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tide pulls from the moon

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It never snowed in Beacon Hills. It hadn’t, for as long as Derek had been alive, and his grandmother had shaken her head when he’d crawled into her lap - five years old, snug in pajamas and the warmth of their always-bustling house - and begged her to tell him stories about “the old days.”

His grandmother, who’d passed on the Alpha power to her eldest daughter and taken on the equally challenging role of resident babysitter, story-teller, and feelings-soother, would stroke over the stubborn cowlick on the crown of his head and let him tuck himself under her chin. “It’s not cold enough here, my little wolfling,” she’d say.

He'd grown up relying on her as his first resource on any difficult subject: what makes snow (his introductory lessons on the intricacies of science and nature); why his mother was gone so often (Alpha duties - protecting her territory and advising other werewolves on theirs); where babies came from (a conversation his father had been roped into, and which had turned into an outline of his responsibilities as a soon-to-be older brother); why Laura was such a jerk (don’t say that, darling: someday, I promise you’ll be grateful for her friendship); and what it meant that he got the same fluttery sensations in his chest when Charles touched his hand as when Anna did (love is love, my sweet; just be sure the person’s good to you, and you to them).

It didn’t snow in their part of California; it never had, and likely never would. But that didn’t stop him from asking, or longing, once he was too old to believe his parents could make anything happen. Maybe it wasn’t the natural state of the world, for a town that wasn’t far enough north, or high enough in the mountains, to gather that magical dusting he daydreamed about every winter. The thing was, though. Most of the world didn’t know werewolves existed outside of fairy tales and horror films. People relied on what they knew, and what they’d been taught, without opening their eyes to other possibilities.

So he patiently wrote "snow" at the top of his wishlist, every year, in careful blocky letters, from the time Laura made fun of him for assuming they were writing to a benevolent werewolf named Santa Claws, to the point when even Cora was old enough to start rolling her eyes at the holiday festivities.

Derek pretended, after that. Groaned loudly when his mom insisted he go to the woods to chop down a tree with his sisters. Griped about the lights strung up on the lamp posts in downtown Beacon Hills, the carols playing on a loop in the stores, the overpowering scents of cinnamon and peppermint in every coffeeshop and bakery. He faked disappointment when his birthday presents were inevitably, and clumsily, wrapped in shiny scraps of snowflake- and candy cane-patterned paper.

“I know it’s not easy being a Christmas baby,” his mother apologized every year, frazzled by the community responsibilities she always ended up overbooking. She’d whirl in and out of the house, kissing Derek and Cora on the tops of their heads, squeezing Laura’s shoulder and reminding her to take care of them, and coaxing his dad out of the combination office-library at the back of the house. Derek spent a lot of time in there, dipping into the dusty old history books his dad was studying, and occasionally serving as a sounding board when he wanted to try out a new lecture for his upcoming seminars.

Winter was the best time of year, even inside the house. They’d keep an unnecessary fire crackling in the fireplace, Derek tucked into an oversized armchair with a book, and his dad frowning away at the papers spread across the table, his glasses in constant danger of slipping down his nose. The library wasn't off limits to Laura and Cora, per se, but they never chose to spend time in it. Laura was constantly picking up odd jobs and volunteer work - trying to follow in her Alpha's footsteps, Derek figured, or maybe they were just that similar - and Cora preferred to run around in the woods at all hours of the day and night, often sneaking out of bed to chase the moonlight.

His mom would enter the library, sigh fondly at her bookish boys, and ruffle Derek's hair before tugging her husband into accompanying her to another charity fundraiser dinner. He'd emerge from his studies, a little bleary-eyed but smiling, always ready to draw his wife into a kiss and follow her anywhere. Derek would blush as they kissed under the fake mistletoe in the doorways, and Cora would make fake gagging sounds until Laura pinched her, but their parents' love had been their anchor their entire lives.

The holidays made Derek happy, every year, even if the weather never did shift over into the picture-perfect landscape all the movies and songs lingered over lovingly.

He even secretly loved being born on Christmas Day - "the best gift I've ever received," his mom would say. "Me too," Laura would add, since her reward for a ruined Christmas spent in the hospital had been a silky black puppy with big eyes and bigger paws. She'd spent years trying to shift into her full wolf form so they could tumble together in the Preserve, two woodland creatures at play.

She hadn't managed it - not then. Not until years later, long after the Alpha powers had coursed through her body and left her shaking and sobbing, grey-white flakes of ash drifting softly in the air and settling onto their bowed shoulders, coating their smoldering house and scorched yard into a mockery of the winter wonderland Derek had always dreamed about.

It'd been snowing in New York the day he felt her die.

The plane to California, the taxi ride from the airport to Beacon Hills, finding Laura's Camaro parked at the house - all of it passed in a daze. The ground was cold, but not icy, when he'd dug her grave. The air was crisp but clear as he'd wrapped her up and covered her, letting the wolfsbane rope shred his hands as he buried it in a protective spiral around her.

He stayed there for a while, hunched over in the ashy dirt, not sure whether he was going to cry or puke or scream at the top of his lungs.

In the end, he did none of it. His hands healed, the blood drying on them as a reminder that this, too, was his fault, because he hadn't wanted to go back with her. It'd taken years to clear the scent of ash out of his nostrils, to not flinch at every brush of a snowflake against his skin, or melting in his hair. And now he'd lost everything. His Alpha, his sister, all the hard-fought progress at not hating himself every day of his life.

New York had been their final destination, but Boston had been the first place he'd ever seen snow. Laura had thought - well, she'd gone with what she knew of him, not realizing that the memories that kept her on her feet left him feeling raw, flayed open. It was the first time he'd cried - standing on the ice in the Public Garden, Laura sweeping her arms and legs into a snow angel on the thickly-coated bank.

He wanted the ice to crack under his feet. He wanted to sink into the water, to have it knit itself back together over his head. He wanted to disappear. But he couldn't - not with Laura still there - laughing a little at the snow slipping under her collar, calling out for him to join her. He brushed roughly at his eyes, told himself to grow up - he was sixteen, it was old enough to know better, to be better - and pushed it all down.

He built a snowman with her. He let her push him into a snowdrift and rub snow into his hair, smiling in an attempt to wipe away the worrylines that’d begun to etch themselves around her eyes and mouth. He helped her pick out a tree and sneak it into their hotel room, pine needles dropping in a clear trail down the hallway. He spent an hour staring blankly at gloves and scarves and jewelry and perfume in Macy's, sharp reminders coming up every time he saw something he wanted to buy for his mom, or Cora, or his grandmother, or his little human cousins, who'd been visiting the night of the fire. Who hadn't even known - too young to keep that kind of secret - the Hales were something more than human. Who'd burned alive anyway, because Kate - because Kate had let him believe she'd loved him, then destroyed everything.

He stayed in Beacon Hills, after Laura. He stayed because he deserved the daily reminders - the old ladies in the grocery stores who remembered his mother, the long paths in the Preserve he'd run with her and his sisters, his dad's charred glasses in the rubble of his library. The way Scott, freshly turned and angry about it, hated him, but needed him. The way Stiles hated him, but...that part he didn't understand, not for years.

Stiles was fire and fury, in a way Kate had been - vibrant and smart and beautiful, with a dangerous underlayer that he couldn't help finding appealing. He threw himself at Stiles with harsh words and toothless threats, antagonism always simmering under the surface. He was waiting to be broken. Ready to fall apart under the weight of Stiles's disdain, to watch someone else stand over him, triumphant in his defeat.

But Stiles didn't break him. Stiles picked him up. Stood over him, yes, but only to slap him back to consciousness, relief pouring through his scent as Kate's bullet wound faded into his skin. Held him above the water, until his limbs were trembling, moments away from drowning alongside him. Yelled in his face but dragged him out of the hospital elevator, a look in his eyes that Derek hadn't been able to read and couldn't think about without his heart twisting strangely in his chest.

When he left Beacon Hills, finally ripping the tether free and remembering how to breathe, how to live again, it was Stiles who came after him. Stiles, who showed up at his door with blazing eyes, looking like he wanted to punch him in the face, but wrapping his arms around him instead, making him grunt in surprise at the raw strength of his embrace.

“You asshole,” Stiles said, slapping him heartily on the back as he extricated himself, his voice rough under his bright smile. “You couldn’t have made yourself harder to find, could you?”

Derek stood in the doorway as Stiles pushed past, dragging a heavy bag behind him, its wobbly wheels scrape-thumping over his meticulously polished hardwood floors. He felt - bewildered? Thrown entirely off balance, in that way Stiles always managed. He eventually moved his shock-frozen limbs to peer out into the front garden, half-expecting to find Scott or the Sheriff opening the gate, loaded down with additional luggage, but the closest heartbeat he could hear came from the house next door: a neighbor playing his violin, the bow scraping gently over the strings.

He shut the door, locked it as an afterthought, and followed the sound of Stiles clomping up the stairs, his suitcase hitting each step as he climbed.

“How many floors does this place have?” he called, his voice drifting from somewhere around the second turn in the staircase. Derek didn’t answer, figuring he was plenty smart enough to count for himself. By the time he reached the top of the stairs, Stiles had deposited his suitcase and backpack next to the mattress on the floor of his studio, peeled off his jacket, and was staring openly at the canvases - some blank, some in various states of completion - scattered around the room.

“What are you doing here,” Derek said flatly, crossing his arms over his chest and trying to remember how to look threatening. If he’d had any advance notice at all, he would’ve taken some time to change out of sweatpants and a t-shirt he desperately hoped Stiles wouldn’t recognize as his.

No such luck, of course.

Stiles turned, jabbing a finger at the canvases behind him. “Isaac was being a pretentious douche with his descriptions, as usual, but for once, I’ll forgive it. He was right: these are amazing.” His gaze traveled up and down Derek’s body. “That’s a suspiciously familiar shirt. Did you pick it up at Casa Stilinski?”

“No,” he said, scrunching his eyebrows in embarrassment.

“Derek, I don’t buy a lot of new clothes, as everyone who knows me is well aware. That? Is one I’ve had since at least freshman year. And I’ve never once seen you in a graphic tee, so don’t pretend like you’ve started now.” He gave him another appraising once-over. “It looks good on you, though. You look good. In general.”

“I - thanks,” he stuttered. “Um. You too?”

Stiles laughed abruptly, his cheeks flushing. “Oh, god. Sorry. I didn’t actually mean it that way. I just meant you look - lighter, maybe. Happier than when I last saw you.”

“Oh,” he said, feeling stupid and wishing he’d kept his mouth shut. He pushed it down, saving it for later agonizing when Stiles wasn’t around to read the play of emotions over his face, and repeated gruffly, “Why are you here?”

The muscles around Stiles’s mouth wobbled for a split second, as though he was deciding which expression to reach for. His grin, when he found it, was lopsided and didn’t seem entirely genuine. “Investigating whether you’re as gracious of a host as I’ve heard. I’ve gotta say, so far, the rumors aren’t matching up with the reality.”

“I don’t run a bed and breakfast, Stiles.” He couldn’t retain the faux anger - he was glad to see him, he’d always be glad to see him - but the exasperation in his voice was real enough. “How did you even know to come up here?” He supposed he should be asking how Stiles had arrived at his front door to begin with, well over a year since they’d parted ways, but somehow, that part didn't seem all that surprising. But the easy familiarity with which he'd strolled into his house and up the stairs was abnormal, even for someone this nosy and resourceful.

“Isaac,” he said again, shrugging and poking at the window frame to see if it opened. When it did, he stuck his head out and whistled at the view before latching it shut again. “He told me your spare bedroom was technically his and that he’d snap my neck if I touched anything in it, but that you keep another bed in your studio.” He nudged at the mattress with a ragged sneaker. “I’m not sure this counts as a bed, exactly. But it’ll do. Better’n what I’ve been sleeping on.” He said the last bit softly, almost under his breath, as though he’d forgotten what it was like to be around someone with supernatural hearing.

Now that Derek was examining him more closely, he realized that he hadn’t been telling the truth earlier. Stiles didn’t look particularly good. Not in the way he’d thought he’d meant, nor in the clarified version. He looked exhausted and unhappy, with bruised circles under his eyes and patchy scruff that made Derek think, for a moment, that he’d smeared glue on his face and rolled through a patch of dirt, then twig-strewn weeds. He’d been wearing a backwards baseball cap when he’d arrived; now that he’d tossed that on the bed, his hair was standing wildly on end, thick and most likely unwashed.

“You should take a shower,” he said, giving in. He had no idea how long he was planning to stay, but it’d sounded like one night, at least. Maybe two. “Bathroom’s one floor down - use the one connected to the guest bedroom. It’s got a shower stall and better water pressure than mine.”

“Thanks,” Stiles replied, heavy on the sarcasm, but with a light in his eyes that Derek hadn’t realized had dimmed until it’d started to spark back up. “Nice to see you, Stiles. Wash your filthy human body before you touch my sheets. Makes a guy feel welcome.”

“Towels are in the bathroom cabinet,” he said. “I’ll make dinner in a bit, if you’re hungry.” His shoulders were broad, his arms visibly well-muscled, even under his long-sleeved shirt, but there was a gaunt appearance to his face that hadn’t been there when Derek had left. He looked - not quite like he had when the Nogitsune had him in its grasp, but worn thin. He was beginning to suspect the scattered updates he’d been receiving from Scott weren’t conveying even half of the true story.

Shooting one last worried glance at his canvases and deciding Stiles wasn't that clumsy - they were probably safe around him - he headed back down to the kitchen, texting Isaac and leaving Stiles fumbling at his shoelaces and grumbling to himself. He would've preferred to call, but he'd learned that Isaac had a deep aversion to actually picking up the phone. If he did manage to get him on the line, he'd be far more silent than Derek, as though he was afraid someone was listening in, recording his words for later ammunition.

He'd filed that away in the ever-growing list of "probably related to his dad, never touch it unless he brings it up" and transitioned to texting. Isaac would, if he was in the right mood, drain his battery with extended stories about his day, complaints about Jackson, and boasts about how his accent was nearly indistinguishable from the other Londoners' now. Derek wasn't sure that was true, but he congratulated him and kept up with the streams of conversation as best he could.

When did you talk to Stiles? he typed out laboriously, his fingers still feeling too large for the phone’s compact screen. Jackson had tried to talk him into buying an upgrade, but he didn’t need a new phone, not when this one still worked. It was ridiculous to trade it in every six months, like Jackson did, just because the next one was shinier and supposedly a slight improvement on the last. The last time he’d seen Jackson’s phone, it was basically the size of a mini tablet; it had its uses, Derek supposed, but it’d lost its primary purpose - portability - and hardly even seemed like a phone at that point. Jackson had violently rolled his eyes, then denied any responsibility for the increased spam Derek had subsequently gotten from various electronics stores.

Is he there? came back after a few minutes. I wasn’t sure he’d actually do it.

Derek was still frowning at his screen, trying to figure out what to ask next to pry actual information out of Isaac, when a seeming afterthought bleeped onto his screen: What a dick.

Me or him?

Stilinski obviously. He hasn’t talked to Scott in something like two months. You should call him he’s worried.

Derek made a face at his phone, then shot a guilty glance at the stairs, as though Stiles would be hovering there and locking that into his “ways Derek fails at social interactions and/or is a secret giant dork” column. Stiles had never said he was tracking that sort of thing, but. Derek had...issues. To put it lightly. And Stiles was the kind of person who noticed.

I’m not their go-between, he said. He wasn’t going to report on Stiles behind his back; if there was something broken between those ludicrously inseparable friends, there had to be a reason. They were both adults now, more than capable of making their own decisions, free of his influence, and it wasn’t his place to shove his way into the middle. Even if he’d wanted to. Which he didn’t. He hesitated over his phone for a while as Isaac remained frustratingly and uncharacteristically silent - probably stewing over Scott’s hurt feelings, or busily texting him now and ignoring Derek. Did he ask you about me? he typed, then deleted it. Why did you tell him where I was? He didn’t mean that, though. It wasn’t like he was actively trying to hide. He didn’t send holiday cards or change of address forms or anything, that was all, but he was easy enough to locate if you wanted to. Why did you tell him about my paintings? That was even worse, as was the shiver of happiness over Isaac complimenting his work, and Stiles agreeing with him. It was a silly childhood hobby he’d picked up again now that he had the time and space. It didn’t mean anything. He didn’t want to show anyone. His heartbeat skipped slightly, and he frowned down at his chest, silently telling his traitorous heart to cut it out.

He crashed on our couch for a week and ate all our food, Isaac finally said, before Derek had managed to send anything comprehensible and non-cringeworthy. We kicked him out last month and told him you had a big place with lots of room. Good riddance. You’ll probably need to stock up on cereal.

Like you don’t empty my fridge every time you’re here, he couldn’t resist shooting back, sharp with unreasonable disappointment. Stiles hadn’t actively hunted him down, after all. He’d simply been his last ditch attempt at finding someone to take him in.

Fair, Isaac said. Scott says to make him call him. He either ditched his phone or keeps it shut off all the time, and his voicemail’s been full for ages.

Not a messenger service, he repeated. He tapped his fingers along his phone, thinking about it, wondering if Stiles had been in touch with his dad, or if the Sheriff was pulling his hair out with worry. Stiles cutting off contact with his dad for any extended length of time didn’t seem likely, but: I’ll mention it. But no promises.

Good luck, Isaac sent as a parting message, as though Stiles singing, off-key, in his shower was the worst thing to happen to him that year. Maybe it was, but not in the way Isaac thought.

Chapter Text

He went with a simple casserole, figuring it’d be a good way to start putting meat back on Stiles’s bones. He worked off instinct, not recipes, as his grandmother had taught him, which involved tossing in an assortment of ingredients until it started smelling right. He shook a generous helping of ground beef into a heavy skillet, browning the meat and lightly grilling some vegetables, adding extra spice because Stiles liked when his food was hot enough to make his nose run. It was an unappealing thing to know about him, probably, but Stiles wasn’t the only one who kept internal catalogues on his loved - his friends. People he knew.

When Stiles finally made his way downstairs, smelling like Derek's body wash and wearing clean clothes he'd obviously pilfered from Derek's room, the casserole was bubbling away in the oven, and Derek was sitting on his deck with a book. He'd left the glass door open - a quiet invitation, if Stiles wanted to take it. He tilted his face away, pretending to be absorbed in the words, but with his hearing inevitably fixed on Stiles's slow path around his home.

There was the click of the oven light and the slight crack of joints in Stiles’s knees as he bent to peer inside, the clank of cabinets as he investigated the rest of the kitchen, then a rustling as he trailed his fingers along Derek's bookshelves and explored the living room. Once he'd satisfied himself for the time being, he padded out to the deck and propped his elbows on the railing.

“Your washing machine is in your kitchen,” he said, staring down at the swans gliding along the river. Derek tried to keep his eyes fixed on his book, rather than drifting to the sliver of pale skin showing above his slouched waistband, or to the firm swell of his ass in the Hufflepuff sweats Cora had bought him as a joke gift when they were all still in London. Of course Stiles had managed to find them on his first day in Derek’s new home. “I thought it was the dishwasher at first, but that was in a different cabinet. That’s weird, but convenient, I guess.”

“It was built that way,” Derek said, not sure if he was explaining or defending himself. Stiles had dropped it in as an observation, though, with no heat behind it. None of the judgment he’d freely expressed about the gaping hole in his old loft. “There isn’t much room for it anywhere else.”

“You live in weird places,” he mused, but his mouth was soft when he turned around to look at Derek. “Thanks for letting me stay.”

“You didn’t give me much choice,” he replied dryly. When Stiles’s response was an open-handed shrug and a darker twist to his scent, he added, hoping it didn’t come across as awkward as it felt, “You’re welcome here, as long as you need. Isaac said you stopped by their flat first.”

"Yeah," he said. "Not my best choice. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that - it's supposed to be a good thing, right?"

He nodded. He was far more familiar with that concept than he'd ever wanted to be.

"It's true. I'd forgotten the extent of my dislike for those two. They're even worse in combination - Jackson encourages his fucking scarves and fake as hell accent."

Derek tried to hide his grin behind his book, not succeeding very well. To be fair, the scarves were significantly more practical in England than they'd been in Beacon Hills. He wasn't about to tell Stiles that he'd sent Isaac three softly spun cashmere ones for his birthday. Or that he'd lingered over the rack next to them, pulling out a comfortable-looking hooded sweater with wooden toggles, wondering if Stiles would wear it. He hadn't bought it, in the end. But it'd been close.

"No wonder you moved down here, dude. I can't imagine spending that much time with them. This is - a lot more peaceful."

"They like the crowds. I don’t.”

“Really, Captain Obvious?” There was a teasing edge to his voice, so Derek took it in stride, probing a little more. It was always hard with Stiles - you couldn’t tell if a nudge would make him unfurl, or shut down completely, all spikes and barbs and deep-slicing language.

“Isaac also said he talked to Scott.”

Stiles’s scent went sour, and his lips thinned as he pressed them together. That was enough of a hint.

“He didn’t tell me anything. I didn’t ask. Scott has my phone number, though, and he knows you’re here now. If that’s an issue.”

“I’m not hiding from Scott,” he snorted, as though that was the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard. Derek would’ve ordinarily said as much, too; it was possible, of course, that Isaac was blowing things out of proportion again. “It’s - complicated. You really don’t know anything?”

He shook his head. “Scott calls me, sometimes, but we don’t talk about much. The last few times, he’s said things in Beacon Hills have been okay lately. Under control.”

Stiles made a painful-sounding noise in his throat, as though he’d attempted to scoff and laugh at the same time, and had choked on it as it came out. “I killed someone.” He rubbed his hands on his thighs, his long fingers white-knuckled and struggling not to clench into fists. “That’s what happened, okay? That’s why I’m here.”

“Are you in trouble?”

Stiles stared at him, his hands stilling.

“Is someone after you?” he clarified. “Do we need to do something to prepare?” His thoughts flew to Jackson and Isaac, but he let that worry slip away - Stiles hadn’t been there for long, so if he was being tracked, they’d probably be safe. They’d be on their way to Cornwall instead. It could be a problem; he hadn’t thought through the defenses of this house. Much, anyway. It was hard to not make that the first thing he did any time he stopped somewhere new - check the doors and windows, memorize the exits, figure out what he most needed to grab if he had to leave in a hurry. But here, he’d thought - he’d begun to picture himself settling down, without spending all his time looking over his shoulder. He pressed down a spike of bitterness, angry with himself for the momentarily selfish reaction; if Stiles needed him, it didn’t matter. They’d take care of it, and he’d find somewhere else. It was a wide world, and somewhere had to be free of the curse he couldn’t shake in Beacon Hills.

“No, I - what? That’s not what you’re supposed to-” He trailed off. “It doesn’t bother you. That I’m a murderer.”

“You wouldn’t have killed someone without a reason,” he said slowly, not sure what response Stiles had expected from him. When he continued to gape at him, that cupid’s bow mouth hanging open, he said as much.

“I expected,” he snapped, then stopped himself. “I guess I didn’t. I’d hoped you’d see it my way, but I didn’t - there hasn’t been a lot of reason to hope, lately. Absence makes you forget, too.” His eyes were wide and golden in the slanting light of the setting sun. “I shouldn’t have let myself forget that you’ve always understood me.”

Derek snorted, breaking the moment, a delicate bubble that’d hung in the air, a breath between them. “I don’t know if it’s possible to ever fully understand you, Stiles. But you’ve never given me the slightest reason to not trust you.”

A light breeze tugged at Stiles’s damp hair, and Derek sniffed at the air. He rarely bothered with timers, relying on his nose to tell him when dinner was ready. “We should go inside; it’s getting cold out. You can tell me more while we eat, if you want.”

“I don’t want,” he muttered, but he followed Derek inside, sliding the door shut and carefully testing the handle after he’d latched it. “Your book was upside down, by the way. I assume that’s not a werewolfy way of reading that I haven’t heard about yet.”

Derek dropped it on the couch and chose to ignore the jab. Damn Stiles for never missing a thing. Damn him for being the one thing about Beacon Hills that he hadn’t stopped missing.

***

Stiles did end up telling him the rest of the story, while spooning heaping bites of baked penne into his mouth. He ate a good half of the casserole before Derek had made a significant dent in his first serving.

"Scott and I are fine," he concluded, sitting back in his chair and popping his thumbs under the waistband of his sweatpants, to lower them on his jutting hipbones. He patted at the gentle swell of his belly. He'd eaten quickly and messily, hunched over his plate as though attempting to gain back all his lost weight in one rush. "I check in with my dad every Sunday, so he knows I'm still okay. I probably talk to Scott at least once every other week. Isaac needs to fuck off."

"I'm surprised you lasted a week there."

"Me too, buddy. Me. Too." He fiddled with his napkin.

Derek had expected him to get up the moment he'd finished - smear his scent over the rest of the things in his house, maybe, or retreat to his room to...to do whatever it was he did when other people weren't around. Ordinarily, he would've guessed at video games or his computer, but he wasn't sure if those had been stuffed into his bags.

"Do you know," Stiles said after a bit, "I don't think I've ever seen you eat. Not in all the years we've known each other."

"I eat," he said, pointedly shifting to his fangs to take a delicate bite off his fork.

"I know. Not around me, that's all." He frowned, weaving his long fingers together. There was a hint of a tremble in them now, a minute shudder that Stiles couldn't quite control and Derek politely overlooked. "It makes me feel like a jackass. All that time we spent running, and fighting, and asking you for help. And I never stopped to think if you were hungry, y'know? I treated you like you ran on anger and sadness and lived in those fuck-awful places because you liked it."

Derek felt a lump form in his throat, but he swallowed around it, scraping the last bits of casserole off his plate before they'd entirely lost their appeal. He didn't know what to do with this Stiles. The one who sniped at him, but in a different way, as though he was fighting through a pillowcase but would let the blows land if Derek struck back.

“I’m not afraid of you,” he said, neatly setting his fork and knife in a crisscross.

Stiles squinted at him. “Okay. I’m also not afraid of you. Nice non sequitur. Is this another wolf thing? You don’t eat around people until you’re comfortable with them, because you think they’re going to steal food off your plate?”

It was nice to know Stiles was still pretty much an ass, but he might as well finish making his point, while he had his attention fixed on him. “You’re acting like I’m going to toss you out on the street if you say the wrong thing. I’m not. I’m used to you.”

“I think that’s a nice thing for you to say, but I’m not exactly sure. Thanks, I guess?” He swiped a finger into the casserole dish and licked it clean, then groaned. “I’m not sure why I did that. God, I’m full. I haven’t eaten this much in...” He stared into the distance. “I don’t even know how long.”

He pressed on through that mild attempt at a deflection. “Isaac and Jackson shouldn’t have made you leave.”

“Made me leave?” He stopped with his finger in the air, having dipped it into their leftovers yet again. “They didn’t. I blew that popsicle stand as soon as I could. It was only ever meant to be a temporary stop.”

