"I think it was a mistake to kiss me, that first time."
It takes Stiles half a second to realise Derek's said anything; he's been quiet for a little while, tucked between Stiles and the arm of the couch with Stiles' hand in his lap while Stiles answered emails with the other. Stiles abandons his phone to turn his attention to Derek, who isn't looking at him, continues to play with his Stiles' fingers. A lead weight settles in the pit of Stiles' stomach but he pushes past it.
"How so?" His voice is barely a croak. They've been together for a year, now, and if Derek thought their first kiss was a mistake, then maybe he's just felt obligated to continue the relationship. Maybe the nebulous ideas Stiles has for a future have all been for nothing. Maybe Derek's never figured out how to tell him no and is only just getting around to it. Maybe--maybe Stiles is panicking and jumping to unnecessary conclusions.
Derek frowns and Stiles knows not to interrupt when he's thinking – when he furrows his brow that particular way, he's trying to figure out the best way to articulate something. Derek can hold his own in an argument and is never at a particular loss for words, but sometimes he pauses to make sure the words he's picking are the most effective.
It's what makes him so good for Stiles, who doesn't think about what's coming out of his mouth until twenty seconds after it's already said. Derek's arguments are carefully constructed and solid, while Stiles' sow meticulous chaos and account for the inevitability of any plan going to hell in a handbasket. It's what makes them work so well together, even when they are arguing.
At least, he'd thought so.
"I don't know if I've ever been able to figure out if you were serious."
It's Stiles' turn to frown. They were talking about finding an apartment together and moving out of Stiles god-awful studio only this morning – that's not something someone who isn't serious does. Derek replaced Scott as his emergency contact months ago, even before Scott decided to go with Kira to Japan to discover more about her kitsune heritage.
He swallows past the mild terror in his throat. "I don't know what that means."
Derek fits his fingers between Stiles' for a moment, aligning the pads of their palms, before he returns to tracing his fingertips over Stiles' knuckles.
Stiles knows – knows because he knows Derek, damn it – that he'll make eye contact when he's ready, that he can't push or they'll both end up angry and hurt. It took a long time for Derek to begin to accept that what Kate did wasn't his fault; it took him even longer to talk about it in the light of day; longer still to meet Stiles' eyes and join up a lot of the dots Stiles had begun to connect years before.
Derek might be a fairly physically intimidating werewolf on the outside, but he's still a survivor of an emotionally and sexually abusive relationship at a formative age and he's still trying to unlearn a lot of the habitual thinking Kate impressed upon him. He still struggles, sometimes, to give his own opinions and self-worth any value at all. He still occasionally feels guilty disagreeing with something Stiles has said, even if it's about something inconsequential, like preferring cherry air freshener in the car to the pine ones.
The idea that Stiles might have made Derek feel pressured into a relationship he was never sure about makes him feel nauseated but he doesn't want to leave Derek like this, doesn't want to run out and make Derek feel like his feelings are invalid because while the horror and nausea are temporary for Stiles, acting on them will set Derek back months, if not years.
His scent must be doing something strange because Derek pauses in the act of tracing the vein on the back of Stiles' hand with his index finger, eyes shifting to fix on the inside of Stiles' elbow – he's not looking up, not yet, but it's higher than his hand.
"Yeah," Stiles says – there's no point in lying to a werewolf. He can talk his way around the truth when the occasion calls for it, but this doesn't. "But I'm here and I'm listening to whatever you need to tell me, no matter what it is or how it'll affect me."
Derek's eyebrows draw together at that but after a moment he continues mapping Stiles' hand, flipping it over to go over the lines of his palm.
"I think I love you," he says, and Stiles' chest expands with hope but he tamps down on it; a flicker of a smile passes over Derek's face but it's gone in a split second. "I thought I loved Kate, but I know now that I didn't and how I felt about her doesn't compare to how I feel about you. In the beginning, it felt the same – I felt the same excitement, the same want, the same desire to please you, but—I sound like I'm comparing you to her, and I'm not, that's not what I mean—I know you're not her, and you'd never—I know you'd never—that's what I'm trying to say. I think. I'm not making sense."
"Hey," Stiles says. "Hey, it's okay – I'm not Kate, I know that. I've got the birth certificate to prove it. I know you know I'm not her – keep going."
The gentle attempt at levity seems to ground Derek for a moment, his eyes darting back towards Stiles' elbow, shoulders relaxing a fraction, lips curling just enough to acknowledge Stiles' quip. He pushes his fingers between Stiles' again, his fingertips pressing against Stiles' webbing this time.
