Derek took a deep breath as he entered the library, enjoying the familiar smell of old books and the warmth as he came in from the chill. It was unseasonably cold for late winter, and he was hoping spring would come on soon. But he always found himself taking that deep breath when he got inside. The library was his favorite place in Beacon Hills, a safe place where he could have peace and quiet.
He supposed it was interesting, in a psychological sort of way, that the quiet of the library felt so different from the quiet of his house. His house was often quiet, because Kate would leave for days at a time. He hated it when his house was quiet, because it was a cold sort of quiet, a quiet where there should have been noise. The noise of pets and children, things he had always wanted but could never have. The quiet of the library was a warm sort of quiet, the quiet of communal learning and respect for knowledge.
There was really no reason for him to go to the library to study. His house was huge – three bedrooms, two and a half baths, far larger than it needed to be for just him and Kate – and there was plenty of room for him to study even when Kate was there. He had stopped going for a while, but then picked it up again when the tournament season was over and Kate was home more. She often made fun of his studies, his three years pursuing his graduate thesis, and harped on him to ‘get a real job’.
Derek didn’t see why she cared. They had plenty of money. His parents had both been rich before they even met each other, and had only gotten richer from there. They supported him without question. In fact, when Derek had started talking about dropping out of school – at the time he had still been in college – so he could earn money to give Kate the lifestyle she wanted – they had forbidden him from doing so unless it was what he really wanted. They bought the house Kate demanded, a modern-style eyesore that felt more like an artpiece than a home. They paid the utilities and the credit card bill. She frequently teased him for living off his parents’ money, but that sure as hell didn’t stop her from spending it.
Kate earned money on her own, from her tournaments, but insisted that she be able to keep it separate. For a while, Derek had argued with her about why her money was her money, but his money was their money, but after a while she had worn him down and he had stopped fighting. Money wasn’t important to him, and it just wasn’t worth it.
She was his soulmate, and he would take care of her.
He sank into the chair at one of the study carrels and pulled a book out of his backpack. ‘The History of the Soulmate Ceremony’ was the title. He had read it cover to cover so many times that he practically had it memorized.
It was a fascinating subject, honestly, detailing how the mechanics of the soulmate magic had been explored as early as the seventeen hundreds. How it had been used to settle wars in Europe and spread from there across all the continents. How science had at first been baffled but then started finding chemical evidence for the bond. How the laws had been introduced to regulate the system and put everybody on the same page.
Nothing new had really been discovered in the past two decades, and Kate frequently mentioned that she didn’t know what Derek thought he was going to contribute. “If you have to study, couldn’t you at least study something useful?” she asked.
Sociology was pointless and more importantly wouldn’t pay the bills, Kate said, but Derek had gotten his degree in it anyway and made an excuse about it being too late to change his major.
“Excuse me, do you know where I can find . . .” Derek heard someone say, and he glanced over at the help desk. He had noticed a couple months back that there was a new guy at the help desk, and, well. He was cute. Derek had caught him looking over a few times, like he was thinking about saying something, but then decided against it. He wondered if maybe the cute librarian hadn’t met his soulmate yet.
He had met Kate when he was fifteen, but that was actually fairly unusual. Most people didn’t learn who their soulmates were until the ceremony was done, the day after their nineteenth birthday. That meant the older of the pair would always find out first. But social convention generally dictated that they would wait until the younger had also had their ceremony.
Kate didn’t care about societal convention. She was five years older than Derek and had come to meet him less than a year after her ceremony had been performed. “I just couldn’t wait,” she had said, her eyes sparkling. She had been gorgeous and sophisticated and more interesting than any girl his own age could ever be.
They had only met the once, for a few hours when she had come to see him, and for the next four years he had obsessed over the amazing woman who was going to be his wife. He worked out and learned French (she was French) and read articles about the sort of clothing and haircuts women liked. “She’s going to love you,” his mother had assured him, the day before his ceremony.
For the first week, everything had been great. She teased him a little, sure, but it was fine. The next few weeks were . . . fine. So she thought sociology was stupid. He could study something else, or drop out and get a job. She wanted to get married right away, even though he would have preferred to wait until he was out of school. They could get married. The following few months were less fine. She wanted to keep her money separate, and it bothered him but he hated arguing about it. She wanted a fancy house with expensive things, and it meant nothing to him but he supposed he could provide it. She didn’t want kids and she hated animals, both of which were anathema to Derek’s very being.
