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Unsaid the Word

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They were in a bar, of course, when he realized.

Actually, the more he thought about it, these kinds of things—the realizations, accompanied by various shattering rejections—they always happened to Stiles in bars. Maybe he should stop going to bars. But then the bad things would probably just relocate, and happen to him in some terrible new place, one that might not even have alcohol.

For example, he also experienced similar realizations and rejections in impersonal corporate hotels hosting job interviews, or in weekly meetings with his dissertation supervisor. And he could experience them even in the privacy and comfort of his own apartment, as it turned out, because on Stiles’s external hard drive, where he kept all the PDFs of books and articles that he used in his research, he had a small grey folder icon labeled, “derek hale.”

Once a year, Stiles got to see Derek Hale in person, rather than just as a folder icon. And that, he told himself firmly, was enough. He began reminding himself of this from the moment he got off the airplane and headed toward the baggage carousel, then again in the shuttle on the way to the conference hotel, several times; and then, with increasing frequency during PopCult itself—okay, fine, with distressing frequency. At this point he had to go into the bathroom pretty much every break between panels and give himself stern pep talks in the mirror, tense and pale. Just getting to be around Derek for a few days: that was enough.

No, but it was enough. It really was.

And it had to be enough, because. Because come on, Stilinski—he muttered under his breath, splashing tap water up onto his face indiscriminately, so that it wound up in his hairline and ears, and then blotting or more accurately scraping it away with a crumpled handful of scratchy brown paper napkins—be realistic. Even if he did like you, what makes you think a long-distance thing would work? Those don’t work, they never work. Itinerant migrant academic workers never get jobs in the same state together, much less the same city. Or even if it did work, it still always ends, you find someone (his dad) then you lose them (Melissa) and it eviscerates you (Scott). It’s better this way.

Furthermore, Stiles informed his grimacing reflection, since he was apparently now in the business of reminding himself of things he should already fucking know—you’re a trainwreck, an actual walking disaster, plus he’s your colleague and did I mention how it’s better this way, it’d be messy and riddled with catastrophe, which he is apparently rational enough to realize while you are not—

He wrestled briefly with his necktie, scowling and wishing he could just pull the thing off and throw it in the trashcan on his way out the bathroom door. His dress shirt wouldn’t stay tucked in and he looked scrawny in it and why did he have such a stupid nose—

Finally he undid the top button, a compromise, and pulled the tie just taut enough to hide it. His conference clothes never fit and instead of the suave image he optimistically created in his head, he suspected he gave an impression of someone who’d been dragged backward through thorny shrubbery, or recently mugged. Stiles and business casual had never gotten along—why didn’t he just give up, and present in jeans and a well-worn leather jacket, the way Derek did, looking comfortable and quietly perfect and confident?

Ah yes, that would be because Stiles was none of those things. That would be because Stiles showed up to everything two hours late with Starbucks. Suddenly he remembered the several important panels he’d missed this morning. Fuck—four hours late. Maybe five?

Derek Hale, on the other hand, had already published a dozen well-regarded journal articles, and his dissertation was coming out as a book in the fall. He was a new hire at a solid R1 university, whereas Stiles was still staggering through his doctorate, seemingly on an unofficial ten-year plan (even though he only had funding for five). He winced every time he saw his own email signature declaring him a PhD candidate, which was less a prevarication than a pie-faced lie. He hadn’t taken comps and still had a couple of ugly incompletes taunting him from his transcript—thus, in an unattractively desperate bid to seem legit, he’d gone to Ross Dress for Less for slacks, blazer, and two dress shirts, none of which really went together, so that he still looked like a particularly dishevelled and possibly color-blind undergraduate.

Not that Derek would ever notice. Stiles could probably wear clothing made out of his tarnished CV; the most that might happen, if it were a banner day in Stilesland, would be some amused and/or vaguely judgmental eyebrow action. Derek accepted his papers every year—for some unknown reason—and sent unwaveringly kind and professional emails, and in person was completely polite and friendly and businesslike toward him, and nothing more, and that was never going to change. And that was fine! Actually it was great.

So totally great! Definitely.

Stiles balled up the paper towels in frustration and aimed for the trash can, following through with an exaggerated three-point-throw hand gesture. He might have made the shot too if Vernon Boyd (another up-and-coming researcher whom Stiles wasn’t sure if he admired and respected, or wanted to tap—but in an admiring and respectful way)—if Boyd hadn’t come through the door at that precise moment.

They watched together as the wad of damp towels bounced off Boyd’s immaculate starched white front and rolled back toward Stiles. “So I, yeah, so that was,” Stiles began, wondering how he was going to finish.

Boyd just moved in a calm circle around Stiles and went into a stall without further comment. “…we’ll just say nothing, right,” Stiles breathed, plucking up the towels and throwing them out the normal way before heading into the corridor in search of coffee.

The refreshments this year at PopCult were decidedly subpar, thus the indeterminate-number-of-hours-late-with-Starbucks; Stiles was sure he remembered fresh fruit and pastries last time, whereas this conference all the hotel seemed to be offering were jugs of (presumably) purified water and bizarrely large bowls of tiny hard candies.

“Austerity measures,” said Isaac, materializing at his side, and Stiles felt such a rush of gratitude that someone from his area was actually speaking to him, he almost grabbed Isaac’s elbow to say as much.

Instead he wound up taking a too-large gulp of water from his plastic cup; his nose dipped in and got wet. He wiped it surreptitiously on his shirt sleeve, sniffling. “We shelled out one hundred and fifty bucks for this thing, Lahey, I think we deserve some goddamn cherry danishes,” he said, fumbling a handful of the little candies into his pants pocket instead. “Look at it this way, we’re here five days, that’s thirty dollars a day—”

“Worth at least ten danish,” Isaac agreed forlornly. “Also I’d rather have that burnt urn conference coffee than nothing.”

“Any coffee always trumps no coffee, Professor Lahey,” Stiles said in a rush, herding him back toward the room where the next panel would be. “In this it resembles academic writing, sex, oxygen, so forth—probably also dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty—”

“Wait, what. Sex?” Isaac looked at him all big-eyed over the edge of one of his excessively fashionable scarves, which he wore pretentiously indoors. Did he stare longingly at the dryer as it went around and around, waiting for it to come out all warm like a security blanket? Actually that sounded kind of nice. Maybe Stiles should get a metrosexual scarf, it might even draw Derek’s—“No, Stiles, any sex is definitely not better than no sex, that’s a terrible—

“Yeah so did I mention how we’re actually not talking about this,” Stiles said, now steering Isaac toward the very back row of uncomfortable chairs. Although this meant they would have to stay the duration of the panel and not be able to sneak out, no matter how awful the papers were certain to be, the back row of the room offered certain crucial advantages, as Stiles had learned from observing his own undergraduates:

1) he could wriggle around freely and not have to sit decorously still, as sitting for too long in a chair without writhing caused him physical pain;

2) he could pretend to be making a scholarly contribution by livetweeting the panel (for those “unlucky enough not to be able to attend the conference! thank you @stilesstilinski #popcultconf2016”), but instead furtively DMing Scott and/or Lydia, also trying to lure Joe DiMeowgia, whom he’d renamed Mycroft, into his Zen-themed Neko Atsume garden; and finally

3) if it were one of Derek’s panels, he could stare at him openly and without restraint, mouth filling with so much saliva he kept having to wait for something extra-noisy to happen, like a laugh from the audience, just so he could fucking swallow.

Derek Hale, Stiles thought, indignant, was a goddamned scholiastic menace.

He uncharitably took the last window seat and threw himself into the uncomfortable folding chair, sprawled out and leaning against the wall, and closed his eyes in preparation for the onslaught. Stiles was tired. He was tired of his interminable doctorate, tired of conferences, tired of austerity measures. He was especially tired of jerking off without assistance and/or input or anyone’s mouth or arms around him afterward. He was profoundly romantically frustrated and tired of that too.

At the front of the room, the panelists had begun to set up, laughing nervously and fussing with VGA connectors and power strips. Derek, chairing his last panel of the conference, sat slightly to one side, scrolling on his phone and frowning at whatever he saw there.

Derek obviously must be aware of his own rough brand of gorgeousness, Stiles thought, and that he was also an enviably brilliant writer; but he seemingly didn’t know he exuded some kind of tantalizing sexual availability which seemed to exist only to mock Stiles, since Derek might as well be on another planet.

Stiles could never think of the right word to describe this quality, but he certainly wasn’t the only one suffering a pointless doomed yearning. Other colleagues for whatever reason liked to confide in him that they too had crushes on Derek, as though Stiles were supposed to be able to…do something about that? Oddly, people thought he and Derek were friends. They weren’t friends—they were friendly, and Derek was unfailingly kind; and but also he had a boundary like a no-man’s-land, about a mile wide and clearly delineated with cheery orange flags, probably trip-wired and mined. Derek was the type who listened a lot, but said little; such men were dangerous.

All Stiles really knew was that when Derek came into a room, there was a gravitational pull that made it hard to look elsewhere; and when he talked, Stiles mostly just watched his mouth.

And Derek’s whole, his entire, it wasn’t even fair, his whole entire—okay fine maybe to some extent it was the leather jacket, which Stiles had been taking personally for several years now. Derek wore it so loyally during conferences Stiles had developed a grudging conviction that he probably slept in it. This in turn had given Stiles a weirdly specific and unwanted series of thoughts about what the black t-shirt underneath it probably smelled like by day three or four, causing Stiles to both resent and not-so-secretly fetishize the jacket.

But long before the jacket, before Derek had mannerisms and a personality and a frankly kind of shy adorable laugh that was usually accompanied with a dorky little head-duck, as well as a tendency to blink and knit his eyebrows into something fierce and complicated when he disagreed with you—before Stiles knew any of that, “Derek Hale” had just been a Google Scholar search term when Stiles was first figuring out what no one had ever told him: that he could do actual academic work in an area he already loved passionately.

He’d begun innocently enough during a summer course by writing a sociological paper on sports fandom, researching online hockey forums and fanfic; and before he knew it, he’d ditched American lit for a PhD in culture and media studies, which meant he had to redo most of his coursework and start laboriously piecing together a new CV.

But he had zero complaints, even though it meant his academic career was literally that, a career, with Stiles bouncing around departments like a demented pinball, slaloming off obstacles and lurching around corners. He’d been like this since high school, bouncing from subject to subject every time something new caught his attention. Fingers crossed this one would hold his interest long enough for him to graduate—it seemed possible, since he’d been accumulating papers like cereal-box toys and methodically turning them into chapters for his dissertation, which was on representations of disabled characters in film franchises.

(Not that he had a dog in the fight or anything. He kept his medical alert bracelet mostly out of sight, next to his wristwatch where hopefully EMTs would find it but other people wouldn’t notice. His cocktail had morphed over time, grown more complex and fine-tuned, but he’d never been able to get off meds entirely; every time he tried, he wound up scribbled and in dangerously dark places, waking up gasping from nightmares and unable to shake the conviction that he was a bad person who deserved nothing but the worst. More than once, Scotty’d had to drive down to Santa Barbara all the way from Beacon Hills and peel Stiles up off the floor, get water and calories into him, browbeat the pharmacy into calling the doctor’s office for a refill of whatever Stiles had stopped taking. “It’s not your fault,” Scott repeated, even though Stiles didn’t think either of them believed that for a second; “you just crashed off your meds, man, that’s all.” Of course, Stiles wouldn’t crash if he would stop trying to taper off, but he apparently needed to give it a whirl every couple of years just to prove to himself his brain was permanently borked without regular infusions of pharmaceutical neurotransmitters. He knew it was stupid, like eating something you know you’re allergic to, or exercising on top of an injury. But still some stubborn part of him kept hoping; kept trying. Kept thinking he’d be better if he proved he could do it without help.)

Derek’s own research was almost exclusively on comics history and theories of adaptation; but he was a lively and accessible writer, someone whose work lent itself handily to citation, and everyone in the field quoted him liberally. So Stiles had cultivated a terrible case of academic hero worship long before that morphed into a more or less terrible craving to lick Derek’s everything.

He watched now, furtive in the back row, as Derek helped a panelist set up their laptop, bending over to plug in a charger and showing a bare centimeter of darkly tanned skin where the jacket and t-shirt rode up. Stiles bit down involuntarily on the far rim of his plastic cup, then jumped when most of the water poured down into his lap.

“Oy gevalt,” Isaac hissed, offering him a pack of tissues. “Please try not to be completely shameless.”

Stiles swiped the tissues out of his hand with a snap and used one to dry his crotch. “Oh I have shame, Lahey. You have no idea how much shame I have. Why, I have shame in such an amount, to such a degree, and with such elaborated repugnant detail, that even as anatomized by the finest affect theorists, my shame is practically off the—”

“Hi, everyone, we’re going to go ahead and get started,” Derek called out from the front of the room. The audience began settling down, finding seats and exchanging conspiratorial whispered promises to meet for drinks afterward.

“Thank you all for coming,” he continued, after waiting for someone to shut the door, “especially for this last panel—and after lunch, too, when let’s face it, I think we’d all rather be taking naps.”

