"Has he ever told you about his mom?"
There's a catch on the last word, which makes Derek pay more attention than he would normally, makes him drag his eyes away from where Stiles and Scott are rough housing on the tiny patch of front lawn, the mower silent and forgotten in favor of their antics. The sheriff has come up to stand beside him on the porch, eyes narrowed against the bright glare of the California sun. The way he leans against the railing is seemingly casual, but Derek can see how tight his throat is, how emotion has constricted it almost shut.
Turning his eyes back to the two boys — one nut-brown and shirtless, the other growing worryingly pink along his face, arms, and the back of his neck and sweating through a plain brown tee shirt — Derek shakes his head. He keeps his eyes trained away, though every other sense is tuned in to the man at his side. And for all that the sheriff is also looking out, lips curved with a sort of pained fondness, Derek can sense that his attention is all for Derek.
"Yeah, he wouldn't, I suppose. It's… well, you know."
And he does. Derek knows how the mere memory of the dead can stall the breath in one's lungs, can lock a person's tongue tight inside their mouth. He doesn't say anything, because he doesn't have to, because the sheriff knows too.
"I joined the Army when I was eighteen. Straight out of high school, because it was either that or wither away in small town Indiana—"
That gets a reaction out of Derek, because… well, because he'd just assumed the Stilinskis were from Beacon Hills. He has vague memories of seeing the sheriff around town when he was a deputy, when Derek still held his mom's hand to cross the street. The little, startled noise he makes has the sheriff laughing and shaking his head, the crinkles around his eyes deepening with his smile.
The sheriff doesn't comment on Derek's surprise, though, just continues with whatever story he's decided Derek needs to hear that day. "Anyway, it was either bury myself in a backward-ass, narrow-minded small town or join the Army. I wasn't… like Stiles. School, books, were never my thing. So I joined up, did a tour. Went to Iraq under Bush Senior. Decided I liked the structure and order of Army life and reenlisted for another tour, but that was about the time Clinton was downsizing troop strength. A buddy of mine had discharged the year prior and gone home to California where all he needed was a high school diploma and an honorable discharge to become a deputy. One thing led to another, and I left the Army with a nice little chunk of terminal leave and forty days until I had to show up in San Francisco for police academy training."
Derek finally turns a puzzled look on the sheriff, because for all that he appreciates the story, he's not sure what this has to do with Stiles' mom.
"There's sort of an unwritten rule of Army life, son," the sheriff says, lips quirking up on one side, like he could hear the thoughts Derek doesn't dare give voice to. "And that is, when you get out, you go home and hug your mama. And there's an unwritten rule of small town America. That one is, when soldier boys come home, the whole town turns out to welcome them back. The day I flew in, the streets were lined with people holding posters and it was… bizarre. The town held a welcome home party at the community center that night. I barely graduated high school, but there my old principal was, tears in her eyes, to welcome me back and tell me what a good boy I was. Anyway," the sheriff shrugs, and something in his voice changes, cracks a little, lets Derek know that they've come to the point. "I turned around and there was a girl standing there, all long legs and big brown eyes, and she was smiling like the sun had finally come out after ten years of rain. She was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen and she shocked the shit out of me when she threw her arms around me like we were old friends. I had no idea who she was, but I was twenty five and single and she was beautiful." The sheriff pauses for a moment, like he's seeing her standing there again, and Derek…
...Derek sees a woman with Stiles' eyes and long limbs and wide, generous mouth and thinks, yeah. He can understand what might have turned a young John Stilinski's head all those years ago.
"Found out later that night, round back of the community center where we were all wrapped up in each other, that she was the scrawny little neighbor girl that I used to babysit back in high school."
Derek's eyebrows shoot up and he can't help a little huff of laughter at that, which the sheriff echoes.
