It was always a big deal when a superhero’s soulmark was revealed. Even if it was just a glimpse, that little peek inevitably sent the media and the public into a complete frenzy.
Hysterical matches were guaranteed, people who were so desperate to be with their hero that they would find any way to rationalize how actually their marks did match up, thank you very much, even if they looked nothing alike. Even more guaranteed were the fakers, photoshop and tattoo ink at the ready, determined to bag themselves a rich and famous mate, or at the very least grab their fifteen minutes of fame before their ruse was figured out. Tabloids went wild with claims of the most implausible matches they could dream up, the poor hero in question got hounded by paps and reporters for months on end, and the chances of a real matchup coming out of the whole ordeal were practically nil in the chaos.
All this ran through Derek’s head as he stared at the reporter on the campus lounge’s television screen, gleefully reporting on Ignition’s latest fight. Behind her floated a photograph of him mid-battle, zoomed in on where his bodysuit had been slashed open across his left shoulder blade. It was a little blurry, a little pixelated, but more than clear enough to get a good look at the black mark on the bare skin there.
“Oh shit,” came Erica’s delighted voice as she dropped down onto the couch beside Derek. “Let the circus begin!”
Derek’s his heart dropped; circus was right. He resisted the impulse to reach for the spot on his own shoulder blade that itched and burned. It wouldn’t do him any good. He could make all the calls, send in all the verifiably undoctored photos of identical marks, make all the noise and fuss he wanted. With the buzz and the confusion, it wouldn’t matter. No one would believe him.
True match-ups never made it through a circus like this.
By the start of Derek’s Monday classes, Ignition’s mark was still all anyone was talking about. His classmates gathered in clumps as they waited for the TA to show up, magazines in hand and articles pulled up on their phones, not even bothering to whisper as they speculated.
Did they realize this was someone else’s life they were gossipping about? That Ignition was a real person under that mask? A real, live, actual person with a mate somewhere out there, who was also a person? An as of yet unidentified person who could potentially be there, in the room with them, hearing them sigh about how they wish it was them? Or laugh about how much it must suck to be a hero’s mate when nothing could ever come of it?
Derek sank down low in his chair, wishing he cared less about his grades and had just stayed in bed today. Fuck his grades, as soon as class was over, he was going home to wallow in self-pity and depression until he had fully come to terms with having a soulmate he could never actually be with. It wasn’t like he had been dreaming of finding his perfect match since he was a kid or anything, of growing old with them, of raising a family together, of being as blissfully content and fulfilled as his parents were.
He wasn’t likely to get any of that with Ignition. Or anyone else, for that matter.
Sure, some people dated and married and loved people who weren’t their soulmates, whether because they never found their soulmate or because they just decided they didn’t work well together and found someone else, but Derek wasn’t one of those people. He couldn’t even imagine knowing there was someone perfect for him right there, knowing exactly who they were and seeing news of them all over the place, and choosing to be with someone else. It wouldn’t feel right, especially when his perfect match didn’t know about him. To move on with someone else would feel like taking the choice for happiness away from his mate.
It would feel like cheating, as irrational as that feeling might be.
At long, long last, the TA ambled in and called the class to order. The powerpoint presentation she put on wasn’t exactly engaging and it wasn’t more than ten minutes before Derek resorted to doodling. Anything to keep his thoughts occupied and away from—
Someone dropped heavily into the seat beside Derek, his wayward backpack nearly knocking the pen from Derek’s hand, and said in an exaggerated whisper, “Hey, man, that looks good! What is it?”
Derek only saved his notes from going flying through the ease of long practice. It had taken him a total of two class periods to get into the habit of keeping a tight hold on his things, just in case. He used to mind a lot more. Now he just sighed.
“Stiles,” he whispered back, “you’re late.”
Late and distinctly disheveled. His hair was a windswept mess, his hoodie askew like he had tried to pull it on one-handed and only barely managed, his cheeks a bright pink. The backpack that had rerouted from its position blocking half of Derek’s desk to the floor where it belonged was only halfway zipped up and hemorrhaging loose paper. Stiles didn’t seem very concerned with any of it. He just slumped back in his seat and leaned in close.
“Yeah, got a little caught up in something on the way here,” he said easily. “Had to do a little running to make it. No worries, though. I’d never leave you to suffer through all by your lonesome.” He threw Derek a bright grin. “You’d miss me too much.”
Derek’s eye roll was immediate and irresistable, just as much a habit as the intrusive backpack and the notes-saving reflexes. It had been his go-to response to Stiles’ flirting since day one, mostly because Derek was bad at flirting and didn’t want to try words when words never seemed to work out too well for him. Too many times he had tried to flirt back at someone and ended up scaring them off or accidentally insulting them or generally fucking it up somehow.
So far, Stiles was the only one who had never seemed put off by his lack of social graces. Stiles always took Derek’s eye rolls for what they usually were: an admission that he was right and Derek just didn’t want to admit it out loud.
This time was no exception, but, unlike most of the previous admissions, this one came with a painful twist in his stomach. Fuck, this was not a complication he needed right now.
Stiles nudged him with an elbow and nodded at his notes again. “So? What is it?”
Derek glanced back down at what he had been sketching; honestly, autopilot had taken over and he hadn’t been paying much attention to what his hands were doing. It was just a simple blueprint at this stage, mostly lines of motion to set up the dynamics and the flow, but it was still obviously meant to be Ignition. The sketchy circle of his fist was engulfed in flames, the blocky lump of his other hand holding a starburst: the beginning of one of his signature explosive projectiles, primed and ready to throw.
God, he was pathetic.
Clearing his throat, Derek hastily tore the page out of his notebook and crumpled it up. He ignored Stiles’ noise of protest and muttered, “If you couldn’t see it well enough to tell what it was, then how did you know it was good?”
“Dude, everything you draw is good!”
Derek stubbornly ignored the way Stiles’ words made his cheeks flush with warmth and busied himself with stuffing the drawing of his soulmate—his fucking soulmate, his perfect match, out there right now being the person he was actually meant to be with—into his own backpack and out of sight.
When Derek didn’t respond, Stiles heaved a sigh and finally turned his attention to the actual lesson. Derek had fifteen blessed minutes where he could tune in exclusively to the TA’s rambling and forget everything around him—no easy feat, but Derek was nothing if not stubborn and determined—before the assignment was passed out and everyone began gathering up their stuff to leave.
Derek hastened to do the same, but Stiles was right there, rocking back on his heels and chewing on his bottom lip.
“So, hey,” Stiles said brightly. “I was gonna go get something to eat. You wanna come with me? I’ve got a punch card for the burger place in the union. One more punch and I get a freebie, and that freebie has your name on it!”