Bit by bit, it added up until he realized that he didn’t love her, couldn’t love her, that the woman fate and the universe had chosen for him was as unlike him as she could possibly be, and now he was twenty-five and hiding in a library so he wouldn’t have to tell his wife that he was reading a textbook on soulmates for the eighth time in an effort to explain how she could possibly be his. After about an hour and a half, he packed up his things and headed for the exit, still no closer to the answer.
“Hey – hey!” a voice called out, and Derek half-turned a few steps from the door to see the cute librarian standing there. He was taller than Derek had expected; he thought he had only seen him behind the desk where he somehow looked short, but they were actually very close in height. “You left your phone in the study carrel.”
“Oh, thanks,” Derek said, accepting it.
Cute Librarian smiled, which made him twice as attractive, and said, “No problem. See you Thursday!”
With that, he jogged back towards the desk, and Derek headed out into the cold.
~ ~ ~ ~
“Oh my God, I can’t believe I said ‘see you Thursday’,” Stiles moaned at Scott, trying to drown his sorrow, or possibly himself, in a mug of coffee. “I might as well have made myself a sign that said ‘Hi, I’m stalking you’.”
Scott rolled his eyes. “It’s probably not that weird that you know his schedule, if he’s so regular about it.”
“It’s definitely weird,” Stiles argued. “Do you know how many other regulars whose schedules I know? Zero. Nada. Zilch.”
“Okay, but he doesn’t know that,” Scott pointed out.
“That’s true, I guess,” Stiles said, and then sighed. “Then again, it’s not like it matters. It’s not like anything’s going to happen with him, whether he thinks I’m some weirdo stalker or not.”
Scott winced, and it was clear that he didn’t know what to say. He never knew what to say at moments like this. Stiles didn’t blame him. Nobody knew what to say. He could vividly remember the end of his soulmate ceremony, of the silence that had fallen as everyone stared at his blank wrist and tried to figure out why there was no name there.
“Do it again,” Noah had said, and the Druid had obligingly done the ceremony a second time. The results had been the same. The Druid quietly told them that Stiles had no soulmate. It happened, he had said, although it was vanishingly rare. He had never seen it before, over the course of thousands of ceremonies he had performed.
When he thought back on it, the silence was what Stiles remembered most about that day. The awkward shuffling from a group of people who had gathered to celebrate, and now felt they should be offering condolences. Noah had nipped that in the bud, squeezing Stiles’ shoulder and saying, “I guess my son is just too special to match with a mere mortal like the rest of us.”
A nice sentiment, Stiles supposed. The universe apparently didn’t give a shit about his opinion. He didn’t think he was that special at all, and he sure as hell didn’t want to live the rest of his life alone. He had heard other people talk about the moment they had met their soulmate. It sounded amazing. But apparently it was something he was never going to have.
He hated the looks people gave him, when they met him and shook his hand and saw his blank wrist. Confusion, pity, disgust. A lot of people clearly thought there was something wrong with him. He’d heard their murmured comments, seen the way they shook their heads. “I feel sorry for his parents,” somebody said once, thinking he was out of earshot, and that hurt more than anything else. Stiles felt bad for his father, too. He was an only child; his mother was dead. Stiles knew his father would have loved to have grandchildren, and Stiles had been looking forward to being able to provide them.
Noah remained upbeat about it. There were still options, he said. As someone who had lost his soulmate to disease at a relatively young age, he knew that there were other widows and widowers who didn’t want to spend the rest of their lives alone. “You can still find somebody,” he had told Stiles more than once in the two years since the ceremony had failed. “Not that you have to find somebody. If you’re happier being single, that’s fine too!”
Stiles wasn’t. It got worse when Scott and Kira got married and had their first child, when everyone he knew from high school was happily settling down with the person that fate had decreed their perfect match. He was left on the sidelines, watching. And occasionally he met someone attractive and started to get ideas, and seeing the name on their wrist was always like a glass of cold water being thrown in his face.
“Hey,” Scott said, seeing that Stiles was edging towards gloom. “He probably sucks anyway. Like, I bet he clips his toenails in bed and watches Jersey Shore.”
Stiles gave a snort that was combination laughter and annoyance. “Right. Too good for mere mortals, that’s me. And definitely too good for hot graduate students who always hold the door open for people carrying books and – ”
“Stop,” Scott said, shaking his head. “Just stop.”