Stiles made a command decision not to think about Derek and naps, him dozing off between soft hotel linens or passing out on top of the comforter, stubbled cheek curving into the pillowcase (did he fall asleep watching television? would he take off his jacket? his jeans? did he wear boxer briefs? —wait, right; command decision: boxer brief color unimportant).

“Our first panelist,” Derek said, in his serious extra-scholarly voice, as he started the introductions. Stiles lost a little time after that, helplessly wondering what Derek’s thighs looked like under the jeans, and didn’t come back to himself until he realized he was half-listening to someone talk about cosplay and critical race theory, a paper he felt he’d somehow already heard several times. He composed a functional conference tweet, just buzzwordy enough (“the imaginary of race, contingent yet reified, as reflected in realpolitik of cosplayers? #popcultconf2016”), shaking his head over the ridiculously long hashtag (why couldn’t it be just #PC16; fifteen characters—what was that about).

As the presenter clicked through a few unreadable text-heavy slides, he swiped over to his DMs. The most recent message from Scott was nothing but several dozen eggplant emoji followed by allcaps:

GET IT COWBOY THIS IS YOUR YEAR YIPPIE KAI YAI YAY MF ... fuck off scott

Scott replied immediately, which told Stiles he was at work.

you wound me how very dare p sure you'll live

He paused for a second, then added, in a rare burst of disingenuity:

no but srsly man it’s not like that & it never will be I know this sounds like we’re still at beacon hills but I’m invisible to him as a sexual being the dude literally does not know I exist okay

Again there was barely a pause before Stiles’s phone lit up:

well of course he doesn’t I bet you never talk to him I mean I'm sure you talk all AROUND him but I know you dude okay

you don’t know me, Stiles typed back without thinking, then shut his eyes and put one hand on his forehead, wincing. It was too late:

i know enough okay like i know you already thought about his underwear AT LEAST once today ... I hate you ... UNDERWEAR STILES

Stiles bit his lip and angled the phone slightly away from Isaac, who was playing with his scarf fringe and seemed to have developed a deep interest in cosplay scholarship.

hatred continues ... pfffft whatever you adore me ... ofc I’ve talked to him but just professionally because we're professionals

besides have you seen the guy I'm sure he has a partner or partners or lbr an entire harem or small nation-state of worshippers everyone's fucking MARRIED at our age scotty it's disgusting

This time there was a much longer pause, during which Stiles had time to remember that in fact Scott had been married, and that he, Stiles Stilinski, was an awful human being.

Derek made an apologetic throat-cutting gesture to the speaker, who fumbled to a close. There was a smattering of distracted applause as thumb-drives were exchanged. When Scott finally did reply, he just sent an image:

married ... were you searching for ... committing adultery

Stiles accidentally snorted aloud and to his surprise, Derek’s head shot up and he met Stiles’s eyes, all the way in the back row. Stiles slumped down in his seat, back out of view, calves wrapped around the chair legs in front of him.

The only thing worse than Derek Hale not knowing he existed would probably be the vast machinery of Derek’s intellect turning toward Stiles, no doubt purely in order to despise him for being an immature weirdo who made unattractive snorting noises instead of having one of those sexy, almost inaudible little huff-laughs. (Did Derek ever laugh out loud? What did it take, Stiles wondered, to make that happen? on top of or under the covers? boxers or boxer briefs?)

It wasn’t that Derek couldn’t praise junior scholars; Stiles had overheard him in intense conversation with Malia about her work on the Wasp and said Wasp’s merits over Ant-Man (which were apparently inarguable). But in spite of accepting Stiles’s papers three years running, he’d never really said anything afterward—no “good paper,” no “I’ve also been working on XYZ and would love to talk to you about it,” and worst of all, no “let’s get coffee/lunch/drinks and”—where Stiles was unable to finish that sentence, because which would actually be more magical: Derek’s being interested in him, or wanting to do research with him?

(Okay, that one was actually pretty obvious.)

It was probably much better never to be alone with Derek anyway; Stiles was rattled enough talking to him in groups. Once Derek had simply said “how are you,” and Stiles had meant to reply that he was fine, but then unwittingly gave an entire five-thousand-word essay including his deceased cat, the problems he was having with his current landlord, his difficulty in understanding Deleuze and Guattari, and how his dad the county sheriff persisted in trying to commit suicide through a high-sodium diet. Derek seemed not…unamused, but Stiles had died a thousand medium-sized deaths; when he worked up the sangfroid to ask Derek how he was doing, Derek just smiled a little and said fine.

Sometimes, Stiles thought, Derek looked not only mature and composed and well-boundaried, but a little sad, maybe even lonely. He’d like to get him hammered, he thought, and try to coax a real laugh out of him. He’d like to try to coax a lot of things out of him, preferably many times over the course of several hours. Stiles shifted in his chair.

The next panelist began reading, literally: she’d gone old-school with her presentation, reciting it off actual pieces of paper and droning through what sounded like page-long paragraphs of single-spaced prose about Rowling’s twitter headcanons and the non-death of the author, without so much as a single slide of respite in the form of gay Dumbledore GIFs.

Stiles promptly stopped being able to follow, which gave his brain a chance to supply helpful flashbacks to his own paper the day before.

It had been the usual slow-motion clusterfuck, beginning with his standing up, clicker clutched in a death grip (there was no way in hell he could deliver a paper sitting down), and promptly tripping over a line of taped-down cables on the carpet, ripping up half the electrical tape and yanking all the cords out of their sockets. Presumably out of delicacy, Derek hadn’t even looked at him, while Malia had jumped up to help him untangle.

Then, as usual, Stiles had made too many slides, included too much dense theory, and screencapped too many illustrations of Clint Barton with a hearing aid and Charles Xavier in a wheelchair. He’d torn breathlessly through his paper, angling for laughs and editing his own writing on the fly, leaving out quotations he suddenly realized were far too long and rattling past crucial pieces of analysis. Ramped up and jittery, he rocked back and forth, poised anxiously on the balls of his feet, trying not to pace, knees shaking a little. Of course having skipped meds and pulled an all-nighter to finish the presentation probably hadn’t helped, but he never seemed to start making slides until he was on the airplane—

Eventually Derek, expressionless, had finally held up a piece of copy paper just reading "TIME" in gigantic capital letters. In a flurried accelerando, Stiles clicked through all the remaining slides to race to the very last one with his twitter handle, inviting questions.

(He was determined to forget about the part in the middle when, hands sweaty, he’d gestured a little too enthusiastically with the clicker, lost control of it, and slung it across the room, where it landed with uncanny accuracy in someone’s abandoned coffee cup. Of course Malia, from henceforth known as Worst Conference Roommate Ever, was never going to let him forget; she kept reenacting the moment in their shared suite, imitating the vehemence of his clicker-flinging with her lipgloss and/or hairbrush, cracking up about it long past the point of its being funny. Stiles was just glad the coffee hadn’t fried his clicker.)

To finish off the whole ghastly experience—and worse even than Derek’s perfect genial neutrality, which Stiles had sort of come to expect—the audience all had blank faces when he’d finished. He couldn’t tell whether he’d blown their minds, gone over their heads, bored everyone to death with a completely basic interpretation, or maybe they were just thinking about dinner. He loved presenting at conferences, but struggled with the lack of feedback; at least after high flights of prolixity with his students, if he saw similar glazed eyes he could stop and poll them: were they still drunk from the night before, or actually seeing Shelley plain? (Usually they’d just point out he had dry-erase marker on his face.)

But the lack of clear approval at conferences made him incredibly insecure. He hadn’t had a single audience question, though he kibitzed a little by helping to answer questions meant for other panelists. And Derek hadn’t said a thing to him, just kept taking notes or whatever he was doing on his phone, though Stiles could have sworn he’d caught him laughing under his breath at least once, at one of his jokes (well, actually it was Scott’s joke—a screenshot of sad Clint Barton that Scott had tagged “the Charlie Brown of the Avengers”).

Fiddling with his alert bracelet, both unsettled and beyond exhausted, at some point Stiles went completely offline sometime during the fourth and final presenter. She’d apparently lost her voice and started husking inaudibly through a paper about the possible ramifications of women’s post-pregnancy workout selfies on Instagram. Having slept briefly between eight and eleven a.m. after his all-nighter, he randomly keeled over onto Isaac’s shoulder.

Isaac let him pass out through the Q&A but then elbowed him awake afterward; Derek was standing in front of them, in his most forbidding arms-crossed-over-chest stance, yet also looking strangely uncertain.

“Some of us are going to the Tex-Mex bar across the street,” Derek was saying to Isaac with his actual voice, which to Stiles’s surprise sounded a little unsure, despite his posture. Stiles assumed he’d been drooling and surreptitiously wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “In case the two of you wanted to come along. To celebrate the conference being over.”

Isaac stood, throwing his scarf around the collar of his coat as dashingly as possible, while Stiles groped under his chair for his overflowing laptop bag and wrinkled suit jacket, still blinking back to consciousness. “Oh, I think we’ve got time to do that, don’t you, Stiles?”

Stiles stood up and nodded, managing to remain awesome by focusing on Derek’s left ear. “I approve of most celebrations, especially those taking place in bars.”

He would think back on this with regret, later.

Stiles talked Isaac into waiting a few minutes as he rushed up to the room to change, because the business-casual nonsense had to go.

Malia trailed after him, kind enough not to give him unmerciful shit about his wardrobe crisis and even offering her critical eye as to which jeans and which t-shirt. They settled on Stiles’s favorite pair of dark gray wash, not skinny but still fitted, and a blue heather Jurassic Park t-shirt under Stiles’s ultimate comfort hoodie: his old maroon Beacon Hills lacrosse sweatshirt, worn and washed to the most consoling softness. Stiles felt he’d earned that.

Malia made noises about the hoodie until Stiles put his Carhartt on over it and then she grudgingly approved. “If I still liked dudes,” she said appraisingly, “I’d totally get with that.”

“Malia, you did get with this,” Stiles reminded her, pawing abstractedly at his hair, which continued its anarchosyndicalist resistance against the ideological state apparatus better known as styling product.

She did something ineffable and soothing, so that his hair suddenly looked fluffy and not enraged, and then grinned at him in the mirror.

Stiles smiled back and she smacked him on the ass. “Go—”

Don’t say ‘get him tiger,’” Stiles warned, dropping to the carpet to tie his shoelaces. “Just don’t. First of all there’s no tiger, and secondly there’s no getting. It’s one drink for Dr. Stilinski, ABD, and then early to bed, for you and I have flights to catch and full, rich, rewarding graduate student lives to lead.”

“Uh-huh,” said Malia, somehow already in pajamas, a Twizzler hanging out of her mouth and student papers stacked in neat piles all over her bed. “Maybe have two drinks, or four, or anyway stay out until at least eleven because I’m skyping Lydia.”

Stiles patted his pockets for wallet and key card. “Understood,” he said, wincing a little, hand on the doorknob. He refused to be morose that his full, rich, rewarding graduate student life didn’t include hot Skype sex with a beautiful nerd. He had good friends, he should feel lucky. He was lucky. He had Scott, and Malia, who had Lydia, and his dad, who had Melissa, and Isaac—

—who stood right on the other side of the door with hand upraised to knock, just as Stiles flung it open. Isaac squinted, head on one side.

“This work?” asked Stiles. He cocked his hip a little despite himself, then self-consciously reeled it in. Isaac beamed, one of those sudden blindingly innocent and beautiful affairs that reminded Stiles why they were friends: because Isaac was purely and simply a good person, unlike Stiles—unlike almost anyone he knew, in fact.

Pounceable,” Isaac pronounced.

They bumped gently into one another as they walked down to the lobby, mostly because Stiles was too tired to walk upright. Isaac apparently felt like confiding; he told Stiles all about his new conference crush, a clinical psychologist doing work in kink studies who’d given Isaac her business card, leaving him with the hope that not only might they write papers together but at some point she would tie him up and grind her stiletto into his throat. Or points south.

It was colder outside than Stiles thought Albuquerque should be in April, but he knew Californians had their thermostats permanently set wrong and Stiles was generally always cold unless it was at least eighty-five degrees. He and Isaac jaywalked across to the Tex-Mex place and hurried inside, blowing on their hands; Stiles envied the scarf again, a little.

Derek was already at the bar with Boyd, heads together, apparently deep in profound conversation. Stiles managed to weather that first familiar rusty scrape of envy, the one he was so used to by this point it scarcely registered. Boyd looked gorgeous no matter what he wore, and even though Stiles knew he was straight, the two of them seemed right together. Maybe Derek was dating Boyd’s hot brother. Or sister. Or entire family.

“Kira and Erica and that guy from University of Hawaii are all coming, too,” said Boyd, “or anyway Erica texted me they were. Maybe we should move to a table?”

With a maximum of awkwardness the four of them transferred themselves, along with Boyd’s and Derek’s margaritas, to a circular booth; naturally Derek was as far away from Stiles as it was possible to be, and when the waiter came to get their drink orders, Stiles surreptitiously asked for a shot along with his Paloma, in the interests of surviving the night.

