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the sunburn problem (or, how Stiles learned to stop doubting and respect the mate bond)

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“Dammit,” Stiles grunts out, awkwardly swinging back around from where he’s heading out the front door with a cooler, and almost crashing into Derek in the process. It’s only down to Derek’s natural grace that they don’t collide, and Stiles sighs impatiently, more at himself than at Derek. “Sorry, sorry,” he huffs out. He didn’t realize Derek was so close behind him.

“Slow down, Stiles, what the hell?” Derek demands.

Stiles thumps the cooler down on the floor of the hall and heads back to the kitchen. “I forgot to put in your fruit salad.”

Derek grumbles and gives him a look, and jesus, it’s not like Stiles did it on purpose, okay? He yanks open the fridge with more force than absolutely necessary and looks blankly at its contents for a moment. Derek makes the best fruit salad, he has the patience to cut up melons into perfect cubes and he has a knack for finding the best-tasting berries at the market. Stiles would have been seriously pissed at himself if he’d forgotten it. He blows out a breath and grabs the giant container out of the fridge.

It’s been a rough summer, they’ve had one thing after another--crises supernatural and otherwise--witches, faeries, Stiles’ dad in the hospital after a heart attack scare and then Melissa in a (thankfully minor) car accident, all resulting in not nearly enough time to themselves. No way could they get away for an actual vacation, but a day at the beach they should be able to manage.

When he gets back to the front door, Derek’s already taken the cooler outside, and Stiles walks out, brandishing the container triumphantly.

Derek shakes his head and puts his hand out, says, “Don’t drop it, you idiot,” but it’s fond and, yeah, crisis averted. Stiles heads back into the house for one last thing, and a couple of minutes later Derek bangs the door open, calling out, “You ready to go?” But his face falls when he sees what Stiles is doing.

Stiles sighs gustily and rolls his eyes, swiping sunscreen over his face and neck. “We’ve been through this, Derek. Sunscreen should be applied well before exposure to the sun, and for it to be effective the minute we get to the beach, it’s best that I apply it now.”

Derek smiles a little meanly. “It’s good to be a werewolf.”

“Oh, fuck you,” Stiles says, but it’s without heat, despite being sick of Derek’s attitude about sunscreen. He’s smug when they go hiking and Stiles takes the time to carefully daub smelly goop over his face and arms, and then he whines afterward about how bad it smells and how hard it is to wash off.

“You’re going to fucking reek the entire time in the car, though. It’s disgusting.” Derek scowls at him.

“I know, big guy, you hate it when you can’t smell my normal eau de stiles.” Stiles knows that is part of it. Scent makes up such a huge part of the way werewolves interact with the world that it’s legitimately disorienting to not be able to smell Stiles properly.

Derek rolls his eyes. “Plus the chemical smell is the worst.”

Stiles always favored products that don’t stink, anyway, but years-long exposure to werewolves means that by now he’s well used to choosing unscented versions of every household cleaner and body care product you can think of. But some things are unavoidable. And non-negotiable, despite the fact that he hasn’t had any luck finding a sunscreen that doesn’t offend Derek’s nose.

“Yeah, well, some of us are still human. We have tender skin and need sunscreen. Suck it up.”

“Well, fuck you. Maybe you can go to the beach by yourself, then.”

Stiles stops mid-stroke and stares at him, mouth open. “Are you for real right now? For fuck’s sake, Derek, sunburn is terrible, okay? It hurts and it does permanent damage to your skin. The hole in the ozone layer is an actual scientific thing, skin cancer is a genuine risk, and one I’m not willing to take. Kindly cut the shit. I’ve had it up to here with your insufferable werewolf superiority. If you knew what it felt like, you’d shut your damn mouth already.” Stiles feels a vicious surge of anger accompanying his words, but he tries to calm himself down. He doesn’t want to ruin their day before it even gets started.

“Now, I’m almost done putting this on, and then we are going to get our asses in that car and drive to the beach and have a good day, you hear me?”

“Fine,” Derek grits out, but he does look a little taken aback at Stiles’ vehemence before he turns and stomps out of the house. Stiles feels bad about his outburst, but he’s satisfied, too. Maybe Derek will finally stop giving him a hard time about this one thing, already.

Things are a little cool between them on the ride to the beach, but Stiles puts Derek’s mix on their shared iPod as a gesture of goodwill. They don’t talk much, but it feels okay.

