sparsenicjade
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1. My artist, fictionforlife, did the most beautifully conceptualized and rendered pieces, which are placed in appropriate spots below. I also have links to them where she's posted them. Please, PLEASE go and tell her they are amazing, because they are. 2. Huge thanks to both my betas, Smaragdgrun and Ivorysilk, who made this story tighter, more focused, and just generally much better. All remaining mistakes are mine alone. 3. I started writing this in the hiatus between 5a and the beginning of 5b, but it took long enough that the season was over by the time I finished. This means that, for the most part, except for little things, 5b doesn't happen in this universe. 4. This is for the TWBB. I am also using it as my "accept injury to protect someone" square on the world's oldest hc_bingo card still in play. And I'm just going to acknowledge: not my best effort, but it's there. It's there.
***

Derek is engaging in a vigorous mental debate on the merits of Sour Patch Kids versus SweeTarts at the most recent gas station, when Braeden grabs both from his hands and says, "C'mon, I gotta get on the road, and we've got to talk."

He follows her to the register, grabbing a pack of jalapeno kettle-cooked potato chips, because those are her favorite. She rolls her eyes at him even as she smiles and lets him pick up the tab. Once they're back in the car he asks, "Got a hit?"

She keeps her eyes on the road and says, "I don't know how to tell you this in an easy way, so I'm just gonna say it. She's doubling back for Malia."

Derek's glad he hasn't started in on the snacks, since the announcement makes his stomach clench. "So, Beacon Hills it is, then," is all he says, forcing his voice to stay neutral. There's an ever-so-slight shift in her scent, however, one Derek's not certain how to read. He asks, "Brae?"

"Just—would you be ready to go back? If it weren't for this?"

Derek frowns. "But it is for this."

"Indulge me, Der." She says it quietly, without any emphasis or expectation.

Derek looks out the window. He's not entirely sure where they are. Somewhere near the Carolinas, maybe. It's green everywhere, and he wants to run, to explore. He wants to take a boat somewhere: anywhere, he thinks, but maybe as far as England. He wants to do the things he and Laura talked about—Germany at Christmas; carve his name in the Great Wall, or maybe just a pictogram of a wolf; body surf off the shore of Australia. "No, not yet."

They both know he plans on going back. It's three-fourths of why they let themselves settle into compatible exes, rather than a couple. She's not the family type, and they both know it. He is, and they both know that, as well. But it's only been a little over six months since he left. He needs…well, he just needs more time than that.

She says, "Drop me off at an airport. I—I swear, I'll call if I need help, you'll be the first number I ring, but for the moment, let's assume me and the kids can handle this one, okay?"

Those kids are Derek's pack, no matter how long and hard he's fought against it. He starts to shake his head, but she has one last weapon; she always does. She says, "They'd say the same thing."

She's right. She usually is. When he'd headed out with her, Scott had very specifically said, "Don't come back unless I call, dude. Seriously. Go have fun, or whatever it is you do when we're not looking."

And Stiles—Stiles had said, "Learn how to breathe. We'll be here when you get back."

"Fuck," Derek murmurs. Then, "You promise you'll call."

He says it aloud just to make himself feel better. She's never lied to him yet. He doesn't expect her to start now.

*

Two days later, he gets a text from Stiles. "u ok?"

Derek has a moment of blind panic that Braeden has been hurt, or worse, and never had the chance to get hold of him. He pulls his shit together and types back, "braeden?"

"here, thx. Glad for the extra pair of hands. w/o u, tho, and last I checked u guys were traveling together. Hence the check in."

Derek can't say how he knows that there's a whole world of information Stiles isn't telling him, but he knows. "need me?"

There's almost an hour between that text and Stiles' response, which is, "how r u?"

Derek thinks about getting in the car and driving until he gets to them. Because Stiles is asking, because he keeps asking, because he cares. Because he didn't answer Derek's question, didn't say no. In the end, though, he types back, "breathing."

Stiles responds, "go chase some rabbits or something."

Derek stares at the screen for a long few minutes before texting, "stiles."

"we got this. Call u if we don't. promise."

Derek isn't as surprised as he'd like to be that Stiles' word is good enough for him.

*

Derek books himself tickets for a transatlantic cruise with more than enough time to make his way in from England through to the continent to be in Berlin by Christmas. Then he spends the time before he's got to get to New York, the departure site, mostly trawling the southeastern states as a wolf. He keeps his phone on him in the harness he and Braeden rigged up specifically so that he'd be able to do just this.

When it runs out of batteries, he takes that as a sign and gets himself back to his car, finding a motel for the night, and driving an unplanned amount of miles the next day until he's found the next wilderness he wants to gambol about.

Braeden sends him nightly updates, even if they're only, "still alive, all accounted for." Once a week or so, Stiles sends him a text that usually says something nonsensical and reassuring like, "you're a dick for thinking jean grey is more interesting than emma frost."

Derek spends longer than he will ever admit finding the perfect emoji for "suck my dick," in response to that.

Infuriatingly, Stiles' only response (three days later) is, "u offering?"

If it weren't for Stiles' texts, Derek would let his phone die. That is, assuming he could get over the primal terror that doing so would mean he missed the phone call telling him to get to Beacon Hills before someone actually dies. Barely a week before he's set to leave on the ship, Braeden calls him and says, "Hey there, hot stuff."

"Need me?"

"Nope, we kicked ass all by our lonesomes. Want me to come find you?"

Derek considers the offer. Anti-social or not, he's actually terrible at being completely on his own. He's too much a wolf, at the end of the day. "You wanna see Europe?"

"Not really," she says. "Did some backpacking after college. I prefer the tropics. But I'll go, if you want. Spend some time figuring my next move out."

"Stay here," he tells her, happy for her honesty, if not necessarily the answer.

"Send me postcards," she says.

He laughs. "To where, exactly?"

"Fair enough," she agrees. "Send me e-mails, then. Send Stiles postcards. Kid misses you."

"Yeah, okay," Derek says, not bothering to cover up the sarcasm.

She's quiet for a minute, but when she speaks, it's not to argue. Instead, she says, "Go have a good time, Der."

"Talk soon," he tells her. He gets in the car and drives north. He's got a boat to catch.

*

Stiles gets his first postcard from Derek the same day Malia breaks up with him. It's been coming for a while, and Stiles has known it, but has also been incapable of hastening the end. She says, "I'm never going to be human the way you are."

Stiles shakes his head at that, tells her, "You're good just being you."

She screws up her face, but then nods. "I know. I—well, I know I should know. But I don't know what that means, or even what being me means, not really. And I think I should."

It's not something Stiles can argue with, not just because she's right, but because as much as he believes she shouldn't change, he needs something different. They both do.

She kisses him, her lips warm against his cheekbone, and says, "Don't—don't disappear, okay?"

"I'm here," he tells her, not entirely sure what that means. For so long, it's meant being Scott's best friend. Scott's second, maybe. He's always sensed from Derek that in an established pack, there are hierarchies and dynamics, but Stiles has never asked Derek about pack structure or what things should be like, has always been leery about asking Derek about any of it.

Even though he normally has no problem with poking at things with sticks. Even though, for a long time, all he ever wanted was to poke at Derek with sticks.

Except that he’d begun to see, after blundering along for a while, that Derek had a lot of cracks, and there were some sticks which could easily break Derek wide open. Stiles is not used to being careful with his things or his people, but he’s curious, not sadistic. He stays in the preserve long after Malia leaves, and after some time, he remembers the postcard in his back pocket and pulls it out. It's from Cardiff, with only a single line scrawled on the back. Derek's written, "note to self: wolves aren't meant to go on boats."

Stiles thinks he could have told Derek that. He also thinks Derek wouldn't have listened. Stiles thinks, I'm here.

He's not sure what it means anymore, but he aches with the need to say it to Derek.

*

Art by FictionForLife

*

It's not that Scott's not his best friend. Of course he is. Stiles would still do anything for Scott and he's 99% certain the same is true of Scott, at least when he's paying attention. So it's not that. It's simply that there's a distance now, one that wasn't there before Theo and Donovan. But then, that's kind of true for everyone, up to and including his father. And his father hadn't even considered blaming him. There had been not one second of hesitation in his father's gaze or affect or words that made Stiles think his father assumed Stiles had done anything but what had to be done.

It's that Stiles still hasn't one hundred percent convinced himself that killing Donovan was what had to be done. The pack hadn't killed him, after all, when he was possessed by the nogitsune. Despite everything, he thinks he ought to have extended that courtesy to others who are bent into shapes and spirits not their own.

So, yeah, there's distance. It's why he appreciates Derek's stupid postcards. And three fourths of the time they really are stupid: pictures of cows in pastures, ruins with no context, ones that just say "Greetings From" wherever the hell Derek is at that point. Sometimes the messages are short, just notes like, "there's a gelato museum. gelato" while others arrive covered in tiny letters, all pressed together, running along the edges of the card to fit more space in. Those are mostly about Laura at first, but then about Cora, and how he worries about her, before they get even more personal, about whether he should consider going back to school and how he doesn't know where he fits in Beacon Hills anymore.

Stiles doesn't have to respond, can't respond; he just has to listen, and know that Derek wants to tell him these things. It helps, reminds him that there's something worthwhile in himself, or, at least, Derek is convinced there is. At night, when he wakes up in blind panic, sometimes only re-reading one of the cards, or just holding one, helps.

The nightmares get worse the first few weeks of college—new place, Scott's forty-five minutes north, Lydia's on her own campus immersed in more classes than any sane person would consider taking—and he's pretty sure his roommate thinks he has some weird postcard fetish. Stiles isn't bothered. Stiles has spent most of his life having people think worse things of him.

It's not that he doesn't like college. He does. It's good, it gives him breathing room away from some of the worst of the memories. And the distance from Scott, even while it freaks him out, makes it easy to forget how weird it is that they haven't fallen back into their old rhythms. His roommate, Henry, is another geek, who owns at least sixteen boardgames that Stiles has never played, and who is also really pretty great about the fact that Stiles wakes him up probably three out of every four nights with shouting. They're not each other's best friends, but they find each other easy to be around, which is all Stiles has ever wanted out of a roommate.

Derek apparently makes Germany by Christmas—evidently the plan—and is in Romania slightly after the New Year. From there Stiles gets cards from half the cities in Greece and a few in Turkey. There's a couple from Iran, but Stiles has a sneaking suspicion Derek is traveling as a wolf for a bit, since it's pretty quiet for a few weeks, and then he gets a flurry from different spots in India.

Stiles finds one from Nepal in his mailbox on the day he's taken. It's a little funny, he thinks later, how much he wishes he'd gotten to put that one with the rest of them.

*

Art by FictionForLife

*

Loneliness wins out over the desire to keep exploring when Derek gets to Thailand. It's a spectacularly beautiful country, and Derek likes the sound of the language. But he finds himself running out of space on the postcards to tell Stiles about the pack he ran into on his journey between Chiang Mai and Bangkok, about how the ocean smells different everywhere it meets land, about the book he just finished reading.

He finds himself wondering what Stiles would say. Stiles would say something. He always has something to say. Derek misses the texting. He's not even that big a fan of texting—he's part wolf, he needs the tenor and smell of words, the sound and shape of the breath behind them to feel like he fully understands them—but it's a tether to the pack, his only tether currently, and he's been too long without it.

