Stiles pushed open the door to the pub and made a beeline for his usual booth in the back. Scott was already there and when he saw the look on Stiles’s face he slid his pint of beer across the table to Stiles with a wince.
“That bad,” Stiles confirmed, lifting the glass and downing half of it in one swallow before returning it to Scott.
“That sucks, man. I for sure thought he’d let you retake it.”
“Yeah, well, ‘Professor Harris’,” Stiles gave exaggerated air quotes, “Is a douche.” He scowled. Their college was small, with Stiles’s largest class having no more than forty people in it. Consequently, most of the professors were fairly casual and there was an informal first name basis between the students and the faculty.
The exception being, of course, Stiles’s forensics professor who had a stick up his ass the size of a redwood and an inexplicable hate-on for one Stiles Stilinski.
“The douchiest,” Scott agreed in solidarity.
“Are you talking about Professor Assface?” Erica, their server, had wandered over and she set down a glass of beer in front of Stiles.
“He’s the worst,” Stiles turned puppy eyes up at her (he wasn’t as good at them as Scott was, but he did okay). “He’s going to fail me.”
“Aww, baby,” Erica cooed, pursing her blood red lips in a sympathetic pout. “Suck it up. Or, better yet,” her eyes gleamed wickedly, “Offer to suck him off.”
Stiles and Scott’s jaws dropped open in twin looks of horror and with a laugh and a toss of her long blonde hair she sauntered off.
“Well, that’s… that’s just…” Stiles spluttered.
“Might work though,” Scott mused thoughtfully.
“Ew. Scott. Ew. No. Ew. That’s disgusting.” Stiles felt a little ill at the thought, and he took a quick drink of his own beer to wash the imagined taste of Harris-dick out of his mouth. “You know I don’t have many standards but I certainly have that standard.” Wanting to change the topic, he reached over and grabbed the menu, studying it like he hadn’t seen it about a hundred times before.
“What do you think, potato skins or spinach dip?” he asked, rubbing his thumb over the logo embedded in the faux-leather cover. As always, he was surprised by the detail in the image of the lone wolf with its head thrown back in a howl, THE PRESERVE written under it in sturdy caps.
“I don’t know why you bother asking me,” Scott rolled his eyes. “You know you’ll wind up with both.”
“Okay, says the guy who eats an entire plate of nachos all to himself.”
“Hey! I don’t eat all of them,” Scott protested. “Isaac usually has some.”
“Isaac only has some because he wants to get some,” Stiles said with a meaningful eyebrow wiggle, amused at the blush that crawled up Scott’s cheeks. “By the way, where is your favourite bartender?” He glanced over at the bar, but it looked empty.
“He went home for a few days,” Scott sighed, not even bothering to look at the bar. “He texted me last night to let me know.”
“He te—he texted you? Last night? He has your number?!” Stiles leaned across the table and punched Scott in the shoulder. “You did not tell me you gave him your number,” he accused.
“I didn’t want to make a thing about it,” Scott muttered, the blush moving up until his ears were pink.
“Here, hand me that napkin.”
Scott blinked, but complied, and Stiles spread it out before him, pulling a pen out of his backpack and beginning to scribble.
“Dude… what are you doing?” Scott leaned forward and tried to see but Stiles shoved him back, putting a proprietary arm around the napkin.
“I’ve gotta start working on my Best Man speech, obviously.”
“Oh my god, you—” Scott blushed even harder and nearly tipped the table over as he tried to wrest the napkin out of Stiles’s grasp. They were both breathless with laughter, and Scott was practically sprawled out on top of the scarred wood when, like something out of a bad horror movie, a shadow fell overtop of them and they froze, Stiles in the midst of shoving the napkin down his pants and Scott barely being held back from grabbing it by Stiles’s other hand.
“You two are aware that this is a bar,” the shadow said in a tone that implied he wasn’t exactly asking a question, but that an answer was required anyway.
“Yes?” Stiles offered, torn between amusement and embarrassment as Scott slowly slid back across the table and into his seat.
“And you’re aware, then, that you need to be twenty-one years old to be in a bar,” another question that wasn’t quite a question and Stiles was beginning to get annoyed.
Stiles tilted his head, looking up into a pair of steely green eyes and letting his own face fall into the cocky smirk that had the tendency to drive certain law enforcement officials (aka one Agent McCall) out of their minds with rage. “Yeah,” he drawled, “And?”
“And if you keep acting like children, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
Stiles didn’t think there would be any pretense of asking if it came to it, the guy looked like he would have no qualms about hauling the two of them out bodily. Stiles could feel anger simmering in his gut—he and Scott had been coming here nearly five days a week for the last few years, and they’d never seen this bearded asshole before. No one was going to tell Stiles that he couldn’t hang out at his bar. He opened his mouth, ready to say just that, when Scott (ever the peacemaker) beat him to it.
“I’m sorry, we were just messing around. We’ll stop,” Scott said earnestly, turning his (far superior) puppy eyes up at the guy.
“Good.” The guy glanced at Stiles one more time and under the table Stiles gave him the finger. Though the guy couldn’t possibly have seen it, he raised one dark eyebrow at Stiles before turning on his heel and heading back behind the bar.
Stiles sneered after him, vaguely unsettled by how that one, knowing eyebrow arch had sent a sharp bolt of pure lust straight through him, before twisting around to make a face at Scott.
“Who the fuck is that guy?” he complained, taking a drink of his beer and trying to tell himself that he was imagining the feel of the asshole’s gaze at his back.
“I dunno,” Scott shrugged, glancing towards the bar. “I guess he’s replacing Isaac while he’s gone?”
“Great,” Stiles muttered. “Like this day couldn’t get any worse. How much do you want to bet he’ll spit in our drinks?”
“Stiles!” Scott looked scandalized.
“You’re right,” Stiles amended. “He looks like a swallower.”
When Friday rolled around Stiles didn’t bother waiting for Scott to get out of his anthropology class before he headed over to The Preserve. Normally he stuck out the forty-five minutes between when his class ended and Scott’s, but Stiles had had enough of being on campus. He’d spent the last three nights staying at the library until midnight each night, and he thought if he stuck around for a minute longer he’d collapse into a quivering puddle of undergraduate angst.
As he wandered into the pub Stiles was gratified to see that Isaac was back, and he switched directions mid-stride to hoist himself up onto a stool at the bar.
