Derek didn’t know where Scott got the idea of the pack bonding through art classes at the community center—if he had to guess, that offhanded crack Stiles made about TED talks on leadership hadn’t been total sarcasm—but he had to admit there was something to be said for bonding through collective humiliation.
Isaac and Boyd were the only ones with any kind of actual artistic talent; Isaac from hours spent in drafting classes for architecture school, Boyd from drawing incredible comics his whole life that he refused to show anyone until a year ago. Lydia was alright, better than the rest, and Allison could somewhat accurately portray a still life, but beyond that, the pack was hopeless. Scott was awful but he had fun with it, Stiles just flat out didn’t care and rushed through his, and Erica usually (always) ended up defacing her own work with stick figure cartoons once she lost interest in the assignment.
(At least they could make the instructor, Natalia, laugh and keep her entertained, because they certainly weren’t contributing much towards her faith in her teaching abilities.)
Derek was, honestly, a terrible artist, and it bothered him because he actually tried. Nothing he made ever came out right, always deformed in some way or just not what it was supposed to be. His attempt at a pear that Scott declared "Shrek Butt" came to mind.
He was almost always the last one done, despite the fact that he was usually the only one actually focused instead of messing around, and always the one Natalia gave the most pointers to. She would come up behind him and suggest improvements and alterations, give him little tips that no one else ever seemed to need; if he followed this angle then the perspective would be consistent, make his lines heavier here to give depth, crosshatching there would add three dimensionality.
Every class she did this. Even last week when they’d done copies of Monet and Stiles had stood across the room from his own, hopelessly squinting at it like that would help the mess of colors become an image. She came up to Derek’s and told him to focus less on getting the colors exactly right and instead let them blend on the canvas, let them stand on their own while still working together, whatever that meant. He glared at his painting for a while after that, wondering why she’d come to him while Stiles' looked like he sneezed a rainbow on his canvas—not in a Jackson Pollock kind of way, just in a sneezing paint kind of way, still managing to somehow be out of focus. He actually managed to make impressionist paintings look even more nearsighted.
Natalia hadn’t even said anything when Erica’s lily pads ended up with the Titanic on fire and sinking with a number of drowning stick figures, or when Stiles’ Modigliani copy intentionally became a zombie with rotting flesh two weeks before.
He didn't get it and it frustrated him beyond belief. There was something he was always missing, something everyone else seemed to have in spades. Their carefree attitude towards art, the willingness to let their paintings turn out as they would, being able to stop obsessing over their lack of talent—whatever it was, Derek had no idea how to get there, how to let go and just have fun and mess around with the other people in the class. He didn't get how to turn off the constant criticism in his head and just enjoy the process, because as it stood, the process wasn’t all that fun.
He obsessed over every detail, every stroke of the brush and color he mixed, and it still came out mediocre. No matter how carefully he sketched it out beforehand, how closely he studied the still life scene of fruit, it came out wrong (Shrek Butt), and he could never figure out how to fix it.
At least this week they were doing abstract, meaning that they really just put paint wherever they wanted while talking even more than usual. Derek could do this; he could put paint on a canvas in a totally random configuration. This was impossible to screw up.
“It’s a dick.”
Apparently it wasn't impossible for Derek.
He didn’t even pause in the thick stroke of orange he was dragging down the canvas. He refused to give Stiles the satisfaction.
“It’s not a dick.”
“It’s totally a dick.”
It really was. The instructions had been to avoid making any recognizable shapes, no outlines—avoid lines completely if possible, they hindered the placement of color.
“Well subconsciously, you’ve painted a dick taking off into space. Like a rocket. A dick rocket.” He dodged the paintbrush Derek jabbed towards him but still ended up with a satisfying streak of bright orange across his arm. That didn’t make him shut up or go away, not that Derek had really expected it to.
“This is quite the window into your subconscious, Derek; dicks, space, the final frontier.” He fluttered his fingers at a burst of white in the corner. “And by final frontier, I mean that’s an assho—”
“Stiles, go work on your own.”
“I’m done,” he nodded his head back towards where he’d been sitting to the left, and now that Derek looked up from his easel, he realized a number of people were wandering towards the sinks, cleaning their supplies. Lydia was still working, applying colors carefully and precisely, and Erica and Boyd were giggling over what was no doubt a dirty cartoon of stick figures, but the rest of the pack was done, as was most of the class.
One by one, people moved their canvases up to the front of the room so everyone could see them together in a line and make comments. Natalia called this part the Critique, but no one ever ended up saying anything critical. They complimented things they liked, laughed over Erica’s cartoons that everyone had grown to love and anticipate, marveled over Boyd’s skill, and chuckled at Stiles’ baseless analyses of each work—he’d taken an art history class once, he assured them, he knew what he was doing. Not once had anyone ever said anything less than positive.