Really, he's ready to go home. Or, at least, San Francisco, where most of the pack is currently in college. Scott's up near Sacramento, but that's less than an hour's drive away. Derek's decided he's going to look into junior colleges when he gets back. He has his GED, Laura had insisted, so he's eligible. The thought of a four year college is seductive, but it's been over a decade since Derek was last in a classroom; he thinks it's probably best to take it slow.

He's on a plane within twelve hours of making the decision to go home. He's got the last of the postcards with him, since he'll be back before they could have made it. The plane ride is almost as bad as the boat trip, mitigated only by the fact that it doesn't take as long. Still, Derek thinks he's done traveling anywhere he can't get to by car or train or under his own power.

He lands at SFO and finds that his phone has run out of battery when he tries to turn it on. He's not terribly surprised. He can't remember the last time he turned it on, let alone tried to use it.

Not ready to deal with figuring out how to get back to Beacon Hills—his car should be there, he shipped it back from New York while he was overseas, but that doesn't help him just now—he cabs to a nearby hotel and books a room for the night. Jetlagged, he plugs his phone into the wall, takes a long, hot shower to get the smell of the plane out of his hair and off his skin, and crashes on the bed. He'll start handling return-type things when he's gotten some rest.

*

Stiles wakes up cold and blind. He panics at his inability to see, lashes out and hits his arm against something that might be a wall but is definitely concrete. The concrete wins, and Stiles bites his lip against the whimper that wants to be let out. He forces himself to breathe. It takes a while, as he slips in and out of a likely panic attack, but in the end he manages to get himself breathing, even if the breaths are still a little too fast, a little too rough.

He decides, after a minute of actually considering the situation, that it's possible he's not blind and that wherever he is has no light source. He goes with that theory, since even thinking about the alternative sends him spiraling back toward panic.

Having gotten that source of panic under control, it occurs to him that there's nothing between his ass and the ground he's sitting on and that he doesn't feel the fabric of a shirt on his chest. He's naked.

It's disconcerting, to say the least, but he's also been in worse situations. At least, in this instance, he's still himself. And if he can't remember getting here, he's ninety-nine percent certain it's because whoever did put him here did something to him or gave him something to make sure that was the case. For the moment, he's not going to worry about that remaining one percent. It's definitely not helping how cold he is to just sit there, though, so Stiles feels for the wall a little more timidly, and uses it to lever himself to his feet. Once there, he slowly, carefully "explores" as much as he can without eyesight. The wall he's closest to ends up being about fourteen regular-sized steps of length. The one that runs perpendicular to it is about nine. There's something that might be a door—a seam, of sorts—but if it is, Stiles hasn't the faintest idea of how to open it.

He keeps moving, trying to warm up, his fingers dragging along the wall so he won't run into it. He's thirsty and has a sense hunger is going to be a problem soon, but worrying about those issues isn't going to help, so he does his best to think of other things.

He's got a paper in sociology due next week that he's going to have to ask for an extension for, probably, which sucks, because he likes that teacher a lot, and he's not sure how he's going to explain this, since he's willing to bet it's not your average kidnapping, which means not the kind he can discuss with anyone at school.

He thinks some more about getting a pet. A cat really is the most logical choice, but Stiles wants something affectionate and he's well aware that's not always guaranteed in cats. He should talk to Scott about it. Deaton got him another part-time with a vet up in Sacramento, and Stiles is pretty sure the vet works with some shelters, so Scott might have the inside scoop on that sort of thing.

And Scott likes it when Stiles comes to him for help. Stiles pushes aside how it's not nearly as easy as it used to be to do so.

He walks until he nearly stumbles, his legs folding beneath him, knees hitting the concrete with a force that makes Stiles suck in a breath and hold it until he's sure he's not going to cry. He's not ashamed to cry, but he's not ready to give into the need, either. Someone's got to come for him sooner or later, and then he can assess the situation and what his options are for getting the fuck out of it. For the moment, though, since he can't think of anything else to do, he's going to curl up and shiver on the floor, and hope exhaustion claims him sooner rather than later.

*

Derek wakes up sixteen hours after he falls asleep, but he's ready to get up and go when he does, so he figures it was probably necessary. His phone is fully charged, and he sends the text, "I've forgotten that San Francisco smells like a weird mix of dark chocolate and dirty seawater," to Stiles.

He packs up his stuff and finds the nearest place serving breakfast that is not a Starbucks, grabbing himself something to eat while he figures out if it's worth it to rent a car to get back to Beacon Hills or if he should suck it up and take one of the buses that goes back and forth between the city and a bunch of "local" stops.

He texts Chris as a courtesy, because, as a general rule, they let each other know what vague area of the world they're in. Chris texts back within half an hour to say, "Welcome back. We should maybe talk."

Derek reads the text four times before texting back, "Kate?"

"Yes," is all Chris says. Derek knows Chris wouldn't bother to tell him about anything other than her death, but he steps out onto the sidewalk and calls him nonetheless.

Chris picks up with, "You seen the kids yet?"

Derek shakes his head. "No, just got back last night. I'll probably stick around for a few days and see what's up before heading back to Beacon Hills."

"I texted Scott the other day to see how he was. He sounded busy, but all right."

"I'll check on them. All of them." Derek won't make Chris ask. It's part of why they've become friendly allies, if not friends. And sometimes Derek thinks it's the latter.

"I might—I might come back. To Beacon Hills. If that's not going to be a problem."

"Chris," Derek says softly.

"I burned the body, Derek." Chris's voice is tight and Derek is relieved to hear that she's gone, truly gone, but he takes no joy in Chris's loss. Not when, like him, Chris has lost everything else.

"It's your territory," Derek says in response. "Beacon Hills, it's yours."

"It's Scott's. Yours."

"Scott's a sharer," Derek says, startling a chuckle out of Chris on the other end.

"And you?" Chris asks.

Derek closes his eyes. "Know what it's like to have nowhere else to go."

*

Derek's a bit concerned when Stiles hasn't returned his text two hours later. He's not convinced that Stiles has missed him, or anything, but Stiles had been responsive before he'd left, and it seems likely to Derek that he'd at least bother with a "welcome back!" Or more likely a rant about Cheetos or something equally random, but it would mean the same thing.

He calls Scott around noon. Scott picks up with, "Hey, man, I thought you were in, uh, Mongolia, or something."

Derek was never particularly close to Mongolia, so he says, "Or something. I came home."

"Awesome. You back in Beacon Hills? I was gonna come home for a weekend sometime soon, check up on my mom. Wanna catch up?"

"I'm still in San Francisco, but yeah, that'd be good. Listen, have you heard from Stiles?"

"Huh?" Scott asks. "What's a Stiles?"

Derek rolls his eyes. Scott's humor has always been a little wanting. "Hilarious. Seriously, I texted him a few hours ago and I haven't heard back, which isn't like him."

There's a considerable pause before Scott says, "Is—am I supposed to know this Stiles?"

Derek knows there's something wrong, then. Scott may have a terrible sense of humor, but he's not an asshole, not like this. "Scott. He's been your best friend since you guys were five, or something."

Gently, Scott asks, "Are you…feeling okay? I mean, you just got back and maybe—"

"I have to go," Derek says. "I'll be in touch."

"Derek—"

"Promise, Scott, I'm fine, there's just something I've got to do." He hangs up and calls Lydia.

She answers with, "Well, if it's not everyone's favorite socially-awkward lycanthrope. Welcome back."

He doesn't have the concentration to do anything other than ask, "Lydia, where's Stiles?"

"Nice to hear your voice, too. I don't understand the question."

"Stiles, the guy who had a crush on you for most of your formative years, where is he?"

"Lots of guys had crushes on me for extended periods of time, is there a reason I should remember this particular one?"

Derek closes his eyes and makes himself breathe, because his heart rate is out of control. "I have to go."

"Um—"

He hangs up before she even starts her sentence. He calls the Beacon Hills Sherriff's Department and asks for the Sherriff. The Sherriff picks up with, "Stilinski."

"Hi, Sherriff, this is Derek Hale." He doesn't wait for a response. "Do you know where your son is?"

"That's not funny," the Sherriff answers.

"No," Derek agrees, "it's really not, I need to know."

"I don't know who you think you are or what the hell you think you're up to, but I don't have a son. I never have. My wife passed away before we could have a child, which you well know. Now I'm going to hang up and you're not going to call back if you know what's good for you."

Derek listens to the dial tone for a full minute before pressing the end button. He allows himself to panic until the count of one hundred. Then he calls Braeden. "You anywhere near San Francisco?"

"Not really," she tells him. Without pausing she asks, "What you need?"

"Stiles is missing, and nobody here seems to remember he exists. Please tell me you do."

"Yes, and that's fucked, I'll be there as soon as I can. Try not to do anything stupid in the meantime."

"Yeah," Derek winces. "No promises."

He calls Chris then, and opens with, "You know who Stiles is, right?"

"Kind of hard to forget someone who's that big a pain in the ass," Chris says, but he sounds mellow, almost fond.

"Normally I'd agree, but so far Scott, Lydia, and Stiles' dad are convinced he doesn't exist and I can't get hold of him. I'm going looking. Braeden's making her way here when she can. I thought I'd give you the heads up, just in case I disappear from the map."

"I'm about a day away."

"See you when you get here."

*

Stiles slips in and out of sleep more easily than he did at first, mostly because without any food to sustain his energy levels, his body is way too exhausted to do anything else. When he wakes he's thirsty and so cold it mimics pain. On top of that he's shaky from Adderall withdrawal and having a terrible time focusing on anything. He's lost track of time well before bright lights flood the room, making him curl up and bite his lip against a shout of pain.

When he can get his eyes to flutter open just long enough to actually figure out what's going on, they catch on the guy standing directly in front of him. Stiles blinks several times before saying, "You're dead."

It's not his finest moment. Clearly, whatever else is going on, the man is not dead. The man's eyes, which weren't friendly to begin with, go the ice blue of werewolf killers everywhere and Stiles has just enough presence of mind to think fuck.

The comment earns him a swift kick to the ribs. Seeing as how he's naked and his captor has a) werewolf strength and b) heavy boots on, it doesn't go well. At least three of his ribs crack on contact and Stiles loses track of everything except the instantaneous agony. He's really not sure how long it is before he can take so much as a shallow breath again, and even that is—he has a moment where he genuinely considers if he can survive without breathing. At all.

The werewolf, whom Stiles is going to call Not Dead!Ennis in the privacy of his own mind, since that's who he appears to be, sighs. "I forget how fragile your kind is."

It's not an apology. It might be a bit of an "oops," maybe.

Not Dead!Ennis drops a bottle of water and a Power Bar on the floor. Stiles is convinced Power Bars taste like nothing more than gluey chalk, and yet he can't say when food has ever seemed more appealing. Not Dead!Ennis kicks the items closer to Stiles and says, "Eat up," before turning and exiting the room. Stiles is back in the pitch black of the room before he can even think about how to move with his ribs feeling as though they might puncture a lung at any moment.