“Hey,” Isaac said warily, which Stiles found vaguely offensive. It wasn’t like he and Isaac were as friendly as Scott and Isaac, and, to be honest, the two of them tended to bicker more often than not, but that didn’t mean Stiles didn’t like the guy.
“I’m so glad you’re back,” Stiles announced, deciding to disregard the skeptical look on Isaac’s face. “There was this new guy for a while, some awful, bearded, underwear-model—”
“Sounds like your type.” Erica sidled up to the bar beside Stiles, smirking.
“—and he was just a total dick. Like, so rude. I mean, not like you guys have the best customer service or anything—”
“Hey!” Erica protested, punching Stiles in the arm.
“Case in point,” Stiles rubbed gingerly at what he was sure would be a bruise, but refused to let the pain distract him from his point, “But this guy was a monster. I’m so glad you’re back and he’s gone. Plus,” he added as though it was an afterthought but surreptitiously watching Isaac’s face, “Now Scott won’t be so mopey.”
Isaac’s cheeks pinked and he ducked his head. Stiles felt like kicking his feet under the bar like a delighted kid, but manfully resisted the urge. “Anyway, send over the usual.” He hopped down off the stool. “And tell Boyd I say hi.”
“Fuck you, Stilinski,” a deep voice sounded from behind the swinging doors to the kitchen. Stiles made a kissy noise at the door and then slid into his booth with a sigh. It was good to have everything back to normal.
After Erica dropped off his pint, Stiles reached into his backpack and fished out his textbook. As a general rule he avoided doing any kind of school work on Friday nights, but with Harris riding his ass Stiles couldn’t afford to take a night off. The dick was just waiting for Stiles to fuck up.
Someone slapped a menu down on the table beside Stiles and he jumped with a yelp, his highlighter flying through the air.
“Oh my god.” Stiles pressed a hand to his chest to try and slow his heart. “What,” he snapped, scowling up at the bearded underwear-model type, “Do you want?”
“Potato skins aren’t on the menu anymore,” the guy informed him. “Pick something else.”
“Pick—pick something else?” Stiles squawked, outraged. “No. I want potato skins. I always have potato skins.” He shoved the menu back across the table at his new least favourite person. “Boyd will make me potato skins.”
“Boyd won’t make you potato skins.” The guy shoved the menu right back at Stiles. “Pick something else.”
Before Stiles could respond, the guy had turned around and was back behind the bar. Stiles stared after him, completely nonplussed.
“What the hell?” he asked Erica when she came around. “Why is this dude still here?”
“Derek, ah,” Erica’s lips quirked in a private smile, “Knows the owner. I think he’ll be sticking around for a bit, so, I’d suggest you get used to him.”
“No, absolutely not, nope.” Stiles crossed his arms over his chest. “I refuse.”
“Whatever.” Erica inspected her nails. “Have you decided what you want?”
Stiles glanced down at the menu that he hadn’t bothered to open, and sighed. “Just gimme the spinach dip. I’ll steal some of Scott’s nachos later.”
Erica didn’t bother to respond, just wandered off and Stiles rubbed a hand over his face before ducking down to pick up his highlighter from under the table. He smacked his head on the wood on his way back up, and barely resisted the urge to corner this ‘Derek’ and give him a piece of Stiles’s mind. He was ruining Stiles’s happy place.
Rubbing at the back of his head, Stiles shot a baleful glance towards the bar where Derek was talking to Isaac. Stiles couldn’t quite hear what they were saying, but whatever it was Isaac said had Derek shaking his head with a chuckle, the lines of his face softening with amusement. Stiles felt a sudden, weird surge of jealousy—totally uncalled for, since he barely knew Derek and certainly didn’t like him—and frowned.
“Ug,” Scott dropped down to the booth beside Stiles, looking in the same direction and glaring. “That guy is still here.”
This time it was Isaac who laughed, tossing back his head and grinning as he turned away to presumably do his job and get Scott a beer.
“I don’t like him,” Scott announced, the jealousy in his voice making Stiles snort.
“Me neither, buddy,” Stiles patted Scott’s back. “Me neither.”
“Now please welcome, your favourite ladies, The Vixens!” There was a burst of applause and Erica gave a dramatic flourish as the band took the stage.
Stiles and Scott hollered enthusiastically as Kira stepped up to the mike and began to belt out their latest number, ‘Slash Fiction’.
“I love them,” Scott said dreamily, resting his chin on his hands as he leaned forward to get a better view. “I just… love them. They’re amazing.”
Stiles could not disagree. With Kira on vocals, Lydia on drums, and Allison on the guitar The Vixens were definitely the hottest act The Preserve ever saw. Stiles was actually surprised that they still bothered to come play at the bar since, to be honest, it was kind of a dive, and he knew for a fact that they’d recently been offered a record deal with Universal.
But they’d gotten their start in the bar, around the same time Scott and Stiles had discovered the place. It had been Stiles’s idea, after all, that The Preserve start hosting ‘Jam Sessions’ once a month. “With a name like The Preserve, you just gotta,” he’d insisted to Erica and Boyd one night after several shots of fireball. “It’s too punny for you to not.”
Erica had rolled her eyes, and Boyd had given a neutral sort of shrug, but when Scott looked to Isaac, Isaac had shaken his head and begrudgingly agreed that Stiles could put up posters. “But it’s not ‘The Preserve’ like jam,” Erica had tried to clarify. “It’s like, a wildlife preserve.”
“Perfect,” Stiles had leapt on the idea, “Can we have a petting zoo night as well?”
By the time The Vixens were wrapping up their set, Stiles’s voice was hoarse from singing along. He downed the dregs of his beer and then slid out of the booth to push his way through the crowd towards the bar. Nearly every other night of the month, the place was dead. The only other evening when every table was full was tabletop gaming night, which, surprisingly, Boyd had spearheaded. Apparently the guy was super into Werewolf.
Stiles had no idea how The Preserve actually ever ran a profit considering that, even though he and Scott ate and drank their fair share, they couldn’t possibly be spending enough to keep the place afloat, but he wasn’t going to complain.
Worming his way to the front, Stiles leaned his elbows against the bar. Isaac was busy down at the other end and so Stiles sighed and resigned himself to waiting.
“Hey,” there was a hand suddenly against the small of his back and Stiles startled, turning to look at the taller guy standing beside him. “Get you a drink?”