Derek must’ve furrowed his forehead in an unintentional response - he and Isaac were telling strikingly different stories - because Stiles’s expression quickly flipped to betrayed.

“You believe me, don’t you?” he asked, his jaw jutting in that harsh line that meant he didn’t expect the answer to be in his favor. “Or did douchewolf and the lizardheart already convince you that I’m a miscreant?”

“Isaac stretches the truth,” he said. It was another habit he hadn’t particularly tried to break, even though Derek had reminded him numerous times that he was neither his father, nor an older brother he needed to impress. He’d accepted it was an intrinsic part of who Isaac was, at this point; maintaining his friendship required a certain ability to read between the lines. “You say a lot of shit sometimes, but when it’s about something important, you shoot from the hip. Of course I believe you.”

His shoulders slumped, and he scrubbed his hands across his face, streaking red sauce into his clean hair. “Fuck, Derek,” he muttered into his hands. “I wanted to come here first, you know? It’s what I meant to do when I got on the plane.”

He tamped down on the stupid hope jolting around in his chest, nudging against his ribs and acting like there was something significant behind Stiles’s words. “What happened?” he asked evenly. Why did you come to me last? Do you even want to be here now?

“Got scared.” He dropped his hands, wringing his fingers and avoiding Derek’s eyes. “By the time I got to Heathrow, all I could think was, what if Scott had already called you, and told you the shit I’d pulled. And then when I talked to him and he said he hadn’t, I still - I couldn’t bring myself to get on the train.”

“I thought you weren’t afraid of me,” he said, insulted by the insinuation that he would’ve told Stiles to fend for himself and slammed the door in his face. He wasn’t a warm and fuzzy kind of guy - Cora was the only person left who remembered him that way, and she’d shown enough disappointment over how much he’d changed - but he’d thought. Well, that Stiles knew him better than that. Better than most of the people he’d interacted with in the last decade. It wasn’t the first time he would’ve been wrong about someone.

Stiles snorted, though. “I’m not. It’s cute that you still think you frighten anyone; that ship’s long sailed, buddy.” He rubbed a thumb over the bridge of his nose, clearly thinking through how to phrase his explanation. “I freaked myself out, I guess. I was running away from Beacon Hills, but I realized when I was looking at train schedules that coming down here meant I’d have to face it again. Couldn’t exactly pretend I’d popped over the ocean for a friendly visit.”

Derek started to offer his reassurance that he wouldn’t have asked, but he had, hadn’t he? The first thing he’d done was text Isaac, which felt, now, like he’d gone behind Stiles’s back in a way he hadn’t intended. “You didn’t do anything wrong,” he said instead. Stiles had clearly side-stepped some details he was less willing to talk about, but he’d sketched in enough for Derek to form an accurate picture of the events surrounding what sounded far more like self-defense than the murder Stiles had originally attempted to paint it as. “Protecting yourself and your dad isn’t something to be ashamed of. Taking care of your family is-” He stopped and folded his hands together in his lap, under the table, where Stiles couldn’t see how tightly he was clenching them. Stiles may have had his personal demons, but Derek felt like he was swimming in a fiery sea of them, barely tugging his feet free from their scorching grasp whenever he cast an unwary eye to his past. Keeping his family safe from harm was something he’d never been able to manage, as it turned out. He couldn’t imagine begrudging anyone else for trying. “It’s the most important thing. I’m never going to judge you for that, and anyone who does obviously hasn’t seen the whole picture.”

His lips twisted into something that seemed like it was meant to be a smile, but couldn’t quite make it the full way. “You’d be surprised. You’re a good guy, Derek Hale, but you’ve got this idea in your pretty head that everyone sees the world the way you do. Reality is, most people don’t wanna stop long enough to listen, and sure as hell won’t admit their perspective might’ve been wrong.”

“I’m not good at that,” he said. “Admitting I’ve been wrong. It’s something I’ve tried to work on.”

Stiles shot a lazy finger gun at him, accompanying it with an exaggerated wink. “Proving my point, big guy. Just admit that you’re a softie. I’ve got the pants on to prove it.”

It’s not flirting, he reminded himself, gathering the dishes and taking them to the sink, in case any stupid ideas started cropping up in his rebellious brain. It’s how he talks, that’s all. He’d overheard Stiles’s casually dropped come-ons often enough, in those years when all his energy had been tied to keeping them safe. He hadn’t been eavesdropping, as such, although he was sure Stiles would have some choice words on the matter, if he knew quite how much time he’d spent lurking outside the school. It’d seemed reasonable, considering how frequently the high school wound up at the center of life-threatening supernatural confrontations. But it’d resulted in an unexpected wealth of information about Scott, Stiles, and his betas before - well, when he could still hear their voices outside of the lingering echoes in his heart.

He’d started cobbling together a confusing portrait of Stiles as a bit of a player, before he’d realized that a good two-thirds of his interactions were tongue-in-cheek. He playfully hit on Danny and Scott regularly enough for both of them to disregard it; even his compliment-laden conversations with Lydia followed a certain routine that Derek could easily tune out, like a comfortable radio station that played the same songs on a loop, providing an unintrusive soundtrack to his days. He suspected that’s why Lydia had stopped trying to shut it down, and why she’d been one of the first to notice the difference in his demeanor when the Nogitsune began walking around in his body, twisting his actions into a mockery of themselves. Casually flirtatious Stiles, who’d drop elaborate compliments like they were a limitless resource, was someone they all knew how to deal with. He’d changed, too, over the years, in a way Derek wished he didn’t understand. Grief did that to you. Guilt, even when it was someone else’s hands plunging yours into your friend’s chest. And now, because he’d been clear-eyed and in control when he’d killed this Donovan kid, he couldn’t even attempt to shuffle it off to a corner of his mind where he could claim it wasn’t his fault.

Derek had blood on his hands, too. Maybe that’s why he’d felt like a safe haven for Stiles - how can you blame yourself for your mistakes when you’re sharing a room with someone whose penitence could never wash his soul clean?

Stiles slid his plate under the running water. “You have tupperware or something for the rest of the food?”

“Right cabinet, top shelf.” Derek shot him a sideways glance. “I’m sure you already know that.”

“It’s polite to ask,” he said, then knocked a stack of plastic containers off the shelf and onto the floor. “Five second rule.”

“That’s for food, not dishes.”

“If it counts for one, it should damn well count for the other. Besides, these floors are probably shinier than when they were brand new. Werewolf elbow grease would be a real coup for the housekeeping industry.” He grunted in discomfort as he bent down, piling the containers into his arms and dumping them on the counter. “I hope you don’t cook like this every night. I’m going to start rolling around the floors at this rate.”

That sounded, Derek thought, like he didn’t have any intention of moving on right away. Maybe being the final stop wasn’t so bad, if it meant the person was going to stick around for a while. “As Isaac would say, how terribly American of you. Just because the food’s in front of you don’t mean you have to eat every last scrap.”

“You imitating Isaac is both the best and most disturbing thing I’ve seen in the last six months, at least.” He transferred the remaining casserole and snapped a blue lid into place, licking the spoon before dropping it into the sink. “Also, you’re a fucking good cook. I don’t know if I actually said that earlier.”

“The amount you ate, and the volume of the moaning, gave me the general idea.”

Stiles’s cheeks flushed, red streaks spreading under his patchy stubble. Derek itched with the urge to even the scraggly hair out with a razor, but he also wanted to touch it, to see how it felt under his fingers. He wasn’t sure which would be worse: the trusting curve of Stiles’s bare throat under his hands, or the pads of his fingers brushing over his jaw. He shoved his hands into the hot water, telling himself to quit it. That was the last thing Stiles needed: to have someone looking at him that way, asking something from him he wasn’t sure he wanted to give, when he was vulnerable and drifting, ready to latch onto the comfort of another person’s touch. It was easy to give in, under the wrong circumstances. Tempting to trust a pretty face, to be tricked by one after the other, to never learn from your own failings.

Stiles, for his part, stuck his face into the fridge and rummaged around in it for longer than he would’ve reasonably needed to find room for the leftovers. Derek kept it well-stocked, but there was only so much food a single person could eat on his own, and he felt vaguely ill every time he had to toss something that’d reached its expiration date. When he was growing up, nothing ever had a chance to go bad, and grocery runs were a constant chore that his mother had gratefully handed over to him and his grandmother. She sniffed out the ripest fruit and the freshest cuts of meat, putting together their weekly menus based on what appealed to her in the store. It was his responsibility to carry the bags, so no one would raise an eyebrow about an elderly woman hoisting what should have been far beyond her capacity to lift. In truth, she was, even without her Alpha powers, stronger than Derek. He’d had trouble burying his laughter when she meekly told the cashiers that her strapping young grandson would be helping her to her car.

“You must miss them,” Stiles said when he emerged, his composure intact again.

Derek stared at him, startled. Stiles had always been remarkably prescient, able to sense danger in both people and situations, which was an unusual skill no one gave him enough credit for, but mindreading was something else entirely. He was nearly positive it wasn’t an actual power, but if anyone could tap into it, of course it’d be Stiles. He wouldn’t put anything past him.

“Jackson and Isaac,” he clarified when Derek’s only response was to blankly drip soap suds at him. “You and I both know they’re utter assholes, but that doesn’t necessarily make you stop caring about someone.”

That did make more sense than Stiles slipping into Derek’s brain and plucking out the threads that always tangled around his family. The fact that he’d, even briefly, considered that as a realistic option said a lot about how he viewed Stiles’s capabilities. Laura would have given him so much shit for that.

“It was hard to leave them there,” he admitted. “But they refused to leave the city, and I couldn’t stay.”

“I know how that feels,” Stiles said, his voice soft. He tapped his fingers along the counter, looked like he was considering saying more, but trailed out of the room after a moment and up the stairs. Derek automatically tuned his hearing to the comforting thumps and footsteps of someone else moving around in his space, not focusing intently on Stiles himself, but drawing a deeper contentment from his bustling activity.

Chapter Text

Despite the hubbub and constant flow of people, London had felt empty after Cora left. She’d headed back to her other family in South America, the one that had actually been there for her through her toughest years, with new parents and siblings who’d bought her the last couple Harry Potter books after Derek wasn’t around anymore to try to convince her to sit still so he could read them to her. It’d hurt, when she’d left him. But he understood. He and Laura had done it first. They’d been too distraught to even consider that Cora - the true wild child in their family - would have been in the woods that night, only returning to the house in time to see it in flames, with no heartbeats audible under their crackling and the frantic thrum of panic in her ears. She’d done what had been drilled into them from birth, although it’d always seemed like a silly caution, a bedtime story meant to scare them into obedience. She’d fled, making her way to an emissary her mother had said they could trust, who’d found a way to ship her safely out of the country. And they hadn’t looked for her.

“It’s not your fault,” she’d told Derek, using those empty words that meant nothing when the truth was far too visible. “I never looked for you, either; we changed my last name, so the hunters wouldn’t know to come after me, and I never wanted to read any of the reports, to hear more about how you all died. When I finally heard your name again, I thought - I hoped-”

“That you’d come back to find Laura.”

“No, you dumbass,” she’d said, punching him to punctuate the feelings she’d always had trouble putting into words. “Not just Laura. And that’s not why I’m leaving now. It doesn’t feel right here. I can’t breathe. It’s not home.”

“I know,” he’d said, bleakly. He’d taken her on one last extravagant shopping spree, piling her down with clothing that would hopefully remind her of him from thousands of miles away, then carried her suitcases to the airport. She’d hugged him, punched him again and swallowed thickly, then turned her back, her dark ponytail swinging, looking strong and confident and full of anticipation.

He’d told her he was heading back to the flat, but she’d either missed or ignored the blip in his heartbeat. Instead, he’d watched the planes as they moved smoothly through the air, carrying strangers whose lives would never touch his. He’d waited until he knew hers was gone, then straightened his shoulders and tried to go back to - he couldn’t call it home, either.

He’d ended up walking through the city until it got dark, winding up on Hampstead Heath, a hilly park that felt, if he closed his eyes and breathed in the green, woodsy scent, like he’d left London. It’d taken him a few more months to actually move - it’d meant finding a new place for himself, deep in the south of England, and failing to convince Isaac and Jackson to come with him - but that was when he’d made the decision.

It was strange, making a conscious choice to live alone for the first time in his life. While he wasn’t a fan of stereotypes, it was true that most werewolves craved a sense of pack and family, and didn’t do well on their own for extended periods of time. When he was a teenager, his friends and teammates had talked excitedly about escaping to college, treating the snap of their family bonds like some holy grail of adult achievement. He’d tried to join in, laughing about how fantastic it would be to sneak beer without his parents sniffing it out, or the advantages of having his own space to slip a girl into, but the lies had scraped at his throat. He liked helping his dad with his studies, crafting culinary experiments with his grandmother, teaching Cora how to draw from her imagination and color outside the lines, and fighting with Laura. Then there was his mother: the wisest and most intimidating person he knew, whose unshakeable support in the aftermath of Paige had kept him from flying apart.

He’d had trouble shifting, at first, afraid of seeing his own eyes, of being reminded of what he’d done. At school, the whispers had followed him, rumors spreading about why Paige had been in the woods, spiteful tongues spinning gruesome tales about how she’d been torn apart by a brutal animal attack. She’d been gouged by teeth and slashed by claws, his classmates had murmured. She’d been dating Derek, who lived way out in the Preserve; she’d probably been meeting him in the woods, for some clandestine hookup, and been caught unawares by the mountain lion when he’d stood her up.

Even when they couldn’t guess that he’d been the one to wield the claws that killed her, they’d managed to happen upon the more important truth: that it’d been his fault. That if she hadn’t been dating him, she would’ve continued wandering the halls, and drawing exquisite music from her cello during band practice. If he hadn’t listened to his uncle, and let him arrange a meeting with another Alpha who’d successfully Bitten most of his pack and had supposedly agreed to talk to her about her options - but he couldn’t blame him, certainly not then, for what had so quickly spiraled out of control, and for his cowardice in not telling her himself.

High schoolers hold grudges, but they forget, too, when the next juicy slice of gossip appears, and by the next school year, no one had seemed to remember, or care, that Paige had existed. His teammates had begun hounding him about dating again - there were three unattached cheerleaders, they’d repeatedly told him, and at least two were actively interested in being asked out.

“Unless that’s not your thing,” Allen had said in distaste, tightening his towel in the locker room.

Derek wasn’t ashamed of his love for his family, or of the numerous complications of who he was. But when you’ve grown up hiding one intrinsic part of your life, it’s easy to fall into the habit of shielding every area. So he’d done his best to pretend that he was like the rest of them: champing at the bit to leave home, ready to date a crowd of pretty girls, and utterly human.

Kate had swept into his life then, with sharp heels and a biting tongue, astoundingly beautiful and undeniably interested in him. Allen had tried to high-five him, even when he’d fervently denied that he was skipping practice to meet the smoking hot substitute teacher. He was meeting her, of course, ducking into the back seat of her car so she could drive them into the woods and show him everything he hadn’t done with Paige. He’d felt strange after the first time - wrung out and wrong, not sure he’d entirely wanted to do everything she’d assured him he’d enjoy, but she’d scraped her nails over his smooth chest and kissed him until he’d forgotten how to speak.

He’d resolved to not make the same mistake again, so he’d told her, only a few dates in, what he was. She’d responded perfectly - a spike of excitement in her scent, and a deep interest in learning more about him, his family, and anything he could think to tell her about werewolves. She’d coaxed it out of him - the orgasms, first, then all the secrets he could spare.

She’d gotten rougher, scratching until he bled, watching in fascination as the angry welts healed. He’d told her it hurt, still, every time she dug her fingers into his skin - having super healing didn’t mean you didn’t experience pain - but she’d explained that she only wanted to know what he was really like, to understand what made him tick. She’d wanted the answers he’d been too afraid to give Paige, so he’d handed them over to her, whenever she asked. He’d let her hurt him. He’d let her spray him with strong colognes at the end of their dates, testing out concoctions until she finally found one that masked her scent without making him sneeze. It was like she’d made herself invisible, he’d marveled, pressing his nose against her skin as it vibrated with her pleased laughter.

The first time Derek dated, he killed his girlfriend. The second time, he killed his entire family.

After that, he didn’t. Not for a long, long time.

He and Laura had remained in Beacon Hills until they were certain Peter wasn’t going to wake up, then ensured he’d have steady, comprehensive care in their absence. Laura had fretted about leaving him alone, worrying that the hunters would return for him, but their options were running thin. She was barely nineteen, and it’d seemed unlikely that the courts would grant her custody of Derek; fleeing the state and taking him with her had been the only viable choice.

Derek could’ve told her that Peter would’ve been safe enough, at least from Kate. He’d run to her apartment as soon as Laura had succumbed to the bone-deep exhaustion, finally letting it overpower her need to stay awake and alert to protect him. Kate had answered the door, her hair loose around her shoulders, a crossbow in her hands, a cruel smirk on her lips, and introduced herself as an Argent.

“As thanks for helping me clean out that disgusting nest, I’m going to let you and your sister live,” she’d told him. “For now. I think living with that guilt will give you enough motivation to behave yourself, don’t you agree?”

“Peter,” he’d gasped, and she’d given her familiar throaty laugh.

“A fate worse than death, really. Not what I’d been aiming for, but looking back on it - if I could manage that with every one of you beasts, I would. Trapped inside your own head, unable to move or heal. It’s delightful. Now move along, sweetie. Unless you want one last roll in the sheets for old time’s sake?”

He’d thrown up in the bushes a block away, then curled up in a dark corner of some stranger’s yard until he’d stopped shaking.

He’d never told Laura. He wasn’t sure what she would have done; he was still her brother, her only beta, but even if she’d managed to forgive the truly unforgivable, that knowledge would have haunted their every interaction, coloring how she looked at him and treated him. He was selfish, even after everything. He’d wanted to keep his prickly older sister, who bickered with him and loved him and didn’t see a murderer when she looked in his eyes.

But, of course, it wasn’t destined to last. Everything good in his life withered when he touched it; Laura, with her bright spirit, quick temper, and fierce hugs, was no exception.

After her death, every day had felt like an endless fight-or-flight response. He’d been utterly, terrifyingly alone. The betas were - not a mistake, he couldn’t categorize their impact on his life as such, but he’d unquestionably handled it badly. That brief grasp of home had slipped away again, in the gut-wrenching squelch of his bloody claws, the chill of a stiff body in his arms, and the splintering crash of a glass against a brick wall.

He’d been a fool to think he’d deserved a new family. He shouldn’t have dragged them down with him, his clouded soul a heavy millstone around their necks.

Isaac had bitten back, surprisingly. Perhaps it was due to increased self-assurance from time spent with the McCalls; he wasn’t sure. But he’d cornered Derek and slashed him with accusations.

“You're selfish,” he’d lashed at Derek’s open wounds. “You told us the Bite could save us, would make us stronger. All you wanted was to find a way to stop being so fucking alone.”

When he'd gotten it out of his system, the fury dying down as quickly as it’d flared up, he'd admitted he was lonely, too. They hadn't exchanged apologies - it wouldn't change anything that had happened, and neither of them were built that way - but they'd reached a new understanding. A respect that wasn't built on power dynamics or the need to link yourself to something stronger than your fear.

Their bond hadn’t entirely faded when Derek battled for one last time with the Hale spark, channeling it into a purifying current that burned the infection from Cora’s veins. He could feel it, still - those threads that linked him to Cora, to Isaac, even to Jackson, when he’d been far away and brooding in England.

Leaving with Isaac hadn’t seemed like much of a choice. He would’ve stayed away with Cora, if Scott hadn’t drawn him back to Beacon Hills with stories about Stiles’s sleepwalking and nightmares that seemed to be twisting into reality. Once Stiles was safe - free from the Nogitsune and being tirelessly watched over by his father, his best friend, and the girl he claimed to love - there was no real reason for Derek to stay. He’d gripped Isaac’s shoulder, letting him know he was there, that he understood the pain spiking through his body, that he knew exactly how it felt to see your first love’s lifeless body sprawled across the ground, when you could’ve done something to stop it. If you’d only been faster. Smarter. If you’d ever deserved her affection at all.

Isaac hadn’t been holding Allison when she’d died. But he’d felt it, all the same. Staying in Beacon Hills any longer would have destroyed him, Derek thought. He’d suffered enough there; a change of scenery could only do him good. So he’d packed them up and booked one way tickets overseas, only sparing a few minutes for each of his farewells.

Scott had hugged him tightly, leaving snotty trails over his shoulder when he choked out his thanks for helping to bring Stiles back intact - not mentioning the gaping hole the encounter had left in his own heart, but not attempting to hide it, either.

Lydia had flipped her hair, told him to say hello to Jackson, and melted a nearly imperceptible amount when he’d told her there was nothing she could have done. A banshee can predict death, can sense the life draining from a loved one’s body, but can’t stop the inevitable from happening. “That’s idiotic,” she’d snapped. “There’s no reason for me to have these powers if I can’t do anything with them. All it means is that no one’s found out how, yet, or they’ve lost or hidden the knowledge.” He didn’t know much about what she’d done in the intervening time; she’d graduated early and dashed Jackson’s tentative hopes that she’d join them in London. Beyond that? She was on her way to conquer the world, probably. Or, at the very least, death itself.

Chris had slapped him on the back, apologized for his numerous attempts to intimidate and injure him, and offered to act as a liaison if he ever got in trouble with hunters overseas. “The Argent bloodline’s been weakened in this past year,” he’d said, his eyes hollow with fresh loss, “but our name means something, still. It will, for as long as I can hold it together.”

Then there was Stiles. When the Sheriff had let him into their house, he’d insisted on shaking Derek’s hand and gruffly thanking him for everything he’d done. “He wouldn’t be here today, if it weren’t for you. I know the part you played, son. I’ll never forget it, and I don’t want you to, either.” Derek had shuffled his feet and felt embarrassed about how deeply those words touched him. But Stiles? He’d looked at him like he barely knew him.

“Okay,” he’d said when Derek explained that he was leaving.

“I don’t think I’ll be coming back this time,” he’d tried again. He wasn’t sure what he wanted: he couldn’t stay, not even if those warm brown eyes brimmed with tears as Stiles asked him to. Selfishly, though, he’d wanted him to make the attempt. To show that he’d miss Derek, even the smallest amount. Scott had squeezed him until his bones creaked and told him he was sorry to see him go. Even Kira, whom he would’ve liked to get to know better - she was funny and sweet and brave and had never seen him in a negative light - had thrown her arms around his neck and told him to be sure to keep in touch.

Stiles had flicked an uninterested glance in his direction. “Good idea,” he’d said. “This town’s taken enough from all of us.”

“Okay,” he’d echoed, sticking his hands in his pockets to get them out of his way, before he did something stupid like reaching out to shake Stiles into snapping at him. “Goodbye, then. That’s all I wanted to say.”

Stiles had nodded, his attention already back on his computer, two pens shoved in his mouth as he typed.

He’d heard about him, but not from him, since he’d left. Scott would cheerfully fill him in, without Derek having to betray his interest by overtly asking after him. Stiles is completely back to normal, he’d say. He’s doing well in lacrosse, and picked up track, too, although he passed out after the first official race, because he hadn’t been drinking enough fluids. He’s already getting college acceptance letters. He’s healthy. He’s happy. He doesn’t mind that you’re gone.

But now - here Stiles was, still stomping around upstairs, unaware of how loud his entire presence was, how impossible it’d always been for Derek to ignore him. He’d already carved out a place for himself in the space Derek had carefully settled into, learning how to be content in his solitude for the first time.

He was thumping back down the stairs with his bag, though, Derek realized with a jolt. He’d read the signals wrong, again. He’d done or said something he shouldn’t have during dinner, or after. Or he hadn’t said what Stiles had expected from him. He finished wiping down the counter, draped the towel over the rack on the front of the churning dishwasher, and tried to school his body language into something that didn’t show he’d been matching his heartbeat to Stiles’s, and brooding over his past.

Stiles dragged his bag into the kitchen, instead of to the front door, and Derek took in the sight of his bare feet and haphazardly rolled up sleeves. Not leaving, then. At least, not yet.

“Tired of your room already?” he asked, doing his best to hide his relief. “The guest bedroom’s not actually Isaac’s, if that was the real issue. It’s Cora’s, if it’s anyone’s, and she’s not planning to be here before Christmas.”

“Cora’s a lot more frightening,” he replied. “He should’ve used that as his threat instead. More effective. D’you mind if I do my laundry? Will it flood your floors or something if it’s running at the same time as the dishwasher?”

“It shouldn’t. The plumbing’s all new.” He watched as Stiles pulled open the washer and started dumping in his clothes, which did smell rather rank, now that he was shaking them into the open air. “Detergent’s-”

“Yeah, I saw it.” He plucked a stray sock off the floor, shook his bag to make sure he hadn’t missed anything, and spun the dial. Derek twitched, wanting to explain how the washer-dryer combo worked - it’d been a new concept to him, the first time he’d used it - but Stiles seemed to have it under control. “It’s weird to see you wash your dishes before sticking them in the dishwasher. Rinse them, yeah, but you were full-on scrubbing. Don’t trust the machine to get them clean?”

“Habit, I guess. It’s the first time I’ve had one. I forget to use it, sometimes.”

“We never had one, either. Too expensive or complicated to install in our 70’s-era kitchen, my dad said, and we didn’t really have the space to spare. We would’ve needed to rip out an entire cabinet to fit it, and they were already stuffed full.”

“My mom said that’s why she had children,” he contributed. “I helped cook, most of the time, so my sisters had to fight over the dishes and trash.”

Stiles grinned at him. “I can only imagine those battles. Who won?”

“Laura, as long as Cora didn’t use her teeth. But my mom would make her do the dishes, anyway. Cora kept breaking them.”

“Scott had a dishwasher at his house,” Stiles said, smoothing over Derek’s jagged memories, which had already begun to stick in his throat, by offering his own. “After my mom - when my dad needed someone to watch me for a bit, he’d either drop me there or at Tara’s and tell me to be good.”

Tara Graeme, Derek recalled. Another name to etch into a long overdue Beacon Hills memorial.

“I thought, you know, that meant pulling my weight. Picking up chores and stuff because Tara worked with my dad, and Melissa was on her feet all day at the hospital. They both pulled long shifts all the time, and they didn’t need another kid gumming up the works. So I tried to do the dishes once, while Melissa was on the phone.”

“This sounds like a terrible idea in the making.”

“It was an amazing idea,” he corrected. “I just didn’t know the difference between dishwasher soap and regular dish soap. I still don’t, really. All I know is that the entire kitchen was ankle-deep in suds by the time Melissa found me.” His eyes twinkled - genuinely fucking twinkled - at Derek when he couldn’t contain his huff of laughter. “Laugh it up, fuzzball. I bet you did the same thing your first time.”