Derek was already tipsy, and seeing him flushed and looser, almost relaxed, made something intricate and perplexing happen in Stiles’s chest. He stared unseeingly at the food menu until he accepted that he would never know what the words said. Isaac poked him, which meant he would order for Stiles; he’d kind of picked up where Scott left off, and Stiles was grateful.

After the first drink, though, and the arrivals of Erica and Kira and the cute UH Mānoa guy whose name turned out to be Danny, things got a lot better. Derek and Danny started talking about surfer culture, with Erica chiming in about skaters (Stiles felt genuine despair about the image of Derek in a wetsuit, but it was already too late); Isaac and Boyd were having some kind of spiritual experience communing about the turgid prose of HP Lovecraft; and for his part, Stiles never had to feign interest in Kira’s lively research into kitsune shrines, Japanese girls’ culture, Nintendo, Hello Kitty, and BL. She was happy and excited too, having just sealed the deal on her first book contract with a good academic publisher, so everyone had a second round in celebration of her success.

By the time the green chile enchiladas arrived, Stiles was unable to feel anything very keenly, much less the blunted pain of being unrequited. The multicolored cantina lights twinkled brightly and everything took on a soft-focus blurry contentedness. Truly, he thought expansively, academic conferences were the way humanity was meant to live. He loved his colleagues. They were perfect, beautiful humans, with compassion and curiosity. They were generous to a fault, flawlessly intellectually rigorous, and sincere in their passion for knowledge. They were—

Derek’s phone kept flashing intermittently, a dim blue glow illuminating his eyes and the slightly stricken look on his face. Stiles felt a pang of anxiety, which he dealt with by ordering a third double, made with whipped cream and something called Rumchata™.

On the other side of the room, at a little two-top with high stools, a couple was on what was obviously their first date. Danny and Boyd started speculating as to the outcome.

“Dude on the left is clearly way more thirsty,” stated Danny unequivocally.

“How the hell can you tell that?” demanded Stiles; the two were already holding hands, eye-gazing, and generally giving off every impression of being extremely into each other.

“He just is,” said Boyd, shrugging and eating the cherry out of his tequila sunrise. Alcohol apparently didn’t affect Boyd, which seemed a gift from the gods. Stiles himself was a total lightweight, which would explain why at that very moment he randomly opened his mouth and accidentally began to hold forth on the subject of dating. There was a collective groan.

“No, but come on. Stop talking shop. No more PopCult. No more professionalization.” (He struggled a little with the word.) “We’re reasonably attractive and sexually liberated persons with shining futures as, um, okay, fine, as adjuncts at junior colleges, and tonight I refuse to discuss anything that requires citations or ‘I’ll send you the link tomorrow.’ We should talk about relationships. By which I mean, specifically, you should all tell me how to get one.”

Erica must have been reapplying makeup in the bathroom, because she returned with rose-pink lips just in time to catch Stiles’s last sentence. “Get one what?”

“Well, a boyfriend would be great.”

“Have you tried Grindr?” she asked mock-innocently, and Danny snorted into his mai tai.

“Let me explain you a thing,” said Stiles, and Isaac’s foot pressed into the top of his warningly, but thanks to the Rumchata™ he would not be deterred. “Now pay attention,” and he began to draw a Venn diagram with his hotel pen on a wet paper napkin, talking uninterruptedly as he struggled to sketch out circles for Grindr, Tinder, OKCupid, JDate, and Fetlife, without gouging the pen too deeply and tearing the—oh shit: he was making a slide.

“Stiles,” said Kira, with a lot of dimple but characteristic firmness, “you just quoted Lauren Berlant and Cvetkovich in the same sentence. Back away from the theory and let us eat before you give the entire table indigestion.”

“I’m only trying to save myself from dying alone,” he argued, but he crumpled the napkin in his hand and shoved it under the table. Then he picked up his fork, sighing elaborately, and dragged it through his frijoles, making criss-crossing patterns, unable to stop talking. “All I’m saying is that every single dude who messages me isn’t my type, but they’re not-my-type in extremely specific ways, according to which algorithm has horribly mislead us both.”

Isaac eyed him. “This thread is useless without examples.”

Stiles ticked them off on his fingers. “OKCupid: super-successful startup guys, engineers, or programmers. They always list their favorite books as being either by Ayn Rand or Animal Farm, which means the last book they read was in the tenth grade.”

“That’s totally unfair,” objected Boyd. “Sometimes they’ve read Philip K. Dick.”

Kira and Erica looked at each other, then at Stiles. “Okay this is kind of creepy,” Erica said, “because that’s exactly the same reading list straight guys put in their profiles. Keep going.”

“JDate: similar yet somehow worse,” Stiles continued. “More dentists, doctors, and MBAs; or this very particular kind of florist or interior decorator or graphic designer. Which, come on, I can’t date that guy! Everyone knows I’m the prettiest elf.” He stretched back in the booth, crossing his hands behind his head so that his elbows stuck out, warming to his topic. “If you can stand to use Grindr without actually throwing up a little in your brain, you get the possible serial-murderer types: the dishonorably discharged, misspelled tattoos, beardy white hipsters who may or may not reenact Civil War battles. The #AllLivesMatter types, with Confederate flags and rifles in their pickups. Painted-face football fans. Paleo atheist MRAs.”

Derek choked on his drink and Stiles looked over to see him almost actually laughing. “What the hell is a paleo atheist?”

Utterly unprepared, Stiles had no rejoinder, but was just drunk enough to go for loftiness. “I fail to see what part of any of that is confusing. Think of Latino Republicans. These things go together, it’s like they’re part of a set. For god’s sake, Hale, try to keep up.” Isaac shot him a look and Stiles shrugged. He had no idea where this weird infusion of self-assurance was coming from, but just in case it was the Rumchata™, he ordered another one.

Derek smiled at him yet again; Stiles tried not to let it go to his head and failed. “Finally, the magnificent gentlemen of Fetlife. Most of the men who message me can’t use their words; I’m lucky to get a dick shot or a Kik handle. Also, guys who look like me? We tend to get messages exclusively from bears and leather daddies, who aren’t really my t—”

At this Derek looked up sharply and Stiles realized that a) he’d just totally outed himself as kinky, and b) his mouth had gone a little dry, and he suddenly wasn’t so sure that leather daddies weren’t his type.

Fortunately the rest of the table were now telling their online-dating war stories—Kira had accidentally gone out for $200 worth of sushi with someone who worked for the Palin campaign; Erica had been on a date with a guy who was supposed to be in his mid-thirties but who turned out to be a teenage drug dealer who wanted her to buy liquor for him from the package store, and who ran an unsettlingly successful website called Gothic Lingerie. Isaac was showing them women’s Tinder profiles from his phone that were nothing but baby pictures, not only unhelpful but also disconcerting (were the women trying to line up dates for their babies?).

During all this, Stiles noticed Derek getting texts at the rate of like one every twenty seconds, and finally, after one which had made him visibly flinch, he turned his phone facedown on the table and beckoned to the waiter for—Stiles didn’t know what kind of drink that was, but it looked very strong, and Derek put it away like it was the last he’d ever have.

“Hey,” Stiles tried, nervous about bringing up something obviously personal, but aiming for Friendly Concern. He jostled Isaac as far over as he could go and scooted around the circle of the booth until he could lean across the table, elbow dangerously close to the shared bowl of guacamole. Stiles pitched his voice a little low so Derek could maybe hear it under the din of their shriek-laughing friends. “Everything okay over there?”

Derek looked up from his lap and met Stiles’s eyes, and Stiles was dismayed to see genuine distress. He cleared his throat, not sure what to say. “Or if you just want to drink, man, I’ll keep up with you.” He raised a finger to their waiter, who nodded.

Derek clearly wasn’t sober enough to keep whatever it was out of his eyes; they were clouded with…Stiles wasn’t sure. More than one emotion. “Honestly, it’s kind of a mess.”

“Most things are,” agreed Stiles promptly, without switching gears. “The good ones anyway. Relationships are overdetermined, per Freud. Four people in a bed, etc.”

“Funny you should cite Freud,” Derek said dryly, whereupon Stiles remembered that Derek’s ex-wife was some kind of psychoanalytic theorist who taught at—Stiles couldn’t remember where she taught.

He wound up saying that last part out loud and Derek groaned, rubbing his hand on the back of his neck. Stiles thought he looked beautiful even in that moment, soft-eyed and hazy, and he felt a surge of wondering what Derek’s stubble would feel like against his palm, against his mouth. “Kate teaches at the luminous Adelphi University,” Derek said sarcastically, and Stiles had trouble swallowing the guacamole he’d just balanced on a chip.

“Wait, so she's—Kate's the one texting you?” Stiles’s question came at one of those random lulls in the greater conversation, so the table had fallen silent at that moment and everyone turned toward them.

“Dammit, son, give me that phone,” growled Boyd, and Derek surrendered it, confessing as Boyd scrolled through the texts, his eyes getting wider, “I know it’s messed-up, Vernon, I know that, I’m not stupid. I just. She asked me to come see her a couple of weeks ago and we—I actually thought we might get back tog—”

“Oh my fucking god Derek, please tell me you’re kidding,” said Kira. “She’s literally crazy. She’s, she’s a paleo atheist MRA.” An awkward silence fell.

“Fuck,” Derek commented, standing up and weaving on his feet, distraught. “I know that. I know, okay! She’s just, she doesn’t know what she wants, which means she might change her mind. But one minute—it’s all very, you know. Up and down.”

“Hot and cold,” said Stiles, looking up at him, starting to get the shape of Derek’s—not damage, but maybe injury: what it was that dragged him in and kept him pinned. “On and off. Back and forth. Probably assorted other pairs of antonyms.” He also wondered if Derek could actually make it to the bathroom, but then Derek turned abruptly and off he went, wobbling only a little.

Boyd got to the end of the texts and turned off Derek’s phone, his expression that of a person profoundly unimpressed. “Kate’s the worst. And him—he’s a secret romantic, he wants domestic bliss and it’s never going to happen with her. She’s into him until she isn’t, which usually takes one semester, tops; and then she’ll cheat, and gaslight, and empty all his savings accounts.”

“Yeah, no, this cannot stand,” Erica agreed, and everyone started to strategize Derek’s emotional rescue. Stiles wondered when they’d gotten all up in Derek’s life business without his noticing.

He sat there for a second, thinking quietly, unusual for him on two counts, both the sitting still and the thinking. Alcohol often helped him downshift to more conventional human speeds. Stiles reached across absently to Derek’s drink and finished it for him.

He’d long ago decided that pretty much the only good thing to come out of his complicated brain chemistry was the fact that he could spot students with similar issues in his classes, effortlessly pick out the anxious and the mood-disordered from the undergraduate horde. Derek’s characteristic silences, it occurred to him for the first time, might be not necessarily just because he was awesome and cool, but because he was in fact completely depressed.

Stiles thought about his own anxiety attacks, the way he’d dissociate before and after; also a guy he’d dated in college, one of those physics geniuses who had whiteboards in every room and was also prone to a species of Asperger’s wordlessness, which necessitated that Stiles make accurate guesses about feelings, preferences, and emotional states. Stiles had gotten better at the guessing, but not good enough fast enough for him and the physicist to stick it out.

He had a sudden surge of sympathy, so strong that it brought him to his feet. “Be right back,” he muttered, not that anyone was paying attention, but he needed to see for himself that Derek was more or less okay.

He’d just stepped into the narrow hallway leading to the bathrooms when Derek emerged from the door marked Caballeros, and clutched at Stiles’s shoulder to steady himself. His eyes were very bright and his face was flushed, and very close.

Hey, caballero,” said Stiles, cupping Derek’s elbow in one hand a little more gently than he might have usually—just making sure, he told himself, he didn’t lose his balance. “Everything okay? I mean no, obviously not, but.”

“Your eyes are brown,” Derek informed him, which Stiles thought was sort of self-evident, but maybe Derek hadn’t ever noticed. From this close up he could see Derek’s eyes were not green, as he’d always thought, but an unheimlich pale gray, with a thin gold circle around the iris.

“And you have heterochromia,” he responded intelligently; and then Derek was grabbing the back of Stiles's Carhartt with both hands, trying not to go down.

In an effort to keep them both upright, somehow Stiles wound up moving forward and pressing Derek against the opposite wall, and couldn’t find it in himself to regret this, because Derek’s legs parted immediately around him, and his breath was warm and alcoholic on Stiles’s mouth, which had opened in astonishment.

"You're tall, too," said Derek, head tilted back, looking at Stiles's mouth, and this wasn't happening.

“Okay big guy, let's, um, let's get you back to the,” Stiles began; and then Derek slid his hands from between Stiles’s shoulder blades to his hips, and Stiles lost whatever ability he had to finish that sentence.

“Brown but clear, like the sherry in the glass, that the guest leaves,” Derek went on, breathlessly, fingers seeking out Stiles's belt loops, and Stiles somehow managed to think, through a blurt of lust, okay this sort of is is happening, but it’s not a good thing to be happening while we’re hammered in a bathroom hallway, because Derek doesn’t really want this.

He managed to move them hip-to-hip, and got a shoulder under Derek’s armpit. “Here we go,” Stiles said, more energetically than he felt, and within a few steps Derek was back on his feet all by himself and headed through the door, not looking behind him.