Last week, Derek would’ve been ecstatic over an invitation like that, even if it was only meant as a friendly overture rather than a date-type thing. A part of him was still pretty thrilled, really, the part of him that was stuck on how nice Stiles’ smile was, how soft his messy hair looked, how good it felt to know that Stiles admired his drawings. But the mark on Derek’s shoulder blade itched in that way that he couldn’t ignore, even when he knew that it was entirely in his head.
Stiles wasn’t meant for him. No matter how much Derek wanted him.
“I’ve got a lot of homework to get done,” Derek said, every word a painful effort to get past his lips.
Stiles’ face fell. “Oh.”
“Sorry,” Derek tacked on.
“Nah,” Stiles said quickly. “It’s fine, no worries. Homework’s good—great, even! Stay in school, kids! I’ll just…” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, already sauntering backwards towards the door. “…see you later, then. I guess.”
Derek waited until Stiles had already disappeared out the door before he could bring himself to say, into the empty air where he had been, “Yeah. I guess.”
Apparently Ignition had been involved in a car chase yesterday. Not that he was in a car chase, but that he had been chasing a car. Well, the police had been chasing a car, and Ignition had been the one to catch it, anyway. There was footage all over the news of Ignition zooming over the freeway, propelled by jets of flame from his hands, weaving through SUVs and 18-wheelers and police cruisers until he could grab hold of the criminal’s bumper and drag him to a stop right there in the middle of the road.
Derek watched with everyone else in the union lounge as the police chief issued his statement thanking Ignition for his help in seeing a bad man brought to justice, heart still pounding with the leftover adrenaline of hearing “Did you see? Ignition fought an armored car!” and wondered if this was how it would always be for him. Only knowing his soulmate had been in danger after the fact, through a television screen or newspaper headlines.
Superheroing was a dangerous endeavor. Was this how he would find out his soulmate was dead too?
A hand came down on his shoulder and Derek flinched away from it before he could stop himself. He turned to find Scott with both hands in the air.
“Sorry, bro,” he said. “You okay there? You seem a little jumpy.”
Derek shot a glance back at the screen; the news had moved on to some feel-good piece about a school fundraiser for homeless dogs. Hero business was very exciting, but never for long, at least not for the general public. Most of Derek’s classmates were already drifting away, going about their days, completely unconcerned. Last week, Derek would’ve been unconcerned too.
Instead of admitting how shaken he suddenly was by the sort of news story he’d seen a dozen times before, Derek just said, “I’m fine.” He cleared his throat, turned his back to the television. “What are you doing on campus? I didn’t think you had any classes this afternoon.”
“Oh, I don’t,” Scott told him with a shrug. “But Stiles asked me to pick up some makeup work for him. He missed a couple classes recently, but his TA is a total hardass about his office hours and doesn’t even care that Stiles has legit conflicts and can’t come in then.”
“What a dick.”
Scott laughed. “I know, right? Total douche.”
“Why was Stiles out? Was he sick or something?” Derek asked, trying to think back to days when Stiles had been absent in the last few weeks. They only shared two of their classes, but he couldn’t recall Stiles not being there. He had been late a couple of times, and had ducked out early once, but that was pretty par for the course with Stiles. Derek didn’t remember him looking under the weather at all, even on those days.
Scott only shrugged. “Oh, you know, just stuff he had to do.” Then his face lit up, mouth falling open. “Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask you!” He turned to dig around in his backpack, one finger held up like he expected Derek to run off before he was finished, and finally came out with a little printed flier. “There’s a party on Saturday! You coming?”
Derek took the flier—there was a clip-art surfer dude in one corner, holding a beer and making a cowabunga sign—and raised an eyebrow at Scott.
Scott wasn’t put off. “It’ll be fun,” he said, sing-song. “Stiles will be there.”
Of course he would. And of course Scott knew Derek well enough to use that as his selling point; Derek wasn’t very fond of parties, but he was pretty fond of Stiles. And usually Stiles was pretty fond of him too, but after the day before and the awkward, disappointed, almost hurt look on his face when Derek had turned down his lunch offer, Derek wasn’t so sure that Stiles would be happy to see him.
Derek tucked the flier into his back pocket and said, “I don’t know. I’ve got a lot of studying to do. Maybe.”
“You and your studying,” Scott said in faux disappointment, head shaking. “It can’t all be about studying all the time. Sometimes you gotta live a little, you know that?”
Derek scowled. “I live plenty.”
“Well, you’ll live a little bit more if you come to the party. I’m just saying.”
With a final grin and a punch to the shoulder, Scott headed for the door, off to wheedle Stiles’ makeup work from his stickler of a TA. Derek was left alone to try and ignore the flier in his pocket while the news recapped Ignition’s fight in the background.
Stiles was late again on Wednesday, collapsing into the seat beside Derek’s almost halfway through the lesson. He didn’t even have his backpack this time and he met Derek’s raised eyebrows with a shrug and a shake of his head like it was no big deal, despite the fact that he was obviously winded and panting. It took several minutes for the tension to seep out of his shoulders, and a few more before he finally leaned over to bump his elbow into Derek’s and say, “Miss me?”
It didn’t sound half as confident as it usually did. His grin was as cocky as ever, but his thumb was drumming anxiously against his thigh and his eyes were shifty.
Maybe it was just because of whatever had made him late, but somehow Derek didn’t think so. His stomach gave a guilty squirm; he had never wanted to make Stiles look like that. It had been a few days, most of which had been spent apart anyway, and Derek already missed the easy thing they’d had before this whole “matching soulmarks with an unattainable superhero” thing had started. But they could still have that, right? Having a soulmate didn’t mean that he and Stiles couldn’t banter like they always did.
So, with another one of his typical eye rolls, Derek ripped his most recent doodle out of his notebook—a cartoon dog with sad, droopy ears and a pitifully wagging tail—and shoved it in Stiles’ direction. He did his best to ignore the flip-flopping of his heart at just how much Stiles’ face brightened. He wasn’t allowed to think like that anymore. Instead he tried to turn his attention back to the lecture, but something caught his eye.
There was a hole in the cuff of Stiles’ sleeve. Small, round, and very clearly a burn. Derek thought it might even still be smoking a bit. He was still staring at it when the lights flipped back on and they were dismissed. All around, chatter broke out—apparently there was another big fight downtown—but for once Derek couldn’t be concerned about Ignition.
He grabbed hold of Stiles’ sleeve, interrupting whatever inane comment he’d been spouting, and demanded, “What is this?”
Stiles startled like he hadn’t even noticed it. “Oh,” he said. “Uh, nothing. That’s nothing.” He tried to tug out of Derek’s grip, but Derek held on. The edges of the hole were still hot to the touch.
“Doesn’t look like nothing,” he said. “Looks like a burn. How did this happen?”
“It was nothing, I just—” Stiles finally succeeded in retrieving his arm, pulling it close against his chest. He examined the hole for a second, narrow-eyed, before continuing. “When I was running over here, I ran into this guy, okay? Like, literally. And he was smoking! I must’ve knocked into his cigarette with my windmill arms. No big deal.”