Their bickering is a product of the stress they’ve been under, but that doesn’t make Stiles doubt the essential connection he feels with Derek. The idea of some supernatural “mate bond” (he can’t even think the words without scare quotes) between them always seems silly to him, but he knows they’re in it for the long haul.

At the end of the day, Stiles takes his time under the outdoor shower before getting in the car, hoping to get as much residue off his skin as possible. By the time they’re approaching Beacon Hills, they’re talking to each other normally, trying to decide between Chinese and Thai for dinner, and what food to make tomorrow when John will come watch the game with them.

As they get out of the car, Stiles grabs the cooler and Derek goes to throw the long strap of the duffle bag over his shoulder but he winces a little. Stiles stops and stares at him. Suddenly his face looks red. Like, really red. Is it just a trick of the setting sun? Derek lets the bag fall to the ground and he tentatively shifts his arms and shoulders, and winces some more.

“Derek?” Stiles asks uncertainly.

Derek looks up, meets his eyes, and says, “I … don’t feel very good.” He sways a little, and Stiles sets the cooler on the ground and quickly steps to Derek’s side, reflexively putting an arm around his waist to support him, but Derek shies away, hissing in pain.

“What the hell, dude, you are burning up,” Stiles says. This close, he swears he can feel heat radiating off Derek’s skin, right through his shirt. Carefully he takes the loose sleeve of Derek’s t-shirt and raises it up to his shoulder and draws in a quick breath.

“Derek, why is your healing not coping with a sunburn?”

Derek shakes his head and sways again.

“Let’s get you inside and see what we can do, okay?” A terrible suspicion is taking root in Stiles’ mind.

*

Stiles has had to accept a lot of weird shit in his life, but he still struggles with a couple things: the idea of himself as a spark, and the existence of a mate bond. He’s a man of science, okay, and this non-quantifiable, new-agey werewolf crap is not his idea of adequate evidence for real-life phenomena.

He and Derek had had one conversation about the mate bond early on in their relationship, during what still ranks as the most serious state-of-the-relationship talk they’ve ever had. A random omega, in the midst of a crisis, had referred to Stiles as Derek’s mate, and he’d gotten all tense and weird. Stiles sat him down and made him explain. Whereupon Derek explained the concept of the mate bond.

“And … do you think maybe we have that?” Stiles asked him skeptically, and Derek had sighed.

“My parents talked about it, okay, but they were gone before I could really …”

“But you still think it’s a thing, though?”

“Look, when I was young and stupid, I looked for it really hard with everyone I hooked up with, and then I finally decided it was bunk, or it didn’t happen to every werewolf, or something. But.” He stopped.

“But?”

“I think … with you, it’s different.” It was cute how shy he’d gotten about this, but Stiles remembers wanting to focus on getting to the bottom of it, not be distracted by Derek’s attractiveness.

“Seriously? So, do you, like, read my mind? Feel my emotions?”

“No, no, not …”

“You're more in tune with my well-being or something?”

“Look,” Derek shook his head, blew out an impatient huff of air. “We don’t have to make it into a thing. I feel more right with you than I ever have with anyone before, and isn’t that enough?”

And Stiles agreed: it was enough.

They’re partners, lovers, in tune with each other because of their remarkable compatibility. Stiles definitely feels more for Derek than he’s ever felt for anyone else, but he thinks that’s just … true love, or whatever. He doesn’t feel the need to attach some weird werewolf label to it.

*

Now Stiles gets Derek set up in bed, resting on his front and with his shirt off, head propped on his arms, face pathetic. The sunburn’s the worst across his back. Stiles grimly slathers him in aloe, practically emptying the bottle.

It’s making Stiles a little queasy to contemplate, that he--his indignation, his anger--could have inflicted actual harm on Derek. Because, as mad as he’d been at Derek this morning, this sunburn? It’s not pretty. It’s so terribly, terribly red, and made worse by the fact that Derek’s skin is nearly always flawless. It’s a real shock to see it marred this way and not healing. Stiles thinks he sees the beginnings of blisters forming along the top of Derek’s back, along his shoulders.