Stiles grumbled but stopped. “See you Thursday,” he muttered to himself, disgusted. Maybe he really didn’t deserve a soulmate. He couldn’t even talk to a stranger without embarrassing himself.
When Thursday rolled around, he tried to hide behind the desk, hoping that if the hot graduate student turned up, he wouldn’t say anything about what had happened. He showed up at three like he usually did, but he barely glanced at the desk as he came in. Stiles breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn’t going to be an issue. They’d probably never even speak to each other again –
“Excuse me,” a voice said, and when Stiles looked up he was confronted by Hot Grad Student, and nearly jumped fifteen feet into the air. HGS was somehow even hotter up close, now that Stiles could get a good look at his beautiful eyes and adorable little bunny teeth. His voice was gorgeous, too, lighter than Stiles would have expected. He wanted to wrap himself in it and roll around in it. “One of the computers giving me a weird error message.”
“Oh, yeah, they’re from the stone age,” Stiles agreed, coming back to earth and managing to speak in one octave, for which he felt he deserved a medal. “What were you trying to do?”
“I was trying to request a book through interlibrary loan,” Hot Grad Student said, and Stiles had to pinch himself because he shouldn’t get so turned on by a guy knowing what interlibrary loan was. “But it keeps saying that the title isn’t available, even though I can see it in the catalog in San Francisco.”
“Let me come take a look,” Stiles said, because that sounds like an actual problem, not just the usual stoned moron who can’t make internet work good. He followed Hot Grad Student over to the computer and sat down, spinning around in the chair once out of sheer habit before leaning in to take a look. He did a bit of a double take at the title of the work HGS was trying to order, a book called ‘Atypical Soulmates: A Series of Case Studies’, then clicked to order it. As HGS had said, it popped up an error saying the title wasn’t available. Stiles frowned and looked at the book’s information a little more closely. “Oh! I see what happened.”
He spun around in the chair again, then looked up at HGS and said, “See, the book’s in the catalogue twice - one as a text and once as an e-book. You’re trying to order the e-book, and it won’t let you, because those aren’t available through interlibrary loan. You have to click ‘reserve’, not ‘hold’. Presuming you want the e-book. If you want the text, you need to go back to the catalogue and find it.”
“The e-book is fine, but . . .” HGS was frowning. “Why would I need to reserve it? Couldn’t I just check it out?”
Stiles shrugged. “When we have an e-book in the catalogue, we only get a license to have it out to a certain number of people at one time.” He saw the look on HGS’s face and said, “Yeah, it’s kind of stupid. It’s an artificial scarcity issue.”
“Oh.” HGS seemed to roll that over in his mind for a few moments before he said, “Capitalism is the worst.”
Stiles all but swooned. It took effort to keep his voice from cracking as he said, “Hah, yeah, no lies detected. Honestly, you’ll probably get it quicker if you request the actual text - there’s no wait list for it, so you’ll just need to wait for it to be shipped over, rather than waiting for the e-book to become available.”
“All right. Thanks for your help.”
Stiles relinquished the chair with reluctance, forcing himself not to ask any of the questions bubbling around in his brain. Was HGS’s thesis on soulmates? Could he answer some of the million questions Stiles had about the whole thing? Would it be rude to try to hijack him when he was only trying to study? (If he was researching soulmates, was he maybe a little more open-minded about relationships outside them? Would he be up for a night of passionate sex?)
Since the answers was pretty much obviously yes, probably not, definitely, anyone’s guess, and ‘don’t throw yourself at a hot grad student just because he was looking up a book on soulmates’, Stiles forced himself to get back to his work. He catalogued some books, answered some stupid questions, answered some smart questions, and left when his shift was over at four thirty.
The cold hadn’t let up, and he winced as he left the library. He could see his breath as he got behind the wheel of the Jeep, which promptly coughed twice and failed to turn over. “Oh, come on,” he groaned, trying a second time. The sputtering sounded even sadder than usual. He popped the hood and stared down at the engine in glum dismay.
“Need a jump?” a voice asked, and Stiles practically jumped out of his skin again. “Sorry,” HGS said. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“No, you didn’t, I was just, you know, not paying attention. You think it’s the battery?”
“That’s what it sounded like. Cold will drain them fast. I’ve got jumper cables in my car . . .?”
