Stiles and Scott have been best friends for nearly 20 years and Jaeger co-pilots for five. Stiles likes to attribute their success to their unbreakable and heartwarming friendship; they may not be the best fighters, but they always do what they need to do.
"What do you mean we're not drift-compatible anymore?"
"It means exactly what it sounds like," Lydia answers evenly, her boots tapping quickly down the corridor. Stiles struggles to keep up in between being knocked aside by the engineers and technicians that Lydia seems to have absolutely no trouble dodging. "Or have you forgotten what's required to pilot a Jaeger?"
Stiles narrowly avoids being brained by a clipboard. "How are me and Scott not drift-compatible anymore? Drifting is like literally a no-brainer for us and we -"
"Almost allowed Sacramento to be leveled by that last Kaiju." Stiles shrinks back guiltily when Lydia whips around to face him, her green eyes narrowed in an icy glare. "Look, you two can pilot a Jaeger just fine, I know this." She holds up a finger and his next protest fizzles in his throat. "But right now, with category fours coming out of the breach, we can't settle for a good connection. We need something near perfect."
"Lydia, you've seen our sync ratios, seen our evals -"
"And now there is a margin of error we can no longer allow," Lydia snaps. "What it shows is that while Scott is still that wide-eyed idealistic cadet, fresh out of the academy, you are not." Stiles crosses his arms over his chest, working his jaw. "And that's fine. But when it comes down to making difficult decisions out there, we can't afford to have you two struggling for control with each other for even a second when you're supposed to be fighting Kaijus."
A long pause hangs between them, Lydia's level gaze still on him as he bites down on his lip. He and Scott have been co-pilots for all of their careers, but while he doubts that their friendship will ever waver, even he can't deny that their dynamic has changed over the years. He turns away with a sharp exhale. "Fine," he concedes through gritted teeth. "Then what now? Am I benched?"
Lydia flicks her hair back before turning to resume her path down the crowded corridor. "I have some candidates lined up to spar with you after your fitting this afternoon. We're finding you a new co-pilot."
Derek looks like the farthest thing from a tech guy - broody, muscular, attractive -, but that's what he is. He's one of the leading engineers working on the Jaeger Refurbishment Project; in addition to working on the Jaegers themselves, he's in charge of making sure the pilots' physiological needs are met, which includes working on the suits and doing maintenance on the cockpit, ensuring that the pilots can operate at their maximum capabilities while in their Jaegers. Lucky for Stiles, Derek also happens to be the engineer assigned to his Jaeger, Sentinel Alpha.
Not a lot of people know Derek personally and the people who do don't tell much. It's a widely known fact that Derek's not much of a talker, but when he does, it's always an event. Even though it's an unspoken rule that pilots rank higher than lab techs and engineers - aside from Lydia, who outranks nearly everyone -, Derek has never toned down his unapologetic bluntness for them, never hesitated to give them grief when they start acting a little too much like rock stars. The lip he gives to some of the cockier pilots - Jackson, just Jackson - always manages to brighten Stiles' day. Stiles thinks that he's sort of in-between; he's not quite at Jackson's level, but he annoys Derek enough during meals to get him to talk to him, albeit with great resistance.
"Good," Derek says without a shred of sympathy when Stiles gripes to him about Lydia's decision to separate him and Scott during his suit fitting. "I don't know whose bright idea it was to put you two idiots together in the first place but I'm glad they've finally come to their senses."
That said, Derek can be a real asshole when he wants to be. Stiles tells him this, constantly in fact, but Derek's hardly ever bothered by it and just insults him right back. Some people wonder why Stiles hasn't just asked for someone else to conduct his physicals and suit checks - he's on slightly better terms with another member of Derek's team, Erica - but their frequent mostly light-hearted bickering and antics are a welcome change to the grim and somber atmosphere that tends to hang around this place. To be honest, Stiles is weirdly fond of Derek despite his prickly demeanor and biting commentary, and it's not just because his face and butt happen to be nice things to look at.
Derek snorts loudly - and rudely, Stiles would like to add - at Stiles' declaration of his and Scott's undying bromance, but doesn't comment, instead inserting the last cord connected to his handheld computer and turning his attention to its screen as it runs diagnostics on Stiles' suit. "Everything looks fine. How's it feel?"
Tossing one last glare at the top of Derek's head, Stiles flexes his fingers and bends his knees a bit. "It's a little stiff."
Derek hums, making a note before yanking out the cords. "It's new, so it just might need to be broken in, but I'll run it through a test one more time before you have a Jaeger test trial. That is," Derek disengages Stiles' helmet, smirking at him all the while, "if you even manage to get to one before the next Kaiju comes."
Stiles makes a face at Derek as he helps him out of the rest of his suit. "Not my fault people can't handle me."
"Entirely your fault."
"You can handle me just fine."
"That's because I entertain myself with the thought of strangling you one day."
"So you do think of me."
Erica makes a noise that sounds suspiciously like a chuckle behind him; Stiles sees Derek shoot her a glare over his shoulder before turning back to him. "I'm cutting your oxygen reserves in half the next time you're deployed."
A grin spreads on Stiles' lips just as Derek realizes the implication of his words, his eyes widening before quickly narrowing into a particularly scathing glare. He promptly storms off before Stiles is even out of his suit.
Lydia lets out a disapproving tsk every time he takes someone down. Scott is practically bouncing up and down on his feet beside her. Stiles is used to the distractions; after all, he's a master of distraction. He taunts his opponents, makes cheeky comments every time they try (and fail) to get a hit on him, throwing them off their focus.
"4-0," Derek announces again with a bored tone from the other side of Lydia, making a note on the clipboard in his hand as Stiles helps his defeated opponent up and gives him an apologetic pat on the back. Wiping the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand, Stiles looks up to see Derek looking back at him. Derek glares almost imperceptibly. Stiles cocks his head, a slight smirk twitching on his lips.
"Lydia, c'mon, let me try, I'll show you that we're still totally compatible -"
Lydia ignores Scott's incessant pleading in favor of asking, "Is that all of them?"
Derek scans the page on his clipboard, flicking the page up and down with two fingers before nodding. She hums, glancing at Derek with a thoughtful regarding look as she taps her lip with her finger. Stiles has never liked that look. It means she's planning something. Usually not something good.
"Derek," Derek raises his eyebrows in acknowledgment, "why don't you give it a try?"
Definitely not something good.
The room suddenly erupts with chatter, the spectators clearly intrigued by this new development. Stiles' eyes widen, flicking to Lydia - who looks frighteningly pleased with herself - and then briefly to Scott - who looks equally shocked as him -, then to Derek. If Derek's surprised by Lydia's suggestion, he doesn't show it. The annoyed and dubious look however is clear.
The room quiets down to talk amongst themselves as Derek hands Lydia the clipboard and moves to shed his jacket and boots. Stiles spins his staff idly in his hands, watching Derek keenly as he grabs his own staff off the nearby rack. He won't lie, he's wondered about Derek's fighting style, about what it would be like if he were a Jaeger pilot; it's hard to not think about, really, given that Derek probably didn't build all that muscle crunching numbers and data.
Derek slowly moves toward the mat and Stiles notices a change, notes the way his limbs loosen with each step he takes, the way his chin tilts up slightly as he slinks forward. It seems so unlike Derek, the easiness of his gait, a stark contrast to his rigid imposing figure, yet strangely appropriate. Derek stops a little ways from him and tilts his head slightly in acknowledgment, meeting Stiles' eyes wordlessly. Stiles doesn't mind the silence. He usually does enough talking for the both of them anyway.
Stiles takes his stance. "This isn't a fight, this is a dialogue," he says, feeling himself smile, like he's laughing at his own inside joke. Derek rolls his eyes briefly, but in an instant, his hazel eyes are back on him, completely focused.