Derek stared at him. A glancing blow to a lit cigarette wasn’t likely to burn a hole all the way through a thick polyester hoodie and leave it still sizzling twenty minutes later. But before Derek could say as much, Stiles was heaving a big sigh and rolling his eyes.
“Dude, it’s whatever, forget about that,” he said with a sweeping wave of his hand. “I was trying to ask you something. Can I finish asking you the thing now?”
It was an obvious deflection. Derek didn’t like it—couldn’t help wondering why Stiles would feel the need to lie about something that small—but honestly, Stiles was fine, so what did it really matter where a tiny burn came from? In the end, he let the rest of his concern-fueled inquisition die on his tongue and nodded.
Stiles nodded back, emphatic in his victory. Then he cleared his throat, shifted on his feet, ran his fingers through his hair in that way that always left it a spiky mess.
“So, uh. There’s this party,” he began. “On Saturday. Scott said he mentioned it to you. Anyway, I was just wondering if you might wanna… I mean, last time you said you had homework, which is totally legit and fine, but I thought I’d see if maybe you might have less homework this time and be up for going. To the party. With me.”
Derek’s heart sank, even as it clenched and spun and tried so hard to leap up with how much he wanted to say yes. But he couldn’t. Not anymore.
“Stiles,” he said, and the reaction was immediate. Stiles stepped back, already shaking his head.
“Fuck, I’m being pushy, aren’t I?” he mumbled. “Can’t take a hint, that’s me! That’s always me. Okay, that’s— I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be—”
“I have a soulmate,” Derek blurted out.
Stiles froze, eyes wide, and Derek’s face flushed under the sudden scrutiny.
“It’s not you,” he said, which was possibly the worst, stupidest, most cliche thing he could’ve chosen to say in this moment, but it was also true. “I mean, you didn’t…do anything wrong. It’s just— I’m just—”
“Taken,” Stiles filled in hoarsely. “You’re just taken. Right.”
“No, of course you are. Why wouldn’t you be?” Stiles laughed, head ducked down to hide his face now, and the painful rasp of it scraped at Derek until he wanted nothing more than to pull Stiles into his arms, his soulmate be damned. “That’s, uh. That’s great, Derek,” he said, a pitiful attempt at cheer. “Really, it is! That’s great for you. I’ll leave you to your mated bliss, then.”
He turned to leave, slumped shoulders twice as obvious without his usual backpack slung over them, and Derek couldn’t just let him leave. Not like this. He caught Stiles’ hand, which was every bit as warm and callused and inviting as Derek had always imagined it would be, except that it tried to pull away.
Derek held on that little bit tighter, just long enough to say, “Stiles, I’m sorry.”
Stiles’ fingers flexed in his grip, wrapping around his in a sad, split-second imitation of holding his hand, and then they were gone.
“Me too,” Stiles said. “I wish you and your soulmate a long and happy life together. You deserve that.”
Derek didn’t stop him this time and was left alone, standing in an empty classroom until the TA of the next session came in to chivy him out, and for just those few minutes, Derek hated Ignition.
He couldn’t make himself hate Ignition for long. Resent him for ruining any and all chance he had for happiness in his life, sure, but not hate. Ignition was just too much of a hero for that. And not the obnoxious, showboat-y kind of hero either. Some of the superheroes nowadays liked to hog the spotlight, to brag and posture and grandstand and issue challenges to villains so they could prove their mettle. But Ignition didn’t go in for all that fanfare. Even the few times he had given interviews, he’d always come across as humble, down to earth, genuinely caring, and funny.
Damn it, Derek was a sucker for funny. Stiles had proven it, but Ignition was certainly no exception.
Reading those interviews with their sharp wit and unyielding dedication to protecting the city and its citizens, replaying the news coverage and press conferences he’d been featured in, watching the youtube videos of him zooming in to save children from fucking burning buildings and then make light shows out of sparks to stop their crying or make them laugh—it wasn’t hard for Derek to imagine loving Ignition.
But he didn’t have him. And he probably never would, not with the rampant media abuse and hysterical stalker culture surrounding superheroes being what it was. With the many, many layers of secrecy and protection put in place for superheroes’ safety and privacy, Derek would likely never even get to know his soulmate’s real name, much less have a chance to actually provide verification of their bond. It just wasn’t going to happen.
Which was why Derek was now sprawled out on his couch, halfway through a pint of ice cream, watching nature documentaries because he couldn’t focus well enough to follow anything with a plot. One hand held a spoon, shoveling chocolate into his mouth with alarming speed, and the other held his favorite and most comforting pen. He was already halfway through the sketchbook on his lap and practically every page was full of Ignition. He just couldn’t seem to help himself; drawing was his way of processing his emotions, and hell if he didn’t have a lot of emotions tangled up in that particular masked man.
There might have been a few sketches of Stiles too, but Derek had ripped those out. He wasn’t sure he had the right to draw him, and besides, it felt weird to have him and Ignition side by side like that. Insensitive, maybe. He couldn’t bring himself to crumple those drawings up, though, so they were keeping him company, face down on the seat next to him.
It was all a little pathetic, but he had given up any claim to dignity when he dug the rocky road out of the freezer.
Derek was just pressing play on a documentary about lion seals when a monumental groan sounded from behind him and the tornado of blonde curls that was Erica came careening in to lean over the back of the couch beside him.
“Really, Derek? Really? This is unacceptable,” she declared. “Get up, we’re going out.”
“No way,” Derek tried to say. It wasn’t particularly successful around his spoon, but he was pretty sure it got the message across.
Only, Erica ignored him. Snatching the remote off the side table, she turned off Derek’s lion seals and said, “Get off your ass, Der. It is Saturday night and you are not gonna sit in here and mope all night like a total mopey loser.”
Derek stabbed his spoon into the goopy remains of his half-melted ice cream. He knew it was Saturday, thank you very much. He’d been trying very hard to forget that it was Saturday, which was a very difficult endeavor when people kept reminding him about it. Scott had texted him six times since that morning, still trying to convince him to come to that stupid party. He had even gone so far as to tell him that Stiles was not going to be there—which proved conclusively that, one, Stiles was still upset, and two, Scott knew everything that had gone down between them because of course he did—as if that was some kind of incentive.
Whether Stiles was there or not, Derek wasn’t in the mood for a party. He tried to convey as much through a pointed glare, but Erica had been his friend for years now and she was nearly as immune to his dirty looks as his sisters were. Only Boyd was more impervious. Instead of admitting defeat and leaving him alone, Erica let out a long sigh and came to sit on the arm of the couch, toes nudging up under his thigh and one hand landing on the back of his neck to play with the soft hair there.