Plus he’s shaking a little, shivering, from fever, Stiles guesses, and he nods when Stiles asks him if he has a headache. Stiles is pretty sure Derek’s never even had a headache before, and that thought just makes him loathe himself more. He shakes his head, goes to the kitchen and grabs one of his own gatorades from the fridge in addition to filling Derek’s water bottle at the tap. Derek doesn’t usually bother with sports drinks, he rehydrates after his workouts with plain water, but Stiles isn’t sure what’s going on with his healing right now so the extra electrolytes certainly can’t hurt.

Once he’s made Derek as comfortable as he can--Derek waved off offers of food--Stiles makes himself a quick sandwich and grabs his laptop. Time to get to the bottom of what’s going on here. There’s only one possible course of action: Stiles skypes Lydia and Cora, who will certainly have some insight for him.

“Oh, thank god you’re online. Derek has a sunburn,” he blurts out when Lydia answers his call.

Lydia blinks at him. “Wait, what?”

“A really, really, bad sunburn. With like, blisters, and a fever.”

“How is that even possible?”

Stiles bites his lip. “I have a theory. I’ve got Derek coated in aloe and I’m working on getting him hydrated. But, uh. I want to ask you about …” he trails off.

Lydia raises her eyebrows. “About?”

He blows out a breath. “About mate bonds. And my so-called spark.” He can see the wheels turning in Lydia’s head, but she answers readily enough.

“I thought you didn’t believe in that stuff.”

“I don’t, okay, but … something’s happening, here, and I want to understand it.”

She squints and tilts her head at him. “I think you need to explain what you think is going on, and then we can figure out if what you’re thinking makes sense in the context of what I know.”

Stiles huffs out a quick breath. “Okay. But it’s gonna sound really weird, I’m warning you now.”

Lydia shrugs, looking resigned. “So what else is new?”

Stiles steels himself. “We had this really stupid argument this morning about sunscreen. He thinks it stinks, and he snarks at me about it all the fucking time and I finally like … lost it. I know I was out of line, I just get sick of the attitude, sometimes, you know?”

Lydia does know, is the thing, because she and Cora have been together longer than he and Derek have. She looks sympathetic. “Yeah. Cora’s not quite that bad. I don’t think her nose is as delicate as Derek’s.” She smirks at him, and he rolls his eyes.

“So … the point is, I was really pissed, Lydia. Like, so angry about him putting down something I do to protect myself, you know? He’s the first one to get on me for running into danger when it’s something supernatural, but I try to use freaking sunscreen, and he turns into a passive-aggressive jerk.”

Lydia’s nodding. “And?” She prompts.

“And, I’m wondering if somehow our … bond, my spark, whatever, caught my indignation and caused, like, an autoimmune response or something, shorted out his werewolf healing. Like, it decided to let him get all sunburnt so he could learn a lesson in being more sympathetic, or something. I know that sounds really far-fetched, okay, but … I know what I’m seeing, here, and I honestly can’t think of any other way this could have happened.”

“Hang on,” says Lydia, “You mind if I call Cora in here?”

Stiles shakes his head and next thing he knows, Lydia’s filling Cora in on the situation and Stiles can see realization dawning on her face.

“You think it’s plausible, my theory?” Stiles asks Cora.

She looks thoughtful. “I know you hate this mate-bond stuff, Stiles, but it really does sound like that’s what’s at work, here. And think about it, from, like, an evolutionary perspective. Your biology is invested in your ability to get along. It makes a pretty good case for not arguing about petty shit, so it doesn’t backfire this way.”

“Do you two have it, the …”

Lydia smirks, leans closer to to screen to stage whisper, “It’s okay, Stiles, you can say the words: mate bond.”

He shakes his head and narrows his eyes at her. She ignores him and continues talking. “Yeah, we do, at least, we think so. It’s hard to know for sure.”

Cora’s nodding. “It’s not like there’s a test for it, or anything. It’s just … a feeling we have.”

“Great.” Stiles says. “I hate the vagueness, okay?”

“Yeah, we know. But I think what happened to you guys today is totally the closest thing to hard evidence you’re going to get.”

“I guess so.” Stiles frowns meditatively at the carpet.

“Look, you know … your spark, those times you helped out with stuff? The first time, with the mountain ash, and then the other times when we’re pretty sure you influenced the way things shook down?”

