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Leaf Bandit

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Moving from Brooklyn to Beacon Hills was a decision that didn’t make sense to anyone but Derek. When he told Laura—over a meal he’d specifically prepared to soften the blow—she laughed, then looked uncomfortably close to tears once she realized he was serious.

“You mean as an extended vacation?” she asked after a bit, skepticism still thick in her words but beginning to fade. She went back to cutting her steak: lightly seared, its juices pooling on the plate and turning her mashed potatoes pink, just the way she liked it. “God knows you deserve a break, with the way you’ve been working yourself to the bone lately, but will Harris let you take that much time off?”

Derek speared a stalk of asparagus to buy himself time before answering. Laura had lifted her eyebrows when she’d seen all the tender tips neatly arranged on her plate, the woody, slightly out of season stalks reserved for Derek’s, but she hadn’t commented. She’d clearly known he was buttering her up for something but had learned over the years to ride with the bribes, letting Derek open difficult lines of communication on his own terms.

She was a good sister, he thought with a pang. He was really going to miss her.

“I’m moving,” he repeated, emphasizing the word so Laura couldn’t continue selectively ignoring it. He poked at his food, not meeting her eyes. “I bought a house. I gave my notice at work this week, after the final paperwork went through.”

Laura dropped her fork. It clattered across the floor, and Derek made a mental note to pick it up once they were done; Laura would most likely forget, simply buying a new set of utensils instead of thinking to look under furniture for the missing ones.

She’d be fine, he reminded himself. She had plenty of money and an extensive friend group Derek had never fully fit into. She’d...well, she’d never actually lived on her own before, but she was a brilliant and extraordinarily capable woman in every other aspect of her life. She didn’t need her little brother hanging around to clean up after her.

When he finally finished rearranging his asparagus into a circle around his mound of potatoes, shielding them from the meat he’d barely touched, he lifted his head to find Laura’s eyes still fixed on him. Her irises weren’t tinted red, but Laura didn’t need to use Alpha powers to sway him; her forlorn expression might’ve been enough to change his mind if he’d told her at any point earlier in the process. Which was precisely why he hadn’t.

“There’s no talking you out of this, is there,” she said, pushing her plate aside with a deep sigh. “I can’t believe you bought a house. When did you even...your last business trip? What the hell happened in California, Derek?”

I fell in love was the closest Derek could come to the truth, but Laura would misunderstand that, assuming he’d gotten caught up in some misguided whirlwind tryst that she’d have to rescue him from. He’d more than learned his lesson on that count.

No, he’d fallen in love with Beacon Hills itself.

Laura made sense in New York, in a way Derek never had. She relished the hubbub, the constant hum of city life that no amount of dimming their senses could tune out. She’d gleefully reenact their neighbors’ arguments if Derek hadn’t been around for any particularly good ones. She regularly went clubbing with her coworkers and spent big chunks of her paycheck on tickets to Broadway shows. Some weeks, even though they shared an apartment, Derek barely saw her.

He didn’t mind that. He liked that she was living her life the way she wanted. He went out sometimes, too, although he preferred less flashy plays and finding smaller pubs where no one would give him a second look if he tucked himself into a booth with a beer and a book.

Derek didn’t know how to explain that he wanted to live in a city that slept once in a while.

Halfway through the conference in San Francisco, with his presentation out of the way and two days of dreary panels stretching ahead of him, he’d gone for what he’d intended as a quick walk to clear his head. Somehow, he’d wound up on the ferry, loosening his tie and leaning against the rail on the upper deck, enjoying the wind tugging at his hair and sending a light spray across his cheeks.

It’d kicked up an odd restlessness that he couldn’t quell until he’d rented a car and driven a couple hours up the coast, until concrete and billboards gave way to a dense, pine-scented forest. After a while, he’d branched off onto whatever side roads had seemed the most interesting, driving through a few thinly-populated towns and glancing at his gas tank to make sure it was full enough to go a little farther before turning back.

He’d almost missed Beacon Hills. His phone had started buzzing—probably a flood of emails triggered by a wireless hot spot—and he’d reached for it, intending to punch in the coordinates to send himself back to where he’d started.

But below the unassuming Welcome to Beacon Hills sign—white paint peeling from brown boards, like most of the others he’d seen thus far—there was a hastily hung banner announcing a farmers’ market. It was the unrepentantly sloppy handwriting that had caught Derek’s eye and made him slow down to read the text.