The guy’s breath reeked of tequila and he moved in closer so that he was pressed up against Stiles’s side. Stiles blinked, flustered, and tried to step back but there wasn’t enough room.
“I’m good,” he said politely.
“Yeah,” the guy leered, leaning in with his eyes locked on Stiles’s lips. “I bet you are.”
Stiles gave an uncomfortable laugh. “I’m flattered, really,” no, he wasn’t, “But no thanks.”
“Aw, come on.” The guy’s hand moved lower and gave Stiles’s ass a squeeze. Stiles yelped and shoved a hand into the guy’s chest but he was surprisingly fast for someone so drunk and he caught Stiles’s wrist. “Don’t be like that, baby.”
Stiles’s cheeks flushed, hot and angry as he tried to twist out of the guy’s grip. “Let go.”
“How about a dance?” The guy pulled Stiles closer and ground his crotch against Stiles’s. Stiles’s mouth dropped open, speechless with fury.
“How about you go fuck yourself?” he suggested, trying once again to yank himself away but Drunk Guy was strong.
“I’d much rather fuck you.” Drunk Guy’s grip tightened until Stiles could feel the bones in his wrist grind together and he had to bite back a yelp of pain.
“Hey, buddy,” came a voice behind Drunk Guy. When the guy turned, Derek landed a solid right hook straight on his jaw. Drunk Guy’s eyes rolled up in his head and then he crumpled, nearly cracking his head on the bar, but Derek caught him in time to ease him, not entirely gently, to the ground.
Stiles was frozen as he stared at Derek who met his gaze with his steady green eyes.
“Are you okay?” Derek asked, soft, in the sudden hush that surrounded them.
Stiles gave a jerky nod, holding his sore wrist, once again speechless. Derek held his gaze for a moment, and then turned to the watching crowd.
“Somebody get this guy out of here. And don’t come back.”
A pair of Lacoste-clad dudebros scuttled out of the crowd and hauled their friend to his feet. Drunk Guy had regained consciousness and was swaying angrily towards Derek, but one look at the placid expression on Derek’s face and the strong set of Derek’s well-muscled shoulders had him changing his mind. With a crude gesture towards Stiles he let himself be led to the door.
“Here,” Derek reached out and laid a gentle hand on Stiles’s shoulder. “Let me get you some ice.”
“I’m fine.” Stiles pulled away. “You didn’t need to do that.”
“I can handle myself,” Stiles snapped. “I don’t need you… swooping in like some demented knight in shining armor. I was handling it.”
“It didn’t look like you were handling it.” Derek said.
“Well, I was.” Stiles felt cold all over, and his hands shook slightly as he straightened his t-shirt.
“Let me get your friend.” Derek made as though to reach for Stiles again but thought better of it, dropping his hand. “Next round is on the house, okay?”
“No.” Stiles could hear the slight note of hysteria in his voice and hated it. “I don’t need anything from you. I had it. I’m fine.”
“Alright, Stiles, okay.” Derek stepped back. “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah,” Stiles bit out. “I bet you are.” He turned without waiting to see Derek’s reaction, pushing through the crowd.
He could have handled it, he thought, furious. It wasn’t like he hadn’t fended off unwanted advances before. For fuck’s sake, Stiles wanted to be a cop. He could deal with a grope from a drunken asshole. He didn’t need to be rescued by his least favourite bartender.
Dropping into his usual booth, Stiles pressed his hands flat against the table and willed them to stop trembling.
Stiles came back the next day, early. He skipped out of his forensics class, probably not the best idea, but he wanted to get to the bar before it started to fill up with the after class crowd. Not that The Preserve ever really filled up, but still.
His fingers flexing anxiously around the straps of his backpack, Stiles stepped through the doors and into the bar. There was a couple sitting at a table near the stage, and a lone patron at the bar, but otherwise the place was empty. Taking a deep breath Stiles crossed the room and dumped his backpack at his booth before making his way towards the unoccupied end of the bar.
Derek was just coming out of the kitchen and Stiles caught the unguarded look of surprise on his face as he saw Stiles.
“Hey,” Stiles said hesitantly, waiting as Derek slipped behind the bar. Derek gave a slow nod before grabbing a glass and filling it up with Stiles’s regular beer. He seemed to pause a moment and then drew a second one before sliding the first across the bar to Stiles.
Stiles took it wordlessly, and they each lifted their glasses up for a drink. Imbued with the prospect of liquid courage, Stiles fidgeted for a moment on the barstool and then spoke. “I’m sorry. About last night.”
“You don’t have anything to be sorry for.” Derek didn’t look like someone who was prone to idle movements, but he dragged his thumbnail against the side of his glass. His knuckle was split, something Stiles hadn’t noticed last night, and he felt a sympathetic twinge in his own hand.
“I do,” Stiles insisted. “I was angry. At that guy, at myself, and I took it out on you when you were just trying to help. That wasn’t fair. So. I’m sorry.”
Derek met Stiles’s eyes, and for the first time Stiles’s noticed the tawny ring hidden in all that green. “Okay,” Derek said finally.
“Okay,” Stiles echoed. They both raised their glasses again, and this time it felt easier.
It was another two weeks before Stiles could make it back to The Preserve, and even then he knew he shouldn’t because he had a mountain of homework waiting for him at home. Whoever had thought a double-major in criminal justice and sociology was a good idea ought to be shot (ie. him). But it was Scott’s birthday, and Stiles hadn’t missed one of those in the twenty years they had known each other.
The place was dead, no surprise, so Stiles had no trouble finding the party. Scott was at their usual booth. Lydia, Allison, and Kira were crammed into one side while Isaac hovered beside Scott, clearly torn between wanting to sit down and join the party and recognizing that he was at work. Liam, some freshman from Scott’s lacrosse team who hero-worshiped the dude, had pulled up a chair, and Erica, having none of Isaac’s qualms, was sitting on Scott’s other side. All in all, it was one of Scott’s largest birthday parties yet, and Stiles couldn’t help but feel a small twinge of pride.
They’d been, after all, the stereotypical losers in high school. It had never bothered Stiles. He’d always felt unable to connect with his peers—too smart, too spastic, too weird for them to want to be friends with him, and he’d accepted that. It hadn’t been as easy for Scott though, who above anything else just wanted to be liked. So while Stiles might feel a bit annoyed that he now had to share his best friend with half a dozen other people, it was hard to begrudge Scott his new friends when Stiles could see from across the room how happy he was.
