn’t require the Heimlich.

“I’m young,” Stiles splutters, indignant.  “That’s allowed.”

The Sheriff drains the dregs of his coffee and pushes back from the table before they can get into full swing again.

“Well, it’s bedtime for me, boys,” he says, carrying his plate over to the sink. “Derek, can I have a word with you in the living room?”

“Yes, sir,” Derek says, getting to his feet at the same time that Stiles frowns and says, “Hey.”

“It’s not about you, son,” the Sheriff lies, rolling his eyes. Much, he thinks. Stiles still watches them like a hawk as they amble towards the living room, scowling with equal parts curiosity and irritation. The Sheriff has a feeling that he’ll be read the riot act about this later.

“Space Jam,” Derek says over his shoulder, completely deadpan. “Try to fault Space Jam, I dare you.”

Stiles attacks his pancake with vigor, grumbling something unflattering about Derek’s taste under his breath. The Sheriff watches the way the werewolf’s face softens with affection and thinks, Oh, boy. Derek’s smile makes him look his age, and it shocks John to realize how young he is. Jeez, the kid must be, what, twenty-one? Twenty-two, tops? No wonder he tries to hide it.

Suddenly, and with a spike of shame, John remembers Stiles pouring him into bed in the weeks and months following Claudia’s death. His son had been infinitely understanding in the face of overwhelming grief and a father too soaked in whiskey to make his own way upstairs. He knows the look of a kid who has had to grow up too fast.

“So, Derek,” the Sheriff begins, once they’re standing far enough into the living room that Stiles won’t be able to eavesdrop. “Are you back for good?”

They stand facing each other, John’s back to the kitchen. Derek blinks at him, the softness in his face disappearing behind a mask of neutral respect. He squares his shoulders, like he’s preparing for the worst.

“Yes,” he says.

“Just like that?” John raises his eyebrows disbelievingly. “Scott seems to think you’d left town indefinitely.”

Derek slides his hands into the pockets of his jeans, shrugging.

“I’m staying,” he says simply. “I– I want to stay.”

For a fraction of a second, so fast that someone who hasn’t been a cop for thirty-five years might have missed it, Derek’s eyes flicker to the doorway just beyond the Sheriff’s shoulder. The one leading to the kitchen, and to Stiles. It’s just about all the answer John needs.

“That kid,” the Sheriff says slowly, inclining his head towards where Stiles is undoubtedly letting his curiosity eat him alive, “loves with every part of himself. He gives, and gives, and gives himself away to people, to the point where I worry that one day there won’t be anything left of him at all. You realize that?”

A complicated string of emotions passes over Derek’s face— surprise, confusion, something like longing that he hides behind a frown.

“Yes, sir,” he murmurs. His gaze drops to the scuffed toes of his boots. “I realize that. It’s what makes him so– so him.”

“Yeah,” the Sheriff says, grinning. “I just wanted to clarify that you know what you’re getting yourself into.”

Derek’s head whips up, his eyes wide with wary confusion.  He searches the Sheriff’s face for a clue to his intent. He looks young again, painfully so, and frightened. And resolved. After a long moment, he nods, slowly, but emphatically.

The Sheriff thinks about the dark circles under Derek’s eyes, evidence of the forty-eight hours that he’d spent searching for Stiles when he’d been possessed. He thinks about the look of pure terror on Derek’s face when Chris Argent had pulled a gun on Stiles that night in the loft, a mirror of the Sheriff’s own panic. He thinks about hearing his son laugh for the first time in months, chocolate smeared down the front of his shirt, his shoulders loose as he teased the werewolf about his preference for old cartoons.

John claps Derek on the shoulder in a friendly sort of way.

“In that case, I’ll spare the shotgun talk. I know for a fact that Stiles is more than well-equipped to deal with you if you ever pull anything he isn’t one hundred percent on board with.”

The color drains from Derek’s face.

“I would never,” he says, tensing to the point of strain. He catches the John’s gaze and holds it, his face drawn, his tone as grim as death. “Sheriff, I would never do something like that to him. I would rather die.”        

Belatedly, the Sheriff remembers some of the more disturbing hypotheses that Stiles has about Kate Argent, and winces at his own callousness.

“I know, son,” he says, gently. He gives Derek’s shoulder a comforting pat. “Sorry. I do know that.”

“Stiles is– he's–” Derek fights awkwardly to get the words out, his voice clipped. Some of the color returns to his cheeks. Finally, he manages to mutter, “When I left, I couldn’t even make it to the state line.”

“Well, it’s good to have you back,” John says, aiming for reassuring. He coughs, now thoroughly embarrassed for the both of them. “I expect I’ll be seeing you plenty. You like baseball?”

“Yes?” Derek looks dazed, like the effort of verbalizing his feelings has exhausted him.

 He’ll learn, the Sheriff thinks. He’ll have to.

 

4.

 

Stiles stares morosely into his coffee cup, trying in vain to pick up the thread of his father’s conversation with Derek. He hopes like hell that his dad isn’t interrogating the poor guy— he’s enjoyed the quiet morning they’ve spent together, and doesn’t want the Sheriff scaring Derek away from a repeat performance.

There had been a moment, when Derek had been carefully measuring out the ingredients for the pancakes, in which Stiles had been so overcome by the relief of his presence that his knees had gone weak. He had added the strength of Derek’s shoulders to his dry humor, and divided those things by the flour on his jeans and the way his hair curled just slightly at the nape of his neck, and the grand total he’d come up with had left him feeling flushed and over-full. Even now, his heart feels like it’s slowly outgrowing his ribcage

He wants to hide under his covers with Derek until the world isn’t so awful, or at least until he’s strong enough to handle the awfulness on his own. It’s only been ten hours since Derek Hale has come back into his life, most of which he’s been unconscious for, and already he feels better than he has in months. It occurs to him, in an abstract sort of way, that humans might need anchors, too.

Derek and his father reenter the kitchen, discussing the Dodgers’ starting line-up with inexplicable ease, and Stiles abandons his coffee in order to glare at them.

“Alright, kiddo,” his dad says, ignoring the glare. He runs a hand through Stiles’ unkempt hair. “I’m wiped. I’ll see you later.”

Okay,” Stiles draws out suspiciously. He watches the Sheriff shake Derek’s hand with narrowed eyes. “It’s Boca burgers and salad for dinner tonight.”

“Don’t push it,” John warns, and tramps upstairs with a final wave.

“Hmmm.” Stiles turns narrowed eyes on Derek as he gathers up their dirty plates. “Well? What was that about?”

“Nothing.” Derek busies himself at the sink, turning on the faucet and running the plates under the spray before the syrup has a chance to set.

“Stop that,” Stiles says, scooting his chair back and getting to his feet. “You cooked, I’ll do the dishes.”

“I don’t mind,” Derek insists. He snags one of the dishtowels hanging from the drawer handles and holds it out to him. “I’ll wash, you dry.”

Stiles accepts the terrycloth and the first of the plates as he comes to stand next to Derek at the sink. He surveys Derek’s profile as they fall into a natural rhythm, and tries not to dwell on how easy this all feels, like they’ve been doing it all their lives. The water is steaming hot, bringing out a flush in Derek’s cheeks, and Stiles is struck again by how alive he is.

“I’ll get it out of you eventually,” he says, belatedly. He lets their shoulders knock together as he accepts another plate from Derek’s wet hands. It’s a friendly sort of gesture, but it sets off a spark in Stiles’ chest, sends his pulse racing. He blames the heat of the water for his own flushed face.

“I don’t doubt you will,” Derek acknowledges. The corner of his mouth ticks up ever so slightly.

They finish the rest of the dishes in companionable silence, sides brushing every once in a while, as they work. The air between them feels weighted, but not with any kind of negativity. Stiles thinks there’s something inevitable brewing here, some unseen potential, the shape of which he’s just beginning to understand. He doesn’t want it to end.

“So, what’s your plan?” he asks, trying for casual interest. It’s never worked for him before, but a guy can dream.

“No plan,” Derek says softly. He rinses the soap from his hands and then steals the towel from Stiles to wipe them dry. “I have to get my car from the supermarket at some point, but other than that…” He trails off, eyes on the sink as the last of the water drains away. For a moment, he looks lost and unsure, and again Stiles can’t help but wonder why he’d returned to Beacon Hills in the first place.

“You gonna go back to the loft?”

“No.” Derek closes his eyes. “There’s too much– no. I’m selling it. I’ll find a motel room until I figure something else out.”

“Okay,” Stiles says. “Okay.” And then, before he can wimp out, he adds, “Listen, we have a guest bedroom.”

Derek’s eyes fly open, and he turns slowly to face Stiles head-on, resting his hip against the lip of the counter. He looks like every good thing on earth rolled up into one glorious, bearded package.

“Is that an invitation?”

“Yes.” Stiles holds his ground, meeting Derek stare for stare and trying his damnedest not to blush. “It might be a little dusty in there, but the mattress is comfortable and there are clean sheets on the bed.”

He wonders if Derek struggles to sleep in motels, if the smells of the rooms’ previous occupants keep him tossing and turning. He wonders if anyone’s ever bothered to ask.

“Your father might not approve of that,” Derek says, wryly. He raises an eyebrow. “I was once arrested on suspicion of murder, you know.”

“Ancient history.” Stiles flaps a hand, biting back a grin. “Prehistoric, even. He likes you now. You talk about baseball.”

“Still.” The glint of humor leaves Derek’s eyes, and he slips his hands into the pockets of his dark jeans. “I doubt he’d want me sharing a roof with his only son. You know how this goes, Stiles. I’m not–”

“If that sentence ends with any variation of, ‘good for you,’ I’ll scream,” Stiles interrupts. He crosses his arms, jaw tightening stubbornly. “Look, Derek, I– I’d like for you to stay. Here. If you want to. It’s– I feel safer, with you around.”

The blush is unavoidable now, blotchy heat spreading across his cheeks. Derek blinks at him for a moment, apparently at a loss for words. Stiles is gratified to see his ears turning red. They stare each other down, Derek’s eyebrows doing something complicated and nuanced. Surprisingly, it isn’t Stiles who breaks first.

“I was going to say ‘employed,’” Derek mutters, picking up the discarded dishtowel and fussing with it. He’s always been a shit liar.

“Don’t make me say it again,” Stiles warns. He plucks the towel out of Derek’s hands and folds it into thirds, tucking it through the handle of the cutlery drawer. “We’ll talk to my dad over dinner, okay? Just– just think about it.”

“Fine.” Derek sighs. “And what do you expect us to do until then?”

Stiles has to tread very, very carefully through the mental images that pop up in immediate response to that question. He settles on a solid gold standard, instead.

“Mario Kart?”

Derek shrugs his acceptance, and follows him into the living room.

They play for hours. Stiles thoroughly trounces Derek at Mario Kart, but is surprised and delighted when the werewolf matches him round for round in Goldeneye. Once the allure of videogames dissipates, they argue over movies, eventually spending the rest of the day working their way through the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Stiles tries not to draw any parallels between Derek and Aragorn.

 During the promised dinner of Boca burgers and salad, the Sheriff readily agrees to Derek staying in the guest room for as long as necessary, and after dinner, Stiles drives Derek to the Safeway to pick up his ugly mom car. They very carefully talk about nothing much, and it’s such a relief to be treated normally that Stiles is nearly undone by it. Derek tells him about being on the road with Cora, shares some stories that make Stiles laugh so hard he almost has to pull over. On the drive back, Stiles keeps glancing into his rearview mirror, and the sight of Derek’s SUV makes his heart swell every time.

It takes all of ten minutes to move Derek’s bags into the guest bedroom.

 

5.

 

“This is a nice yard,” Derek says, apropos of nothing.

 They're lounging on the back porch, halfway through a pitcher of Newman’s Own lemonade. Stiles is only partially listening, nose-deep as he is in one of the dozens of books he’s acquired since his ordeal with the Nogitsune. It gives him a jolt of pleasure every time he cracks the spine and sees the words lined up in their orderly, legible sentences.

“Sure,” he says absently, only tangentially aware of what he’s agreeing to.

“Once you clear out the weeds, you could have a nice flower bed over there.”

This does get Stiles’ attention. He looks up, sliding his Beacon County Library bookmark between the pages. Derek had been doodling in a little leather-bound notebook for the better part of an hour, but the notebook is closed now, and he’s staring out into the back yard with a considering look on his face. Stiles follows his gaze to a ratty, overgrown patch of earth that had once been crowded with tulips and daffodils in the springtime. The old mulch is choked with weeds.

“Uh, my mom used to garden,” he says awkwardly. It’s not something he’s ever really let himself think about. “I guess we just let it go to seed after– after.”

“Hmm.” Derek glances at him, his face almost glowing in the afternoon light. “Could be good to get it cleaned up.”

“I guess,” Stiles hedges, but he’s already pulling out his phone, checking the hours of the local hardware stores. “There’s a Home Depot in Redding that’s open until 8.”

They take Derek’s SUV, because they can probably fit a wheelbarrow in there if they put the seats down. Stiles keeps the window open during the forty-five-minute drive, enjoying the breeze as it tempers the glare of the sun and messes up his hair.