"Stupid," he mutters to himself, but what's done is done. He feels around for the water and the Power Bar and forces himself to eat and drink them slowly, despite how hungry and thirsty he is. It's not hard. It turns out regulating your breathing to do simple things like swallow is fucking hellish with a few broken ribs, even if you're dehydrated and starving. Surprise.

*

Derek has Stiles' address, including his dorm room number, of course; it's where he's sent almost three months' worth of postcards. It states Stiles' dorm room number in it, thankfully, so he starts there. Unshockingly, the guy who lives in Stiles' room is blithely unconcerned, explaining that his roommate had been a dude named Joe, but he'd left after the first month of school. Stiles' posters are still on the wall, Derek can still smell Stiles, and yet the kid is completely convinced of the truth of his story.

Derek spends an hour or so scent tracking Stiles, but if there was a strong trail to wherever he's gone, it's no longer there. It drives Derek crazy that he's not even sure how long Stiles has been missing.

He's about to give up on scent when it leads him to the Jeep. It's parked in a long-term parking lot. Derek pays the fee and takes it, certain Stiles isn't the one who put it there. In fact, there's another scent in the car, one that seems familiar, but in a way Derek can't quite explain. It makes him nervous, more so than he already was.

He roots around in the car for any clues, but aside from the strange scent, there's nothing. Mostly just to give himself space to think, he takes the car for a drive. It's been a long time since he's been at the wheel of a vehicle. It's weird and calming, all at the same time.

Unsure of what else to do, he goes to grab a bite. He's looking outside the window when a stray cat darts out from behind the restaurant and runs across the street. Derek nearly punches himself in the face. Instead, he pulls out his phone and calls Deaton, who should have been on the list of people he called right away.

"Back on the continent, I see," is Deaton's opening.

Derek doesn't have time for niceties. "Do you remember Stiles?"

Deaton takes the rudeness in stride. "I don't understand the question, Derek."

"Stiles, Scott's best friend, do you remember him?"

Deaton's quiet for a beat before he says, "Isaac's probably Scott's closest friend, even having moved. Are you—"

"Do you trust me?"

Another beat. "I trust that you don't mean me or Scott or Isaac harm."

It's enough. Derek pushes down the part of himself that wishes it was more. "I need you to see if you can try and trace a spell."

"I'm going to guess from the context clues that it's a spell that makes people forget certain things?"

Derek closes his eyes. "Big things. Important things."

"I'm going to need some more information from you," Deaton tells him.

Derek nods, trying not to shake with relief. "I'll tell you anything I know."

*

The cold stiffens Stiles' muscles, even the ones in his chest, and if he thought the maybe-cracked, probably-broken ribs hurt before, it's nothing like when he wakes up. His body wants to shiver, but even the suggestion is excruciating. His instinct is to scream but he stops himself just in time, pretty sure that would just make things even worse.

He tries to focus on what he knows, on what's useful and what's not, but his thoughts are going in a million different directions and Stiles is self-aware enough to know he's not going to get that to stop, not without some kind of chemical aid.

He wants his dad.

It has to have been a couple of days. It couldn't have been more than three, because he'd have been dead before being given the water. When he pinches his skin, though, it stays pinched, so he's definitely pretty dehydrated. A couple of days, at least, maybe three.

Someone has to have noticed he's missing by now. It's no reason to stop trying to figure a way out on his own, but what's the point of pack if you can't depend on it to save you? Sure, Scott might still be disappointed in him, but he's Scott. He'll come get Stiles. That's, like, what he does.

Obviously, part one of Stiles' plan has to be to simply stay alive. This is going to involve not pissing off Not Dead!Ennis, which sounds so easy, but Stiles knows himself and his capabilities. He has the power to piss people off just by breathing, and that's people who like him. So, yeah, that's part one of the plan.

Part two is…he's not really sure since sitting up was a monumental task. He's certain he could run if his life depended on it, but he doubts he could outrun a well-fed, well-rested werewolf. He's gonna need something better than "run."

He needs to figure out what Not Dead!Ennis wants with him. He needs to do it without pissing the wolf off.

Stiles bangs the back of his head gently against the wall. No problem.

*

Derek's still waiting on a call from Deaton when Chris texts, "airplane delays, might not get there until tomorrow night."

Derek makes a face. Airplanes are the worst. He texts back, "understood."

He tries to sleep for a few hours in the hotel room he finally relented on getting after around nine. Every time he closes his eyes, though, Stiles is there. Months and months of stupid texts, and the feel of Stiles' hand on his shoulder, Boyd going cold in his arms, Stiles' worried eyes on him in Mexico, Erica's vacant eyes, the too-fast beat of Stiles' heart when he'd been treading water for over an hour, even Stiles swallowing back bile while taking the bone saw under Derek's threats.

Derek hasn't always liked Stiles, but evidently he's been attached to him for longer than he noticed. Now is not a great time to be realizing this, when Stiles is missing, and Derek is his fucking useless self, as always.

Derek runs to an all-night gas station to get a map, like getting a pictorial representation of the town in front of his eyes will help. Stiles might not even be anywhere near San Francisco at this point.

By the time Deaton calls, around two fifteen in the morning, Derek is jittery and frenetic, unable to keep still or focus. Absently, he wonders if this is what Stiles feels like when he's off his meds. If this is what he feels like right now.

Deaton says, "I haven't got much."

Derek runs a hand over his face. "Give me what you've got."

"Three spots near you are showing significant power surges."

Derek writes down the coordinates for each. He draws a circle on his map for each one. He'll start with the closest one.

*

Stiles is actually sleeping when the door opens the next time, so he isn't able to react at all before he's being dragged to his feet by his hair. It pulls a scream from him, which he shuts down as quickly as he can. Not Dead!Ennis snarls, "Shut up."

Stiles, predictably, does not shut up. Instead he says, "All you had to do was ask."

Not Dead!Ennis reacts to this by slamming Stiles into a wall, which Stiles is only now realizing is a window. The room on the other side looks precisely the same, which is why he didn't notice the previous time the lights were on. It explains why one wall had felt different than the others.

Stiles is too busy heaving from the pain of impact to fight as Not Dead!Ennis shackles him with his arms above his head. He tests the chains and then leaves. By the time the pain subsides enough for Stiles to start taking stock of the situation, Not Dead!Ennis is gone, and the lights are back off.

There is good news, Stiles supposes. The chains are low enough that he doesn't have to go onto his tiptoes, and he can breathe just fine, or, well, as fine as he can breathe at the moment.

The shackles are metal, though, which means if Stiles struggles in them, his wrists are going to get real messy, real fast. Stiles wishes he had any idea how that dislocating-your-thumb-to-get-out-of-cuffs thing works. But he isn't even sure how to dislocate his thumb without any leverage, let alone what he would do once it was dislocated.

A moment later, Not Dead!Ennis comes back and pretty much forces an entire bottle of water down Stiles' throat without much pause. Stiles tries his best to get as much as he can, aware of how badly he needs it. The werewolf leaves again and Stiles coughs, then sobs at how much that hurts.

For the moment, he sets himself to thinking about anything aside from how hungry, cold, and tired he is; how badly his ribs hurt. The first thing that comes to mind is wondering where the hell Derek is now, maybe India or Vietnam? Thinking of Derek sweltering in the tropical heat makes Stiles grin despite the cold, despite everything. Do werewolves shed? Do they get a summer pelt? Stiles has so many questions to ask when he gets back.

*

Derek remembers making it to the second spot. The first spot was a dead-end. Oh, there was a spark there, but she was a traveling pack's emissary, and unless she was the world's most practiced liar at the ripe age of twenty-four, everything she'd told him about what spells she'd been using—mostly protective stuff for her pack—was true.

So, yes, he remembers getting to the second spot. It's everything after that that's pretty fuzzy. Completely fuzzy, really. So fuzzy it's black.

And then it comes back into focus, and he's lashed to a cement wall with steel cables. He snarls and goes into partial shift by instinct, struggling against the cables. One cuts into his flesh and he's immediately aware of the sting-burn-cut sensation of wolfsbane seeping into his blood. It's not a lot, not enough that it will kill him, but he's going to feel shitty for the next five hours or so. And if all of the cable is doused in it…

That definitely will kill him if he struggles enough. Sooner, rather than later.

He forces himself out of the shift by concentrating on the area where the laceration isn't healing. Then he swallows and looks up.

Fuck. Just to make sure he isn't hallucinating, Derek asks, "Stiles?"

The window must not be sound-proofed, because the figure on the other side stirs. He's clearly not asleep—he'd be hanging more heavily from the chains around his wrists if he were—but his head is drooping and when he brings it up, he's blinking, like maybe he was trying to rest. He blinks a few more times and says, "Hey, he turned the lights on." Then, like things are coming together in his mind but he's still not altogether there, he says, "You're—you're supposed to be in Uzbekistan. Or somewhere."

Stiles' voice is scratchy, as if he hasn't been using it much, and he keeps trying to swallow, working moisture into his mouth. He's completely naked, which means Derek can see the enormous bruise covering most of Stiles' right side, and Derek can hear his teeth chattering, even through the window. His breaths are coming out on a high whine, like there's something wrong with his ribs. Given the bruise, there probably is. He's got another bruise high on his forehead, which explains some of the glassiness in his gaze. That, or the fact that Derek can't smell the chemical layer of Adderall in his scent at all. Pain, fear, confusion, and that base layer of Stiles, but no meds.

"Missed home," Derek says, like it's easy, like he's not handing the simple truth that rules Derek's life to Stiles on a platter.

Stiles blinks some more, possibly thinking, possibly just trying to stay focused. Derek asks, "How long have you been here?"

"Not sure," Stiles tells him slowly. "He—uh. Maybe three days? Four? Only been given water twice, so. Probably not more."

Stiles' consonants aren't the strongest Derek's ever heard them be, but he's not actively slurring yet, so Derek thinks the estimate might be right. It's something. Derek had been terrified this had been going on for weeks, months even.

Stiles frowns then, worrying at his lip. "Lydia'n I talk 'most every day. She should've known when I went missing. Or my dad. I usually check in with him in the mornings."

Derek has never claimed to be the most socially adept of creatures, even so, he's kind of appalled that what trips out of his mouth is, "Not Scott?"

Stiles' heart does something Derek's not sure how to read, and he…laughs. Kind of. It's the laugh Stiles gives when he's about to lash out and it dies quickly into a mewl of pain. All he says is, "I've been kind of a disappointment."

Derek has no idea what the fuck that means. It makes him want to shake Scott, possibly shake Stiles, until their teeth rattle. Derek has faith in very few things, but Stiles' and Scott's friendship is one of those. He needs it to be constant. Stiles must read something into Derek's silence, because he sighs and says, "Long story."

Derek says, "Evidently, we've got time." And really, it at least keeps them away from the topic of why nobody had noticed. Derek's not sure what the hell to say about that. Not the truth, that's for certain.

Stiles looks back down at the ground and after a minute says, in a tone so bitter Derek can taste it, "Yeah, guess you'd find out anyway. Braeden tell you about the chimeras?"

Derek nods. "She gave me the summary."

"I killed one of'em."

Derek waits, but that's all Stiles says. And okay, he knows that they were mostly kids and they were being used and controlled, but he also knows Stiles, and that if he did that, it was because it was necessary. If not to protect himself, then to protect one of the others, Scott or Lydia or Malia. "We—sometimes we have to do that. For all intents and purposes, Scott killed Gerard."