"That's all I ever felt for her – that's what all the movies tell you love is," Derek says. "And I was fifteen – movies were all the life experience I really knew of. The movies never said that I'd lose the pathological need to please her – or if they did, the movie ended unhappily. I didn't know that I could disagree, or be disagreed with, and still love. I didn't know that sex could be fun until you laughed when I fell off the bed and you just got down onto the floor with me. I know now that I can get mad at you without being afraid you'll leave – I know that even if you do storm out, you'll come back because you promised. I know that you know the same is true for me. I know that I trust you'll come back; I know that I trust you. Unreservedly. And that's—it's important. To me."
He falls silent, then, for a moment or two. Stiles is reeling, trying desperately to absorb every word and commit it to memory, while still paying attention to whatever fresh words come out of Derek's mouth.
"I talked to Pat about it," Derek tells Stiles' forearm, one of Derek's hands venturing up to trace the tattooed, intertwined stems of freesia and delphinium flowers that disappear under the sleeve of Stiles' shirt. "Because I didn't know how to tell if this was different – she encouraged me think about why I was worried, about why, if I trust you so much, I was so freaked out about telling you that I might love you—might be in love with you, I mean. She suggested that I think about the similarities between how I felt about Kate and how I feel, and have felt, about you. That's... that's why I mentioned her. I needed to compare you, which hurts, so that I could see the differences. I don't want to think of you that way, don't want you to think that I do, either."
Derek's growing frustrated, his gaze dropping back to the very tips of Stiles' fingers, his jaw tightening. Stiles gently takes Derek's hand and lifts it, brushes the barest kiss over the back of his knuckles before returning them to their original position. Derek's thumb swipes over the delicate skin on the inside of Stiles' wrist.
"Take your time," Stiles says when Derek doesn't continue. "I'm not going anywhere unless you want me to go to the place on the corner – I can go get coffee, give you a minute or two to think?"
Derek frowns harder but he seems to be considering it. His hand tightens around Stiles'. "I just want to be able to explain it all," he says. "I just want you to be able to see what's in my head because then I won't be able to mess it up like this. You're afraid. Of me."
"Whoa, no," Stiles says. "No, don't—Derek, don't do that. Please, don't do that. I'm not afraid of you. Listen—hey, listen, okay? Listen to my heartbeat right now, please? I'm not afraid of you. Do you hear that? I'm not afraid of you, I'm not afraid of you, I'm not afraid of you. I promise, I'm not afraid of you."
Derek's staring hard at Stiles' chest and it takes a minute and another couple of repetitions, but he nods once, eyes dropping to Stiles' wrist. "You're afraid of something, though."
"Of course I am," Stiles says. Doesn't elaborate because they're not talking about Stiles – Stiles can talk when Derek's done, unless Derek asks him what he's afraid of. "Look – it's only four and Pat keeps a couple hours clear around now, right? How about I call her for you and you can talk to her while I go out and get coffee for us?"
Derek looks conflicted.
"I'll take my phone with me," Stiles says. "I'll call Pat on the landline. That way I can text your phone and tell you when I'm on my way back, or you can text me to tell me to come back if you're ready before then. Good or bad?"
"Bad," Derek grits out, but curses under his breath. "Good, but I feel bad about you leaving."
"All right," Stiles says. "How about if I go shower? You can knock the bathroom door when you're done. Good or bad?"
"Great, then that's what we'll do. Right now, or in a minute?"
"Now. Sooner is better."
Stiles nods and scoots to the edge of the couch to go and find Derek's phone. Derek tugs him back before he gets more than a step away, though, and echoes his earlier action by kissing Stiles' knuckles before releasing him. Stiles smiles but doesn't comment.
He scrolls through Derek's contacts and pulls up the number for his therapist's office, chats to the receptionist while she checks to see if Dr. Brand is available to take a call. When he's patched through, he returns to the sofa and hands the phone to Derek. Derek's eyes meet his for half a heartbeat.
That done, Stiles retreats to the bathroom on the other side of his apartment and turns on the shower, clambering under the spray as soon as his clothes are off, even though the water's barely even lukewarm.
By the time there's a knock at the bathroom door, Stiles has washed his hair three times and Derek's definitely going to need new shower gel but he needed the comforting smell of it, of Derek.