“You look like you got hit by a tornado,” Derek complains, once they’ve parked and started making their way to the front entrance. He reaches over to fuss with Stiles’ fringe. “People are going to think I pulled you out of my trunk.”

Stiles blows a raspberry, but doesn’t say anything, just lets himself lean a little into the feel of Derek’s fingers running through his hair.

They bicker companionably as they make their way through the gardening section, debating the quality of the merchandise. Derek talks Stiles out of a grass aerator (“Just walk around in your cleats for ten minutes, Stiles, it’ll do the same thing.”) and Stiles casts the deciding vote when Derek can’t choose between two brands of organic top-soil (“You’re so granola, dude, even for someone who goes frolicking in the woods under the full moon once a month.”.)

They’d actually found a collection of his mom’s old tools in a forgotten corner of the attic, in perfectly usable condition save for a few cobwebs, so their shopping list isn’t as prodigious as he would have first expected. Stiles chooses gloves for them both, a light blue that matches Roscoe’s paint job for himself, and a delicate pink and yellow floral print for Derek.

“Nice,” Derek says, pulling one of the gloves on to check the fit, and Stiles can’t detect an ounce of sarcasm in his voice. He tries to ignore the fact that he finds this surprising lack of toxic masculinity wildly attractive.

When they get to the register with their haul, Derek insists on paying.

“You don’t have to,” Stiles protests, proffering his own wallet ineffectually. Derek plucks it out of his hands and tucks it back into the pocket of his hoodie.

“Your dad won’t let me pay rent,” he says, still sounding a little put out about it. The Sheriff had laughed at Derek’s offer of money, and had only accepted Derek’s insistence that he be allowed to fix up the house in lieu of rent when Derek had seemed to be on the verge of begging. “This is a close second.”

Stiles rolls his eyes, but drops the matter, returning to their previous conversation. The sexagenarian behind the register looks like she might faint with infatuation as she accepts Derek’s cash, but Derek barely notices her adoring looks, thanking her politely when she hands him the receipt and then launching right back into the pros and cons of liquid fertilizer.

I feel you, girl, Stiles thinks, trying to communicate his commiseration nonverbally. You and me both.

On the drive back to the house, Stiles googles the best things for planting in mid-July, and considers the benefits of cultivating a cactus garden on the other side of the yard.

“I mean, everybody loves cacti,” he says, scrolling through photos of prickly pears. “But, like, there’s a very good chance that I’ll trip and fall directly into a spiky nightmare when I’m out there weeding or something.”

“We could build a greenhouse,” Derek muses, clicking on his blinker as they pass into the exit lane. “Or do a succulent garden, instead. Like cacti, but without the pain.”

Stiles expresses his interest and opens another tab in his web browser, ignoring the thrill that runs through him at the implication that Derek might be sticking around long enough to actually see the garden planted.

When the Sheriff gets home after another double shift, there’s a tin-foil wrapped plate of French toast on the kitchen table, and three paper lawn bags have been filled with weeds and set out on the curb with the recycling.

 

6.

 

Two nights later, Stiles has a nightmare. It’s one of the bad ones, dark and violent and filled with the overwhelming sense that he’s losing the most intrinsic parts of himself. He tries to claw his way towards consciousness, but the dream drags him back into the blood and the mire, voices slick as oil in his head.

Let me in. Let me in. Let me in.

Sometimes the voice belongs to the Nogitsune, sometimes to Allison. Once, it’s his mother. In his dream, he runs until he can’t breathe any more, until his legs collapse underneath him. It’s not enough. The darkness is going to catch up, and this time, he’ll drown in it.

“Stiles.”

Light. A hand on his shoulder. Stiles wakes with a full-bodied shudder, gasping for air. He spasms, limbs lashing out as panic and confusion threaten to swamp him. The reality of what he’s seeing fails to register. His face is wet with tears and snot and approximately one liter of drool.

“Stiles, it’s me. It’s okay.”

“Derek?”

It’s barely dawn, the faintest watercolor light painting the walls of his bedroom. Derek sits on the edge of his bed, one hand extended, a warm point of contact on Stiles’ shoulder. His touch feels like the realest thing in the world.

“Fuck,” Stiles rasps. The word sounds like it went through a blender on its way out. Humiliation burns through him, bringing fresh tears to his eyes. “I woke you up? Fuck. Derek, I'm sorry.”

“Don't.” The warm weight of Derek’s hand travels from his shoulder to the back of his neck, tugging him forward gently, gently, until Stiles can hide his face in the hollow of Derek’s clavicle. Derek squeezes Stiles’ nape, carding his fingers through the baby soft hair at the base of his skull. “I mean, you don't have to apologize. Not to me. I– you don't ever have to apologize to me.”

Without warning, the dam breaks.

Stiles would never have described himself as a crier. He’s too adept at compartmentalizing, at tucking all the bad things into a neat little pile and forgetting about them. Like he’d told Scott once, what feels like a million years ago: he’s a big fan of ignoring a problem until it goes away. The issue with that, he’s now realizing, is that the problems never really go away at all. They sit in their piles in the back of your mind and start to rot, festering away in the dark until they consume every aspect of your life. All it takes is for you to let your guard down for a moment, and then they all come flooding back.

Now, Stiles feels like he's crying every unshed tear he’s ever choked back, all at once. He cries for the weariness in his dad’s face, for the way Scott looks at him these days, like he’s a stranger. He cries for his own exhaustion, and the despair in Lydia’s eyes. He cries for Derek, for Allison, for all the people he’d hurt when his mind had not been his own. Finally, he cries for the loss of his mother, which still feels like a jagged wound in his chest that’s never closed.

After what feels like eons, he touches down at the bottom of this well of grief, and begins to calm. The tears subside, leaving him wrung out and dehydrated, but feeling lighter than he has in years. He’s got Derek’s soft sleep shirt clutched tightly in his hands, and he’s somehow wormed himself almost halfway onto Derek's lap. Derek has both arms around him, chin resting against the top of Stiles’ head as he runs a hand soothingly up and down his spine.

“I think I got snot on your shirt,” Stiles says thickly. Derek huffs out a low laugh, squeezes Stiles’ nape again. Stiles doesn't know why he finds that to be so reassuring. He peels his face away from Derek’s chest, wincing at the way his wet cheek sticks to the fabric. “Oh, gross. Sorry, dude.”

“I told you, it's fine,” Derek says, releasing him. Stiles misses the contact immediately. There’s a face-sized wet spot smack dab in the middle of Derek’s chest, and Derek inspects the mess for a second before slipping the shirt up over his head. Stiles looks down at his lap, not wanting Derek to feel like he’s being ogled.

“Here,” Derek says, holding the shirt out for Stiles to take. “Clean your face.”

Stiles murmurs his thanks, fighting back another wave of tears at the tenderness of the gesture. He drags the fabric across his cheeks, pressing his nose into the soft bundle and inhaling the clean, woodsy smell he always associates with Derek. It centers him, helps him regain his mental footing.

“Does this happen a lot?” Derek asks, his voice quiet. The delicate morning light makes the moment feel private, like they’re the only two people in the whole world who are awake to see the sun rise. It makes it easier, somehow, to tell the truth.

“Yes,” he whispers. “It’s why I was so out of it when I saw you at the Safeway. I haven’t been sleeping.”

“I’d wondered about that,” Derek says. There’s no judgement in his voice.

Derek lets his hand fall open on Stiles’ blanket-covered knee, palm up. To Stiles, it looks like an invitation. Even so, he makes his move slowly, giving Derek ample time to retract the offer. Derek doesn’t flinch, not even when Stiles tangles their fingers together. They sit in silence, breathing soft and strangely intimate. Eventually, Derek gives Stiles’ hand a brief squeeze.

“I can make breakfast,” he says. “If you don’t think you can fall back asleep. We should have enough ingredients for a frittata.”

And just like that, the vestigial shadows in Stiles’ heart begin to fade, edged out by something sweet and a hell of a lot warmer.

“You know how to make frittata?”

I’m holding hands with Derek Hale, he thinks dazedly. I got snot on Derek Hale’s shirt, and now he’s making me breakfast. Why doesn’t this feel weird? He stares at their linked hands, counting the fingers. All accounted for, no extras.

“It’s basically just a fancy omelet,” Derek says dismissively.

He stands up, not letting go of Stiles’ hand, and Stiles lets himself be tugged upright. As he struggles to find his balance, he uses Derek’s bare shoulder to steady himself. When he looks up, Derek’s face is right there, only inches away. His beard looks soft to the touch, his eyes finding Stiles’ and flicking down, just for a moment, to Stiles’ open mouth.

“You should shower,” he murmurs. Stiles wonders if he’s imagining the softness in Derek’s eyes.  “You’ll feel better once you’ve stood under the hot water for a little while.”

“You’re probably right,” Stiles agrees, breathless. Join me, he thinks. “I expect fancy eggs when I get out.”

“Whatever you want, Stiles.” Derek rolls his eyes like he’s joking, but there’s a ring of truth to the words that sends a shiver up Stiles’ spine. “Whatever you want.”

 

7.

 

Stiles begins making discrete inquiries into local therapists. He starts by calling Melissa McCall and coming clean about everything– the night terrors, the panic attacks, the guilt. Melissa’s breath catches on the other line.

“Oh, sweetie,” she says softly. “I had no idea. Scott didn’t tell me.”

“I’ve been playing it close to the vest,” Stiles says, unwilling to broach the topic of his friendship with Scott. Things had been vaguely awkward between them even before Stiles had been possessed, and the situation hasn’t improved tremendously since summer started.

“There’s a woman who sometimes consults here at the hospital,” Melissa says thoughtfully, not pushing it. It’s one of the many reasons that Stiles loves her. “She's pretty great. I think she’s worked with some of your dad’s deputies.”

“What, like she works on cases?”

“No, Stiles,” Melissa says patiently. “She helps them deal with some of the stuff they see on the job. PTSD, anxiety, things like that.”

“Oh.”

“I'll give you her number, how about that? Then you can call her whenever you're ready.”

“Okay.” Stiles takes down the information on a piece of scratch paper. When he’s finished writing down the number and address, he tucks the paper into the back pocket of his jeans. “Thanks for this, Melissa.”

There’s a pause on the other line, and then:

“I'm proud of you, Stiles. I know asking for help isn't in your wheelhouse, but I'm glad you came to me.”

Stiles doesn't know what to say. He doesn't think he could have had this conversation face to face, but in this moment, he wishes he could hug her.

 

8.

 

Summer is stretching its muscles, each day presenting a cloudless blue sky. Stiles had never realized how much crap could accumulate in a yard. He attacks the ugly, spiky-leafed weeds littering the old plant bed with vicious intent, chasing each one down to the root. It takes them several days to get the bed properly cleaned out, thistle and pigweed and prickly lettuce lining the craggy plot of soil in victorious heaps.

The sun beats down on them as they work. Sweat pools in the divot of Stiles’ collar bone, soaks through his t-shirts. They work at the pace he sets, slow and thorough, despite his suspicion that Derek could have finished the task in a fraction of the time. Stiles’ muscles complain at first, stiff after so many weeks of inactivity, but it’s an ache he welcomes. The pain is evidence of progress, each twinge corresponding to another square foot of clean, uncrowded earth.

During breaks, he and Derek sit side by side under the canopy of an old oak tree in its shady corner of the yard, drinking iced tea that the Sheriff brews every night before he leaves for work. Sometimes they talk about the future of the garden, plotting out what kind of plants will go where, and sometimes they just…talk.

Never in a million years would Stiles have predicted that some of the best conversations in his life would be with a sweaty, soil-encrusted Derek Hale. He keeps up with everything Stiles throws at him, easily following along with the meandering stream of Stiles’ consciousness while still managing to get a word in edgewise.

“What do you think about oranges?” Stiles asks, apropos of nothing. It’s their fourth day of cleaning and he’s flat on his back, one arm flung over his eyes, knuckles just barely brushing against Derek’s denim-clad thigh. The werewolf shifts a little beside him, readjusting his position against the trunk of the oak.

“They’re a good source of vitamin C,” Derek says neutrally. “Care to be more specific?”

“I read on that nursery website that mandarin oranges grow pretty well in this climate,” Stiles says. “It might be cool to have a fruit tree. To grow something useful.”

“Hmm.”

Stiles flops onto his stomach, propping his chin up against Derek’s knee. Casual touch has become somewhat commonplace between them in the days following his nightmare, and Stiles relishes each moment of contact with a greediness that startles him. He peers into Derek’s face, quashing the impulse to reach up and brush away a smear of soil that’s streaked across his temple.

Derek is surprisingly expressive, in a physical sense. Before this week, Stiles would have happily described the werewolf as taciturn, and he’d always assumed that it stemmed from stubbornness and a highly suspicious disposition on Derek’s part. After days spent decluttering the garden, side by side in the dirt, Stiles has gained some clarity regarding that theory.

Words don’t come naturally to Derek Hale. He can banter and bullshit with the best of them, has no problem verbalizing when the situation absolutely requires it, but his first response is always, always nonverbal. Stiles suspects that this comes with the territory of being a born wolf. Why use words when your senses can give you all the information you need?