“I don’t know where you get your delusions, laser brain,” he responded, not admitting that while he’d managed the dishwasher just fine, he’d somehow managed to lock his clothes into the washer-dryer. He’d been panicking, stark naked, with all his underwear and pants trapped inside, moments away from attempting to pry the machine open with his claws, when the lock had finally popped free for no apparent reason. He’d been vaguely wary of it every time since then, always leaving out a spare set of clothes in case of another malfunction. “What,” he said, when Stiles stared at him, his mouth gaping open for the second time that day.

“You’re the fucking worst,” he said, which didn’t even make sense. “You’re a secret nerd, aren’t you? Of course you are, I’m wearing your Harry Potter pants right now.”

“Cora gave them to me,” he said, scratching his nose in embarrassment. “I wouldn’t have bought them. And everyone knows Star Wars.”

“Everyone knows of the movies. Except Scott, who - nevermind that. Of course you’d pull that line right out of your ass.” He sounded annoyed but smelled pleased, so Derek tentatively smiled at him, which only seemed to increase his annoyance. “Ugh,” he said feelingly, and bent to pick up his bag and fiddle with the zipper. “Sorry about digging through your stuff, by the way. I literally didn’t have anything clean left, and putting dirty clothes on after your first hot shower in days is - let’s go with not appealing.”

“It’s okay,” he said. “I would’ve offered if I’d thought of it.”

“Don’t get me wrong; I don’t feel that bad about it. It seems like fair play for the fact that you stole my shirt first.” He eyed him, and Derek instinctively crossed his arms across his chest, then made himself drop them to less defensively pluck at the hem of the shirt.

“I didn’t steal it. You left it at the loft once. You’d gotten blood on it and didn’t want your dad to see, so you swapped with something from your Jeep and forgot to take this one with you.”

“Still counts as stealing. The key factor there is that you never bothered to give it back, and wound up in another country with it, dude.”

“You can have it back,” he offered, and crossed his arms again, this time to grab the shirt by the hem and pull it over his head.

“No!” Stiles yelped, then heartily rolled his eyes at Derek when he lifted a confused eyebrow at him, letting the worn-soft fabric fall back over his abs. “That’s not what I meant. Keep it. It’s weird, but I like that there’s a piece of me here. It’s like I’m a world traveler or something.”

“You made it here on your own,” he pointed out. “No shirt required.”

“Maybe I only came because it was already here. You didn’t think of that, huh? It could be one of my horcruxes. Which would make me evil, I guess. Which-”

Derek broke that line of thought before he could carry it to a self-loathing conclusion. “Yes, you’ve established that I’ve read the books. No need to keep quizzing me on it.”

Stiles quirked a grateful grin at him. “You giant nerd,” he said, but let it drop.

Chapter Text

Stiles stumbled down the stairs, yawning, and blinked his way out to the deck the next morning. He flopped into the chair next to Derek and gratefully took the mug of piping hot coffee Derek handed to him.

“Mmm,” he murmured, breathing in its steam for a while, before actually lifting it all the way to his lips. He missed at first, hissed at the slop of hot liquid on his wrist, then redirected - with his eyes still scrunched closed - to more successfully sip at it. His hair was absurdly unruly, and, despite running all his clothes through the machine the day before, he’d slept in Derek’s. He wondered, idly, how Cora would comment if he snapped her a picture.

“You’re not a Hufflepuff,” he said, instead of any of the clever ideas he’d cycled through while waiting for Stiles to wake up. He’d heard him jolt awake around 4 AM, his heartbeat skittering erratically and nearly sending a sleep-addled Derek up to check on him. He’d had enough presence of mind to stay put, listening while Stiles mumbled and tossed in bed before drifting off again, not emerging until the peaceful morning fog had fully lifted.

“No,” he rasped, squinting balefully at Derek over the edge of the mug, as though betrayed by being asked to carry on a conversation at this hour. Which wasn’t that early, and Derek didn’t consider himself a morning person. Then again, sleep had been elusive after Stiles’s hoarse yell had pulled him out of his own uneasy dreams; he’d been breathing in the crisp morning air for longer than usual. “Scott, like a typical Gryffindor, made sad faces at me when I sorted myself into Slytherin, but the house got a bad rap. S’not all evil. Would be fucking stupid if it was.”

“You’re resourceful,” he agreed.

“Cunning,” he said, trying to tap the side of his nose, but mostly failing. “Or I will be, after I finish at least three more of these.”

Derek went back to his book - which he was actually reading this time, not that Stiles was coherent enough to notice - and waited for him to finish drinking and transforming back into a viable human.

It took a while.

Derek and Stiles on the deck morning on the deck - art by dakotaliar

“Fuck,” he said, a good half hour later, after Derek had pried the empty mug out of his hands, refilled it, and returned it to him. He’d resumed drinking, as though not even noticing it’d momentarily disappeared. “Where did the water go? Wasn’t it a river yesterday?”

Derek slid a bookmark into place and gazed out at the cracked-mud expanse. He glanced at the sun and sniffed the air. “It will be again soon; the tide’s coming back in.”

“I have so many comments on what you just did,” Stiles said, still wrapped around his coffee like it was the only thing keeping him from slipping out of his chair into a tired puddle on the wooden-paneled deck. “But - tide? Explain. It’s too early to think.”

“The Truro River’s tidal; you missed seeing low tide last night. It was a little before sunset. You should stay out here for a bit, to watch the water come in.”

“That’s so interesting,” Stiles said. Coming from anyone else, Derek probably would’ve bristled at the words, taking them as some sort of veiled insult - although it’d been years since anyone had been party to his rambling, eager stories - but Stiles, habitual sarcasm aside, gravitated toward this sort of thing.

Derek wouldn’t acknowledge, out loud at least, that he’d pictured this exact moment when he’d been working his way through house listings in Cornwall. The real estate agent had pointed out the river, timing his arrival to coincide with the tidal shift, and he’d fallen in love with Truro on the spot. With all of it: the town, with its cramped streets and towering gothic cathedral; the trim, three-storied house last in a line of its fellows; the wooden deck that wrapped around half of the building and overlooked the river.

Stiles would find this fascinating, he’d thought as the water retreated, leaving rows of fishing boats stranded until the morning.

He’d taken photos but hadn’t sent any of them; if Stiles had wanted to be in touch with him, he’d had ample opportunity to reach out. Derek didn’t want - he wasn’t going to be that person. Pining. Sending messages and waiting by his phone, swiping away email alerts in disappointment.

“It’s one of my favorite parts of living here,” he allowed.

“There’s more to the land than meets the eye,” Stiles mused, his long fingers interwoven around his mug, his chin resting gently on the rim. “The pull of the moon in an unexpected place. I can see why that’d appeal to you.”

Derek breathed in sharply. “Yes,” he said, before he could hold back that odd joy that Stiles, groggy and five seconds from drowning himself in his own coffee, had effortlessly hit on the heart of the matter. “That’s - well, it’s beautiful, too. But that’s exactly it.”

“Mmmm,” Stiles said, finally peeling himself loose from his chair and taking more careful note of his surroundings. “Where’d this coffee come from?”

“You’re a delight in the mornings,” Derek said, and Stiles gave him a half-hearted glare.

“I mean, it was waiting for me when I got out here. Perfect temperature and everything.”

Derek hadn’t really thought through that - he’d automatically put a cup together for Stiles when he heard his mattress creaking and the thud of his bare feet on the floor, forgetting that his movements wouldn't have been audible to an ordinary person. He didn’t have an opportunity to attempt an explanation that would paint him in a less creepy light; Stiles had already picked up the thread.

“Werewolf hearing,” he sighed. “Consider this your heads up to periodically shut off those supersenses for - reasons. Which may or may not happen on occasion.”

Derek flushed. It wasn’t a warning he should need; born werewolves learned early on how to tune in and out of their surroundings, as necessary, but he’d been on such high alert over the past few years that he couldn’t help reacting to the slightest hint of danger. And with the way his life had gone, most noises signaled something deeply traumatic in the making. “Noted,” he said dryly.

“But the coffee part’s good. You can keep doing that.”

“How generous. You can do the dishes, then.”

“I’m your guest,” he groaned. It was a thin attempt at a complaint; he didn’t sound all that bothered about being assigned chores and ended up whistling over the sink after Derek made them breakfast.

This isn’t going to last, he reminded himself, swiping a dustcloth along his bookshelves as Stiles shimmied in the kitchen, his hips following some tune only he was hearing. You’ll have to let him go.

***

Derek spent the next week in hazy, near-euphoric domesticity. Stiles was far easier to live with than he would've anticipated. He was louder than he meant to be - he’d certainly never be able to sneak up on someone with even dull human ears - and spent a good amount of time making messes that he didn't seem to notice, which Derek quietly cleaned (muddy footprints and spills on his furniture) or rearranged (misfiled books, dishes put away in the wrong cabinets, and assorted socks inexplicably shoved between couch cushions).

True to his word, he started jerking off in the shower after the third morning, and Derek quickly retreated to the deck and focused his hearing on the cathedral bells and distant hubbub from the town center, until the squeaking stair at the second floor landing let him know it was safe to go back inside. That, too, became part of the routine Derek knew he was embracing too whole-heartedly.

Stiles was impossible. But he fit into Derek’s space, shoving his elbows around until he’d made enough room for his expansive personality, then lining his steps up with Derek’s in an intricate, instinctive dance. Every day was a challenge - but not a battle. It was a puzzle, an inviting maze with Stiles’s reluctant smiles - restrained by the dark anxiety he hadn’t yet managed to shed - as a reward for navigating his way through. Sometimes, he thought, Stiles was the one puzzling his way along, responding with understated pleasure when Derek let something slip about his past, or his careful hopes for the future.

It was an issue. He hadn't managed to clamp down on his stupid, hopeful heart, even after years of experience had taught him exactly what he should expect out of life.

A romantic at his core, his grandmother had always said. She'd consoled him through all his early romantic failures, including that time in first grade when he'd come home in tears because Charles hadn't exchanged valentines with him and had laughed when one of his friends made fun of Derek’s badly proportioned teeth and ears. A soft-hearted bunny, Laura had said when she’d heard, but she’d gotten into a fight with Charles’s older sister the next day, claiming she’d given her a dirty look.

“Violence doesn't solve your problems,” their mother had lectured patiently, after sitting through an extended session in the principal’s office. “And besides, that disagreement was your brother’s to handle, not yours or that poor girl’s.”

“But I couldn't punch a baby,” Laura had grumbled, deflating at her Alpha’s disapproval but stubborn in her deep-rooted sense of justice. “His sister was bigger than I am and should have taught him to be nicer, so it's fair. And Derek doesn't know how to fight. He needs someone to take care of him.”

“I could so fight! If I wanted,” Derek had protested, carefully not mentioning how horrible he still felt about the incident from a month prior, when he'd accidentally stepped on a blue-bellied lizard and broken its neck. He'd carried its limp body to his mom and blubbered miserably when she’d told him she couldn't fix it. Not everything healed in the same way. You had to be careful. Don't misuse your strength; don't leverage your powers to hurt others, or to cheat on tests. Be proud of who you are. But know that it doesn't make you superior to others, Laura darling, pay attention, this applies to you, too.

He wondered, for the thousandth time since he'd met Stiles, what they would have thought of him.

“He's irritating,” Cora said, her voice tinny from the distance but soothing, as always, in his ears. He pushed the phone closer to his head, as though he'd be able to physically touch her if he tried hard enough. “I spent most of my time there holding back my urge to kick him. But he makes you happy, so that's what matters. Go for it.”

“That's not why I asked,” he spluttered, a bare-faced and quite obvious lie.

“Right. Being in another country instead of in a room with the two of you doesn't make me dense, you know. And besides, it's not like you were doing a very good job of hiding it - you dashed back to that hellhole the moment you heard he was in trouble.”

“I'm sorry,” he started, wondering if she would've stayed if he hadn't kept leaving her. Even after he’d promised it wouldn't happen again, he’d broken his word as soon as Scott’s teary voice had told him they couldn't find Stiles. That they needed someone who actually knew how to track scent trails, to locate someone trapped by a supernatural force they hadn't been able to identify.

“Stop,” she said. “You're getting emotions on me again. We're cool, Derek. I'll see you in December, okay? And I'll try not to punch Stiles if he's still there.”

“Considerate, as always.”

“Don't you know it.”

He coaxed her into telling him more about how she was doing, and sifted through his mixed envy and pride over the atypical softness in her tone when she talked about her other family. Her family, he corrected. It was the only one she had, now; he needed to stop sidelining it as though they meant less.

“Take care of yourself,” he said when she sounded like she was running out of patience; she never lasted that long on the phone, always wanting to be off somewhere else, stretching her limbs to their limit. Ziplining and cliff diving were her most recent hobbies, and she’d excitedly outlined upcoming plans for a black water rafting trip to New Zealand - after Christmas, obviously, she’d assured him.

“Always do. I'd pass along some sort of message to Stiles, but then he'd know you'd been talking about him. So watch yourself, will you? Don't do anything stupid.”

“Okay.” Too late, he thought.

Chapter Text

He hummed along to the music piping through the speakers at Tesco, restocking his cart with the types of food Stiles had been responding the most positively to. He hadn’t stopped groaning in dismay when Derek heaped extra portions onto his plate, but his cheeks had already started filling back out, those harsh, worrying lines of his sharp bones fading back under healthy skin.

“What big teeth you have,” Stiles would mutter, digging an eager fork into his meal, and Derek would flash his fangs at him and, when he wasn’t looking, sneak another spoonful of julienned green beans onto his dwindling pile.

He didn’t leave the house much. He’d pocketed Derek’s spare key but usually stopped at the waterline to talk to the swans and, on one memorable occasion, be chased back to the house, a stream of crumbs trailing in his wake, by a particularly greedy swan who’d objected to the biscuits he’d been chewing on without sharing.

Derek loaded up his reusable bags at the register, checking to be sure he’d gotten two new packets of chocolate-coated digestives, and the bitter-leafed tea Stiles had started brewing in the afternoons. He couldn't help smiling at the cashier, a sour-faced woman whose lane he usually chose because she wouldn't try to engage him in cheery conversation.

“Have a nice day,” she offered suspiciously, and looked relieved when he only nodded in response.

He crossed the street to take the scenic bridgeway home, using the walk to sort through the evening’s possible options. He didn’t own a DVD player, but Jackson had talked him into a widescreen TV and basic cable, so he wouldn’t be bored when he visited. It meant that, for the majority of the nights thus far, he and Stiles had wound up putting together jigsaw puzzles while watching game shows. Cora had, predictably, laughed and called him a boring old man when he told her, but it was a soothing, methodical activity he’d found worked well in keeping his anxiety at bay, and it seemed to have a similar effect on Stiles.

Although Stiles, being who he was, had scattered the pieces across the floor more than once while yelling at the contestants’ idiotic answers. They’d also gotten completely stuck on a thousand piece puzzle of the London skyline (Isaac’s parting gift to him, because he wasn’t as much of an insensitive ass as Stiles always claimed), because Stiles had doggedly shoved several pieces together that weren’t meant to fit, then argued heartily with Derek when he pointed it out.

He was boring, he supposed. So far, though, Stiles didn’t seem to mind it much; his hands still shook when he hadn’t gotten enough sleep, and he zoned out on occasion, staring into the distance, his scent going thick and sad, but he’d gotten less tense and jumpy since his arrival. The unusual peace seemed to be agreeing with him, and Derek had no intention of pushing him into anything he wasn’t ready to embrace on his own. It wasn’t a luxury he’d ever been offered, but that made him better understand the value of a quiet retreat from your normal world and all its obligations. It was something - a small show of support - he could do for Stiles.

He was a block away when he smelled the smoke.

He was sprinting before he’d even registered dropping his bags, his heart skidding into a painful drumline of not again not again not again. He vaulted onto the raised deck, not willing to waste time skirting around to the door or hunting for his keys, and drew to a halt in the kitchen, where Stiles was sheepishly waving a towel at a charred dish, smoke pouring out of the stove.

“Everything’s fine,” he said, his tone defensive and embarrassed. His voice was, Derek thought distantly, filtering from the end of a tunnel, and he reached for the dish - white corningware with blue flowers, ordinarily tucked away on a back shelf. When Stiles pushed himself in the way, his broad shoulders blocking it from view, saying something about - burns, maybe, the heat - he curled his fingers in on themselves, his claws cutting into his palms, cold sweat breaking out over his skin.

“Derek. Hey, Derek. Are you okay? What’s going on?” Stiles was kneeling on the floor suddenly, in front of him; he had no memory of dropping to the ground, but he must have. He must - he wasn’t sure what was happening, but the kitchen was slowly coming back into focus, and Stiles was there, reaching out to gently loosen his clenched hands. “You’re hurting yourself, dude. I’m okay, look. Everything’s okay. There wasn’t a fire, I just misread the numbers and set the stove up too high.”

Kitchen Panic Attack 1 Kitchen Panic Attack 2
kitchen panic - art by dakotaliar

He breathed. In and out. Focused on Stiles’s fingers wrapped around his, and withdrew his claws so he wouldn’t hurt him. After another minute of shaky breaths, Stiles’s arm tentatively wrapped around him, and he turned his face into Stiles’s shoulder, heaving in his warm, earthy scent, underlaid with that sharp tang of the tea Derek secretly hated. His breath shuddered, and Stiles’s arm tightened, the other joining it, forming a barrier between Derek and the too-bright, too-loud world.

It took a while to calm down, and when he finally pulled back, he realized with horror that his eyelashes were wet.

“You alright, dude?” Stiles asked, his eyes dark with concern, his big hands still hovering over Derek’s arms. “Sorry if I shouldn’t have touched you, but you were slicing yourself bloody there. Worried me.”

“I’m - yeah.” He stood, started to wipe his hands on his jeans, then remembered that they were caked in blood and stopped with them in midair.

“Here,” Stiles said, retrieving the towel and running water over it, then dabbing it at Derek’s hands. “I’m sorry,” he repeated, frowning in concentration as he wiped away the blood. “That was a shitty thing to come home to, for you especially. I wasn’t thinking.”

“It’s not-” He felt dizzy, and Stiles took him by the elbow, sensing it or possibly seeing him swaying in place, and guided him to a chair. “There was the smoke, but the dish - why did you use that one?”

“Sense of home, I guess? It’s the same pattern my mom always used.” He huffed a laugh and sat next to Derek, his bare toes nudging against Derek’s shoe. “Remember how I said we didn’t have room for a dishwasher? It’s partly because we have three entire shelves filled with those. She had this terrible habit of picking spares up from garage sales, even if they didn’t have the glass lids, or she already had a couple in the same size. I think she-” He swallowed heavily. “I think she meant to send me off with a full set of my own, when I grew up and moved out. Her way of taking care of me, you know? Making sure I’d be able to cook for myself. I obviously didn’t learn everything I should’ve.”

“The oven’s in Celsius,” he managed. “Doesn’t mean you’re a bad cook. Just an American.”

“Don’t tell Isaac,” he said, and Derek laughed, Stiles’s mouth twitching into a relieved smile.

Stiles finished opening all the doors and windows so the lingering smell would clear out, and they cleaned the kitchen together. It wasn’t in bad shape; his panic had given everything a disproportionate weight and darkness, but without those sparkling lights creeping at the edges of his vision, and with Stiles’s steady presence at his side, he could see that nothing had actually been damaged. Stiles rolled up his sleeves and scraped his burnt attempt at dinner into the trash, took the bag out when he saw Derek eyeing it unhappily, then scrubbed the dish back to a polished shine.

“It was ours,” he said as Stiles wiped it dry and handed it to him to put away. “From before the fire.” He’d fished it out of the ashes and broken boards in the kitchen, the one piece of kitchenware - lid included - that’d survived intact. He’d never cooked in it, afraid, irrationally, that he’d taste his family’s burning flesh in any meal served in that dish, but he couldn’t bear to part with it.

“I should’ve asked,” Stiles said, looking appalled with himself, but Derek shook his head.

“It’s a stupid superstition. My grandmother would have hated that I’ve been treating it like an urn, instead of testing out new recipes in it.” He still felt like he had broken glass in his lungs, but everything was a little lighter, somehow, as though finally sharing this story had lifted some of its dragging weight from him.

“I fully support that decision, but I promise to never try cooking in it again. Or in this kitchen at all, god damn.”

Derek chuckled. “I’ll teach you. It’s not that bad; you have to remember to do the conversions, that’s all.”

“Deal,” he said. “And to think, I was trying to do something nice for you before you got back from your errands; it’s that fucking dishwasher incident all over again.” He looked around the room, his brow furrowed. “Weren’t you getting groceries?”

“Shit,” Derek said. “They’re on the sidewalk, probably. There were jars. Everything’ll be a mess.” He started to move toward the door, but Stiles pressed him back with a firm hand on his shoulder.

“I’ll get them. Consider it my punishment for ruining your afternoon. And when I get back - what do you say to going out for tonight’s meal? I think we’ve earned it.”

***

Neither of them particularly wanted to brave possible crowds of shoppers and diners in the city center, so they headed the other direction, toward a more secluded pub up the river that Derek had discovered on an evening walk some months earlier.

The water was pulling back, the sun hanging low in the sky, and Stiles kept stopping to hang off the tree-lined, root-laden path to look at the boats.

“Still not over it,” he said when Derek caught the back of his jacket to keep him from toppling over the edge of the narrow trail. “Wish I had my phone so I could take pictures.”

Derek wordlessly handed his over, then shoved his hands in his pockets when Stiles beamed at him.

The walk, to Derek's unreasonable surprise, took twice as long as usual, but he couldn't bring himself to mind. Autumn was slowly shading into a proper winter, red-gold leaves crunching underfoot and stark branches stretching into the sky. The thick trunks sheltered them from the road that ran alongside the path, and only an occasional pedestrian passed by, nodding at them without halting.

The world felt sharp and full of life, as it always did after Derek had succumbed to a particularly bad panic attack, but the fresh air was clearing the ache from his lungs, little by little. Stiles had slid right back into their usual interactions, not treating him with kid gloves or acting like his breakdown was anything to be ashamed of.

“Don't bottle it up,” had been his parting words on the matter. “I'm the absolute worst at taking that advice, which means I know exactly how important it is. You're allowed some weaknesses, big guy. I'm not going to stab you in the back when I find them.”

It was possible it'd broken through another invisible wall between them, although only time would tell if it lasted. Stiles, despite his rampant use of language, was a carefully guarded person. He'd begun dropping some of his shields as he spent more time with Derek - testing the waters, waiting for Derek to make moves so he could match them.

He'd felt another loosen when they'd been sitting there on the floor; Stiles had given up that impenetrable force field he'd been holding between them. Now, as he wandered back and forth along the path, draining Derek’s battery and trying to brain himself by tripping over tree roots, Stiles didn't hesitate to touch him. A hand on his arm, his shoulder, a brush of fingers along his back to draw his attention to a late-blooming patch of flowers.

“There are bluebells in spring,” Derek told him, and took his phone back so he could flick through the album to the proper spot. Stiles hovered impatiently, digging his sharp chin into Derek’s shoulder until he could grab the phone from him.

“I love this,” he said, swiping back to a photo Derek had decidedly not stopped on, one Cora had snapped of him at Stonehenge. She'd texted it to him, saying it was good to see him smiling for once, and he'd saved it to his album and - only looked back through those photos at night, really, when he couldn't sleep and the house was feeling empty. There was another from the same day, of Cora with her jaw cracked wide, pretending to gnaw at one of the stone slabs.

“Stonehenge was disappointing, though,” Stiles said, flipping the phone around to sneak a picture of Derek, who merely stuck his tongue out like a perfectly functional adult. “Sending that one to Cora.”

“It's touristy,” he agreed. “Still an interesting historical artifact, but it's been so heavily monetized, it feels like being on the Vegas strip instead of in the heart of England.”

“Not quite that bad,” Stiles snorted. “Although I suppose all crowds are the same to you. I did sorta regret wasting a trip on it, though.”

“When was that?” he asked, and Stiles shot a piercing look at him.

“What you're really asking is what I did between leaving the Douche Den and showing up here.”

Derek shrugged. He'd wondered. Of course. Stiles hadn't seemed to want to talk about it, so although he had his suspicions, he'd let it slide.

“Didn't have a lot of money when I left. Have less now.” He clicked a couple pictures of the tree branches framing the darkening blue sky. “I wasn't thinking that rationally when I left. I was supposed to be heading to college, but I - I couldn't. So I deferred. And then sitting around Beacon Hills was even worse, and smaller road trips weren't cutting it, so. I bought a plane ticket and got out.”

“Are you going back for the spring semester?”

“I don't know. Maybe. It doesn't sound as appealing as it used to; pouring money after something I'm not sure I want.” He took another picture of Derek, then smiled down at the screen as he tapped rapidly across it, probably texting again.

Derek sighed through his nose and considered shifting enough to ruin the photos with his eyes, but Stiles was gleaning too much enjoyment from this to spoil it.

“I stayed in a few hostels, at the beginning, but I ended up doing a lot of camping,” he finally admitted. “That's why I offended your delicate sensibilities at first.”

“Only at first?”

“Oh, shut up.” He relaxed more, though. “It wasn't the best idea I've ever had. And it was getting kind of awful at night - really cold. So I sucked it up and got on the train. I mean, I wasn't sleeping like this every night.” He gestured to himself - the thin, California-appropriate jacket that would definitely need to be replaced before winter fell over the country. “I did have a sleeping bag that I ditched before I got here - it was pretty disgusting. Good thing, too, because I don't think it would've fit in your little washer.”

“We should buy you a new jacket,” he said, leaving the rest for another time. There was no way the Sheriff knew where his son had been sleeping at night, or he’d already be on a plane. But why hadn't anyone else told him that Stiles was bumbling around the countryside, hungry and freezing? Derek would've gone to fetch him, much, much earlier. But maybe he hadn't wanted that, he thought, as Stiles’s jaw set itself into the proud, argumentative line that meant a fight was brewing.

“I'm not a charity case,” he argued, jabbing Derek’s phone back at him.

“You're not,” he agreed, sticking his hands back in his pockets so Stiles would be forced to either keep it, or drop it on the ground. Although this was Stiles - the latter option was a distinct possibility, either out of spite or from pure clumsiness. “But it goes both ways. What you said earlier, about weaknesses. If money's one for you right now - I've got plenty of it. Way more than I need.”

Stiles narrowed his eyes at him. “Using my own wisdom against me. Nice move.”

“Acknowledging that you might've been right. For once in your life.”

He huffed in mock offense. “I'll think about it. Since you probably consider it insurance against a poor, helpless human freezing to death on you. But don't fucking think you can get away with paying for my dinner.”

“Wouldn't dream of it,” he said, although he'd been fully intending to, even before he'd known how low Stiles’s bank balance had dipped.

***

Rosie greeted Derek when they entered the pub, and he nodded at her offer of the day’s special - whitebait, chips, and a pint.