“Happy birthday!” Stiles belted, waving the handful of balloons that he’d picked up on the way over. ‘It’s a boy!’ and ‘Congratulations!’ as well as ‘Happy 50th!’ bobbed gently behind him as he crossed the room. Scott covered his face with his hands, groaning, but Stiles could see the grin he wasn’t able to hide, and found himself mirroring Scott’s expression.
“You couldn’t just get me, like, a card?” Scott asked, reaching out and toying with the ribbon on one of the balloons as Stiles set them down on the table.
“You’re just lucky I didn’t get you the stripper cake,” Stiles winked. “It’s not every day your bestest buddy in the whole world turns twenty-two.”
“Is he joking?” Liam wanted to know, glancing uncomfortably around the table like a stripper might pop up from anywhere.
“No.” Lydia lifted her pink martini to her lips. “You should have seen what he got me for my birthday last year.”
Liam turned wide eyes onto Stiles, and Stiles flashed a grin that had a few too many teeth just to watch Liam pale.
“Well, now that I’m here, I think you all know what time it is.” Stiles reached out and smacked his hand down against the wood of the table. “Barkeep! Shots!” He didn’t mean to do it, didn’t care, but even as his palm stung with the impact he was glancing around the bar for Derek’s face, anticipating the scowl he’d find there at being referred to as ‘barkeep’.
Instead, though, Isaac gave an audible sigh and began to walk back towards the bar. “Yeah, yeah. What’ll it be?”
“Oh, um,” Stiles blanked, disappointment fuzzing out his brain for a second. “Jägerbombs. Definitely Jägerbombs.”
“Stiles, no,” Allison laughed.
“Yes, Stiles. Yes.” Erica reached over and gave him a high-five. “Let’s get this party started.”
Stiles may have started the party, but he was definitely not capable of finishing it. That dubious honour went to Allison who, despite matching them shot-for-shot, betrayed no signs of being even slightly intoxicated save for the flush in her cheeks.
“My mom’s really into Scotch,” she explained to Stiles, who gaped as she slammed back a whiskey sour without so much as batting an eyelash. “I don’t really have a problem handling my liquor.”
“Yeah, no, yeah, totally,” Stiles nodded like he completely understood, despite not having been able to participate in the last round of shots Erica had brought over.
Boyd had baked Scott a giant chocolate birthday cake and Stiles was picking unhappily at the remainders. He was aware enough to know that he really should eat something more substantial than a handful of nachos and an earlier slice of cake, but drunk enough that more cake seemed like the ideal solution.
At some point in the evening there had been other people in the bar. Stiles wasn’t entirely sure what had happened to them, but suspected it had something to do with the fact that Isaac (currently wrapped up in Scott’s arms and slow-dancing to Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda in front of the stage) had spent most of his time making drinks for the party, and Stiles was pretty sure he’d seen Erica flat out refuse to serve a group of six, telling them unceremoniously that the kitchen was ‘that way’ if they wanted to give Boyd their order. They’d taken one look at the large black man and, with a snide remark about leaving a bad Yelp review, had vacated the premises.
So then, naturally, Boyd had come out of the kitchen to join them.
“This is ridiculous,” Stiles mouthed at the straw that had appeared in front of him, frowning when he wound up with a mouthful of water instead of more alcohol. “Like, how does this place survive? Seriously? How does it make any money?” He glanced over at Allison but discovered she’d vanished to watch Lydia give Liam a lapdance.
“It doesn’t,” a voice said dryly from behind Stiles.
“Hmm? Doesn’t what?” Stiles asked, trying to tear his eyes away from Lydia’s gyrating form and Liam’s half-horrified half-aroused expression but entirely unable to.
“Make any money. The Preserve.”
The voice gave a heavy sigh, and the sound of it sent warmth curling down Stiles’s back until he had to suppress the urge to arch into the sound like a cat. Twisting around on the bar stool, Stiles came face-to-face with Derek and nearly toppled off.
“You!” he accused, grabbing onto the bar to steady himself.
“Me,” Derek acknowledged. He took the plate of cake away from Stiles and replaced it with a greasy looking cheeseburger. “Eat.”
Stiles blinked down at the cheeseburger. It looked a little anemic. “Boyd always gives me extra pickles.”
“Well Boyd’s a little busy at the moment.” They both looked over at where Erica and Kira were watching Boyd do one-handed push-ups on the stage. Shirtless.
“Fine.” Stiles took a tentative bite of the cheeseburger, chewing carefully. “It’s okay,” he acknowledged reluctantly. “Boyd makes them better though.”
“That’s why I hired him as a cook.”
“You hired him?”
Derek raised an eyebrow. And what was it about that, Stiles wondered, that made his insides twist and heat? Stiles took another bite of the cheeseburger to try and distract himself.
“Where’d you come from, anyway?” Stiles asked. “You weren’t here earlier.”
Derek’s second eyebrow joined the first, and Stiles wanted to reach across the bar and smooth over them with his thumbs. He bet they’d feel soft and silky, whereas the stubbly beard that covered Derek’s manly, ridiculously chiseled jaw would be just the right kind of rough.
“Erica texted me to let me know she was done serving for the evening, and I figured I’d better stop by to make sure the place was still standing in the morning.”
“It is the morning,” Stiles narrowed his eyes and fished out his phone, nearly dropping it on the floor before he managed to catch it—and himself, since the frantic grabbing almost had him toppling to the floor. Sure enough, it was 3:05am.
“You should have come earlier,” Stiles attempted to clarify. “There was cake.”
“I’ll remember that next time.”
“Yeah,” Stiles smiled at Derek, feeling as lopsided and foolish as his grin. “Do that.”
Derek laughed, shaking his head, and Stiles felt like the ground had been swooped out from under him. He opened his mouth to say something else—what, he wasn’t sure, just that he wanted to see Derek laugh like that again—but a hand closed around his elbow and then Lydia was dragging him off to join the dancing and Derek stayed behind the bar.
Stiles rubbed at his tired eyes and tried again to focus on the screen in front of him. He needed to finish the reading before he could start on the assignment, but thirty pages in he couldn’t even remember what he was supposed to be looking for. The words had become a blurry nonsensical jumble. He reached for the glass of beer beside his laptop and frowned when it was empty. He’d asked Erica to keep them coming—she knew how study mode worked.