They meet in the middle, bo staffs tapping against one another like a challenge. After a tense beat, Stiles inhales, stepping forward and swinging, but stops short, surprised to say the least to see a staff already against his ribs for the first time today. Immediately, he steps back, deftly dodging Derek's next swing and managing to push his staff up against Derek's throat. In the background, he faintly hears Lydia call out "1-1" but he's not really paying attention. Everything else is unimportant right now.
It's like the way he imagined it. Derek fights like a predator rather than someone who was taught a particular style - he's like a tightly wound spring, all slow deliberate movements until he chooses to strike, but he moves like it's all so natural to him -, and they fight like the way they argue, like they know exactly what to do to push each other's buttons. Stiles gets a blow or two on him, something to be expected, given his extensive training with his father, with Scott, with Deaton, but Derek gives as good as he gets; once, the staff stops inches from Stiles' head, the next, he finds himself pinned on the ground, Derek's face inches from his as he breathes softly, his chest heaving.
As he's slowly getting up from the ground, Stiles realizes that he hasn't said a word during the entire match.
"Your test run is schedule for tomorrow morning, 700 hours," Lydia announces to Stiles and Derek after the room has been cleared, leaving the three of them alone.
"I can't believe it," Derek mutters from where he's sitting on the ground, lacing up his boots. "How did I end up being compatible with an idiot like him?"
"Rude," Stiles says, scowling from beside him.
"I don't even like him," Derek complains as he gets to his feet.
"Dude, am I not even here?"
Lydia rolls her eyes. "I don't care. All I care about is the fact that you can fight together. Besides," she looks pointedly at Derek, "I thought you'd be happy to finally find a partner."
"Well, yes, but -", Derek gestures at Stiles, who scoffs, offended. Lydia ignores him in favor of scribbling something on the clipboard.
"Data doesn't lie," is all Lydia says in response, tapping her pen against the clipboard with an air of finality. She turns to Derek sharply. "And you of all people should know that compatibility is not based on similar temperaments or personalities." Derek looks at her. "It's about understanding."
With that, she spins on her heel and leaves the training room. Stiles looks at Derek curiously, wondering about their vague and slightly cryptic conversation. Derek, with one last glance at Stiles, frowns, grabbing his jacket before he leaves.
"I'm going to finish the test on your suit." Then he adds, throwing over his shoulder, "I'll see you later."
It was the hunters who had united and proposed the idea of the Jaeger program, an idea that they had been trying to make reality the moment they saw the first Kaiju emerge from the sea. To them, the Kaijus were just another beast for them to hunt, another thing that they had to fight to protect their world. Desperate, the still-shaky world government accepted their proposal almost immediately and together, they pooled together every resource they could manage to crank out the Jaegers before another city could be destroyed. And the program was a great success, at least, thought to be until its first test run.
When word got out that the Jaegers could not be piloted by a single person, the hope they had worked so hard to preserve was almost extinguished right then. They quickly began to implement the two-pilot system, but Kaijus were coming out of the breach faster than they could get a Jaeger to fight like the hunter they wanted it to be. The Jaegers were practically disposable while operated by incompatible pilots, rendered useless by the end of a single Kaiju engagement, and they could not afford to keep building Jaegers forever.
It was then when the werewolves stepped forward. Packs began to migrate toward the Pacific coasts for the sole purpose of volunteering to pilot the Jaegers, believing that their pack mentality would aid them in the fight against the Kaijus. By then, the existence of supernatural beings didn't faze the world; they were more surprised by their willingness to work with the people who used to hunt them. Even more surprising, the hunters welcomed them to the Shatterdomes with a solemn gratitude.
They did eventually find competent human pilot pairs but the efficiency and capabilities of werewolf pairs still remain unmatched today. But werewolf pairs are rare. Werewolves are very particular about who they choose to drift with, even within a pack. It's almost unheard of for a werewolf to drift with someone outside of the pack.
Which is why Stiles finds this all very unusual.
As they suit up to get ready for their test run, Stiles catches a glance of the triskelion on Derek's back before Boyd secures his backplate. He's looking down at his hands when he asks, "You ever wonder why Jaeger pilots almost always pilot with their family members or like y'know, significant others?"
Derek doesn't look at him, but he cants his head, acknowledging that he has. "It makes sense, if you take the sentiment out of it," he answers somewhat absently. "Lydia says that those bonds are the strongest, not really because of love, but because more often than not, people share their lives most with close family members and lovers. Makes it easier for them to drift when there aren't as many memories to reconcile, since they already share so many of them."
Stiles can't reign in his anxiety, can't stop his erratic foot-tapping, his shaking hands, his nervous breathing. What does this mean? What did Lydia mean? He and Derek aren't really close in the way that Derek's saying and while he's pretty okay with the idea of drifting with Derek - well, there's the small thing about him having a wet dream about him like once (not once), but really, the beauty of Derek's flustered face is worth the embarrassment -, that doesn't mean it's a two-way street. Judging by the slightly exasperated look on Derek's face, Derek can tell that he's uneasy. "What?" He finally asks, tugging his gloves on.
"Are you alright with this?" Stiles blurts out quickly. Derek turns to look at him. "Drifting."
Boyd glances at Stiles before looking back to Derek. Stiles sees Derek smirk slightly before he looks up at Sentinel Alpha, his gaze firm and determined. "Are you?"
After a pause and pulling his gaze away from Derek's profile, Stiles secures his helmet with a soft huff, his lips set in a firm line. "So long as you are."
Stiles wonders if this is Derek's way of saying that he trusts him.
"Are you sure about this?" Allison asks with a frown, her arms crossed as she watches from the control room. "A werewolf and a human drifting is a little unusual, to say the least."
Beside her, Lydia is silent for a long time, her expression somber.
"Derek needs this," she finally answers. "To understand."
If he said he wasn't nervous, he would be lying.
Derek tries to breathe slowly and quietly through his mouth as he connects to the harness. He looks around the cockpit, the one he assembled with his small team, looks at the interface he programmed, moves his limbs about in the suit and harness he designed and put together. He's worn the suit before, been in the cockpits probably more than the pilots have, but he's never been strapped in, prepared to actually pilot a Jaeger.
Sentinel Alpha. He never thought that he would be here one day.
He nearly jumps when Danny's voice comes through the intercom. "Alright, you guys ready for the neural handshake?"
The silence stretches and Derek realizes that Stiles is looking at him, waiting for his cue with a faintly concerned look on his face. Derek feels like this is the first time he's looked at Stiles, really looked at him, past the cheeky comments, exaggeration and flailing hands. It feels so strange, realizing that the Stiles he sees around base, the Stiles that bothers him unceasingly and is so easy to rile up, is this person beside him, who's in his element here in a Jaeger, not at all worried about drifting or piloting because this is his job, fighting monsters and saving people, but worried about him.
It makes him wonder what else about Stiles he's missed, only briefly. He's going to find out soon enough.
Shaking himself out of his thoughts, Derek steels himself and nods, his heart lurching when the system starts up moments later, the cockpit illuminated by the red tint from the bright interface..
"Remember, don't fixate," Stiles tells him as their helmets fill with relay gel. Derek's heard it a million times, told other pilots a million times, but he's also always said that it's worth repeating. "Don't grab on to a single memory. Just let it all flow."
"Don't chase the RABIT, I know," Derek snaps, more out of nervousness than actual annoyance, before saying, quieter, "It's not drifting that concerns me."
Stiles casts him a side-long glance, just as Danny cuts in, "Commencing neural handshake in 3, 2, 1 -"
He hopes that Lydia was right.