“Same for you, dear?” she asked Stiles. “Except you look like you'd prefer a nice pint of bitter - this boy likes his ales light and sweet, he does.” She winked at him, and Stiles immediately winked back.

“Not a fan of hops,” he said when Stiles looked like he was going to join in on teasing him about his preferences, then steered them to a table in a quiet corner.

“Wasn't going to say a thing,” he lied breezily. “This place is awesome. My dad would love it. Here, lemme…” He fumbled at the phone, blinding Derek with the flash as he captured the cozy seating and fish mounted along the walls. “Less Aggravating Stilinski. Rude, but more importantly, of course he's in your contacts. He probably texts you his terrible dad jokes when no one else will laugh at them.”

“You mean the ones he learned from you?”

Stiles rolled his eyes expressively but didn't deny it. He tapped a long message on Derek’s phone, his tongue poking out obnoxiously between his lips, which were flushed pink from the cool air and exertion of their walk.

Derek jolted out of his reverie when Rosie sloshed two overflowing glasses onto the table.

“Nice catch, dearie,” she murmured, then strolled away, Derek's ears burning red in her wake.

Stiles, fortunately, hadn't heard. He finished his message and slid the phone across the table to Derek, then ducked his face into his beer, gulping it thirstily and enthusiastically licking the thick foam from his lips.

“Good?” Derek asked roughly.

“Extra hoppy,” he sighed in contentment. “You'd hate it. You've been holding out on me; what other regular haunts are you hiding?”

“We’ll see if you get us kicked out of this one, first, and go from there.”

His mouth dropped open in offended outrage, but Rosie interrupted them again by setting down their plates, patting Derek on the shoulder when he confirmed they had everything they needed, and heading back to the bar.

“Aw hell,” Stiles said when Rosie was far enough away, sounding so much like his dad that Derek was momentarily startled, as though the Sheriff had, summoned by the photographs, popped out of the back room to dine with them.

“What's the matter now?”

“They have faces.” He gingerly poked at the towering heap of small fried fish. “What the hell. What do you do, bite out the middle or something? It has bones. And eyes.”

“The whole thing’s edible. And they're fresh - just try it.” He popped a couple into his mouth and crunched them, Stiles’s face twisting unhappily as he watched.

He started with the more familiar thick-cut chips, but eventually worked his way up to the whitebait, once he'd drained half of his beer and had seen that Derek was serious about eating his. He plucked one out of the pile, shuddered when he accidentally made eye contact with it, and tentatively nibbled at the smallest edge he could manage.

“It'll go better if you stick the whole thing in at once,” he advised. “It’s not bad, I promise; it only seems gross because it's your first time trying it.” Stiles was staring at him like he didn't believe a word of it, or like he'd suddenly decided to do a handstand on the table, so he added, in the most reassuring voice he could manage, “There isn't that much taste, really - it's mostly just salty.”

“Oh my god, Derek,” he said faintly, but shoved the rest of the fish into his mouth.

“If you really do hate the taste, not swallowing is only going to make it worse,” Derek said in concern, watching Stiles miserably chewing, looking as though he would much rather be spitting it out into a napkin.

Stiles choked violently, spat an unappealing lump of thoroughly mangled fish onto the tablecloth, and glared at Derek like he'd done something wrong.

He sighed. “And you acted like I was way off base with suggesting you might get us thrown out.”

“Sorry,” he gasped, scraping the mess under his plate, as though that would make it disappear. “You just - need to stop. Giving me advice. In that voice. What the actual fuck.”

Derek furrowed his forehead at him, giving up when Stiles responded with full-bodied exasperation.

“You don't have to eat them. I'll flag Rosie down so you can order something else.”

“No,” he said, bracing his elbows on the table and glaring down at his plate like it was an enemy to be conquered. “You were right; it actually tasted fine.”

“You just can't get past the texture.”

“I can't get past the eyes.” He speared three on a fork, shoved them into his mouth, and chewed and swallowed furiously. “Okay. I've totally got this.”

“Out of curiosity, what did you think you were ordering?”

“I thought she said whitefish. Like...halibut or something.”

“Something with the head already chopped off.”

“Exactly!” He gestured at Derek with his fork. “Now you understand. I'm a man of peace, my wolfish friend. I'm no hunter. I'm a gatherer. A supermarket gatherer.”

“Doesn't your dad fish?”

“Not with me, he doesn't. Not after the time I accidentally pushed Scott out of the boat. And the time I threw up over the side when he actually hooked a trout. And the time I stole some worms and tried to trick Jackson into eating them.” He paused to reflect and added, “Come to think of it, he stuck with it for longer than he should've. I would've given up on myself a lot earlier.”

“You wouldn't,” Derek said. “Stilinski stubbornness.”

“Maybe,” he allowed. “I'm not surprised he's talked to you about it, though. Watch out, next time you're in the neighborhood and he has some free days, he's going to drag you off on some terrible river jaunt.”

“I wouldn't mind,” he said. The Sheriff was a kind man, and not much of a talker; they'd probably drink beer by the water, fry up a couple of fish, maybe make fun of Stiles a little. It sounded nice.

“Of course you wouldn't,” he grumbled, but the corner of his mouth had ticked up in a smile.

He made Derek order him another beer, though, to fully wash away the taste. And let him pay, since it'd been, in his words, a traumatic experience he wouldn't soon recover from.

Derek snuck a photo of him battling with his plate, glowering at his meal, a streak of foam from his second pint caught in his ragged beard. When he opened up his conversation thread with the Sheriff, there was already a ridiculous shot of him in there, so he figured it was fair game to text the view from other side of the table.

He's doing okay, he wrote. He hesitated for a bit, trying to think what more he could say, but clicked send and put it away.

Chapter Text

“Do you mind if I call my dad?” Stiles asked a couple days later. “I missed our last check in. He knows where I am, obviously, but-” He shrugged. Derek filled in the rest; the regular phone calls went both ways in curbing the inevitable anxiety buildup. Stiles needed to know his dad was still safe and healthy, and hearing his actual voice was a lot more reassuring than words on a screen.

“Yeah, of course.” He brushed the dirt off on his pant legs - he'd been pulling weeds in the tiny yard that sloped off to the side of the house, while Stiles lounged on that section of the deck reading and suntanning. Or so he claimed; to Derek, it looked more like sleeping and sunburning, so he'd thrown a bottle of newly purchased sunscreen at his face, Stiles proving his point by flailing awake and swearing at him.

He had a fresh smattering of freckles along his nose and cheeks and had only turned vaguely pink over the course of the day, so it could be considered more or less a success. Even if sunbathing in early November was slightly ridiculous and didn't count if you were wearing double layers on every part of your body other than your head.

“You don't have to get up,” he said, lingering as Derek wiped his sweaty face with his shirt, which he'd tossed onto the deck once the sun had come out. “It’s not like you've bothered with something as basic as a passcode; figured I should ask first, though.”

“You're welcome to it whenever. But I was actually thinking you might like to Skype him or something? It's been a while since you've actually seen him.”

“Oh,” he said, wringing his hands in his stupid red mittens. (Ineffective for turning book pages, you’d think. Shut up and finish your gardening, Stiles had retorted, his book falling limply out of his hand ten minutes later, as he dozed off again.) “I - yes, I'd like that. I didn't know you had it on your phone.”

“I don't. I can get my laptop out, though.”

Stiles gaped at him. “You own a computer. What the hell, dude.”

Derek arched an eyebrow in return and finished wiping down his arms and chest, snapping the sweaty shirt in Stiles’s direction just to see him flinch back and glare. “Not that uncommon, dude.”

“But where do you even keep it? You haven't used it once since I've been here.”

“Bedside table. You obviously didn't do as good of a job snooping around my stuff as you thought.”

Stiles turned a little pinker. “Bedside table’s private. I do have some boundaries, you know.”

“Doubtful.” He bent to remove his shoes before entering the house, and Stiles followed him up the stairs to his room and back down to the living room, rather like a puppy, he thought. Not for the first time, he wondered about adopting a dog, now that his life was slightly less composed of hiding in abandoned buildings and trying to not get murdered. Stiles would like one, probably. They'd get in fights over his socks, and Stiles would have someone to blame his messes on, and he really shouldn't be dwelling on daydreams of co-owning a dog with Stiles.

He set the laptop on the table and booted it up. “I talk to Cora sometimes, when I can get her to sit down for the video,” he explained. “I don't know if your dad has it, or if there's something else you prefer? You can download other programs, if you want.”

“Nah, that should work. I'll need to text him first, to tell him to get online. He might not be somewhere close to a computer right now. Could be still asleep, or coming off a shift; I don’t know his schedule.” His lips turned down, and Derek resisted the urge to touch his shoulder - then remembered that was mostly okay, now. Stiles gave him an unreadable look out of the corner of his eye, but the sadness lifted a bit, which was all he'd wanted.

“I'll be outside if you need anything,” he said, giving his shoulder one final squeeze, through its layers of wool and flannel.

When he was nearly out the door, Stiles called after him, “You don't have to shut your ears off all the way. He’ll probably want to talk to you, anyway.”

Derek transitioned to pulling vines free from the small shed tucked at the edge of the yard; he kept gardening tools in there, and other assorted supplies that wouldn't fit in the house, like spare boards for the deck, and some industrial cans of paint that he hadn't gotten around to using.

Despite the offer, he didn't listen in on the call, not overtly. He could hear the wobble in Stiles’s voice, echoed by the Sheriff’s, and could tell they were catching each other up on what'd been going on in their lives. Both of them were probably leaving important pieces out, trying to protect each other from the harsher sides of life, but they sounded good, mostly. Happy to be talking.

About an hour in, as he was scraping the last remnants of old, peeling paint off the shed with a batch of heavy duty sandpaper, he heard Scott join them. He was breathless and eager, and the wetness in Stiles’s voice ramped up for a while. There was an apology, maybe; something angry about Isaac; then the soothing hum of longtime friends whose conversations overlapped seamlessly, with any gaps filled in by years of inside jokes and formative experiences.

Isaac had, almost certainly, not been telling the complete truth, but Stiles’s version might've been shaded some, too. At any rate, they sounded like they were back on track now. Derek threw himself into his work, letting their rapid back-and-forth filter in at the edges of his consciousness, slotted in with traffic honking somewhere down the road, and that ever-present violin, skimming lightly through a new tune.

He finally heard his name after another half hour or so. He rubbed his hands clean on his pants again - he'd need to do laundry tonight, that was for sure - and headed inside to join Stiles.

He had his chin propped on his folded arms, and the Sheriff and Scott were both crowded into the screen, so Derek approached from behind and leaned over to get into frame and wave hello.

Stiles, of course, jumped, his head smacking painfully into Derek’s chin, their teeth clacking loudly from the impact, and unleashed an impressive array of curses.

“Nothing much has changed, then,” the Sheriff said, looking tired and red around the eyes. Considering how Derek had last seen him, not much had changed there, either. Worried about his son, but glad to see him safe. “And here Stiles was telling us what a good house guest he's been.”

“Exceptional,” he corrected, rubbing at his scalp. “It's not my fault Derek’s so damn...Derek.”

“I can see that,” his dad said, his eyes tracking Derek’s movements, and he abruptly realized that no visible part of him was clothed.

“I was outside,” he explained. “Doing yard work.”

“Derek basically gardens naked. In winter. And doesn't understand why people keep stopping on the sidewalk and pretending they need directions.”

“That only happened twice-”

“Today. So far. While I was paying attention.”

“While you were awake, you mean. And it only bugs you because you give absolutely terrible directions, and no one will ask you anymore.”

“I'll have you know I only sent that woman packing because I didn't like the look of her. Suspicious character, if I've ever seen one.”

“That was Molly. She lives up the river a ways. You've met her at least four times by now - she always walks by on her way home from work.”

“Which proves my point! Why would she need to ask how to get to the post office? Your glistening torso, that's why.”

“Oh boy,” the Sheriff said, drawing their attention back to him. Scott was grinning.

“How are things?” Derek asked, bracing his arm around Stiles so he could see better. “I haven't heard from you in a while.”

“Ah,” Scott said. He glanced at Stiles, who'd stopped shaking his bruised head at Derek and was now focused on the screen again. “They're good, actually. Really good. I know I've kept saying it, but-”

“This time it's actually true,” Stiles contributed.

“This time I think it'll stick,” he amended. “It'd been quiet for most of the summer, then there was this one shifter who wandered in and started stealing livers from the morgue, right after Stiles left. After that, though.” He lifted his hands. “All good.”

“Only regular human crime in the last few months, as far as I can tell,” the Sheriff added.

“That's good to hear.”

“What about there? Any supernatural creatures around? Other werewolves? Kanima?”

“There's a werewolf family in Falmouth. I talked to them before I moved down here, but we keep to ourselves, mostly. They're quiet, with only a couple kids, still young. They aren't likely to attract much attention. Other than that, in the immediate area - not as far as I've been able to tell.”

“Good,” he said, some of the lines on his face smoothing out. Derek should've told him that earlier, he supposed; he'd probably been needlessly worrying about Stiles’s safety with Derek. Or - well, it wasn't so far off base, was it? With his track record.

Stiles flicked at Derek’s bicep, grunting about how he was blocking his view - untrue, but probably code for him wanting to move away from weightier topics and back to their conversation.

“It was good to see you again, Sheriff, Scott.”

“John. If my son’s going to be living with you and eating you out of house and home, I think we've moved to a first name basis, don't you?”

Stiles exclaimed in deep offense, and Derek took advantage of the ensuing argument to smile and slip out of the house.

***

Stiles emerged some time after the call had ended. Now that he'd discovered Derek owned a computer, it seemed unlikely that he'd get much direct use out of it anymore. He still didn't know what had happened to Stiles’s, but he'd gotten the impression it’d been left behind in Beacon Hills. He probably hadn't intended his trip to stretch out this long. Which made him wonder - but it hadn't sounded like the Sheriff - John - expected him to be returning in the immediate future. Maybe Stiles didn't know, still, what he wanted, and where he’d be going next.

“What're you doing?” he asked, bundled up once more, this time with the addition of a tasseled beanie with ear flaps. Their shopping expedition had been productive, if by “productive” you mean Stiles unerringly gravitated toward the most eye-melting items in the stores. Derek was beginning to wonder if he was color blind; it could explain a lot. It seemed more likely, though, that he simply enjoyed the vibrant mismatch of colors.

“Weatherproofing before the snow starts. Which should be any day now; I've already delayed more than I should have.”

“Sorry,” Stiles said, and it took Derek a few seconds to understand that he thought Derek was blaming him for being a distraction.

“Not because you're here. I've been putting it off since I moved. Couldn't decide what I wanted to do for the paint.”

“What're your options?”

“White. Grey, maybe, with the white for accents.” He indicated the biggest cans at his feet; they were the obvious choice, but he hadn’t been able to bring himself to crack them open. Stiles made a face that exactly matched how he felt about it.

“Boring.”

“Or I was thinking about a mural. I’ve already sprayed on the wood treatment as a base coat; it should be dry enough to paint over now.”

“Really?” He took a mittened hand out of his pocket to rub at his nose. “Fuck, man, I've completely taken over your studio. Why haven't you said anything? You probably haven't painted anything in weeks.”

He shrugged. It was true; there'd been a few nights when the moonlight was pouring through the windows and he felt restless in his skin, when he wanted to carve his emotions into a canvas. But he wouldn't trade it, not for the steady beat of Stiles’s heart in his home.

“We're going to figure that out later. Don't think I'll forget about it. Stilinskis never forget a thing.” He came closer, examining the shed from a few different angles. “I think you should go for it. What're you wanting to paint?”

“Nothing elaborate, really. You can see it from the street, so it should blend in, some.”

“So you're thinking the camouflage route. Not actual camo, obviously, but a woodland scene sort of thing?”

“Yeah, maybe.” Stiles’s nose and cheeks had a healthy glow, and he was bouncing on his toes, amped up from the long call. “Interested in helping?”

“Can I?” He sounded enthused with the idea, but nervous. “I won't mess it up?”

“Nah. We can do it freeform. Pick a palette and do what we want from there. We’ll have to work quickly, before we lose too much of the sun, so it’ll be good to have an extra pair of hands.”

“That'd be awesome,” he breathed. “I tried to help my dad repaint the house once, but.” He looked shifty. “Nevermind about that. How should I start.”

“Take those damn mittens off; you'll need the freedom of movement, and you're not going to freeze to death out here. Not yet, anyway. Then c’mere, I'll show you.”

They quickly abandoned Stiles’s initial inspiration - an overly ambitious tropical scene that would have taken them several days to paint, even if they’d both had sufficient skill to back up the idea. Stiles gave it a solid try, though, then sloshed paint over his three attempts to depict a monkey in a palm tree. Both items, Derek privately thought, were fairly indistinguishable from one another, and he managed to keep the opinion to himself until Stiles gave up with a final, frustrated swipe of his paintbrush.

“It helps if the tail’s not the same size as one of the fronds,” Derek said, then side-stepped as Stiles lunged at him with his paintbrush held aloft.

“Haven’t taken an art class since fifth grade,” Stiles grumbled, retreating to the paint cans, with the clear intent of trying again when Derek was distracted.

“We can fix it. What’re you trying to accomplish?”

They settled into an oddly soothing rhythm after that, weaving around each other as they worked, and feeding off each other’s energy. Initially, Stiles chose the colors - shades of green, mostly, with reds and oranges and blues to add drama - and splashed them over the shed in thickly layered patches that Derek could drag his paintbrush through and shape into pleasing patterns. They swapped positions after a bit, at Stiles’s insistence, and Derek was surprised to find that it worked equally well.

It wasn’t art, by any means. It probably wasn’t something his neighbors would particularly enjoy seeing on a daily basis. It was Stiles, through and through - a vibrant mishmash of clashing colors that caught your attention despite yourself - but Derek was in it, too. It wasn’t something either of them would have ever done on their own. Standing back and looking at the shed’s transformation, Derek felt weirdly grounded, as though another piece he hadn’t realized was missing had clicked into place.

As the final touch, Stiles smeared two thick black lines across what had been Derek’s favorite section of the street-facing wall. “It’s a portrait,” he explained. “I’d screw up the full attempt, but your eyebrows are the only thing anyone would need to identify it as you, anyway.”

He laughed, bright and loud with his entire body thrown into it, when Derek flicked paint at him, then he responded by diving at the nearest paint can to pay Derek back in kind.

He should've expected, of course, to wind up with vibrant green Stiles-sized handprints on his back and curving around his ribs, but the shed’s final form looked ridiculous and wonderful.

“We're geniuses,” Stiles said, proudly surveying their work. His hair was caked in paint - only half Derek’s fault, really - and he had a thick green splotch over his nose that was entirely due to the fact that he'd already forgotten he'd dipped his hands in the can to slap at Derek.

“It's an eyesore.” Derek grinned at it for a while before admitting, “It's perfect.”

***

Stiles helped him clear away the mess - tarps, paint cans, brushes that he rinsed off with the hose before putting away - and yelped angrily when Derek tugged him over to wash off as much of the paint as he could.

“Are you trying to give me frostbite, what the fuck, man?” He flapped his wet hands at Derek and got a gleam in his eye that signaled he was preparing to retaliate.

“Trying to keep you from staining the entire interior of my house.” He tossed him a ratty, already stained towel so he could dry off before going inside. “That’ll have to be good enough for now.”

Stiles huffed but complied, shivering in his short sleeves, his muscles flexing as he rubbed the towel along his palms, between his fingers, and up his forearms. He’d stripped off several layers while Derek was mixing the paint and mapping out their sections, which he was probably grateful for now; his new jacket and scarf would’ve been spattered beyond repair if he’d attempted to work in them. Although, knowing Stiles, he might’ve been happy with that addition to his clothes. It’d certainly provide them with a unique texture and appearance. He decided not to mention it, in case Stiles got any ideas before everything was fully stashed away.

“What about you? You’re just as bad.”

“I’m not planning to rub my body against the furniture when I get inside. Which is more than I can say for you. I’ll clean it off in the shower.” He closed the door behind Stiles, and they both left their shoes on the mat.

“Can we shower at the same time?” Stiles asked as he was maneuvering his way out of his sneakers. He caught Derek’s stunned, speechless expression and stumbled, both over his tongue and his feet. “Not - together, I didn’t mean that. Can your hot water heater handle two going at the same time. That’s - yeah.” He trailed off and swore softly under his breath.

“Should be fine.” He cleared his throat, shoving aside flashes of Stiles’s hands on his water-slick skin. “I’ll, uh - I’m heading up now. Don’t brain yourself slipping on the stairs,” he added, pointing at Stiles’s thick socks, which he hadn’t removed. “If you crack your skull, I don't want to have to clean that up.”

“It’s cold,” he complained, leaning down nevertheless to peel them off. “My dad used to have these dumb ones with grippers on the bottom; my great-aunt sent him a new box every Christmas. Do they still make those?”

“Probably. We can check, the next time we’re in town.” He paused on the stairs. “Thank you for helping. Even if you were kind of a disaster, it was nice to have your weird inspiration along for the ride.”

“You already said you loved it,” Stiles said, grinning up at him. He’d dragged his dumb hat back on, disregarding the paint in his hair, and it was pulled so far down it nearly met his eyebrows. “Can’t take it back now.”

“Stilinskis never forget,” he echoed, rolling his eyes. He hadn’t said he loved it. He’d implied, maybe. If you stretched.

“Hales either, apparently. But really, it was a lot of fun. I'm glad you let me add my superior touch. And hey!” He balanced on one foot, still holding a sock, which would probably wind up inside Derek’s armchair somehow. “When you're done, come upstairs. We’ve got some talking to do, buddy.”

***

The water heated up quickly, and Derek spent a few minutes simply standing in the spray, enjoying the way it loosened his well-used muscles. It'd been a long day, but an immensely satisfying one.

He squeezed a dollop of body wash into his palm and rubbed it into a lather, scrubbing it over his shoulders, as much of his back as he could reach, and under his arms. He ran his fingers through his chest hair, making sure it was free from any stray drops of paint, and watched as the fingerstreaks across his ribs faded under the hot water. Without thinking too much about it, he wrapped one hand loosely around his side, matching his fingers up with the marks, and gently scraped the nails of his other hand through his chest hair and down the thick trail to the thatch of dark curls at his groin.

He closed his eyes, and his breath caught in his throat as the grip of his own hand turned back into Stiles’s long fingers, his head thrown back in a carefree laugh as he tried, futilely, to make Derek squirm away from him and hand over the paintbrush he wanted.

“You’re an asshole,” his mental Stiles breathed into his ear, wrapping himself around him, his warm, lean body pressed against Derek’s back, the hard line of his cock nudging between Derek’s cheeks. “Just let me have it.”

His cock filled, curving toward his belly, and Derek swiped his thumb over the sensitive head and gasped, the muscles in his abdomen tightening and releasing, Stiles’s phantom words wet and biting against his neck, making him shiver. He cupped his hand around his cock and stroked, bracing his feet harder on the porcelain floor of the tub as his knees weakened, but not loosening his grip. Stiles wouldn’t: he’d be relentless. Or maybe he’d tease - bringing Derek right to the edge, over and over, until he was sobbing with the need to let himself go.

“C’mon,” his faux Stiles whispered, an encouragement and a command, when he couldn’t take it anymore. “Come for me, Derek.”

He groaned, shuddering through his release, and slumped against the wall of the tub, the water stinging his overly sensitive skin.

“Fuck,” he said softly. “Fuck.” He’d tried - he’d really tried. Stiles wasn’t - he didn’t want it. He didn’t want Derek, not like that. He’d made it clear, time and time again, that while he was comfortable with Derek and enjoyed his company, he wasn’t pursuing more. He wasn't hitting on him, he'd told Derek, right at the start, firmly drawing that line in the sand to let him know where they stood and what was on the table. And fuck, did Derek want anything Stiles could give him.

“Friendship,” he said, letting the word hang in the air, trying to convince himself it was sufficient. “He needs me to be there for him. As a friend. He does want me. Just not the way I want him.”

His marks were entirely gone now, as though they’d never been visible on his skin, and Derek’s hand convulsed around his ribs, the shadow of an embrace. He could. He’d be the best damn friend a guy could ever ask for, and then some. He’d never ask for more, not when Stiles was relying on him for comfort and security. Not when he was his haven in the storm.

***

He slipped into a soft sweater and loose pants and waited to head up the stairs until he was sure Stiles was finished with his own shower and fully dressed. When he reached the doorway, he found Stiles carelessly shoving clothes into his bags.

“What’s going on?” he asked, his heart throbbing in his throat.

“Moving downstairs,” he said, not turning around, and Derek’s heart kicked back down to its usual pace. “Isaac can suck it. It’s shitty that I’ve been keeping you out of your own workroom, and I’m kind of pissed at you for not telling me to get lost earlier, especially now that I’ve seen how much you freaking love this sort of thing.”

“I was supposed to kick you out?”

“You’re supposed to be honest with me.” Stiles did turn then, his dark eyes fiercely grabbing and holding Derek’s attention. “You can’t let me run all over you because you feel sorry for me or some shit. I came here because - because that’s what we do, okay? We give each other hell. I knew you wouldn’t tiptoe around me because you’re afraid I’ll shatter if you press too hard on the wrong subject.” His voice cracked around the words. “I’m human, but that doesn’t mean I’m...frail, or something. I’m not that breakable. You’ve never treated me that way, Derek; don’t start now.”

“That’s fair,” Derek said. It was something he’d felt after the fire. After Kate. He’d tried so hard to stand on his own, to keep from worrying Laura, from letting her see that there was something deeply wrong and weak in him, but underneath it all, he’d wanted someone to make that effort. To dig their fingers in, to pry apart his torn edges, to hold his vulnerable heart in their hands and - and either squeeze it to a pulp for good, or find a way to tell him it wasn’t blackened beyond repair. Laura had let him get away with everything. His secrecy, his lies, his slipshod pretense that he was doing remotely okay. They’d needed each other, so badly, but they were both too afraid to crack the shells that had hardened around them.

He missed her. More than his mom, his dad, even his grandmother and her warm, bone-creaking hugs. They’d failed each other, in the end. She’d let him be a coward until it led to her own death, alone in the woods where the rest of their family had been murdered. She’d never anchored herself in place, her eyes full of Alpha fire, making him stand up for himself, or prove that they could hold onto each other without flying apart. He’d let her leave, too afraid to tell her why the thought of going back to Beacon Hills made him physically ill. He hadn’t asked her to stay, to explain those late-night phone calls and the clippings she slid out of his view when he came home.

She should’ve been more than strong enough to fight Peter off. If she’d had a beta who was evenly slightly functional, whose power was worth feeding into hers.

If he hadn’t been so damn useless.

“It’ll be nice to have this room again,” he admitted. Stiles had finished sitting on his bag to force the straining zipper to close, after losing the first couple rounds to an explosion of his shirts. He wasn’t even sure what Stiles kept in there; it wasn’t like he owned much, but he was, based on what he’d seen, an incredibly ineffective packer. “I’d like to start a new painting.”