“Honey, I don’t know what’s up with you,” she said, simple and frank and nonjudgmental enough to actually make him feel guilty for not telling her everything even though he knew she didn’t expect him to. “I don’t know why you’re so upset. But I do know that, when you get in your head like this, you get stuck there. If I let you brood for days on end, the brooding’s only gonna get worse and worse, and that’s not good for you.”
Derek stared despondently at the blank TV screen, already missing the lion seals he hadn’t been paying any attention to. He let out a sigh of his own. “Just one more day?” he asked with little hope.
Erica gave his neck a light squeeze. “Sorry, honey,” she said. “It’s already been three, and you know what they say: three strikes and you have to get out of the house.”
Derek snorted. “I don’t think that’s how the saying goes.”
“It’s how my saying goes.” Erica shrugged and levered herself off the couch. “Now come on. We’ve got places to be.”
As she disappeared down the hall toward her bedroom, Derek called after her, “Does this mean I have to put on real pants?”
“Yes,” she yelled back. “But I do give you permission to bring your sketchbook and hide in a corner if you must.”
Coming from her, that was a big concession and a pretty square deal. With one final moment of mourning for the comfortable den of sloth and self-pity he was being dragged out of—and one lingering brush of his fingers over the little pile of portraits he wouldn’t let himself look at—Derek heaved himself to his feet to get changed.
As long as they didn’t go to that party, he could make it through the night.
It was that fucking party.
Erica’s little VW Bug rolled up in front of the frat house, already bursting with people and loud music and flashing lights, and Derek seriously considered wrestling the wheel out of her grip and doing an immediate U-turn.
“No,” he said. “No, no, no. Erica, no!”
She threw the car in park and said, “Erica, yes,” just to be contrary.
Derek shot her a dark look, which she mirrored back at him. Then her face softened a bit. “Derek, just for a little while. Please? He’s not even gonna be here. And, no,” she said, holding up a hand to forestall his obvious alarm, “Scott didn’t tell me your business. I’m just not an idiot.”
Derek collapsed back into his seat. Some announcer had hijacked the radio station to announce on a big fight just out of town, one of those that didn’t end well for anybody even if the good guys technically won. Ignition’s name was mentioned—he wasn’t going to comment, though. He never made statements after a hard win—and Derek swatted blindly at the volume knob until it shut off. The sketchbook in his lap felt way too heavy for a stack of paper.
“How about this?” Erica proposed. “If I see any evidence of Stiles’ presence in the building, I will text you to get out of dodge. Or I’ll scream like a little girl and you’ll know to run.”
Derek just huffed out a weak laugh, eyes on the line of solo-cup-wielding coeds that littered the front lawn, and Erica sighed again—not one of her big, melodramatic, performative sighs, but the small one that only came out when she’d run out of words.
“Think about it,” she said, giving his shoulder a squeeze. “I’m going inside to at least say hi to Boyd. Join me if you want, or text me an executive override and I’ll come back and take you home. Okay?”
Derek didn’t respond. Finally, she slid out of the car and shut the door behind her, leaving Derek alone in the silent car.
She would be back in an instant if he texted. His best friend could be a little pushy sometimes, but she always meant well and the second he said the word, she would back off. He could be back in his sweatpants watching nature documentaries in twenty minutes, and Erica would gladly sacrifice her whole evening to make it happen.
But Boyd met her on the house’s front porch with a smile, a kiss, and a drink, and he didn’t want to take her away from that.
He could just stay in the car. He had his sketchbook, and she had left him the keys. But it was mid-March and still pretty cold out after dark, and putting the heater on for hours would run down the car battery. Absently, Derek wondered if Ignition would be able to heat a car to a comfortable temperature or if his powers were too strong for something that soft.
A girl stumbled past his window, not wearing enough layers for the chill but laughing anyway. She gave him a bleary grin and a wave when she noticed him. He waved back.
Stiles wasn’t here. Scott had said he wouldn’t be, and if there was anyone who could be trusted to know Stiles’ whereabouts at any given time, it was Scott. And if by some miracle he was wrong and Stiles did show up, he and Erica and Boyd could all be counted on to give Derek enough warning to escape the unbearably painful encounter that would be.
There was no reason for him not to go inside, even if it was only for a few minutes. Maybe Erica was even right and it would be good for him to get his mind off everything.
He still took his sketchbook, held tight against his stomach to keep it out of the way of loosely held drinks in danger of spilling as he wound his way through the yard and into the packed house. How many of those little flyers had Scott printed up and handed out? It looked like most of the chapter was present, and plenty from the surrounding houses too. The music was loud enough to shake the framed pictures on the walls, the common room was full to bursting of people grinding on each other, and no one paid Derek a single bit of attention.
It wasn’t terrible. Not thinking about the things he didn’t want to think about was easy when there was so much going on around him and he let himself get lost in the rhythm of it for a while. Erica found him before too long, smacking a kiss onto his cheek and offering to get him a drink if he wanted one. It was obvious she’d already had a few, though, and one of them had to be sober enough to drive them home, so Derek let Boyd drag her back toward the makeshift dance floor before she could follow through.
He got himself a coke from the kitchen. He chatted with a girl from his Tuesday anatomy lecture. He almost got roped into a discussion of the latest superhero gossip, rescued by a group of jocks swapping basketball stats. One very drunk girl tried to get him to dance with her, only releasing him from her clutches when he finally convinced her that he was not that guy from Days Of Our Lives like she seemed to think.
All in all, Derek might concede that the party was decent. But it was also a lot. Thankfully, Erica had given him her permission—for whatever that was worth—to tap out when he’d had enough.
He wasn’t overwhelmed enough to bail yet, but he did sequester himself in the least crowded corner of the rec room and commandeer a lumpy loveseat. The pencil, while not as good or as comforting as his favorite pen, had been a safer bet to bring to a frat party, and it worked perfectly fine for his purposes now. He wasn’t aiming for masterpieces or anything, just something simple and familiar to engage.
People mostly left him alone. Apparently one person sketching quietly in a corner wasn’t as exciting as the latest dubstep track or the keg stand going on in the next room, and Derek had almost ten full minutes to immerse himself in a new comic of Ignition in mid-battle. He was so caught up in getting the curve of his outflung arm just right that he barely noticed his phone buzzing in his pocket.
He also didn’t notice the drunk guy, shoulder-checked too hard by his equally drunk friend, until the sketchbook was knocked out of his hand entirely. It was like someone had suddenly turned the volume back up, his peaceful little zoned-out bubble popped, and the chaos of the party came crashing back in all at once in one big rush, twice as jarring for having been blocked out.
“Hey!” Derek cried, trying and failing to keep a hold of his precious pad. It hit the floor despite his efforts, pages crumpling against the carpet, a few loose ones fluttering free to scatter at their feet. “Fuck. Why don’t you watch where you’re going?”
The drunk guy laughed, trading back-slaps with the friend who’d knocked him over to start with, and said, “Sorry, bro, my bad.”