Occasionally, however, Stiles requires things to be spelled out.

“What are you thinking?” he asks, patting Derek’s shin in a prompting sort of way.

“I guess,” Derek says softly, “I’m trying to understand your definition of ‘useful.’”

Stiles waits for him to elaborate with a patience that would have shocked anyone who had grown up with him. A slight breeze ruffles the branches of the oak, causing spots of dappled sunlight to dance across Derek’s tanned cheeks, cooling the sweat gathering in the small of Stiles’ back.

“I think, sometimes, that you confuse utility with value.” Derek says the words judiciously, as though he’s taken care to remove any hints of accusation.

Stiles blinks up at him, thrown. Derek continues to stare out across the yard, frowning thoughtfully. Stiles lets the words replay over and over in his head, but can’t make sense of them.

“What,” he demands, trying to rein in his instinctive defensiveness, “you think some flower is worth as much as a plant that produces something you can eat?”

“There’s a difference between value and worth,” Derek says gently. “On the whole, yes, an orange tree is probably worth more than a flower, but that doesn’t mean it’s as valuable.”

“You’re gonna have to elaborate, big guy.” Stiles pushes himself upright, using Derek’s leg as a crutch. He joins the other man in leaning against the oak’s trunk, shifting around until he finds a spot where rough bark won’t dig into his tender shoulder muscles. Derek sighs.

“An orange tree is productive,” he explains. “The fruit is worth something, and the potential for more orange trees is worth something, too, if we’re purely basing importance on how useful a thing can be before it dies.”

“O-kay,” Stiles says slowly. “I’m with you so far.”

“But a flower can hold value just as much as an orange tree, even though all a daisy can technically produce is more daisies, because the value of a flower is intrinsic.” Derek’s gaze falls down to where his hands are resting in his lap. He begins to pick at the dirt under his thumbnail.  “Dahlias remind me of Laura. They were her favorite. To me, a dahlia is more valuable than a grove of orange trees.”

The mention of Laura stills the retort Stiles has lined up, actually startles him into silence. Derek never talks about Laura. He talks about the Hale pack in abstract terms, sure, even quotes his mother from time to time, but never, ever Laura. Stiles had always figured that that wound was too fresh even to acknowledge.

He watches Derek pick at the soil stuck under his thumbnail, and thinks about him digging his big sister’s grave, all alone in the woods with no one to hold him when the grief became overwhelming. Without letting himself think too hard about the consequences of the action, Stiles reaches out and covers Derek’s hand with his own, tangling their fingers together. Derek meets his gaze, his eyes clear even through his evident heartache.

“Just because something doesn’t have an obvious use, doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable,” he murmurs, tightening his fingers around Stiles’. He stares intently into Stiles’ eyes, like he’s willing Stiles to understand the deeper meaning behind his words. Stiles’ breath catches in his throat, and he blinks away the prickle of unexpected tears.

He wonders how long Derek has known.

It should be shocking, that Derek has picked up on his deepest, most base fear, when even Scott has never fully understood it. Stiles has spent years repressing it, can’t help but suspect that it’s what left the door open for the Nogitsune. For all his jokes, his attempts at deflection, there’s been an ugly, insidious voice entrenched in the back of his head that constantly whispers one thing:

If Stiles isn’t useful, then what is the point of him?

And here Derek is, after everything Stiles has done, holding him gently by the hand and laying that fear to rest with a well-timed plant metaphor. Stiles clears his throat, scrubbing his free hand across his burning eyes.

“We still have to uproot all those thistles,” he says roughly. “They’re in pretty deep, we’ll probably have to dig them up.”

“We’ll get them out eventually.” Derek stands, untangling their hands to brush detritus from the seat of his pants. “It’s only a matter of time.”

 

9.

 

“What would you like to talk about today?”

Stiles sits across from Dr. Evans-call-me-Eileen, sunk low in the overstuffed cushions of a paisley armchair. The warmly lit office smells like chamomile and lavender, and the low hum of a white noise machine drowns out any and all exterior sound.  He scrubs at a patch of dried soil on the knee of his jeans, wondering if he should have changed out of his gardening clothes before driving over here.

Dr. Eileen Evans is in her late fifties, with a shock of grey curls and a kind round face that undermines the severity of her dress suit. Her expression is open and inviting, prompting him to speak, but Stiles has no idea where to start. Silence flourishes between them like a physical thing, filling the room. His palms are sweaty.

“I–,” he tries, and then falters. What is he supposed to say? How can he talk about grief when nearly all of his issues stem from a magical tree stump in the Beacon Hills preserve? He takes a deep breath and thinks about Derek, the calm approval in his face when Stiles had confessed to making this appointment. “I don’t know.”

Dr. Evans closes her notebook, sets her pen down on the side table next to her own overstuffed armchair. Her dark eyes are very keen, and Stiles has a feeling that she’s seeing altogether too much of him for comfort.

“Mr. Stilinski. Stiles. May I call you Stiles?” At his nod, she continues, smiling crookedly. “I grew up in Beacon Hills, I’m not sure if you knew that.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“It’s true. Born and raised. And I’ve been a licensed and practicing therapist here for twenty-two years.” She still has that smile on her face, like she’s expecting him to pick up on a punchline. Stiles stares at her uncomprehendingly. “My point, Stiles, is that you don’t become a halfway-decent psychologist in this town without in turn becoming aware of some of the more… let us say, esoteric issues that people come across.”

Stiles’ mouth falls open, shock jolting his spine ramrod straight. After some millennia, he manages a strangled, “Oh?”

“Yes.” Dr. Evans gives him a rueful smile. “My nephew was working the bar at Jungle a few years ago when, in his words, a ‘giant lizard-man’ paralyzed a number of patrons. Is it safe to assume that what brought you to me today is something along those lines?”

Stiles knows he must look like he’s been sucker punched, because that’s exactly how he feels. He and the pack have been operating under the tremendous strain of this big, werewolf-sized secret, knowing that any slip-ups could cause mass hysteria, or worse. The idea that the average townsperson has spent the last handful of years not only being peripherally aware of the supernatural world, but actively seeking counseling for it, is staggering.

“So you, like…what, you help people cope when the ‘mountain lion’ explanations start to wear thin?” Stiles flops back against the paisley cushions, laughter bubbling hysterically up his throat. “Like, ‘Yes, Mr. Smith, and when the teenager with the fangs and the glowing eyes tried to use you as a chew toy, how did that make you feel?’ How do you even become qualified to do that?”

“To be honest, I still don’t know if I’m qualified,” Dr. Evans says frankly. She leans forward, bracing her elbows against her knees. “I grew up hearing the stories, and I’ve seen some things in the last few years that I know I can’t attribute to modern science. I’ve learned to accept that. My point, Stiles, is that you can speak freely to me. I might need you to explain things once in a while, but you should never worry about me having you committed for talking about things that go bump in the night. Deal?”

Stiles stares at her for a long, long moment, trying to organize the maelstrom of his thoughts.

“Deal,” he says, eventually. “No offense, but you’re not even close to what I was expecting.”

“Good,” Dr. Evans says warmly, flipping her notebook open and retrieving her pen from the side table. “I think that’s a great place to start.”

 

10.

 

A week later, Scott shows up on his front porch. He actually rings the doorbell instead of using his key, which simultaneously breaks Stiles’ heart and fills him with a curious sense of relief. Things aren’t the same between them, they haven’t been in a long time, and as much as that hurts, it would feel just as bad if Scott failed to acknowledge the fact.

“Is Derek here?” he asks. No preamble, no how-are-you, not even a proper hello.

Well, Stiles thinks. That’s that, I guess.

“Out back,” he says, and then moves to block Scott’s path when he takes a step into the house. “Why?”

“It’s nothing bad,” Scott says, not meeting his eyes. “I just want to talk to him.”

They stand in silence for a long moment, locked in limbo.

“Don’t– don’t run him off,” Stiles mutters finally, stepping aside. “Don’t be a dick to him. He deserves better than that.”

Scott passes by without responding, hands shoved into the pockets of his jeans, eyes on the floor as he trudges down the hall. Stiles watches him go, gnawing at his lower lip, and then heads back into the kitchen to check on dinner.

They’re having pork and plantain enchiladas tonight, a recipe that Derek had found on some heart-smart culinary website. He’d insisted that they branch out from the veggie burgers and chicken casseroles that had become staples of the Sheriff-Stilinski-Is-Going-To-Live-Forever diet (“healthy food doesn’t have to taste like cardboard, Stiles, for the love of God, just trust me on this.”).

Stiles focuses on rolling the tortillas, pausing every once in a while to sneak bites of fried plantain and listen at the kitchen window, trying unsuccessfully to pick up the strain of conversation. He’s just sliding the baking dish into the oven when Scott slams through the back door and stalks into the house, red-faced and scowling.

“Why didn’t you tell me he was living here?” he snarls. Again, with the lack of preamble.

Stiles carefully finishes pushing the oven rack back into place and shuts the door, tossing the pot holders onto the counter before turning to answer the question.

“Didn’t seem necessary,” he says, faux-casual, leaning back against the cutlery drawer.

“Not– Stiles, this is the kind of stuff I need to know. The pack is my responsibility, Derek–”

“Has been living here. Helping out around the house, mostly. Sometimes he makes dinner. He and my dad watch baseball.” Stiles crosses his arms in front of his chest, trying not to glare at his best friend. It’s been weeks since he’s seen Scott, and this isn’t how he’d expected the reunion to go. “What a threat. You’re right, I should have called you immediately.”

“You should have.” Scott’s eyes flare. “He and Chris were going to kill you, or have you forgotten about that?”

I wish they had, Stiles thinks automatically, but manages to swallow the words before they can make their way out into the world. He ignores Scott for a moment, takes a deep, slow breath. He thinks of his father’s smile, which he’s been seeing a lot more of lately. He thinks of Dr. Evans and her never-ending patience, and Melissa and her kindness. Lastly, he thinks of Derek, lying drowsily in a patch of sunshine, dark, rich soil under his fingernails.

No, he tells himself, surprised to find that it’s the truth. No, I don’t.

“He’s helping me, Scott,” Stiles says, and refuses to be ashamed of the pleading in his voice. “We’re helping each other. Why isn’t that good enough for you? Stop being the supernatural golden boy for a second and just be a person.”

“Oh, so now you get to tell me how to be a person?”

Stiles flinches with his whole body, the shock of the words landing like a physical blow. He hunches over, curling in on himself, and turns away from Scott’s stricken face. The echo hangs between them like the aftermath of a detonation.

“Stiles.” Scott sounds close to tears, now, the anger gone. “Stiles, that’s not what I meant. You know I– look, it just makes me feel crazy that he’s been here this whole time without me knowing, and I–.”

“You should go,” Stiles says leadenly.

They were just words, he knows that. Words spoken in anger by a teenager still grieving the loss of his first love, who probably can’t look at Stiles without seeing the life draining out of her eyes. Scott must be stressed out of his mind trying to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of all the destruction– destruction that Stiles had caused, even inadvertently.

What was it Marcus Aurelius had said? Anger cannot be dishonest.

“Look, Stiles, I’m sorry, okay?”

Scott takes a step towards him, and Stiles shifts away down the length of the counter, trying to maintain the distance between them. The room feels too small, too stifling, like the walls might close in on him at any moment.

“He asked you to go.”

At the sound of Derek’s voice, Stiles can suddenly breathe again. He inhales shakily, his lungs expanding painfully. Derek stands just inside the hall, backlit by the patio lights. He seems bigger than Stiles remembers, his shoulders broad and sturdy as he stares Scott down, his eyes two slivers of icy blue.

“Now’s not the time,” Derek says, not unkindly, but with a firmness that brooks no argument. “Come back when you’ve got your head on straight.”

For a moment, Stiles is afraid that Scott might lash out right then and there, but after several long seconds he gives a stiff nod.

“I’ll call,” Scotts says, halfway between pleading and promise. “I know I’ve been avoiding you, and that’s shitty of me, but we’re gonna work this out, okay? You’re my brother, Stiles. Okay?”

“Okay,” Stiles mumbles, hating the way his voice cracks.

He keeps his eyes trained on the floor as Scott leaves. There’s a ringing in his ears, high and cold, drowning out the harsh wheeze of his breathing and the pounding of his heart. He feels as though he’s standing at the edge of a great chasm, the emptiness sucking at his feet, tempting him to jump.

Let me in. Let me in. Let me in.

“Stiles.”

The voice sounds like it’s coming from very far away, but nevertheless it drowns out the howling of his guilt. Warm hands touch his shoulders, steadying him, pulling him back from the precipice.

“Stiles, come back. Breathe with me.”

Derek’s voice is gentle, but firm. Stiles gasps.  He hadn’t even noticed he’d stopped breathing until the oxygen hits his aching lungs, the burn making him cough. A hand maneuvers his clenched fist until it presses against a chest, rising and falling along with deep, even breaths.

“Match my breathing, Stiles, come on.”