It's a sudden explosion of sound and images, flashing manically in his head. It's his life, his past - growing up with his siblings, studying, learning about robotics in high school, college. Watching the very first news report about the Kaijus. A Shatterdome under construction. His mother and Laura becoming pilots. Him, joining the PPDC, looking up at the towering Jaegers. He was so proud, of his family, of the work he was doing. They were protecting the world, no longer seen as the monsters people used to think they were. They were winning, they were -
Stop. Don't think about it. Don't think, don't think, don't think -
But he can't. He sees it, the Kaiju - Jurogumo - the first category three to come out of the breach - all pilots, all pilots, report for immediate dispatch -
Back in the control room, Allison rushes forward to Danny's station, watching the synch ratio fluctuate wildly on his screen. She swears under her breath, her eyes lit up by the flashing red screen. "Shut it down, we need -," Allison orders but she feels a hand on her shoulder, Lydia's.
"C'mon," Lydia hisses urgently, her eyes fixed on the Jaeger's cockpit. Her grip on Allison's shoulder tightens. "C'mon."
Beyond the screen in the control room, there is nothing else informing the outside of the turmoil within Sentinel Alpha. "Derek," Stiles yells as Derek stands frozen, despondent, his heart pounding, his eyes wildly tracking movements that exist only in his head - no, he doesn't want this, he doesn't want to see this, not again -, "it's just a memory - it's not real -"
On the grainy feed from the helicopters circling the breach, he can only watch as the Kaiju catches them off guard, grabs each arm, and pulls - he hears them scream in his headset, and even though he's not there, he can feel their panic, their pain, they're his pack -
" - Alpha, do you copy? Mom! Laura! Do you copy?"
A Jaeger, its stark red accents still clear in his mind, ripped to pieces, the cockpit just a crumpled ball of metal, sinking into the dark sea. Laura, Mom, this isn't happening -
Then it's not. The destroyed Jaeger is gone in a blink, replaced with the image of kids playing. Another barrage of images and sounds - he sees Scott, sees a man that looks like Stiles, even himself on the first day he arrived at this Shatterdome - , but none of them are familiar. He sees a woman, smiling. This isn't his life. Mom. He sees the same woman - Mom, Stiles' mother - in a Jaeger suit, smiling on a television screen.
"The first pilot to operate a Jaeger alone -"
" - radiation poisoning due to inadequate radiation shielding -"
He sees Stiles, a younger Stiles, and his mother, his hand on her shoulder, pleading -
"You're going to die if -"
They're in the cockpit, this very cockpit, Stiles and his mother. C-command, this is Sentinel Trapper, my m - my co-pilot is incapacitated -
His hand - Stiles' hand - shakes as he slowly reaches for his mother, who stands limp in her harness. Stiles, his eyes wide and hollow, his heart heavy with -
"It's about understanding."
" - Derek! Derek! Can you hear me?"
Derek blinks rapidly, gasping as he comes back to the present. Over the intercom, he hears an incredulous, "It's stabilizing. The synch's improving."
"You alright?" Derek turns to see Stiles, who looks ready to tear himself out of the harness. Derek swallows, nodding his head stiffly. Slowly, he raises his hand and, beside him, Stiles raises his, the sound of Sentinel Alpha moving along with them echoing from the outside.
"By the way," Stiles tells him with a shaky grin when they're allowed to disengage, "the suit's still a little tight."
In the control room, Lydia silently exhales.
Drifting for the first time with a new co-pilot is never easy. Even with all the vetting that pilots go through to find a drift-compatible partner, it's not a guarantee that the sync will take. Some people don't have the strength, the courage, to let someone into their head, to lay out all their past mistakes and emotions for them to see.
Stiles had heard that drifting came easier to werewolves. They were used to the idea of a shared mentality, the idea of instinctual bonds. Bonds made them stronger.
"He's out," Stiles echoes flatly. "With a cold."
Erica shrugs, equally incredulous. "That's what Lydia told me." She secures his backplate as he fumes. "If it helps, she didn't look too convinced when she told me either."
"Obviously!" Stiles yanks on his gauntlets, snapping them in place angrily. "Werewolves don't get colds!" This is the third time Derek has managed to officially avoid him, not counting the multiple times Derek saw him from the other end of a corridor and then immediately disappeared. Stiles huffs, looking down at his helmet. "Why's he hiding?"
It's not like he thought that after the first drift, they were going to become the best of friends, finishing each other's sentences and communicating telepathically, but at least, he thought they would still be talking. Sure, when emotions, motivations, opinions, things like that are exchanged between two people, it's a little awkward and there's really not a lot left to say, but at least there's still interaction of some sort.
Erica sighs. "No one knows what goes through Derek's head." Her mouth clicks shut, her teasing grin barely hidden by her faux-sympathetic expression. "Oops. Too soon?"
"One day, Boyd won't be here to snap me in half like a twig and I'll whack you in the head with a wrench, see how you like it," Stiles grumbles moodily.
"Won't happen," Boyd remarks matter-of-factly from the other side of the room where he's been quietly working. Erica beams and Stiles makes a face at her. At least he and Derek argued on semi-equal ground.
"How's the suit?" Erica asks. "Derek left me a note, told me he made some modifications."
Stiles flexes his hands, bends his knees. The suit's lighter than before and fits him like a second skin. "Perfect," he murmurs.
He thinks back to the smirk on Derek's face before the test run. Confidence, he had thought. Now he thinks, false bravado.
Lydia comes to his quarters, which is never a good thing. While he may be her colleague, he's still technically her underling, and she does not like to waste her time and energy on underlings. Derek sighs, putting down his helmet as another trio of knocks starts up.
"Allison hasn't cleared you and Stiles for combat yet," Lydia says primly when he finally opens the door. "But she's tasked me with making sure that you two will be by the time the next test run comes around."
"Is that all?" Derek grunts impatiently.
Lydia glares daggers at him, clearly unhappy with the tone he's taking with her "How long do you plan on hiding in your room for?"
"I'm not hiding."
"You're not going to end up combat-ready if you keep hiding from Stiles."
Before Derek can retort, they hear a voice down the corridor shout "Derek!" Against his better judgment, Derek thinks of shutting the door before Stiles can get here but the look on Lydia's face threatens murder if he even thinks of trying to physically push her out of the way with his door.
Stiles arrives, breathless, looking at Derek like he's the best thing in the world. "I was starting to think you died in there or something, man. You didn't even take any of the stuff I left you."
Lydia looks down where containers of tater tots from the mess hall, a few highly coveted bags of sour patch kids, even a cupcake, among other things, sit piled up at the foot of Derek's door. She cocks her head. Has Stiles been -
"Goddammit, Stiles, I'm not an animal," Derek snaps, gesturing at the food.
"Think of it more as a shrine."
Stiles gathers up the food in his arms. "I just wanted to extend a peace offering, y'know? An apology for something I apparently did but do not know about because you haven't been talking to me at all." He holds out all the food to Derek, his eyes big and round with hope of reconciliation for whatever it was he did or didn't do.
Derek finds that he doesn't quite have the heart to shut the door in his face. From what he's heard from inside his room, Stiles has been coming by every day, knocking a few times before presumably leaving another food item at his door. Furthermore, Lydia's looking at him like he kicked a puppy. Well, he doesn't have much of a choice now. He reluctantly takes the food from Stiles, feeling weirdly touched when he realizes that they're actually all his favorites. Stiles smiles widely.
"Thanks for the help, Lydia," he suddenly calls, bringing attention to the fact that Lydia has already left and gone halfway down the corridor. She waves over her shoulder. Derek glares at him.
"You two planned this."
"Well, how else was I supposed to get you to open the door?"
Derek rolls his eyes, turning around to push aside his work to put down all the food. He glances at Stiles, who's still standing in the doorway, shifting from one foot to another. Stiles watches him, expectant and hopeful, and Derek sighs. To be honest, he knew he would have to cave eventually. If there's anything that can go up against his stubbornness, it's Stiles' endless persistence.
He sets his hands on his hips, his shoulders sagging as he sighs. "Tell Boyd and Erica I'll be back tomorrow." A grin that Derek finds both infuriating and endearing spreads on Stiles' lips. Derek sighs, muttering long-sufferingly to himself, "My worst nightmare has finally come true."