Derek swallows back bile and panic just saying the words. He gets why Scott did what he did, he does, but it's one of the few things he's had a hard time forgiving Scott for: not just the use of his body, but the use of it as a weapon, without ever asking for permission. He'd had more than enough of that for one lifetime well before Scott came along.

All that being true, he can't regret that his bite did the trick. He would have killed Gerard a million times over, and never lost a night's sleep over it. That was the thing—he'd most likely have agreed, had Scott ever given him the courtesy of asking. Also, "He would have killed Peter. At least he would have tried. That first time."

"Yeah, well, Gerard and Peter were actually guilty of their crimes. And he didn't actually kill either of them, so it's, y'know, different."

"Why?" Derek asks.

"Why's it different?" Stiles frowns, like he's annoyed at having to explain.

"No," Derek says, even though he's not convinced it is different, but that's not where he was going. "Why'd you kill the chimera?"

Stiles goes still, then takes several controlled, shallow breaths. "Because he was trying to maim me. He was. He said he was gonna kill my dad. But maybe, I mean, I don't know that he would have—"

"It doesn't matter," Derek says. Stiles looks at him like he's lost all of his marbles and a few nuts and bolts with them, so Derek repeats, "It doesn't matter. You believed he would."

Stiles eyes are shiny bright and his voice is a little higher than normal when he asks, "Can we—can we not talk about this?"

Derek thinks about the time Braeden told him he wasn't responsible for the fire, about the time Isaac said, "Boyd wasn't your fault, he wasn't," about the time Chris had said, "She was my sister, and there was a time when I loved her, and a part of me that always will, but she's the one who killed your family, not you." He thinks about the panic it had caused, how he'd had to shift and run for hours, outrun the idea that others knew, that they might be right, that he could possibly let go of the beliefs that had shaped his life for nearly ten years now.

Stiles has nowhere to go. Derek wants to promise him that things will get better, but he's not sure it's true.

Instead he says, "Tell me about college. I'm, uh, I'm thinking about taking some classes."

Chained up and beaten, cold and hungry and miserable, Stiles gives him the most gorgeous smile Derek has ever seen and says, "Yeah, like what? I can make some recommendations if you tell me what you like, what do you like?"

*

Stiles has tried to keep up his end of the conversation with Derek, but he's fallen asleep three times even so, jerking awake as he slumps in the bindings, his arms pulling too tight as his legs fold. It's getting hard to keep himself standing straight even when awake.

Which is just made worse when Not Dead!Ennis comes in, smiles with all his wolf teeth at Derek before slamming a heel down on Stiles' left foot. Stiles hears the cracking, and for a second, it's stupidly like that's what hurts, the sound. He screams before he can help himself, bringing the foot up to take pressure off of it. For the moment he's in too much pain to even be worried about the new complication in his forced standing position.

When Stiles regains some semblance of focus, Derek is growling—but thankfully not trying to tear his way through the cables, which are soaked in some kind of wolfsbane or something. The place where Derek first struggled is still an open wound, raw and bleeding.

There's a conversation, most of which Stiles only catches bits and pieces of, but the takeaway is that Not Dead!Ennis's name is Marvin, and he's Ennis's brother. Evidently Ennis was a born wolf, like Derek.

And evidently word got back to Marvin that Derek was responsible for Ennis's death. Stiles mumbles, "Asshole deserved it," because he's not thinking completely straight. It earns him an elbow to the left shoulder, which displaces it.

Derek snarls, "Shut up, Stiles," but he sounds more desperate than anything.

For the moment, Stiles is biting the shit out of his tongue and trying not to cry, so they're safe from him saying anything else that's going to get him beaten.

Marvin is monologuing, Stiles realizes, with something like dark amusement in the tucked away place in himself that isn't screaming in agony. It's not very original: he's going to take everything Derek cares about away from him, starting with the weak link human, blah blah blah.

Derek glares in a way that makes Stiles wish Derek had laser eyes. That would totally take care of this problem. Stiles swallows blood and the sudden urge to laugh; forces himself to recognize that he might be a little hysterical.

Marvin leaves and Derek says, "Fuck, Stiles—"

"You're gonna rip his throat out, right?" He's maybe not enunciating at his best, but Derek gets it, because he says, "After I've made him scream for a few days."

"Good," Stiles says. "That's good."

"Stiles," Derek starts again.

"'m not the weak link," Stiles tells him. "Liam's totally the weak link."

Derek huffs out something that might be a laugh under duress. He says, "Asshole really did deserve it, didn't he?"

Stiles nods solemnly. "Totally."

*

The window between the two cells is not airtight. Derek can smell the pain and fear rolling off of Stiles. He's clearly doing what he can to hold any given position for as long as he can manage. The broken foot won't support him, but neither will his one uninjured arm. And the pattern of his breathing tells Derek that he's got broken ribs: the interrupted, shortened stutter of it.

Stiles has talked as much as he possibly can about his own classes in college, about the things Derek would like. He's caught Derek up on some of the pack happenings—something Derek found a way to cut into when it became blazingly clear that everything has been colored by the disconnect between Scott and Stiles.

Stiles is mumbling about the House of M event, which Derek hasn't actually read—he's always been more of a Vertigo guy—but Derek asks questions, does anything to keep him talking. Stiles needs to stay awake, and if he's talking, he awake.

Marvin returns with a Power Bar and a bottle of water, both of which he feeds Stiles. The smell of revulsion coming off Stiles is overwhelming, but Stiles is smart, he knows damn well he can't pass up the offering.

As soon as Stiles has finished, Marvin walks behind him, saying, "Wouldn't want you to be unable to maintain your energy levels."

Marvin's gaze is steady on Derek as he pulls a wound snake whip out of one of his pockets. Derek swallows. Stiles must see something, because he asks, "Derek?"

Derek would beg if he thought it would do any good, would promise anything and everything. But Derek knows better. When it comes to saving the people who matter, Derek never has what it takes. So he pulls his eyes away from Marvin and looks at Stiles, asks, "Wanna hear about Germany?"

Stiles swallows then, muscles tensing even further. Derek wishes he were better at this, that Stiles weren't quite so perceptive, anything. Marvin brings the whip across Stiles' back with at least full human strength, if not quite werewolf strength. Derek knows this only because Stiles hasn't been split in half.

Rather, Stiles has stumbled forward onto his broken foot, both arms extending past where they should, the dislocated one in particular. Derek can already smell blood. Stiles stops breathing for a long minute, too long, and Derek says, "Stiles, Stiles."

"Germany," Stiles manages to mumble. "Germany."

Derek talks. He talks about stupid things, like the beer, and haunting things, like the book exhibit below one of the main squares in Berlin. He talks about Christmas markets and trying to communicate and pretzels. He talks, punctuated by Stiles' screams, his wheezing breaths, his pleas to stop, the smell of his blood and tears.

Marvin stops at twenty, like it's some kind of magic number, stops and walks out and Stiles is mumbling, "Okay, okay, okay," as if saying it enough will make it true.

"Hey," Derek says, "Stiles, look at me, okay?"

It takes longer than Derek's comfortable with, but Stiles looks at him. He's not tracking well at all. Derek takes a breath, forcing panic down. "Tell me what you want to hear about. Anything, just—just tell me."

Stiles licks his lips and swallows convulsively. He's once again trying to balance between his unhurt foot and unhurt arm. His chest is heaving, and every breath causes a whimper. What he says, though, is, "Not y'r f'lt."

Derek's not going to argue with him, not now and not about this. He just repeats, "Anything, I swear. Whatever you want to hear."

Stiles closes his eyes, and for a second Derek is terrified he's going to fall asleep and suffocate himself. He drags them back open though, and says, "Wer'w'lf b'dtime st'ries."

Derek would laugh, if he weren't scared it would come out hysterical. It's so fucking Stiles to assume they're any different than human bedtime stories.

As it happens, Stiles is right.

*

Stiles falls asleep over and over only to jerk back to wakefulness the moment his arms pull in the chains. The leg with the unbroken foot is still taking most of his weight, and it's shaking, has been for hours at least, won't stop. Stiles isn't sure how long it's actually going to last. He wonders if that's the plan, for Derek to watch Stiles asphyxiate out of an inability to stand up straight. It's pretty diabolical, Stiles will give it that.

The lack of sleep is starting to cause hallucinations. Derek pulls him out of talking with his mom twice before Marvin comes back with another Power Bar and bottle of water. Between the pain and the blood loss and the sleep deprivation, though, Stiles brings this one back up halfway through. He tries not to, he does, but it's a losing battle.

Vomiting with broken ribs is something he never wants to think about ever again.

He must get some of it on Marvin—most of it's on himself, so he really doesn't see where Marvin gets off being pissed—because Marvin backhands him. The force jerks him onto his injured foot, pulling at the dislocated shoulder, and even through all that, he manages to register the pain in his face. It's possible something is broken. Marvin doesn't seem to be regulating his strength all that stringently.

Marvin and Derek are talking. Stiles tries to pay attention because, let's face it, it's probably about him.

Marvin's saying, "…heard this bitch prefers baseball bats as his weapon of choice."

Derek's eyes are wolf-blue and when Stiles manages to focus, it's clear he's seconds off from killing himself by trying to get out of the cables. Stiles puts everything he has into saying, "Derek."

It doesn't sound right. His jaw isn't moving the way it should. But it catches Derek's attention. He pants, "Stiles."

It's then that Stiles feels the blunted, flat edge of a baseball bat being positioned against his ass. He stops breathing for a second and his vision, already blurred with tears, goes completely blank with terror. Derek says, "Stiles," again and Stiles says, "Don't, don't—" his voice begging without shame, not sure who he's talking to, not sure of anything except that he doesn't want this, does not want Derek to see this, doesn't want to see Derek seeing this.

He can't think about what's going to happen to him, can't think about it at all. His mind is like a skipping tape, jittering and scrolling too fast for any meaning, but all he can focus on is that he doesn't want anyone, and especially not Derek, to see.

He blinks, and his vision clears for a moment of crystal clarity. The cable breaks through skin at Derek's shoulder and he's bleeding, the sick blue fumes of the wolfsbane releasing into the air, and what Stiles says is, "Don't struggle."

Marvin laughs, "Good advice, human."

He pushes.

Stiles closes his eyes then, closes them, thinks of pictures on postcards, the smell of fall, the taste of the gooseberry pie from the little bakery by his school, the softness of his favorite t-shirt, the unevenness of his mother's smile. If he screams, it's far away where there's nobody to hear, no one who'll ever know: just him and his thoughts and the darkness.

*

After an eternity, Marvin yanks the bat out of Stiles, whose screams have gone hoarse. Stiles' bad foot slips out from under him, and the other leg folds. Derek expects him to scramble, but he just hangs there, limp, the sound of air trying to get in or out of compressed lungs somehow loud to Derek, absolutely terrifying.

Marvin laughs and tosses the bat aside. He says, "Pussy," even as he's walking away, leaving the room again.