Derek knelt down to yank one of his drawings—a good one, too, one that he’d spent hours working on right after that first news footage with Ignition’s mark had aired and he’d been out of his mind trying to process that life-ruining bombshell—out from under the guy’s fucking dirty sneaker and snapped, “Yes, your bad. Will you move?”
“Jeez, dude,” drunk guy sneered, stumbling back just enough for Derek to rip the page out from under him. “Chill out, will you? It’s just a bunch of cartoons. What’s the big deal?”
Before Derek could stuff all the pages back where they belonged, the guy was bending down to snatch up the few that had fluttered out beyond Derek’s reach. And then he was laughing again, loud and delighted in that mocking sort of way, elbowing his friend to make sure he saw.
“Oh, this is the big deal,” he announced. “Looks like someone’s got a crush! God, they’re all of Ignition, aren’t they? Talk about obsessed.”
Derek flushed. The guy’s friend yanked the disheveled pad right out of his hands, and Derek was too stunned to even stop him. He flipped it open with relish. “What’re you, one of those nutjobs?” he asked, more than loud enough for everybody in the room to hear. “Think he’s your soulmate or something? Somebody call TMZ.”
Derek’s fingers dug into the carpet beneath him just for something to hold onto. He felt a little nauseous, overheated and off balance. And to think he’d actually been having a good time earlier.
He forced himself to his feet, doing his best to ignore the muttering all around, raised voices out in the hallway—he thought he could make out Erica, maybe, too far away to help—the condescending smirks on those jerks’ faces. He didn’t argue the accusation; there was nothing he could possibly say that wouldn’t just make him look even more pathetic, so he just held out a hand. “Give them back.”
Drunk guy held a drawing up in front of him, displaying it, and said, “What? Do you miss your boyfriend?”
“For fuck’s sake,” Derek ground out, “just give it back.”
He snatched the drawing back out of Derek’s reach, passing it off to his guffawing friend, and said, “Or what, tough guy?”
Derek didn’t know what. Normally, he could’ve handled this. He could alpha-male-posture with the best of them when he wanted to, could hold his own against any douchey frat bro who wanted to step up to him, could put them in their place and laugh about it later. But not tonight. Tonight he was worn down and stressed out and a little bit heartsick for a multitude of reasons, and he didn’t have the energy to fight when all he really wanted to do was not be here anymore.
If the guys hadn’t had his entire sketchpad, he might’ve just walked away, left them to the mercy of the judgmental crowd without anyone to bully for a spectacle. But they did and he couldn’t just leave that behind. Not with how much of himself he’d spilled out on those pages. It was a raw, exposed feeling to have their hands all over his private work, the ones no one was ever supposed to see except for him.
He was about to make another demand—as if it had done him any good the first two times—when the louder voices from the hallway finally made it into the rec room and a hand came down on the drunk guy’s shoulder.
“Is there a problem here, boys?” asked Stiles, a tight smile on his face.
Scott was at his back, grimacing at Derek in what looked like an apology, probably because he had sworn Stiles wouldn’t be at this stupid fucking party. And yet here he was, because Derek’s luck was just that bad nowadays. Though, admittedly, he didn’t exactly look party-ready. He was strangely pale, dark circles under his eyes, clothes rumpled and dirty. He had a nervous sort of energy to him too, a kind that Derek had only seen on him a couple of times, wound up and thrumming with it.
The guy tried to shrug his hand off. “Nah, man. Just having a chat with our buddy here.”
But Stiles wasn’t letting go. “Really?” he asked. “Because it sort of looks to me like we have a problem.”
“It’s not a problem,” Derek said through gritted teeth, nails digging into his palms with how tightly his fists were clenched. “I just want my stuff back.” And to get the hell out of there.
“Yeah, man,” Stiles said, decidedly unfriendly despite the casual address. “Why don’t you give your buddy here his stuff back?”
The guy didn’t seem to recognize the warning in Stiles’ tone. He snagged the sketchpad from his friend and flipped through it again. “I dunno,” he said, faux contemplative. “Some of these are pretty good. Think I might keep ‘em.”
“Yeah,” his friend said, elbowing him. “Give ‘em back and you know he’s just gonna go home and fap over his celebrity soulmate.”
A ripple of laughter went through the crowd gathered around them. Derek was only a little mollified that most of it sounded more uncomfortable than amused, but that didn’t make it any less mortifying. And it didn’t stop Stiles from going still and stiff, mouth open and eyebrows up. He shot a look at Scott—equally offended on his behalf—before transferring his shoulder grip from one drunk to the other.
“What’d you just say?”
This one didn’t take as kindly to being manhandled. “Dude, hands off.”
Stiles tightened his hold, fingers digging in until the other man flinched. “Dude, I asked you a fucking question.”
His warning tone had escalated to a neon red alert sign flashing over his head. His target had a mulish look on his face, and Derek had never known Stiles to back down from literally anything ever. This had already escalated more than it needed to, it didn’t need to get any worse, especially not on his behalf.
“Hey,” he tried, “it’s not a big deal, okay? Just let it go.”
“No, Derek, I wanna hear him say it again.”
Stiles gave the guy a hard shake. It knocked him into the first guy, both of them swearing, and even Scott was looking alarmed now. Pretty much all the other party-goers too, many of them inching back out of the way or fleeing the room entirely before the first punch could be thrown. Fuck, Derek did not want any punching to happen, especially because two against one weren’t great odds in Stiles’ favor. Stiles just didn’t seem to care, not with the mood he was in and apparently not when it was Derek they were talking shit about.
It might’ve been touching if it wasn’t going to get his ass kicked.
Derek reached out to grab hold of Stiles’ arm, to drag him away before this could reach critical mass. “Stiles, I said it’s fine, would you just— Ow!”
He pulled his hand back with a hiss of pain. Then he stared at his red, stinging fingers, more than a little bewildered, because that had felt like a burn. Like touching a hot stove-top. That didn’t make any sense, but he didn’t have long to question it because the drunk friend was shouting too and throwing Stiles’ hand off his shoulder, and the first drunk guy was stumbling up to shove at Stiles.
“What the fuck is your deal, man?” he yelled. “Why don’t you mind your own damn business?”
“You’re about to mind my foot up your ass!”
Scott flung himself around in a heartbeat to squeeze in between Stiles and the drunk guys, all of whom looked a half second away from a brawl. “Okay, that’s enough!” he said. “We all need to take a step back and cool off. Got it?”
For a second, it looked like Stiles might plow right through him, but Scott’s hand hovering over his chest seemed to be deterrent enough for him to restrain himself. The other guys eyed Scott, weighing the risk and reward now that another person had joined the fray. Scott didn’t budge under their assessment and, finally, they held up their hands in surrender.
“Whatever, man,” one of them mumbled. “Give the hero-chaser his shit back.”