FARMERS’ MARKET TODAY!!! the banner had exclaimed, in uneven letters so large the last few had to be crammed together to fit the necessary number of exclamation marks. Below that, in a smaller but still readable scrawl, was the market’s location and hours, along with a description:

Fresh fruits & vegetables
Jams, pies, bread, other tasty shit
Everyone’s favorite tarts on display
Cheap & desperate, pick ‘em up now!!!

Derek had checked the empty road before pulling off so he could snap a photo of the drawings at the bottom of the sign. There were three caricatures, bordered by engorged purple eggplants and sketched with more emphasis on humor than realism. The first was handsome enough: boyish features, exaggerated eyelashes, and a friendly smile with a few sparkles that seemed intended to indicate his level of charm. The second drawing—a man with a buzzcut and a snub nose—was a little messier but somehow more inviting, despite his Grinch-like grin. The final image sported a fleshy face, angry eyebrows, and a pig’s snout.

Not the artist’s favorite person, Derek had guessed, chuckling as he’d opened his texts to send the photo to Laura. He’d hesitated, then slipped his phone into his pocket and gotten back into the rental car. The market was still open; he’d figured he might as well check it out while he was there.

“So you went to a farmers’ market that was so good you decided to buy a fucking house on the spot,” Laura said, not as amused by the story as she probably would’ve been if he’d shared it with her at the time. She stabbed at her steak, hard enough to send red drops spattering across the table and onto Derek’s sleeve, then wrinkled her nose at him in apology and let him take her plate.

“I didn’t buy it that day,” Derek said as he scraped their leftovers into color-coded containers—a system that he stuck to despite the fact that Laura usually polished off whatever she found in the fridge, then ordered takeout as a trade-off.

“But you’d already made up your mind,” Laura said, reading him correctly. “God, Derek, you could’ve at least let me house-shop with you. Did you haggle the price down? How much of a fixer-upper is it?”

Derek dropped his phone into her extended hands, retrieved the lost fork, and began rinsing their dishes as she scrolled through his Beacon Hills album, muttering to herself.

“It does look like something you’d be into,” she said eventually. “It’s got a big yard, huh? That must’ve been a major selling point.”

Derek twisted the water off and sat down next to her to point out his favorite features, excitement bubbling up now that he had his sister’s—and Alpha’s—approval. It wasn’t that he wanted to leave his only remaining pack. He couldn't really explain the feeling that had slowly settled over him as he’d bought a sourdough loaf, a jar of fresh olallieberry jam, and a perfectly brewed cup of coffee that he’d sipped as he’d wandered through downtown Beacon Hills for well over an hour.

On his way back to the main road, following signs for the Beacon Hills Preserve as a final detour, he’d stumbled across the For Sale sign. The house in question was nestled at the end of a quiet street, bathed in soft afternoon sunlight that had seemed to beckon Derek closer. He’d pulled into the driveway and tried the front door—unlocked, an unfathomable concept to someone who’d spent the last decade in a metropolitan area.

Everything about it had been perfect. The spacious bedrooms, the cozy living room, the modern kitchen with big glass doors that looked out on a backyard that made Derek’s heart ache with want.

He’d held onto the realtor flyer for weeks, unable to get it out of his head. Nothing about it was logical. If he wanted a house, he could probably find something in upstate New York, close to Laura and the rest of his life. Hating his job didn’t mean he needed to move across the country to escape it.

But when he’d finally dialed the number, his heart pulsing in his throat, suddenly terrified that it had already sold, he’d known that he was making the right decision.

Why Beacon Hills?

He couldn’t answer that, not to anyone else’s satisfaction. All he knew was that it felt right. It’d felt like coming home.

***

Derek’s first month in Beacon Hills was as perfect as he’d hoped. The house was in pretty good condition, with updated appliances and only a few minor quirks that made him fonder of it, somehow. He unpacked his boxes, fixed a stubborn leak in the shower, and found an office job that’d pay the bills without sucking away his soul.

He spent his weekends puttering around his house or hiking through the Preserve, and while he accepted a couple invitations for drinks with his smalltown-friendly coworkers, he was mostly content to be on his own. Laura checked in with him every night at first, the city sounds swelling in the background of their calls serving as a constant reminder of what he’d left behind.