Derek screams. He screams Stiles' name, he yells about Stiles' dad, he does everything he can think of, but it's still long, long seconds before Stiles is able to force his legs under him. Derek can hear him gasping for breath, wheezing and--

Stiles is crying. Derek can smell the salt of it, a sick-wrong smell that he's never associated with crying before.

There's blood dripping down Stiles' thighs, fresh blood. The places where the whip ripped open have stopped bleeding, but Derek can smell the off-rotten smell of a budding infection. He's starting to seriously consider if he can get through the cables, take care of Marvin, possibly a sorcerer, depending on if Marvin's buddy is around, and get Stiles to a hospital before the wolfsbane kills him. It seems impossible, at best, but he'll try it if he doesn't come up with another idea soon.

Stiles croaks, "D'rek?" his voice altered by the way his jaw isn't quite moving, the hoarseness of having screamed until he physically couldn't.

"Yeah, Stiles, I'm here. I'm—"

"Need." Stiles swallows. It looks like it hurts. His breaths are short and starting to sound wet. Derek's more than a little worried one of the broken ribs has perforated a lung.

"What do you need, Stiles?" Derek asks it softly, carefully. He'll do it, whatever it is.

"You…mm, you t'ke caruv d'd."

It takes Derek a moment to straighten out what the words mean. When he does he closes his eyes and inhales and does his best to calm his heartbeat, thankful Stiles can't hear it. "Stiles, your dad—"

"S'rry," Stiles tells him, an earnest mumble. "S'rry. Thought Sc'tt, b't. I. S'rry, need you to."

The fact that Stiles doesn't think he can depend on Scott to take care of Stiles' dad in his absence is, in and of itself, a good reason for deep concern, but not the point for the moment. Stiles is getting agitated, making words that are more and more broken, clearly trying to explain himself. Derek needs Stiles to focus all his strength on keeping himself alive so he says, "It's okay, Stiles. Don't worry. It's—I won't let anything happen to your dad, I promise."

Like there will be anything left to take care of if Derek returns without Stiles. Like Derek's got any way of getting out of this.

Fuck. Derek counts to ten in his head. Then twenty. When he reaches thirty and he's still not feeling any calmer, he asks Stiles, "Wanna hear about Italy?"

Stiles shakes his head slightly. "'sland."

Derek tries to figure that one out and fails. "Um. Slander?"

For a moment, Stiles' legs fall out from under him and he struggles to pull himself back up. The smell of copper is overwhelming, nauseating. When he's managed, he stutters, "N'rth'rn Lights."

Oh. "Iceland. Okay, yeah, got it." Derek talks about the night sky, about the Aurora Borealis, about the smell of the air. He says, "You've got to see it," like it's a prayer, like the fact that it's the truth can will it into being.

Stiles doesn't say anything.

*

Derek has begun executing Plan Z when the sound of gunshots gets his attention. He stops in his struggles against the cable—he's cut in a dozen different places and no closer to being free; he's beginning to doubt he can survive the process of getting himself unbound—and listens. He has to push aside the sound of Stiles' too-slow heartbeat, the only noise he's been focusing on for a while now.

The wolfsbane pumping sluggishly through his veins makes it hard to have the kind of focus he generally manages. After a few seconds it doesn't matter, because the gun shots are being fired right at the door to the cell he's in. The door is kicked inward, and Chris takes one look at him and says, "Fuck."

Chris calls, "Deaton!"

Derek shakes his head violently, and then motions with it toward the window. "Stiles. Stiles."

Stiles is watching the whole thing with glassy, unfocused eyes. Derek isn't sure he actually understands what's happening.

Deaton and Lydia are there a second later. Derek frowns. "Lydia?"

"Long story," Chris says, already on his way to get through the next door. Deaton has knelt beside Derek, is carefully cutting him out of the cables with what looks like mini-bolt cutters. Derek doesn't even have the energy to ask. Deaton always just seems to have what he needs.

"There's two of them—" Derek starts to tell him, his eyes on where Lydia is doing her best to hold Stiles up without hurting him while Chris works on picking the locks to the chains. Stiles is muttering under his breath, but nothing he's saying is making any sense.

Deaton says, "The wolf and the sorcerer, we know. I took care of the latter. Scott and Braeden are currently taking care of the former."

Derek wonders exactly what that means, since Scott is pretty strict about the no-killing rule. Then again, Braeden only listens to Scott when she's feeling like it. After a moment's hesitation, he decides he trusts the two of them to keep the pack safe. Keep him safe. Softly, he asks, "Does—do you remember? Stiles?"

There's a flash of something that might be regret in Deaton's eyes. He says, "Yes. I—I took care of that problem."

In the other room, Chris manages to open the second lock and despite Lydia's grasp, Stiles tumbles to the floor, lying there like a discarded rag. Derek makes a sound in his throat that he knows should be embarrassing but he doesn't care, can't care.

Deaton clips the last cable and Derek is up and in the other room like a shot. He's dizzy and weak from the poisoning and he hits three walls on his way, but it doesn't matter, not at all. When he gets to Stiles, Chris has pulled him into his arms, bridal style.

Stiles mumbles, "T'red," and before Derek can tell him not to fall asleep, please, please don't fall asleep, he loses consciousness himself.

*

It's Braeden who intervenes when Derek goes crazy trying to follow them to the hospital with Stiles. He doesn't even notice her coming up to him. She just gets in his space, puts her hands on his chest, and if he weren't covered in blood and about to fall over again he'd probably set her aside, but as it is she says, "Derek, Jesus, Derek."

He looks down at her hands, now wet with his blood. She says, "The kid's gonna be out of it for a while, okay? I didn’t even get a good look, and I know that. You need to let Deaton treat you, need to clean up so they let you in the room with him."

Her voice is even, soothing. What she says makes sense. None of it matters. Derek opens his mouth on a snarl but what comes out is a sob. He shuts his mouth and covers his face with his hands. She leans into him, holding him and murmuring, "You're good. We've got you."

He slides to the ground, his legs no longer able to hold him up. Deaton and Braeden get on either side of him. Deaton says, "Let's get you patched and then—then we've got to get to the Sheriff."

Derek blinks at that. Of course they have to get him; Stiles will need his dad. Braeden says, "We didn't have time to get to him and undo whatever the hell it was that made everyone forget Stiles before we set out to find you guys. Also, it seemed like it might be better. To wait."

Derek hears what she doesn't say. That if Stiles had been dead, it might have been kinder to have left the Sheriff in a state of blissful ignorance. He's not sure he agrees, but he can follow the logic.

He doesn't let himself think about the fact that Stiles had been so still; that Stiles could still die.

Deaton says, "Unfortunately, with the originator of the spell having his magic stripped, I'm not certain what will have happened to those remaining under it. I broke the link to Lydia, Scott, and myself before we came, so none of us provides an example."

The two of them deposit Derek into Deaton's pragmatic little four door sedan. Derek looks at the upholstery and says, "Sorry."

From the front seat, Deaton says, "Oh, I have a formula for that." Of course he does, Stiles' voice says in Derek's head. Derek shakes it away. As the engine starts, Derek hears Scott howl in victory.

It's eerie, how lonely the sound is.

*

They don't quite make it back to the local clinic Deaton's gotten his hands on nearby—evidently a favor owed him by another emissary; Braeden asks questions, Derek doesn't—before Derek has to tell them, "Pull over."

Really, trying to vomit up poison already too far gone wasn't fun the first time. It doesn't get any better this time around. He passes out after the second round of sickness.

And wakes up to sheer, blazing agony. He screams, terrified, sure he's back in the house, that this time he's going to burn with the rest of his family.

Someone is saying his name, he can hear it from far away. Someone else is saying, "Breathe," but that's impossible, he can't, he can't.

Then, with a suddenness that's disturbing, the pain lessens to a dull throb—the aftermath tremors of a truly disastrous earthquake. He struggles to inhale and coughs, his body still fighting to understand what the hell happened.

Braeden's hands are on him then, and he's glad they're familiar enough to recognize even in his half-aware state. She says, "Hey, I've got you, shh."

He takes another breath, then another. Things start to come into focus. He's in a doctor's office. Probably a pediatrician, if the Winnie the Pooh prints on the walls are anything to go by. He swallows and asks, "Stiles?"

"Chris called. Scott's at the hospital with him and Lydia, they're waiting. Stiles is in surgery."

"Do they think—"

She puts a hand on his cheek. "The doctors wouldn't say. There was a lot of damage. They're doing what they can, okay?"

Derek tries sitting up. He nearly falls right back down, but Braeden holds him, keeps him upright until he can manage himself. Derek glances around. "Deaton?"

"He left as soon as it was clear the counteragent was taking. The Sheriff was—the spell evidently wore off the minute Deaton did his mojo on the originator of it."

"Fuck," Derek says.

"Yeah, you probably have a few really frantic messages on your phone, just. Heads up."

Derek nods and wipes a shaky hand over his face. "Hospital."

"You have to shower and get some clothes first," she says, looking pointedly at the blanket draped over his lap.

Derek glances down at himself. Braeden has a point. They're going to get arrested if they go into the hospital with this much blood on them and no wounds to show for it. "Google the nearest motel. I'll get us a room."

"You need to eat something, too," she says, and there's no room for argument in her tone.

"On the way, while we're grabbing clothes," Derek compromises. He's too preoccupied and healing-weak to feel the hunger, but he knows it's there.

"Deal," she says, and pulls him off the table, hooking his arm over her shoulder. He doesn't fight it, even if he actually can walk by himself at this point. She feels good beside him, warm and steady.

He mumbles, "Missed you."

She snorts. "Yeah, well, next time try harder to keep yourself out of trouble when I'm not around."

*

By the time they get to the hospital, Deaton and the Sheriff have already arrived. Liam and Mason are sitting on either side of Scott, with Hayden and Corey on the opposite sides of them, and Malia and Kira are watching over Lydia, who's asleep. She looks like she hasn't slept in days, her skin tissue-paper pale and thin, eyes smudged dark, now that Derek's really paying attention.

Scott must see him staring, because he says quietly, "She hasn't stopped since you called her. You planted the seed that something was wrong and, well. It's Lydia. She had to dig it up. Or whatever."

She's muttering in her sleep, distressed little sounds, and Kira's got a hand cupped over her head, seemingly trying to convey safety through touch.

The Sheriff looks…lost. That's the only word Derek can think of, but even that's not quite right. He's pacing a little, watching each of the others, like keeping an eye on them is the only thing grounding him. Derek hates to ask, but, "What have the doctors said?"

The Sheriff stills, and it's several seconds before he manages, "It's touch and go right now. They, uh, they won't really know anything until he's out of surgery. There was a lot of internal bleeding. "

The soup Braeden made Derek eat threatens to come back up and he swallows frantically. "I'm sorry. I swear—"

The Sheriff is in his space, then, and Derek thinks he should have been able to track the movement, the man is human, but it's too fast, too unexpected and Derek's starting to back up, instinct responding to a threat, but the Sheriff puts his hands on Derek's face, forces Derek to look at him. "Sorry?"

"The—it was me he was after. He wanted to hurt me." Derek's stomach is burning, it hurts to breathe.

The Sheriff shakes his head. His hands are hot on Derek's face. "You remembered him. You found him. You called people who could help. You—"

"I wasn't resistant to the spell, you get that, right? I just wasn't here. They just didn't do it on me."