Stiles forces his eyes open, watches Derek breathe, tries to imitate the pace of his inhalations. His knuckles are stark white against Derek’s charcoal Henley. With a tremendous effort, he relaxes his fist, forces his fingers to uncurl.

“Fuck.”

Stiles is so surprised to hear Derek curse that he’s momentarily distracted from the implacable tide of panic and the perfect crescents of blood on his palm. He lets Derek direct him to the kitchen table, allows himself to be pushed gently onto one of the chairs.

“I’m going to go get the first aid kit. It’ll take me ten seconds, I’ll be right back. Just keep breathing.”

“Thank you.” His throat feels like sandpaper, but he forces the words out anyway. “Derek, I–”

“Just breathe, Stiles. In through your nose for five seconds, hold it for three, and then out through your mouth for seven. I’ll be right back.”

Stiles stares down at the blood welling in his palms as Derek hurries away, barely registering the sting as he inhales. He hadn’t been aware of breaking the skin.

“What did Scott want?” he asks when Derek trots back into the kitchen, setting the battered old medic kit on the table. He feels, if not better, then at least marginally more himself.

“To chew me out for not letting him know I was back in town,” Derek says blandly, soaking a cotton ball in hydrogen peroxide and dabbing gently at the places where Stiles’ fingernails have gouged the tender flesh of his own palms.

“That’s bullshit,” Stiles mutters, grimly relishing the sting as the disinfectant bubbles away at the cuts. It’s a familiar pain, garden variety in its humanity, like the irritation of a paper cut or the ache of a stubbed toe.

“He had a right to know,” Derek says neutrally. “I’m in his territory. He’s the alpha, now.”

Stiles can’t help himself. The laughter starts off as an irrepressible snort, and then morphs into a deranged, stifled giggle. Soon it escalates into uncontrollable cackling, redoubling the moment he sees Derek make the connection, an involuntary grin spreading across his handsome face.

“Werewolves,” Stiles wheezes, wiping his streaming eyes on his sleeve. “It’s a 24/7 pissing contest with you guys, I swear to god.”

“Don’t be speciesist,” Derek says primly, securing an adhesive gauze pad to Stiles’ left palm. The corners of his mouth twitch at Stiles’ gasp of mock offense. He glances up from his ministrations, eyes softening when they find Stiles’. “I never got it right with Scott. I have a lot of respect for him, but we could never agree on a common ground. He always saw me as more of a threat than an ally.”

Stiles hums acknowledgment, allowing himself to stare openly as Derek bends over his other hand. His hair is longer than Stiles had realized, falling in dark whorls over his forehead, shadowing his beautiful eyes. His stubble has grown into a proper beard, dark and soft, and although Stiles is exhausted from the panic attack and Scott’s unexpected visit, he can’t help but wonder how long it would take to work up a truly impressive case of beard burn. He compares this Derek to the guy who’d roared Isaac into submission, all sharp edges and cocky antagonism, and the disparity is glaringly obvious.

“Do you miss it?” he asks, unable to contain his curiosity.

“Miss what?” Derek carefully peels the protective backing off the next strip of adhesive, brow furrowed in concentration.

“Being alpha?”

Derek pauses, but just for moment, keeping his eyes trained on Stiles’ hands.

“No,” he says, finally. He covers the last of the cuts, but doesn’t move away. His thumbs brush absently across Stiles’ life lines. “No, I don’t. I wanted the power for all the wrong reasons.”

“You had good intentions,” Stiles offers, hushed. The moment seems to require a softness that doesn’t come naturally to him. “I know that now. You tried to make the best out of terrible circumstances.”

“I got people killed.” Derek’s voice is calm, but his eyes are hidden in shadow and Stiles can see the line of tension in his shoulders. “Erica. Boyd. They’re dead because of me.

“No.” Stiles turns his hands over so that his wrists lie across Derek’s fingers, his pulse rapid, but steady. He takes a deep breath. “If that’s on you, then Allison’s death is on me.”

Derek’s fingers close around his wrists. He finally raises his head, brow furrowed, lips parted as he takes a breath to protest, but Stiles plows ahead before he can speak.

“This shit goes both way, buddy.” Stiles taps his fingers against Derek’s forearms, counting them out of habit. Solid ten. “You keep telling me that what happened last year wasn’t my fault, and then turning around and blaming yourself in the exact same way. How am I supposed to believe you when you don’t believe you?”

Derek tries to glower, but he seems to be having a hard time getting the frown to stick.

“You can’t emotionally blackmail people into forgiving themselves, Stiles,” he says, his voice impossibly fond.

Somewhere behind them, far outside this bubble of comfort they’ve built around each other, the oven timer dings. Stiles grins his sharpest grin.

“Watch me.”

 

11.

 

Over breakfast the next morning (Greek omelets, light as air and so perfectly savory that even the Sheriff doesn’t complain about the copious use of spinach), Stiles lays down a list of plant nurseries within fifty miles of Beacon County and pushes it across the table for Derek to peruse. The Sheriff, actually able to join them for breakfast today, barely pauses in the demolition of his omelete to peer curiously over Derek’s shoulder.

“Since I can’t do much with my hands, I figured we could maybe go look at some flowers.” Stiles grins, waggling his eyebrows when Derek reaches the bottom of the list and gives him a flat, unimpressed look.

“Big Daddy Garden Supply?” The werewolf’s voice could have constituted as drought. The Sheriff chokes on a mouthful of coffee, waving thanks as Derek absentmindedly pats him on the back.

“Yeah,” Stiles says, gleeful, “I don’t think they even sell plants there, I kinda just wanted to hear you say it out loud.”

“Kid,” his dad says wearily, “what’s the point of feeding me all this rabbit food if you’re going to put my heart through things like that?”

“You like Derek’s rabbit food,” Stiles scoffs, “and anyway, a little adrenaline is good for you. Keeps the blood flowing.”

John exchanges long-suffering looks with Derek, and Stiles ignores them both to pull out his phone, clicking open his web browser.

“Creekside Gardens is right near Shasta Lake,” he says, sliding the phone on top of the list so that Derek can swipe through photos of the clear blue waters, the snow-capped mountains looming in the distance. “If you don’t have any other plans, I thought we could make a day out of it.”

Derek turns toward the Sheriff, inclining his head deferentially. Stiles has noticed that he tends to do that, treats the Sheriff like his opinion is law in the Stilinski house. He wonders if he’d been like that with his own parents, and smiles privately at the idea of Derek as a child, straight laced and rule-abiding, tattling on his siblings.

“I was going to fix the porch railing today,” Derek tells the Sheriff, “but if you’re okay with me putting it off until tomorrow…”

“Hell, of course I’m okay with it. I already told you, I’m happy to pay someone to fix the damn thing.”

“I’ll do it,” Derek says, polite as ever, but with a mulish set to his jaw that heralds the werewolf at his most stubborn. “First thing tomorrow.”

“Alright, then.” John smiles, shaking his head slightly. “You should look into going into contracting, son. By the time you’re done with this house, it might actually be worth something.”

“So, it’s a plan,” Stiles cuts in, giving Derek a chance to recover from the compliment and, he suspects, his father’s slap-dash habit of calling anyone even remotely Stiles’ age ‘son’. “We’ll head out after breakfast.”

The Sheriff begs off regretfully, citing lunch plans with Melissa, and Stiles makes a mental note to tease him mercilessly at a later date. He does, however, lend Derek an old swimsuit, a hideous green paisley monstrosity he hasn’t worn since the nineties. Stiles is sure Derek will look absolutely terrific in it.

“Did you tell your dad about Scott?” Derek asks, once they’ve turned onto the highway. About the panic attack, he doesn’t say, but Stiles hears it anyway.

“Yeah.” Stiles stretches his arm through the open window, turning his bandaged palm up to the sun. “Dr. Evans says it’s important to be honest with him about stuff like that, even if I think it’ll just worry him for no reason”

“I’d want to know,” Derek says mildly.

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yes, Stiles. If you were hurting, I’d want to know.”

Nothing on Earth could have stopped the absolutely genuine smile that spreads, delighted and unchecked, across Stiles’ face. That warm, full feeling is back, suffusing his chest, making his heart feel buoyant. Love, he thinks dazedly. That’s love.

“Look at us,” he says, elbowing Derek companionably in lieu of addressing this newfound emotional awareness. “Growing as people! Using our words and everything!”

“You’re an idiot,” Derek huffs, but he looks pleased even as he rolls his eyes.

Despite a forecast of showers later in the day, the sun is still shining as they pull off the boulevard and onto the concrete lot in front of the nursery. Stiles unfolds himself from the SUV, stretching hugely as he turns his face up towards the warmth of the sunlight. 

It amazes him how quickly he’s adapted to a diurnal lifestyle. Even before his possession, Stiles had functioned best at night; some of his favorite memories take place at the tender hour of four AM. When sleep had become an enemy, that had only increased his predilection towards nocturnal hours, often leading him to fall down Wikipedia rabbit-holes until the first soft rays of dawn filtered in through his bedroom window, only to then doze fitfully until inevitable dusk.

Now, he’s surprised himself by slipping easily into Derek’s routine. Early morning breakfasts, followed by hours out in the garden, broken up intermittently by iced tea breaks, or to devour a few chapters of whatever book he’s reading, or to nap in the shade as Derek wanders off to work on whatever project is currently at the top of his to-fix list. The long days spent working in the sun make it easy to fall asleep at night, muscles exhausted, brain mercifully quiet. Even his nightmares can’t seem to muster the energy to make an appearance.

“Ready?”

Stiles lets his arms fall back to his side, turning his smile in Derek’s direction. The werewolf waits patiently, perfectly at ease as he leans against the hood of the SUV, hands tucked into the pockets of his jeans. The light caresses his tanned skin, catches at his eyes, makes them glitter like precious stones. The corners of his perfect mouth twitch upwards, like he’s helpless against returning Stiles’ own smile. Stiles wants to melt into him.

“Ready.”

They take their time perusing the aisles of the nursery, bickering good-naturedly as they select plants from the wide range of flora, piling the pots carefully into the shopping cart they’d procured from the smiling old lady in the main building.

“That one’s you,” Stiles declares, pointing out a spiky bulbous purple bloom of allium.

“Why?” Derek groans, in his I’m-not-going-to-like-this-am-I voice.

“Because,” Stiles says, his voice wobbling as he attempts to contain his glee. “You have layers. Like an onion.”

Derek stops so abruptly that Stiles smacks into his shoulder.

“Did you just make a Shrek reference?” he demands. His eyebrows are broadcasting twelve distinct kinds of outrage. “About me?”

“Dude. Did you just get a Shrek reference? Wait! Where are you going? Come back!”

Stiles keeps bursting into intermittent fits of laughter for the next half hour, even when Derek threatens to throw him into the ornamental koi pond.

They decide to keep the first wave of plants relatively simple– zinnias, bee balm, two glorious, golden sunflowers, and a baker’s dozen of truly impressive dinner plate dahlias. Derek keeps poking at the bright, cheery blossoms when he thinks Stiles isn’t paying attention, his lips quirked in a crooked half-smile, his eyes a little glassy. Stiles shuffles up next to him when they get to the register, lets their hands brush as he flashes his dad’s plastic. Keeping his breath even and his eyes glued to the chatty elderly lady behind the counter, he hooks his pinky through Derek’s, squeezing ever so slightly. After a second’s hesitation, Derek squeezes back.

It only takes them a few minutes to load up the back of the car. Even with the back seats down and the pots set close together, it’s a tight fit. Stiles frets until Derek promises to drive as slow as the law permits, and is further reassured when Derek opens the sunroof, warm golden light spilling over the flowers. Even with the SUV traveling at a snail’s pace, Stiles contorts himself into a decidedly awkward position so that he can keep an eye on the plants as they make their way north.

Shasta Lake is one of the largest manmade reservoirs in the country; a deep, sprawling body of clear blue water broken up by intricately jutting inlets and mysterious, unpopulated islands. Derek steers the SUV down a dirt road, and then off down a rough track that he claims to remember from childhood, ignoring Stiles’ increasingly dubious noises as he navigates the uneven terrain. The last of Stiles’ complaints dissolve into a gasp when they finally break through the tree line. Derek slows to a stop at the edge of a small, sandy beach, throwing the SUV into park and raising a smug eyebrow at Stiles’ gobsmacked expression.

“Told you,” he says, displaying all the humility of a self-righteous toddler. Stiles swipes at his shoulder and misses completely, focused entirely on the vista before them.

“You did not.” Stiles breathes, staring openly and unashamed. “You said you used to come swimming here when you were a kid, not that you’ve been withholding heaven from me for years.”

The beach extends about twenty feet out from where they’ve parked, smooth pebbles leading to fine-grained sand at the water’s edge. And, oh, that water. The surface of the lake stretches out towards the horizon, an untroubled crystalline blue hemmed in only by the lush greenery of the far shore. Mount Shasta looms in the distance, white-capped and ancient, and somehow comforting to see.

“Did you know that when they started building the dam, there were still a few towns in this area?” Stiles asks as they move around the car, opening the trunk and the side doors, letting the breeze in to keep their nursery haul from wilting. “The government basically strong-armed the citizens into selling their property so that they could start flooding the area.”