Derek loved everything about his new life, but if he had to pinpoint a favorite part, it’d be his yard. Maybe he was falling into werewolf stereotypes; he couldn’t bring himself to care. He’d never understood how Laura could stand the city, how her Alpha-heightened instincts didn’t demand that she shift on full moons and run. Out of the clogged streets, past the thick scent of strangers and constantly overflowing garbage, into an expanse of trees or open fields where they could stretch their legs and expand their lungs.

He was still cautious with his shift, only removing his clothes and letting the fur sweep over his limbs when he was deep in the forest and had carefully checked to be sure he was alone. His neighborhood was quiet and dark enough, though, that he’d thought about turning to four paws to properly explore the big trees at the end of his yard, or simply to enjoy the cool night air and the sounds of wildlife scurrying through the underbrush.

“I’m happy,” he told Laura, with enough certainty that she didn’t have to hear his heartbeat to know he was telling the truth.

Then the leaves started to fall.

At first, that was fine, too. He bought a rake and a packet of eco-friendly bags from the local hardware store and shortened his morning runs so he could carefully rake every last leaf from his yard. He found himself enjoying the activity, standing back proudly to admire the clean-swept lawn, which regular rainfall kept lush and soft. Most of the trees in the Preserve were evergreens, which made his neighborhood’s carpet of red-gold leaves almost feel like a luxury—a bittersweet reminder, too, of the parts he did miss about his old life.

Less than a week into Derek’s new routine, his neighbor bought a leaf blower.

It took Derek a couple of days to catch on. The first night, he glanced at the sky with a frown, wondering if he’d been too wrapped up in his work to notice a sudden windstorm. His yard was thickly strewn with leaves, including areas that he’d barely had to rake before.

While odd, it wasn’t exactly a cause for concern. He shrugged it off and simply spent a little longer in his yard the next morning, bagging leaves and depositing them in his green bin.

That night, there was a fresh coating of leaves—this time, with a few shingles mixed in. They were brown, not the slate grey of Derek’s roof, which meant...he frowned at his neighbor’s house, briefly flashing his eyes Beta-blue to strengthen his vision. He couldn’t find any visible gaps to indicate where they’d come from, but the color was a definite match.

There was a smell hanging in the air, too, a mixture of oil and gasoline that he’d assumed had been coming from the battered blue Jeep that belonged to that house. Derek didn’t know much about his neighbors; he’d met a few but hadn’t made an effort to seek out the others, dreading the idea of small talk or invitations to sit in flower-patterned parlors and eat stale cookies.

“You read too many books,” Laura had said, but she didn’t know that wouldn’t happen, so Derek ignored her and kept to himself.

As far as Derek could tell, his next-door neighbor worked nights. He’d heard the Jeep grumbling down the street at odd hours of the morning, its heavy door banging shut, then boots clomping up the three short steps from the driveway. Some nights, Derek growled to himself and shoved a pillow over his head to block out the jingle of keys and tuneless whistling as the neighbor sorted through what seemed like an absurdly cluttered keychain to locate the one that’d fit his lock.

He was probably a bartender. Or a go-go dancer, if Beacon Hills had those kinds of clubs. Something that kept him out late and made him forget that normal people kept normal hours and maybe he should try keeping his mouth shut when it was still dark out.

The formerly minor irritation began to boil under Derek’s skin. He could handle a few minutes of lost sleep—it was still far better than living in an apartment complex in a bustling city—but using an exhaust-spewing machine to blow trash into someone else’s yard so they’d have to deal with it was a level of inconsideration that he couldn’t let slide.

He picked up one of the shingles and stomped to his neighbor’s front door, knocking angrily despite the empty driveway. The leaf blowing asshole wasn’t home, of course; he’d probably left shortly before Derek had gotten off work. He gave one final thump, just in case, and stewed over what to do next. Although he was a morning person, he didn’t relish the idea of dragging himself out of bed at 2 AM for a confrontation. And he hadn’t thought to bring paper or a pen to leave a note.

Using his claws to scratch a message into the door was excessive, Derek decided, after considering the idea for longer than he should have. He set the shingle on the front stoop, where it’d be impossible to miss—maybe that would be enough of a hint for the time being—and retreated.

But he couldn’t stop thinking about it.

The oily scent seemed to seep into his dinner, each bite accompanied by the bitter taste of gasoline. When he twisted on the tap to rinse his dishes, he could hear the phantom echo of the leaf blower roaring in his ears.

“Enough,” he said aloud, but there was no one else around to hear him, and he wasn’t really listening, either.