Disgruntled, Stiles looked up and prepared to give her a piece of his mind. The bar was a bit more crowded than usual, something Stiles hadn’t noticed due to the pair of noise-cancelling headphones he was sporting, and he couldn’t see Erica anywhere. Derek, his perma-scowl back on his face, was running food out from the kitchen and he’d barely dropped it off before someone else reached out to get his attention.
Stiles glanced over at the bar, wondering where Isaac was, before he remembered that Isaac and Scott had gone to a movie tonight, and Stiles had been given stern instructions not to come home any time before eleven. Since Stiles had so much work to do, he’d agreed readily enough. But it looked like The Preserve wasn’t coping nearly as well in Isaac’s absence.
Sighing audibly, Stiles pulled off the headphones and picked up his empty glass, heading towards the kitchen.
“Where’d Erica go?” He poked his head through the open door, finding Boyd, unruffled as always, at the fryer.
“Home. Sick.” Boyd looked past Stiles to the hectic scene behind him, and Stiles glanced back in time to see Derek slam down a pitcher of beer in front of a pair of terrified looking girls. Stiles winced.
Boyd turned back to whatever he was cooking and Stiles dithered in the doorway for a moment. He had so much work to do, and he really needed to get it done. He looked back out at the bar, and even from across the room he could see the tension in Derek’s shoulders.
Stiles groaned and scrubbed a hand over his face before setting his empty glass down on the counter. Fuck it. “Okay, what can I do to help?”
“Run food so Derek doesn’t have to,” Boyd supplied immediately, turning around and thrusting two plates at Stiles. “These are for table six—the one by the washrooms.”
“Right. Got it.” Stiles awkwardly deposited the plates on a tray and then grabbed both sides, making his way out the door towards table six. He knew he wasn’t holding the tray right, had seen Erica carry about ten different dishes on one slender wrist, but there was no way he was going to risk dropping an entire meal on a poor, unsuspecting customer.
He lost track of how much food he ran back and forth. At one point he wound up taking an order for yam fries, and then once one table saw him do it, the rest of them began assuming Stiles was a bona fide server. Stiles gave up trying to explain that he didn’t really work at The Preserve, that he was actually supposed to be sitting at that table over there (table eight, he’d since learned) and doing homework, and ended up with an apron around his waist and a pencil tucked behind his ear.
It wasn’t that the bar was especially packed, because it never got especially packed, but there were at least fifteen extra people and when the usual number of patrons maxed out at twenty, that extra fifteen made a difference. Derek was busy settling bills as well as making drinks and serving them—Boyd had informed Stiles that he legally couldn’t serve alcohol—so Stiles focused on bringing out food and clearing away empty plates and trying to make sure everyone had the cutlery they needed.
It had been sort of fun, for the first twenty minutes, and then Stiles had begun to notice how all that going back and forth made his feet hurt, and after about an hour his arms were dying from how heavy trays full of food actually were, but then a large table of seven had shown up and Stiles had been too busy trying not to royally fuck up that he stopped focusing on how much his body was protesting and just on getting the job done.
He grabbed an empty nacho platter and a couple of pint glasses and settled them on his tray before heading back to dump them in the kitchen. Derek intercepted him along the way, plucking the tray out of Stiles’s fingers and giving Stiles a none-too-gentle shove towards the bar.
Stiles squawked in indignation, turning around to see what else needed to be cleared, but he realized that the place was empty. Actually empty.
There was a moment of stunned confusion, and then his whole body began to ache and Stiles gratefully staggered the few feet to the bar and dropped down onto a stool. Leaning forward he buried his head in his arms and said, muffled against the bar, “I don’t know how Erica does all of that in six-inch heels.”
“Terrifying, isn’t it?” Boyd remarked, settling in beside Stiles. Stiles didn’t bother to look up, just grunted. He was exhausted. Even more so than when he’d been staring at his computer screen. At least now, though, it wasn’t his eyes that hurt. It was just his entire body.
“Here.” Stiles looked up to see Derek settling a shot down on the bar in front of him. Stiles groaned and sat up as Derek slid a second along the bar for Boyd and took the third for himself.
“What is it?” Stiles asked warily, eyeing the golden liquid.
“Johnnie Walker Red.” Derek tossed his own back without batting an eye, and Boyd followed. Stiles shrugged, reached for the shot glass, and grimaced horribly as he swallowed the cheap Scotch. Derek rolled his eyes but he was handing Stiles a freshly drawn pint of beer so Stiles didn’t complain, just took a quick swig to wash the burning out of his mouth.
“Thank you for your help tonight.” Derek met Stiles’s eyes and Stiles could feel himself start to flush. He hoped Derek would just chalk it up to the whisky that was currently expanding warm throughout his chest.
“It was no big deal,” Stiles waved it off.
“Well, I appreciate it.” Derek walked down the bar and opened the cash register, coming back with a handful of bills. “I haven’t calculated all the tips yet, but this should be—”
“What? No,” Stiles scrambled back off the stool, anger beginning to simmer alongside the alcohol. “I’m not taking your money.”
(And when had Derek started using Stiles’s name?)
“Don’t be stupid,” Derek was saying. “You worked for a good couple hours, I owe you—”
“You don’t owe me anything,” Stiles bit out, “I wasn’t—” He gestured angrily at the room, not sure why he felt so strongly about this when it wasn’t like he wasn’t a broke college student who could always use the money, “I wasn’t doing this because I thought you’d pay me.”
“Oh, for the love of—” Derek slapped the bills down on the counter in front of Stiles. “Take the money.”
“No. And fuck you,” Stiles said angrily. He stormed over to his booth, shoving his books and laptop into his backpack.
“Stiles,” the exasperation in Derek’s voice, the patronizing, look-how-spazzy-the-kid-is, grated down Stiles’s spine. He was not a charity case, or someone looking for a hand out, and he didn’t help out a… a… well Derek wasn’t exactly a friend but for fuck’s sake, The Preserve was like Stiles’s second home so it wasn’t like he didn’t have any stake in the matter, just because he wanted to get something out of it.
Burning with fury, Stiles ignored Derek calling after him and hefted his backpack onto his shoulder and slammed through the doors.