Stiles scoffs. "Please, you totally like me. I know, I saw."
Derek kicks the door shut behind him. The resounding FUCK from the other side of the door is music to his ears.
Despite the fact that he enjoys antagonizing Derek immensely, and the fact that Derek enjoys hurting his feelings just as much, Stiles does actually like Derek beyond, y'know, physical attributes. Derek's a hard worker, a perfectionist taken up to eleven, and has no social life to speak of to show for it because he spends all his time working on the Jaegers. Underneath that grumpy exterior is a nerdy engineer who can't hold a conversation without offending someone or embarrassing himself, but even more than that, there's someone who wants nothing more than to do good, to help others in any way he can.
"What's it like to be a werewolf?" Stiles asks as Derek's working on his own suit back in his work area. He's taken to hanging around here since Derek has come back to work and because he really has nothing better to do; Scott's off doing his own co-pilot trials and everyone else is busy preparing for the next Kaiju attack. Derek's still a little tight-lipped, so Stiles goes with his time-tested method of talking him into submission. It's been an hour since he's gotten a grunt from Derek so he figures asking about his childhood isn't going to get him anywhere.
Much to Stiles' surprise, Derek does react; he scowls and then counters with his own question. "How did you know that I'm a werewolf?"
Stiles sits up on the table where Derek has all his things laid out, surveying Derek's work before shrugging. "You're very...werewolf-y." Derek glares at him, as if offended by being called "werewolf-y". "I don't know! I read a lot, used to watch a lot of television, so I developed a sort of knack for these things." Stiles laughs nervously at Derek's unimpressed stare. Derek probably doesn't appreciate the fact that Stiles figured him out with knowledge gained from watching terrible werewolf movies from the 70s. "And also evil," Stiles adds quickly. "I can spot evil a mile away."
Derek just rolls his eyes before turning back to fiddle with, well, whatever it is that he fiddles with when working on pilot suits. "Then shouldn't you already know what it's like? You drifted with me, after all."
"Well yeah, but it's not like I have a Derek Hale database in my head now." Stiles picks up a welding tool from Derek's table, which Derek immediately plucks out of his hands before shooting him a stern look. "I mean, sure, we mind-melded and all -," he quickly glosses over that because he doesn't want Derek to dwell on it too much in case he starts regretting his decision to be his co-pilot, "- but you know that doesn't mean I know you like the back of my hand yet."
Derek sighs, backing away from his suit and giving it a once over before turning to Stiles. He shrugs. "I'm probably not the best person to ask," he admits, picking up his trusty handheld.
Stiles watches him stick the many cables hanging from the handheld into various ports on the suit. "What do you mean?"
He sees Derek twitch a little, wrinkling his nose. "I'm an omega," Derek grunts, jabbing the buttons on his handheld with more force than necessary.
An omega. A werewolf without a pack. The word stabs at his heart in a way he doesn't understand. He asks anyway. "What does that mean?"
Derek's stance changes; it's resigned, vulnerable, weary. "For humans, loneliness is just a feeling, a painful feeling, but a feeling nonetheless." His eyes are fixed on the display of his handheld, his expression unreadable under the dim light. "For me, it's a sickness."
Stiles doesn't know what to say. Derek has always had a way of rendering him speechless.
He became an omega after his mother and Laura died. Losing pack wasn't easy for them, back when they found themselves to be the only three survivors of their pack after a Kaiju attack had reached inland. Back then, revenge was what got them back on their feet, what got them to the closest Shatterdome to ask the Argents themselves to let them join the fight.
Revenge isn't enough for an omega. Losing his entire pack left him hollow and raw, left him with a full-body phantom pain, a wound that felt like would never be closed. It hurt to remember his family, his pack, it hurt to get through the day, but Derek refused to lay down and die. There were people who needed him, or at least, his skills. He needed to build these Jaegers so people could still have a fighting chance.
Today, they're eating their lunch on an awning overlooking the Jaegers, sitting side by side. Derek didn't mind the prying eyes in the mess hall - when two pilots drift for the first time, it's only natural that people get curious -, but he noticed how uncomfortable Stiles felt - anxious movements, constant glances, awkward attempts at conversation, his habit of chewing on things that are not food when he's nervous -, and suggested eating here. He usually eats here on the days following a Kaiju kill, since he's not particularly fond of being around a rowdy crowd of people drunk on victory, but he figures that avoiding nosy people is a good enough reason.
After the initial "man this is an awesome spot" from Stiles, they eat in an odd companionable silence for a while, odd in that they're rarely ever silent when they eat. Usually, Stiles talks about anything and everything with him, not really for the sake of talking about whatever he's talking about, but rather to get him to say something back. People tend to assume that Stiles likes to talk, that he's an open book who will speak to anyone who will listen, but the truth is, Stiles rarely talks about anything of substance; it's all jokes and sarcasm, stories about the many times he and Scott got in trouble on base and how much he hates non-curly fries and wishes that he could go to the diner in his hometown. Derek remembers wondering why this hyperactive kid was so bent on getting a rise out of him. Now, after they've drifted, he thinks that maybe there's a reason he listened to Stiles for so long. Maybe in the back of his mind, he always thought that Stiles filled the silences for the same reason he chose to maintain them.
Derek glances at Stiles. Stiles is done with his food, just tapping his fork against his tray, a faraway look in his eyes. Suddenly, he drops his gaze, as if having noticed Derek, his lips twitching in a half-smile.
"Y'know, this Jaeger used to be my mom's," Stiles speaks up quietly, his fork flicking up toward Sentinel Alpha. "I used to wait for her back at base. Watch her fight Kaijus on the news. It was my dream to co-pilot with her."
Derek doesn't say anything. Stiles takes it as a cue to continue.
"I was really surprised to see it back here," he admits, looking at their Jaeger. "It had been decommissioned."
Derek knew Stiles' mother, in a sense. She was a legend, everyone in the program had heard her name. Piloted a Jaeger on her own and managed to kill a Kaiju before trying to get back to base. But beyond that, when Derek had it taken out of the Oblivion Bay to be restored, all he knew was that Sentinel Trapper used to be belong to her. Sentinel Trapper was a good enough machine and it wasn't as damaged as the other Jaegers that were decommissioned, which made it easier for him to modify. At the time, he didn't care about much else.
"Your father ordered it to be decommissioned," Derek says, more of a statement than a question. Stiles nods.
"He uh, didn't want it around. Reminded him of my mom."
Derek remembers seeing it, being in it during the drift. They were getting desperate that day, having lost two Jaegers to one Kaiju. Stiles didn't have a pilot yet, they were thinking of sending him out anyway, but his mother came walking out of the medical bay, her head held high, and declared that she would be his co-pilot.
She had piloted a Jaeger on her own. That, along with the lack of radiation shielding, should've killed her the first time around, but choosing to pilot again -
"Piloting again, even with a co-pilot, would kill her, I told her," Stiles continues, his voice rough. "But she was stubborn. Even my dad, with all his authority, couldn't stop her."
Stiles taps his fingers against his tray, the erratic rhythm filling the silence. "It wasn't your fault," Derek finds himself saying, guilt hanging between them like familiar ghosts.
"I know," Stiles says, a beat too late, quirking a small smile in thanks. "But not then. I used to think that my dad blamed me for her death. I even blamed myself for the longest time for all the wrong reasons." He sighs shakily. "Still do, on bad days. If only I had found a co-pilot before she came out of that medical bay and volunteered. If only I had been stronger. I thought about that. But you know what?" He looks at Derek. "It's what she chose to do, as her final action. To pilot with me, to stop the Kaiju before it could hurt any more people. And I'm glad I got the chance to drift with her. It's like," he smiles a little, "she left me with a piece of her. In the drift, for me to remember."
Stiles' heart beats quick but steady.