All thoughts of a truce forgotten in an instant, Stiles surged forward with a growled, “You son of a—” but Scott headed him off again. He didn’t grab Stiles or shove him back. He didn’t touch him at all, just blocked his path and held up both hands like he was warding off a dangerous animal or something.
“No, Stiles, look at me,” Scott hissed, urgent and pointed. “You need to cool off. Do you hear me? Cool. Off.”
Everyone was still for a moment, even the drunk guys frozen in place, waiting to see if the other shoe would drop. Stiles was breathing hard, fists clenching and unclenching at his sides, and Derek could practically feel his anger as a physical thing, like a heatwave over sun-soaked asphalt. His fingers still stung.
Abruptly, Stiles pulled himself back. He scrubbed a hand over his face, rolled his shoulders, gave his head a hard shake. Then, with a muttered curse, he turned on his heel and made a beeline for the door, the few remaining onlookers shrinking back to stay out of his way.
Derek let out a long, shaky breath. Before he could draw in another one, the drunk guy with his sketchpad scoffed and threw it. Fucking threw Derek’s pad into the air, loose pages scattering and raining down all around him. And in one last, fantastic display of assholeishness, he made sure to ram Derek with his shoulder on his way towards the door, knocking him right into some hapless bystander and dousing them both in tepid beer.
The bystander babbled out an apology, and everyone in the room was talking now that the show was over, and Scott had a hand on his shoulder asking if he was okay, and his drawings were wrinkled and torn and beer-splattered, and it was all just too much.
Derek walked out, ignoring Scott calling after him and leaving the drawings where they were. They were ruined anyway.
The frat house’s second floor was a lot quieter. Derek wasn’t sure if it was because most of the party-goers knew to keep it to the first floor, or just because things were winding down and a lot of them had already left, but he was grateful for it anyway. The only dude he passed on his way to the nearest bathroom took one look at his soaked shirt and offered him a dry one.
Derek knew he was emotionally done for the night when that simple gesture sort of made him want to cry.
He should’ve known he wouldn’t be able to avoid his friends for long, though. He had just pulled his shirt over his head and was dabbing at his damp chest with a wad of toilet paper when the bathroom door creaked back open. Erica leaned in, bottom lip clamped firmly between her teeth.
“Hey,” she said weakly. “I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
Derek wanted to snap at her that, no, he was very much not okay. He wanted to be angry at her for bringing him to this stupid party in the first place. He wanted to blame her for not getting him out of there before he could run into Stiles.
But that wasn’t fair. She had tried, and it wasn’t her fault that Stiles had shown up when he wasn’t supposed to, or that Scott had failed at running interference, or that Derek hadn’t checked his fucking texts.
So, no, Derek wasn’t going to snap at her. But he also wasn’t going to lie and say he was fine. He just braced himself on the bathroom counter and took a moment to breathe through the shaky, overstimulated feeling of too much too fast. He should’ve just stayed home.
After a long minute of silence, Erica offered up, “I got this back for you. Most of it, anyway. I think a few of pages got away.”
She held out his sketchbook. It was still crumpled and bent, but she had obviously made an effort to put the pages back in their places and straighten them out as best she could. Derek took it from her, fingers curling protectively around the familiar shape of it, and some of the hesitancy leaked out of her.
“I can take you home,” she said. “I should take you home. I’ll go get the—”
She froze, halfway back into the hall, confused.
“No,” Derek said again. “I’ll walk.”
Erica frowned at him. “I can drive you,” she insisted. “Or Boyd can, he hasn’t had anything in over an hour, you don’t need to—”
“It’s not that,” Derek cut across her, “and I’m not mad or anything, I promise, I just…”
Her face softened a bit. “Are you having one of your introvert crashes?”
That surprised a laugh out of Derek. “Yeah, let’s go with that. I’m all full up on social interaction right now.” As if anything that had happened in the last ten minutes could rightfully qualify as such. He sighed, tired all the way to his bones, and let the poor abused sketchpad flop pitifully onto the counter beside the loaned shirt. “I just…really need to be alone. For a while. Please.”
“Okay,” Erica said. “Text me when you get home so I know you’re not dead.”
Derek nodded obediently and reached for the shirt. It looked like it might be a little tight for him in the shoulders, but it had to be better than smelling like Coors Lite and wearing a damp shirt outside right now would probably give him pneumonia, so it would have to do. There were low voices just outside the door as he pulled it on. By the time his head cleared the collar, Scott had taken Erica’s place in the doorway.
Derek didn’t wait for him to ask. “I’m fine, Scott.” Because, as far as he was concerned, exhausted and wrung out totally counted as fine. He tugged the borrowed shirt the rest of the way on, glad to note that the seams didn’t protest too much, and said, “It wasn’t that big of a deal. I don’t need any mother-henning.”
When Scott didn’t actual start in with the mother-henning Derek had come to expect from him, Derek turned to raise an eyebrow at him. Scott didn’t notice at first. He was staring at Derek’s borrowed shirt like he had never seen anything like it in his life. Was it really that astounding? Derek squinted down at his own chest but there was nothing he could see that would warrant that level of shock. Maybe the guy who lent it to him was usually a miser with his stuff and him giving it to Derek was akin to a marriage proposal.
Before he could say anything on the matter, Scott finally seemed to realize what he was doing. His eyes jerked back up to Derek’s face where they were supposed to be, his mouth falling open. “Oh, uh…”
“Are you okay?” Derek asked, a little concerned.
“Yeah,” Scott said quickly. “Yeah, sorry, I just, um… I just wanted to let you know that those two guys left. One of the upperclassmen threatened to call the cops on them if they made any more trouble, so they took off.”
Derek picked up his battered sketchpad with its bent edges and missing pages. Honestly, it probably wasn’t worth actually calling the cops over, no matter what his equally battered feelings had to say about the matter, but he appreciated the fraternity’s willingness to step in on his behalf. He tucked the pad under his arm, tossed his wet shirt in the trash—he hadn't liked it that much anyway—and said, “I’m just gonna head home.”
Scott was staring at him again when Derek turned back around, though he averted his eyes as soon as Derek caught him at it. Then he shifted on his feet, fingers flying up to run through his hair in a nervous gesture much more common in Stiles than in him, and said, “Oh. Oh, okay. That’s good. You have a ride, right?”
Derek expected that to garner a response—worry over the distance and the temperature and the time of night, insistence that he call himself an Uber, maybe even an offer to talk to the frat brothers about borrowing a bed for the night—but Scott just nodded.
“Yeah, okay. Okay, uh, I need to…go…talk to someone about a thing.”
And then he was gone, halfway down the hall before Derek could point out how fucking weird he was being. In the end, Derek decided it didn’t matter. Scott could be as weird as he wanted and Derek didn’t have the energy necessary to deal with it. He was going to go home, wrap himself up in blankets and lion seal documentaries, and stubbornly not think about drunk assholes and ruined drawings and unattainable soulmates.