Derek hears someone approaching, smells Chris getting closer, carrying at least one cup of coffee, possibly several. Chris stops in the doorway, his body language casual, but his eyes intent. The Sheriff says, "There shouldn't be a spell in the galaxy that can make me forget my own son."

"It's not that simple," Chris says.

Derek nods within the Sheriff's grasp. The Sheriff takes a shaky breath. "It really is."

"I'm sorry," Derek says again, helplessly.

"You stayed with him. You're the reason he's alive," the Sheriff says and lets Derek go, turning away slightly. He looks exhausted and scared. "Not everything is your fault, son. Stop apologizing."

Aside from guilt and fear, apologies are what Derek knows best. It feels like having the foundation ripped out from beneath him.

He closes his mouth and nods anyway. He'll do what's needed of him. It's all he's ever tried to do.

*

During the seventh hour that Stiles remains in surgery—three hours after Derek has arrived at the hospital—he goes down to the cafeteria to get a coffee and then outside to pace. He needs fresh air.

Scott finds him. Scott's not his alpha, not yet, possibly not ever, although when Derek had made the decision to come back he'd also decided that he needed to finally have that conversation with Scott. But even still. There's something between them. If it's not quite pack, it's at least some level of trust. Derek has learned to take what he can get and be appreciative of it.

That being true, he still feels like he's within his rights to ask, "What the fuck is wrong between you and Stiles?"

Derek doesn't blame Scott for not looking for Stiles, he really doesn't. If he did, he'd have to blame Stiles's dad as well, and Derek can understand how fucking insane that is. But Stiles asked Derek to take care of said dad because he didn't feel like the guy he's seen as a brother since elementary school had his back, so, yeah.

Scott rubs at his face. Derek smells the salt of tears and the sharp-bitter tang of regret, but he doesn't care. Not when Stiles has thought he was dying and didn't believe he could ask Scott to do what any decent friend would.

Not when he thought he'd had to ask Derek (who isn't even pack, who just happened to be there) instead.

To his credit, Scott looks him in the eye when he says, "I fucked up. I—" He shakes his head. "I listened to someone I shouldn't have, believed something I never should have believed." Scott hangs his head before looking up again, looking right at Derek. "I didn't believe him, and I will always regret that."

"Scott." It's half growl.

Scott kicks at a rock. After a moment he asks, "Braeden tell you anything about what happened here while you were gone?"

They hadn't talked about it much, really. Braeden had wanted to keep him from Beacon Hills and knew him well enough to know that controlled information would help with that. He sorts through what she had said. "Mostly about the Desert Wolf. That she tried to kill Malia. Didn't turn out so well for her. Oh, and hell hounds are a thing. Lydia's maybe dating the one we know. There was an army of chimeras. Stiles says he killed one."

Scott nods, looking absolutely defeated. "Either of them tell you about Theo?"

Derek takes a sip of coffee and listens to Scott's heartbeat. It's thready and fast, nothing like the normal rhythmic thump Derek has become used to. "Maybe I should have asked."

Scott's jaw tightens and then releases and he shakes his head. "No. No, this isn't on you."

Derek leans against the wall of the hospital; healed, but drained. Scott looks away from him. "This, well, we thought he was a wolf, he showed up. Theo. He grew up here, when we were kids. It's a long story. Too long for right now, but he was one of the chimeras."

Scott rubs a hand over his face. "He came here to take the pack. But he lied, he manipulated me, and Stiles, he told me. He was so sure, but I thought it was just." Scott shrugs, looking a little green, smelling sick. "Stiles. He doesn't trust people."

"Usually for good reason," Derek says, even though he has a feeling he knows where this is going. Someone's got to be pissed for Stiles, since clearly Stiles isn't managing it so well himself.

Scott says, "Yeah," the word shaky. "Yeah. One of the chimeras, he came after Stiles. And the chimera ended up dead."

"Fuck," Derek says, and sure, he already knew that part, but suddenly he also knows the rest of this story without having to be told. It's every nightmare he's ever had about someone else telling Laura how their family had died, except for the part where Stiles was acting in self-defense, while Derek was just being a stupid, trusting kid. "Theo told you it was murder."

Scott's eyes whip back up to Derek's, dark and ashamed. Derek feels like the earth is slipping away from him, like everything he has built back up is eroding. "And you believed him? Believed that Stiles, who fought like a fucking wildcat against the nogitsune, who—Scott, fucking Stiles? You thought—"

"I know." It comes out like that howl Derek heard earlier in the day, mournful and solitary. "Jesus Christ, Derek, I am one hundred percent aware of how badly I fucked up. But—he cuts me off when I try to apologize, he finds excuses not to hang out, he acts like nothing is wrong, except for how he's a terrible actor. And with being in different places, I don't know what to do anymore. I'm not even sure…maybe I don't deserve to. I forgot him, Derek."

Derek blows out a breath. "So did his father. Magic is fucked up, we all know this. And fuck what you deserve, Scott, seriously. It's what he deserves, and that's everything you've got."

Scott swallows. A laugh chokes out of his throat, small and torn sounding. "I'm glad you're back, man. We needed you. Need you."

The irony of the fact that Derek has been waiting, wanting, needing to hear those words since he was fifteen and now that he finally has them he can't appreciate them (not when Stiles might be dying, not when Stiles has been hurt only because of Derek, not when Stiles has done nothing to deserve this and will never really understand that) is not lost on Derek. He finishes his coffee. "Let's just—let's just make this right."

*

It's after the ninth hour that the doctor comes out and introduces herself to Stiles's dad, who shakes her hand and asks, "How is he?"

"He's a fighter," she says, sounding impressed. Derek tamps down on the need to bare his teeth, all of them, because Stiles is stronger than anyone he knows, hands down.

She takes a breath. "We've done everything we can. It's up to him now. We had to remove two of his ribs to stabilize his lung. He was showing signs of infection in the lacerations on his back, in the breaks in his foot, and internally, from the lacerations in his bowels. We've got all of the lacerations and breaks, including the jaw, which had to be re-broken to properly set, and we've also treated the external injuries. I've put him on a cocktail of antibiotics, as well as fluids to deal with the malnutrition and dehydration, which are part of what's making it harder for his body to fend off infection. Both the shoulder and the foot are eventually going to require physical therapy to regain full range of motion. He's sleeping now. With any luck, he'll stay that way for at least another ten or so hours. His body desperately needs the rest; there were indicia of sleep deprivation in his condition. We'll talk about our plan for taking him off the painkillers when he wakes up and we have a better idea of how he's doing. Have you got any questions?"

The Sheriff tucks his arms over his chest, his hands beneath his armpits. "Can I see him?"

She runs an eye over the rest of them, all clearly listening in. She says, "Just you."

"Yeah," the Sheriff agrees.

It's a lie.

*

Derek. Derek hears the Sheriff say his name about fifteen minutes later. He straightens in the chair where he's sitting, the other wolves, Kira, and Malia, doing the same. The Sheriff continues, "If you're listening, room 439."

Derek nods at Scott, trusting him to relay the information to those waiting who couldn't hear, and then slips off. He doesn't question the Sheriff calling for him first. For one thing, the man no doubt knows about the tension between his son and Scott. For another, one wolf works as well as another to take Stiles' pain, which is no doubt still lingering, despite all the meds.

The room smells heavily of the chemicals in the medicines, of antiseptic and muted blood. But underneath is the somewhat familiar smell of a sleeping Stiles. The Sheriff barely looks up as Derek pushes the door open, and Derek wastes no time in taking Stiles's hand gently and pulling what discomfort is managing to get through the painkillers. It gives him time in which he's forced to look at Stiles. Stiles's wrapped chest is inflating and deflating more roughly than Derek feels okay about, and his jaw is visibly wired, which makes Derek nauseated. There's almost no part of his body which isn't connected to some tube or covered in bandages. Derek wants to howl and run and possibly claw someone's face off.

Derek needs to apologize again and knows that's not allowed, so instead he says, "Stiles wants to go to Iceland. He wants to see the Northern Lights."

"I know," his father says quietly. "He wants to do a safari in Botswana, do some crazy long zipline thing in Alaska, see the pyramids, and a million other things I've never been able to help him manage. Hell, he's always wanted to learn how to sail a boat, and yet I've never found the time and the money to take him to the coast, let alone get him some lessons."

Derek frowns. "He doesn't think that's your responsibility."

The Sheriff's smile is curved, rueful. "Some day, Derek, you'll find someone and you'll settle down, and there will be a kid or two or three, and you will learn that there is absolutely nothing in your child's life that you don't feel responsible for. Especially when you're the only one left."

Derek's done his best to come to peace with the fact that he doesn't get that, that quiet contentedly-ever-after. It hurts to have it promised so casually. He takes a breath, breathes through the pain, the same as always. "Maybe. But…it works the other way, too." He tries not to think about his parents. He really has gone through the stages of grief. It just hasn't meant an end to his grieving. "Good parents inevitably become heroes. We want them happy as much as we want them proud."

The Sheriff looks down at the bed, at Stiles. "He wants to work in law enforcement. Kid's smart enough to do anything in the world, and he wants to do the same dangerous, thankless, underpaid job as his old man."

Derek thinks this proves his point for him, so he stays silent.

The Sheriff swallows. "I love my job, I do. But I want better for him. Something that gives him the time and money to go see those Northern Lights of his."

Derek has every intention of making certain Stiles sees the Northern Lights, and learns how to sail, and anything and everything else on his bucket list—if he just wakes up. He keeps silent, though. He has no desire to wound the other man's pride. There's no question in Derek's mind he's done the absolute best he could at every turn. Instead, he says, "You know Stiles. Once he has a goal…"

The Sheriff snorts, and neither of them call attention to how it ends on a tiny sob. "Yeah. He's driven, that's for sure."

Derek pulls some more pain as it starts to resurface, calming himself with the burn of it; not exactly like Stiles' living spark, but something. He'll take anything just then. "That's why he's gonna wake up."

The Sheriff nods, not taking his eyes off his son.

*

Stiles wakes up to the feeling that something has died in his mouth and the inability to feel his fingers or his toes. It's disorienting, to say the least, and he does what he does best in these situations: panic. Something beeps frantically in the background and then he hears the one thing that's anchored him throughout his entire life: his dad's voice is gravelly with lack of sleep and a sliver less calm than in general, but it is familiar and known to him, deep in his bones, where there is no space for anything but truth.

"Hey there, kiddo, you're safe. We're in a hospital in Oakland, and everyone's been waiting for you to wake up." His father keeps talking, sometimes just counting, until Stiles' breathing evens out. His dad has his hand on Stiles' shoulder, warm and solid. When Stiles is breathing normally—it hurts even through everything that's making the world seem cottoned over—his dad gives him an ice chip. It tastes divine.

Stiles catches sight of Derek out of the corner of his eye. He's curled into the corner, sleeping. Stiles just stares at him, unsure of what to ask or say or anything. His father follows his gaze and says, "He's gonna be pissed at himself for missing you waking up."

Stiles remembers the last time he'd seen Derek all too well. He'd said, "Stop, stop," but he knows that the moment he wasn't able to pay attention any longer, Derek had begun trying to force his way out of the bonds. Stiles can feel the way his jaw is wired even in the minute movements of swallowing the ice chip. He's careful to move it as little as possible when he asks, "Poisoned?"