Stiles stood there for a long moment, leaning against the wall, rumpled, just inhaling and exhaling.

So that…didn’t mean anything, and you can’t let his being impaired try to make it mean anything. Under all the rum and whipped cream and despair, Stiles was surprised to feel a core sense of rightness. It startled him; he was seldom able to behave ethically, much less morally. But when it came to Derek and consent, apparently Stiles took things seriously.

And now here he was, in yet another bathroom, making another speech to himself. “Thank you for your concern, but I am fine,” he announced, sticking his head all the way under the tap and wriggling around until he felt cold water on the back of his neck. “I am even, how do you say in your country, chill.” He was starting to get a dehydration headache; he needed to cut himself off and drink more water. And make sure Derek drank water, too. “All your chill are belong to me. As the kids…used to say. Like, fifteen years ago or so, I think. How do you do, fellow kids?” He refused to think about the warmth of Derek’s body pressed against his. About how easy it would have been to take Derek’s face between his hands and—

Stiles braced his hands on the edge of the sink and stared at himself in the mirror: brown hair never anything less than tormented; eyes, yes, brown, generally giving away more than he was comfortable with; a ridiculous mouth that tended to flop open when he forgot to keep it closed. Nothing to see here, please move along. “Also, further news in my social life—demented and sad, yes, but social—devastatingly hot assistant prof, recently divorced from reactionary Freudian, still totally in love with her! Awesome! Hope that works out great for them!” Stiles gave himself a big double thumbs-up and a huge fake grin. Then he banged his forehead a couple of times, just for luck really, against the paper towel dispenser.

As an afterthought, he texted Scott:

at bar with everyone so so so drunk you’d be impressed also derek just touched my back & sort of breathed on my face so obvs I can never wash it again

Scott didn’t reply right away this time, because he was probably asleep; but that was fine.

Suddenly irrationally cheerful, and humming “Tears of a Clown,” Stiles headed back out into the dining room, deciding he was far too warm and coming out of all his layers until he was down to the t-shirt, which was larger than Stiles remembered and hung off his collarbones.

Something at the table seemed wrong. He raked a hand through his hair and stood there for a moment, like a waiter, except holding wads of clothing, until he realized that Isaac had moved to where Stiles had been sitting, so that the only seat left now was…right next to Derek’s. Stiles didn’t know whether to consider Isaac an awesome wingman or a total dick; but then his eyes met Isaac’s and he decided to go with totally awesome wingman. Because this would never happen again. That plus Isaac had procured two more mai tais for them.

He slid into the booth next to Derek, who was fumbling to turn his phone back on, so Stiles decided to provide distraction.

“You know what, Hale? You remind me of a baby right now. Not just any baby; a particular baby. A particular drunk baby, in fact.”

Stiles’s intuition turned out to be correct, and Derek had in fact never seen the trailer to “Baby Trashes Bar in Las Palmas,” so Stiles pulled it up on Derek’s phone and, in an impossibly rare moment of closeness, he and Derek bent over the same screen snickering together, with regularly spaced texts from Kate vying for attention; but for the moment, Derek actually ignored them in favor of a fake-inebriated toddler.

He could feel puffs of warmth against his face from Derek’s laughing. Whenever the drunk baby knocked over furniture, or guzzled from another toy bottle of grape juice, Derek would huff another small laugh but then quickly drop his head in that little shy embarrassed tucking movement which, fuck his life, had now officially destroyed Stiles and probably ruined him for any other laugh ever.

Stiles couldn’t help it; he actually did the fake-stretch thing and pushed his arm subtly out along the edge of the booth behind Derek, pretending he needed to get closer to see the phone, as Derek was showing him some tweet by @ProBirdRights which Stiles was pretty sure he’d already seen months ago, but god forbid he would let that on, ever, when Derek’s denimed thigh was barely pressed up against his and Stiles was all but sunbathing in the warmth and proximity.

The movement of Derek’s upper arm against Stiles’s was different than he’d expected: not corded with muscle, but with both of them wearing short sleeves, Stiles felt smooth skin tender against his own, almost silky. He had to fight not to close his eyes at the touch, because he also had a close-up view of the alluring length of Derek’s neck.

Stiles decided he could have this moment. He was allowed. It wasn’t taking advantage because this was all he would ever get, so he would take it without regret. And Derek’s inebriation meant the nearness almost certainly wouldn’t bother him or make him feel uncomfortable later; Stiles figured he wouldn’t even remember. He’d be dealing with Kate and, having had at least three doubles and a couple of shots, Derek probably wouldn’t even remember sitting next to Stiles, much less the way Stiles could feel their heads touch as they leaned in to study the video.

“I hate that I’m back in this, this thing with her,” Derek suddenly confessed in a rush, his nose almost touching Stiles’s cheek. Stiles held his breath and nodded minutely: don’t move, don’t speak, keep listening. “I mean, I only just figured out that I really do like men better, and here I am with a woman again. And it’s this woman.”

The tops of his cheekbones were flushed and his eyes were so close that Stiles nearly had to cross his own to look into them, that green-gold jasmine-tea color, like new leaves in spring—nope, stop, no poetry, Stilinski. He doesn’t like you. He had to keep chanting it over and over in his head to stop himself from bending that last few inches and pressing his mouth against Derek’s neck: he doesn’t like you that way, he’s not interested, He’s Just Not That Into You.

Focused as he was on restraint, half-wondering if he should just sit on his twitchy fingers, Stiles was hardly paying attention when Derek apparently asked him something, and Stiles only realized he hadn’t responded because Derek tried to raise an eyebrow (face clearly numb—Stiles knew that feeling, and after swigging half his glass of ice water he put it right into Derek’s hand, to get him to finish it).

“Personal question,” Derek managed a second time, and Stiles came back into focus, swallowed and nodded.

“Earlier, you reeled off that list, all these men who aren’t your alago, your alorg—your type,” Derek said, enunciating carefully. “So what kind of guy is your type?”

Stiles’s tongue suddenly felt thick with ethanol. He’d never tried to put it into words before, or maybe no one had ever asked him. He frowned and rubbed at his forehead, like that would help him have ideas. Oh, so, that was one:

“Brainy,” he said, then paused. “That’s the most important thing, clearly, is intelligence. Then...then masculine—but I don’t mean a six-pack or whatever. Maleness, but not qua maleness? I guess I mean not, uh…overcompensating butch.”

Derek laughed again, another brush of warmth against Stiles’s bare skin that made all the fine hairs on the back of his neck stand up. “Um, let’s see…somehow solid? And again I don’t mean built like a brick house or anything physical—I mean dependable, kind of like how things are with me and my best friend Scott. Except, you know. Definitely not Scott.”

Stiles thought some more, fiddling with Derek’s phone and resisting the temptation to delete the last few texts from Kate, which were increasingly explicit. “A counterbalance—someone calm, maybe kind of quiet, steady. Who can keep me from flying off like a balloon without the knot tied. Nietzsche has this aphorism somewhere about marriage, about needing more weight than just yourself alone to—”

“—make you heavy enough to descend,” Derek finished, clearing his throat. Was he choked up? Stiles tried to check, out of the corner of his eye. Derek paused for a second, then went on, still hoarsely. “Pain as our emotional form of gravity. The thing that keeps us human.”

Don’t look at him, don’t look at him. “Yeah, well, so. Speaking of pain…that’s probably my last thing. It’s sort of my…my biggest kink. Not pain per se—although also not not-pain—but that my partner be willing to, to. To tell me. What he wants. What he wants me to do, and what he’s going to do. To me. So someone who talks, not necessarily talks a lot but when it’s important, and who thinks everything through ahead of time, who has…plans for me.” Stiles fought not to water down what he was saying, to stay truthful about it, even though there was no way he could look at Derek’s face and talk about being submissive at the same time.

But Derek seemed to be still listening. “Basically it’s about needing someone who can—mess with my head and drown me out and shut me up, because otherwise I don’t ever stop. It doesn’t have to be…physical, necessarily; but it can be. Although I can’t handle being left alone afterward, or as a punishment, someone just withdrawing their presence and—”

Stiles stopped, aware he’d come dangerously close to reciting his entire scene negotiation sheet to Derek for no reason, giving him the whole set of keys. And Derek hadn’t asked for any of that anyway.

“Yeah, so, you know.” He cleared his throat. “En bref, not the kind of hit-and-run top I’m going to meet on fucking Grindr.” He looked up and met Derek’s eyes again, those vinho verde irises filled with light that seemed to see Stiles, that seemed to be on the cusp of saying something—

“Holy shit you guys,” Danny groaned, “I have to fly out at like five a.m. tomorrow.”

“Same, that’s it for me, I’m cashed out,” agreed Boyd, who’d been quiet for the last while, methodically dealing with some coconut flan in which no one else had been interested.

The waiter brought a blizzard of separate checks, tip trays, and pens; somehow Stiles wound up paying for all of Derek’s shots, Boyd’s flan, and the two bowls of guacamole they’d had as an appetizer, but he tipped generously and signed without a qualm—totally worth it.

And then everyone was standing, pulling on coats, rummaging through wallets and purses and wrapping scarves and zipping coats. Derek struggled visibly with the inside-out sleeves of his jacket and Stiles ached to help him, but sensed it wouldn’t be welcomed or okay.

In a jostling knot, they all walked back to the hotel, staggery and loose and loquacious from the booze and the relief of having the conference behind them. Kira and Danny were singing Arctic Monkeys for no apparent reason, and Erica, Boyd, and Isaac were having a serious strategizing conversation about proposing a celebrity and intersectionality panel for the next regional PopCult in New Orleans.

Derek hung back a little bit from their small pack, walking alone, having trouble navigating the curbs, and something felt loose inside of Stiles, like a screw wasn't tightened. He rarely felt this way toward other people; it surprised him, the surge of protectiveness, him dropping back as well, his hand hovering just above and between Derek’s shoulder blades in case he really seemed about to fall. But Stiles didn’t actually touch him, that would be weird and unwanted, and after all Derek was fine. He didn’t need any help, not from Stiles.

Stiles fell all the way back, then, as the group crossed the street; he'd gone uncharacteristically silent, was still getting drunker, felt grateful he hadn’t done anything more stupid. He kept trying to name a particular color, thinking of straw-yellow wine in amber bottles; or the spring-green crayon, some color halfway between jonquils and their pale stems? Put a sock in it, Stilinski.

The group drew together in a big clump on the corner just outside the hotel, everyone preparing to go their separate ways. In a frenzy of hugging and goodbyes and see-you-next-years, Stiles threw his arms around Erica and Boyd and Kira, but not Isaac (who was staying across the hall from him and Malia anyway), and definitely not Derek, who stood outside the circle, looking tense, unhappy, and maybe increasingly ill.

“Travel safely,” Stiles finally said, in Derek’s general direction, and Derek sort of nodded, not even looking toward him, already half-talking to Boyd; and that was that.

Stiles went inside the hotel trailing the rest of them, trying hard not to—not to something.

“Hotel bar?” said Isaac, reading the look on Stiles’s face that really didn’t want to be read.

“Nah, you go ahead. I’m going to take a walk. Evening constitutional.”

He smiled the best he could, although it was a little lopsided, and squeezed Isaac’s hand. “Also? Thanks, man.”

Isaac didn’t bother asking for what. “You’re welcome, I’m just. Sorry.”

Stiles shook his head. “Don’t be, it’s fine. I just—I just need to sober up a little.”

Outside, he could see his breath. The moon was huge and gaping and stupidly romantic, all fogged-over and pale. Stiles peered up to where it hung over the tallest downtown buildings, half-expecting to see a caped figure silhouetted up there. “No Bat-Signal tonight,” he said to himself. After his mom died, as a kid, he’d throw open his window and climb out onto the roof, to scan the night sky for the sign that meant someone was coming to save him, someone strong was coming and would help. Not this time, either; no rescue.

He kept walking until he reached an arroyo, traversed by a wide bridge without any street lights, which probably meant he’d gone too far and was about to perish in drive-by crossfire. “I shall die alone and no cat will eat me,” he said dramatically, balancing along the bridge railing. “That’s because my cat already died too.” This made him laugh, because shit was so bleak it was freaking uproarious. Also: kinda still getting drunk. He pulled his phone out of his pocket to text that to Derek, because it was funny, and then put it away before he could do so.

Possibly he really would die alone, probably, knowing himself, after tripping over nothing and stumbling out into traffic. Maybe a snack machine would fall over and crush him. Leave it to Stiles to die in some incredibly stupid Darwin Awardsesque way. He’d once read an arresting statistic about the number of North Americans who got their heads stuck accidentally in automatic garage doors; also car door windows, which is one reason he’d always preferred the Jeep’s analog roll-up windows. He could just imagine getting his scrawny neck trapped in some such dire and bathetic situation.

“Live your life,” he told the moon, “in such a way that your final words aren’t oh shit.” Then he tweeted that, because it seemed important.