Stiles knows. One time they covered more ground than should have been possible when Scott was near-mortally wounded, to get to him in time. And more than once, in supernatural circumstances, he’s had a strong hunch that turned out to be true and helped them to survive. “Yeah,” he admits.

“I--we--think the mate bond is something similar. It’s not a force of its own, really, just like, an enhancement. A little something extra.”

“And you think it’s plausible that it caused this weird bleed-through with the sunscreen?”

Both of them are nodding, creepily similar expressions on their faces. Stiles heaves a giant sigh. “So, do you think I can like, reverse this, then, or is Derek just stuck enduring a really shitty sunburn?”

Lydia looks thoughtful. “My guess is it’ll have to run its course. You being you, you’re gonna feel so guilty and be so attentive that it’s possible that’ll help Derek’s healing re-engage. But it’s hard to say.”

“Keep us posted, either way, okay?” Cora adds, and Stiles nods.

They say their goodbyes and Stiles heads back upstairs to check on Derek. He’s more or less awake when Stiles comes in the room. It’s full dark now, but Stiles had left the little lamp on his dresser on for some light, and he can see Derek’s eyes are open.

“How much of that conversation did you hear?”

“I wasn’t listening,” Derek says, sounding sleepy.

Stiles walks over to the bed, sits gingerly on the edge, not wanting to bump Derek. But Derek reaches for his hand, anyway, and Stiles breathes an internal sigh of relief. He notes that Derek drank the gatorade, and his water bottle. Stiles will go refill that soon.

“How you feeling, anyway?”

“Weird. My skin hurts. But not quite as ... shaky and headachy as before.”

“Good. I’ll get you more water in a minute.” Stiles looks carefully at Derek’s back and shoulders. Still such an angry red. “Looks really painful. Need more aloe on?”

Derek nods, then winces as it makes his skin rub against the pillow.

Stiles can’t help wincing right along with him.

“You should be gloating right now.” Derek says quietly.

Stiles gapes at him. “What?”

“I was a complete jerk, and now I have a sunburn, and you should be saying, See, you asshole, this is why I wear sunscreen.”

“Are you kidding me right now? You think … you think you deserve this?”

“Um. Yes?”

Stiles can’t believe it. Or actually, he kind of can. Derek’s instincts for self-blame run very deep. “Derek. I probably did this to you. With my spark, or through our bond, or whatever. Jesus, you do not deserve this, believe me. That was a dumb little fight, okay? That’s not … you don’t ...” he breaks off, shaking his head.

“Thought you ... didn’t believe in that crap,” Derek says, eyes cast down.

“I don’t, okay?” Stiles scrubs the hand not holding Derek’s through his hair. “Or I don’t want to, but I also don’t know what else could have caused this.”

Derek rubs his thumb along Stiles’ knuckles. “Who’d you talk to?”

“Lydia and Cora.”

“And what’d they say?”

“They … confirmed what I was thinking,” Stiles says reluctantly, “that I … did this to you. Do you know how sick that makes me feel?”

“Stiles. I really was a dick. And if it’s through our bond, then it’s a two-way street, not just something you did to me.” He draws in a breath. “It’s not like this is life-threatening. It’s a sunburn. And believe me, I’m not gonna forget this anytime soon. I’m not going to be giving you any more crap about sunscreen. Believe me, I won’t.”

Stiles squeezes Derek’s hand gently, reaches for his water bottle. “I’m going to go fill this, then run back into town to get another bottle of aloe, okay?”

“Okay. But please stop beating yourself up.”

“I’ll try.” He leans forward, brushes a kiss over Derek’s still-way-too-hot forehead.

*

Later, he comes in, curls up next to Derek. Blinks at the moonlight coming in the window. Still doesn’t know what, exactly, to make of this day. He feels itchy. Restless.

“Stiles,” Derek mumbles.

“What? I thought you were sleeping.”

“Can’t sleep with you stressing out next to me.”

“How can you even tell I’m stressing out? I’ll have you know I’m keeping my breakdown pretty damn contained.”

Derek makes a noncommittal noise then mumbles, “Must be the mate bond.”

Stiles laughs softly in spite of himself. “Seriously, it’s going to be a joke, now?”

“It’s more than a joke,” Derek says after a pause.

“I got that, surprisingly enough.”

“It’s a thing, Stiles, and we have one. You really are stuck with me now.”

Stiles smiles into the darkness. “Not like I was trying to get away.”