Stiles did not want to go back, and had sworn indignantly to Scott that he would never, ever, like, ever set foot in The Preserve again. So, naturally, they were there two nights later.
Stiles headed straight into their booth, Scott trailing good-naturedly behind him and calling out a ‘hey’ to whoever it was behind the bar. Slouching down on the vinyl seat Stiles glared moodily at the table where, years ago, someone had carved Jackson eats shit into the wood.
Okay, so it had been Stiles, but Jackson was in Stiles’s program and he was an asshole.
“Wow, you’re giving Derek a run for his money with the bitch-baby look on your face.”
Stiles’s eyes narrowed at Derek’s name and he gave Erica the finger. “Screw you.”
“Oh, honey,” Erica leaned over, her lips brushing against Stiles’s ear. “You should be so lucky.”
“No, you’d be,” Stiles retorted. “I’m great in bed.”
Erica gave a delighted laugh and straightened. “I like pissy you. Pissy you has some attitude.”
Stiles groaned and hid his face in his hands. “Just bring me a drink,” he pleaded. “Let me intoxicate myself in peace.”
Erica gave his shoulder a sympathetic squeeze and headed back to the bar. Stiles reached into his backpack and fished out the assignment he’d gotten back that day, staring at it bleakly as Scott slid into the booth across from him.
“Is this one you were talking about?” Scott asked, reaching across and grabbing it from Stiles’s hands.
“Yes.” Stiles watched as Scott flipped through the pages, frowning.
“I don’t get it—you passed.”
“Yeah, I passed, Scotty. That’s not the point. The point is that the class average was seventy-four point four percent. And I got a seventy-four. That’s below average.”
“So?” Scott rolled his eyes. “You passed.”
Stiles made an angry sound of frustration. “I don’t just pass things, Scott. I’m not average, okay? I’m above average.”
Scott leveled Stiles a flat look, and Stiles felt a twinge of guilt.
“Sorry,” he muttered. “But I am.”
“Harris is a dick,” Scott allowed.
“Below average though, I just—”
“Point four percent—”
They both broke off when a plate landed on the table between them. Stiles looked blankly at the plate, and then up at Derek’s retreating back as he strode back behind the bar. Stiles looked back at the plate.
“Sweet, dude!” Scott reached out and grabbed a potato skin, dunking it in the sour cream and then stuffing the whole thing in his mouth. “ ‘otato ‘ins!” he crowed around his mouthful.
“Yeah,” Stiles frowned, “Potato skins.”
“That’s so awesome that they brought them back!” Scott beamed up at Isaac who’d come over with a couple beers, and then the two of them started talking about what video games Isaac was going to come over and play after his shift. Stiles tuned them out and looked surreptitiously over at the bar where Derek was making drinks for a giggling pair of women.
What the hell were the potato skins supposed to mean? Was Derek apologizing somehow? Or was this just another way of calling Stiles stupid—was he saying ‘just because you won’t take my money doesn’t mean I won’t pay you back’? Or was it as simple a matter as other customers complaining about the appetizer being taken off the menu and Boyd preemptively making a plate up for Stiles and Derek was merely the delivery boy?
Stiles scowled at the plate before grabbing one of the hot wedges of potato, dunking it in the sour cream, and taking a surly bite. It was delicious, and within a matter of moments he’d devoured the rest of the plate.
Comfortably full, a cold pint of beer in his hand, and a good view of the bar where he could watch Derek move along it, competently making drinks with the ease of someone who’d never questioned their skill, Stiles felt entirely unsettled.
It didn’t make sense. Stiles wanted it to make sense. He wanted to know what the fucking potato skins meant. He wanted to know why Derek was working in a bar that barely needed the regular staff of three it had had previously. He wanted to know if Derek’s lips would taste like the dark beer he occasionally took a sip of, what Derek’s hands felt like against Stiles’s bare skin, what his hair would feel like tangled up between Stiles’s fingers.
Stiles blinked, snapping out of whatever trance he had been in.
Fuck. Oh fuck.
He had a thing for Derek. A Thing. A Big Thing, if the sudden, confusing ache in the centre of his chest was anything to go by.
He moved on instinct, not giving himself time to talk himself out of it, and slid out of the booth to head directly for the bar.
Derek saw his approach and Stiles caught another unguarded look on the older man’s face. Derek’s eyes had widened, a cautious half-smile curving his lips, and Stiles felt an answering one slide over his own.
Derek handed the two women their drinks and moved down the wood to meet Stiles.
“Do you, uh, have a moment?” Stiles asked.
Derek nodded, wiping his hands on a towel and then moving out from around the bar. He glanced at the table where Isaac and Scott were still talking, and then gestured to the kitchen. “There’s a door to the back…?” he suggested, a touch of hesitancy in his voice, and Stiles nodded.
Derek led the way and Stiles followed, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his jeans and without a clue of what to say.
Derek pushed open the door and then they were out in the bracing night air. Stiles wished he’d thought to bring his hoodie, but it was too late for that. Besides, Derek wasn’t wearing anything but a t-shirt, which was just tight enough for Stiles to see Derek’s nipples harden in the cold under the thin fabric. Stiles felt his mouth dry, and licked his lips. Oh god, what was he doing?
“I just…” he began, scuffling his feet awkwardly against the pavement of the parking lot. “Look, I… I was a dick the other night. Again. Probably.”
Derek shrugged, “No, I get it. I shouldn’t have presumed—”
“I like this place, you know?” Stiles interrupted. “We’ve been coming here since our first year, and it’s like, ours, kinda, in a way. I mean I know it’s not,” he hurried to clarify when a frown creased Derek’s forehead. “Not the way it’s Erica’s and Boyd’s and Isaac’s, or, yours, I guess. But I helped out because I wanted to help out. Help. Not, work. But it’s a good place. And I don’t want to see anything happen to it. So I appreciate you trying to,” he made a fluttering gesture with his hands, “Compensate me, or whatever, but I don’t want you getting in trouble with whoever owns it because you just like, handed me cash.” He laughed, running a self-conscious hand through his hair. “I mean, what if the owner noticed the money missing and you got fired? I don’t want you to get fired. I like y—I like you working here. It’d suck if I got you fired.”
“Stiles,” Derek began, but Stiles cut him off again.