Live your life in such a way that you don’t dwell on what you can’t have, people you can’t touch. Derek won’t ever let Stiles slip his hands inside that leather jacket, slide them into the damp warmth beneath Derek’s armpits and circle around his back to drag his fingers down, shove them under the hem of his shirt to touch the silky skin of his chest, find all the tender responsive places, trace the borders, the edges where Derek’s hair starts and stops. He won’t ever get to press kisses into his stomach, small ones that slowly or quickly turn into bites, won’t ever curl his tongue against the skin of Derek’s throat, starting at his trapezius and winding around in a spiral, up and back to the nape of his neck where he’d bite down hardest.

Stiles will never again get to back Derek up against some surface, any surface, which one wouldn’t be important; more important that he won’t ever get to thread his fingers through Derek’s belt loops, drop to his knees and drag Derek’s jeans down along with him as he goes. He won’t discover what color his underwear is, how it fits, how wet it gets, how difficult it might be to remove when Derek’s hard and wanting. Stiles won’t wrap his long fingers around Derek’s bare ankles and start taking him down slowly, agonizingly even, the most minute licks and flicks of his tongue, trying to figure out exactly which precise nerve bundle gets him off, what tiny nub or patch or fold of flesh to nibble and worry and attend to slavishly. And then, as Derek starts to tremble, Stiles won’t be allowed to just devour him, messily, to whisper that Derek should ride his face, hands cupping Derek’s hips and lifting his thighs up around his ears, going harder and faster, saliva dripping down until he’d made Derek’s entire body stiffen (he did that, Stiles did it), pulled taut in a long tense silent arch, with held breath and a hot red flush, until he’d let out a shout, high and hoarse, and gone so pliant, still shaky and seeing spangles from how bright and sharp and hard he’d just come. He’d never let Stiles walk him backward to the bed, pulling off their clothes along the way, wondering how many times he could do that to Derek, finding out exactly what Derek was made for. And he’d never know if Derek would have any idea what Stiles was for—if he would know the things Stiles was made to do, and have done to him (so far, no one had ever really known).

Stiles bent over the bridge railing, dropped a handful of gravel into the arroyo, listened for a splash. There wasn’t one. If Derek had ever been interested he could have made a move anytime in the last couple of years, but he hadn’t, so he didn’t want Stiles, which meant Stiles couldn’t tell him how he felt because that would be an imposition. It would only make Derek feel uncomfortable, like he had to do or say something, apologize, back off, respond.

And Stiles couldn’t bear doing that to him. He let go of his brain and walked another length of time, another distance, not really paying attention, just letting his mind fill with the cold reality of Derek’s disinterest like a bucket left out in the rain, and now somehow he was standing aimless in a 24-hour Walgreen’s, not quite sure how he’d gotten there, looking blindly at rows of souvenir keychains and shot glasses, liquor flasks and ashtrays, fridge magnets and church keys. It all felt very stochastic. Stiles was abruptly so overcome he rested his forehead on a metal shelf, looking down at his crappy grad student flip phone. No one had texted.

The metal felt cool against his cheeks. He typed and deleted the same text, kept reverting back to it, again and again. Type. Delete. Type. Delete. Kate was no doubt still blowing up Derek’s phone with screeds, the man didn’t need more crazy-ass texting in his life—plus her texts had been getting fairly graphic toward the end there and Stiles wouldn’t be surprised if Derek had, okay, you know what, actually, never mind, discontinuing that line of inquiry.

Rolling his forehead back and forth against the shelf, staring at a row of earplugs in beige and pink—why were women’s earplugs pink, someone should write a paper about that—he cut a deal with himself to send something expressive yet not as incriminating as it could be. Harm reduction! Anyone could do it, after all those drinks. Not a big thing. Flattering, really.

Before he changed his mind, he sent the first sentence his fingers typed: You looked beautiful tonight. And immediately regretted it, staggering toward the door of the drugstore chanting under his breath, why, Stiles, why; why why why, this is why you should have stayed with Isaac—

There was a long electronic silence during which Stiles, slumped against a newspaper dispenser and permitted himself to die not merely a thousand deaths, but one enormous one, as if falling into a huge self-interred grave. He could practically hear Derek struggling to compose a generous yet firm cut-that-shit-off-at-the-pass reply, which, sure enough, came shortly thereafter:

you looked beautiful tonight ... that’s so nice of you to say I’m really glad we’re colleagues Hope you have a good flight back

Stiles swallowed hard, trying not to throw up on his shoes, suddenly grateful for and gulping the cold air. “And there we have it. This is why you don’t go to bars with people you’re more than half in love with, because this is the kind of fucking stunt you pull, Stilinski.”

He turned off his phone and shoved it deep into his pocket, repeating in his head the text he’d really wanted to send, over and over, articulating it as distinctly as he could—as if, should he think it clearly and often enough, Derek might somehow be able to hear him:

You’re my type, you adorable fucking moron. You’re my type.

Chapter Text

One night, when Stiles was in his first year as a graduate TA, he’d had a particularly bad fight with Malia.

They were still trying to make it work, and it wasn’t working, and she’d stalked out of their bedroom in an icy silent fury, because that’s what Malia did. Whereupon Stiles did what he did, when someone walked out on him in an icy silent fury—he followed her, throwing more words onto the fire, actually trying in his way to keep from being left alone; but only now could he see that barraging someone like Malia with words only made them want to be even further away from him.

She’d finally shouted him down and taken off in the Jeep, at which point Stiles had done something so unbelievably shameful to him that in the end only Scott, and not even his dad, had known (his dad had totally known): he’d slammed his fist down so hard on the kitchen countertop he’d broken his own right hand.

He texted Scott awkwardly with his left, vision blurred with tears, and Scott drove him to the ER for an x-ray and a hideous full-arm cast. Stiles couldn’t see why he needed a cast that reached above his elbow when he’d only broken one tiny metacarpal, on the outside of his hand.

The worst thing of all, though, was that largely they’d been fighting because Stiles was under so much stress, with his first cohort of struggling high-risk undergraduate students and their unending needs, and the piles and piles and piles of homework and papers to grade.

And now, not only had all of that not gone away, but Stiles still had to keep doing everything, only but now with the added burden of having a fucking cast on his dominant, a.k.a. grading, hand.

It was pretty much the worst February of his life, even though Malia and he made up, temporarily. She covered for him when he told everyone he’d slipped and fallen on the ice, and she painted his fingernails a glittery festive purple, and she helped him wrap a plastic bag around the cast when he showered, to keep it dry, for six weeks, and then for an additional two weeks after that when the break still hadn’t healed.

So now, when Stiles felt so lost or hurt or terrified that he wanted to lose his shit (it looked like anger, on the outside, maybe, but it was really those other far scarier things)—now when he felt that way, he instinctively touched the small bone of his right hand with the fingers of his left, that little bump that would never be gone and always ached before it rained, to remind himself: don’t make it worse. Whatever you do, don’t make things worse.

At least this time, he told himself on the flight out of Albuquerque, curling up under the dubious felted airplane blanket and pretending to sleep,—at least this time he probably hadn’t made things too much worse?

Oh god who was he kidding. He’d totally made it worse.

He arrived home from the conference mostly just flatlining—mentally wiped blank, an Etch-a-Sketch, head full of gray static like a cable channel that doesn’t come in properly. Stiles always ramped up too much for academic conferences and then crashed down hard.

He knew there had to be a better way to do this; he watched colleagues deliver their papers calmly, felt pretty sure they hadn’t pulled all-nighters to get them finished. They seemed able to socialize more or less normally as well, and didn’t buttonhole their colleagues and bang on and on about some obscure topic such as (just, say, for example) male circumcision, or Druid rituals. He was lucky to have any friends who put up with him at all, much less who actually seemed to like him. Stiles involuntarily reviewed every single interaction he’d had during the conference and found all of them completely cringeworthy, in terms of things he should have said but didn’t, or, more often, things he shouldn’t have said but did anyway. But no interactions were as painful in retrospect as his brief exchanges with Derek Hale.

Once he was back in his apartment, had slept a solid twelve hours and was clear-headed enough to scroll through his texts, he discovered a lengthy rum-induced exchange with Scott, a conversation he’d completely forgotten having:

s cotty what do I like him so mugch ... dude I am aware but u need to tell HIM that not me ... can’t ... can ... no rlly I can’t ... its called a garbage CAN stiles ... oh my god please no dad jokes

just don’t want to make him uncomfortable ... wait WHO do u really not want to make uncomfortable ... I don’t even know what I would say to him ... then don’t say anything yet look all I know is I’ve seen u do this before like five hundred times now ... haha two hundred at most

okay but u know im right u pick the most distant person u can possibly find and then embark upon some big campaign fall in love with stiles 2k1x and basically stand under their window with ur boombox u know like a like a

okay what are those medieval guys called … ??? the ones w the ukelele that stand under windows ... um troubadours and its a LUTE not a ukelele

right but so my point is that doesnt really work except in movies it didnt even work for the lute guys and lbr this has everything to do with your mom oh shit

fuck im sorry man okay I went too far im sorry did you pass out please say something stiles

no you know what youre totally right I think that’s why I can’t say anything if he’s interested at all he has to start it ... cant there be a middle ground though is what im saying like what if u dont leave a copy of neruda and a bunch of flowers outside his door

[Stiles winced; yes, he had in fact done exactly that once, to an unfortunate Irish undergrad, and spectacularly without success.]

but also dont just withdraw into ur nerd world without trying ... its like Lyds said to that kitten she was trying to catch ... you have to be brave if you want love ... okay okay get some fuckin sleep yoda

It was, he thought, swiping off the phone, his all-or-nothing brain again: the only way he knew how to navigate the world. But his therapist, Marin, had been saying he could be more aware of nuances. “Not necessarily shades of gray,” she’d said, as if acknowledging the limits of Stiles’s ability to change his hardwiring, “but maybe checkered; more like a chessboard.”

What would a chessboard look like, Stiles wondered, when it came to Derek Hale? More specifically, how could he fix what he’d done—let him know he was still interested when sober, yet also make it clear he wasn’t going to pursue Derek beyond the bounds of civility, as if—as if he were Stacy from Wayne's World. (Or, perhaps more accurately and therefore even more scary for Derek: like Kate.)

It took him all day to figure out. He unpacked, ran three loads of laundry, watered the mostly (but not all) dead houseplants, threw away some shockingly deteriorated produce, poured out the curdled milk, took out the trash and paid his utilities. He emailed his students reminding them to respond to the reading by midnight on Blackboard, and to bring their paper drafts to class the next day for review.

Stiles was halfway through stripping the bed and putting on clean sheets when he thought of the obvious thing to do, and sat down on one corner to write a brief businesslike email, thanking Derek for accepting his paper and including him on two panels. Then he hit return and wrote another paragraph, and—here was the tricky part—not too black, not too white; not scary-desperate, not so vague as to be unclear:

It means a lot to me to hear about your research and get to talk shop every year, and I also really enjoy your company as a man human man individual extremely fucking attractive man person. If you’re ever in the neighborhood of UC–SB, please know you have a place to stay; and if you ever need to talk—

Here Stiles broke down. He wanted to say that he’d be willing to listen if Derek needed to talk about Kate, but what the fuck did he know about getting through a divorce? For that matter, he didn’t so much want to listen to Derek agonize about his breakup as he hoped to distract him, preferably by getting him naked, and—

Stiles tried once more, aiming this time for just a hairsbreadth more flippancy and flirtatiousness, and a little bit less gravity:

If you’re ever in the neighborhood and need a place to crash, I make a mean pasta carbonara; and if you can’t sleep, I’ve been assured I tell very soothing bedtime stories.

Before he could hyperventilate or agonize about the details, he sent it, then grabbed a pillow, buried his face in it, and made a brief speech to the bed linens about the perils of emotional vulnerability.

Then he resolutely did not check email until after his morning comp section. Well, halfway through. Well, just a few times during.

Did I just make it worse yet again, he wondered, scrambling across campus to get to his next section on time, student papers barely clutched under one arm, threatening to slide loose and flutter away. If someone really doesn’t like you, isn’t any advance on your part going to make them feel uncomfortable? I'd be flattered; but maybe Derek’s not like that.

In the end Stiles guessed he had in fact officially made everything yet more worse, because Derek never wrote back, not even a polite brush-off—not even an emoji, the ultimate shutter-downer of Internet communiques—and he also never called for his bedtime story. Which was, Stiles reflected, just as well, since the only bedtime stories he knew were mostly of the terrifying wailing-spirit variety, as well as the plot of a French children’s book entitled « M. et Mme Porcinet Dînent En Ville. »

In another reality, of course, the bedtime story consisted of a long phone call during which Derek would let Stiles talk him through pulling off all his clothes, and then would continue to let Stiles do terrible, wonderful things to his gorgeous fucking body by proxy, via AT&T.

But such an outcome, frankly, in this universe? was even less realistic than the plot of « M et Mme Porcinet Dînent En Ville. » And that story had a babysitting werewolf in it.

As the semester raced to its debilitating close, the usual unstoppable exacerbation between spring break and finals week took hold. None of his first-year students were capable of coherent thought, much less writing (and to be honest Stiles wasn’t much better off than they were; as soon as the clocks went forward, everyone’s brain left the building).