He acknowledges the knocking by turning the shower off, hears Derek's footsteps pad away from the door. Stiles hastily towels off and re-dresses, clothes sticking to him in awkward places but he doesn't care. He leaves the bathroom in a haze of steam and hastens over to the couch. Derek's sitting in almost exactly the same position he had been before so Stiles resumes his own place, rests his hand loosely on his own knee and is gratified when Derek reaches for it.
"The first time we kissed, you were teasing me," Derek says, letting out a measured breath. "You were pointing out that options for you were relatively thin on the ground since you finished college and came back to Beacon Hills, said you'd probably get on your knees for the first dick to cross your path."
Okay, so Stiles has never been a saint and has absolutely been a terrible person once or twice in the past.
"I don't remember whether I said something or did something, but you asked me if I'd be willing to take my chance to make out with you while you were still on the market, because you were sure your Prince Charming was right around the corner." Derek's mouth twitches in a way that's almost fond. "I figured if a chance was all I'd get then I'd take it, so I agreed. I don't think it's ever really sunk in for me that we're over a year down the line and that chance hasn't been as fleeting as you might have implied. I think I keep expecting, on some level, for that Prince Charming to show up."
Derek's eyes dart to Stiles' bicep, then drop to his elbow. "It sounds shitty," he says, like he's worried Stiles is going to interrupt even though Stiles hasn't even tried to open his mouth. "It sounds like I don't trust you when I say that. It sounds like I'm expecting you to be shitty enough to just drop me because something else came along and I don't, because I know—I know that even if you—even if we—if it happened, you'd tell me. I'm not an idiot – I know that being in love with someone doesn't necessarily mean happily ever after, but I want to try anyway. I know I trust you, but then I think about that kiss and I start thinking what if, and I know it's irrational and it sounds horrible, but I think, on some level, I never really got around to figuring out if you stopped teasing me. I'm sorry."
Stiles isn't going to cry, damn it, but it's a close call. He stays silent, watches Derek for any sign he's not done talking. When Derek's gaze finally flicks up to meet his, Stiles deflates.
"Me now?" he asks. Derek nods. "You have nothing to apologise for, but if it helps then I accept your apology. I'm sorry that I didn't realise how you've felt about this, and I'm sorry that you've been so worried about telling me, but I'm glad that you have. I—okay, I'm an asshole, and I'm never going to be able to justify how I managed to talk us both into letting me kiss you that first time, because that's exactly what it was. I was—and still am—crazy into you and I thought that if I could convince you to give me one chance then I could be content with that, too. The Prince Charming thing was a throwaway line in case you were like, 'Whoa, Stiles, what the hell?' – It was a super flimsy defence mechanism.
"I've long since accepted that you're as close to Prince Charming as I want to get, Derek." Stiles squeezes their laced fingers together. "Prince Charming is way too polished – if some kind of incarnation of him did saunter into my life, I'm pretty sure I'd tell you about him with the sole intention of figuring out what kind of supernatural hellspawn he was so that we could send him packing. I like you because you're real and you get me – you get all my fucked up leaps of not-logic and you don't bitch at me for waking you up with my screaming nightmares for the fifth night in a row. Tell me how I can fix this, or at least try to – tell me what I can say or do, even if I have to say or do it every hour of every day for as long as there's breath in my body."
Derek hasn't looked away from his eyes, which is a good thing. It means he's comfortable, which makes Stiles want to melt with relief.
"I don't know what will fix it," he says; his gaze dips but comes right back. "But I think that now that I've said it, and now that you know – I think we can figure it out later."
Derek nods. He looks away and down again but it's bashful rather than insecure this time – and he's smiling this time, and that makes the world of difference to Stiles. The knots his internal organs had been tying themselves in loosen.
"I trust you too, you know," Stiles says, because he's pretty sure that everything Derek's said to him in the past little while is the most romantic thing to ever happen to him. "I think I love you too, but I have even less experience identifying that feeling than you do, so you can pretend to be awed and surprised when I say it properly, once I figure it out, yeah?"
Derek's smile flickers briefly into a grin, eyes crinkling at the sides. "You don't smell like fear anymore."
"Want to know a secret, while we're baring our souls?" Stiles murmurs, shuffling closer and relaxing even more when Derek allows it. "I'm a little scared Prince Charming might be out to try to take you, too."
"He's a real asshole, huh?"
Stiles grins, both because of what Derek said and because Derek slumps into him. "Pretty sure we can take him, though, right?"
Derek finds his hand and squeezes.