"So I guess what I mean to say is that I know how it feels," Stiles finishes, a little sheepish. "I mean, beyond the whole drifting thing. I know how it feels to lose the people you love. You've probably heard it a million times from people you couldn't care less about but -"
"I know," Derek interrupts gently. "I know you do."
It's different to try to understand someone else's pain as yourself; it's muted and intangible. To drift is to become someone else, to know what was important to them, and to know what it meant for them to lose what they did.
So Derek knows. They both have felt the indescribable pain of loss, the pain of losing a bond so deeply rooted in the soul that when it breaks, it feels like dying.
Their partnership is a little unorthodox, considering that, as Stiles mentioned, most pilot pairs consist of two people who are blood-related, romantically involved or, at the very least, platonic life partners. Prior to drifting, they were antagonistic acquaintances at best, but the results of their drift were impressive for two people who seemingly didn't get along with other, which became a very interesting topic to a variety of people.
"I swear to god, if I hear the word 'soulmate' one more time, I'm going to rig someone's cockpit to explode," Derek growls as he and Stiles walk down the corridor toward the sparring room, just as Jackson walks past them. Stiles snickers when he hears Jackson's footsteps speed up behind them.
"Can't blame them for being sentimental," Stiles says with a shrug. By them, he means the scientists who have been studying werewolf pilots, scientists in general, and every hopeless romantic on base. "Besides, drifting's a pretty big deal; it's probably not a coincidence that people who drift together end up being together in some way until they, y'know, die."
Derek huffs, but doesn't say anything. Beside him, Stiles makes a thoughtful noise, only to smirk when Derek glances at him.
They spend a lot of their free time together. Sometimes they spar to prepare for their next test run and just in case they get called out. Sometimes Derek goes over the blueprints for Sentinel Alpha with Stiles, going into great detail about what the Jaeger can do now, what improvements he made, what he kept the same. The two of them talk to Scott - Scott doesn't like Derek, which is unsurprising, while Derek likes Scott well enough, which is both unsurprising, because it's Scott, and surprising, because it's Derek, who barely tolerates most people - as well as Derek's team - there are varying opinions among that group, but they tolerate Stiles for the most part, mostly because he's Derek's "partner", which apparently is significant - but they talk to each other most, about their day, about their work. Sometimes they even talk about the things they saw in the drift.
Derek finds himself becoming the one who starts the conversation more, saying things more freely to Stiles, while Stiles' sardonic front has faded away to reveal a more subdued side. As the days pass, they learn more about each other and the feelings and memories that were exchanged when they drifted take on new meanings, offer new perspectives.
For Derek, every emotion, every memory that Stiles recounts, is jarring because they are the same in so many ways, in the way they think, the values they hold, and they share the same pain, but Derek listens to Stiles and he doesn't hear bitterness. He doesn't hear guilt and he doesn't hear anger. But Stiles is afraid just like him, afraid of loss, afraid of trust, but he loves and trusts regardless.
He wonders if this is where they are different. Maybe Stiles has learned to make peace with his past, has learned how to bear its crippling weight and move forward while he still howls to the moon, lamenting and remembering and forgetting over and over again that no one will answer.
"Is this why you wanted me to drift with Stiles?" Derek asks Lydia while he's helping her calibrate the Pons headsets. "To move on?"
Lydia doesn't look up from her work. "Did you?"
Derek pauses, that uneasy thought that's been lingering in the back of his mind creeping up on him. Lydia finally looks up at him.
"I trust him," he says instead, his heart skipping a beat. Those words take him by surprise because he hasn't said anything like that in years, hasn't trusted in years, but even moreso, because he realizes that Stiles is not just an acquaintance to him, not just a friend, not just a partner. He trusted his pack, his family, and they were his anchor; he listened for them all the time, back when they were all happy and alive, the rare sound of Cora's soft laughter, the whistling of the wind as they ran through the forest. After they were gone, he listened for Laura's firm but soothing voice, his mother's praise.
After they were all gone, he found himself left with silence.
Slowly, he found people to fill the silence, his team, Lydia. Hearing Erica's laugh, Isaac's snarky quips, Boyd's quiet huffs of amusement, even Lydia's constant criticism lessened the pain. But now he can't even hear them because now he thinks of Stiles' voice, hollow-sounding in these rooms of metal, muted and distorted in his head when he remembers things that were never his. Now, he thinks of Stiles' voice with all its nuances, sarcastic and sad and playful and amused and hopeful, of Stiles' fucking heartbeat, the way he breathes, his fingers tapping against his goddamn tables, the faintest sound of his clothes rustling every time Stiles reaches out and touches him to get his attention.
It terrifies him.
"I talked to Ethan and Aiden for the first time today," Stiles says in the middle of their sparring session. "They usually don't give me the time of day, even back when I was piloting with Scott, but apparently they've found an interest in me since we became partners."
Derek grunts noncommittally, focusing on dodging Stiles' hits.
"They asked me if I wanted the bite."
For a split second, Derek sees red but he manages to restrain himself, just barely blocking one of Stiles' kicks. "What did you say to them?" He growls.
"Well, I wanted to tell them to go shove it," Stiles answers in between pants as he blocks Derek's barrage of punches. "But they kept egging me on, saying that I'd make a good werewolf." He stumbles back a little, not expecting such a hard punch. "They said we'd work better together if I became a werewolf."
Derek doesn't respond in favor of grabbing and throwing Stiles to the ground before he accidentally really hurts him. Stiles hits the ground with a pained "oof" and lies on the ground spread-eagle in defeat, catching his breath as he glares up at Derek, who stands and offers his hand with a grim and angry expression. Grabbing his hand, Stiles manages to yank Derek down - Stiles plays dirty, he really should've expected it - before rolling over to straddle his waist. Derek struggles to free himself but Stiles has his hands pinned down with surprising strength.
"Now that's an expression I haven't seen in a while, even moreso that it's directed at someone other than me," Stiles notes lightly. "There's a story behind it, I feel."
Derek grinds his teeth. "What did you say to them."
Stiles, probably amused by Derek's demanding tone given his position, shrugs flippantly. "I told them to go shove it."
Derek exhales sharply, narrowing his eyes at Stiles' smirk before looking pointedly at his hands. "Can you let me go now?"
"I don't know," Stiles' grin turns just a little wicked and Derek tries not to flush. "I kinda like this position."
A well-timed headbutt later, Derek and Stiles end up sitting beside each other on the edge of the mat. Stiles hands Derek a water bottle before chugging half of his own, running a towel through his sweat-damp hair. With a noisy sigh, he glances at Derek. "Were they threatening us?"
"Maybe," Derek says shortly, his hand squeezing tight around his water bottle as he takes a drink.
Stiles watches Derek carefully, his eyes sharp. "You looked pretty spooked though." He tilts his head to catch Derek's gaze. "You wanna talk about it?"
Derek says nothing. He doesn't look at Stiles, his eyes staring into the ground, his brow furrowed, his shoulders still tense.
Stiles doesn't push it.
"How are you and Allison?" Stiles asks on one of the few days when his free times overlaps with Scott. He hasn't had much time to catch up with Scott, since they're both busy with training with their respective partners. Beyond Scott bursting into Derek's workshop to tell him about his pairing up with Allison, Stiles doesn't know much else.
Scott smiles. "We're good." He huffs a laugh. "Really good. Better than before."
He finds himself smiling too. "Dude, that's great," he says sincerely. Stiles knows about the details of Scott and Allison's turbulent relationship intimately and he knows how much it affected Scott when they broke up. Getting him out of that funk took an ungodly amount of junk food.
"Yeah," he says, shaking his head. "I realized that all we needed to do was talk, y'know? Instead of assuming, instead of jumping to conclusions, all along, to make it work, we just needed to talk. It sounds so simple. I don't know why it never occurred to me." He turns to look at Stiles, his smile still lingering on his face. "What about you? How are you and Derek?"
After a pregnant pause, Stiles smiles halfheartedly, looking away. "We're getting there."