Despite how busy things were, he also couldn’t stop himself from regularly scheduled unease about Derek’s non-reply. He must not only be really not attracted to me, but actively dislike me—just something extra, to make next year’s conference even more delightfully stressful and fun.

He considered not going; he considered running away to Panama and changing his name. This would also solve the problem of the ungraded papers which were currently giving him dirty looks from a corner of his cubicle. He shared the office with thirteen other grad instructors, most of whom he’d never even met. They were probably home, with their partners and pets and children and families and hot nerd lovers. Clearly Stiles was the only single person left on the entire campus, and Panama the only solution.

just think scotty I could be a simple potato farmer happy and free growing those little purple and yellow potatoes id never have to teach MLA citation style again ... p sure ur thinking of peru ... shit you’re right ... im sure they farm something in panama tho

hats maybe ... u know im proud of u

Leaning precariously back in his task chair, Stiles barked a laugh.

um what proud of my peerless ability to postpone work until the 11th hr proud of your spinster brother all moldy wedding cake and yellowed lace like miss havisham

i dot know who that is wait stiles ur not writing sad poetry r u ... brb student

There wasn’t a student—Stiles couldn’t get them to come in for extra credit, much less for office hours—but he unabashedly deployed students as an extraction device when he needed to pace or think or just be weird alone, without even friendly surveillance.

Also, Stiles had been, in fact, writing sad poetry, if by sad Scott meant pining, torridly romantic poetry indulging in long luxurious descriptions of the beloved in terms of the pulse visibly beating in his throat and the whiteness of his shirt against his dark stubble and how the writer of said poetry ached to comb his fingers through the beloved’s adorably spiky hair, possibly while taking his face in both hands and fitting his mouth against the beloved’s—

He shoved the yellow legal pad into a drawer. Writing hopeless erotic poetry probably definitely counted as Making Things Worse.

Stiles’s phone pinged again and he swiped at it, prepared to explain the plot of Great Expectations to Scott, when he froze at his desk.

Hey Stiles I know this is short notice but Im going to be in your neck of the woods over the weekend to use the archives I already have a place to stay (the department put me in the campus hotel) but if your offer of dinners still open Id like that

“Jesus H. Watson creamed on toast,” Stiles breathed, dragging a hand through his hair and looking around the office wildly, as if there were someone there who could help him. Before he could reply, there was another text.

oh and PS this is Derek Hale from PopCult

Stiles leaned over helplessly onto his desk and laughed until he was starting to feel hysterical, by which point another text had appeared:

PPS not sure about bedtime story but I do have pretty bad insomnia

Stiles stopped laughing.

maidez maidez ... speak english stiles ... MAYDAY ... what is it now ... oh my god scotty shit just got so real

For the rest of that week, Marin helped Stiles as best she could with pre-Derek nerves, which were surprisingly intense, jokingly comparing Stiles to the little outboard-motor dragonfly Evinrude in The Rescuers, and reminding him to breathe and unclench various body parts which Stiles usually didn’t realize had locked up without his approval or even knowledge.

It got so bad on Thursday night that he had to resort to calling her for phone coaching, which was embarrassing because it had been years since he’d flat-out hyperventilated all by himself.

Marin, unflaggingly calm as usual, talked him down; to be honest just the sound of her voice helped, but the breathing exercises did too.

“Count to four, inhale, one—two—three—four, make a fist, tight, tight as you can, tighter! Now release, count to four, exhale, one—two—three—four, let that fist relax, just let it all go.”

There was an odd pause during which Stiles instinctively held his breath, even though he knew he shouldn’t be. “Stiles?”

“Yeah?” His voice shook, and he fought back tears, furious at himself.

“Did you forget to let go?” Stiles looked down at his left hand in wonder, still clenched in a tight fist, then made a sound halfway between a guffaw and a sob.

“How the hell did you know that?!”

Marin laughed, but nicely. “Because I know you. Let’s do it again, and how about this time you actually unclench your fist on the outbreath.”

By the time Stiles was breathing like a normal non-hysterical human being, it was 11 pm; and even though he’d frantically listed to Marin all the things he needed to get done before tomorrow, and thus had to stay up to work on tonight, she had been implacable.

“The day’s over, Stiles. You don’t have to decide what to do because that’s it, that’s the ball game. All that’s left is bed and sleep.”

Stiles could feel himself still vibrating. “Sleep? Are you kidding? If you had a bow, you could play a fucking Bach cello suite on me.”

Marin laughed, and Stiles secretly kind of loved her for that, because hardly anyone thought Stiles was funny (except his students, and he wasn’t always sure whether they were laughing near him or at him).

“I know you think that, but if you lie in the dark—no phone!—and count breaths, I bet you’ll be asleep more quickly than you realize.”

Stiles didn’t want to admit to anyone, though he suspected Marin knew, how hard he fought it, falling asleep: how there was never enough time in the day—or the night, when his brain kicked in, how those hours were the most precious in terms of cranking out work, even though he always paid for it the next day in terms of bleary staggering-around and being unable to tolerate other humans until at least three p.m. and a couple of flat whites.

He tried to relax, though, this time, for once, curled up around his little stuffed red fox toy (which Kira had given him last year for his birthday and about which no one would ever know). Breathing in fours, he lay there wondering if he should be pessimistic (the carbonara would be overcooked, and they would spend a couple of dry but friendly enough hours talking shop, ending when Derek left promptly at nine, whereupon Stiles would cry into his ice cream and write more erotic poetry) or optimistic (the carbonara would be totally forgotten as Derek pounded into him over the counter, both of them gasping).

In the end he reluctantly got himself off, boxers around his thighs, quilt and sheets shoved down out of the way, remembering what it was like to be all up in Derek’s space even just a little, his face lit by the phone’s glow, features blurred by alcohol and uncertainty.

In Stiles’s fantasy, though, Derek wasn’t sad. In the alternate universe where he wasn’t unwanted, Stiles could make Derek laugh, could make him breathe faster, make his face sharpen to a bright hot attention and his eyes widen; and then he could make Derek come, every muscle in his body stuttering before seizing up under Stiles—

His dozen phone alarms (one set to go off every five minutes) went off almost until ten a.m. before Stiles managed to wake up enough to move, he was that saturated, that bogged down in deep sleep.

He skittered around his apartment most of that day, half-completing chores, unable to concentrate on grading or academic work yet somehow by the end of the afternoon staring at a text document that claimed to be two thousand words long. He sighed and closed it—who knew if anything in there would be good enough for his dissertation.

He thought about changing, then decided that he’d keep on his usual working-at-home day clothes: the jeans too faded to teach in; the violet plaid shirt Isaac had bought him, saying something about eyes and the color wheel that didn’t make any sense to Stiles; the sock feet because who wears shoes in their own house? Stiles swept the living room, opening the front door and just whisking the dust outside, then he propped open the bedroom window with an exhausted three-ring binder so the air could circulate (the window wouldn’t stay open by itself). He stood still in the bedroom doorway for a beat, pausing like Marin advised him, to pay attention to the quiet moments and not let them slip by unremarked: eyes closed, head tilted back, sniffing the fresh air and flexing his wrists, sore from another day spent typing.

Someone cleared his throat from the open front door and Stiles jumped sideways, knocking into the doorframe and kicking over the bedroom’s metal trashcan with a clatter before managing to grab it and set it upright.

“Heeeeeey, it's Derek Hale!” he said, too loudly, and already wanted to punch himself in the face, but—but Derek actually smiled back at him, and Stiles immediately and randomly decided to go with Scenario: Optimism, just because. Because why not? He could only get completely emotionally trampled again; what did he have to lose?

He’d just become a Panamanian, and write sad poems, and make hats.

“I brought this, it should go with your carbonara…” Derek trailed off, pulling a half-bottle of Sta. Margherita from its paper bag, and Stiles made the vague approving noises of someone who knows absolutely zero about wine.

He turned around to stick it in the freezer, futzing around unnecessarily, in no small part to recover from the fact that Derek was still standing in his doorway looking disgustingly fucking radiant in a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up and dark jeans. Without, it was true, the magical leather conference jacket; but Stiles promptly decided he’d trade the jacket for the rolled-up sleeves any day.

“Come in, you look like a Mormon missionary,” he blurted out (0 for 2, Bilinski, excellent game), and Derek did, unselfconsciously kicking out of his dress shoes and leaving them by the door.

“Had to wear work clothes today,” Derek said apologetically, “I thought I could just sneak into the special collection, but the media studies librarian snagged me for a talk…” He shrugged, pulling a wadded-up necktie out of his front jeans pocket and throwing it down on top of the shoes.

“Well, feel free to get more comfortable,” Stiles said without thinking, and then could feel himself flushing from cheekbones probably to his ankles. 0 for 3. M’aidez! He fiddled with his phone in his pocket, wondering if it would be too obvious to text Scott frantically and ask for help.

Once more, though, Derek didn’t seem to take this amiss, and only smiled again, following Stiles into the kitchen, where the pancetta was already draining on paper towels. He took an appreciative sniff.

“I always try to give up pork,” he said, frowning a little, “but then cooks like you come along with various forms of bacon and tempt me.”

This time Stiles managed to bite back a tasteless, obvious innuendo about temptation and instead just started filling his largest pot with cold water for the pasta, pragmatically. “This only takes a few minutes, but if you want you can hang out in here. Or in the living room, and look at the bookshelves. Whatever makes you more comfortable.”

Derek pulled out a chair from Stiles’s tiny breakfast table and sat down, managing to say, “I’d like to watch,” without it sounding dirty at all. Stiles wondered how he did that. Maybe it helped if you were tenure-track. Stiles himself could probably read Thomas Aquinas aloud and make it somehow sound like grade-school poop jokes.

“So are you, um, a moral vegetarian, or a gotta-keep-my-rocking-hot-bod type?” (0 for 4! Though in Stiles’s defense, it really was.)

Derek laughed, only a little uncomfortably. “Neither? I do eat meat. But it bothers me to put something in my mouth that's almost as smart as I am.”

Stiles started heating the cream, whisking it rapidly so he wouldn’t think about Derek putting anything in his mouth; he was going to have to deal with that sight soon enough as it was. Why had he thought fettuccini was a good idea. “Pigs are smart? I mean: yes, pigs are smart, sure. But surely not that smart.”

Behind him he could hear Derek moving around, and turned to see him taking two wine glasses out of the cupboard, holding them up. “These okay?” Stiles nodded and rummaged in the drawer for the opener.

“Pigs are about as smart as a five-year-old child, is what I’ve read. Via that super-reliable source of scientific information, the Internet.” The wine released its cork with a pop; Stiles noted that Derek took the shortcut of corkscrewing straight down through the soft metal capsule. He didn’t know why this small detail affected him, but he had to force himself to turn back to the bubbling cream.

“By comparison,” Derek went on, standing disconcertingly close and offering him a glass, which Stiles accepted, “a dog is only about as smart as an average two-year-old.”

“So if we wouldn’t eat dogs, we shouldn’t eat pigs?” Stiles surveyed the pancetta sadly.

“Don’t be sentimental, Stiles. It’s far too late for this particular pig,” Derek said; and again with the smile, this time teasing a little bit. Stiles thought dazedly he might never get used to it, it was like the sun coming out from behind a hundred years’ worth of clouds. Was Derek flirting with him? Did Derek Hale flirt?

He had no idea; but the smiling, and the niceness, they didn’t stop; and Stiles was confused but also not about to look this particular gift in the mouth as it were. Or maybe he’d look later, but not now, not while they were laying waste to a half-pound of fresh fettuccini and animately debating feline versus canine intelligence (did cats really not know their names or were they just being haughty), whether octopuses would inherit the earth after climate catastrophe (Stiles felt they should, based on their amazing tentacular powers; "they basically have eight opposable thumbs, Derek"), and perhaps most energetically, who should do the dishes. Stiles insisted that they had to soak (his usual strategy for avoiding them, as he didn't have a dishwasher) and Derek was touchingly earnest about how guests should do the washing-up.

"Of course they shouldn't, they're called 'guests' for a reason," said Stiles, hip-checking him daringly out of the kitchen, which was basically a shotgun affair too narrow for two people anyway. Unless those two people were planning on being pressed together with no room for baby Jesus.

Derek frowned again at being deterred, but it wasn't nearly as scary and forbidding as it used to seem, thought Stiles, maybe because Derek was in his socks and had skidded a little on the linoleum. "That...doesn't make any sense."

"I'm sorry, are you accusing me, a Stilinski, of not making sense? I'll have you know that 'guest' comes from the Germanic word for 'stranger' and I most certainly don't let strangers handle my crockery. Much less my cutlery." He raised his eyebrows suggestively, because why not, and shoved the limoncello gelato directly at Derek's chest, using the momentum to push him all the way out of the kitchen. "Go. Be useful. Thaw that against your, your mighty thews or something. We're classy here, we eat out of the carton."

Derek accepted the two spoons Stiles handed him and sat back down. "Aren't thews, I don't know, further south? Why are you talking like Beowulf?"

Further south; dear god. "Bad habit, patchy polyglotism," Stiles confessed, turning out the kitchen light. "And an unfortunate early exposure to Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse, during a dark hour when I read too much Tolkien and thought I wanted to be a medievalist."