“Cool. Maybe I can see it when you’re done?” He stood up, ready to drag his bag down the stairs and out of Derek’s way.

“You could stay,” he offered, not knowing until he’d said it that he wanted Stiles to see that side of him. He wasn’t always great with language - saying what he meant in a torrent of words, in that way Stiles enviably managed - but the physicality of his painting could speak for itself. Could, potentially, give him a window into how Derek’s tangled-up brain functioned. “That is, if you’re interested.”

“It’s not some super secret artistic process?”

“No. I’m not even sure it’s art, really. It’s - my way of dealing with my demons.”

“That’s something I know a little about,” Stiles said, but didn’t push, willing to wait and see for himself. He settled back onto the mattress, and Derek went about his routine, losing himself in the motions, nearly forgetting Stiles was there. He retrieved a large canvas he’d stretched and primed just prior to Stiles’s arrival and propped it on an easel.

He didn’t have an exact idea of how he wanted to start, but he rarely did. If he’d waited for inspiration, every canvas in the room would still be blank. He began squeezing out acrylics and mixing them to the right shades: blood red, scorched green, a blue as bright with betrayal as his eyes. When he felt ready, he rolled up his sleeves, dipped his fingers into the paint, and began streaking the colors across the canvas.

It was on the abstract end, as with most of his work, but the trees rose out of the darkness first, thickly ridged with heaped layers of paint. Next came the hints of red eyes hiding in their branches, the shape of an iron-grey wolf lurking behind them, larger than life and trapped, sliced into pieces by the arrow-straight trunks, proud but wounded.

As the room darkened and the moon rose, he dug into the canvas, scraping the flicker of his family’s flames in the distance, the impression of a boy, on his knees, his back to them, a shower of sparks splintering his shoulders apart. He dragged his claws through a revenge spiral, shards of blue slashing through the wolf’s chest, ragged shreds of canvas dripping.

His chest heaving, he turned around to see Stiles silently watching, chin on his knees and his arms wrapped around his legs, his eyes shining with tears.

“That was fucking incredible, Derek,” he said. “I had no idea - thank you, for sharing that with me.”

He shifted back, feeling his eyes fade to their human shades, his claws withdrawing, his face smoothing to what most would call normal, but which was only ever a portion of his true self.

“It’s a dream I have most nights,” he said. He felt lighter; emptied, for the moment, of the simmering emotions he couldn’t seem to find a way to put into words. “Never goes away. I think that’s something you might understand.”

“Does it help? Capturing it like that?”

“No. But it makes it sting less, for a while. Sometimes that’s what you need, to get by on any given day.”

“That’s shitty,” Stiles said, his voice raw.

Derek shrugged. “That’s life.”

Chapter Text

Stiles grew restless as the days wore on. The snow hadn’t begun to coat the city yet; the rain blew in first, in chilled, slanting, unrelenting sheets that soaked Derek to the bone on his daily runs along the river. He quickly tired of peeling the sopping clothes off when he got home, so he began shifting to his full wolf form before he left the house. He’d shake his thick fur as dry as he could on the deck, then tap at the glass door for Stiles to let him in so he could snag his pile of clothes and dash to the downstairs bathroom to shift back.

He spent most of his time painting, reading, inventing new recipes, and - despite his best efforts to match Stiles’s honesty with his own - waiting for the other shoe to drop. Stiles completely hogged the computer, as he’d expected, spreading himself over the entire living room - sprawling on the couch, or the rug, or following a patch of sunlight as it slanted through the wide windows and across the polished floor. Occasionally, he'd disappear upstairs with the laptop for long stretches, not always explaining what he was using it for, and looking shifty enough about it that Derek thought it was wiser to not ask.

Stiles had also begun leaving the house more often. He was less jumpy now, and didn't swear as heartily at Derek for creeping up on him on quiet feet. He seemed - restless, yes, impatient to be on the move, but simultaneously more secure in his own skin. He returned with brochures from the bus station, assorted grocery items that Derek would attempt to shape into something edible, and at least five umbrellas, since he continually forgot to take one with him, only to be caught in a torrential downpour that he couldn’t possibly brave with only a hood.

“We should go somewhere,” he said one night, slapping the pile of brochures on top of their half-finished puzzle, knocking an entire corner to the ground. “Whoops,” he said, but revisited the notion once he’d finished picking up all the lost pieces and fitting them into their proper place.

“Where do you want to go?” Derek asked, snicking two sections of sky together and sitting back in satisfaction.

Stiles slid a sideways smile at him, a thick rope of contentment snaking through his scent. “Nothing major, or so far away that we can’t get back home for the night.”

He dropped the word in so smoothly, Derek almost missed it: not “here,” or “to the house,” or even “your house,” but...something that indicated Stiles’s claim on it, too. That solidified the stamp he'd put on the lurid shed, on the worse-for-wear furniture, on Derek himself. He carefully bottled up the moment, not sure whether there was any intent behind it, and Stiles continued his proposal before Derek could even begin formulating an idea of how to ask.

“I'm thinking day trips. You said something about Falmouth? There’s a maritime museum; that looked cool. And some sort of ferry tour.”

The museum turned out to be a highlight; Stiles insisted on asking a series of strangers to take photos of the two of them interacting with various displays, and he crowed loudly in delight when he discovered an interactive miniature sailboat racing exhibit at which Derek failed terribly.

The ferry tour was a disaster. The waves had picked up with yet another incoming storm, sloshing the boat from side to side until Stiles got uproariously sick over both Derek and the side of the boat. Repeatedly. In a variety of combinations.

Derek had to wait outside a shop while Stiles picked out new clothes for him that weren’t liberally coated in his lunch, which immensely improved Stiles’s mood and darkened his.

“You should wear color more often,” Stiles insisted as Derek glowered at him, stalking to a separate row on the bus. Stiles followed him, anyway. “It looks good on you, I swear. Would I lie to you?” He widened his not remotely innocent eyes, batting his thick lashes as though that would wipe out the last few hours of the day, but Derek sighed and moved his legs so he could sit down.

“You still stink,” he grumbled.

“No more boats,” he agreed. “I’ve learned my limits.”

The day Derek suggested a trip to St. Ives, to visit the modern art museum, Stiles visibly perked up. “It’s farther away than some of the other places we’ve been,” Derek continued, “so we can drive this time.”

Drive?” Stiles came dangerously close to yelling. “You have a fucking car? Since when?”

“I bought one when I moved down here. There’s transit, but it’s not always convenient; it doesn’t go everywhere.”

“No shit!” he exclaimed. “It’s why I’ve been leaving some places off the list. The bus either doesn’t have a decent route, or it’s a ridiculously long trip that wouldn’t be worth it. I can’t believe you made us spend three hours on a bus to go to that town with the weird festival when we could’ve driven in a third the time. A tenth. And then escaped faster when I got bored.”

“I don’t like driving much,” Derek admitted. “I get confused by the roads, and there are all these sets of traffic niceties here that everyone assumes you’ve grown up knowing. There’s an exhibit that I’ve been wanting to see, though, and it’s being taken down next week.”

“Understandable, but I can’t fucking believe it took this long to find out that you own a car. Where is it? Is that in your nightstand, too?”

Derek snorted. “In the garage, you dumbass. The one all the houses in this section share? You’ve walked past it a thousand times by now.”

“Which means you’ve had a thousand opportunities to point it out. I realize you’re not intentionally withholding information, but one of these days, I swear I’m going to sit you down and get you to inventory everything you own. What’s next, an island? A wife in the attic?”

“No attic.” When Stiles’s suspicion deepened, he sighed and added, “No wife. No husband. No significant other, of any kind, stashed anywhere.”

“Ah, that’s more like it, then.” Stiles fumbled with the map he’d drawn out, forcing creases where they didn’t belong and folding it into a clumsy square. “For the record, I’m fully on board with this trip and can’t wait to see you wandering around an art museum, but I wanna make a detour. A couple detours.”

“We’ll need to get up earlier, then, to make sure we can cover everything. Want me to wake you up?”

He scoffed. “I’m perfectly capable of getting out of bed on my own, thank you very much.”

***

Two hours after they’d meant to leave the house, Stiles was buckled blearily into Derek’s car, his nose buried in a gaudy travel mug he’d picked up during one of their trips. He alternated between quietly sipping at it and nodding off, while Derek navigated his way toward the coast. They’d traveled about half the distance when Stiles shook himself fully awake, squawked loudly, and grabbed at the dash, his foot slamming against the floorboards.

“Oh holy shit holy shit what the hell,” he chanted as Derek navigated into a small pull-off to let an oncoming car pass them, then pulled back onto the narrow road.

“Forgot you weren’t driving?” he asked, glancing over at Stiles, who was still clutching his chest.

“Fucking British cars, oh my god. I thought I fell asleep at the wheel.”

“Like I’d let that happen, you idiot.”

“True,” he acknowledged. “Scared the hell out of me, though.”

“At least you’re awake now. You can help with directions the rest of the way. It’ll get tricky in a few places.”

“I thought you claimed I was terrible at directions,” he said, but set his mug - well worth the money for its tight seals - in the cupholder and unfolded the badly-creased map. “I have no idea where we are right now.”

Derek laughed, Stiles punched him in the shoulder, and they only got lost for roughly fifteen minutes when Derek took a turn Stiles vehemently swore he hadn’t told him to take. It was, without question, his best driving experience thus far in the country.

Stiles folded his limbs out of the car like a drunken newborn giraffe, grouching about the cramped space. “This is the smallest car I’ve ever seen in my life. Did you accidentally buy a child’s toy? Is this even safe to drive on a public road?”

“Americans insist on size being the only thing that matters,” Derek said, locking the doors and making sure Stiles was limping in the correct direction. “She may not be your gas-guzzling deathtrap Jeep, but she treats me fine.”

“Gas guzzling, hah, have you seen the cars you’ve owned lately? Wait, wait, no, I missed both an Isaac dig and a dick joke, lemme start over.”

“Too late. Your priorities are showing.”

“It’s true; Roscoe’s the only thing I miss over here. Other than my dad. And Scott. And - nope, that’s it.”

It was probably possible to ship vehicles over, he mused, but the image of Stiles rattling around Cornwall in his Jeep was as terrifying as it was amusing. He wouldn’t cross that bridge until Stiles forced him onto it.

***

The museum didn’t particularly hold Stiles’s interest, but he followed Derek around with a commendable degree of patience, consulting the descriptive placards whenever he paused in front of a display for too long. He showed more enthusiasm in the sculpture garden they visited next, plucking Derek’s phone out of his pocket to take photos of them, as usual. After the fifth time Derek caught him fiddling with the phone without seeming to actually be doing anything with it, he snagged it back.

“Ready to move on?”

“No,” he protested. “This has all been fascinating. Really. I just-” He rubbed at the back of his head, mussing his hair. He’d returned from one of his downtown excursions with a haircut and boiling anger about the barber’s insulting attempt to shave his face; Derek gathered, based on the volume and breadth of his complaints, he’d have to find a new location for the next time. “Will you promise you won’t get mad at me?”

“For what? Not being excited about art? I think it’s a forgivable offense.”

“I like art. Some of today’s was strange, in a boring way, but overall, excellent trip. Would recommend.” He gave an elaborate thumbs up to accent his point.

“But?”

“But I have ulterior motives.” He stuck his hands in his jacket pockets. “I’ve been - well, I’ve been emailing the owners of some small art galleries in the area. Describing your art to them; I didn’t send photos, because I figured that wasn’t cool, without asking you first. But a couple of them were interested in meeting you and seeing your work, and the most promising one’s here. A few blocks away. I wrote down the address and gave her a heads up that we might come in today.”

“Huh,” he said, stumped for further words.

“We don't have to. It's entirely up to you, obviously. I thought I'd do the legwork, that's all. See if anyone saw their merit, like I do. And then give you the option, with things already lined up, so you wouldn't have to hassle with it.”

“I'm not saying no,” he said, before Stiles could continue digging himself into an apology hole. He wasn’t angry, or upset, or any of the emotions Stiles was probably cycling through as possible interpretations of his silence. Beyond that, he wasn’t quite sure what he was feeling, and he’d need more time to sort through it. “It's that - I’ve never thought of displaying them anywhere.”

“But you don't hate the idea right off the bat?”

“Maybe not. It depends on the gallery, I guess. If I get a good feeling from the person. And - they wouldn't be for sale, would they? I'm not sure if I could do that. They're not - commercial works. Not right now.”

“No, I don't think so. Not all of them, anyway. That's something we can definitely ask her.”

“Okay,” he said slowly. “No promises, but I'll talk to her. Take a look at the gallery.”

“Awesome!” Stiles beamed. “But don't agree to anything without going through me. I'm your agent. It's my job to make sure you won't get cheated.”

“Wouldn't trust anyone else with it,” he said, and smiled at how splotchy Stiles got at the praise.

Gretchen put him at ease almost instantly; Stiles really had chosen well. When it came down to it, he was probably the best judge of people Derek had ever known, so that wasn't a huge surprise. It was impressive, though, especially considering he couldn't use the full range of his senses to analyze intentions. Not that Derek’s had helped him, all at much, but - that was a topic for another time.

Gretchen’s gallery was a little off the beaten path, mostly free of the more casual tourists and stocked with tastefully curated local art. She greeted him, first, sounding genuinely pleased to meet him, and offered to let him browse at his own pace to get a sense of how he liked the space. She remained unobtrusively behind her desk while he explored. Stiles got distracted by flipping through a rack of postcard-sized prints of some of the artists’ work, leaving Derek free to linger as long as he liked. Not everything was to his taste, but he could tell it’d been selected with a careful, critical eye. If Stiles’s descriptions had been sufficient to pique her interest, that seemed like a good sign; the woman who’d put this collection together wouldn’t have been swayed by something that she didn’t feel held some serious promise.

He rubbed his suddenly sweating hands against his thighs, and Stiles popped out of nowhere, holding a stack of postcards and brushing his shoulder against Derek’s. The wordless gesture smoothed out his ragged breathing, and he nodded when Stiles gave him a questioning look.

“You liked what you saw?” Gretchen asked, standing up when they approached her desk.

“I did; it’s an impressive collection. And not everything has price tags?”

“That’s right,” she said. She had a pleasant accent, with dropped h’s and softly rolling r’s. He found it soothing, in an odd way; she was a part of the landscape, tied to the Cornish countryside as intrinsically as any wolves were to their territory. While the Hales had been established in Northern California for generations, losing any audible trace of their English roots, there was something about her that reminded him of his grandmother. The alert kindness in her eyes, perhaps, or her dark hair, streaked liberally with grey and cropped short for practicality rather than beauty. “It’s not easy to make money out of smaller galleries, but that’s not my main reason for running this place.”

“And what is the reason?” Stiles asked, poking his nose in, prepared to defend Derek against this woman, if needed. Derek put his hand on Stiles’s back, sliding it to a dip in his muscles that felt made for the purpose, letting him know he appreciated the support but felt good about the calm emanating from Gretchen.

She flicked her gaze at Stiles but responded to Derek. “Art’s my passion. It’s a bit of a shame, I thought, to limit whose work gets shown. I choose the artists whose pieces speak to me. I haven’t seen yours yet, but your young man painted quite the picture.”

“I didn’t bring any of them with me,” he said, regretting it now. He wanted to see her face when she looked at his work, to watch the play of emotions for ones that corresponded to those he’d poured into the paint.

“We have photos, though,” Stiles said, tapping at Derek’s back pocket. “If that’ll do for initial impressions.” Derek handed his phone over, and Stiles thumbed through to an album he’d apparently set up for this meeting. “It’s obviously better when you can see the texture, but this should give you an idea of how he works. There’s a short video, too, of him working on the early stages of one; I think that’ll show you how extraordinary his work is.” Before the claws came out, he mouthed at Derek as Gretchen began to look through the album. She moved around to join them and angled the screen so Derek could follow along.

She paused for the longest amount of time over three of the paintings. The first was the one Stiles had captured in a video, which he hadn’t been aware of at the time: he watched the harsh lines of his shoulders as he threw his entire body into the creation, using his forearm to smear the rough shape of a craggy oak into the canvas, then scraping whorls into it with an elbow before moving back to the more precise applications of paint with his fingers.

The second photo she lingered over was the first thing he’d painted, and been satisfied with, after he’d moved. The canvas, a smaller, square one, had a splash of blonde curls fading in from a corner, a sorrowful slash of red lips in death-pale skin, and a powerful silhouette reaching out of a turbulent lake, frozen in time as he grasped for her outstretched hand. Derek had torn his claws diagonally through the scene, and Gretchen touched her fingers lightly to the zoomed-in shot Stiles had taken of the jagged edges.

“They were important to you,” she said, and he nodded, unable to speak.

She hummed approvingly at a few more, but the final one that she swiped back to was a three-paneled painting he’d thought he’d effectively hidden away in a corner of the room.

“This triptych is something special,” she said.

He swallowed convulsively, feeling like he’d been pinned to a wall for someone to pull apart. “I thought that one might be a little too on the nose,” he managed gruffly. It was the only one he’d painted on wood, rather than canvas. He’d pulled the pieces free from the house before it’d been reclaimed by the city and torn down; the wood was blackened by ash but mostly intact.

“No. It has your heart in it. Here.” She touched the center panel, which was wider than the two flanking it.

On the left, a flimsy house-shaped pile of straw had crumpled into flames, a sleek golden beast towering over it, dark fragments of wolves burning within. On the right, he’d splintered the wood, a dark shape with a twisted, multifaceted face emerging from it. The center panel was gutted: he’d scraped away layers to cut an unevenly circular hole, his blood mixed into the red-brick stain. There were two figures - a wolf caught behind the wall, ears flattened against its skull, a paw braced on the rough bricks; and a broad-shouldered, slim-waisted man, his head covered with a red hood, one hand sealing the crumbling bricks back in place, the other resting a hairsbreadth away from the wolf’s claws, ready to pull him through. To free him.

“I wouldn’t ask you to sell these,” she said, as the screen faded to black and she handed the phone back to Stiles. “Not those three, that’s for certain. But I would like to display them, if you’ll let me. There’ll be no harm coming to them here.”

“I’d like that,” he said. “I think - I’m ready to share them.”

Stiles slipped the phone back into Derek’s pocket and slid his arm the rest of the way around Derek’s waist, giving him a tight, one-armed hug. “Let’s sort out the details, then,” he said, putting his determined business face on and leaving his arm firmly in place.

***

“Where to next?” he asked roughly after they’d eaten and returned to the car. He felt like he’d been scraped raw by the intense scrutiny, but there was a lightness to his steps, almost a giddiness as his feet lifted from the shadows he’d been too terrified to release into the open air.

“To the end of the world,” Stiles replied, and grinned at him. “You’ve heard of Land’s End?”

“Heard the name; haven’t been there.” He turned the key in the ignition and threw his arm around Stiles’s seat so he could twist to navigate out of the parking space. He put both hands back on the wheel and looked expectantly at him. “Ready to guide us?”

“Only if you’re ready to believe in me this time.”

“Never stopped,” he said.

Land’s End was a craggy, windswept spit of land that jutted off the far edge of England’s coast. The wind lashed at them, biting at any exposed skin as they made their way to the cliffs. Stiles had stepped out of the car, then immediately dove back in to retrieve as many warm layers as he could fit on his body. Derek, for his part, slid his hands into his jacket pockets but turned his face into the chilled air, letting it sting his cheeks and slap him to full consciousness.

A seagull whirled overhead, crying into the stillness. Derek watched as it dipped into a gust of air and wheeled along the face of the cliff. It felt as though they were the only two people in the world, just then. They’d arrived in that quiet gap between afternoon and evening meals, when the scattered buildings shut their doors and stopped serving visitors.

“Glad we ate before we came here,” Stiles said, muffled through the heavy scarf he’d wrapped around his mouth. Derek reached out to tug him away from the “dangerous cliffs” sign he’d been rapidly approaching. “You’re such a guardwolf sometimes; I totally saw that,” he lied. He let Derek step between him and the drop-off anyway, and they made their way down a set of carved-away stairs to a section that felt even more removed from the world.

Most of the rocks hanging over the sea were bare, but some plants clung stubbornly to the nooks and crannies, bright flowers blooming despite the encroaching winter. They reminded Derek of Cora, somehow; he could see her scrabbling her way up the tumbled rocks, her claws digging into the slightest crevices as she chased the adrenaline rush. He snapped a photo of a particularly lush bunch and texted it to Cora.

You send me the strangest things, she shot back. Where’s Stiles? I can always tell which of you’s texting me, because one makes a hell of a lot more sense. And always has your dumb face in it somewhere.

He sent her a photo with Stiles’s marshmallow-bundled form standing out against the stark landscape. Hasn’t gotten over his Californian blood yet, he texted. We’re working on it.

I’m sure you are, she said. You finished sorting out the Christmas plans?

Not yet. Some logistics left to figure out. Soon, though, I hope.

Keep me in the loop. And watch him - if he trips, he’ll probably bounce and roll right off the edge.

It was a fair point, so he moved closer. Stiles was standing still; he’d dropped his scarf around his neck and seemed to be entirely preoccupied by the fact that his breath was huffing out in visible clouds.

“This used to be the coolest thing,” he said when Derek reached his side. “Beacon Hills doesn’t get this cold often - well, you know that. When it happened, though, Scott and I used to love being able to see our own breath. We’d pretend we were smoking. We thought we were grown up and awesome.”

“We’d pretend to be dragons. Cora and I would chase Laura around, roaring smoke blasts at her.”

“The money I’d give for a video of that,” he said, blowing in Derek’s face. “My lips are numb, but it’s totally worth it.”

The wind shifted, the chill in the air increasing. Derek sniffed abruptly, tilting his face to the sky, and grinned. “It’s about to get even better.”

“What the hell is this!” Stiles yelped, jumping as the first snowflakes fluttered through the air, one landing on his nose and melting its way down his chin.

Derek laughed in unrestrained delight as Stiles spun in place, trying to escape from the wet flakes splatting against his shoulders and arms. “It’s snowing, you absolute idiot. Have you never seen snow before?”

“In movies! It’s supposed to be soft and pretty, not wet, ow! And freezing, oh my god that one went down my shirt.”

He loved him, Derek thought, letting himself put the words into their concrete form for the first time. He’d never felt this way before: that pulsing heat expanding his chest, the way he couldn’t stop smiling, the urge to warm Stiles’s frozen lips with his, to catch his sulky exclamations in his mouth. It was all over his face, and he knew it, but he couldn’t look away.

“You know what this means,” Stiles said when he’d finally given in and held his hands out to watch in fascination as the snow melted on his mittens.

“I’m afraid to ask.”

“Snowball fights.” He had a dangerous gleam in his eyes. “Once there’s enough of it on the ground, you’d better watch out. I’m going to conquer the hell out of this snow thing.”

“Doing a great job of it so far,” he said.

“You just wait, Derek S. Hale.” He stuck his tongue out, then crossed his eyes to watch as he caught a flake on it. “Outh, that’s cold, thoo,” he added, rubbing at his tongue with a mitten, then spitting out stray bits of yarn.

“I’ve never been so intimidated in my life,” he said, Stiles startling another laugh out of him as he lunged in his direction, attempting to smash his snow-damp mitten into Derek’s face.

***

It took a few days for the snow to fall heavily enough to stick. Stiles tromped outside every day, after Derek got home from his run, to kick at the patchy ice and do his best to scrape together something approximating a snowball. Midway through the week, Derek was peacefully sitting in his chair, a mug of peppermint hot chocolate at his elbow and a particularly engrossing book in his hands, when Stiles slipped up behind him and crammed melting snow down his neck. He leaped away, tangling himself in the throw rug, and shrieked when Derek tackled him onto the couch.

“Watch it,” he growled, lowering his face to Stiles’s, dropping his fangs.

“Oh,” Stiles gasped, his eyes dilating, his scent twisting spicy-sweet. “Believe me, I am.”

He snapped his teeth a millimeter from Stiles’s nose and lifted himself away in disappointment when he didn’t flinch in the slightest. “Snow stays outside,” he lectured, rotating his shoulderblades to make sure there weren’t any stray chunks of ice stuck halfway down his shirt.

“Come outside with me then, grandpa.” Stiles was lounging on the couch where he’d left him, one long leg sprawling lazily off the side. “It’s winter! We’re supposed to be enjoying it.”

“Can’t wait to hear your thoughts on how important it is to enjoy winter when the snow’s still here in three or four months,” he responded, but he tugged his sweater over his head and unzipped his pants.

“Or that,” Stiles said, sitting up.

“It’s more fun when I’m shifted,” Derek explained, rolling his eyes and turning his back so he could finish shoving his pants down. He cracked his neck and cleared his mind, letting the fur ripple down his spine, reshaping his body until he dropped to four paws, his tail waving in anticipation. He padded over to the couch and snagged Stiles’s shoelaces with his teeth, tugging until he agreeably flopped onto the floor.

“This is not going to be a fair fight,” he said, getting to his feet after a moment and ushering Derek out the door. The snow layer was thin, but coated most of the yard, and Derek indulged in a hearty roll, sticking his muzzle in a thicker clump and snorting happily at the cold.

“You actually do love this stuff, don’t you?” Stiles slapped together a lumpy snowball and lobbed at it Derek, smacking him solidly in his side. “Your wolfy eyebrows glare just as well as your regular ones,” he marveled, then added, “oh fuck,” and only managed a few steps before Derek knocked him onto the ground, planting his wet paws on his chest and swiping his warm tongue across his nose.

They wound up making a series of miniature snowpeople - because there wasn’t a sufficient supply yet to do a traditional one, Stiles explained as he recruited Derek’s help in packing the loose snow together with his nose and paws. As Stiles shaped their snow villagers into vaguely round bodies with tiny heads perched atop, Derek went in search of twigs for the arms and pebbles for the eyes and buttons.

“Perfect,” Stiles said when he dropped his finds carefully into his lap, one by one. “This is a real work of art. We should get a prize for this, probably.” Derek sat next to him, resting his chin on Stiles’s thigh and watching as he meticulously stuck shredded blades of grass on top of the round heads. “We don’t have tiny hats for them, so they get hair instead,” he reasoned, and removed a mitten to scratch satisfyingly behind Derek’s ears when he huffed in agreement.

Derek and Stiles in the snow
building a snow village - art by cutewolfboys

He squeezed his eyes shut, his heart thumping in an unsteady beat as he thought about the sadness in Laura’s eyes as she’d wrapped her scarf around their first snowman’s neck. “Looks pretty great for our first one, wouldn’t you say?” she’d said bravely. “Want me to take your picture with it? We can send it to - we can put it an album. Hales’ First Winter. It’ll be epic.”

He had those photos tucked away in a box under his bed.

When Stiles’s hand slowed, he grumbled and tilted his head to encourage him to resume the motions. He could pull them out, maybe. Get some frames. Show Cora that slice of their life between the fire and Peter’s revenge spree, the way Laura had put her arm around a badly-shaped snowman and smiled valiantly at the camera, refusing to give up on what had been ripped away from them.