It feels like a lie.
Lydia has cleared them for combat. While they would usually do another test run for pilot pairs like them, it has been predicted that there will be two Kaijus in the next attack, forcing Allison to deploy Sentinel Alpha for support.
Isaac and Boyd help them into their suits, both of them looking more anxious and worried than Stiles has ever seen them. In a way, he supposes they're kind of like Derek's pack; Isaac, Erica and Boyd were just kids when Derek took them and started to train them to be his team of engineers. It's only natural of them to not want to lose Derek.
Derek's head is held high, just like before, but Stiles knows better. He's nervous, even though he still tries not to show it.
"Run through the weapons."
Derek blinks, turning to look at Stiles as they step into the harnesses. "What?"
Stiles flicks a few switches, the interface lighting up, before looking at Derek. "Tell me about all the weapons again."
He's a little nervous too, to be honest. Every time he pilots a Jaeger, he never knows if it'll be the last time. With Scott, there was always a little uncertainty because of their growing differences, because of that slight percentage of incompatibility.
They latch on to their harnesses before Derek begins tentatively, "Standard plasma cannon, right arm." Then stronger, "Initiated by pulling back the right hand and opening the palm -"
Derek's never been good with people, with social conversation in general, but he's has always been comfortable talking about his work, about what he knows for certain. It calms him, makes him feel proud and confident, and that in turn makes Stiles feel the same.
"About to initiate neural handshake," Danny says over the intercom just as Derek finishes running through the list. "Good luck, guys."
Beside him, Derek inhales sharply, exhaling slowly.
Stiles looks at Derek.
Derek nods, his lips curved in what might be a smile.
I trust you.
Sentinel Alpha roars to life.
"Neural handshake, complete. You're cleared to go, Sentinel Alpha."
"You're a natural, Derek," Stiles says, almost teasingly, as they circle around the Kaijus, designations Kingfisher and Hammerhead, taking potshots with their arm-mounted plasma cannon to distract it from the others.
"Thanks," Derek replies dryly just as they manage to shoot Kingfisher in the eye. It screeches in pain, letting go of the Jaeger it had been grappling with.
The twins are ahead of them, fearlessly leading the charge in Rampant Roar and engaging the Kaijus directly with another Jaeger from one of the surrounding Shatterdomes. Not only are the twins one of the best pilot pairs, but they're also considered to be the current best werewolf pilot pair. Derek told him that they can physically merge together to become an extremely powerful werewolf, a phenomenon that Stiles puts in a lot of effort to not think about the logistics of when his mind happens to wander.
"Wait," Stiles hears Derek say, his tone suspicious, "something's not right."
Rampant Roar is taking care of Kingfisher as the other Jaeger is struggling to get back into the fray - Kingfisher managed to mangle its left arm -, but where -
"Where the hell is Hammerhead?"
Stiles swears the moment he realizes, his eyes immediately scanning the horizon for any break in the ocean. Beside him, Derek's already flicking on the comms, shouting urgently, "Watch out, Hammerhead is going to -"
It's too late. Hammerhead emerges from the sea behind the unsuspecting damaged Jaeger, smashing in the cockpit with a single blow. Kingfisher, taking advantage when the twins turn away from it briefly to see the defeated Jaeger fall, attempts to land its own killing blow, only to have its other eye shot out by Sentinel Alpha.
"Command, we are moving to assist," Stiles says, his heart pounding. Beside him, Derek mutes the intercom before anyone can order them otherwise. They'll probably get shit later, but they'll gladly take it if it means that they'll be alive by then. "Alright, I'm handing it over to you, Derek."
Derek looks at Stiles with wide eyes. "What?"
Stiles spreads his arms, opening both his palms. "You're better with these than I am," he says with a grin. "I'll follow your lead, big guy."
"Titanium alloy claws deployed," the AI announces. Derek feels his fingers curl into that familiar position. He hasn't shifted in years, hasn't had the excuse to do so, but this is the closest thing to it and it feels like freedom.
Sentinel Alpha rushes forward on the legs of the former Crimson Alpha, designing specifically for balance and speed, and digs its claws deep into Kingfisher's flesh and pulls, Kaiju blue pouring out of the gash as Kingfisher lets out an earsplitting shriek. Hammerhead lunges, but they turn just in time to dodge and catch it right in the chest, Hammerhead's own momentum allowing Sentinel Alpha to easily tear right through its abdomen, killing it. Kingfisher struggles, roaring as it splashes helplessly like a fish out of water, but it can only watch as Sentinel Alpha stands over it, plasma cannon raised.
The bright blue of Derek's eyes fades as the cannon and the claws retract. Derek breathes heavily, sweat rolling down his temple, and turns to see Stiles beaming tiredly back at him.
"Looks like little orphan Derek isn't as weak as you thought," Ethan remarks, looking out of the cockpit shield toward Sentinel Alpha, smiling a little despite the pain. Aiden frowns.
Allison and Scott are there to greet them when they arrive back to the Shatterdome. After a tense staredown, mostly between Allison and Derek, Allison relents, warning them that if they disobey her again, she'll have their heads. The moment she leaves, Scott attacks Stiles with a hug and drags the both of them out to see the small crowd waiting for them to give them their congratulations.
Stiles looks like he's used to it, which makes sense since he's piloted before, but Derek is overwhelmed by all the attention, flushing with embarrassment as people compliment his work on Sentinel Alpha. Behind everyone, he sees Lydia watching them, smiling.
After shooting a few more pleading looks his way, Stiles finally goes and helps him out of the crowd, and together, they head back to the dormitories for some well-deserved rest, bumping shoulders along the way.
Their bond feels stronger. Derek doesn't know if Stiles can feel it too.
"So I guess it's true."
They stop short to see Aiden in front of them, Ethan trailing behind him. Ethan is grabbing Aiden by the elbow, muttering something to him - c'mon, leave them alone - but Aiden pays him no mind, pushing him away. "I'm guessing you're not here to thank us," Stiles mutters tiredly.
Aiden ignores him, sparing him only a glance when he steps forward into Derek's personal space as he sneers, "Looks like you really did go and get yourself a bitch, Hale."
His blood boiling, Derek thinks back to the easier days, when the most he had to worry about was rival packs, rogue wolves, hunters. The old pack hierarchy was discarded a long time ago, rendered obsolete by the new attitude of cooperation, of uniting to fight only the Kaijus, but he thinks of it now, thinks of his parents telling him alphas are the leaders, they are the strongest, they are meant to be obeyed, as a beta, you must -
He thinks of it now, as Aiden flashes his red eyes as if to taunt him, then as he clenches his hand into a fist. Do not engage an alpha.
The corners of Aiden's lips twitch up in a smug smile and Derek thinks fuck it and punches him hard in the face.
"That was not very smart," Stiles comments wryly as he helps Derek clean his wounds back in his room. Even though Derek got the first hit, Aiden pretty much got the rest of them, as expected. Derek shrugs half-heartedly from where he's sitting on the bed, his hand throbbing with pain. He didn't really expect to come out of that well, to be honest. If Ethan hadn't managed to pull Aiden off, he would probably be in the medical bay right now. In hindsight, it was an all-around bad idea.
Stiles winces as he peels back Derek's ruined shirt, examining the long gashes running across his chest. "In my defense, I didn't expect him to shift," Derek says, a half lie, wrinkling his nose as he looks down at the wound. It clearly doesn't work because Stiles looks completely unconvinced.
"Everyone knows Aiden is the crazy homicidal twin," he mutters, apparently choosing not to call him out on it, as he dabs at the wound, grimacing. "Aren't you supposed to have super healing powers?"
"Injuries inflicted by alphas are harder to heal from," Derek explains, his voice strained. He squeezes his eyes shut as Stiles continues to work methodically through the wounds.
"Thanks, by the way."
Derek exhales sharply, cracking an eye open to glance down at Stiles. "For what?"