His phone stayed quiet; he checked it three times to be sure the volume was on, but Laura was probably busy with her friends, not sparing him as much thought now that she was certain he’d been settling in well. Maybe it was the distance from his Alpha. Or it could’ve been the moon’s tug—still days away from full, but a looming presence that he could feel pressing against his bones, asking him to shift.

Either way, instead of winding down on his back porch with a beer, he found himself raking every last leaf from his yard for the second time that day, his shoulders tight with fury, his nails leaving deep half-moon scars in the wooden handle. He filled two bags, then took them into his neighbor’s yard and emptied them again, carefully spreading the litter over as much of the lawn as he could cover.

It was petty. But it made him feel a little better.

***

He slept soundly that night and woke with a twinge of regret. He might’ve overreacted; his neighbor probably hadn’t realized what he was doing, and if Derek wanted to make a life for himself in this town, he shouldn’t begin by making enemies.

He went through his usual morning routine, clearing away the leaves that had fallen overnight, and headed to work, where he spent an hour drafting versions of a firm but friendly note he could slip into his neighbor’s mailbox. The first few were still too angry—variations of Please think of someone besides yourself for once and Have you ever considered living somewhere else? Like the other side of town, or maybe a different fucking state entirely—but he eventually managed one that conveyed his message without too many insults.

Satisfied, he finished out the rest of his day in a lighter mood, even stopping to chat with a coworker on his way out the door. Things were looking up again. He’d sort out this momentary blip and go back to long, peaceful evenings sipping tea on his back porch.

Except, when he got home, his yard was filled with leaves again.

That was the purpose of the letter, he reminded himself, trying to reason with the rage blurring the edges of his vision as his eyes flickered between human and wolf. All he had to do was wait another day, hope that his neighbor was a decent human being, and take it from there.

It still might’ve been the moon’s influence. It was a bad excuse that he’d never try to use outside of his own brain—he wasn’t an animal, he’d been in control of his shift since he was an infant—but he tore the letter into pieces anyway, dropped them into his trash bin, and retrieved the bags that hadn’t yet been picked up. If his neighbor was going to play this game, Derek could do him one better.

***

“You’ve been doing this for how long?” Laura asked. She was laughing at him, which was more than warranted.

“A week and a half,” Derek said. He pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed, waiting for Laura’s mirth at his expense to die down.

“Honestly, Derek,” she said once she’d finally calmed enough to get words out. “A territory dispute over leaves. This is what you get for trading New York for some backwoods town.”

Are you ready to come home?

Derek could hear the question hanging, unspoken, between them long after the call had ended. Laura had been doing her best to not ask since he’d left; she didn’t want to hear Derek’s answer any more than he wanted to give it. It’d stayed the same, regardless of the ridiculous battle of wills he was currently caught in. Nothing had changed how he felt about Beacon Hills.

And although he wouldn’t admit it, the feud with his neighbor had become one of the more interesting parts of his days.

At first, there’d been a pretty straightforward exchange. The leaf blower neighbor—eventually shortened to Blower Neighbor in conversations with Laura, who couldn’t believe Derek still hadn’t even seen him—lived up to his name by spending his afternoons blowing any debris in his yard over the short fence that separated his property from Derek’s. Derek waited until dark to slip over the wooden boards with his bags to return the favor.

He’d never intended to do anything else. But it was hard to spend that much time in someone else’s yard without starting to notice little details.

The big parts were obvious: Blower Neighbor maintained his yard as meticulously as Derek did, just with an excess of machines. The lawn was mowed and edged regularly, with automatic sprinklers embedded at exactly the right intervals to keep it a thicker, more vibrant green than Derek’s.

Derek had, unfortunately, discovered the sprinklers on Night Two, after being caught in them.

He’d heard a soft click and hiss but hadn’t had time to identify the source before the sprinklers had popped to the surface, soaking him and the bag he was halfway through dumping. He’d jumped, swearing vehemently, and had nearly given into the impulse to shift right there to shake his fur dry.

He had control over his shift, shut up Laura. It was just that the moon felt bigger and closer in Beacon Hills, somehow.

He did shift sometimes, after taking care of Blower Neighbor's leaf-strewn yard. On Night Four, he’d dug a spiteful hole in the flowerbed, only to go back an hour later to fill it and pat around the edges of the plants, guiltily brushing dirt off the bright petals.

Dahlias, he’d decided, after spending hours that evening scrolling through search results that had quickly started to feel like a foreign language.