“I’ve heard that before,” Derek says, rooting through the duffel bag they’d brought along for their towels and swimsuits. “Thought it was more of a local legend sort of thing.”

“Nah, it really happened. Whole towns, with saloons and hotels and mines and everything. Some people wouldn’t sell, refused to. Apparently, they stuck around until the water started rising.”

“Huh.” Derek pauses to stare out across the peaceful waters. The distant sound of laughter floats in from across the lake, coupled with the hum of faraway jet ski motors. “So, what, there’s just whole buildings down there somewhere?”

“Yeah.” Stiles snags his own swimsuit out of the bag, calling over his shoulder as he jogs around the side of the car. “The biggest town, Kennett, was officially submerged by 1944. A whole town, just sitting there under four hundred feet of water.

“That’s…creepy.”

Stiles snorts, shimmying out of his jeans and underwear and pulling on his swimming trucks, willing himself to think about spooky underwater towns and not the fact that Derek is on the other side of the car, presumably in a similar state of undress. It only kind of works.

“I’m decent, if you are,” Stiles announces, slinging his discarded clothes over the back of the passenger seat and trotting around to the front of the car when Derek gives him the go-ahead.

And, oh. Oh, god, the abs. Why on earth had he thought that this was a good idea?

Derek is busy folding his jeans to add to the neat pile he has stacked on the hood of the SUV, and Stiles can’t help but stare at the flex of his biceps, the swell and bunch of his shoulders as he scoops up the stack of clothes and drops them onto the driver’s seat. His dad’s swimming trunks are loose around Derek’s hips, but tight around the thigh, straining against the rippling muscle as he bends to pick up his towel.

“I’ll see ya in there!”

Stiles turns away before Derek can respond, and then takes off for the water at a run. He ignores the discomfort of the pebbles underfoot as the tell-tale heat of a blush spreads from his cheeks down to his chest. He hits the lake in moments, splashing noisily into the shallows. The chill of the water comes as a shock, although in hindsight he isn’t sure what he’d expected. His momentum has him plunged up to the knees before the cold fully registers, and when it does it pushes any and all PG-13 thoughts firmly out of his mind.

“Holy shit,” Stiles mumbles, hopping in place, wincing when the frigid water splashes up his thighs. “Holy shit.”

“It’s not that bad.”

Stiles turns to glare at Derek as he calmly walks into the water, showing a complete lack of reaction to the glacial temperature. He looks entirely in his element, bare chested and bearded, surrounded by blue skies and tall, rustling pines. Even with the ugly swimming trunks, he could easily pass for some sort of ancient pagan forest god.

“Shut up.” Stiles narrows his eyes as Derek meanders by, hardly flinching as the water passes his maximum-sensitivity (i.e. groinal) area. “You’re probably one of those people who says things like, ‘Just jump in!’ or, ‘It’s like ripping off a bandaid!’ You know, liars.”

In lieu of deigning this with a verbal response, Derek rolls his eyes so hard Stiles is surprised they don’t go flying out of his head, and then dives forward in a perfect arc. Stiles resolutely does not let out a shriek of outrage as drops of icy lake water splash up into his face.

Well, perhaps there’s a bit of shrieking.

“Show-off,” Stiles complains, as Derek resurfaces gracefully and strikes out for deeper water with a textbook backstroke. Grateful for the heat of the sun on his back and muttering to himself all the while, Stiles returns to the slow, excruciating process of inching his way into the lake. “Typical. You, of course, swim like a goddamn Olympian, of course you do. If there was any poetic justice in the world, you’d be hopeless at anything more complicated than a doggy paddle, but no.”

“Stiles, stop bitching and get in the goddamn water!”

“Alright, already!”  

Screwing his face up into a preemptive wince, Stiles takes a second to regret every decision he’s ever made, and then lurches headfirst into the rippling blue depths.

An immense silence overtakes him as the waters of the lake close over his head, the kind of hush only found underwater and in the best kind of libraries. It muffles the whisper of the breeze, the calling of the birds, the splash of Derek as he swims. Stiles kicks out, propelling himself forward with a clumsy breast stroke, willing his body to adjust to the shock of the cold. He cracks his eyes open the slightest bit, although making out anything concrete in the subaquatic murk is a lost cause. The silence is nice, he decides, even as his lungs begin to protest their lack of oxygen. It settles around him like a cloak, cradles him, blunts the edge of the chill.

Stiles stays submerged until his head starts to throb, and then lets himself drift up to break the surface, gasping in huge lungfuls of air as the world comes rushing back. Sunlight glints in the ripples he’s made, mirroring starbursts of light back onto his skin. He brushes his fingers through the reflection, sending the liquid light skittering and dancing along the water’s surface.

“Not as bad as you thought, right?”

Stiles turns, the tips of his toes just barely brushing the silty lake bed, to find Derek treading water a few feet away, watching him with open affection. Stiles loses his breath all over again.

“Shut it,” he says, once he feels capable of stringing a sentence together. “Some of us aren’t equipped with an internal lycanthropic combustion engine.”

“What would an external lycanthropic combustion engine look like?” Derek asks, all shit-eating curl of the lip as he drifts in Stiles’ direction, his powerful shoulders cutting smoothly through the water.

“Furry,” Stiles says promptly. “Obviously.”

With that, he smacks the flat of his palm onto the surface of the lake, sending a satisfying wave directly into Derek’s smug face. By the time the werewolf is finished sputtering, Stiles has dived back under, reveling in the way the water swallows all sound, even that of his own thoughts. He drags his fingers along the bottom of the lake, sending up clouds of sediment. He imagines the town of Kennett, four hundred feet underwater, an erstwhile hub of industry now cocooned in silence and velvety blue darkness. Turning slowly, he cracks open his eyes again, barely able to make out the outside world, shivering and bright as the surface of the lake is disrupted by the evidence of their movement.

When he comes up for air, Derek is startlingly close. Stiles expects something in the form of retaliation, but the werewolf seems content just to stay close to him, arms flung wide as he floats on his back, face turned towards the blue sky. Stiles mimics him, allows the lower half of his body to buoy up towards the surface, spreading his limbs for balance. The sunlight feels good, warm and gentle against his cool skin.

“Hey,” he says, after several moments of peaceful silence, “remember that time we almost drowned together?”

“Don’t remind me,” Derek groans, reaching out to flick water in Stiles’ direction. “That was not a shining moment of pride for me.”

“Hey, you did okay. You got paralyzed trying to push me to safety,” Stiles says, “and you hated me at the time, so you get, like, extra points.”

“I didn’t hate you.” There’s the sound of splashing as Derek rights himself so that he can look at Stiles properly. “I never hated you.”

“Oh, come on,” Stiles says, rolling his eyes. “I drove you nuts, there’s no shame in admitting that.”

“That wasn’t it,” Derek insists, floating close enough that Stiles has a full view of his face. His eyebrows are very earnest. “You were just–”

“Obnoxious?” Stiles grins, enjoying this attempt at sincerity tremendously.

“Challenging,” Derek corrects. “You challenged me all the time, called me out on my bullshit, even when you were terrified of me. I never hated you, Stiles, I just didn’t know what to do with you. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have given my life to keep you safe.”

“Oh.” Stiles blinks. Suddenly, Derek’s candor isn’t so funny. Sometimes, Stiles’ nightmares still carry the smell of chlorine, and in them Scott always arrives too late. “Well, I’m glad we didn’t die.”

“Yeah,” Derek says, and he sounds surprised by the force of his own conviction. “I’m glad we didn’t die, too.”

Stiles kicks himself upright, turning in the water so that they can talk face to face. The reflection of the water makes Derek’s eyes impossibly green. Like growing things, Stiles thinks. Like new leaves after a spring shower.

“Race you to the shallow end,” he says, waggling his eyebrows. Derek rolls his eyes, yet again.

“I’m not racing you anywhere, Stiles.”

“Hmm.” Stiles cocks his head, considering. “Sounds like something a loser would say.”

He’s off before the sentence is even finished, plunging into an awkward freestyle stroke, trying not to swallow water as he laughs at Derek’s undignified yelp. Even with his paltry head start, Derek catches up to him easily, moving smoothly through the water until Stiles reaches out and dunks his head under.

 Hey, he didn’t say it would be a fair race.

After that it’s pretty much open warfare. Derek snags his ankle and drags him back, which probably would have ended it if Stiles hadn’t grabbed onto his shoulder as he swam past, using it to propel himself forward. By the time they reach the shallows, they’ve completely devolved into a tussling match, like a couple of unsupervised kids.

Stiles’ feet hit ground first, and he stands with a whoop, crowing his victory to the shoreline. He turns back to Derek, breathless with exertion and laughter, and is hit with the full force of Derek laughing too, dark hair slicked away from his face, water caught in his eyelashes. His face is as open as Stiles has ever seen it, walls down, achingly soft and so content that Stiles’ heart lurches in his chest.

They’re so close that Stiles could touch him if he reaches out, and so he does, shoving a little at Derek’s shoulder before snagging his wrist, pulling him in. Despite the fact that nothing short of a tank could have moved Derek if he didn’t want to be moved, he seems helpless against Stiles’ grasp, water lapping against his waist as he drifts closer.

“Stiles,” he says, low and very soft, like a prayer.

They’re nearly chest to chest, now, and Derek’s grin has melted into something smaller, something private and tender. His eyes search Stiles’, and the trust Stiles finds in that gaze feels like a punch to the solar plexus. He leans across the meager distance, rests his forehead in the crook of Derek’s neck. His skin is almost feverishly hot against Stiles’ own, sending a shudder tripping up his spine.

“You’re here with me, right?” Stiles raises his free hand and knocks his knuckles against Derek’s chest, right over his heart. “I mean– I mean, here. Right? I’m not on my own in this?”

Derek takes a deep, shaky breath. For once, Stiles is glad he can’t see his face. Slowly, slowly, Derek’s hand covers his own, flattens it over his heart until Stiles can feel the beat of it under his palm, even through the now-soggy bandage.

“I’m here,” Derek murmurs. He sounds terrified, but very determined. His hand tightens around Stiles’. “I– it’s not just you.”

“Okay. Okay.” Relief makes Stiles boneless, and he slumps forward into Derek’s reassuring bulk. Derek braces him, takes his weight just as Stiles knew he would. “Good. That’s really, really good.”

“Whatever you want, Stiles.” Derek drags his hand across the planes of Stiles’ shoulder blades, the pads of his fingers startlingly soft considering the amount of yardwork they’ve been doing. “Whenever you want. I’m– I’ll be here.”

“Thank you,” Stiles breathes. For coming back, he doesn’t say, for giving me time. For doing all of the things you do on a daily basis, and for expecting nothing in return.

“You’re welcome,” Derek says, pressing the curve of his smile to Stiles’ temple, and Stiles just knows that he’s heard every unspoken word.

He’d expected the car ride back to Beacon Hills to be awkward, what with his general inability to keep his cool at the best of times, and Derek’s general inability to emote without pulling a muscle. Instead, it feels like something has given way between them, eased a tension Stiles hadn’t even been aware of carrying. The quiet moments between conversations are comfortable, even restful. Stiles can’t seem to stop smiling, even when they get back to the house and his dad hits him with a patently knowing look.

“We’ll plant everything tomorrow,” Stiles says later, standing in the upstairs hallway. This is generally where they part ways for the evening, Stiles to shower away the evidence of a day spent in the dirt, Derek to go for his evening run before turning in. He stifles a yawn. “I think it’s going to look good.”

“Yeah.”

Derek is close, radiating warmth as always. The hall light softens the angles of his face, casts the shadows of his long lashes across his cheeks. Hesitantly, he reaches out, lets the tips of his fingers trail down the column of Stiles’ throat. It feels like an intensely significant gesture, and Stiles shudders at the way his pulse jumps at the touch.

We haven’t even kissed, he thinks dazedly, leaning into the warmth of Derek’s hand.

“Good night, Stiles,” Derek says, barely more than whisper. He steps away, prolonging their contact as long as possible, the corners of his mouth ticking up when Stiles chases the press of his fingers. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Yeah,” Stiles sighs. “Good night, Derek.”

 

 12.

 

“Scott called again.”

Stiles leans back in the overstuffed paisley armchair, tugging at a loose thread on the knee of his jeans. He’ll probably have to downgrade these to gardening pants soon; the denim is nearly worn through. Across the room, Dr. Evans sits patiently in her own chair, her notebook in her lap. She raises an eyebrow when he doesn’t continue.

“Does it bother you, that he’s trying to get in touch?”

This is the fourth time Stiles has seen her. After their first session, which had basically consisted of Stiles hurrying to fill her in on the events of the post-lycanthropy years and then sitting back mulishly while she gently explained the symptoms of PTSD, they’ve agreed to approach things a little bit at a time. Bite-sized pieces, she had said. That way you don’t choke.

“No,” he says, reflexively, and then sighs, scowling as his own obtuseness. “I mean, I don’t know. Maybe.”

Dr. Evans taps the nib of her pen against her notes, an expression of perfectly neutrality on her face.

“From what you’ve told me, it sounds like you and Scott have been each other’s support systems for a very long time.”