“I’m serious. You can’t let me get you fired. Not that you’d let me, because, you know, I don’t think you really let people do anything, but I just—”
“What?” Stiles said, exasperated. He was trying to explain himself here.
“I own the place.”
Derek gestured at the bar behind them. “The Preserve. I own it.”
“But—I though the owner was some rich douchebag off in Europe or something? Some old guy with a bizarre pet project?” That’s what Erica had confided to them one night, anyway.
“I’m not that old,” Derek scowled, but he took a step back from Stiles, his hands crossed over his chest like he was suddenly uncomfortable.
“So you… you’re that Hale guy?” Stiles could feel his eyes go wide. “Holy shit.” That meant Derek wasn’t just some hot, available bartender. God, was he even available? Did Stiles even know? He should have asked Erica. Why the fuck didn’t he ask Erica. Why the fuck didn’t he ask her anything about Derek?
“Yeah, I’m sorry, I thought—”
“Yeah! No, no, that’s cool, man. Like, you own a bar. Cool.” And you jet-set off to Europe for years at a time, and you have a bajillion dollars so you don’t care if one of the bars you own never makes any money because hey, what’s money to you? Fuck, Derek was like eighty thousand times more out of Stiles’s league than he’d realized. Like, he’d known Derek was kind of out of his league because, look at the guy, but he hadn’t realized how far. A man like Derek probably had models and heiresses and famous sports players falling all over him. Jesus Christ, what had Stiles been thinking?
“Anyway, um, I’m glad we had this talk. Good talk. Thanks for the talk.” Stiles plastered a big, fake grin over his face and then fled back inside.
“Sorry Scott, gotta run, studying and all,” he managed when Scott and Isaac gave him looks of confusion. Stiles grabbed the assignment from the table, stuffed it into his backpack, and slapped a handful of bills down before making a beeline for the front door.
In retrospect, Stiles was the king of fucking it up.
This wasn’t exactly news, but Stiles had been under the delusion that his ability to royally screw himself over would get better with age. Apparently not so much, because now he was down one hot bartender/bar owner, and one study space/hangout/bar.
Drinking at home was not the same.
Stiles prodded unhappily at the can of beer in front of him before slumping down across the kitchen table and groaning. No one else was home, so he didn’t bother to keep his noises of despair to himself. Scott had headed off to The Preserve like usual—it was Jam Night, after all, and Scott hadn’t missed one since they’d started. He’d done everything save physically drag Stiles out the door to make Stiles come with him, but Stiles had resisted.
He’d nearly asked Derek out, for fuck’s sake. And now that he knew Derek was Derek Hale (someone googleable—yeah, Stiles had looked him up), Stiles couldn’t believe he’d been so naïve. Stiles could never go back. Ever. And he was serious this time. It was going to hurt, but breakups always did, and Stiles suspected abandoning his favourite bar of all time was something that would hurt a lot less than being laughed out of said bar for attempting to ask out the owner.
God, Stiles had been about to suggest they go to a movie. A movie date. To a guy who probably Christian-Bale-as-Batman dated, which involved helicopters and women in evening gowns. Like sharing a bag of popcorn would be comparable to five-course meals served by tuxedoed retired MI6 agents on the private island in the Caribbean that Derek probably owned.
Stiles groaned helplessly again and pushed himself up off the kitchen table to try and focus back on his fucking forensics report. Maybe he’d flunk out of college as well and could finally embrace the life of a bum, which was clearly his destiny.
The doorbell rang, jolting Stiles out of his misery spiral, and he dragged himself up. His pizza was here. Pizza, hot, cheesy pizza, would fill the hole.
“Hey, man, here’s a twenty and you can keep the change.” Stiles was in the process of pulling the bill out of his wallet when he realized that the person standing in the doorway wasn’t holding a pizza.
The person standing in his doorway was Derek.
Stiles’s mouth dropped open and he instinctively backed away. Derek seemed to take this as an invitation because he stepped through the open door, closing it behind him.
“Hey, Stiles,” he said.
“Uh…” Stiles responded, eloquent as always.
“Scott gave me your address,” Derek continued. “I hope you don’t mind.”
Stiles blinked. “Uh, yeah, no, come on in?” He gestured automatically to the kitchen behind him and Derek stepped past him. Stiles glanced down at himself and winced—he was wearing an old pair of sweatpants and a Beacon Hills Lacrosse hoodie that was only halfway zipped up because the zipper was broken. He was also pretty sure there was a hole in it somewhere.
Trailing after Derek into the kitchen, Stiles tried to regain some of his composure. “Can I get you a beer?”
“Thanks, that’d be great.” Derek settled himself into Stiles’s abandoned chair and Stiles tried not to trip over his own feet as he made his way to the fridge to grab Derek a beer. God, he only had the cheap stuff. Did Derek even drink PBR?
“I don’t… I mean, the glasses are all in the dishwasher, so—”
“The can is fine.”
Stiles handed the beer to Derek and tried not to blush when their fingers brushed over the cool metal. What the hell was happening? Had he fallen asleep while trying to study? Was this some sort of desperate dream?
Keeping his mouth firmly closed to stop himself from saying something incredibly stupid, Stiles eased himself down into the only other chair they had (and why were the chairs so close together? Why’d they have to get such a tiny kitchen table?). He folded his hands primly together so he didn’t give into the nervous energy coursing through his body.
It was weird, seeing Derek in his kitchen. Weird seeing Derek anywhere outside The Preserve. Derek seemed bigger. Or Stiles’s kitchen seemed smaller. Either way, Stiles was sure that there was significantly less air in the room than there had been five minutes ago. He could find the science to back it up.
Derek said nothing, just took a sip of his beer, and in desperation Stiles reached across the table for his own can and followed suit. He was in the middle of his second sip when Derek broke the silence, and Stiles nearly choked on the beer.
“Scott said you weren’t going to come back,” Derek leaned forward, his elbows on the table. His face creased with concern when Stiles’s eyes began to water with the force of his coughing.
“I’m good, I’m good,” Stiles wheezed, waving a hand in Derek’s direction when Derek looked like he might get up and start thumping Stiles on the back at any moment. “Sorry, I just—” He gave one last hacking cough to clear his throat, and then took another sip of beer as Derek raised an eyebrow. Stiles let the cool liquid sooth his now-abraded throat and then backtracked.
“Scott said what?” Maybe the thing Scott had said would change. Maybe Stiles had misheard Derek the first time.