Derek squinted as Stiles sat back down at the little table and started wrestling the cover off the gelato. "I thought you were an Americanist?"

Stiles looked over at him, startled; so apparently those academia.edu pages were good for something after all, when the something was Derek Hale reading up on you. "I was. I mean I am. As long as American literature extends beyond Don DeLillo to, um, Joss Whedon, anyway."

"Okay, let's test your knowledge then," said Derek, holding a spoon just outside of Stiles's reach. "Oral examination—preparation for your viva. Crucial first question: favorite Avenger?"

Stiles sighed plaintively (oral examination, this was torture), inwardly hoping there wasn't a lot riding on the question, since Marvel was Derek’s specialty and Stiles knew virtually nothing about actual physical paper comic books, other than having seen their various contentious film adaptations entirely out of order, and stealing relevant screencaps for his slides from Tumblr. Obviously it was Black Panther, or the Falcon; but maybe this was a trick question, the way Stiles couldn't date anyone who liked Maroon 5 or Blink-182 or Twenty One Pilots, or actually pretty much any bands with numbers in them.

"You shouldn't have to think about it, Stiles." Derek was evidently trying to look severe but ruined the effect by blinking sort of owlishly; Stiles felt a sudden perverse impish desire to yank his chain.

He tilted back from the table to make a windmilling what-fuckery-is-this circular gesture with both hands. “Batman, obviously—but look—why do they gotta Avenge everything? Why not just stop the bad thing from happening in the first place, before they have to go back and exact YHWH-style vengeance?”

Derek groaned and dropped his head on his forearms, crossed in front of him on the table. His hair was more mussed than when he’d first arrived, his wrists had beautiful tendons, and Stiles didn't even try to not stare. He was amazed to discover that a mere two glasses of pinot grigio made him feel almost as puppet-with-cut-strings and unpredictable as a great quantity of rum had done some weeks prior. Maybe it was the—Stiles didn’t know what it was.

But he liked it. He liked Derek. Derek kept smiling at him and Stiles liked it.

He took advantage, lunging forward to pluck one of the spoons from Derek's hand and stick it into the gelato, their skin barely brushing together. Derek's fingers were dry and warm and made Stiles's heart add an extra beat, which he cleverly disguised by sticking an enormous spoonful of gelato into his mouth, trying not to writhe in his chair when it made his face hurt. Once his brain unfroze, he looked pointedly back-and-forth between Derek and the limoncello, until Derek finally took his own spoon and scraped a microscopic bit of gelato off the side of the carton, tasting it gingerly, and then took a slightly larger spoonful, seemingly reassured that it was a non-lethal dessert. Stiles had no grounds for teasing him; Derek's total body fat was probably Olympic if not Olympian.

Derek cleared his throat and tried again. “Okay, fine, we're skipping that question. You should be able to get this one: Team Cap or Team Iron Man?”

Stiles continued playing dumb, because it was fun winding him up. “Is Cap the blonde jarhead? or is that Thor? anyway not him, that’s for sure; he's like a Wagnerian Ken doll. Obviously I pick the team with RDJ, whichever team that is.” Derek looked askance at him, raising an eyebrow, but Stiles barreled on ahead, though he realized his preference for compactly built dark-haired guys was probably giving away…everything he hadn't already given away fifty times in the last hour. “Obviously his team! Because oh my god hot—I would so be on his team, I would even help Avenge whatever he’d let happen out of his profound and reprehensible superheroic irresponsibility, I would totally Avenge the shit out of that situation for him.”

Derek was licking another molecule of gelato off his teaspoon, delicate as a cat, and very seriously saying something polysyllabic about Stark Industries and neoliberalist geopolitics, when Stiles discovered that, without realizing it, he’d stood up, was leaning over the table, and had the open collar of Derek’s shirt in both hands.

Derek’s sentence faltered to a halt and they both just hung there, suspended in an instant, waiting for…whatever it was Stiles had been about to do before he got too distracted by the weird light silver-gold color of Derek’s eyes, and the ragged whisper of his audible breathing.

Stiles struggled to find words to justify his behavior, and failed. Beneath the fabric, against his fingers, he could feel Derek's pulse through the skin of his neck; he renewed his grip on the cotton, cautious but still urgent.

“Are you,” Derek started, and then Stiles remembered his original mission, why he had voyaged across the table in the first place. Derek’s hands reached up to wrap tentatively around his wrists, but Stiles wasn’t sure whether it was to pull them away or keep them there. Someone's spoon clattered to the table but he didn't know whose.

“Please tell me whether I can kiss you,” he managed.

Derek swallowed and it was the only sound in the entire world. He nodded.

“Oh thank god,” said Stiles in a rush and pulled Derek up, unresisting, that last few inches until he could fit their mouths together. Derek’s lips tasted like lemon and wine and cream and basil, and for a long moment neither really moved. Stiles felt the first drop of something, liquid trembling on the lip of the bottle, right before it all shakes loose and rushes out.

Derek pulled back and, letting go of Stiles’s wrists, reached up to frame his face with both hands, looking into his eyes searchingly. “I didn’t think you liked me,” he said, voice hoarse.

Stiles stared at him. “That is literally not possible.”

“I mean, I knew you—I just thought you…wanted a hook-up, that night, and I couldn’t do that. Not after—everything. I didn’t think you actually liked me. I thought you just wanted to get off.”

“That’s because you are the stupidest Avenger,” said Stiles nonsensically, getting up from his chair, kicking his fallen napkin to one side, and pouring himself shameless into Derek’s lap.

This time Derek moved; he did more than move, he wrapped one hand around the back of Stiles’s neck and slid the other into his hair and licked up into Stiles’s mouth, biting his lower lip, making these little desperate noises that destroyed Stiles slowly from the inside out, his entire body melting and dropping into his pelvis, until he twined his arms around Derek’s neck and pushed forward, just once, shoving until his hips were tight against Derek’s waist.

They paused then, for a second, panting, foreheads touching, both trying to get their bearings. Stiles spared a final sad thought for the melting gelato: resquiescat in pace. Derek’s eyes fluttered shut. “Stiles?”

“Mmm?”

“I didn’t go back to Kate.”

He exhaled, eyes closed, having not known this was in the back of his mind until that exact moment. “Okay, well, that’s good, I think. I mean, it sounded like. It wasn’t so healthy. For you.”

Derek didn’t move his forehead away. “I just, I didn’t want you to think that I was using you for—god, Stiles, you’re so—I want to—can we just—”

Stiles hauled him up for another kiss, this one the best so far, their tongues slick against each other and Derek actually shuddering when Stiles licked the roof of his mouth in a long slow stroke. “Yeah,” he croaked, pulling back for air again. “Sofa? Or bed. There’s a bed. I mean I have one. That we could use.”

“That,” said Derek with difficulty, “would be—pretty ideal, for my purposes—”

“Jesus Christ,” said Stiles weakly. “You have purposes.”

Derek laughed, baritone and lush, into his ear. “You don’t even know.”

Stiles tried to laugh back but it came out oddly throttled. “Oh, I’m pretty sure I do. I’ve had a few of my own for, for a while now.”

“Then come here,” said Derek roughly, yanking Stiles into his chest; before Stiles even knew what had happened, his arms and legs were instinctively spidered around Derek, who had stood up, arms secure under Stiles’s ass, and was carrying him out of the kitchen like—

“It’s a really homosocial war movie, and I’m the rescued soldier,” he explained into the side of Derek’s neck, dragging kisses down the length of it, the way he’d wanted to that night in that awful bar. His skin was soft under Stiles’s lips, tasted a little floral, a little salty, just as he’d imagined. But he could never have imagined Derek’s responsiveness, the way he shivered and held his breath and froze.

“That’s a tautology,” said Derek, his voice wavering. “All war movies are homosocial.” He stood swaying in the darkened bedroom doorway until Stiles flailed around with a free hand, the one that wasn’t wrapped around Derek’s neck, and managed to flip the light switch. They both blinked at the sudden brightness.

“Okay, this is like, insanely sexy, but you have to put me down for a second, because I can’t handle that light, and also the window’s still open and I’m loud.” 0 for 5. Although Stiles was pretty sure that his chronic verbal awkwardness was outweighed, at this point, by the fact that, for whatever reason, Derek Hale had purposes and they involved Stiles.

Derek’s mouth actually opened a little, and he looked down at Stiles as if he had won him at the county fair. “You,” he said, the sound all but scraped out of him, “are loud.”

Stiles wriggled, and Derek’s arms involuntarily tightened around him so as not to drop him. “Unhand me, as you are a gentleman.”

Derek reluctantly set him on his feet, and in record time Stiles had made a swift circuit of the room: shut the window, switched off the overhead light and turned on the bedside lamp (which may have had a pink lightbulb in it, fine, okay, so he liked soft lighting, sue him), and also subtly tweaked open the drawer to the nightstand drawer so that various necessities were within easy reach, depending on Derek’s purposes.

Which turned out, at least at the beginning, to involve an insane amount of desperate kissing, and Stiles had no complaints about any of that. It started out slow and molten and drugging, their mouths clinging together, but already Stiles found himself listening for that hitch in Derek’s breath, an inhalation drawn in quick through his nostrils, and then he’d move—tug at Stiles’s hair, or shirt collar; pull back and twist Stiles’s neck to one side, careful yet somehow also forceful, nipping delicately down its length until Stiles heard himself making a sound with each press of Derek’s teeth, a sound that would have embarrassed him more had he not been aware of Derek’s weight above him and the hard length shoved tight and hot against his own.

“This, off—off, you lendings,” said Stiles, fumbling at the button-concealing placket of Derek’s dress shirt.

Derek looked down. “There’s an easier way,” he said, and quickly stripped his shirt off over his head, exactly like corkscrewing through the capsule. Stiles didn’t know what to admire more, the startling efficacy of the gesture, or what was hidden underneath the shirt.

Actually, that was a lie. Derek made a soft wordless sound as Stiles addressed himself to the hollow of Derek’s throat, and then each collarbone, teasingly, curiously.

“Stiles,” said Derek eloquently, right before he flipped them, lay flat on his back with Stiles straddling him and blinking at the abrupt reversal of positions, but taking full advantage of the moment to shed his own shirts.

Underneath him Derek arched up a little, as if asking for something. Pressing his palms against Derek’s shoulders to hold him in place, Stiles bent down to lick the nipple closest to him, slicking his tongue over it relentlessly, broad strokes, again and again, and then the other, wetting his fingers and circling the first one at the same time, then pinching until beneath him Derek had started to shake, fingers gripping into the duvet. Stiles stopped, slid his fingers between Derek’s, and pulled their intertwined hands together up to his chest.

“Hey,” he said quietly. “You okay?”

Derek opened his eyes and Stiles wasn’t surprised to see they were unfocused and wild, but it gave him a jolt of satisfaction anyway.

“Yes,” he said, and then cleared his throat, and smiled again; and Stiles wondered if the blinding glory of that smile did to everyone what it did to him, if it detonated inside their rib cage and made it hard to breathe. “I’m okay. It’s just—I can’t believe you’re doing this with me, Stiles. I never thought it would happen, or be this, this good. And it’s been awhile, and it’s intense. But I don’t want it to stop.”

Stiles smiled back, and pulled Derek’s hands onto him. “Then touch me,” he said. “I don’t care where, just—keep your hands on me. Ass, thighs, hair, arms, hands, neck, bruise me, I don’t fucking care, just don’t let go, okay?”

He bent over again and took Derek’s nipple back into his mouth, sucking hard for the heady feeling of Derek curved up beneath him, drawn up tight, one hand clenched in Stiles’s hair, the fingers of the other digging into his thigh, making those helpless sounds again.

Stiles had begun feeling fairly smug, congratulating himself on his newfound ability to extract noises on the spectrum from growls to whines, when Derek’s expression took on a determined quality and then Stiles was flat on his back again, breathless at being manhandled. “First I’m under, then I’m over, now I’m back under, when are you going to make up your—oh shit.”

Derek had pressed one hand feather-lightly against Stiles’s throat, and with the other ripped open all the buttons of his jeans at once, a fierce concentrated look on his face. He had to let go to use both hands, tearing off Stiles’s jeans, boxers, and socks in a single wad of fabric, which he then shoved impatiently off the side of the bed, and knelt there looking down at Stiles, whose mouth had gone completely dry.

“I have a hard time making up my mind, you should probably know that,” he said conversationally, smoothing his hands down Stiles’s waist until they came to rest on each hipbone, seemingly paying no attention to the fact that Stiles’s entire body was taut and feverish, and twitched wherever Derek’s hands touched his skin.

“But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that I did know what I wanted.” Stiles gulped; Derek’s gaze shifted to his cock, flushed and bobbing, and he seemed to study it almost clinically.

“For argument’s sake, that, that seems fair,” Stiles managed—oh my god he’s going to eat me alive—and Derek smiled, but a different smile this time, a slightly more cruel one, one with—Stiles got it, now—with purpose. Maybe it wasn't so bad that he'd drunkenly itemized all his various kinks to Derek, last time. Maybe Derek had been paying more attention than Stiles knew.