His dad nods. "I missed most of it, but Braeden and Deaton said it was a close call. He came as soon as he was back on his feet and he'd cleaned up. I called him in as soon as they let me in here. This is the first time he's slept in at least twenty hours, probably longer. Scott wanted to come in and help manage your pain, but it's hard enough hiding the fact that Derek's in here, and I—I thought you'd feel better if it was just me and him when you woke up the first time."

Stiles is having a hard time holding onto thoughts, let alone staying awake; but he frowns, or at least tries. He suspects the range of motion on his mouth isn’t that great; isn't interested in testing it. "Scott?"

"Yeah, we haven't been able to get him to leave the hospital." His dad says this evenly, without judgment. He hasn't ever gotten in the middle of Scott and Stiles before and it doesn't seem as though he's going to now. It must mean something, though, that Scott has stayed, right? Stiles takes one more glance at Derek, sleeping safely in his corner, and tucks his Scott-related optimism in the front of his brain. It feels like he falls asleep before his eyes are even closed.

*

The first thing Stiles notices upon waking is that his hand is being held. He almost jerks it free, his heart-rate skyrocketing until he feels the too-familiar sensation of pain being pulled. He mumbles, "Sc'tt?" before he's fully awake.

A voice says softly, "Sorry to disappoint," but the pain keeps being pulled.

Stiles comes awake then, truly awake, eyes opening. Derek's got his hand held between both of his. Stiles tries to say, "Derek," along with a fleeting thought about protesting—Derek did almost die recently—but something has died and rotted in his mouth, again, so all that really happens is that his mouth moves minutely within the range of the wiring. The wiring seems slightly less restrictive, like maybe they removed some of it, or like the jaw is healing up enough to not need all of it. Stiles might not be a werewolf, but he's receiving werewolf narcotics, which helps his body heal, not having to fight the pain. He's going to heal more quickly than the average human.

Derek lets go with one hand and brings a cup with a straw to Stiles' mouth. Stiles takes a sip, and then another. It tastes like paradise. He coughs a little, having gone too fast, and there's a second where the pain spikes, but he can hardly register it before Derek's drawing it out, the veins in his right arm a sleek-sick black.

Stiles mumbles, "Derek."

"Yeah, I'm here. We all ganged up on your dad and made him go take a shower and get something to eat, but he'll be back in a bit, I promise. You want me to call him?"

It's easy enough to fall back on habit in this case and shake his head. "You send someone to make sure he ate?"

Derek hesitates for less than half a second, but Stiles already knows he's going to say, "Scott. I know things are … complicated between you two, right now, but he'll take care of your dad, Stiles. You shouldn't doubt that."

Stiles is tired. "Yeah, no, 'course. Scott would never blame my mistakes on—"

"Scott made the mistake, Stiles. He believed someone he shouldn't have instead of trusting you. And yes, it was a bad mistake and he made it at a terrible time, but—but you've got to let him talk to you."

"I—"

Derek shakes his head. "We're the same this way. We're afraid of what we'll hear, so we avoid listening. Let him apologize, Stiles. Let him do his best to make it up to you."

Stiles knows he's digging his fingernails into Derek's hand, but he can't seem to get his grip to loosen. Derek just sets the water cup back down and resumes his two-handed hold of Stiles' hand. Stiles, to his utter horror, hears himself ask, "You really back?"

Even worse, he feels his voice catch, knows Derek can smell salt on him. He's not even crying, it's not fair, but he's close enough that Derek will know. And the fucking monitor is beeping too quickly, like Derek can't already hear his stupid, too-human heart speeding its way along like a bullet-train.

"Hey," Derek says, "hey. Yes. I'm here. I was—I didn't even know what was going on when I came back. I came back because it was time."

"Sorry," Stiles says, feeling his eyes slip shut even as he's talking. He struggles to open them again.

Derek shakes his head. "There's nothing—"

"Had this whole plan," Stiles tells him. He vaguely remembers that he wasn't actually going to tell Derek any of this, since it hadn't happened, but the memory is buried under meds and Derek's pain-siphoning. The hand that's not being held flails to illustrate his point, and Derek reaches out to catch it, probably because it's the one attached to the IVs.

"Plan," Derek says, flatly, but it's a question.

"Welcome back party," Stiles tells him solemnly. "With cake. And tiramisu, because I got Cora to tell me it was your favorite."

Derek honestly isn't sure whether to laugh or cry. "When I was fifteen, yeah. And how the hell—you and Cora talk?"

"It's not your favorite anymore? What is?"

"Stiles, seriously, you and Cora—"

Stiles may be drugged halfway to Mars and back, but stubbornness is in his blood. Especially when it comes to Derek. "You tell me your favorite, I tell you what you want to know."

Derek blinks at him, but then there's that half-smile that means he's actually pleased or amused or some emotion that makes him smile, as opposed to faking it. "Cannoli. The chocolate dipped kind."

"You have a thing for Italian desserts. Got it."

"Stiles—"

"There was over a month between your last postcard from Germany and your first one from Denmark. I might have panicked. A little." Suddenly, Stiles is glad he's so tired. It makes admitting all this easier.

"Oh." Derek looks down at their hands. "Sorry? I thought—I thought I was sending them for me. So you'd, uh." His gaze snaps over at the wall.

It takes Stiles a second to force his brain through the wall of drugs and exhaustion, but he figures it out. "You were worried we'd forget?"

Derek doesn't look at him. Stiles would drop his chin, but he's pretty sure fighting the wiring that hard would hurt even with the drugs and the werewolf mojo. "Holy shit, you actually are mentally damaged."

The instinct to yawn overcomes him suddenly and yeah, that hurts, a lot. Derek tightens his grip and pulls. Stiles eyes cross from the warring sensations. He straightens them long enough to say, "I have to pass out now. If you're not here when I wake up, I'll hunt you down and kill you. With tickles."

Derek seems unsure of what to do with that. Stiles would laugh, but he doesn't have the energy. Besides, unsure or not, Derek's not moving.

*

Derek is there when Stiles next wakes—as promised—but he's curled on the floor in wolf form. Stiles opens his mouth to talk which causes his jaw to struggle against the wiring, and realizes abruptly that the pain meds have clearly been lowered in dosage. He manages a, "Hey, dad," that's more whimpering than words.

His father looks up from the file he's reading, and the change that comes over his face is immediate. Stiles has seen his father appear relieved more times than he can count. This is something else, something more. His dad reaches for the water cup and holds it up for him, saying, "Hey there, sleepy head. Kinda thought you were never gonna wake up."

Stiles wonders if Derek didn't mention the time before, not wanting to make his dad feel like he'd missed Stiles. He doesn't ask. Instead he asks, "Scott—he take good care of you?"

His dad tousles Stiles's hair and says, "Not as good as you, but he got the job done."

Stiles feels something unknot inside his chest. Maybe they'll never be each other's best friends again, but he can depend on Scott for this, Scott and Derek, and that—that's all Stiles really needs. Into the silence, his dad asks, "Don't suppose you're ready to tell me what's going on between you two?"

Stiles looks down at the bedspread and says, "I guess sometimes people just grow apart."

His dad sighs, and calls that bullshit with a, "Maybe later."

Stiles doesn't say anything one way or another. His dad speaks up, saying, "Listen, Stiles. The doctors are saying it's going to be a few months of pretty intense physical therapy. I talked to the school, and they're giving you a medical leave of absence, which will keep your scholarships and work-study intact and on track."

Stiles hadn't gotten to considering what the hell he was going to do about school, but he's not upset to find the problem's already been solved for him.

His dad shifts his weight. "The thing is, um. Bed and board aren't covered during a leave, and if you want to stay out here, we'll figure something out, I can—"

Stiles puts the pieces together more slowly than he normally would, but he gets there. He shakes his head. "Jesus, dad, I'm coming home. We might have to put me on the couch for a while—just, you know, stairs." Stiles gestures to his casted foot.

His dad nods. "I was thinking maybe I'd clear the office out. Make it a guest room. You never know, you might wanna bring friends home from school, or—or something. In the meantime, it'd give you some privacy while the stairs are a problem."

Stiles brought his friends over all the time through high school and this never came up, so he's pretty sure his dad's just bullshitting, although to what end, Stiles has no idea. Still, a bed would be nicer than the couch for however long it takes him to heal up. Lord knows he's going to have a hard enough time sleeping anyway. "Sounds good."

His father's smile is small and toothless, but real. He knuckles at Stiles' hair again and says, "Get some more rest. I'm here. And you have a 250 pound predator watching your back."

"It sounds so fierce until you look at him," Stiles says.

His dad laughs a little, but doesn't disagree.

*

The only reason Stiles lets Scott come in, take his hand, and pull at his pain—without even a bit of a fight—is because after the first session of physio, where breathing is actually a thing he has to start relearning, everything hurts. Also, Derek has been banished. He growled at the therapist. Granted, he didn't shift, so that was something, but still. Stiles needs his doctors to do what they are supposed to be doing, not what they've been intimidated into doing.

Also, it's possible Stiles isn't crazy about the idea of Derek seeing him cry. More.

Scott might be someone who thinks Stiles is a cold-blooded murderer, but he's seen Stiles cry so many times that trying to pretend otherwise would be both pointless and stupid. Stiles tries to be neither of those things, but definitely only one at a time, if worst comes to worst.

Scott pulls until Stiles is a little lightheaded from the lack of pain, but he doesn't let go of Stiles's hand when he's done. Stiles looks at it, trying to impart to his own hand that he feels betrayed by its traitorous lack of attempts at pulling free. It does not respond to his judgment.

Scott says, "This is, uh, not my proudest moment, taking advantage of the fact that I basically just morphined you and all. But you've kind of been avoiding my calls, dude, and then you went and got kidnapped and I got magicked and—"

"Magicked?" Stiles might be loopy, but he's not so loopy as to miss that huge fucking piece of the puzzle that evidently nobody has mentioned to him.

Scott blinks and looks confused. "That's not the point, the point is that I'm sorry."

And now Stiles is torn, because yeah, he thinks the magic is pretty important. When it comes down to it, though, he makes the same decision he's made since he was five, almost every single time: he prioritizes the relationship between him and Scott. He's exhausted and pretty sure he's going to have nightmares when he falls asleep—they came as soon as the dosage on the pain meds was lowered enough—and he needs this over with, one way or another, so all he says is, "Why? You're not the one who killed the person we were supposed to be saving."

The skin around Scott's eyes tightens. "I need to know how it happened."

Stiles almost laughs, except even the thought of doing it hurts. "Why? What could it possibly matter at this point?"

"Because I know you. I got scared and stupid and forgot about that, because, yeah, I make mistakes too, and I was—people were dying and I couldn't stop it and—and I'm sorry, but I know you. And I know if you did it, it was because you had to. And that you were alone in that, completely alone, and I don't want you to be, not anymore."

The thing that sucks is that Scott is right about him having been alone. Or, he was up until Derek came back and just believed that Stiles had done what needed to be done. Sure, Stiles's dad knew he'd been the one to kill Donovan, and all Stiles'd had to say to his dad was a shaky, "I didn't—I, it—" and his dad had pulled him into a hug and said, "Okay, kid. It's gonna be okay."