The way he was phrasing it made it sound like a question, which in Stiles’ opinion was kind of stupid, because what else was he going to do, call a tow truck and then wait to freeze to death? “Yeah, that would be awesome. Thanks.”
HGS jogged towards the other side of the parking lot, and a few moments later, a black Camaro pulled up in the space next to Stiles. He felt his cheeks start to flush. Was there anything about this dude that wasn’t sinfully hot?
“Okay, let me just - ” HGS stopped and stared. “Is that duct tape?”
“Maybe,” Stiles said, defensively.
“Is this car literally held together with duct tape?” HGS asked, like he might get a different answer.
“Only parts of it,” Stiles replied.
“Okay . . . so when I jump start your car, you’re going to want to drive straight to a mechanic or an Auto Zone or something so they can put a new battery in. Otherwise it’ll just die again.”
“I know that,” Stiles said. “I mean, I’m not an idiot.”
“Your car is held together with duct tape,” HGS said. “I can’t be blamed for thinking you might not know that.”
Stiles made a face at him, and HGS smirked, the corners of his eyes crinkling with genuine amusement, and Stiles had to look away for a few moments. He definitely didn’t want to watch when those strong, skilled hands started hooking up jumper cables. He was already in enough trouble. Instead, he said to the sky, “I just hope they have a battery for it at Auto Zone. Last time they had to order it. Not a lot of people out there driving Jeeps from the eighties.”
He was really just talking to himself, so he was surprised when HGS replied, “Yeah, I can see how that would be a problem. I can call my sister’s shop - see if she has one.”
“Oh, your sister is a mechanic?” Stiles asked.
“Sort of. I mean, yes. She manages one of my family’s shops.” HGS looked up and frowned, then said, “I’m Derek, by the way. Derek Hale. My family owns Hale’s Angels - you know, the motorcycle chain?”
“Oh, yeah!” Stiles said, recognizing the name. “I’ve seen their commercials. I’m Stiles. Your dad used to be a NASCAR driver, yeah?”
“Yeah. But motorcycles are his passion. My mom is the one who founded the chain of mechanics’ shops. She loves old muscle cars. I grew up around engines. Okay, go turn it over.”
Stiles did, holding his breath, and the Jeep started. “Nice!”
“Let me call my sister real quick.” Derek unhooked the cables and put them back in the trunk of his Camaro, then pulled out his cell phone. “Hey, Laura. Do you have a battery for a 1980 Jeep CJ5 in stock?” There was a long silence, then, “Could you? That’d be great.” He cupped his hand over the phone and said to Stiles, “They don’t have one, but she checked their inventory and said the shop in Santa Rosa does. She’s going to see if anyone there can run it over.”
“That is awesome,” Stiles said. “Thanks for doing this. I mean. You don’t have to.”
Derek just shrugged. A moment later, he said, “Yeah, okay. Thanks. I’ll tell him - oh, a guy I met at the library. Okay. Thanks.” He hung up and said, “So, they’re going to run it over, but it’ll take about an hour, maybe an hour and a half, because Isaac is finishing up with a job right now but he’ll bring it by on his way home. I kind of assumed you wouldn’t mind waiting.”
“No, not a bit,” Stiles said, then on impulse, “Let me buy you dinner. You know, as a thank you.”
Derek flushed faintly pink, which made Stiles want to do cartwheels despite the fact that this relationship was bound to go nowhere. “You don’t have to. I mean, it’s not a big deal.”
“No, but I want to. C’mon, where’s your sister’s shop?”
“It’s at Cooper and Gilbert.”
“Awesome, that’s right near Chase’s diner. They make amazing cheese fries.”
“Well - okay.”
Derek gave Stiles the address to Laura’s shop in case they got separated in traffic, and they drove over. Laura seemed friendly enough, and said it was fine for Stiles to leave his car there while he and Derek grabbed dinner; as soon as they got the battery, they’d pop it in and then she would call him to let him know it was done.
Ten minutes later, Stiles and Derek were seated at the diner. They got their sodas and Stiles insisted on ordering the cheese fries. “So what’s your thesis about?” he asked, trying not to sound too eager. “Soulmates?”
“Yeah, sort of,” Derek said. “Specifically, the mechanics of atypical soulmates. Ninety-four percent of soulmates are romantic pairings, but there’s a small number of pairings who are platonic, or even filial.”