Derek didn’t have a lot of color in his yard. He hadn’t really thought about it before, too happy to have any vegetation to call his own, but the former owners must not have put a lot of stock in anything on the decorative side. He had trees, grass, a few bushes—very little that wasn’t some shade of green or brown.

Even that occasionally felt overwhelming. The only prior experience he’d had with plant life was Laura’s tiny windowsill cactus back in New York, which he’d overwatered and nearly killed the week she was away on a work retreat. All of this was new to him. It was almost too much space, sometimes. He’d been glad for the shady trees at the edge of his property, which helped to close it in a bit, giving his little world some manageable boundaries.

But after looking at Blower Neighbor’s yard, he’d begun to think he might need more. There was something missing, especially with the leaves dropping, turning his shelter into bare branches stretched against a too-wide sky.

He needed...foliage? Was that even the right term?

That weekend, he’d stopped by the hardware store to look at their plants.

The store’s owner—Boyd, he’d said with a firm handshake—had chuckled and talked him through some options. Derek hadn’t taken any plants home on that visit, but he was pretty sure he’d made his first non-work friend in Beacon Hills.

Maybe he'd plant tulips later, he decided. A nice row along the fence, neatly ordered, unlike Blower Neighbor's riot of color.

Boyd had shown him some vines, too, possible future hedges to help block his yard off from his neighbor's. Derek had considered the wisteria—a pretty purple flowering plant that reminded him a bit of wolfsbane, in a harmless variety. But for some reason, he didn't exactly want to close their fence line off more securely. At least not yet. He was...curious.

When he’d told Boyd where he lived, Boyd had said, "Oh, by Stiles?" Then had laughed and refused to say anything other than, "Good luck."

Derek puzzled over that reaction for a couple of nights, turning the new information over in his mind as he distributed the expanding collection of leaves, then climbed onto Blower Neighbor’s roof with his newly purchased nail gun to fix the loose shingles back in place. He was fairly certain he’d seen that name before. He couldn’t recall where until midway through replacing the rusty bolts on Blower Neighbor’s outdoor faucet.

He finished his work and dropped his trash into the bin—filled with pizza boxes and takeout containers, he noted—before sitting down in a quiet crunch of brittle leaves to examine the paving stones set around a particularly pretty patch of flowers.

Some were the kind he'd seen in stacks in the store's garden section. But some were clearly older—handmade, or at least modified. A few were decorated with clumsily artistic mosaic patterns. Three had names laid out in colored stone. John, Claudia, and Stiles, with the small imprint of a child's hand.

Derek traced over the letters, wondering how old Stiles was now, what he looked like. He probably would’ve been able to answer those questions if he hadn’t taken to actively hiding from Blower Neighbor once they’d engaged in their silent yard war. Derek had no intention of being the first one to break, but...he couldn’t keep himself from wanting to know more.

He’d been gleaning bits of information from his evening excursions—mostly on accident, like when he’d passed by the back window and had happened to take a quick peek through the open curtains, into a living room cluttered with books, a big screen TV, and video game consoles.

The line of textbooks—on an upper shelf, not seeming to be in active use—and the array of recognizable gaming systems indicated that “Stiles” was roughly around Derek's age. There were other clues Derek had been able to spend more time examining, like the mix of new—not yet sun-bleached—paving stones with the transplanted older ones, which meant that Stiles had probably only been living in this house for a year or two.

"You need a hobby," Laura told him the next time they talked.

She was probably right. Derek did his best to stop snooping. The guy was clearly obnoxious, anyway. Inconsiderate, he grumbled while shaking leaves into a pile.

"So you're the Leaf Bandit," a voice said from behind him, and Derek froze.

How had he not heard anyone coming? The first few nights, he’d kept his senses on high alert, ready to leap over the fence to avoid detection, but as time passed, he’d nearly forgotten that what he was doing was technically illegal.

The voice sounded more amused than angry, at least, so Derek turned slowly, braced to run, his flight response ramping up when he caught a glimpse of a deputy’s uniform. Dark khaki-green pants, a thick belt, a badge pinned to a lighter khaki shirt—which was partially unbuttoned. The deputy’s feet were bare, too, a detail that Derek hadn’t caught at first glance. His neighbor hadn’t called the cops, then. He was the cops.

Derek meets Stiles
art by inkforwords

Derek had guessed his age correctly—mid-20s looked just about right—although his imagination had fallen short on the rest. His neighbor had slightly messy dark hair, a lean build set off by broad shoulders, and a slightly parted cupid’s bow mouth with a plush lower lip. He was annoyingly handsome for someone so obnoxious.