“In that case, I’ll tell you. I want to lick you, Stiles. I want to get your cock completely wet, so wet you slip right into my throat. I want to suck you all the way in, as far as I can, swallow you down whole. And I want to finger you at the same time, but slowly, so slowly. I want to drive you insane. I want to bring you right to the edge, again and again, until I hear just how loud you can be. And then I want to slide into you and fuck you, with my hand fisting your dick, pound into you until you start to come so hard you see stars. I want to fuck you through it until you’re limp and whimpering, and then I want to pull out and hold you down, probably by the throat, and come all over your skin, mark you up, get you sticky and filthy with me. So, um, how,”—and here Derek cleared his own throat; Stiles had nearly fainted by this point, and was thus unprepared for Derek’s suddenly looking uncertain—“how does that—would that be okay?”

“Oh my fucking god,” Stiles came to consciousness long enough to husk out. “Yes—yes, everything. All those things. Those are the things I want you to do, to me. And me to you. Us to each other. Also—”

Here Stiles lost words because while he’d been inanely rattling on, Derek had figured out the half-open nightstand drawer and, fumbling with the top of the lube bottle, had already drawn Stiles into his mouth which was, Jesus wept—so tight and hot and wet around him that Stiles didn’t know how he was going to last beyond this part of Derek’s plan, because he already felt it surging and gathering in his pelvis—

“Derek,” he panted, raising up onto one elbow, “wait, give me just a—”

“No,” said Derek easily, in between dips of his head that made Stiles’s eyes roll back in his own head, “not unless you really mean it. I don’t care how many times you come, or how long it takes in between. I just want this.”

“Ugh,” Stiles said, articulately, and flopped back down, resigning himself to reliving his adolescence.

“You have—such a gorgeous—fucking body,” said Derek, in a series of gasps, and now Stiles knew he had to be hallucinating the whole thing. Laughter bubbled up in him and then Derek was grabbing his hands and shoving them into his hair where involuntarily Stiles’s fingers curled into it: spiky but soft, exactly the way he’d known it would be, and he couldn’t breathe much less laugh.

Move,” Derek was saying in between long hot slides down, taking Stiles deeper each time, hand moving tight and fast and slick over him whenever Derek pulled off to catch his breath and he somehow just kept talking. “Come on, Stiles, fuck, just—let it happen, I want it, want you to—want to hear you—fast and hard, okay, come on, give it to me, fucking come for me—” and that was it, Stiles couldn’t do anything but give Derek what he was asking for, his orgasm torn out of him on a cry by Derek’s words and the tenderness of his arm wrapped around Stiles’s hips, and the world-colored eyes looking up at him. Stiles cupped his hands around Derek’s jaw and just came, came into Derek’s mouth, flooding out into him because he couldn’t stop it, stomach muscles contracting and pulling him half-up off the mattress, because it was Derek and it had needed to be him for a really long time and now somehow it was, and if his eyes were wet it was only because at the end there was a shivering light scrape of teeth that was probably not accidental, but did prove once and for all that Stiles was, yes, really fucking loud.

When he surfaced, Derek was lying next to him, propped up on one elbow and looking very serious. “I want to eat you out, too.”

Stiles blinked up at the ceiling and tried to swallow away the dryness in his mouth. “That wasn’t on the original menu. You haven’t even gotten to the fingering and the fucking yet. In fact, my god, Derek, you’re still wearing jeans, you must be—here, let me—”

Derek put his hand on Stiles’s face and turned it toward him, then kissed him with such thorough deliberate intent that Stiles decided Derek could put whatever he wanted on the menu.

“Do you dislike it?” he asked Stiles, eyes searching his face carefully.

“Honestly? I have no idea. You’d be surprised how few of my exes were at all interested in my ass.”

From here Stiles could watch him up close, see Derek's face not letting him get away with the joke, filled with some peculiar kind of outrage Stiles couldn't totally understand.

“Their loss,” Derek said finally. “Because it’s a truly incredible ass.”

Which is how Stiles wound up on his stomach, panting and writhing, as Derek slid a finger into him with his tongue alongside it, occasionally backing off to bite one of his cheeks, or scrape his stubble across it.

“I’m not sure about your methodology section, Professor Hale,” Stiles wheezed, and got a stinging slap across the tops of his thighs for his trouble. His body jerked under Derek’s and he thought desperately that he might not survive the night at this rate.

“Assemblage theory,” grunted Derek, and Stiles thought if they’d been looking at each other neither of them could have kept a straight face; but Derek took advantage of Stiles being off-guard to add a second finger, fucking Stiles in exactly the slick, unhurried way he seemed to know Stiles liked, and Stiles could feel himself getting hard again, and bit the pillow until Derek yanked it away and said “If you need to make noise, I want to hear it. I want to hear you to come again. I want you to come on your stomach, and I want to edge you until I decide when to let you come. And when you come, I want you to hold your breath.”

“This will literally kill me,” Stiles protested, but it was too late. Derek had twisted his hand a half-turn and was curling in a third finger, tongue lapping down in between them, dripping and wet, and his thumb circling Stiles’s perineum, pressing in. Stiles started moving then too, helplessly back and forth, fucked by Derek’s fingers faster and faster, and just when he thought to let go of the sheets and reach down under himself to touch his own cock, he felt a wet touch at his hip, and then Derek’s left hand circled around, and with an almost audible click, Stiles’s cock slid into his grip, perfectly tight.

Oh god this isn't even a joke, he thought dimly, unable to get enough air into his body as he fucked forward into Derek’s hand and back against his mouth and fingers, raised up on both elbows, just taking whatever Derek gave him, shoved back and forth between two alternating pulses of pleasure.

This time Derek’s mouth was too full to talk him through it, so Stiles thought he would give it his impromptu best, mostly to keep from screaming, but also because Derek seemed to like words. Stiles liked words too. He felt it would be worth any amount of personal humiliation to pull Derek apart and take him down along with him.

“Fuck, Derek, your fucking hands,” he said through a shudder. “They’re not your cock, I want to fall apart on that, want you to fuck me until you come, but right now your fingers up my ass and your wet hand around my cock, they’re so good, you’re so fucking good—”

From the intensified finger-fucking and increased fervor of the jerking-off, Stiles thought he had probably guessed correctly. Without warning he was suddenly right on the edge.

“Shit, fuck, Derek, I’m about to come, do you want me to stop, or—”

Derek’s hand shifted on his dick to encircle the base tightly, painfully, and his fingers paused, motionless inside Stiles. A spasm rippled through his body and he almost lost it, but didn’t quite. Derek bit one asscheek gently after a few moments, and started moving again.

This time Stiles was too close almost immediately. “Oh fuck, Derek, it’s, I’m so close again, it’s too good, we didn’t wait long enough, what do you want me to—I can stop, I can—”

But this time Derek didn’t stop moving, flicking his tongue rapidly between those relentless fingers until Stiles went completely silent and motionless, his entire body tense, breath held, and Derek already knew what he needed (how was this possible) and just kept tenderly bruisingly stripping his cock through it until Stiles finally dragged in a breath that came out as a choked-off version of Derek’s name; and this time when Stiles came around, he was lying on his back, and Derek had taken off his jeans and was curled around and on top of him like some kind of naked human koala, kissing Stiles’s neck and face and telling him how beautiful and perfect he was, and could he please be inside him now.

Stiles tried to be sassy but truthfully it was all fucked out of him, all he had left was a wrenching need for closeness. “Please,” he whispered, between kisses, as Derek pushed a knee in between his, and Stiles’s legs bracketed him, and something must have happened with a condom because Stiles could feel Derek gripping the top of it as he pushed into Stiles, slowly at first, then with an involuntary jerk the rest of the way, until trembling he pressed his face to Stiles’s chest. Stiles could feel hot wetness there, which he slowly recognized as tears.

“Hey,” Stiles said, trying to twist to see his face, concerned. “Whoa,—Derek, baby, can I call you baby, I hope that’s okay because I’m totally going to—Derek, come on baby, look at me? Please?”

Derek raised his head and even after everything that had already happened, Stiles thought this would be the part that would kill him, Derek’s fingers already tightening into his hips as he started to move, tears shining on his cheekbones, saying, “I’m okay, fuck, I’m better than okay, I’m really good, you’re amazing, Stiles, you’re a miracle, you’re beautiful and smart, and I never, I don’t deserve—”

I’m almost sorry I asked, thought Stiles, appalled, and then for lack of language wrapped his arms around Derek’s neck and kissed him no matter where his mouth had just been, trying to say without saying: I don’t know what happened, I don’t know who took you away from you, but you deserve love, you have value, also you are a fucking tiger in the sack and we are going to do this ten million times so get used to feeling worthy, baby, get used to this—

Stiles had to break off the kiss, drenched in sweat and hanging on for dear life as Derek fucked deeper into him, shaking, driven. “You can have this,” Stiles bit out, pushing back against Derek, suddenly fierce and protective, not even knowing what he was saying. “You get to feel this good, you are good, come on baby, fuck me, just fucking take it, take what you need, I want you to, and you are gonna come so fucking hard for me, right, baby? oh god, look at your face—you’re going to come right now—”

Derek looked up at Stiles then, eyes unseeing, face taut, and Stiles could feel the world stand still for that stretched instant before it all came pouring out of Derek, everything that he kept locked up in him, whatever it was—the stars, the wine, that shy smile of his, the wild thing that lived deep inside him that made him already know exactly how to push Stiles into unending throbbing pleasure, and Stiles wanted that for Derek, was sort of angry he didn’t already know he should get to have that, like, every day, and for the rest of his life. So he dug his hands into Derek’s shoulders and wrapped his legs tight around his hips and held on hard, kissing what he could reach, which was mostly Derek’s hairline, damp with sweat, as Derek let out an inarticulate shout into Stiles’s collarbone, almost a howl; and Stiles felt his heart break open a little without really knowing exactly why.

This time they both dial-toned out, for however many long minutes; but Stiles opened his eyes first, and groped down into the covers for someone’s underwear, which he made use of and then draped exhaustedly across Derek’s crotch, in case he wanted to do the same.

Derek opened one eye. “Why did you just put wet boxers on me.”

Stiles couldn’t even rise to the verbal bait, just hauled one of Derek’s arms underneath his head and curled against him, making meaningless sounds. Derek apparently came to enough to pull off the condom, knot it, and throw it and the boxers off onto the floor.

He also must have turned out the light, because now it was dark. Stiles felt himself being gathered up carefully (as though the pieces of him were all important, and should be kept together) and drawn close, Derek turning on his side to hold him, his knees fitted into the backs of Stiles’s, a quiet kiss pressed into the back of his neck.

“What’s your name,” Derek murmured, into his hairline.

Stiles tried to snort derisively, but it sounded feeble. “Way to make a guy feel special.”

He could feel Derek smile against his skin. “I meant your real name.”

Stiles yawned. “Imagine Slavoj Žižek and Czesław Miłosz got together and had a love child.”

Now Stiles could feel him shaking with repressed laughter. “Must have been hard, everyone at school having the same name. Getting your lunchboxes mixed up all the time.”

“You have no idea. Unfuckingpronounceable Slavic clusters of fucking consonants,” Stiles said, tugging Derek’s unresisting arm more cosily about his shoulders, as if it were a shawl. Derek pulled him in tightly.

“Wait, what time do you need to hit the library?” Stiles said, remembering, trying to get his eyes to focus. “I can set an alarm—”

Derek hummed against Stiles’s neck, a rich contented sound. “I…don’t actually need to use the archives,” he admitted. “It just took me this long to work up the courage to see you. And to come up with a pathetic excuse.”

They lay silent in the dark, both thinking about that.

“Also, I really am insomniac,” Derek added, sounding guilty, “so I might have to get up and go read. Just so you know, it’s not that I’m not…really happy right here, right now.”

“Well, for starters, you’re not pathetic,” Stiles said, finally, twisting his head to plant a quick kiss on Derek’s bicep. “And, I really do tell good bedtime stories, I have it on authority. But wait, here—” he half-sat up, then began rummaging in the pillows for something.

“Lost your car keys?” asked Derek, who startled when Stiles put a small fluffy thing in his hand. He closed his fingers over it, clearly trying to work out what it was from feeling alone.

“It’s my fox,” explained Stiles. “It might help you sleep. I don’t know, it’s helped me, especially when things get…bad.”

Derek drew Stiles back against his chest, both of them holding onto the fox. But Stiles could feel Derek’s wakefulness kicking in, behind him; recognized it the way he could his own, brain starting to buzz and unnecessary neurons firing. He sighed, and began, in English:

“And now, I will tell the epic tale of how Monsieur and Madame Pig Went Out To Dinner. And left their eleven little piglets with an extremely trustworthy and reliable babysitter, the gray-haired, pointy-eared Madame LaLouve.”

“This doesn’t sound like a very interesting story,” mumbled Derek.

Stiles grinned, confident of his ability to put Derek to sleep with it in five minutes or fewer. “On va voir, mon p’tit loup,” he said, quietly, rubbing his cheek a little on the soft skin under Derek’s arm. “On va voir.”