“I guess,” Stiles mumbles, fiddling with the thread.

“I get the feeling that loyalty is very important to you.”

“It’s not loyalty,” Stiles protests helplessly. Loyalty suggests that there’s a choice. “Scott’s just– it’s Scott. I can’t remember a time when we didn’t need each other.”

Dr. Evans sits back, closing her notebook carefully. Stiles has noticed that she does this whenever he’s said something noteworthy, and he mentally scans his last sentence, trying to preemptively decipher the clue. Nothing strikes him as particularly worthy of consideration.

“Did you know,” Dr. Evans says conversationally, “that this is the third time you’ve used the word ‘need’ in regard to your relationship with Scott?”

“What?” Stiles blinks at her, hands stilling. “No. I mean, no, I didn’t realize.”

“Every time you’ve brought him up since you’ve been seeing me,” Dr. Evans confirms.

“Okay.” Stiles forces his voice to remain causal, but realizes too late that his stillness gives him away. “So, what?”

“You tell me.” Dr. Evans graces him with one of her gentle smiles, dark eyes unfathomable.

Groaning, Stiles scrubs his hands across his face. When he’d first started therapy, he hadn’t realized how much work it would be. He’d half hoped that the good doctor would be able to unload some secret psychological mumbo jumbo on him, and he’d walk out cured. Dr. Evans had been almost too ready to disabuse him of that notion.

“Okay,” he grumbles. “So, you’re saying that Scott and I are codependent. That’s not news to anybody. We’ve gone through everything together, even before he developed his little furry problem.”

“You obviously love each other,” Dr. Evans agrees, “but humor me. When was the last time you saw Scott outside of a sense of obligation? Not because you needed to, but because you wanted to?”

Stiles opens his mouth to reply, and then pauses. His mind races to find an example, any example, and is surprised to find none. He can picture several appropriate instances, but to his growing alarm he realizes that in all of them, his hair is still buzzed.

“I don’t know,” he admits, his stomach lurching uneasily. “I– I don’t know. God, not since Jackson left. Over a year ago. But, I mean, we see each other all the time.”

“Because you need to,” Dr. Evans points out, patient as the grave. “Stiles, has it ever occurred to you that the parameters of your relationship with Scott might be changing?”

“What, like he’s outgrowing me?” Stiles winces at the whine in his voice, the evidence of childish distress. His skin feels too tight, like nothing is fitting quite the way it’s supposed to.

“No,” Dr. Evans says, with a note of finality. “You two have the kind of bond that isn’t easily outgrown. But consider this: are you the same person you were when you and Scott first set the boundaries of your friendship?”

“What boundaries?” Stiles snorts, and then crosses his arms mutinously when Dr. Evans merely raises an eyebrow. “Fine. No, we’re not the same. He’s a werewolf now, and I recently killed a whole bunch of people, including the first love of his life.”

“You did not,” Dr. Evans states, placid but firm.

“Yes, I did.” Stiles gets to his feet, needing to pace, needing to expend some of this nervous energy. Dr. Evans watches as he stalks back and forth, and says nothing. “You weren’t there, I was. I remember everything.”

“And did you want to hurt any of those people? Your father’s deputies? Did you want to kill Allison?”

No!”

The word is half shout, half sob. Stiles scrubs his hand across his burning eyes, wiping away traitor tears. His whole body feels like a live wire, every nerve oversensitive and painful. Slowly, he counts his fingers, trying to get his breathing under control. Dr. Evans looks on, impassive.

“If you didn’t want to kill her, why didn’t you stop it?”        

“I couldn’t.” Stiles chokes on the words, fighting for composure. “I tried, but I– I couldn’t do anything.”

The notebook is set on the side table, the pen discarded. Dr. Evans leans forward, hands clasped loosely at her knees, and allows her expression to relax into one of genuine compassion. She finds Stiles’ eyes and holds them with her own.

“There are times,” she says gravely, “when blaming ourselves is easier than admitting how little control we have. We want to be responsible, because responsibility at least means that we had a choice, even if it makes us the bad guy. Punishing yourself is easy, Stiles. Forgiving yourself for being helpless is not.”

Stiles isn’t sure if he actually gives his body the command to collapse back into the paisley armchair, but his knees give out all the same. He’s abstractly aware of the fact that there are tears running down his cheeks, but he can’t be bothered to wipe them away. He feels raw, cracked open, soft underbelly exposed. Inexplicably, he also feels lighter.

“I don’t know how,” he whispers. Let me in, let me in, let me in. For the first time, the Nogitsune’s voice sounds nothing like his own. “I don’t know where to start.”

“You don’t have to know, right now,” Dr. Evans says. A smile inches its way across her face, honest and reassuring. “You just have to do what you can. The things you’ve seen, the trauma you’ve experienced– healing from that will take time. And that goes for healing your relationship with Scott, too.”

“Patience is not one of my virtues,” Stiles mutters, offering his own watery smile. He wipes his face with the sleeve of his shirt, one of Derek’s Henley’s that he’d stolen out of the dirty laundry hamper that morning– partly because of its softness and the way it smelled like Derek, and partly because of the way Derek’s eyes had flashed when Stiles had joined him in the kitchen, his nostrils flaring subtly as he moved out of Stiles’ path to the coffee pot.

“Who needs patience?” Dr. Evans shrugs, unconcerned. “What you’re going to need is tenacity, and I have feeling you’ve got that in spades.”

 

13.

 

The summer storm that had been threatening to break all week is finally making its grand appearance as Stiles scuttles down the front steps of Dr. Evans’ building. He turns his face up to the rumbling grey clouds, setting off for his car at a jog and letting the rain slough off his cheeks, cool water tempering the heat in his skin. By the time he makes it to the driver’s seat, the evidence of his tears has long been washed away.

It’s nearing 2:00 PM as he stumbles into the foyer, toeing off his sodden sneakers and leaving them to dry in the hallway. He finds Derek in the kitchen, shoulder-deep in the fridge as he puts away the last of the week’s groceries. The werewolf turns when Stiles enters the room, smiling a soft hello, raising an amused eyebrow at the small puddle of rainwater gathering at Stiles’ feet. He looks so good, standing there in the warm light, barefoot and familiar.  Some of the turmoil in Stiles’ heart recedes at the sight of him.

“I love grocery day,” Stiles says, shrugging out of his damp hoodie and scrubbing a hand through his rain-soaked hair. “Whatcha got over there? I’m starving.”

“You’re always starving,” Derek retorts, but he’s smiling as he says it. He reaches into one of the paper grocery bags, pulls out a bag of Stiles’ favorite sourdough pretzels, and tosses it over. “Give me five minutes, and I’ll whip up some lunch.”

Stiles tears into the bag, overstuffing his mouth with beautifully salted carbohydrates as he wanders over to the kitchen window. He snags a dishtowel on his way past the cutlery drawer, dragging the terrycloth over his dripping mop of hair. The rain taps gently against the glass, like a polite neighbor trying to get someone’s attention.

Through the window, the storm has tinted the world a light blue-gray, popping the bright yellow of the sunflowers and making the magenta in the dahlias’ petals vibrate with saturation. The backyard looks lush and green, the rain whispering as it hits the earth, wind rustling the leaves of the oak and causing a cascade of water to shiver to the ground. Behind him, there comes the quiet rustle of Derek emptying the last of the groceries into the fridge. Everything feels cool and quiet and safe.

“What’s on your docket for the rest of the day?” Stiles asks, turning away from the window. Derek pauses in the act of retrieving a loaf of whole grain bread and some cold cuts, and glances up in Stiles’ direction.

“Didn’t really have a plan,” he admits. He finishes pulling out the rest of the sandwich fixings. “I got the gutters cleaned out before I went grocery shopping.”

“Hmm.” Stiles meanders back to the counter, hooks his chin over Derek’s shoulder to watch the werewolf assemble their lunch. Derek barely misses a beat, just keeps layering lettuce and turkey and cheddar, hands moving smooth and capable. The constant heat that he emanates feels delicious against Stiles’ rain-chilled skin, and he has to stop himself from burrowing closer. “Wanna watch a dumb movie with me?”

He watches a dimple appear in the bearded cheek closest to his line of sight, his heart seizing at the small, happy smile tugging at Derek’s lips.

“I could do that,” Derek says.

They watch Holes, because it’s a classic, and because Stiles identifies strongly with Madame Zeroni’s spite. He curls up next to Derek on the couch, close enough to leech off his body heat without smothering him, and tries not to draw any parallels between Derek and Sam the Onion Man, the way he seems determined to fix every minor problem around the Stilinski house. For his part, Derek seems to enjoy the movie, attention focused on the screen even as he plows through his double order of turkey and cheese sandwiches.

The rain picks up, an ambient hush that fills the world, lulling Stiles into a state of drowsy half-consciousness. Eyelids drooping, he lets his head fall to rest on Derek’s shoulder.

“Wake me if I drool on you,” he mumbles, already spiraling down towards sleep. He barely hears Derek’s soft assent, doesn’t register his plate being rescued from its precarious perch in his lap. By the time Derek manages to unfold the old afghan that lays across the back of the couch and drape it across Stiles’ shoulders, Stiles is snoring softly, his face buried into the crook of Derek’s armpit.

Safe.

Stiles wakes two hours later with his nose mashed inelegantly against Derek’s neck, the DVD menu replaying over and over on the forgotten TV screen. He groans and tries to nuzzle closer, chasing the quickly fleeing dregs of sleep. It takes him a moment to notice that Derek’s arms have tightened stiffly around him.

“Stiles.”

Derek’s voice is calm, controlled, but there’s an undeniable tension there, and it occurs to Stiles to wonder what had roused him in the first place. He lifts his head to stare into Derek’s carefully blank face, taking gleeful note of his sleep-mussed hair and the impression of the couch cushion on his cheek. Then, he follows Derek’s gaze across the room to the living room door, to where Scott is standing with an absolutely gobsmacked expression on his face.

“Oh.”

He wonders at the picture that he and Derek must make. They’d shifted at some point during their nap, curling around each other like aspiring contortionists, limbs entwined in an objectively intimate tangle. Derek’s hand had managed to wedge under Stiles’ shirt, and the hot press of his palm feels like a brand against Stiles’ lower back, sandwiched now between the couch cushions and the reassuring bulwark of his own body.

Scott makes a noise that’s more squawk than word.

“I should…go,” Derek says, but he looks to Stiles for assent before he begins the process of untangling their bodies, like he’ll go right back to ignoring Scott’s existence if Stiles asks him to. “Let you two talk.”

“Right.” Stiles sighs, and allows Derek to manhandle him onto his own separate area of couch. Before the werewolf can make himself scarce, however, Stiles reaches out and rests his palm against the hollow of Derek’s throat, where Derek had touched him earlier that week, and against which his own face had been so recently pressed. Derek stills, eyes widening, breath catching ever-so-slightly.

“Think about what you want for dinner,” Stiles says, ignoring Scott’s strangled gasp. He brushes his thumb against Derek’s pulse point, and marvels at the way it jumps at his touch. “If it’s still raining, it might be a mac and cheese kind of day.”

As far as declarations of intent go, it’s probably one of the subtlest that Stiles has ever made. To do it in front of Scott, however, feels like a definitive line drawn in the sand. Judging from the slant of his eyebrows and the bright red flush that spreads from his ears to his glorious cheekbones, Derek hadn’t been expecting it. He nods, solemnly, and rests his hand against Stiles’ own, squeezing Stiles’ fingers almost imperceptibly against the vulnerable column of his throat.

Again, Stiles feels as though he’s taken part in something remarkably significant, and he allows himself to feel humbled by it even as he privately recognizes that he has absolutely no idea what it means.

“Call if you need me,” Derek murmurs, and then stands, walking out of the room without sparing Scott a second glance.

In lieu of starting the inevitable conversation, Stiles stretches, his spine popping as he works out the kinks in his neck. Only once the silence has reached a level of supreme discomfort does he allow himself to meet Scott’s eyes. His friend’s face looks like the human equivalent of a bluescreen.

“What can I do for you, Scott?” Stiles asks, with the vague hope that if he keeps his tone light and casual, Scott will somehow convince himself that he’s hallucinated the last few minutes. He’s still feeling a little raw from his session with Dr. Evans, and he isn’t sure he can handle an outright confrontation at the moment.

“Dude, what the hell,” Scott exclaims, and Stiles sighs, slumping back against the couch cushions. So much for hope. “Since when are you and Derek freakin’ Hale so– so– that!”

Scott flaps his hands to encompass the entire living room, words apparently failing him. The cozy, sleepy atmosphere of the room, which had mostly fled with Derek, is now completely gone. Stiles sets his jaw and tries not to glare.

“That’s kinda none of your business, bro,” he says matter-of-factly, unable to keep the edge out of his voice. “Look, why are you here? Who died? I guarantee you it wasn’t my fault this time.”

The words fly out automatically, unthinkingly, and Stiles immediately regrets them. Scott flinches, guilt settling into the furrow of his brow.

“I just came to talk,” he says, raising his palms in supplication. “I feel really bad about last time, and you haven’t been returning my calls.”