“Filial?” Stiles asked, thinking he got the gist but wanting to be sure he understood.
“Yeah. Related by blood. That’s about zero point five percent of all soulmates, and almost always presents in twins, although very rarely it’ll happen in non-twin siblings. Never in parent/child relationships.”
“That would be creepy somehow,” Stiles said. He cleared his throat and said, “So, uh . . . what made you choose that for a thesis? I’m just, you know, curious.”
He wasn’t sure why, but that caused Derek to tense slightly, his shoulders going stiff. He seemed to welcome the fact that the waitress came over at that moment, and they both ordered their meals. Once she was gone, he said, “I guess I was just interested in why some people are different. Why some soulmates aren’t like the others.”
“I feel that,” Stiles said, more glumly than he realized. When Derek gave him a questioning look, he said, “Look, uh. It’s not a big deal, but . . .” He steeled his nerves and tugged his sleeve up to reveal his bare wrist. “I don’t have a soulmate.”
Derek’s eyes went slightly wide. “That is - an incredible coincidence,” he said, clearly struggling to stay academic. “They’ve only identified about a thousand people worldwide who don’t have soulmates, and now I know two of them. What are the odds?”
“You know someone else without a soulmate?” Stiles asked, startled. Out of all the responses he had been expecting, that wasn’t one of them.
“Yeah, my uncle Peter,” Derek said. “What happened at your ceremony?”
“Nothing,” Stiles said. “They did the whole rigamarole and just - nothing.”
“That’s what happened to him, too. That’s so weird.” Derek was frowning, but then shook himself and said, “Sorry. I don’t mean to make you feel like some sort of freak. You know, my first theory was that people without soulmates were probably just aromantic and asexual, but when I asked Peter that, he told me more about his sex life than I ever wanted to know. And it turns out aro/ace people usually have platonic soulmates, so.” He shrugged. “Life takes all kinds, I guess.”
“True dat,” Stiles said, glad that he wasn’t making a big deal out of it. “So what about your soulmate? What are they like?”
“Uh, Kate is . . .” Derek cleared his throat. “She’s an amazing athlete. She’s been in UFC and MMA championships all over the country. She did archery for a while, too, but gave it up to have more time for the other stuff. She travels a lot, so it can get lonely, but, you know, she loves doing it so I engage my ‘supportive husband’ mode. She’s really gorgeous and honestly way out of my league, soulmate bond aside.”
He seemed uncomfortable talking about it for some reason Stiles couldn’t fathom. Most people loved to brag about their soulmates. Fortunately, their cheese fries came before things could get too awkward, and he started stuffing his face and talking about how he hadn’t had them in a long time because he has to try to watch his dad’s diet.
“So what are you studying?” Derek asked.
“Whether or not it’s possible to live off minimum wage in northern California,” Stiles said.
“That must be an interesting topic - ”
Stiles cut him off, laughing. “I don’t mean I’m actually studying it. I took an economics class once and once was more than enough. I mean, I work full-time at the library, and they pay minimum wage. I’m not in school.”
“Oh.” Derek flushed slightly pink. “I just sort of assumed - I mean, I know you work at the library but you look college age so I kind of figured you were a college kid working there part-time.”
“I couldn’t really afford college,” Stiles said, “and after a long, hard look at my options, I decided I’d rather find a job I could do without a college degree than go tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Right now I’m working and saving up to go to the police academy.”
“I didn’t realize you didn’t need a degree for that,” Derek said.
“Yeah, I mean, it definitely helps if you want to be any sort of specialist, but for a beat cop, high school degree is fine. Plus my old man can put in a good word for me - he was the county sheriff until he retired a couple years ago.”
They chatted for a while about their families and what they’ve studied, and drifted into movies and popular culture. Stiles was a huge fan of comics and superhero movies, and Derek was more into science-fiction and zombies, but there was plenty of crossover between their two genres. They were both avid readers; they both loved baseball, they both loved Mexican food. Stiles wondered if this was what meeting one’s soulmate was supposed to be like - although he supposed not, since Derek already had one.
Still, after a while he sort of forgot about that whole thing because he was honestly having such a good time. It was disappointing when his phone rang and Laura said his car was all set. He paid the check and Derek dropped him back off at the shop. “So, I’ll, uh, I’ll see you at the library,” he said.
“I’ll be there,” Stiles said, and waved as Derek drove away.
~ ~ ~ ~