Blower Neighbor’s mouth—which Derek’s eyes were still fixed on—tilted into a smirk.

"Leaf Bandit," he repeated, but there was something else behind the reproval now. Or maybe Derek was just projecting his own spark of interest.

"Blowme Neighbor," Derek said stupidly, then wondered if anyone would notice if he leapt over the fence and never emerged from his house again.

"Tempting," was the reply. "But normally I like to at least exchange names first. I'm Stiles. I live here, where you've been trespassing."

"I haven't been in your house," Derek said, which probably made Stiles think he had, shit. "Derek," he added belatedly. "Hale. I was...uh..."

They both looked down at the leaves he'd almost finished spreading across Stiles's lawn.

"It took me a while to figure it out," Stiles said. "Thought it'd just been extra windy or something. Or maybe my trees had gotten really shaggy this year."

Derek glanced quickly at him—feeling more relieved than he should’ve at the still amused curve at the corner of Stiles’s mouth—before following his gaze back to the leaf litter, which thickly coated nearly every inch of Stiles’s good-sized yard. There was a precision to it that Derek had never tried to make look natural.

He cleared his throat, refusing to feel guilty over something that his neighbor had started. "If you raked the leaves and put them in your bin, they wouldn't blow back over into your yard, no matter how windy it got. It's less work, in the end."

Somehow his argument seemed to hold a little less weight than it would've a couple weeks earlier.

"Right," Stiles said. "Because that's how all this has been getting here."

"I sped it up a little," Derek admitted. He kicked the toe of his boot through the nearest pile to remind himself why he'd thought this was a good idea. "Leaf blowers are a menace," he said. "They're loud, and they smell awful. Plus they're basically useless. You’re not cleaning anything. All you're doing is moving things around, blowing them from one place to another—"

"You've got a real thing about blowing," Stiles said. He was smirking again; Derek hated the warmth that sent through him.

"Not all blowing, just yours," Derek snapped back, before realizing that only made it worse.

“Y’know, I’ve been told that people like it when I'm loud," Stiles said. He cast what might’ve been an appreciative eye over Derek. "I can see you're more into manual labor. But even I know it's too late to run a leaf blower right now to clean all this up—"

Derek cut in, irritation surging afresh at the reminder. "Which would only send your leaves into my yard. Again."

Stiles waved the words away absently. "And as nice as it might be to stand here and watch you rake all those back up, it sounds tiring.”

"What makes you think I should clean up your leaves," Derek started, prepared to launch into the full list of complaints he’d been compiling, but Stiles was opening his back door. Was he done with the conversation already?

Derek looked down at the bag he was still holding. Should he...head back home, he guessed. He felt a little ridiculous now, his neighbor’s disinterest knocking the wind out of his indignant sails.

But Stiles was holding the door open, his body turned toward Derek in invitation. "You wanna trespass inside this time? You can tell me all about how modern machinery is evil."

"It's not trespassing if you invite me in," Derek couldn’t help saying, when the more logical responses would’ve been I’m going home; clean up your own fucking leaves the normal way tomorrow or I have no interest in spending more time with you.

He set the bag down and scraped leaf gunk off his shoes before entering.

"I have all the Terminators if you’re in the mood for a movie,” Stiles said, flipping on the kitchen and living room lights as Derek shut the door behind him. “And the Matrix trilogy, although I’ll only watch past the first if you’re a completionist. I assume you love stories about humans defeating their evil machine overlords.”

"Shouldn’t you be at work?" Derek asked. He wasn’t ready yet to address the bigger question of why he was somehow getting dragged along in Stiles’s wake; it was easier to start with his confusion over Stiles even being there in the first place. Derek wasn’t stupid; he always checked the house and driveway for signs of life before hopping the fence. “Your Jeep’s not here,” he said, unable to keep it from sounding like an accusation. “And all the lights were off.”

"It's in the shop. Allison—my partner—dropped me off. We're back on day shifts now, although I shouldn't tell you my schedule, Leaf Bandit." Stiles yawned and scrubbed a hand through his hair.

He looked tired; Derek realized suddenly the messy bedhead wasn't an intentional look.

"It wasn't dark yet when I got home; I sat down on the couch before changing, and I must've fallen asleep." Stiles motioned to his half-unbuttoned shirt. "Sorry to disappoint you, but I don't actually lurk around in uniform at home to catch local criminals." He gave Derek an appraising look, then a wink. "Maybe I should."