"What I'm trying to say, son," and here Derek is pierced with the full force of that stare, "is that I get it. I understand. I know what it means to leave, and I know what it means to come home and have everything be different. I never had a big family, and my folks went peacefully regardless, but I've seen my fair share of friends die in horrible, senseless ways. I know how it changes you, hollows you out. I can't imagine what you've been through, and I wouldn't dare compare my life to yours, but having something good, something beautiful..." The sheriff averts his eyes again and scrubs a hand over the back of his head in a gesture that's so reminiscent of Stiles that it makes something in Derek's chest clench. "Ah hell, I don't know what I'm saying here. I guess, well. I know you've been tiptoeing around my son in part because you're concerned about my approval. Or my badge."
"I—" Derek is speechless, can't get out any more than that, because no matter what he says here, he either offends the sheriff or incriminates himself. He's twenty four, Stiles is seventeen. He can do the math.
"So I guess I'm just telling you I understand, and I'm not in your way."
"Sir?" Derek doesn't even know what he's asking with that, is too startled by this whole conversation to do anything but gape at the man.
"I knew. I knew as soon as I turned around that night and saw Claudia for the first time. I knew she was mine. I knew I needed her in my life like I needed air to breathe. She had my ring on her finger before I left for the police academy."
Derek shakes his head, jaw clenching as denial bubbles up inside him. "I can't. That… that's too much. My life is…" He shakes his head again, taking a step back, half-turning from the happy tableau on the lawn, the bright laughter and friendly shouts.
The abrupt summation pulls Derek up short, stops his unconscious retreat. The breath stutters out of him, and he looks up into those eyes again, sees the understanding in them.
"But son," the sheriff's voice is kind, for all that there's a note of steel in it, "if you think there's a possibility that Stiles will walk away from this life he's found himself in, you don't know my boy."
Derek's shoulders sag, because he knows that. Of course he does. Stiles is stubborn and loyal and too damn smart for his own good. But he's still… "A boy." Derek's spine stiffens at the reminder, his resolve strengthening. "He's seventeen, he doesn't know what he wants."
The sheriff's lips quirk again, making a tide of frustrated anger rise in Derek. Obviously detecting the signs of it — not that it's difficult, Derek is always hovering on the brink of rage — the sheriff holds up his hands. "I'm not laughing at you. It's just… that night? Out behind the community center? There's a possibility I might have run into the flat of my future father-in-law's fist. Turns out, Claudia wasn't quite as eighteen as she would've had me believe."
Derek's lips part in disbelief, because surely the sheriff isn't advocating—
"I'm not inviting you to deflower my son, Hale, so get that look off your face. But I figure if I can ask a seventeen year old girl to marry me and count on her to know her own mind in her future, you can ask a seventeen year old boy to the movies and indulge in a spot of hand holding if he says yes." The sheriff raises a hand, finger pointed right at Derek's nose, making him go nearly cross-eyed as he keeps it in focus. "He'll be eighteen in two months. I expect a twenty four year old man to know the definition of hand holding."
But Derek is already shaking his head, because it's not right. None of this is right. He's not— "I'm not… good enough." The words spill from somewhere deep in his chest, from that blackened, charred pit where his soul used to be.
"No." It's not an agreement, it's a reprimand, all sharp tone and whip-crack force. "If there's one thing my wife taught me, it's that we don't get to decide if we're good enough to love. You can take this or leave it, but you don't get to make decisions for other people. If you truly don't want a relationship with my son, that's your decision to make. But you don't get to decide if you're good enough for him. Only he does." The sheriff hesitates for a second, then wraps a large hand, warm and firm, around the back of Derek's neck, squeezing gently. "And for what it's worth? I think you're wrong. You're a damn good man, son. I'm proud to know you." With one last squeeze, the sheriff drops his hand and turns away, going out onto the lawn to harangue Scott and Stiles into finishing the lawn work.
And Derek… Derek feels as though the rug has been pulled out from underneath him, because all the excuses he'd been clinging to are suddenly gone. He's still standing there, shaken to the soles of his shoes, staring out at the scene the three men make, when Stiles happens to look up.
His cheeks are flushed, his hair is sticking to his face in sweaty clumps, and he's going to regret not applying sunscreen tomorrow, but right now he's the most beautiful thing Derek's ever seen. Stiles notices Derek looking and smiles, big and bright, and it's like…
Like the sun after ten years of rain.