But Derek still hated this part. He hated seeing his painting up with the rest, picking out what everyone else had done better and constantly expecting his mistakes to be pointed out and paraded around as what not to do. It was the story of his life; Derek Hale: A Cautionary Tale. It even rhymed.
Instead, Lydia complimented the colors he’d chosen, the grandma of the class, Felicia, told him he had lively and vibrant brushwork, and Stiles’ analysis wandered around Derek’s obvious longing for distant travel, the green signifying aliens and the “asshole” now a distant star, before tackily adding onto the end, “also there’s a giant dick rocket here”, gesturing to it a few times to make sure everyone really saw and understood it. Derek was just glad his stubble camouflaged his flush of embarrassment that only Stiles seemed to be able to provoke.
Luckily they moved on quickly, to Lydia’s meticulous biomorphic work and Stiles’ own dark canvas with violent lines which he immediately related to Star Wars and light sabers like an art therapist wouldn’t have a field day with that (there were definitely some unaddressed issues from the more violent years he couldn’t talk out with the department therapist, even Derek could see that). Mark’s looked like a poorly done Rothko imitation and Isaac’s looked vaguely Cubist, but Derek couldn’t help feeling like he’d failed the assignment somehow.
A fucking dick rocket.
They finished their non-critical critique and everyone scattered around the room to get their belongings together and finish cleaning up. Some moved their paintings to the class drying rack, and some to the miscellaneous rack that meant they didn’t want to be associated with that particular work in any way and it would eventually get thrown out when it wasn’t collected. Derek shoved his into the latter; he didn’t keep many of his paintings for a variety of reasons, but mostly because he really hated them.
Stiles came up next to him and slipped his painting into the other rack. He was always handing off his paintings to his dad, who took them because he felt guilty refusing something his son made, even though Stiles was twenty-four and they both knew the paintings were objectively terrible.
“You aren’t going to keep the dick rocket?”
Derek turned to give him a look he hoped summed up all the frustration of painting and the irritation of having someone give him shit about it. Stiles just raised his eyebrows, still expecting an answer.
“What the hell would I do with it? It’s an ugly abstract representation of gay sex, apparently, I’m not going hang it above the couch.”
“Obviously not, your couch is in the middle of the room. Besides, that baby belongs in the bedroom, if you catch my drift.” He added with a lewd wink.
Derek intentionally let the drift pass on by. He wanted nothing to do with that drift. Or the countless drifts Stiles had been throwing at him for years since he came back from his junior year of college with newfound confidence, and his confidence hadn’t been lacking before that.
That didn’t deter Stiles, though. He clapped Derek solidly on the shoulder and let it echo through the large open room with a shitty grin. Derek just glared.
Stiles left after that, needing to get home to change for his night shift at the station, and the rest of the class filtered out after him, exchanging see you next weeks and goodnights. It wasn’t odd for Derek to be the last one there with Natalia, he was always the last one finished cleaning his brushes and more often than not ended up helping her straighten the studio for the next day’s classes. It was relaxing and comfortable; she closed up the easels, made sure the paintings from the class made it to the drying rack, and he re-cleaned the brushes his fellow students half-assed and left to dry incorrectly.
“You’re making a lot of progress.” Her light Russian accent always came out more once the class had gone and she was more relaxed. Even more so after Derek couldn’t hold back his snort of laughter when she cursed Erica in Russian under her breath upon seeing what she did to the Dutch landscape she was supposed to be painting. He wasn’t fluent in Russian by any means, but he definitely knew the curse words.
Derek looked up into the mirrors for self-portraits stored along the wall behind the sink, meeting her eyes with an incredulous eyebrow raise.
“You are.” Natalia insisted with a knowing grin.
He shook his head slowly, turning back to the brush still bleeding blue oil paint. How could there possibly be that much paint in such a small brush? There was literally no place for it to be coming from. This brush could not hold that much paint.
“I’m always the one you correct the most.”
“Derechka, that’s because you’re the one who cares the most.” She said this with confidence, like a fact. He watched her reflection kick a particularly stubborn leg of the easel she was trying to close, give up, and balance it under her elbow so she could give Derek her full attention. “Most people take these classes for fun, not because they necessarily want to improve. I’m not going to try to teach Stiles the finer points of perspective when he’s perfectly happy with his German Expressionist buildings.”
Derek couldn’t help the snort of laughter that snuck out, which Natalia heard even over the running water echoing around the large, open room.