Derek flushed and opened his mouth to protest the "criminal" but instead said, "Partner?"

"In law," Stiles clarified. "In more than one way, really. Allison’s a fellow deputy and my best friend's wife. In my civilian life, I happen to be single."

He rummaged in the fridge, handed Derek an unopened bottle of beer, then raised his eyebrows expectantly when Derek just stared at it.

"Can't find my bottle opener," Stiles said. "Do your thing, huh?" He curled his fingers into a terrible approximation of claws.

"I have no idea what you mean," Derek lied, thinking again about making a run for it. Stiles couldn't possibly...did he have security cameras? Derek thought in horror about the time he'd dumped all the leaves into a big pile in the center of the yard, then shifted to play in them. It always made too big of a mess in his yard, but in Blower Neighbor's yard that was pretty much the point, wasn’t it?

Stiles rolled his eyes. "Your head tilted and your nostrils flared when you mentioned my Jeep, like you were trying to smell it on me, or check my heartbeat for a lie. My best friend's a werewolf. Bitten, not born, though—same for the others I’ve met. You were born a werewolf, right? I've never seen anyone who moves as much like a wolf as you do." He wiggled his fingers. "C'mon dude. Just do the thing."

"Are you supposed to drink in uniform?" Derek asked, extending his claws and keeping an eye on Stiles.

It was a stupid move; Stiles raised his eyebrows in challenge, then unbuckled his belt and stripped his shirt off, leaving him in a thin tank top, with Derek staring at his thick biceps and the nipples peaking the fabric.

The bottle popped open with a hiss.

***

It was probably a good thing Stiles was home that evening, Derek told Laura later, stubbornly persisting past her peals of laughter. He wasn't sure how much longer he could've kept their (apparently mostly one-sided) feud going. Their trees were almost out of leaves.

As autumn turned to winter and Stiles stored his damn blower in the garage, Derek found himself over the fence even more often than before.

Sometimes Stiles just leaned on their fence, loudly judging Derek's attempts at gardening until Derek lifted him to tug him over.

“Never getting used to that," Stiles would say, brushing his lips against Derek's before kneeling to demonstrate the proper tulip-planting methods.

Nevermind Boyd's suggestions and expertise, which Derek had been doing his best to follow; flowers were apparently one of Stiles's many areas of passion. And he liked sharing with Derek.

He’d picked up his green thumb from his mom, Stiles explained in late December, as they were stringing lights across both houses, linking them. Taking care of his garden was one of the things that helped him remember her.

"The full shift is mine," Derek admitted quietly, almost embarrassed to say it out loud.

It was strange, even months later, to have Stiles simply squeeze his shoulder in understanding, not fazed by Derek being an actual wolf. The full shift was a rare trait, even in their family, and Derek had cried the first time he'd managed it, years after his mom was gone.

Stiles, despite not having an ounce of supernatural blood in his body, got it. He seemed to get everything about Derek.

***

"I'm glad you were an obnoxious ass," Derek said in February, experimentally setting rose petals on the moles scattered across Stiles's back. Stiles grumbled and shivered at each silken touch, dislodging Derek's work, but the bed full of petals had been his stupidly romantic idea.

"I didn't think about how annoying it would be to clean this up," Stiles sighed, letting Derek kiss the back of his neck before beginning again. "And anyway, all I was doing was clearing my fucking lawn. Not all of us have the time or werewolf stamina to rake by hand. Twice a day."

"We can test your stamina," Derek said, giving up on his floral design. Stiles's mouth was a decent trade-off, he supposed.

Kissing was another of Stiles’s passions; Derek was particularly fond of that one. After a bit, Stiles lifted his eyebrows in a familiar challenge, smirking in that way that had first told Derek he'd be trouble.

"Are you saying," he asked, "that you're a fan of my blowing?"

"We'll revisit that in the fall," Derek said, wondering how fast machines could rust. It would probably result in their anniversary fight.

But Stiles was distracting, and the bed, even cluttered with rose petals and what felt like at least one stray stem, was soft. And Derek? Was happy.

***

“You know,” Stiles said the first time he flew to New York with Derek to visit Laura, “you never actually told me what made you move to Beacon Hills. Our dinky little town’s barely on the map, and you left all this behind?”

“I like him,” Laura said.

Derek rolled his eyes. “You said that the first time you met him. Which was in Beacon Hills, which you also admitted wasn’t half bad.”