"Defending me, I guess?" Stiles gingerly prods at the gashes, watching them with mild wonder as they slowly knit together. His eyes flick up to Derek's. "You -," he stars abruptly but trails off, shaking his head. "Nevermind."
Stiles shakes his head again. "We don't have to talk about it."
He watches as Stiles' hands gently press down gauze over his wounds. "It's fine," Derek says softly.
Stiles carefully pulls down Derek's shirt, his fingers smoothing it down along his stomach, pausing at the hem. "You always defend me. When people offend me or make fun of me."
"What, it's weird that I don't let people bully others?" Derek jokes with a huff.
Stiles huffs a laugh, conceding with a shrug before remarking, "Well, you've never punched someone in the face because of it before." Derek doesn't really have anything to say to that. "And I noticed something, between you and Aiden. A werewolf thing." Stiles looks him in the eye. "Something about me, right?"
Derek tenses, his lips pulled in a tight frown. It was only a matter of time before Stiles caught on. He sighs, resigned. "Yeah."
Stiles falls silent. He's probably thinking about the emotions he felt in the drift, most importantly, the ones that weren't there anymore, the loneliness, the bitterness. The ones that Derek used to have.
"You were right, you know."
Stiles looks at Derek. Derek looks at the ground, his head bowed.
"The people we lose are always in the drift for us to find, to remember. But I didn't want to remember. I didn't want to remember that the people he loved died, the pain of a bond snapping in half, of being completely alone, but still, I approached Lydia one day and told her that I wanted to be a pilot. I wanted to help people. I thought maybe I wanted to remind myself why I was doing all of this." He takes a deep breath. "But I think deep down, all I really wanted was to get that feeling back. The feeling of being connected to someone, of knowing that I'm not alone. I can't build a pack, now that I'm an omega, but maybe I thought that drifting was the closest thing to having pack I was going to get."
He thinks of all the years he's lived in fear of trust, of being hurt all over again. He thinks of the silence, how much he hated it.
"To forge that bond with someone, I think that was my goal this whole time," he finishes quietly.
They're so close now, knees touching, heads bowed toward one another. They're never this close unless they're fighting, but then it's only for a few seconds; here, he's acutely aware of everything about Stiles, the curve of his cheek, the exact placement of each of his moles, the way the shadows fall across his face, the cupid's bow of his lips.
"Is it," Stiles begins tentatively, his brown eyes flicking to Derek's with hesitance, "is it like the way you wanted?"
His heart pounds as he swallows. He thinks of sound, but more than that, he thinks of memories that aren't his, of pain that isn't his but theirs and god, for the first time in a long time, he thinks of the future. "Yes," he admits, his voice raw and hoarse. "But if I lost you, I don't think I'd be able to get up again."
It's easy to think that you're in love, they had said at the academy. But you need to know the difference between love and intimacy.
Pilots are constantly reminded of this to prevent complications, especially when either of the pilots are already involved with someone else. They tried to avoid this problem by allowing pilots to choose their partners, by testing drift-compatibility, by shuffling incompatible pilots around quickly before attachment forms.
It's the reason Stiles pushed away those feelings when Lydia announced that they would be co-pilots. He chalked it up to their compatibility, their similarities, the way it was so easy for them to just talk to each other, even if they were just sniping at each other. He didn't think about the feelings that were already there before they drifted, didn't think about that warm fondness that arose whenever he spotted Derek around the base, the way Derek made him smile and laugh without even meaning to. He didn't think about how much he appreciated Derek's honesty, how much he admired his intelligence and commitment to his duties. He forgot about those quiet moments, those fleeting moments that follow when they manage to pin each other when they're sparring, when they run out of things to say and end up just looking at each other, those moments when all he wanted to do was lean forward and close the distance between them.
But if I lose you, I don't think I'd be able to get up again. Derek quickly excused himself shortly after the admission, leaving Stiles to his thoughts.
The next time he sees Derek, he doesn't ask. They continue to fight together, continue to drift together, allowing each battle to bring them closer together.
Things change. He has a panic attack in his room after a rough fight with a Kaiju and soon after, finds his door broken in and Derek's forehead pressed against his, Derek's hand on the back of his neck as he whispers soothingly into his ear. It becomes his habit to briefly press his lips against Derek's temple, sometimes when Derek is feeling pensive and sad but mostly when he feels like it, and it becomes Derek's habit to stand close to him when they're alone.
Things change. The Kaijus grow stronger, adapting, as the number of Jaegers slowly but gradually dwindles. Lydia hypothesizes that the Kaijus are going to launch a final assault soon. When the time comes, all of them are going to deployed to fend them off or die trying.
Things change. After days of watching the countdown in the hangar with dread, days of wondering if the next time they enter their Jaeger will be their last, he finds himself in front of Derek's room. Before he can knock, the door swings open, revealing an equally restless Derek. Before he can speak, Derek pulls him inside, shutting the door before pressing him against it, silent as his eyes search Stiles', his breath skirting across his cheek only inches away.
Things change. For days, he thought about death, thought about regret. He thought about never seeing Scott again, never seeing a world without Kaijus again. Never seeing Derek, never telling him. So before Derek can ask, Stiles tugs him forward, his hands tangling in Derek's hair as he kisses him.
It's easy to think that you're in love. This is what he should've said to Derek, what he should've remembered, before he let Derek push him down on the bed, before he let him slide his hands against his skin, sighing with content and relief. But there is a difference between pilots and pack, between pack and lovers. But Stiles thinks about those lingering feelings, the ones he thought he had left behind, and in the drift, he finds them again, but they're not his.
He wants it to be real.
So he doesn't ask.
Sometimes, when the rare six-hour break comes around, they hide away in their room, whichever one happens to be closest. Sometimes they have sex; sometimes they kiss until Stiles complains of stubble burn, sometimes they just lie in bed together. All it takes is a touch, a sound - not a word -, a look. It surprises him how easy touch comes to them, but he supposes it makes sense; they already know each other's boundaries, what they like and dislike. It's alarmingly comfortable, almost addicting, because it's all so seamless, because when he asks, it's always yes, because Derek wants as much as he does.
He wishes it was enough, being able to touch Derek like this, to know him like this. But it's not. Not anymore. They may grasp for each other in the dark, speaking in groans and sighs, but they leave all the things they want to say, all the things they're afraid to say out loud, in the drift for the other to find.
The day comes. They all knew it was coming, were preparing for it in their own way. Nevertheless, the Shatterdome is filled with the hollow sounds of people moving about, clangs of metal, machinery grinding noisily, Jaegers being deployed, but no chatter, no conversation.
"Stay sharp," Allison says over the comms, as she and Scott lead in their Jaeger, Argent Rogue. "Keep it tight."
"Engage and distract," Lydia orders. "Incapacitate, if possible. We need to clear a path for the bomb."
"You know things are serious when Lydia gets called to the front," Stiles comments light-heartedly to Derek as they follow behind Rampant Roar and Lydia and Jackson's Jaeger, Champion Tactical. Derek quirks a small smile, but it's short-lived. It's hard to remain optimistic when it's very possible that they're all going to die today, but they have to do this. They have to succeed or else the world won't stand a chance.
They're all afraid. All of them have tried so hard to be brave, to be the people who others can look up to, but today, they stood in the control center with the weight of the world on their shoulders. Scott and Allison have always had their ups and downs, given their past turbulent relationship, but they held each other's hand tightly throughout the entire briefing. Jackson, in a rare display of affection, held Lydia before they boarded their Jaeger, stroking her hair as she angrily rattled off in quick succession every mistakes he's made in battle to ensure that he remembers to correct them immediately, her eyes suspiciously bright. Even Ethan and Aiden looked solemn, their usual cocky attitude completely absent.
Stiles casts Derek a side-long glance, only to see him looking back at him. I don't want to lose you.