It hurt. Every day; it hadn’t stopped. He’d intentionally kept it sharp, not letting himself forget, not willing to believe he had the right to move on from what he’d done. But - Cora knew his part in all of it. Stiles did, too, not because he’d explicitly told him, but because he was too damn clever for his own good. Neither of them treated him differently, or acted as though his presence was a curse waiting to tear them apart, too.

“Don’t fall asleep on me,” Stiles said, pulling gently at Derek’s ears. “My ass is freezing. Let’s go back inside. We can sit on the couch, and you can pretend you don’t like being petted like the giant fuzzball you are while I see what holiday movies are on tv.”

Not a bad deal, all things considered.

As long as he didn’t try to sneak in the Star Wars Holiday Special, which he’d seen pulled up on his computer around the time Stiles had ordered them a DVD player. He wouldn’t hesitate to bite him, in that case, bliss-inducing ear skritches or not.

Chapter Text

Thanksgiving passed without a fuss. Derek put together the most elaborate traditional meal he could, and Stiles spent a good portion of the day on Skype, dragging him in front of the camera whenever he could manage it. John and Melissa had both been roped into evening shifts - John, he suspected, had volunteered since his only family member was in another country - so they were having an early meal with Scott and Kira. Derek had offered to line their schedule up to roughly match; it’d mean a much later dinner than usual for them, but Stiles had lit up with excitement when he’d proposed it. It’d be like he was actually sharing the holiday with his dad, even though they were thousands of miles apart. Anyway, with the schedule he’d been keeping, typing away at the computer at all hours of the night, it wouldn’t make a huge difference.

“I mashed the potatoes!” he heard Stiles exclaiming as he was crumbling the cornbread, mixing in onions and celery and spices until it smelled like the version his grandmother had painstakingly produced for the first sixteen years of his life. She’d had to double and triple the serving sizes to meet the demands of her ravenous family, and their bottomless desire for leftovers. He was cooking a truly absurd amount for two people - Jackson was spending the holiday with his parents and had dragged a protesting Isaac with him - but most of the dishes would keep well. Besides, he’d seen how much Stiles could eat when he set his mind to it.

“He volunteered to make the cranberry sauce, too,” he called. “Until he found out it didn’t mean opening a can and plopping a gelatinous mass into a bowl.”

John chuckled, but Stiles cut his amusement short by pointing his finger sternly at the computer screen. “Don’t you even start. It’s the only kind of cranberry sauce you like, and you know it.”

“The ridges from the can make it perfect for slicing,” he sheepishly admitted. He paused, as though checking over his shoulder, and added in a lower voice, “Melissa’s making a homemade one. It looks chunky and terrible.”

“Did you buy a spare can to go with the leftovers?” Stiles laughed; his dad had, in all likelihood, made a classic Stilinski-style face to indicate the obvious answer to that question. “Derek’s doing the same thing,” he said, not attempting to hide his skepticism.

“You’ll like it,” Derek promised, scooping the stuffing into a large glass baking dish and making sure it was pressed evenly into all the corners. “I made two batches; one’s extra smooth, in case you can’t bear to remember you’re eating actual cranberries.”

“Sounds like a keeper,” John said, and Stiles shushed him.

“You’re just jealous, dad.”

“I am,” he sighed. “What kind of rolls is he making?”

“Nothing premade, because he’s ridiculous. He got up early this morning and baked like five different kinds of bread.”

“That’s a massive exaggeration. C’mere, you said you’d snap the ends off the green beans.”

Also not from a can,” he complained, dragging his feet over to grab the bowl of freshly washed vegetables and return to his seat at the table. “He’s working me to the bone, dad, do you see this?”

“I see an amazing meal I wish I was there for. I miss you, kiddo.”

“Miss you too, dad.”

They must’ve had a conversation, outside of Derek’s hearing, about the possibility of Stiles returning to Beacon Hills for the holiday. He’d never mentioned it, though, and Derek certainly wasn’t going to bring up the specter of Stiles leaving, even operating under an assumption that he might return. When he’d touched on it with John, anxiety clogging his veins at the thought of hearing that Stiles simply hadn’t told him about his plans, John had only said that, as far as he knew, Stiles had no intention of budging from Derek’s house that year. It was good enough for him.

“How are things going with Danny?” John asked.

“Good,” he said, in that clipped tone that meant this was a subject he didn’t want to discuss - with his dad? In front of Derek? “Tell me more about that weird case you were working on. The one with the cats and the pyramid scheme.”

Derek tried to set it aside. He did, mostly, shoving the exchange into a mental box he rarely had the courage to open. He reminded himself to focus instead on the tangible elements of the day: the fading light glinting on the river outside, and the consistent, easy warmth of his interactions with his loud-mouthed houseguest.

Stiles spun the laptop around after a while to join him in the kitchen, leaving the camera as a point of connection between their house and the McCalls’. Once they sat down to dinner, they angled the screen so they wouldn’t be staring at each other chewing, but he could hear Scott laughing as Stiles moaned obscenely over his first mouthfuls.

“You shut your mouth, Scotty,” he said. “You’d be doing the same damn thing if you were eating this masterpiece. I mean - sorry, Mrs. McCall, I’m sure yours is equally amazing.”

“I doubt it,” she said dryly. “Not from the stories I’ve been hearing about how that boy cooks.”

Stiles did his best to change the subject while simultaneously cramming his mouth with another spoonful of garlic mashed potatoes, which went about as well as could be expected.

“I’m going to need to start joining you on those awful marathons of yours,” he groaned from the living room floor later, after he’d shut down the computer and cleared away the dishes. “I’m going to explode. I didn’t know this is how I was going to die - from an excess of the most delicious food anyone has ever had the pleasure to murder themselves with.”

“I gather you didn’t mind the homemade cranberry sauce, after all.” He nudged Stiles’s distended belly with a socked toe, and Stiles tilted his face to the side to attempt a glare. He was too tired to lift his head and mostly succeeded in giving Derek’s armchair a dirty look.

“Go ahead and crow about it. You already know everything you make is amazing.” He rested his hand on his stomach, absently wrapping his fingers around Derek’s foot and holding it in place. “Except the tuna casserole.”

“That was a giant mistake,” he agreed. “The chicken and dumplings effort was pretty bad, too.”

“Soggy. I wasn’t going to say anything, but. Not your best effort.”

“You only had two helpings; I could tell it was too bland.”

Stiles squeezed his foot. “You’re such an ass. Seriously, though. Do you think I’ll die if I try to run in the mornings - both with you, you fitness fiend, and on the ice?”

“We’ll figure something out. I think we can manage to keep you from breaking all your bones.”

“Comforting,” he said, closing his eyes.

Derek let him sleep until he couldn’t hold back his own yawns, then gently extracted his foot from Stiles’s grip and shut off the lights, conducting his nightly check of all the doors and windows with his eyes shifted to see better in the dark. He returned to the living room and picked Stiles up.

“You’re going to be annoyed about this in the morning,” he told him, but Stiles merely turned his face toward Derek’s body, as if instinctively nuzzling for warmth. He carried him up the stairs and pushed open Stiles’s door, lowering him gently to the bed. It jostled him just enough for his eyes to barely crack open.

“Blue,” Stiles murmured, lifting a hand and trailing his fingers along Derek’s jaw. His eyes fluttered shut again, heavy with exhaustion. “S’pretty.”

“Goodnight, Stiles,” he said, arranging his limbs into an approximation of a more comfortable position, then draping the covers over him. “Happy Thanksgiving.”

***

Derek hadn't always been the type of person who spent his time waiting for the inevitable sword to drop, or for a hand to light the match that would set his life ablaze. He knew, on a purely logical level, when he was safe. When his days were wrapped in relative peace and security, and hunters or other dark forces weren't streaming over the horizon, ready to batter against his flimsy defenses until they gave way.

But he'd learned over the years how it felt to have your world flip in an instant. The threat of an intruder in your home, a pipe plunged through your chest, pretty lies stripped bare for the world to see. Terror had filtered through his lungs every day in Beacon Hills. Implacable. Inescapable.

“It's like you're always waiting for someone to kick your feet out from under you,” Cora had said once, when they were leaving Beacon Hills together for the first time and doing their best to remember what it meant to be Hales. Family by blood and bone, if nothing else.

“It's not much of a stretch,” he'd said, and she’d conceded the point with a shrug.

It was an ongoing effort that he didn't think he'd ever be able to banish in its entirety. It was part of who he was now: this sense that anything positive in his life was too good to last. That if he loved something - or someone - too deeply, he'd lose them, or hurt them by holding on too tightly for too long. That if he felt that ineffable joy building in his chest, bubbling into laughter in his throat, he was simply tempting fate. In those moments, he had to force himself to pause. Breathe deeply through the boiling anxiety. Catalogue his surroundings until he was certain he was out of danger, that he was imagining the gleaming eyes lurking outside of his vision.

The truth, as Derek had learned it as a teenager, and had affirmed as a foolishly trusting adult, was that some things were too good to last. That you had to continually brace yourself for something to go wrong, so you wouldn't bloody your hands too badly the next time you fell.

He'd done his best to tamp down that point of view, so it wasn't visible to prying - or even caring - eyes. It was something he'd glimpsed in Stiles, but...Stiles had his own inner fire. Something that burned so fiercely that the darkness couldn't find an anchor. That was why the Nogitsune had failed, slamming against Stiles’s stubborn core and faltering for long enough to be yanked free and imprisoned again.

It was why Derek had never struggled with the slightest shred of doubt over whether the true Stiles had come back to them. He had shadows in him, but only of his own making. And when he needed, he’d blast an unforgiving spotlight over them, furious and proud and in control of his own destiny.

Derek was dominated by his past, in a way he couldn't dislodge. Stiles, though. Stiles had a future. A family, small but bright and strong. And Derek stopped his thought processes short every time he began to wonder how he, and his baggage, could possibly find a permanent slot in Stiles’s world.

***

“I already bought our tickets,” Stiles called from upstairs, where it sounded like he was dismantling his entire room on his hunt for his shoes. “Gives us a discount, and reserved spots. I think I left the confirmation email up - do you mind jotting down the booking reference numbers? In case we lose wireless access out there or something.”

“We’re not heading to the wilderness,” he called back, but he leaned over the computer and scribbled the numbers onto the brochure Stiles had gotten from Gretchen during their return trip to St. Ives. He clicked out of the email, intending to close the window, but accidentally navigating to Stiles’s inbox instead.

He didn’t mean to read any of the subject lines - they were careful to respect each other's privacy, a necessity when you shared your space and belongings as heavily as they’d gotten in the habit of doing - but the newest one, highlighted and bold, indicating it hadn’t been opened yet, caught his eye.

“Looking damn good Stilinski,” it said, with the paperclip icon that meant the email had attachments, and with Danny Mahealani’s name in the sender column. He scanned down the page before he could make himself stop. There were several emails from Scott, Stiles’s dad, one thread from Lydia, and at least a dozen between him and Danny, all with attachments indicated. He hadn’t even known they’d kept in touch; he hadn’t heard Danny’s name since - since Thanksgiving, true, in that weird aborted snippet of conversation that had slipped out of his memory as unimportant. Before that? He racked his brain.

Danny was - attractive, certainly. Stiles was aware of it, and had, in fact, made a point of noticing and commenting on it over the years. Derek had thought it was something lighthearted - a joke, like most of his extravagant flirtations. He moved the cursor over the email, tempted to click to assuage his curiosity, but forced his hand to the corner of the browser instead. It wasn’t his business who Stiles talked to or - flirted with, maybe. Those nights when he’d assumed Stiles had been aimlessly browsing through a variety of strange sites - supported by his tendency to toss random scraps of knowledge at Derek to draw him into his discoveries - had he been, some of the time, exchanging photos with Danny? Taking shots of himself that he’d then deleted from the public folders, not wanting Derek to see them.

Now that he was thinking about it, other pieces slotted into place, if he jammed them in at the right angle. Stiles did cut Skype calls short occasionally when Derek came home, and there was at least one time that the voice on the other end hadn’t sounded like John or Scott. He’d been increasingly taking his calls to his bedroom, rather than planting himself in the middle of the action downstairs, claiming he didn’t want to miss anything interesting. Derek had noticed but had actively chosen to not question it, or wonder what it meant, which was stupid, wasn’t it? He’d known Stiles wasn’t pursuing anything with him, but he’d let himself believe that part of his life had stagnated as much as Derek’s had.

Maybe Danny was a distraction. Something temporary, and fun. Maybe he was more. If Stiles’s dad was aware of their relationship, that had to mean something. Danny might be the thread that drew Stiles back to Beacon Hills, or to wherever he was living now.

Derek picked up his phone, typed out a message to Jackson, and stared at the screen as he rethought prying for information that wasn’t his for the taking. He backspaced through the text. If Stiles wanted him to know, he’d tell him, wouldn’t he?

The thing was. Even if this was nothing - if these emails were simply two friends maintaining contact, which he had to admit seemed equally likely - it threw Derek’s quiet daydreams into an unforgiving spotlight. It forced him to face, head on for the first time, the worry he'd been steadily refusing to acknowledge since Stiles had arrived at his door. He was deluding himself if he thought Stiles would remain single forever. He'd accepted that Stiles wouldn't be dating him, but he'd let himself carry on as though he wouldn't be dating anyone else, either. As though he'd stay with Derek, in a way no one in his life ever had.

Derek was a waystation. A brief blip on the shining road of his life. Stiles would remember it with fondness and no small amount of nostalgia, he was sure; he didn’t question the quality of the time they’d spent together, or Stiles’s genuine desire to befriend him and fit himself into his home. What he hadn’t let himself dwell on was the fact that it was ephemeral. That it was going to hurt like hell when Stiles left. That Derek wouldn’t stop looking for him, every day, expecting to hear him tumbling down the stairs, or to catch a glimpse of him backlit in the house’s bright lights as he came home from an evening errand, his pace quickening at the thought of Stiles welcoming him back.

“Enjoy what you’ve got,” he reprimanded himself. “Stop pretending there might be more. You have no right to be upset about this.”

“Progressed to talking to ourselves, have we? And here I thought that was my thing.” Stiles dropped his coat and shoes by the front door and backtracked, reaching around him to snag the brochure. Derek thought, for one wild moment, of slapping the laptop lid closed before Stiles could discover he’d been snooping, but the screen was black; he’d already shut it down. “Ready to go, big guy?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Let me grab my keys.”

He had this, anyway. Why waste the time they had left together, when Stiles was sitting in the entryway of his home, swearing at his shoelaces and using Derek as leverage to pull himself back to his feet.

“I’m ready,” Derek said again. For whatever came next.

Chapter Text

As they pulled into the parking lot of the Eden Project, Stiles scrubbed a mittened fist over his window, where his heavy, excited breathing had been steadily fogging it during the entire drive. He’d complained every time Derek twisted the air conditioning up to clear the windshield and debated hotly with him about whose body heat, exactly, was responsible for the steamy conditions inside the car.

Derek, thankful for his enhanced senses, had shifted his eyes to see better in the deepening twilight and snapped at Stiles to try holding his breath for a few minutes if he was so determined to prove the fogged windows weren’t his fault. Being Stiles, he’d made a heroic attempt, but the results remained inconclusive.

“Cool,” he breathed, undoing his work, then rubbed vigorously at the window again. “I’m glad Gretchen insisted we try this place out; it looks awesome.”

The honeycombed glass biodomes were lit softly from within, warm points of light in the chilled winter landscape. Derek could see a thin trail of visitors wandering through the grounds, exploring the sculptures and other exhibits in the last fading bits of sunlight. It might be worth coming back another time, if the special evening programs went well.

They started in the mediterranean biome, which was bustling with the activity of holiday crafting workshops, the gentle melody of Christmas carols echoing off the high, rounded glass enclosure. The temperature, regulated for the plants, was on the cooler side, but it felt mild in comparison to the swirling snowstorm that’d begun as they exited the car and collected their tickets. Derek unzipped his jacket, and Stiles quickly loosened his scarf and stuck his ubiquitous hat and mittens in a coat pocket.

Stiles sulked for a bit after discovering that the only workshop open to adults was a custom gift tag booth; Derek shot a grateful look at the woman coordinating the elf hat construction studio, who had dashed Stiles’s newly-formed dreams of forcing Derek into one for the rest of the evening.

“It had ears,” he griped. He maneuvered Derek in front of one of the permanent exhibits - a set of contorted sculptures with spike-ladened limbs, the figures peeping in and out of a riotous spray of grapevines. “It would’ve made every one of these photos exponentially more festive.”

“I already have ears,” Derek said, moving through the poses Stiles suggested until he ran out of patience.

“They’re very nice ears, but they’re not elf ears. This has been an utter disappointment.”

“You didn’t even know these booths existed until we got here.”

“That’s not the point. My hopes were raised and obliterated so quickly, it was like - being dragged to the top of a building and thrown off it. Look, I’m shaking.” He shoved his hand in front of Derek’s face, who blinked until it was in focus. It was a Stiles-typical exaggeration, but Derek’s heart flopped stupidly; it’d been gradual, so he’d only noticed in some far-off corner of his brain where he neatly labeled all of Stiles’s habits - but his hand was perfectly steady now. No hint of that uncontrollable tremor that had haunted him during those initial weeks following his arrival.

“I can see how deeply this has impacted you,” he replied, aiming for the expected sarcasm, but Stiles merely shot him one last cheeky grin and threaded his way through the crowd that had gathered to hear a costumed storyteller spin a seasonal yarn. Derek followed, and they stopped at the top of a gently sloped hill so they could breathe more freely and spy on the teeming, colorful hubbub.

“It’s nice to see so many families here,” Stiles said, reaching out to touch the shiny leaves of a plant Derek half-recalled seeing around the Preserve. The dome, “exotic” for this part of the English countryside, made him feel like he’d stepped off a plane, back in California again. It pulled up half-abandoned memories of driving down the coast with Laura on her college tours, stopping a few hours south of Beacon Hills to howl obnoxiously at elephant seals and play in the redwoods. As their road curved from white-foamed, crashing surf to a milder climate, they’d taken indulgent breaks to chase each other through the chaparral and splash their way into the cold waves, salt and sand clinging to their sun-warmed skin.

Paige’s death had been fresh, still, and it’d caught him off guard at unexpected moments, doubling him over with the pain wrapped up in those knife-sharp images he couldn’t scrape out of his brain. No one had said this trip had anything to do with what’d happened, but it wasn’t hard to read between the lines, or draw from the implications of Laura’s conversations with his mother breaking apart when he came within earshot. They’d been worried about him, and they’d used the trip as an excuse to get him out of town - and out of his own head - for a few days.

It hadn’t worked, at least not in the way they’d probably wanted it to. But he had felt closer to Laura, after. He’d seen a different side of his sister, one that had, in some ways, prepared him to rely so heavily on her after the fire.

“I'd live here,” Laura had said while lounging on a beach a few miles outside of Santa Barbara. They were supposed to be sitting in on a few classes at the university, but she’d pulled off the road and insisted it was equally important to get a feel for the area. “I could get used to it - one season, all the time. Living in shorts and flip flops.”

“But you want to move to a city,” he'd reminded her. He'd always been the one who thrived in their close-knit, big-family-in-a-small-town environment. Laura had wanted more out of life: she’d craved the thrill of crowded sidewalks and dirty subways, the sense of being a part of a larger world. She’d started, over the past year or so, accompanying their mother on a few of her meetings with other Alphas, and it’d ramped up her thirst for more. She’d wanted to learn everything she possibly could, to make connections across the country that would enhance the Hales’ standing, and to experience the kinds of life they’d been mostly sheltered from. She’d return to Beacon Hills, of course, she’d reassured Derek, who’d been pretending he didn’t care. She wanted to see what else was out there, first. Then she’d be ready to come back.

Turning toward Derek, her sunglasses reflecting his own face back at him, she’d hummed consideringly in the back of her throat. “San Diego, then, maybe. Or LA. I’m done with all the fog and grey days. Screw the moon; I’m answering the call of the sun.”

“I'd like to see a real winter,” he’d said wistfully, as he sifted warm golden sand through his fingers.

She’d laughed, more softly than usual. “I know you do, Derek. I’ll take you some day, alright? Who knows, maybe I’ll end up at NYU. Imagine all the Broadway shows we could check out when you visit. Or I guess you and dad would want to go to the museums instead, you cultureless nerds.”

The Camaro - brand new and gleaming - had gotten its first scratch in a parking structure in Los Angeles, but Laura hadn’t held onto her frustration for long. “LA drivers aren't so bad,” she’d said. “They drive better than they park!” She'd carefully buffed it out anyway when they got home, and developed an unconscious habit of stroking a finger sadly over the remnants of the scratch before getting into the car.

He'd flashed back to that familiar tic of hers the first time he’d met Chris Argent: late at night, in a gas station where Derek had stopped to wash Laura’s car, refill the tank, and calm down enough to figure out what to do next. He didn’t remember the exact words, not anymore, but he couldn’t forget the crash of her freshly cleaned window shattering, the taunts ringing in his ears, his brain thick and hot with fragmented impressions of Laura’s possible reactions. The fury gleaming in her eyes. The sharp-toothed smile she would've given Chris before taking Derek by the shoulder and telling him it wasn't worth it, that they needed to move on.

It’d been a truth he couldn’t escape then: he didn’t have much family left. He didn't have any - not with Laura shredded apart, taking those last hopeful bits of his heart with her. Even now, seeing other families - intact and glowing with happiness, the children wiggling with delight at the sight of Santa - mostly served to remind him of what he’d lost.

He wasn’t the only one, though. Chris knew more about that type of loss, now, than either of them had ever expected on that night. And Stiles - it wasn’t a strange concept to him, either.

“Wishing you could bring your dad?” Derek asked him, watching his face instead of the people below. Stiles had been absently exploring the plants around them as they listened to the storyteller weaving her magic, her voice holding the children rapt.

Stiles’s mouth twisted, his lips pressed tight for a moment. He ripped a few leaves free, which Derek was certain would get them kicked out if anyone saw them. He kept a careful ear on the path, just in case.

“Thinking about how much my mom would’ve loved this. My dad doesn’t know the first thing about plants, but my mom always-” Stiles sniffed, his voice choking the smallest amount. “We’d go to zoos, right? She’d spend the whole time watching the birds. Not the ones in cages - the ones flying free, stealing people’s food and shit. She said it made her sad, seeing the others behind bars. And when my dad would ask us after what our favorite part was, I’d say the monkeys or whatever, and she’d always say the plants. She’d talk about how interesting the landscaping was.”

“This would definitely be her kind of place, then.”

“Yeah.” He tossed the leaves in the air and watched as they fluttered into a thick clump of bushes halfway down the hill. “You wanna go check out the ice skating rink? Or see if the rainforest’s open yet?”

“Let’s do it. Rainforest first, I think - if we make it in the first group, we might beat some of the crowds.”

“Good idea. Quick, let’s make a run for it while the kids are fighting over Santa.”

***

There was a sizable group already gathered at the entrance to the rainforest biome, but the guide nodded at them when they asked if there was room for two more. She handed them miniature flashlights and swiped some sort of glow-in-the-dark paint on their cheekbones - squiggles for Stiles and diagonal stripes for Derek - and explained it’d add to the experience and help them find each other in the dark.

“We’ll be opening the doors about ten minutes from now - go ahead and browse around the shop, if you like.” She patted a small megaphone snapped to her belt. “Don't worry, I’ll announce when we’re ready to get started; you won't be able to miss it.”

Stiles dutifully poked around the attached gift shop - a condensed version of the main store, which was closer to the entrance and might not be open in the evening. Derek hadn't thought to check. He picked through a rack of bright earrings labeled as “organic” and “handmade,” before sighing and setting down a particularly pretty purple set. Cora rarely wore jewelry. Even if she did, Derek’s taste probably wouldn't line up that well with hers. He had no idea what to buy her for Christmas. Losing more than half a decade of your sister’s life created an odd, difficult to bridge divide that was the easiest to stumble over during holidays.

He slipped, far more often than he was comfortable with. He stocked his cabinets with the sugary cereal she’d craved as an eight year old, or proudly handed her a CD for a boyband she’d vehemently denied all association with, despite the torn-out magazine pages he’d found in her room when she was eleven. “I’m not that person anymore!” she’d yelled, shortly before leaving London, slamming a bag of individually packaged rice krispie treats on the counter, her anger veiling the tears he could see welling in her eyes. “You keep shoving me into this Baby Cora box, but you don’t even know me now! You don’t know anything about me!”

She’d apologized after, by opening up one of the packets and ripping the treat in half to offer him a portion, but she was right. He’d forgotten how to be an older brother; or maybe the problem was that he was trying too hard to be some sort of pillar of respect, when he hadn’t done anything with his life to earn that position. She was right to move, he’d admitted after huddling in bed for a few days and feeling sorry for himself. They did better from a distance. She opened up more, about what life had been like in the years he hadn’t been around; it helped that she knew she had the option to drop the phone and escape whenever the conversation hit too many rocky topics.

She understood Derek more than he could say in turn. It bothered him. He wanted to be the big brother who got everything right. Who could walk into a store and see Cora’s excited smile reflected in some item gleaming on a shelf, waiting to be wrapped up and handed to her.

That was normal, Isaac had reassured him, during one of the few times they’d talked about his older brother, Camden, whom he’d admired the hell out of but hadn’t been close with at all. “Having a sibling doesn’t mean they’re automatically your best friend,” he’d said, his thin shoulders drawn tight in a habitual attempt to make his lanky form less visible. “Most of the kids I grew up with hated theirs, or said they did, anyway. They used to pick on me for being different. They’d call me names because I couldn’t stop crying at school after Cam died. But you know the worst part? I can’t even remember what he looks like anymore. I keep thinking I have these memories, but they’re all from photographs. And it’s not like he paid that much attention to me before he shipped out. I got attached to what I wanted him to be, more than to who he actually was.”

He’d sat in the studio with Derek and talked to him about Cam, while Derek painted. When he and Jackson went back to London, he took a wrapped-up canvas with him - an impression of his brother, as he truly remembered him. Derek doubted he’d shown it to Stiles when telling him about his studio; Jackson had never gotten a glimpse of it, as far as he knew, and he and Isaac hadn’t talked about it since. It’d healed that last missing piece between them, though. Isaac and Jackson weren’t his betas - they couldn’t be, not after he’d given up his power in exchange for Cora’s life. But they were pack, nonetheless. And he was learning what it was like to have family scattered across the world, rather than safely nestled in a single, snug space.

He picked up a necklace made of the same material as the earrings. It was a lovely shade of green and would look nice with Melissa’s coloring, he thought. Maybe that was a better idea.

He paid for it and slipped the packet into his jacket pocket before rejoining Stiles.