His fingers were still pinkish, even if the sting had mostly faded, and he wasn’t going to think about that either.
The walk to his apartment wasn’t all that long, at least not for someone in relatively good shape. Derek wouldn’t have chosen to walk it normally, but after all the drama and craziness of the last few hours—the last few weeks, honestly, ever since that ripped suit and stupid broadcast that had changed everything—it felt good to be out in the open air with no walls closing him in. A few of the other houses on the strip had music pouring out of them, but for the most part the streets were empty and Derek was alone.
He was finally starting to relax when a distant pounding of footsteps overcame the low thump of bass from the nearest sorority bash.
“Hey! Hey, Derek, wait up!”
Derek had to close his eyes and take a deep breath, cursing every power that may or may not be, because this was just not fair. He was a good person, wasn’t he? He paid his taxes on time and replaced the toilet paper roll. He did not deserve this shit.
He sped up, clutching his sketchpad to his chest like a shield and wishing it hurt less to walk away from Stiles. It didn’t do him much good, anyway. By the end of the street, he could hear heavy breathing, and as he rounded the next corner, Stiles came careening up beside him.
“Jeez, Derek, did you—” He broke off to pant a bit, bent over, hands on knees. “Did you hear me?”
“Yes, Stiles, I heard you.” Derek brushed past him and kept going.
Stiles groaned. “You’re mad, okay. That’s totally fair and understandable, but Derek, I really gotta talk to you about something that Scott said, so if you could maybe just—”
“I don’t want to talk to you right now, Stiles.”
It was only half a lie. Derek’s baseline state of being was wanting to talk to Stiles, or be with Stiles, or look at Stiles’ face and make him laugh. But that wasn’t something Derek was in a position—or the mood—to acknowledge, not tonight and not with a stack of drawings of his actual soulmate in his arms.
Derek rolled the itch out of his shoulder and walked a little faster in the hopes that Stiles would give up and let him go. He had certainly seemed to give up the last time Derek had rejected him (which was good, he reminded himself, it was the way things were supposed to be).
Not this time, though. Go figure.
“I’ve got one of your…”
Stiles came around in front of Derek again, a torn piece of paper in his hand: a sketch of Ignition, both gauntleted hands raised with the stylistic starburst of an explosive blast blooming between them. There was a bootprint laid overtop, but it didn’t detract from the intense look of concentration in his dark eyes, the only things visible through his mask.
“It got a little, uh…but I figured you might want it back anyway.”
Stiles held it out and, after a long moment, Derek took it. He didn’t try to fit it back into the book for fear of dropping the whole thing on the sidewalk, just clutched it in his hand. The nearest streetlight threw a halo of light down on them both, casting Stiles’ features in gold, highlighting the cut of his jaw and the slope of his nose, the rosiness of his cheeks in the cool night air.
Derek remembered the little stack of portraits on his couch and could only be grateful he had thought to tear them out. It was bad enough that everyone thought he was a hero-chaser with a hysterical match, they didn’t need to know about his dumb crush too. Both situations were equally hopeless and equally painful.
He shoved the paper into his back pocket, not really caring if it got even more fucked up than it already was, and turned away. That Stiles scrambled to follow him wasn’t a surprise, but it was annoying.
“Look, I’m sorry if I made things worse in there, okay?” Stiles said. “I may have lost my cool a little bit.”
Derek snorted, unimpressed. “A little bit? Fucking understatement.”
“I know, I know. It’s just been…a rough day,” he said heavily. “Like, a really rough one.”
From the corner of his eye, Derek could see Stiles rubbing at his face. He still looked pale and tired. Honestly, he looked about as worn down as Derek felt, and Derek had the urge to wrap Stiles up in his arms and comfort him. That was a stupid urge, though, especially after the goddamn show Stiles had put on earlier. He had made things worse, and his bad day didn’t mean that his attitude hadn’t made Derek’s day worse too.
“And then those guys,” Stiles was saying, oblivious to Derek’s rising frustrations.
The guys who probably would have walked away a lot sooner if Stiles hadn’t shown up to push the issue. Derek’s jaw clenched, teeth squeaking together, and his knuckles turned white where they clutched at his sketchpad.
“Fuck, man, and the shit they were saying to you? I couldn’t just let them talk to you like that, not when—”
Derek’s frustration took a sharp turn into anger.
“Yes, you could have,” Derek snapped. “You could’ve let them say whatever they wanted. Who gives a shit what they say? It wasn’t worth starting a fucking brawl over.”
Stiles had the gall to look taken aback, as if he couldn’t even comprehend Derek’s words.
“Of course you’re worth it,” he said. “Derek, no one gets to talk about you like that, especially not over—”
“Jesus, Stiles, it’s not your job to defend my fucking honor, okay? You’re not my soulmate!”
The words hit hard. They echoed in the quiet of the residential street, far now from the parties of fraternity row, and Derek’s throat locked up almost immediately like it already wanted to take them back. But he couldn’t. And it wouldn’t matter if he did because they were the unavoidable truth. Stiles didn’t get to come riding in to play at being Derek’s white knight like he had any right to that. Derek didn’t need that bullshit, not on top of the actual hero whose mark burned beneath his borrowed shirt.
Stiles had stopped keeping pace with him. Derek turned to see him rooted to the sidewalk, head down and shoulders hunched. He looked small in the puddle of the streetlight and Derek’s righteous indignation died out as quickly as it had flared up, because that had been a hell of a low blow. Because Stiles had been trying to help, as surely as Erica had, even if he had gone about it all wrong.
Derek had an apology on the tip of his tongue when Stiles raised his head to look him in the eye, all boldness and intensity, and said, “Then who is?”
Derek’s face flushed before he had fully comprehended the question. Even when he had: “What?”
“Your soulmate,” Stiles clarified. “When I asked, you— You said you have one, but you’d never mentioned them before and no one knew anything about you seeing anyone, and now this whole thing.”
His gaze dropped to the sketchbook in Derek’s arms. Derek hugged it tighter and grit his teeth, a pit opening up in his stomach and hero-chaser echoing in his head. He had never thought that Stiles of all people might not believe him, that he might actually buy in to what those jerks had been saying about a hysterical match, but it stung a hell of a lot.
“You want to hear about my celebrity boyfriend too?” he bit out. “Gonna call TMZ?”
Stiles eyes went wide. He shook his head, hands coming up in surrender. “No! God, no, Derek, that’s not what I meant, I—”
“What does it even matter, huh?” Derek demanded, advancing on Stiles. “What, I turned you down so clearly I must be delusional? Is that it? Why does it matter who my soulmate is as long as it’s not you?”
Stiles stumbled back a step, but still he said, “Because it might— I just need to know if—”
“Because I’m Ignition!”
Everything stopped, all movement and sound suspended in the wake of Stiles’ words. Derek wasn’t sure that either of them so much as breathed. They were close enough for Derek to see the light freckles dusted across Stiles’ nose, feel the heat of his hands—heat, his stinging fingers reminded him, like touching a stove-top—hear the click of his dry throat as he swallowed.