“He said you weren’t planning on coming back. To The Preserve.”
“Traitor,” Stiles muttered darkly.
“What was that?”
“Nothing,” Stiles said hastily. “Nothing. Look—wait, why the hell were you talking about me anyway?” Were Derek and Scott friends? Had Stiles missed this?
“Oh, well,” Derek shifted in his seat and for the first time since he’d let himself into Stiles’s house, for the first time that Stiles had seen maybe ever, Derek looked a little uncomfortable. “I brought over some spinach dip. We changed the recipe, or Boyd did, but I wanted to know what you thought about it. Only Scott said he hated spinach and that you weren’t coming. Ever.”
Stiles had so many questions that it took a moment for his brain to even process what Derek was saying. “Why did you—wait, no, back up—you changed the spinach dip?” he could hear the strangled outrage in his voice but didn’t care. “What the hell, Derek?”
Derek grinned, laughter dancing in his green eyes and Stiles felt his whole body heat. Goddamnit. He wasn’t here, or rather, Derek wasn’t here, for Stiles to get distracted by Derek’s stupid handsome face, which got even more stupidly handsome when he smiled.
“It’s a good change, I think,” Derek insisted. He was still leaning forward, his forearms dangerously close to Stiles’s on the table. “More cheese.”
“More—” Stiles began, ready to continue in his outrage, but then he stopped for a second and thought. “That… that might actually be an improvement.”
“I thought so,” Derek’s eyes crinkled at the corners when he grinned, Stiles noticed. He liked the crinkles. “But I wanted to know what you thought before we put it on the menu.”
“Me?” This time the squeak was impossible to deny, and the blush that flew over Stiles’s cheeks had less to do with arousal and more to do with mortification.
“Yes, you.” If Derek was feeling impatient with Stiles’s inability to hold a normal conversation, no sign of it showed in his voice. In fact, Stiles almost thought there was something fond in the way Derek kept saying ‘you’.
“But… why? Like, why me?”
“Stiles, you said it yourself. You’ve been coming to The Preserve for years.” And this time it was Derek who’s cheeks pinked as he dropped his gaze to the table. Stiles marveled at the way Derek’s long eyelashes cast pretty shadows over his incredible cheekbones. “It’s more your place than mine,” he asserted quietly.
“What? No, dude, no. You—I mean, you own it.” Stiles laughed, a trace of bitterness sharp in the edges.
“Why did you tell Scott you weren’t coming back?” Derek’s gaze came up, fixing on Stiles’s, and Stiles’s hand clenched compulsively around the can of beer.
“I…” Fuck. This was a moment. Like a Moment. One of those Moments that happened once or twice every year when depending on what you said, or did, it had an effect on the rest of your year. Maybe on the rest of your life.
Stiles swallowed, unable to look away from Derek’s eyes, knowing that he had a choice to make. “It’s stupid. I probably didn’t mean it. I mean, I said that before and then I was back anyway, so it probably wouldn’t have stuck. But… look, I, um, I like you. Like, like you, like you. And the other day I thought maybe I’d ask you out. To a movie. It was stupid, you know, cause I didn’t know who you were. I mean I knew who you were,” god, he was rambling and he didn’t know how to stop, “But I didn’t know you were you. I didn’t know you owned the bar. I didn’t know that you were…” he made another awkward gesture in his hand, hoping it encompassed the entire jet-setting, bar-owning, model-dating Derek. “And then I found out you were you, and it was just like,” he gave a weak laugh, “What was I thinking, you know?”
“‘What were you thinking?’” Derek repeated, slowly.
“Yeah.” Stiles knew it wasn’t literally possible to die of embarrassment, but he thought his body might be trying to make a go of it anyway. “It was stupid. It’s stupid. Just a, a, crush. It’ll go away.” He finally managed to tear his eyes away from Derek and dropped them to where his thumb was tapping a manic rhythm against the table. There was a part of him that was patting himself on the back, proud that he hadn’t wimped out and given some sort of shitty, made-up excuse. But the rest of him was a miserable, humiliated ball of uncomfortable.
Derek reached over, settling a hand over Stiles’s to still his nervous movement. Derek’s hand was warm against Stiles’s and Stiles’s mind blanked.
“What if,” Derek said, and his thumb began to stroke slowly over the sensitive skin of Stiles’s wrist, “I don’t want it to go away?”
“You… you don’t?” Stiles’s breath felt like it was caught somewhere between his lungs and his throat.
“No, I don’t.” Derek moved closer and then his other hand was on Stiles’s jaw, tilting it up, and then Derek’s mouth slanted over Stiles’s.
Derek’s lips were warm and soft and Stiles’s lips parted under them without a second thought. Derek deepened the kiss, his tongue sliding against Stiles’s and Stiles made a helpless noise in his throat and grabbed at the front of Derek’s t-shirt to yank him closer, until Stiles could feel the heat of Derek’s body and the thundering beat of Derek’s heart against Stiles’s palm.
Stiles nipped lightly at Derek’s bottom lip, thrilled when Derek groaned and pressed against him. Derek tasted like the cheap beer he’d been drinking and under it something darker, something rich and wholly Derek. Stiles wanted to drown in that sensation.
Eventually, Derek pulled back. Stiles had to force himself to let Derek go and not to chase after him until he’d felt every last inch of Derek’s mouth.
“Come back with me,” Derek stood, tugging Stiles to his feet. “Try the spinach dip.”
Disappointment flashed over Derek’s face before he could smooth it away and he took a step back, dropping Stiles’s hand. “I’m sorry, I thought—”
“No, no—” Stiles hurried to clarify, grabbing Derek’s hand. “I mean, I ordered a pizza. I can’t leave because the pizza guy is going to be here any minute and it’d be a dick thing to do, to order a pizza and then not pay for it.”
“Oh,” Derek blinked and the tension flowed out of his body. “Right. Okay, then.”
“Yeah, so, um….” It was stupid, because they’d just spent five minutes making out at the kitchen table like a couple of teenagers, but Stiles blushed. “Do you want to take a look at my DVD shelf and maybe we could have that movie date? I’ll share the pizza. And I think there’s probably a couple more beers in the fridge.”
Derek met Stiles’s eyes and grinned. “I’d like that.”
“Next time,” Stiles promised. “Next time we’ll have spinach dip.”