“Yeah, well,” Stiles mutters, noncommittal. “I don’t know if I’m ready to talk to you, yet.

Outside, the wind howls mournfully down the residential block. Stiles wraps his arms around his waist, a barrier against Scott and the maelstrom of his own emotions. Silence flourishes between them for a long moment, until Scott lets out a harsh breath, breaking the spell.

 “Stiles, I know fucked up, okay? I just–,” Scott drops his head into his hands, pulls at the dark mop of his hair, “I just don’t know what I’m doing, dude. And I miss her.”

“What, you think I don’t?” Suddenly, Stiles is angry, angrier than he’s ever been with Scott before. He lurches upright, the force of his rage propelling him several feet across the living room until he and Scott are face to face. “Allison was my friend. I know that was never as important as your whole star-crossed lovers deal, but it was important to me. She was important to me. How do you think I feel, knowing that it’s my fault she’s dead? That if I had just been a little stronger, fought a little harder–,”

Stiles swallows the rest of his words, forcing himself to breathe slow and deep, refusing to be overwhelmed by panic again. He remembers what Dr. Evans had said, about punishment being easy, and unclenches his fists. Scott is staring at him now, face pale, eyes wide with shock.

“I didn’t–,” he begins, and then stops, shamefaced.

“You didn’t even think about it,” Stiles finishes for him. The anger is gone now, a bone-deep weariness rushing in to replace it. “Yeah, I know.”

They stand in silence, staring at each other like strangers.

“I’m sorry,” Scott says finally, and for the first time, it sounds like he means it. The genuine honesty of the apology loosens something in Stiles’ chest. “I’ve been an asshole.”

“Yeah, you have.” Stiles tries for a wan smile, although he has a feeling it reads more as a grimace. “I stabbed you in the stomach, though. It’s kind of understandable, if you think about it from that perspective.”

“No, it isn’t.” Scott’s jaw sets, the way it always does when he’s decided to dig his heels in over something. “That wasn’t you, not really. I know that, it’s just– hard, sometimes, to keep things separate in my head. I’ve been really unfair, to you and to Derek.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about Derek.” Stiles snorts. “He’s made his peace over the fact that you two are never going to exchange friendship bracelets.”

“Still, I should apologize to him.” Scott shifts on his feet, looking uncomfortable. “I may have implied that he was only getting close to you to get on my good side.”

Stiles surprises both of them by laughing, a full, hearty belly laugh borne of honest-to-god amusement.

“Oh, Scotty,” he gasps, fanning himself with one hand, trying to get a grip. “I’m truly surprised that you still have all your teeth.”

“Yeah.” Scott grins sheepishly. “He got kind of…intense about that.”          

“I’m so not surprised.”

“So, like…” Scott hesitates, looking like he’s caught halfway between extreme discomfiture and the urge to waggle his eyebrows, “…are you guys, like…a thing?”

“You know, this is not at all how I expected this conversation to go.” Stiles dismisses the question with an airy wave of his fingers. “Look, do you want to, like, press pause on the revelations for today? Emotional growth only goes so far before I need another nap.”

“Okay,” Scott agrees, nodding eagerly. “We can do something else. Whatever you want. I mean, if you want.”

He looks at Stiles with guileless, undisguised hope in his eyes. It feels like an olive branch, like they might actually have a chance at bridging the chasm that had begun to open between them even before they put Allison in the ground.

“What I want,” Stiles begins, “right now, more than anything, is a glass of water.”

Scott blinks, dimming slightly.

“Oh,” he says, rubbing self-consciously at the back of his head. “Yeah, totally.”

“Then,” Stiles adds, clapping Scott on the shoulder as he makes for the kitchen, “Mario Kart. Okay?”

“Oh!” Scott falls into step beside him, grinning his blinding grin. “Yeah, totally.”

They play video games for two hours straight, and Stiles wins almost every round. He suspects Scott of letting him win some of the time, the way he’d used to after he’d kissed Lydia back in sophomore year, but that’s okay. And when Scott asks, hesitantly, if he can stay for dinner, that’s okay, too.  

Stiles whips up a quick-baked mac and cheese with a side of roasted Brussels sprouts, and Derek makes his way downstairs just as the Sheriff walks in. Convenient, Stiles thinks, and crosses his eyes at him. Derek blinks back mildly, and starts setting the table.

“Scott,” the Sheriff says, nodding a greeting. He takes in the traditionally banned mac and cheese and then meets Stiles’ gaze, raising his eyebrows questioningly. “Boys.”

“Take a seat, pops,” Stiles says grimly, thunking the casserole dish down onto a trivet. “We’re having dinner.”

“I see that.” The Sheriff seems to be fighting down a grin, untroubled by the distinctly awkward atmosphere surrounding the two werewolves. “Mac and cheese kinda day, huh?”

“Don’t get used to it,” Stiles grumbles, dividing the Brussels sprouts between the four plates that Derek sets out for him. “Wash your filthy crime-fighting hands and take a seat.”

Dinner is a relatively easy-going affair, in that the food is obediently eaten under Stiles’ hawk-like gaze and nobody punches anybody else in the face. Derek and Scott manage to get through the entire meal without saying a word to each other, mainly by aiming all of their questions and comments directly at the Stilinskis. It isn’t…nice, exactly, but it’s a place to start.

The Sheriff heads up to his room once the table is cleared, ruffling Stiles’ hair as he makes his way to the stairs, pausing to clap both Derek and Scott on the shoulder as he passes them.

“I should head back,” Scott says, as Derek stands to help Stiles with the dishes. “I told my mom I’d pick up some groceries on the way home.”

“Say hi from me.” Stiles grins, a hint of wickedness dispelling some of his lingering discomfort. “Tell her I expect her to watch my dad’s diet on these little dates of theirs we’re not supposed to know about.”

“Dude, gross,” Scott groans, but he still holds his arms out for a hug, and Stiles steps into his embrace easily enough. They hold each other for a while, recalibrating, and when they finally break apart, Stiles feels something inside of him slide back into place. Scott beams at him, misty-eyed, and then surprises him by turning to face an impassive Derek.

“I shouldn’t have said what I said to you,” Scott declares, back straight as he meets Derek’s gaze head-on. “I’ve treated you like garbage, because it was easier than accepting that the world isn’t as black and white as I thought it was.”

“You don’t have to–” Derek begins, cutting a look in Stiles’ direction, a hint of panic breaking through his neutral mask in the face of Scott’s earnestness.

“Yeah, dude, I kinda do.” Scott lifts his chin resolutely. “I’m sorry, Derek. I should have apologized to you a long time ago, and it was selfish of me to wait this long.”

“I…” Derek looks about two seconds away from making a break for the back door, arms folded across his chest. Stiles has to bite down on a grin as Derek shifts on his feet, weighing his response. “Uh, thanks. Thank you, Scott. I appreciate the apology.”

It’s not “I forgive you,” but Scott lights up all the same, and to Stiles’ delight he actually darts forward and wraps his arms around Derek in a brief, but well-meaning hug.

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” Scott informs Stiles as he pulls away, slapping a thoroughly startled Derek on the shoulder. “Maybe we can go to a movie or something this week, if you guys are up to it.”

“Sure,” Stiles says, keeping the amusement out of his voice with a herculean effort. Derek is wearing the same exact expression that Mrs. Henderson’s cat had, the time a prepubescent Stiles had attempted to give it a bubble bath. “Talk to you tomorrow, Scotty.”

Stiles manages to wait until he hears the front door slam before he doubles over, shoulders trembling with silent laughter. One glance at Derek’s expression only compounds the problem, and he braces himself against the kitchen counter, wheezing.

“Your face,” he gasps, between bouts of barely restrained hysteria. “Oh my god, your face.”

“Shut up,” Derek grumbles, still looking like he’s just been goosed. After a moment, however, he starts to laugh, too, wryly scrubbing at the back of his neck. “I wasn’t expecting that.”

“You and me both, buddy,” Stiles says, wiping his streaming eyes with the sleeve of his flannel. “That’s Scott for ya.”

“It’s good that you two are talking again,” Derek says. “You smell better. Happier, I mean.”

“Oh?” Stiles grins at him, waggles his eyebrows. “Are you telling me I’ve smelled bad this whole time?”

Stiles isn’t sure what he expects, but Derek’s face flushing a bright, beet red sure as hell wasn’t even on the list. He gapes as Derek turns to the sink, hiding his face even as his crimson ears betray him.

“That’s not what I said,” the werewolf mutters.

Water patters into the sink basin as Derek turns on the tap, busying himself with the dishes. Stiles watches him fuss for a moment, his own cheeks burning, an irresistible smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

“I smell good, huh?” he hazards, shuffling over until he edges into Derek’s personal space. Steam from the hot water wafts up in lazy curls, not quite opaque enough to obscure Derek’s pained expression. “C’mon, you can tell me. This is a safe space.”

The glare he receives in response is such a patently classic Derek Hale special that Stiles loses it all over again, leaning his weight into Derek’s shoulder as he laughs, and laughs, and laughs.

 

14.

 

The garden flourishes over the next few weeks; the days of summer rain have past, and its effects are lasting. The dahlias keep blossoming beautifully, and Derek takes to lounging next to their patch of the flower bed whenever he has a free moment. Once, Stiles accidentally catches him speaking to the blooms in a low voice, his eyes closed as he cranes his face to the sun, like a growing thing himself.

They still spend hours weeding, but they’ve also started planning out a plot for a sedum garden, and Stiles gets a delicious little shiver of pleasure every time Derek mentions something about the next year’s growing season. It’s absurdly easy to imagine himself and Derek in ten, twenty years, puttering around some future yard and bickering about brands of fertilizer.

Therapy continues to be difficult, and he continues to feel a little lighter after each session. Dr. Evans suggests that the garden is a metaphor for his mental health, and Stiles relays this to Derek, who pauses in the act of digging holes for a row of soft pink canna lily, brow furrowing as he takes this into consideration.

“She’s probably right,” he concedes, staring out across the newly planted calliopsis, small yellow faces turning happily to catch the late afternoon sunlight. “But I think there’s a lot to be said for helping something take root.”

Derek returns to his task, shoulders flexing as he breaks through the sod with the edge of his shovel. He’s opted to forgo a shirt today, and Stiles takes a second to appreciate the power of his body, the absolutely undeniable life of him. Derek is a study in technicolor, surrounded by a wealth of bright, beautiful things, and not an iota out of place in their company. There are still moments when the world feels as intangible and unreal to Stiles as it did that night in Safeway all those weeks ago, moments where Stiles feels like a ghost in his own life. It helps, during those bad moments, to remember Derek like this: the earthy, natural smell of his sweat, the coiled strength of his torso, the light in his eyes as he listens to Stiles ramble on.

His reality is irrefutable, even to Stiles’ most persistent demons.

“I want you to take root here.”

The words are out before Stiles can consider them, but after a moment of inspection, he finds them to be too honest to merit any real embarrassment. He leans against his own shovel, sweat sticking his t-shirt to his sides, soil under his fingernails and in the creases on his palms, and he meets Derek’s startled stare. He takes a deep, steadying breath, as unafraid as he knows how to be.

“I’m in love with you,” he says, and even as his voice wobbles, he knows that his heartbeat stays true. “I think you probably know that, but it’s worth saying out loud. You deserve to have it said to you.”

There’s a moment of perfect silence as even the wind holds its breath, and then a thump as Derek’s shovel hits the ground.

“Careful,” Stiles admonishes, crouching down to check on the delicate petals of the nearest canna lily. “You almost beheaded her.”

He nudges the shovel away from the plant bed, and then smiles in relief when the flower proves to be whole and unbroken.

“Stiles.”

“Hm?” Stiles looks up, and his breath hitches a little at the picture Derek makes, golden sunlight catching in his hair and beard, glittering through his green eyes. Forest god, Stiles thinks, not for the first time. Sucellus with a shovel.

“You–” Derek begins, and then breaks off, hauling Stiles up to his feet by the sweat-dampened collar of his tee. “God, you’re so–”

Stiles braces himself against Derek’s shoulders, slightly off balance at his sudden elevation, and then swallows a pleased little moan when Derek buries his face in tender hollow of his throat. Strong arms wrap around his torso, pulling him flush against the jut and curve of Derek’s body. After a moment’s hesitation, he lets his hands go where they please, burying one in the thick mane of Derek’s hair, and wrapping the other firmly around the back of his neck.

“Is this a good hug?” Stiles says, only half joking. “It feels like a good hug, but I think I need you to talk me through it.”

“Give me– give me a minute,” Derek whispers, and Stiles is startled by how wrecked he sounds. There’s the delicate pinprick of claws against his ribs, and with a dawning sense of surprise, Stiles realizes that Derek is struggling not to shift.

“Hey,” he says, softer than he can ever remember being. He cards his fingers through Derek’s hair, unbothered by the sweat and the dirt. “It’s okay. You don’t have to say anything. If it’s too much, it’s too much.”

“It’s not that.” Derek finally, finally lifts his head, and his eyes are wet and over-bright. “It’s just– it’s you, Stiles. It’s always been you. You’re the only thing that’s felt like home in years.” 