“Had an ‘oh fuck it’s nearly Christmas’ moment,” Stiles said, looking completely overwhelmed. “I’m going to need to stick things in the mail in the next week, probably, to make sure they get there in time. What do you think?” He handed him a metallic green business card holder, and Derek turned it over in his hands.

“What is it?”

“It’s made out of recycled circuit boards. Or - the base for them, anyway, I think. There’s a card attached that explains how they go about reusing the materials. It’s cool, right?”

“Yeah,” he said. He took a breath and hammered in his determination to be a good friend. “Danny would like it.”

“Oh,” he said in surprise, as though the obvious choice hadn’t occurred to him. “I was thinking for my dad, but that would actually make more sense. Which is great but now - what’m I supposed to get my dad? Wait! They come in coasters, too.”

“Would he be interested in something made out of computer parts?”

“No.” He sighed. “This is the Stilinski panicked shopping mode. I’m either amazing at presents or terrible; there’s no middle ground. Look, these notebooks are made out of recycled tires. Scott might be into that.”

“Didn’t you pick up things for both of them during several of our trips? I swear I remember being an unwilling participant in more than one ‘Scott can’t possibly live without this’ moment.”

“That’s true. I keep meaning to go to the post office to send souvenirs, but I was waiting until there was enough to fill a box, so I’ve never gotten around to it.” His face brightened. “You’re a genius. I totally have stuff to work with. I am gonna buy this for Danny, though.” He shot Derek a narrow-eyed challenge, daring him to object, as he grabbed another slim, square box off the shelf and added, “And these tire coasters for Scott.”

As he was finishing at the register, their guide bellowed the promised warning through her megaphone: “If you're here for the winter rainforest experience, gather around!”

She waited for the group to cluster in a loose semicircle with her at the center, then gave them an enthusiastic introduction to the biome and instructions for their evening tour. The cautions amounted to: it’ll be dark so watch your step, it might be slippery by the waterfall so be careful to not fall off anything, don’t lose track of anyone you entered with, and keep an eye out for magical winter moments.

They were encouraged to explore at their own pace, but with the understanding that the next set of people would only be allowed to enter once a sufficient number from the initial batch had exited, to prevent any possible issues with overcrowding.

“Finally, and most importantly - HAPPY CHRISTMAS! We hope you enjoy our rainforest wonderland.” She gestured Derek over when they were passing by, and added a final streak of paint down the bridge of his nose. “Your marks were looking shabby next to his,” she explained, and ushered them inside without further ado.

Stiles was snickering at him. “Can't even go to a rainforest without being hit on, can you?”

“I wasn't the one whose face she lingered over with all those squiggles,” Derek retorted, bumping their shoulders together.

“It's because your cheekbones intimidated her. It's okay, it happens. She needed that ten minute buffer to recover before she could try again.”

“I don't think it worked, anyway; they're not glowing.” He had to resist the urge to shift his eyes, waiting instead for his regular vision to adjust to the darkness. Flashlights were snicking on around them, soft exclamations filtering from those at the front of the group, as they reached the first sets of Christmas lights strung through the branches.

“Yours are, I think. We’ll be able to see better when we're deeper inside.” He took Derek’s hand to tug him along. “She said not to lose each other,” he explained. “Can't let my Christmas wolf disappear into the forest without me, can I?”

“Christmas wolf,” he muttered, adjusting his fingers so they fit better with Stiles’s.

“If you think you've gotten away with me not knowing your birthday, you're sadly mistaken, Derek Santa Hale.”

He snorted. “My parents weren't that terrible. God knows the glee Laura would've gotten from that, though. I'm glad-” He stopped. He'd started to say he was glad she and Stiles hadn't had the chance to meet, their wicked senses of humor ganging up on him. But even as a lightly meant comment, it rang false.

Stiles squeezed his hand. “Derek Stilinski Hale? Maybe my dad helped rush your parents to the hospital, sirens blaring all the way, and your mom bestowed our incomparable name on you in thanks.”

“It's Samuel,” he said. “After my dad. I don't know why my driver’s license only has the initial; it's not some huge secret.”

“Derek Samuel Hale.” He made an approving noise. “It's no Stilinski, but it'll do.”

“Right. And your actual name, speaking of things shrouded in mystery-”

“Oh look!” Stiles exclaimed, dragging Derek to a bridge delicately spanning a small pond, lily pads filled with red and green and gold tea lights floating on its calm surface. “Isn't this beautiful? I wonder how they keep them from sinking.”

“It's nice,” he agreed, accepting the distraction and watching the lights’ reflection in Stiles’s eyes. The others in the group stopped, too, then moved on, carrying them in their wake, but he hardly noticed; his attention was focused in on Stiles’s warm presence next to him, their hands still lightly linked. Everything narrowed down to the two of them, as alone in the world as they'd been at the edge of England, with the only sound that of waves crashing against the cliffs.

“It’s hot,” Stiles said after they’d made it through what Derek estimated was a third of the biodome’s winding path. The air inside was humid, keeping the foliage thickly green, a lush counterpoint to the softening world outside the windows. His hand felt cold, though, when Stiles let go of it to shrug off his coat and drape it over one arm. “Realistically, those snowmen should be melting right now,” he added, slipping his hand back into Derek’s before he had a chance to fully mourn its loss. “They must be made out of plastic or something.”

“Which is probably how they got them to glow,” he pointed out. “And melting snowmen would make this a much more depressing experience than I think it’s meant to be.” He’d clicked off his flashlight some time earlier, not needing it with the generously interspersed festive decorations, most of which lit up sections of the pathway. Even in the patches where the darkness took over, it wasn’t the oppressive, threatening kind, with dangers lurking in the shadows: it made him feel breathless with anticipation, like waiting impatiently in bed for his parents to stir so he and his sisters could dash downstairs to shake the presents under the tree.

“Let’s go take pictures in front of them,” Stiles suggested, as he’d been doing throughout the evening. At this rate, Derek was going to need to buy a new memory card for his phone or - whatever it was you did when the space filled up. Stiles would know; he’d leave that to him, since he was the one cluttering it with his need to document every moment, like the days would melt away if they didn’t have a solid enough record of them.

Stiles blithely handed Derek’s phone off to some couple they’d never met, who offered their services after seeing Stiles attempting to reach his arm out as far as possible to capture both of their faces and the snowmen nestled in the trees behind them. When he got the phone back, he smiled down at it, not turning the screen toward Derek.

“I’ll show you later,” he said. “They’re good, I promise. You look great.”

He’d been looking at Stiles the whole time, he thought, but - he couldn’t help it. Not when everything about this night was sparking along his skin, leaving him in the midst of some magically transitory experience that he’d never be able to recapture. Maybe Stiles had the right idea about the photos, after all. He'd keep them, after Stiles left. It’d be a tangible record of their time together that would remind him all of this had happened - it hadn't been an elaborate dream, turned terrible and hollow by the harsh light of day.

At about the halfway point, Stiles pulled them to a stop. “Hang on a minute; let’s wait here,” he said, drawing them to the edge of a pathway, where it had widened a bit while turning a corner. A couple of families jostled them on their way by, their flashlights bobbing cheerfully.

“What’re we waiting for?” Derek asked, but Stiles hushed him.

“You’ll see.” He stroked his thumb over Derek’s, which quieted him far more easily than it should have. Another minute passed, and Stiles tilted his face up in response to a current of awed gasps that rippled along the path. “Merry Christmas, Derek,” he said softly.

Directly above them, a gentle curtain of snowflakes had begun to fall, the crisp white flakes swirling through the air and landing in Stiles’s thick mess of hair. Derek reached with his free hand to brush some of it away, unable to resist trailing the backs of his fingers down Stiles’s still-ridiculous attempt at a beard. It was bristly in parts, softer along his chin, and when Derek finally let his hand fall away, Stiles leaned in the barest amount to nudge his nose against Derek’s.

“Whaddya think?” he asked, his breath welcoming on Derek’s lips, peppermint-scented from the candy canes he’d insisted on stocking the house with, despite Derek’s insistence that no one ever actually ate those. Stiles had, typically, done his best to prove him wrong. “Magically festive enough for you?”

“You planned this?” he asked in return. He tried, and failed, to keep his eyelashes from fluttering shut at Stiles’s intoxicating proximity. “I thought you barely knew anything about this place.”

Stiles pulled back to laugh, warm and bright. “You know me way better than that. I asked Gretchen for the best Christmas-themed experiences in the area, and this was at the top of her list, and mine, after I spent some time reading about it and watching all the YouTube videos I could find. I mean, granted, it doesn’t feel quite as special as I’d imagined, since there’s already real snow outside, but-” He shrugged, doing his best to keep the hope off his face. “I figured you’d like it anyway. Since you’re a big Christmas-loving dork and all.”

“It doesn’t matter.” The snow, the kids tumbling around them, the fact that it’d be even harder to drive home in the dark, with the slick roads and the temptation to keep his eyes on Stiles instead of the traffic. “You’ve made it special.”

“You’re such a sap,” he replied, smiling at him, snowflakes still gathering in his hair. “One of the many things I'm really fucking glad I've learned about you. C’mon, there’s more. Let’s see the rest.”

***

The ice skating rink went better than Derek had ungraciously expected. It went better for Stiles, anyway, who was oddly graceful in skates, leaving him feeling like a long-legged deer in comparison. But it meant that Stiles kept hold of his hand, guiding him around the rink, his strength and confidence a steady anchor to Derek’s wobbly legs.

“I don’t understand you wolves,” he laughed when they swept around a curve, Derek tightening his hold and fighting to keep his balance. “Shouldn’t you have full control over your limbs or something? Why is ice your kryptonite?”

“Not all wolves are the same,” he gritted out, considering whether knocking Stiles over would serve him right, or simply wind up in leaving both of them sprawled on the ice. It’d probably result in bruising Stiles’s limbs and his own pride, somehow. Stiles wasn’t fragile, by any means, but Derek forgot, sometimes, that he didn’t have any wolf in his blood - he was as brave and tenacious and careless with his physical wellbeing as any supernatural creature Derek had ever met.

“I know that, dumbass,” Stiles said fondly. “You're certainly a one of a kind wolf, no question. But really - no ice skating lessons as a kid? You never went to the rink in Beacon Hills? That old place has been around for longer than either of us has been alive. It was one of my parents’ favorite date night places, before I was born.”

“Not a priority, I guess.” He didn’t recall ever visiting it before Erica took him there to meet Boyd, the guy she’d been secretly interested in, who she assured him would be the final piece they needed to form their pack. She’d been right. If things hadn't gone so horribly awry, Boyd would have been the glue that kept them all together. He grudgingly added, “It feels weird to have blades attached to your body - I don’t know why. I keep fighting it; my claws want to come out to balance instead, and it's throwing all my reactions off.”

“There go my dreams of seeing a werewolf win the Winter Olympics.”

“I didn’t expect you to be good at it,” Derek admitted after another circuit, once he’d gotten the general hang of it and stopped feeling like his legs were going to fly out from under him at any moment. “Coordination isn’t...your strongest point.”

“This isn’t my first ice skating date, you dick,” he said. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

“I wasn’t being critical,” he objected, although Stiles didn’t actually sound angry, his heart thumping at its usual pace, not impacted by their admittedly slow passage around the rink. “It surprised me, that's all. I mean, I've seen you play lacrosse.”

“Yeah you have, you big creep,” Stiles laughed, twisting around to take Derek’s other hand and skate backwards in front of him, so he could see Derek’s face more clearly. Even with the added difficulty, he kept the same unexpected fluidity to his movements, and Derek wondered if there hadn't been more lying beneath those hints. If ice skating was something he’d shared with his mom, maybe. Another piece of his childhood thoroughly attached to memories of her. If this night was something he'd latched onto as an environment that'd be deeply personal to both of them, a special, unique experience -

“Wait,” he said, frowning and thinking back on what Stiles had actually said. “What date?”

Sorrow flickered across his face, there and gone in a second, like a cloud momentarily dimming the moon’s urgent call. “It was a lifetime ago,” he said. “Literally, I guess. A double date; my best attempt with Lydia, back when-”

“Ah,” he said. When Allison was still the brightest point in Scott’s life, and the possible linchpin between his best friend and hers.

“Turned out to not be the right thing, in the end,” Stiles added, his head tilting to draw Derek’s inward-facing gaze back to him. His voice was firm, earnest in a way that meant he badly wanted these words to come across loud and clear. “Sometimes you think you know what you want, or what's right for you, but the fit isn't there, at all. It's the wrong combination, but you haven't let yourself see that because you're - scared, maybe, of what the right one might mean. How it has the potential to completely transform your life.”

Derek searched his eyes, not certain if he was finding Stiles’s meaning in them, or the hopeful reflections of his own heart.

“I know how that goes,” he offered, haltingly, unsure. “I've made a lot of choices. Most of them weren't the right ones. I don't - really know what I'm doing, most days. I always trust the wrong people. I can't - it means I can't trust myself.”

They'd slowed to a halt in the middle of the ice, Stiles too preoccupied to continue tugging Derek safely along. “Not always,” he assured him, tightening his grip on Derek’s hands so he slid along the ice, caught finally against Stiles’s warm, firm, solid body. “I've got you, Derek. I'm not gonna let you fall.”

***

Back at the house, they slipped off their shoes in the entryway, hung up their coats, and emptied their pockets, not touching but unable to keep their eyes off each other. When Derek started up the stairs, he looked back, and Stiles smiled up at him - a tender, private expression that he'd never seen before.

“Going to bed?” Stiles asked. “It's been a long night.”

“Yeah,” he said. He wasn't sure what to do next, how to transition those beautiful, perfect snapshots from the rainforest and the rink to this familiar but newly frightening territory. He'd never - even in the bad times, in New York, when he'd tried to scratch out the tainted memories by replacing them with a succession of new ones, painful and wrong in their own ways, he hadn't really had to make the first move. People took what they wanted from him; all he had to do was stop resisting. He didn't know how to ask, not when it mattered.

He tried, anyway, desperate to not let this moment pass him by. “I - Stiles.”

“Derek,” he returned, softly, fondly. “I've got you.” He slid his hand along the bannister until it met Derek’s, and that - that felt right. Easier, somehow. He took Stiles up the stairs to his bedroom, and when he turned, not having decided yet whether to flick the lights on or move to the bed or - talk, maybe, about what was happening and what it meant - Stiles was right there, close enough to kiss, so - he did.

He knew how to do this part: testing out the texture of someone else’s lips, hands slipping under clothes, losing himself in the movement of their bodies. It was like riding a bike, he thought wildly, but this one had been roped to a rocket launcher, and he was spinning, whirling, dizzy and overwhelmed by finally having the chance to map out every nuance of Stiles’s taste.

His jaw working hungrily, unable to hold back how much he needed him, he coaxed Stiles’s tongue into his mouth and gasped around it, shaking at having someone else’s hands on him, at those hands belonging to someone he - someone he already couldn’t stand to think of never touching again. He couldn’t dwell on ideas of love, not now, not when he felt like the slightest word could shatter him, for good this time.

Stiles met the first erratic roll of his hips with a sinuous one of his own, pulling back from Derek’s mouth to drag his nose along his jawline, to murmur into his ear, “I have no fucking idea how any of this works, so you're going to have to help me out, okay? Tell me-” He groaned as Derek mouthed along his bristly cheeks, skirting that stupid glow-in-the-dark paint, and down his chin to his long, beautiful throat. “Tell me what you want. Derek. Talk to me. We’re good at that, now.”

“I want you,” Derek said, raw in his honesty. “I always want you.”

Stiles smiled against his mouth, and he lost track of time for a while after that. Somewhere along the way, his shirt disappeared and Stiles had been wrangled out of his; they’d made it to the bed, finally, Stiles’s full weight settled over his body, holding him down, grounding him in the way he couldn’t articulate he’d needed, but Stiles had seemed to sense anyway. Everything was - inexpressibly extraordinary. He felt as though light was pooling in his heart and shooting through his veins, beaming from his fingertips, his toes, the edges of his hair, pouring out of his mouth and into Stiles’s.

“I’m dreaming,” he said, blinking languidly up at Stiles as his dextrous fingers unbuttoned Derek’s jeans and slid the zipper down. The world was slow and beautiful and - unreal. It had to be. He caught Stiles’s hand and pulled it to his chest, flat against his thundering heart. “Don’t let me wake up, not this time.”

“Derek,” Stiles said, his eyes dark and soft, the room lit only by the gentle glow of streetlamps outside and the rare beam from a passing car’s headlights. “What the hell are you talking about, you ridiculous, gorgeous, impossible wolf.” He pinched him, hard along his ribs, and Derek jumped, as much as he could with Stiles still on top of him, staring down with a mischievous twist to his lips. “Feel more awake now?”

It felt real. Those were Stiles’s hands, five fingers to each of them, sliding down his body, pushing his jeans and underwear past his hips. That was his mouth, generous and full, dipping down to press an open kiss to the tip of Derek’s hard, leaking cock.

“What do you want, Derek?” he said again, uncertainty creeping into his voice.

Derek dragged him back up to where he could kiss him, savoring the hint of himself on Stiles’s lips. “I don’t-” he said, finally, trying to shake the blissful haze free, but loathe to move their mouths apart for even a moment. “Stiles, I don’t know if I can-”

“What’s wrong?”

“What is this?” he blurted. “I can’t be a stopping point or - an experiment. Not with you.”

“An experiment?” Stiles said, his forehead furrowing in confusion. “What a horrible thing to say.”

“I don’t know what’s going on with you and Danny,” he said, wanting to make things as clear as possible. They weren’t currently together - they couldn’t be, not with the way Stiles had spoken to him, or fallen so easily into his bed. He knew Stiles better than that. He trusted him, implicitly. But if Danny was Stiles’s future, and Derek was just something on the side, a casual sampling before he moved to the main course, he couldn’t bear it. “I thought I could,” he said, needing Stiles to understand. “But I can’t. It already hurts. I-” His breath came out ragged and sharp.

Stiles frowned at him. Derek could almost see the gears beginning to work, churning through what they’d actually said and what had been left unspoken. When it clicked, his expression shifted rapidly to deep exasperation.

“You fucking - oh my god.” He scrambled off of Derek and disappeared through the doorway, but before Derek had a chance to panic, he stuck his head back in. “Don’t you freak out on me. I’m coming right back. I need to show you something.”

“Okay,” he said, but held his breath anyway, listening to Stiles’s feet pounding down the stairs, halting for a few seconds, then hurrying back up.

“Here,” Stiles said, tumbling back into the bed, expecting Derek to break his fall. Which he did, of course, cushioning his sharp elbows and tangled limbs. “Tell me what you see.”

Derek glanced at the phone screen, then at Stiles. “Photos from tonight?”

“It wasn’t a trick question. Look at my face, Derek. Then try to tell me I’m using you as some sort of weird safety net before I run off to whatever the hell you think I’m up to with Danny, of all people, what the fuck.”

“You like him. You bought him a present tonight. And your dad - it sounded like there was something he knew that you didn’t want to talk about around me.” He peered more closely at the photo, though; it was a shot where he’d managed to look at the camera, but Stiles hadn’t. And his expression - it was everything Derek knew had been painted all over his face the entire night. For the past few months. For much of the time he’d known Stiles, if he was going to be honest about it, which - now seemed like the right moment for that. “Oh.”

“Yes, oh, you giant insecure dolt. This is my ‘I love you’ face.” He pushed the phone aside, and Derek let it clatter to the floor, even though he would probably regret that when Stiles managed to step on it - in the morning, maybe, if things went the way they seemed to be heading. He couldn’t spare the energy to worry about that right now. He’d buy a new one, if he had to. He’d buy a dozen, if it kept Stiles here, glaring at him in annoyance. “Every day with you is fucking perfect, okay? I didn’t know that was actually possible. I’ve never been this fucking happy in my entire life.”

“I think that’s the most romantic declaration I’ve ever heard,” he said. Mostly because it was too genuine and profane for him to not mean every word of it. He’d been on the other end of sugary words and elaborately insincere protestations; he knew how well they hit their mark, and how little they meant. He didn’t want any of that, ever again. He wanted Stiles - with his jaw jutting angrily, daring him to doubt an iota of his confession.

“Oh, fuck you,” Stiles said, true to form, sounding grumpy and a little embarrassed.

“I thought that’s what you were trying to do,” he responded, stretching underneath him, arching his torso and lifting his arms above his head, linking them around the headboard’s iron posts.

Now the douchewolf’s got jokes.” He licked his lips and couldn’t seem to help rubbing his thumb over one of Derek’s nipples, watching with darkened eyes as it tightened into a hard bud under his touch. He flicked it, then, and smirked when Derek hissed in a breath. “But I’m being serious here. I don’t want you deflecting and then flipping out about this later on. You’ve got it through that self-deprecatingly thick skull of yours now, right? I think you’re amazing. I’m not going anywhere. I mean - as long as you want me to stay, I’m here. I’m yours.”

The light dancing through his veins blazed hotter, fanned by the growing realization that not only was this happening, it was - permanent, possibly. “I’m being serious, too. Everything you said - me too.”

“Then why is this still happening?” Stiles smoothed over the wrinkles furrowing Derek’s forehead. “What’re you overanalyzing right now and not letting me in on? Is it still the Danny thing?”

“No,” he responded, although it hadn’t entirely stopped confusing him. “I must’ve put the pieces together wrong, that’s all. It happens sometimes, when you don’t know what the full picture’s supposed to be.”

“Ah, I know what that’s like,” he nodded wisely, stroking sure hands up and down Derek’s sides, half muscle-loosening massage and half his absent tendency to touch everything within reaching distance. Derek had seen him, more than once, grope at a mannequin’s clothing in a store, noticing too late that it was actually a random shopper who hadn’t been moving sufficiently at that point in time for Stiles to distinguish the difference. He always turned beet red and yelled at Derek for not warning him, but the amusement was worth it.

“You do,” he agreed. “It’s pretty similar to you trying to do a puzzle while continually refusing to look at the box.”

“It’s less interesting that way! What’s the point of doing a puzzle if you already know what the end result’s going to be? Might as well throw away the pieces and frame the box itself, in that case.”

“It’s about the journey, not the destination. What happens when you solve enough of the mystery? Do you just toss the rest of the pieces away and move on to a fresh, less boring one?”

“Okay,” he said slowly, scrutinizing Derek. “We’re suddenly not talking about puzzle boxes anymore. Or recipes, which is the better correlation than the one you’re running with right now, because I know for a fact you haven’t cooked the same thing with exactly the same ingredients for as long as I’ve been here. You’re as fond of exploring new territory as I am.” He sat upright and cupped his hands around Derek’s waist, his thumbs fitting perfectly in the dips above his hipbones. “First of all: you’re never going to stop being a mystery to me, and I’m never going to get sick of trying to dig out all these confusing, fascinating pieces. Second: if I, at some point down the line, find out everything there possibly is to know about you, that’s going to make this, right here, even more precious, because it’s a journey we’ve taken together, like you said. And finally: it’s kind of hugely offensive that you keep acting like I’m the one who’s going to cut and run, when you already ditched me, dude. I’m the guy who flew across a frigging ocean to get to you. You don’t get to tell me I’m going to move on.”

“But you didn’t care that I was leaving,” Derek argued. “I came to say goodbye and you basically ignored me. You might as well have held up a ‘fuck you, good riddance’ sign. You never tried to contact me, after. Not once.”

“And what the hell was I supposed to say? I was coming off the frankly horrible experience of being possessed by a fox demon, hurting and betraying and lying to everyone I gave even the slightest shit about. I was still terrified I hadn’t made it back all the way, that I wasn’t myself anymore.”

“You were. I wouldn’t have left if there was any doubt about that. I could always tell when it was you; when you were fighting it, and when it’d taken over.”

“I know. And that’s what made it so shitty. You were the one person who could tell me, for sure, if I was slipping, if it was taking over again. And you didn’t come to me with options. You said you were leaving, and you weren’t coming back, and I thought it was a fucking great idea, okay? You have no idea how badly I wanted to get out of there. How much I couldn’t…” He shook his head, firmly. “I didn’t call you because I was furious. Because you left me, Derek. I’d just gotten back, and you left me. I needed you, but asking you to stay would have been incredibly fucking selfish, and you would’ve - you would’ve said no, anyway.”

“I don’t know what I would have done. I had to - Cora was waiting for me, and Beacon Hills kept tearing me apart. I was afraid of what would happen if I stayed, and terrified you’d give me a reason to, but I was-”

“Just as disappointed that I didn’t?” he finished wryly.

“Yeah. I’m sorry. For what it’s worth, now. I needed to get away, but I wasn’t trying to leave you.” He slid his hands around Stiles’s wrists. “If I’d asked you to come with me? Would you have said no, too?”

Stiles swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing. “There’s no way I could’ve said yes, not then. And I knew that. I was mad at you, but I was mad at myself, too. Honestly, I think the worst part might’ve been that I was literally the last person in town you told. I didn’t need to react when you finally showed up because I already knew you were going.”

“I left you for last because you were the most important.”

“Jesus Christ, Derek,” he choked out, rolling his eyes to keep them clear of tears. He was only mostly successful.

“It’s true,” he insisted. “I almost chickened out. I’m pretty sure your dad saw me drive by all three times, but he didn’t say anything about it when I finally made it inside.”

“You’re the fucking worst,” he muttered. “I’m the fucking worst.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Good enough reason to stick together, then, don’t you think?” He knew how stupidly hopeful he sounded, but he couldn’t bemoan their past, not really, not when it’d led them here.

“Might as well keep the worst all in one place.” He impatiently freed his wrists and wriggled until he could drape himself over Derek again, nuzzling angrily at his throat. “This is not how I meant for tonight to go.”

“I’m glad, though.” He stroked Stiles’s hair and began kissing as much of his face as he could reach.

He sighed and lifted his head so Derek could kiss his forehead, his eyebrow, the high curve of his cheek, the slope of his stupidly beautiful nose. “Who knew you’d be the one to insist on talking shit out before we started a relationship?”

“Not me,” Derek agreed. “But I don’t want to make any mistakes with you.”

“One final thing, then, before I point out the fact that you’ve been naked this entire time and I’ve been incredibly good at focusing on emotions instead of on how fucking beautiful your dick is.”

Derek chuckled. His cock had softened as they’d talked, but it was beginning to perk up again, particularly since Stiles was working away at the button of his own jeans as he spoke. Once he’d divested himself of the rest of his clothes, kicking them off the end of the bed, Derek spread his legs so he could slot more comfortably between them.

“The Danny thing was supposed to be a surprise,” Stiles continued. “Your birthday present, sorta, to piggyback off tonight’s Christmas bash, so I didn’t want to spoil it too soon. I had this whole plan. Which may not have been the best idea, now that I’m thinking about it - and my dad did warn me about keeping you in the dark for too long.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said, before Stiles could ramble too far off track. “And I’d rather we stopped talking about your dad and Danny, pretty soon. I’m not as good at ignoring you being naked.”