“You’re—” He stopped, shook his head. “What?”
Stiles’ hands dropped limply to his sides, then fanned out in a helpless shrug. “I’m Ignition,” he said again. “I am him, and he is me, and my manager is gonna kill me for telling you that, but I think maybe she’ll forgive me given the circumstances.”
Derek shook his head again because that didn’t make sense. It didn’t add up, not at all, except that it did, and that didn’t make sense either. There was no way that silly, clumsy, sweet, perpetually late to class Stiles could be—
—could be holding fire in his hand. Right there on the sidewalk, in the middle of a random residential street, standing there with a little flame hovering above his palm, its small light battling against the streetlamp’s brighter glow.
But there he was, doing it, and that wasn’t something that Derek’s eyes could deny. Even so, he found himself scrambling for his sketchpad, snatching out the first drawing he came across of Ignition in mid-battle, a flame in his hand just like Stiles had right now.
Dark eyes through the mask, intense and watchful, also just like Stiles.
A burn in the sleeve of his hoodie, too big for a glancing blow to a lit cigarette.
Late to class, winded and worn out, gossip of the latest battle already flying in his wake.
A really bad day and a radio report of a barely there victory.
Derek’s voice was hoarse and shaky when he finally managed, “You’re Ignition?”
Stiles scratched at the back of his neck, shrugged. “The name wasn’t actually my idea,” he said. “But sadly, Sparky-Sparky-Boom-Man was already taken.” He gave a weak laugh. “And, you know, I hate that suit? Stupid fucking flimsy suit. I wanted real armor, but apparently that’s too expensive and too hard to change into and out of quickly, which would’ve made the whole ‘superhero-ing and attending college at the same time’ thing a lot trickier. At least armor wouldn’t have ripped open, though. I knew that whole mark slip thing was gonna be trouble. My manager’s been flooded with false match claims and I thought I’d never find my—”
He broke off. He let the flame die out, and his hand shook when he raised it to rub at his mouth.
“But then Scott,” he went on. “Scott saw your mark, back at the house, when you were changing.”
Of course. God, Derek was an idiot. There had been no reason for a borrowed shirt to make Scott that flustered. He should’ve realized what else he could’ve been staring at. He had seen Derek’s mark, and he was no doubt familiar with Stiles’ mark—and his secret career, all those “things” he had to do, the reasons he was missing classes—and had run off to tell him.
Derek couldn’t bring himself to be mad at the breach of his privacy. He wasn’t sure he had the capacity to feel anything but stunned at the moment, and stupid for not putting the pieces together sooner, even if “that cute guy in your Tuesday class is secretly the most powerful superhero in the city” wasn’t exactly the most intuitive leap to make.
And also his soulmate.
That thought probably should’ve processed a lot sooner, but it hit Derek full force right then, Stiles and Ignition and soulmark all finally melding together, and Derek was tossing his sketchpad aside to reach for Stiles’ hoodie before he could think better of it. Stiles only protested a little bit to Derek manhandling him, more out of confusion than alarm, until Derek had him turned around and his shirts rucked up to expose the smooth, pale expanse of his back.
There it was, clearer than any news broadcast had managed to capture it and identical in every way to the one that graced Derek’s own back.
Derek traced it with his fingers, following the familiar, graceful lines of it. The skin was hot to the touch. Not as hot as it had been inside, during the fight, when it had burned like an open flame, but still a stark contrast to the bite of chill in the night air. He laid his palm flat over the mark, soaking up the heat. Stiles shivered but didn’t move away.
“You never said.”
Lean muscle shifted and rolled as Stiles shrugged again. “Protocol,” he said simply. “My job—my life—is dangerous. It’s best to keep things as separate as possible. Things don’t always…go well…for the people superheros try to get involved with.”
Derek had heard the horror stories. Everyone had. Superheros’ loved ones being threatened, their children kidnapped, their spouses or soulmates used as leverage by villains willing to do anything to get an edge. It was an occupational hazard, one that every superpowered individual knew and accepted before they stepped up to take on the mantle of hero, and one that their loved ones knew and accepted too.
Loved ones like him. Derek had to fight down a smile; it was probably irrational to be so pleased at the prospect of being targeted by a supervillain.
“But you asked me out anyway,” he pointed out. “How’d your manager feel about that?”
Stiles ducked out from under Derek’s hand with a laugh, tugging his clothes back into place. “Oh, Lydia called me an idiot,” he said, a sheepish grin on his face. “Loudly and repeatedly. But I don’t think she was very surprised. I may have mentioned you a few times. Or a lot of times. An embarrassing amount of times, really. And I’ve always been a little stupid where the people I care about are concerned.”
Derek lost the battle against that smile. He ducked his head to hide it and caught sight of the sketchpad he’d tossed away in his haste. It hadn’t scattered this time, thankfully. He bent to pick it up, but Stiles beat him to it. He dusted off the cover with great care before handing it back. His fingers seemed reluctant to give it up.
“It was kind of weird,” he said, “seeing all your comics of me. Good weird, you know I love everything you draw because it’s all amazing, but like… It was me, but you didn’t know it was me, and it wasn’t, like, me-me anyway, but Ignition-me.”
Derek bit his lip. He glanced off down the street, toward his apartment just another block or two away. “I might have some of you too,” he admitted. “Like, you-you.”
Stiles blinked at him in surprise. “Really?”
Derek nodded. The huge grin that lit up Stiles’ face threatened to make his heart beat out of his chest, and this time, there was no surge of guilt to counter it. There was just Stiles, beaming at him like he was the only person in the world that mattered, and the blissful realization that he had nothing to feel guilty about because he could have this. Because Stiles was meant for him after all.
“I could show you,” he offered. “If you want. I don’t have them with me, but…”
Stiles’ grin turned sly. “Why, Derek, are you inviting me back to your place?”
Derek rolled his eyes, just like he always had in the face of Stiles’ open flirtations, and the familiarity of it was a comfort even if it was so, so different now. The effect was probably ruined by the shiver that ran through him, though; without the walking or the yelling to keep him active, it really was pretty chilly out.
Stiles didn’t miss it. “Cold?”
“Maybe a little,” Derek said. “Didn’t actually dress for walking home.”
Sidling in a bit closer, Stiles said, “I could maybe take care of that for you.”
Derek raised an eyebrow. A thought from earlier returned to him, about Ignition’s powers and what they could do, if they could be as gentle as they were forceful. When Stiles wrapped an arm around his shoulders, blanketing him in a soft warmth like the glow from a fireplace, he knew they could be.
He leaned into the cozy sensation with a groan. “I could definitely get used to this.”
“Yeah, you better,” Stiles said, holding him close. “Because now that I know I have you, there’s no way I’m letting you go.”