“Still not New York,” Laura said. She linked her arm with Stiles’s. “If you ever wanted to transfer to a bigger police force, I have a very long list of things you’d enjoy doing here, and a shortlist of apartments with soundproofing that even Derek could handle.”

Derek let them talk for a bit, trailing a few steps behind until Stiles reached for his hand. On a city street, walking three across would be an active hazard, but the paths through Central Park were more peaceful than Derek had remembered. He still had no plans to return, but something in him felt calm and settled at the idea of Laura assuming that if he ever did, it’d be with Stiles.

“So,” Stiles said, bumping their shoulders together and squeezing Derek’s hand in that way that always made him feel oddly secure. “Laura says you went on a joyride and somehow landed in Beacon Hills?”

“Sort of,” Derek said. His sister’s version wouldn’t convey all the important parts, so he began the story, starting with that moment on the ferry, with the city falling behind him as the world suddenly seemed to stretch out ahead. “And the house just felt right, somehow,” he finished. “Although if I’d met the neighbors at that point, like Laura kept telling me I should’ve done before putting money down...”

Stiles laughed, his voice warm with affection. “I was single then, too, you know. We could’ve started things off on the right foot, without you spending a month and a half resenting whoever the hell you thought I was.”

“You forgot about the sign,” Laura said, handing Stiles a blossom that she had broken away from their little group to very illegally pluck from a well-tended flowerbed. She had about as much of a green thumb as Derek did, but she’d loved seeing their gardens and had started texting Stiles with photos of any unusual-looking plants that she thought he might like.

“The sign?” Stiles asked. He admired the flower and tucked it into the pocket of his flannel shirt, which he’d tied around his waist once he’d realized how ill-suited his usual attire was for a blazing New York summer. The skin on the back of his neck was already beginning to turn red; Derek steered them down a shadier path, keeping an eye out for a vendor selling sunscreen.

“Right,” he said, pulling his phone out with his free hand and swiping back to the old Beacon Hills album, which he’d nearly forgotten about. “That’s actually what made me pull off when I did; the town itself’s what sold me, but if I hadn’t seen the sign for the farmers' market, I never would’ve stopped. Here.”

Stiles leaned over to look at Derek’s screen, then stopped in his tracks, dragging Derek to a halt. “Wait, are you fucking kidding me? You saw that? That’s what made you decide Beacon Hills was worth a look?”

“Yeah,” Derek said, chuckling again as he swiped to the next picture, which had a closer-up view of the drawings that had first caught his attention. The three men, one of whom, now that he was thinking about it, looked an awful lot like…

“Oh my god,” Laura said. “That’s Stiles. Holy shit, that’s why he looked so familiar when you first sent me a picture of the two of you.”

“Well, this is embarrassing,” Stiles said. “I mean, I thought it was hilarious when I hung it up; Parrish’s dating life was about as bad as mine at that point, and Haigh is just a dick and deserved it, but my dad tore the thing down as soon as he found out about it. He said it reflected badly on the city and his deputies, blah blah blah, and he put me on desk duty for a month. Absolutely worth it now, if you’re telling me it brought me you.”

“You grew your hair out,” Derek said, staring between the photo and Stiles. “But it’s you. Your face. Your handwriting. That’s what made me want to know more.”

“That’s it, I’m calling my dad,” Stiles said. “Sheriff or not, he can’t argue with results like these. I’m in charge of all Beacon Hills dating events from now on. Come to think of it, Parrish transferred to Boston PD like a month later and got back together with Lydia, so I’ve gotta be magic or something, right? Laura, you’re an Alpha, sniff me and tell me I’m magic.”

“Please don’t tell my sister to sniff you in public,” Derek said, putting his phone away so he could wrap his arm around his boyfriend.

“Magic,” Stiles whispered anyway, grinning and waggling his eyebrows until Derek leaned in to kiss him.

There wasn’t an iota of the supernatural in the Stilinski bloodline, as far as Derek could tell; he smelled utterly human. And perfect, which he’d tell Stiles later, once they were alone. But there were different types of magic in the world. What he’d found with Stiles certainly qualified.

“You know what, I bet I could do other stuff too,” Stiles said as soon as his mouth was free. “Like, what if I had powers over the wind, Derek. I’m gonna try it out this fall. I won’t even need my leaf blower, at this rate.”

Mostly perfect, Derek amended. But still, somehow, just right for him.