He huffed a laugh into Derek’s chest. “Okay, fair. Just - I’m fully aware that I’ve been a total freeloader, and I wanted you to know that’s not going to be the case for much longer. No, no, let me finish. I know you’re going to do your whole ‘I don’t care, I’m basically a millionaire Stiles, let me pay for your shit,’ but it doesn’t sit right with me. So I’ve been working on it.”

“You got a job?”

“More or less. You know how Danny graduated early, with Lydia?”

“I didn’t.” It made sense, he supposed. Besides Stiles, those two were probably the smartest in the school, and motivated to do what they could to get out of town as quickly as possible.

“Well, the short version is, he went off to college, got bored with the actual coursework, met some other people with brilliant minds and money to bur-extra money to spare, and started up a business. Lydia told me he was thinking of adding a few more people for some of the grunt work, investment funds not required, and she asked me if I’d be interested.”

He traced a finger around Derek’s nipple, periodically tangling it in his chest hair, as he explained the rest. It was hugely distracting, but Derek couldn’t bring himself to make him stop. The business itself was something complicated - with computers and coding, maybe aspects of web design - that sounded out of Derek’s depth and right up Stiles’s alley. Stiles had been spending a significant amount of time trading code with Danny and sending him samples to critique, using elements he already knew and picking up others at exactly the rapid pace Derek would’ve expected.

“I’m thinking of taking some classes. Maybe at Truro College, if I can get in, or long distance stuff. I’m not sure yet. I’ve been doing online tutorials at night, but there are a lot of gaps I need to fill in, obviously.”

“You like it?” he asked. “This is what you’re interested in doing?”

“I think so. For now, anyway. I didn’t have a solid plan for school, which is another reason I deferred; it seemed insane to blow that much money and get into debt for something I wasn’t passionate about.” He quirked a grin at Derek and ducked down to stroke the flat of his tongue over Derek’s nipple. “I found what I’m passionate about. And I’m going to do whatever it takes to make sure I can stay right here, with you.”

“Enough talking,” he grunted, and Stiles bit his pectoral muscle gently before slithering the rest of the way up his body.

“What’re you interested in doing instead?” he asked, waggling his eyebrows and failing utterly at looking suave. Derek found it profoundly attractive, anyway.

“You. Obviously.”

Stiles snorted. “I meant specifics. But I suppose we’ve got time to try out all the possibilities. Code isn’t the only thing I’ve been researching at night.”

“Why doesn’t this surprise me. At all.” He stopped complaining, though, when Stiles’s limber fingers curved around his cock and stroked as he explained, in detail, which items on his carefully compiled list he was the most interested in trying.

Derek had discovered, over the years, that not everything was better in real life. Sometimes it was safer to stay inside your own head, to live with your memories and the dreams that were too dangerous to reach for. This, though? Stiles’s eyes fixed on his, analyzing his reactions, his heady attention focused entirely on him: it was far beyond anything Derek could’ve possibly created in his own imagination.

“Wait,” he gasped, his hips jerking as Stiles adjusted his grip and twisted his wrist. “Did you just move in with me?”

“I moved in with you the day I showed up on your doorstep. Why do you think I was so freaking nervous to get on the train? Leave it to you to take this long to notice, though. Now tell me what I have to do to get you totally out of that head of yours.” His eyes glinted, eager, as always, to meet the challenge.

Chapter Text

Stiles was half buried in the closet, muttering to himself, as usual; Derek had been lazily lounging in bed, watching his ass waggle and not offering any help. It hadn’t been his idea to move rooms, and he’d stated, several times, that he wasn’t sure he was overly fond of the notion.

He hadn’t done anything to stop it, though. If that was what it took for them to start officially sharing a bedroom, he couldn’t see much reason to continue objecting. And it was a fair point, he supposed: tucking himself away in a smaller bedroom and leaving the master suite to rarely appearing guests wasn’t the best use of the space. He’d wanted them to feel comfortable, he’d protested. He didn’t need the larger room, the balcony that overlooked the river, and the en-suite bathroom. Stiles had hotly countered that he wanted Derek to be comfortable in his own fucking house, which had somehow exploded into an argument about self-sacrificing assholes who didn’t take care of themselves, which in turn led into what was probably their best sex yet.

Until the next time they’d had sex, that was.

He stretched languidly, enjoying the pull of his tired muscles, marvelling at the fact that he was still slightly sore. He’d claim that every time was more amazing than the last, but that wasn’t precisely true. There’d been the attempted blowjob, when Stiles got too ambitious, choked on Derek’s cock, and then managed to accidentally bite him, which had left both of them miserable and rather wary of trying that particular position until they’d worked out some of the kinks. Then there’d been Stiles’s admittedly sexy plan to lick the entire way down Derek’s body; that’d resulted in violently unpleasant flashbacks and Derek trying to pretend he hadn’t locked himself in the bathroom for half an hour to scrub his abs clean.

Stiles had immediately tossed out the chocolate sauce, claiming it hadn’t tasted great, anyway, and they had a long conversation about what, exactly, needed to be considered off-limits in the future. Derek knew he didn’t like humiliation or pain - being scratched, in particular - but he hadn’t been conscious enough of that particular trigger to warn Stiles away from it in advance.

“Then don’t leave me if that happens again,” Stiles asked him. “Trust that I’ll stop, the second there’s even the hint that you might be uncomfortable with something. We can talk about it, or we can stick it in the ‘nope’ column without any need for details.”

That was one of Stiles’s firm rules: he hated being left in the dark, literally or figuratively. Derek panicking sent him into his own panic spiral, worrying he'd done something irreparably wrong. He needed to see Derek, to touch him, if he could, to reassure himself that he hadn't fallen back into a nightmare where his hands were acting against his will while he screamed soundlessly behind someone else’s face until his throat was raw. He couldn't handle sensory deprivation for similar reasons; he'd gotten into an unconscious habit of checking his reality against each of his senses, in turn, cycling through them to be sure he wasn't drifting through a world that felt solid but melted in his grasp.

He held Derek tightly, at night, wrapping himself around him like he was terrified one of them would float away if he let go. That was the easy part; Derek had quickly adapted to pulling Stiles’s arm around his waist and holding it close, keeping them both safe. The more annoying habit, which he was struggling to adjust to, was Stiles’s insistence on leaving a light on when he slept. He'd seen the glow seeping from under his door, late into the evenings, but had assumed he was simply a night owl. That was true, in part - although he slept better and woke earlier with Derek sharing his bed - but he'd flailed harder, sweating with anxiety, when he woke in the middle of the night to complete darkness.

They'd compromised on cracking the bathroom door open and letting a sliver of light escape through the gap. It was enough to reorient Stiles when he woke, and Derek was gradually learning to sleep without his body tensing. Leaving the lights on, his shoes laced, his jeans buttoned: it’d been his life for so long that any of those elements signaled he had to be ready to shoot out of fitful sleep and brace himself for an incoming fight.

When he jolted awake now, though, he had Stiles’s limbs tangled around his as an anchor, to drag him slowly back to gentler dreams.

It'd take time, for both of them - certainly more than a few weeks of a relationship still in its fresh, blissful stages. But they were getting there.

“Am I going to get murdered for this?” Stiles asked, breaking Derek out of his sleepy-eyed reverie. The snowfall had been steady, thick blankets draping over the house and yard, and it'd been easy to convince himself to forgo his morning run in favor of watching Stiles dismantle their new bedroom.

“For what? Making a giant mess?” He caught a shirt Stiles tossed in his direction and neatly folded it, setting it to the side.

“I’m organizing,” he corrected. “Before Cora and the douchetwins get here. And I meant for touching all their stuff, like I was expressly warned not to do.”

“Probably.” Isaac would kick up a fuss, maybe, and Cora would probably threaten to punch Stiles if he'd moved anything particularly personal, although he didn't think she'd actually left much in the closet or drawers.

“Smiling about your sister beating up your boyfriend is not a good way to get yourself laid tonight, buddy.”

“Already did that this morning,” he reminded him, not making any effort to keep the contentment under wraps. It wasn't why he was smiling, anyway; he'd been thinking about Cora’s expression when he'd video-chatted her to tell her about Stiles. About the fact that, for the first time in his entire life, he had someone he was brimming over with excitement about introducing to his family. It didn’t matter that Cora already knew him; she hadn’t seen him in this particular context yet. Which counted, he thought. He’d take it. “I didn't think I'd get to have this,” he explained.

“A room that fits more than three pieces of crammed-together furniture?”

“You,” he said. “Family. At the same time.”

Stiles surfaced from his work for long enough to clamber back into bed and thoroughly kiss Derek, proving his earlier threats had been entirely unfounded. Derek tried to hold him in place, but he squirmed free, dropping one last wet kiss across the side of Derek’s face.

“It’d go faster if you’d help me, instead of lying around in bed and being a gigantic distraction.”

“I’m passively objecting,” he said, but Stiles flicked another shirt at him - Isaac’s, probably. Jackson dragged a heavy bag with him each time they visited, unable to do without a dozen possible outfits for a single weekend, but Isaac liked leaving piles of his things at Derek’s. It gave him a tangible sense of home, a reminder that if anything ever happened in London, he had other options waiting for him.

He sighed and folded the shirt, stacking it on the growing pile that Stiles had scattered by climbing back on top of him. It would, all jokes aside, bother Isaac to see that he’d been so efficiently displaced, but Stiles’s insistence on moving all of his things to another room was actually more considerate than simply shoving them to the side and keeping them out of his reach when he arrived.

“I should put up some shelves in the studio,” he said, reluctantly rolling out of bed and pausing to pull on a pair of pants. “I’d been thinking about doing that, anyway.”

“Jackson and Isaac up there and Cora in your old room, right?” Stiles tilted his face to let Derek kiss him as he passed by.

“Makes the most sense, for now,” he agreed.

“It’ll be crowded, but you’ll probably like that anyway, you big softie.”

Crowded was...certainly one word for it. He’d spent weeks quietly agonizing about the arrangements, but everything had slotted together, despite his last minute worry that he should’ve asked for Stiles’s input before it was too late. But if Stiles could throw together a series of surprise Christmas presents, Derek could damn well do him one better.

Hopefully. If the weather held, and nothing was delayed, and things worked out the way they were supposed to. And if Stiles didn’t manage to figure out what was going on well in advance of the big unveiling.

“It would go faster if you helped me, instead of spending an hour sorting socks,” he told him, then dodged out the door when Stiles flung a clump of scarves at him.

***

“Why the hell are you so twitchy?” Cora growled.

Stiles briefly stopped pacing around the living room and stared at her with wide, worried eyes. “My dad hasn’t been answering his phone since yesterday. So I tried Scott, and he’s not picking up, either. Something’s going on. That’s not like them.”

Isaac opened his mouth, but closed it when Derek shot a look in his direction. Jackson, who hadn’t been in his line of vision, and who probably wouldn’t have cared anyway, drawled out, “It’s Christmas week, Stilinski. They’re busy. Calm the fuck down.”

“Yeah, but.” He scratched along his jawline, his eyes darting around the room, seeking out Derek, as the one person there who might actually sympathize with him. “I even called the station, and Parrish said my dad’s not working today, but he was being weird about it. He was hiding something. What if - what if something happened to him, and no one’s telling me?”

“He wouldn’t do that,” Derek reassured him, trying not to acknowledge Cora, who was expressively rolling her eyes at him and mouthing things he certainly hoped Stiles couldn’t see. “You’re supposed to be talking tomorrow, right?”

“Yeah. Figuring out the logistics for the Christmas Skype. He said they’ll all have too much going on to spend as much time online with us, but we can do the gift exchange, at least.” He frowned. “But he also said he wasn’t working on the day of, so that doesn’t make sense, either. What else would he be doing?”

“Learn to take a hint, Stilinski. Maybe he has actual friends he’d rather spend the day with.”

“Fuck you, Jackson,” he shot back automatically. “You don’t even know the meaning of the word. Besides, it’s not like you-” He went quiet after another sidelong glance at Derek. Stiles wasn’t intentionally a jerk, most of the time, unless he felt the person deserved it. He didn’t actually hate Jackson, though - they were all bark with each other, very little bite - and he knew how complicated and difficult his home situation could be. Thanksgiving hadn’t gone particularly well, or so Derek had gathered from the various streams of texts from Isaac over the couple of days he’d spent with the Whittemores. Jackson had steadily refused to comment on what his parents were doing in December, and Derek hadn’t been inclined to pry. He suspected they were traveling; either they hadn’t invited Jackson, or he hadn’t considered it an appealing option.

“Everyone needs to shut up and play,” Cora said. “Stop wasting my amazing hand on your stupid drama.”

“You’re not supposed to tell us what you have,” Isaac objected, but he slumped pessimistically, seeming ready to fall for it.

“It’s her bluff,” Stiles said, shuffling across the room and plopping heavily into the armchair with Derek. It wasn't exactly made to hold two grown men, but Derek shifted his cards to his left hand so he could wrap his arm around him. The thick anxiety in his scent was reaching a worrying level, ramping up Derek’s guilt. If they hadn’t heard anything in - an hour, maybe, then he’d tell Stiles. They could ride it out a little longer.

“Stop letting your boyfriend cheat,” Cora snapped. She tucked her cards close to her chest, even though there was no way Stiles could’ve seen them from the prior angle.

“Great, now you’ve broken him,” Jackson said, barely lifting his eyes from the game he’d been playing on his phone instead of joining the three of them.

Derek didn’t care; if he wanted to nuzzle the side of - of his boyfriend’s - face in the middle of their poker game, he would. He could, now.

“The ability to read people’s tells is a skill, not cheating,” Stiles said, twitching ticklishly when Derek kissed his throat. “And you should see him when people around town call me his boyfriend. I didn’t know this face could smile that big.” He pushed at Derek’s cheeks in an attempt to demonstrate his range of expressions, then kissed him.

“We have seen that,” Isaac muttered, grumpy now that he'd lost track of whether Cora’s bluff meant he was doing well or badly. Poker wasn't his strong point; not when he was back to a level playing field, with all of their senses equally tuned to telltale heartbeats and scent spikes.

“Seriously, why did no one warn me?” Jackson added. “If I’d known they were going to be like this the entire week, I would’ve made other plans.”

“I knew,” Cora said smugly. “Derek dragged me out of bed because I thought a call at that hour had to be some emergency. Turns out he just wanted to tell me some gross, sappy nonsense. That we all saw coming from miles away, incidentally.”

“I forgot about time zones,” Derek admitted, and Stiles fondly petted his hair, his anxiety momentarily displaced.

Cora was gleefully collecting her winnings when the doorbell rang.

“What the hell,” Stiles said, looking around the room like he expected someone to be missing, having wandered outside and locked themselves out. A reasonable thought, since he’d done it himself more than once.

“You mind getting that?” Derek asked, avoiding eye contact with Cora, who was rolling her eyes at how loudly his heart was thudding.

“It's probably the violinist neighbor, coming over to compose another song for Isaac,” he snarked, but got to his feet and headed for the entryway.

“He means Pranav,” Derek said, for the others’ benefit, since Stiles rarely referred to their neighbors, or the shopkeepers downtown, by name. He was on a friendly basis with all of them, though, and preened just as visibly when they referred to him as Derek’s boyfriend. Or partner. Or any term that connected the two of them in an undeniable way.

“It wasn't for me,” Isaac protested, sounding flattered nonetheless. “He said it made him think of me, that's all.”

Stiles’s response was cut short by the creak of the door opening, and an immediate choked-out cry. The rest of them piled out of the living room to watch, no longer needing to pretend they weren't in on the surprise.

Stiles was wrapped so tightly around his dad, the poor man could probably barely breathe. They were both crying, Derek was pretty sure, and he surreptitiously wiped at his own eyes when no one was looking. Cora bumped against his shoulder, though, in tune with him in that way they managed more often than not, lately.

“Oh my god,” Stiles said after a lengthy stretch, releasing his dad only to fall into Scott, who was standing behind him with Melissa, holding their bags and grinning. “I fucking hate all of you,” he said when he finally let go for long enough to allow them to enter the house and shut out the cold air, stamping the snow off their feet and unbundling from the excessive layers they’d been packed in.

“The flight went smoothly - you were probably checking up on that - but the train was running behind schedule,” John explained apologetically, moving over to Derek to embrace him quickly and thump him on the back. “Thank you for having us; it’s nice to see your house outside of Stiles’s seasick-inducing video tours.”

“But where the hell are we going to put all of them?” Stiles exclaimed, tugging at his hair. “We can put - there’s the floor and the couch. We have a lot of extra blankets. Isaac and Jackson can sleep in the shed. Or outside on the deck.”

“Derek got us hotel rooms,” Scott said, before Isaac had a chance to retaliate. “We were going to stop there to check in and drop off our stuff, but we figured we should swing by here first, since we were running so late.”

“Fuck that, you’re staying here and sleeping on the couch,” he said, hugging Scott again, to make sure he was actually there. “You’re not old; your back can handle it.”

“It’s nice to see you, too, Stiles,” Melissa said, peeling off a fuzzy woolen scarf and draping it over the cluttered coat rack.

“I didn’t mean you. Just this old man. Who can’t pretend he doesn’t spend every vacation complaining about how strange beds make his joints hurt.”

John shrugged, not prepared to argue the point. Like father, like son: he’d made a quick tour of the downstairs area, tapping at some of the ornaments on the tree, and had migrated to Derek’s bookshelves to examine the titles on the spines. “I didn’t have a preference on sleeping arrangements,” he said. “Derek arranged the entire thing. Made sure we had the time off work, booked our tickets, the full works.”

“We thought you would’ve caught on a lot earlier; guess you’ve been preoccupied, though,” Scott said, with an exaggerated leer that made Stiles laugh and the rest of the room groan in unison.

“How long have you been planning this?” Stiles spun around to accuse Derek, who’d been trying his best to stay out of the way while basking in the palpable happiness glowing off everyone gathered in his home. “Scott’s out of his community college classes for the holidays, so that’s easy, but my dad’s and Melissa’s schedules can’t switch up at the last minute.”

“We’ve had it scheduled for months,” Scott said, casually spilling all their carefully-kept secrets. There was a reason Derek hadn’t let him in on most of the details until they’d been finalized. “He brought up the idea as soon as we were all in touch and had a solid enough sense that you probably wouldn’t be budging for a while.”

“You fucker, you told me you mailed their Christmas package two weeks ago.”

“No, I said I’d take care of it. Then I hid the box.” It’d taken some juggling, considering Stiles’s decision to methodically tear apart every storage area, but Derek had managed to repeatedly slip it out of his view until the closet-reorganizing frenzy had calmed down enough to make finding a secure location for the gifts a possibility.

“I hate you,” he said, crossing the room to plaster his body against Derek’s. “You’re brilliant. This is single-handedly the best thing anyone’s ever done for me. You win, in every category; I concede the gift battle. For now. Although I have no idea how I could ever top this.”

“You already have,” he murmured into his throat, the world shrinking back down to them again. He was aware of Jackson huffing and taking his phone upstairs, and of John awkwardly clearing his throat and asking Cora how she’d been doing, but he couldn’t spare much thought for any of them, not in this moment.

“My boyfriend is the world’s biggest sap,” Stiles said, probably just to trick him into the now automatic smile that word never failed to tug to the surface.

***

Truro’s winter festival was a smaller, quieter celebration than they would’ve found in other parts of the country, Derek was sure, but it felt like exactly the right speed for their group. They wandered through the city’s festively-lit streets at a leisurely pace, a medley of carols from assorted local choirs accompanying them as they browsed through the shops and checked out the food stalls’ offerings.

Toward the end of the evening, Scott and John disappeared with Stiles for a solid couple of hours to talk - in person this time - through the events that had set off Stiles’s departure. By the time Stiles returned to the house and collapsed into bed next to Derek, he was too emotionally drained to fill him in on any of the details.

“It’s nothing you don’t already know,” he told him, tucking his nose into the hollow of Derek’s throat, his limbs drawn tight as a protective brace around his body.

A hush fell over the house, each of its inhabitants settling in for the night. Stiles’s self-shielding stiffness loosened after a while, and he began, as Derek had expected, to explain his tense muscles and the subtle trembling that had started up again in his frame. “It’s not easy for a pacifist and a Sheriff to love a murderer,” he said, keeping his body pressed close to Derek’s. “I know what you told me, but - it’s not the same, with them. They understand, as much as they can, and they love me in spite of it, but they don’t totally get it. Not in the same way.”

Derek pressed his lips into Stiles’s hair, not finding a need to respond verbally. He’d said it all before. It wasn’t Derek’s approval or respect Stiles was struggling with.

“They’re both Superman, you know?” Stiles said, his voice shaking. “Justice and heroism in its purest form, with this idea that everyone’s worth saving. I mean, being a cop, my dad gets it more, that there are people beyond any hope, and sometimes you have to make a tough choice. He’s gone through it. And when he was in the army, he had to do shit under orders that he didn’t always agree with. But - it bothers him that I don’t feel guilty about killing Donovan. I didn’t mean to do it, and I didn’t want to, and I was afraid - so afraid it wasn’t entirely my choice, but. I don’t regret it. I’d do it again, in the same situation.”

“You told him that?”

He nodded, his tears tickling Derek’s skin. “He didn’t say it, but I’m pretty sure he’s worried the Nogitsune changed me, for good. Made me harder. Prone to doing things like this. But it’s not true. It’s who I’ve always been. I’ve always known I’d be willing to kill if it was the only way to save someone I loved.”

“You’re Batman,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you’re not a hero; you’re a different kind, that’s all.”

Stiles grasped for his hand and gripped it, hard. He was quiet for a while, then added, his voice rough, “We’re okay, now. Scott’s mostly upset I didn’t come to him earlier, but we worked it out. Thank you for bringing them here. We - we really needed this.”

Christmas morning dawned bright and cold, with a sense that everything had been washed clean by the previous night’s confessions. Stiles, vibrating with energy and excitement again, had decided somewhere along the line that the shed’s so-called mural was a point of particular pride, and he ushered the newly arrived trio outside to show it to them in all its glory. Derek stayed inside, not certain he needed to be present as Stiles waxed eloquent on its merits, placing far more emphasis on the artistic choices than was strictly warranted. It’d been a collaborative effort, he boasted, and Derek refrained from poking his head into the yard to point out that there’d been very little actual artistry involved in the process, from either of them.

Self-consciousness didn’t wash over him about any of it, though, until he heard Stiles shift to bragging about Derek’s paintings, and the profitable market he’d found through Gretchen’s gallery. Derek had agreed, after a number of agonizingly in-depth conversations about his work with both Gretchen and Stiles, to sell a few pieces that held less personal meaning, and had been startled at how quickly art collectors had snatched them up.

Stiles hadn’t been surprised, though. He’d simply pursed his lips thoughtfully and suggested that they mark up the prices for the next batch, as though he’d believed in Derek’s success all along. Believed in him, in general, in a way that Derek was learning to not be stunned by at every turn.

***

“And here’s one from Kira,” Scott said, handing over a brightly wrapped gift. “She said to tell you again she’s sorry she couldn’t make it this year.”

Derek used a claw to neatly slice the tape and extracted two thick books, handing the paper off to Stiles, who’d been crumpling most of it into a bag but saving the ones he liked enough to reuse. Kira’s find - shiny silver with wolves in Santa hats - was sure to turn up in unexpected places for years to come.

“These are great,” Derek said, reverently flipping through each of the books to gather an initial impression of the contents.

As predicted, Stiles carefully folded the paper and snooped over his shoulder. “History of Mythological Creatures, Volumes 1 and 2. Cool, she always finds the ones written from the weirdest points of view. These look old.”

“They are. Careful with the binding, the glue seems loose.” He passed the second volume to Stiles so he could focus on the first one.

“Should’ve saved that for later,” John quipped. “Now we’ve lost both of them.”

Stiles grunted inattentively at him, already engrossed in the book, but Derek closed his copy. He’d be sure to call Kira later to thank her; he’d been disappointed she couldn’t join them, but she’d promised to visit when she could. Maybe he could invite them all again in the spring, when the snow had melted and the flowers were blooming. It wasn’t easy to align everyone’s schedules, but it’d be worth a try, anyway. They could talk about it when he and Stiles were in Beacon Hills; they’d need to fly out in a couple of months to sort through his things and decide what to sell, pack up, or ship home. John had brought Stiles’s laptop, thankfully - he’d wrapped it up as the first joke gift, and Stiles had nearly cried again at the sight of it.

“I love you,” he’d told Derek, “but I need you to look away for a second while I have a moment with my long lost, oldest and dearest friend.”

“Hey!” Scott had objected, sounding deeply offended.

John had exchanged a longsuffering look with Derek while the two friends hugged it out, Stiles whispering, “Don’t worry, I still love you best,” to his computer, so loudly that even the humans in the room could hear him.

It was good to see them back on track: happy, comfortable with each other, ready to move on from the strains on their relationship.

Derek slipped his arm around him, and Stiles patted at him absently, readjusting his posture so he could continue reading Kira’s gift without dislodging him. He’d be spouting information by the time they headed to bed; Derek could probably skip reading that volume for a while, since Stiles would pick out all the interesting bits to discuss.

Melissa opened her necklace next, exclaimed satisfyingly over it, and fastened it around her neck. Scott, with Isaac’s help, had already turned his tire coasters into miniature frisbees; they’d been slinging them at each other throughout the last couple of rounds. The pile of gifts was running low, the contentment in the room rising to fill the space.

Cora and Jackson had opened the puzzle she’d given Derek - a custom-made one of the mountain ranges around her home - and were fitting together the edges, only bickering occasionally. John was fiddling with the camera he’d bought for Stiles as his non-joke gift, explaining that it did him a world of good to see the records he’d been keeping of his life in England, half the globe away but still reachable. It’d have hundreds of new photos by the end of the day; more by the end of the week, when everyone would begin to trail back to their homes, leaving behind reminders of their stay.

Derek let his thumb rest just under the hem of Stiles’s shirt, the skin-to-skin contact grounding him, holding him in place in this perfect moment. He breathed in the warm scents of family, of their meal simmering in the oven, of the tangible love permeating the air. He let the breath out, slowly. The bubble didn’t burst. Stiles flipped another page, John snapped a picture, Cora snatched a puzzle piece out of Jackson’s hand, and Scott dove for Isaac’s misjudged toss, his mom’s mug of coffee, which was set on another of his frisbee coasters, rattling from the close call but remaining upright.

The snow heaped across Derek’s lawn, collecting in thick lines on his windowsills but not making its way inside, to the cozy heart of his home. It wasn’t what he’d asked for, all those years ago. He hadn’t known what his wishes would bring, or what his future might hold.

He couldn’t say the intervening years had been worth it; they’d all suffered far more than they should, and he’d take back so much of it, if magic had been real, if Christmas lists and wishes had been as powerful as he’d grown up believing. But this? He pressed his fingers against Stiles’s waist and breathed in again. This was home. His. Stiles’s. His family’s.