"I think," Stiles says as the ocean stirs, as Danny announces the arrival of the Kaijus, "after this, I'm going to retire."
Derek can't help but laugh.
We are not going to die today.
Three Kaijus, two category 4 Kaiju, Raiju and Scunner, and the first category 5, Slattern. Scunner has been eliminated but Rampant Roar is down, its power source torn out, and Champion Tactical and Argent Rogue have seen better days but they've managed to distracted Slattern long enough for Sentinel Alpha to grapple with Raiju, tackling it into the breach.
Stiles' breathing is labored and they're both quickly losing oxygen. Derek reaches blindly toward the interface, pulling up diagnostics. Sentinel Alpha is losing power, some parts more damaged than others, and most of their weapons have been exhausted, leaving only a few more shots of their cannons and the claws. Raiju thrashes wildly again them, trying to throw them off, but they just latch on tighter, claws digging deeper.
Over the blaring alarms, the onboard AI continues to repeat its warnings in its unaffected voice - back-up generator damaged, oxygen depletion in four minutes, evacuation is advised. "Stiles," Derek whispers. Stiles turns weakly toward him, his fingers shaking with effort.
"What...now?" Stiles asks in between shallow breaths, his eyes darting nervously toward the low oxygen warning on the interface. He's trying to hide it from his face, from his body language, but Derek can feel his fear, that growing doubt and uncertainty that they're going to make it out of this. Derek moves to exchange his oxygen with Stiles, despite his protests. "I admire your uncharacteristic optimism in the face of impossible odds, but I really don't think a few more milliliters of oxygen is going to do anything for me, much less you."
At least he still has it in him to crack a joke. "I'm a werewolf, I'll last a little longer," Derek says reassuringly. It feels like a lie. Stiles tells him so. For some reason, Derek finds it amusing. It feels nostalgic.
They can see the other world in the distance. Kaijus peering through the gap, baring and snapping their teeth like rabid animals. They want the Jaeger and that's what they're going to get.
He can feel their sync wavering as Stiles slides in and out of consciousness, his body swaying unsteadily in the harness. Can't - we can't fail, Derek, I - don't die, Derek, Derek. They continue to plummet downwards, Raiju struggling against Sentinel Alpha as it writhes in its death throes. Derek thinks of odds. It's only a matter of time before Raiju dies and his weight will be enough to drag their Jaeger down through the breach.
He doesn't hesitate.
"Pilot One eject activated."
Stiles is jarred into consciousness as his harness locks in place, holding him stiffly upright. Still trying to pull away feebly, he turns to look at Derek, his vision unfocused, but he can see the sad apologetic look on Derek's face, his hand on the eject command prompt. Stiles' heart seizes with fear as the pod slowly rises up from below him. "Derek, you promised -," he shouts with anguish, his voice catching in his throat. He feels betrayed, even though he knows this isn't betrayal, but still, in his head, he yells, you promised, you promised I wouldn't lose you, you promised we would both make it out. Thoughts run wildly through his head and into Derek's, it all seems familiar, too familiar, he's not going to lose someone again, not Derek -
He thinks about regret. "I love you," Stiles says softly, desperately, like maybe that will be enough to save them. He watches Derek's eyes widen as the pod closes around him, before he starts frantically banging his fist against the window, his voice caught in his throat and his eyes filling with tears, because this feels like goodbye when he was promised it wouldn't be.
Then he feels it, the rush that follows after a disconnect, the ghost-drift. It does not feel like his pain of losing his mother, nor does it feel like Derek's pain of losing his pack. It feels like accepting every gesture, every feeling that they've shared, like finally accepting that they were never projections but real tangible things. Through his blurred vision, he sees the faint curve of Derek's smile right before the pod releases, Derek's lingering calm and reassurance quelling the rapid beating of his heart.
He holds on to that warmth as he drifts to the surface, hoping that they're all okay, Scott, Allison, Lydia, Jackson, even Ethan and Aiden, hoping that the world hasn't ended.
He squeezes his eyes shut and hopes to see the sun, with Derek by his side.
Derek detaches from his harness, his head spinning as his oxygen runs out. He grips to the control panel for support, before pulling up the interface, struggling to ready the bomb with his blurring vision and shaking hands.
Warnings echo in his ear but he doesn't hear them, can't even hear Raiju's dying snarls. He only hears the ringing in his ears, the sound of a heart pounding, his or Stiles, or both, he's not sure.
He thinks of his friends. He thinks of Stiles.
Stiles is safe.
He arms the bomb.
I love you.
He's going to get back to him.
" - iles - "
It's Scott. He must be out of the breach, if his comms are back online.
" - detonation - breach has collapsed -"
Through his half-open eyes, he can just barely see the light breaking through the surface of the water.
"Stiles - copy -"
"Stiles! Answer me!"
"Scott," Stiles murmurs weakly. His hands are still pressed against the window. He clenches them into fists. The light becomes brighter and finally, he breaks the surface, turning away from the bright sunlight. Out the small window, on the edge of his vision, he sees them, Argent Rogue, Champion Tactical, Rampant Roar, beaten up but still standing. "You got 'em?"
He hears a relieved sigh. "Yeah, we got 'em."
"You guys haven't returned to base?"
He hears Jackson scoff. "We were waiting for you."
Stiles shoves open his pod, breathing in a lungful of salty air. Yanking off his helmet, he scans the now calm waters around him. "Are you getting anything from Derek?" He asks quietly, almost afraid.
There's a long pause before Danny's voice crackles in. "He ejected before the bomb was set off," he says slowly and Stiles is almost dizzy with relief, only to hear shortly after, "but it - I can't see his vitals."
He doesn't jump to conclusions. Maybe the pod's signal is weak, maybe the monitor is broken. It doesn't mean Derek's dead.
After a few more minutes, a small splash in the corner of his eye catches his attention. It's Derek's pod. Immediately, Stiles jumps into the water and swims over, scrambling to climb on to Derek's pod. Not even bothering to peer through the window, he forces the door of the pod open, leaning over to remove Derek's helmet. "Derek," he says, propping Derek up and holding his face in his hands. Derek is still and unresponsive. Stiles shakes him. "Derek," he calls again, his voice cracking.
The silence from the others is deafening. He continues to shake Derek, continues to shout, and no one tells him to stop. His voice weakens and his arms shake and his eyes burn and Derek doesn't wake up.
"Derek," he says one more time, sucking in a harsh breath as he presses his forehead against Derek's. "Come back." He chokes out a dry sob, squeezing his eyes shut. He's too tired to cry. "I'm fucking tired of looking for you in the drift."
A cough. "You're one to talk." Stiles jerks away, his wide eyes meeting Derek's half-lidded ones. "I'm pretty sure I was literally knocked out by the onslaught of repressed emotions coming from you."
With a smile spreading on his lips, Stiles pulls Derek into a tight embrace, his shoulders shaking with disbelieving laughter. "God," he rasps out, burying his face in the crook of Derek's shoulder, "I'm so done with this shit."
Listening to the jubilant cheers coming from the control room, Scott whooping through the comms, the relieved voices of Erica, Isaac, Boyd - they probably hacked into the comms -, Derek knows that the warmth he feels isn't just the rush of victory. Today is the last time he will ever pilot a Jaeger, will ever drift, and he remembers when this was all he wanted, that this was what he believed would give him purpose again. And yet, when he thinks about Sentinel Alpha, now destroyed in another dimension, instead of grief, instead of loneliness, he feels impossibly light, relieved and happy. "Yeah," Derek agrees, pressing an exhausted lopsided smile against Stiles' jaw as he holds him tightly. Never again will they have an excuse to not say the things that matter most.
The voices of their friends loud in their ears, the sky clear for the first time in what feels like years, the sunlight skimming across the water's surface, Stiles throws his head back with a triumphant shout and Derek rolls his eyes fondly before leaning up to kiss him. "I love you too," he tells him, feeling Stiles smile against his lips.