“See, you understand and know all of this, Derechka. You care about art and getting better at it. You can’t improve without knowing what you’ve done wrong." She hauled the still open easel to the wall, leaned it against the others, and moved on to the next. "I don’t pick at you because you need more help than the rest, it’s because you want to learn and do better."
She was right; he’d come to the class reluctantly at first and only because Scott made him, but he’d actually become annoyingly invested in it. No one else seemed to have that problem, totally fine with their imperfect projects. Hell, even Boyd could relax and just go with it. He usually had a quiet intensity around him when he was drawing, one the clearly told everyone to fuck off until he decided he was done, but he and Erica were always set up together, laughing about whatever they added to each other’s painting.
Everyone had their reasons for signing up for the class; Catherine came every week to get away from her husband, who was newly retired and passed the day rearranging their furniture and bringing home stray animals. Naomi's therapist suggested it as an outlet, but so far she'd ended up more interested in Lydia than the actual painting. Mark wanted to show his girlfriend he could understand her love of art but never put much effort into it, Felicia wanted to get out of her independent living complex and away from the "old futzes" who never had any fun, and Sarah just felt like she should be more cultured in general after studying only science in college. Derek heard her tell Allison that she’d tried going to an opera once; the subtitles had malfunctioned, she didn’t speak a word of Italian beyond the menu at Olive Garden, and she came out completely confused with sore shoulders from trying to “sit dignified” the entire time.
None of these reasons, to Derek’s knowledge, included improving their painting skills to any degree.
“You should’ve seen my professors when I was in school.” Natalia continued, gathering up some tubes of paint someone had left on their easel and tossing them onto the counter. “Their critiques were ruthless. I cried once.”
This time he looked over his shoulder to make sure she got the full effect of his disbelieving eyebrow raise. The very thought of Natalia crying under academic pressure was almost laughable. Any time Isaac complained about his architecture classes, she had a horror story at the ready about the cut-throat architecture program she’d gone through in Russia; arriving at overbooked classes an hour early to make sure she got a seat, 8 a.m. drafting classes in the dead of winter, building painfully precise models without a computer to cut the pieces. She just laughed at his expression.
“No really, I did! I spent weeks on my final project, I hardly slept and my boyfriend dumped me for ignoring him for two months, and then my professor completely tore it apart.”
“Is that why you’re not an architect?”
She gave him a wry look.
“That same professor took me on as an apprentice when I graduated and I worked with him for years before I came here. He completely broke my will to live with that critique, but everything he said helped me become the top student in his next class.”
“So you’re trying to break my will to live.” Derek nodded, intentionally dense. It was a lot easier than acknowledging someone taking such an invested interest in his severely lacking talents and feeling like he wasn't living up to their expectations.
“Yes,” she agreed with a patronizing smile, “your bright and colorful personality is offensive to my miserable Russian nature.” She slathered on a heavier, growling stereotypical accent. “I see joy and I must destroy it with hammer and sickle.”
Derek laughed as he turned back to the sink to lay out the last brush to dry now that he’d finally washed out all of the blue paint. He was pretty sure it was Mark’s, he’d used the most blue with his fuzzy squares, and he made a mental note to stand threateningly over the guy until he properly cleaned his own brushes. It’d been a while since he got to loom ominously; it didn’t work on anyone in the pack anymore. He missed it a little.
They finished cleaning in relative quiet and Derek walked her out to her car as usual. It wasn’t a dangerous neighborhood, but it wasn’t the best to hang around in after ten at night, so even though she was always fine, he always waited until her car was started before heading to his own.
“Make sure you bring your broken will to live on Monday,” she joked as she unlocked her car, “we’re copying Rembrandt and I think you will enjoy his style.”
Her enigmatic smile gave Derek a feeling that meant more frustration on his end and a muddy canvas of brown paint, but he just nodded and assured her he would, bright and colorful personality and all.
When they came to class the next week, his abstract painting was gone. Apparently the janitors shared his opinion of his painting skills.
His Rembrandt copy came out slightly better than a muddy smear, while Stiles named his own Hobo Joe.
A month later, their pack meeting had to be temporarily moved to Stiles’ apartment due to Scott’s upstairs neighbor overflowing her bath and causing water damage.
Derek almost choked on his orange chicken when he glanced in through the open door to Stiles’ bedroom and saw his horrendous painting hanging proudly over the bed, complete with an etched metal plaque underneath (probably taped there) declaring the work to be Freudian Slip (into My Ass) by Dick S. Hale.
He had no idea how Stiles found out his middle initial, and that was the only aspect of that he was going to focus on.