The immensity of that confession hits Stiles like a freight train.

“Oh,” he says. He worries his heart might burst. “Can I kiss you, now?”

Derek tastes like lemonade and salt, and he opens to Stiles like a flower. His sheer presence overwhelms all of Stiles’ senses; the green, earthy scent of him, the warmth of his body, the helpless little sound he makes when Stiles catches his lower lip between his teeth and, ever so gently, bites down. When they pull apart to breathe, they stay close, sharing the same air, and once again Stiles is struck by the all-encompassing beauty of him, the way it shines out of the core of his being and transforms everything he does into art.

“I love you,” he says, because he’d meant what he said.

“I love you, too,” Derek whispers, resting his forehead against Stiles’. His hands are shaking. “God, Stiles, you have no idea.”

They make slow progress from the yard to Stiles’ bedroom, partially because Stiles keeps tripping on the scenery, and partially because Derek keeps catching him, pulling him close, burying his face in the curve of Stiles’ neck and taking deep, steadying breaths.

“We don’t have to do anything,” Derek murmurs when they hit the top of the stairs, eyes slightly unfocused as Stiles presses him back against the wall, hands fisted in his glorious hair. “I don’t want you to feel like you have to– to rush, or, or, do anything you’re uncomfortable with.”

“You’re rambling,” Stiles says, grinning at this new change in their dynamic, and then leans forward to bite at the flexing tendon in Derek’s throat, relishing the soft whimper that escapes Derek’s parted lips. “Nothing could keep me from this, as long as you want it.”

“I want you, Stiles,” Derek says, a little breathless, but sure. He pulls away so that Stiles can see his eyes, that familiar sea of kaleidoscopic green and gold. “I want to wake up with you every day, and work in the garden with you, and, yes,” here he tugs at Stiles’ hips, bringing them into delicious, torturously hot contact with his own, “I want this.”

“Okay. Good, that’s– great. Terrific, actually,” Stiles gabbles, well aware that he’s lost the plot somewhat. “Do that again.”

They take their time. They’ve been building up to this point for what feels like weeks, months, possibly the entire time they've known each other. The bed frame creaks as they fall into it together, unaccustomed to supporting the weight of two bodies. There’s a hush in the house, a cocoon of silence broken only by their breathing and the rustle of discarded clothing as they undress, and it’s– familiar, somehow, the way they move together, the inevitability of their bodies intertwining.

“This is exactly right,” Stiles gasps, caging Derek’s head between his arms and kissing him senseless. A hot spark of want throbs through him as Derek rolls their hips together, their cocks sliding in tandem. “You are so good, Derek.”

“Shut up.” Derek hides his face in Stiles’ chest, drags his sharpened canines ever-so-gently across his collar bone. Once again, his blushing ears give him away. Stiles wonders if there will ever come a day when he isn’t completely, hopelessly charmed by that.

“Hey, no,” Stiles protests, and snags one of Derek’s wandering hands, brings it up to rest against his pulse point. “The seal is broken, buddy. I already said the scary part, I’m not going to edit myself now.”

Derek blinks up at him, so open and unsure that Stiles’ heart aches with it. He backs off a little, easing himself down until they lay facing each other, limbs intertwined. Derek is still looking at him like he can’t quite believe any of this is happening, like Stiles is going to disappear if he blinks or takes a miscalculated breath. Stiles cups the werewolf’s wonderful face in both hands and waits, because he of all people knows what it feels like to question things that feels too good to be true. When Derek does speak, his words are the soft, low hush of a secret.

“I didn’t know it could be like this.” He turns his face so he can nose at the calloused skin of Stiles’ palm.  “That I could be like this. Easy. Safe.”

“Yeah.” The word catches in Stiles’ throat, comes out rough with emotion. “Yes. I know what you mean.”

Derek presses his lips to the delicate skin of his wrist, once, twice, and the tenderness of the gesture has Stiles blinking back tears. He watches, hypnotized, as Derek closes the distance between them, gathers Stiles against the warmth of his body, captures his lips again in a searing kiss. A needy whine escapes him as Derek slips his tongue into his mouth, and he wraps his arms around Derek’s back, trying to get impossibly closer. He rolls his hips thoughtlessly, needing the friction, and savoring the way Derek shudders in his arms in response. He chases that sensation again, breath quickening as desire coils low and hot in his belly, the hard length of Derek’s cock sliding flush against his own.

“Let me,” Derek murmurs, and slips a hand between them.

“Christ.” Stiles actually whimpers when Derek takes them both in hand, thrusting involuntarily into the tight circle of his fist. The drag of Derek’s cockhead against his own sends a skittering of sparks up his spine, tightening the coil of concupiscence smoldering in his chest. “Derek. I’m not gonna last.”

“Yeah.” Derek pants the word against the curve of Stiles’ neck, teasing at the tender flesh with his tongue and teeth. He tightens his grip mercilessly, gives them a rhythm, a sinuous roll of their bodies that leaves Stiles gasping. It’s fast and dirty and there’s precome sticking to Stiles’ belly, and it’s all so perfect that he feels like he could weep. He covers Derek’s hand with his own, basks in the way the werewolf’s breath stutters at the added pressure.

“I used to daydream about this,” Stiles pants, nuzzling at the sensitive patch of skin behind Derek’s ear, gratified to hear the slow tearing of fabric as Derek claws through the sheets. “Making you feel good.”

“God, Stiles,” Derek growls, and the wolf in his voice sends such a strong spike of need through Stiles’ body that he nearly loses it. “You smell…”

Derek lets the sentence die, mouthing a burning trail across Stiles’ chest. Stiles has never been so turned on in his life.

“Mine,” he murmurs, finally. “You smell like mine.”

The coil unwinds all at once, and Stiles comes with Derek’s name on his lips.

His release hits him hard. He spasms, the waves of pleasure crashing through him as he bucks helplessly into Derek’s fist, the slide of their cocks now slick with come. His hands scrabble for purchase along the broad expanse of Derek’s shoulders and he watches, awestruck, through a post-orgasmic haze as Derek curses softly and follows him over the edge. They lay together through the aftershocks, panting, waiting for the slow return of their cognitive functions.

“Messy,” Stiles chuckles, once he regains the ability to speak. Derek hums contentedly and drags his fingers through the come striped across Stiles’ abdomen, a blissed-out expression on his wonderful face. “Oh, boy, you’re into that, huh?”

“Shut up,” Derek murmurs absently, nuzzling at one of the purpling hickies he’d left at the crook of Stiles’ neck.

“You love me,” Stiles says, a truly enormous grin spreading across his face. “You’re, like, obligated to listen to me now.”

“Don’t hold your breath,” Derek retorts, but there’s an answering grin tugging at his lips.

Eventually, they make their way out of bed and down the hall to the bathroom. When they emerge from the shower, clean and pink and freshly sated, the sun is starting its descent into evening. Derek makes chicken and vegetable stir fry, plates it over steaming, fragrant cous cous, and they curl up together on the couch to watch Parks and Recreation. As Stiles watches Derek commiserate with Ron Swanson between bites of stir fry, he thinks that perhaps, just maybe, everything might be okay after all.

 

15.

 

“No. No, absolutely not.” Stiles snatches the steaks out of Derek’s hands and drops them back onto the refrigerated shelf of the meat aisle, using shooing motions to usher his boyfriend away from the offending cholesterol traps. “Under no circumstances.”

“Stiles, it’s a party,” Derek protests, even as he lets himself be kowtowed down the aisle. “It’s okay for him to cheat a little at his only son’s graduation party.”

“Under no circumstances,” Stiles insists piously. “We were gone for ages, and I don’t care what anybody says, Melissa is way too lenient on him.”

Derek sighs long-sufferingly, but he’s smiling as he pulls Stiles into the circle of his arms, stealing a chaste kiss. Stiles leans into him, the way he always does, slipping his hands into the back pockets of Derek’s jeans. Derek slides an arm around his waist, presses a soft kiss to the corner of his mouth.

“It was hardly ages,” he reasons, his thumb rubbing distractingly soothing circles on Stiles’ hip. “Stanford was only five hours away. We were here every other weekend, not to mention all your breaks.”

“Silence, traitor,” Stiles grumbles, but allows himself to be drawn into another kiss, this one decidedly less chaste. He grins into Derek’s mouth, tugging him closer by the lapels of his jacket. “We just got back, stop debauching me in the freezer section.”

Derek pulls away, chuckling as Stiles snags one of his hands with his own, tangling their fingers together. There’s dirt under their nails, evidence of the hours they’ve spent weeding the small patch of yard out back of the house they’ve recently started renting. It’s only a few minutes from Stiles’ childhood home, walking distance from his father and their first garden, still as resplendent as ever. Stiles figures he owes his dad a few months’ worth of dinners to make up for the stringent weeding rota he’d left behind when he’d taken off for college, Derek by his side.

He's still thinking about tonight’s dinner when he turns the corner of the aisle and runs headlong into a smaller figure. Produce scatters across the floor as the woman’s shopping basket is knocked out her hands, and Derek’s bracing grip on his shoulder is the only thing that keeps Stiles upright.

“Christ, I’m so sorry,” Stiles says, steadying the woman as she reels back. “Are you okay? I–”

A pair of strangely familiar brown eyes stare up at him from under a mass of dark curls, and with a start, Stiles realizes that he knows her. It’s been over four years, but he’s never forgotten the night that he and Derek found each other again. The memory is seared into his mind, a simultaneous reminder of the lowest point of his life, and the moment it all started to turn around. He’s replayed through it so many times that it’s taken on the proportions of a fiction, and yet here’s the evidence, blinking up at him in surprise.

By some strange twist of fate, he’s managed to run directly into Hannah’s mother.

“Uh, hi,” he says, before realizing that the odds of her remembering him are slim at best. “Sorry, I should have been paying attention.”

“Stiles?” Hannah’s mom– Virginia? He thinks her name might have been Virginia– blinks up at him, eyes widening. “It’s Stiles, right? And Derek!”

“Yes?” Stiles gapes at her, thrown. Beside him, Derek is offering Virginia his hand to shake, smiling warmly. “You remember me?”

Virginia turns a dazzling smile on him, cheeks pinking,

“Of course, we do,” she says. “You two were all Hannah talked about for weeks.”

And lo and behold, peeking around her mother’s back, is a small, but familiar face, slow recognition dawning in brown eyes so like her mother’s.

“Hannah, you remember Derek and Stiles, right?” Virginia beams, stepping aside to showcase her daughter, who scuffs her sneaker shyly against the linoleum floor tiling. Hannah has grown like a weed in the four and a half years since they’d reunited her with her mother, her mess of curls now wrangled into two neat braids, hands shoved into the pockets of her Adventure Time hoodie.

“Hi,” she mumbles. She looks like she wishes the floor would open up and swallow her whole, a feeling Stiles distinctly remembers from being her age.

“You two were her heroes,” Virginia continues, smoothing her hand affectionately across Hannah’s shoulders, grinning wickedly at her daughter’s mortified, “Moooom!”

“Well, it’s very nice to see you again,” Derek says earnestly, holding out a hand for Hannah to shake. She goes beet red, but takes his hand, shaking it gravely. It’s adorable.

They chat easily with Virginia about nothing much as they help her reassemble her groceries, and after a few minutes, they say their goodbyes. Virginia thanks them once more, and Stiles waves it away with a laugh.

“I’m sure we’ll run into each other again,” he says, “now that we’re back in town for good. And if you ever want to remodel your house, Derek comes highly referenced.”

“Stiles,” Derek protests, his ears slowly turning pink. Virginia giggles as Stiles grins down at him shamelessly.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” she says, and then ruffles Hannah’s fringe. “Come on, sweetheart, we gotta get back to Grandma’s to start dinner.”

They part ways, but as Stiles turns to follow Derek down the next aisle, he feels a tugging on his sleeve, and looks down to see Hannah staring up at him, her little face as serious as ever.

“Thank you,” she says, soft and sincere. She darts a look at Derek, then back to Stiles. A small smile inches across her face. “Bye, Mr. Stiles.”

“See ya, Hannah,” Stiles responds. He matches her, grin for grin. “Try not to get lost.”

The nine-year-old rolls her eyes and drops his sleeve before running to catch up with her mother, waving over her shoulder as they turn down the aisle and out of sight. Stiles watches them go and wonders why he feels a little like crying.

“Hey,” Derek says, a solid block of comforting warmth by his side. “You okay?”

Stiles turns to look at him, staggered as always by the beauty of him, the way his edges have softened in their time together. He thinks about their little house, and the sunflowers they’ve just planted, and about his dad and Scott and the rest of the pack, and the very poorly planned surprise party waiting for them at his dad’s. He thinks about seeing Dr. Evans again, and working with her to set up a support group for victims of supernatural trauma, and starting his consultation job with the BHPD the following Monday. Most of all, he thinks of waking up every day with Derek beside him, the warmth of his presence, the way his eyes crinkle at the corners when he gives Stiles his first slow, sleepy smile of the day.

“Better than okay,” Stiles says, reaching over and tangling his fingers with Derek’s. “Perfect.”

And it is.