But his dad was a cop, and it was enough that he had chosen Stiles over the letter of the law. Stiles wasn't—will never—make him be the person who's a sounding board for Stiles's guilt over the situation.

And while Malia hadn't blamed him, she also hadn't understood. So yeah, he's been alone.

Stiles could tell Scott he's okay. He thinks he will be, at least on this account, now that Derek's back. Stiles isn't stupid, though. He's perfectly aware that he's being given the chance to reset their relationship; to repair it or refuse the offer. He also knows that if he refuses he will, for all intents and purposes, end their friendship. He knows Scott is giving him that option, too.

He says, "He was chasing me. I was fixing the Jeep and he bit me, with the wendigo teeth, not the human ones. I knocked him away with the wrench but he came after me. I just—" Stiles swallows back bile and fear.

Scott says, "Okay, it's—"

"I was trying to get away, and I pulled a pin in some scaffolding and part of it impaled him."

"Okay," Scott says again, more quietly this time.

"I was terrified and alone and—"

"Stiles," Scott says, his eyes flashing red for just a moment. "You're not alone. Not anymore. Not ever again, okay? You're part of my pack, you're the first pack I ever had, and I'm sorry I failed you when you needed it. But I'm not going to, not again. I'm done not listening when you tell me something, okay?"

Stiles shouldn't believe him, because people repeat their mistakes and do stupid things all the time. Scott has never broken a promise to him, though. Everything else aside, that is a truth. "Okay."

Scott nods. "Okay. Get some rest. I'll be here."

Stiles looks at where their hands are connected again. This time, his hand does his bidding, and tightens just a fraction around Scott's.

*

The hospital releases Stiles into outpatient care roughly two weeks after he's first admitted. His dad and Derek wheel him to the door, and then Derek helps him to his feet and into the back of his dad's cruiser. Derek gets in so that Stiles's head is resting on his thigh, the rest of him supported by actual pillows which someone has put in the car for this trip.

Stiles spends all but a few minutes of the trip passed out, being kept under by Derek's magic morphine hands. He's barely awake when Derek and his dad bundle him out of the car, Derek carrying him this time, because evidently Stiles is only allowed his dignity in public. He thinks he should be more irritated by that, but despite sleeping the whole way down, he's exhausted.

The state of his house brings him out of it, just a little, once they're inside the door. "What?"

His dad appears to be some combination of mildly guilty and slightly overwhelmed. "Yeah, uh, when Derek asked permission to make things more accessible in the house, I didn't realize he was going in for a complete flip."

Stiles knows Derek has gone to Beacon Hills a couple of times in the past few days, mumbling about needing to figure out housing, but this still doesn't make any sense. "What?"

He knows he just asked that. He doesn't care. He needs an answer that's actually an answer. There's a wall missing between the kitchen and the living room. There are indicators that the dining room which, granted, they never use, might be undergoing some kind of serious operation involving gutting. There are wooden French doors to the office, which previously just had a doorway, and if Stiles isn't going crazy, the half-bath off the living room seems to be in dire peril.

He peers up at Derek, whose face is the color of burning coals. Derek clears his throat and says, "I, uh. I didn't mean to be unclear."

Words aren't Derek's specialty, everyone knows this, so Stiles can see how that's probably true. Derek sighs and walks into the house, getting Stiles settled on the couch. Stiles has to admit, it's kind of nice that he can see the kitchen from there. It means it'll be easier to communicate when one of them is making food and the other watching a game, or…whatever.

Derek sits down and rubs his hands over his face. He looks over at Stiles's dad and asks, "You remember Hollow Grove, yeah?"

Stiles's dad sits down in his chair and nods. "That was your grandmother, right?"

Derek nods. "Yeah, my mom's mom. She was a master carpenter. Her younger brother was an electrician, and his oldest son a plumber. They did a lot of sub-contracting to architects, designers. I used to hang out there a lot, as a kid. Gram said I was good at it." This is said quietly, like they might disagree. "Said I picked things up quick."

"They were, uh, pretty well known," Derek continues, when neither of them comment. "Had gotten contracts as far east as Chicago. A couple of people who'd apprenticed for them opened up a firm in New York. When Laura and I were living there, I picked up odd jobs with them. They helped us out a lot. I—I really was gonna redo the house, when I first got here. I like …" Derek's face twists in thought. "Seeing something new and making it happen. With my hands."

Derek swallows. "Every time I tried to start on the house, though, I just—"

He shakes his head. "My point is, this house works great for two completely mobile people, but it could use some work in terms of someone who's getting his mobility back. I didn't mean to surprise anyone. I just thought, open up the main floor a little so it's not necessary to move around as much to communicate. And you guys had talked about putting Stiles in the study, so I figured he'd want some privacy. The only full bath is on the second floor, which undermines the whole point of keeping him on the main floor, but there's room to expand the half bath and put in a shower, which solves that problem. That's all."

Stiles is pretty sure he and his dad have identical expressions of "that's all?" on their faces. Derek says, "Um. I can put it back. The way it was. I haven't even really done much. I swear."

Stiles starts, "Don't be—" with his father saying, "Are you kidding?" at the same time. They both stop.

Stiles squints. "What's going on in the dining room, then?"

"Oh." Derek looks to the side. "Um. It's just. You don't seem to use it? That I've seen?"

"Not since—" Stiles's dad shakes his head. "No, not really."

"I thought it'd be nice to make it a sun room. Especially while Stiles is stuck on this floor. Nice place to nap, read, that sort of thing. Study."

"Jesus, kid."

Stiles nods in agreement with his dad. "This is … you didn't have to do this. You get that, right? You don't owe me this."

Derek doesn't look at him, and Stiles knows that's him agreeing to disagree. Instead Derek asks, "It okay if I crash in your room while I'm doing the work? It's just easier."

Stiles is no werewolf, but he can hear the lie in the words like Derek has just announced, "hey, I'm lying." Stiles isn't sure what he's lying about, but it doesn't matter. Derek has asked to stay, and Stiles knows the answer to that. "What's mine is yours, dude."

*

Derek has moved Stiles' bed into the study and placed it so that when the windows are open, light pours over it. He's also replaced the curtains with black-out curtains. It's quiet and calm and Stiles has been asleep all of maybe an hour when he wakes up screaming and only stops when it brings him to the surface enough that he has to whimper from the pain in his ribs and jaw.

Derek's there then, apologizing even as he pulls the pain, "Hey, hey, sorry, I was pulling up carpet, I got distracted."

Stiles closes his eyes, then opens them when that proves unnerving. He finds himself digging his fingernails into Derek's arm, holding on like he's about to fall off a cliff and the only thing keeping him from it is Derek. Derek doesn't pull away, just asks, "Need me to call your dad?"

Stiles shakes his head. His dad had looked so guilty even asking if he could go back into the station for a few hours, despite the fact that he's taken off almost two weeks to be with Stiles. "No, it's … this is gonna happen."

Derek makes a subvocal, wounded sound. Then he takes a breath. "I know they recommended—I mean. Have you looked into finding a therapist?"

Stiles feels himself tighten up and forces his muscles to loosen. It's not that he doesn't know it's a good idea. Assuming he could find someone who's good at calling him on his bullshit, it would no doubt help. However, "I'm not really sure how to ask for recommendations for someone who wouldn't flinch at the whole werewolf aspect of things. And I—it seems really exhausting, to have to constantly watch what I say in therapy."

Derek's still for a moment, and then he laughs. It's not raucous or anything, more disbelieving. "Stiles," he says, "almost any and all kinds of creatures that have empath abilities are drawn to psychology, and most of those are drawn to the Nemeton. There's gotta be at least a dozen supernatural-savvy licensed therapists within a five mile radius alone."

"Oh. That … makes sense." So much sense Stiles is not really sure how he didn't realize that before now. Except that despite having just woken up, despite the terror in waking, he's already tired again, listing against Derek.

Derek is quiet as he says, "I could look into it. Do some sniffing around."

"Har har," Stiles manages. He would make a crack about Derek making a joke, but he's known for a long time that Derek has a penchant for sarcasm and dad jokes, which is basically Stiles' sense of humor. You just have to pay attention to Derek to know. "You'll do it if I do it?"

Stiles feels Derek's hands spasm and jerk, like he wants to hold on but knows better, has learned to control his desires to the point where giving in even slightly is forbidden. Stiles almost retracts the question, lets him off, but he can't. His throat closes up at the thought of allowing Derek to bury this in himself the way he has with his family, Kate, Erica, Boyd, all the things that have ripped into him and left him bleeding.

"I." Derek swallows. "I might just be this way."

Stiles frowns, trying to follow the thought pattern. "I don't—" He stops himself, remembering how he hadn't been willing to talk after the Nogitsune, Allison. After Donovan. It hadn't just been the fear of the people he loved most leaving him, although that had been driving. It had been the fear that even telling someone, a doctor, a professional, might not help. That he might just be dirty and broken and wrong inside.

He pulls away from Derek, who looks away from him, holding himself tautly. Stiles puts the hand on his mobile arm to Derek's face and makes Derek look at him. He shakes his head. "No. You're not."

Derek opens his mouth, but Stiles continues, "It'd be okay if you were. There's nothing wrong with the person you've become, but you're not. You're better."

Stiles drops his hands and Derek immediately looks down, away. He says, "You'll do it if I'll do it?"

It's not really fair, Stiles knows, using that as leverage, not when Derek was willing to cut himself to shreds on poisoned cables to look out for Stiles' best interests, but he doesn't care. Whatever gets the job done. In that, they're not so different. Stiles nods.

Derek says, "Okay."

Stiles doesn't mean to break the moment by yawning, but his exhaustion will no longer be denied. Derek smiles, just a bit, and says, "C'mon, I'll stay."

*

Lydia shows up at the house one afternoon, not long after Stiles has finished with that day's physical therapy. He hasn't cried yet in a physio session, but he knows that's more out of sheer stubbornness than any real toughness. He's nauseated from pain, though. Dad's at the station and Derek's at the grocery store. Stiles has figured out that Derek always finds something to do while Stiles is in therapy, either because he can't stand seeing Stiles in that much pain, or because he wants to spare Stiles his dignity.

Either way, Stiles appreciates it. But it also means he doesn't get his pain sucked until Derek gets back.

So he's nauseated and frustrated with his slow progress when Lydia shows up, and even though she rings the doorbell and waits for him to answer the door, he still flinches back when she goes in for careful hug. She immediately steps away.

"Fuck," Stiles says.

She shakes her head, sharply, succinctly, and closes the door behind her, walking past Stiles and into the house. Stiles drags himself back to the couch and folds himself as gingerly as he can down onto it. She sits across from him. After several long moments she says, "Sorry."

At least, that's what Stiles thinks she says, because the second she opens her mouth, her eyes fill with tears and she snaps her lips together, looking away from him. He frowns. "Hey. What's—what're you—"

She shakes her head again, but this time it's an avoidance tactic. Stiles takes a breath and says, "Lydia, c'mon, c'mere."

He would reach out and tug her to him, but everything hurts, even the beating of his heart, and he's just managed to calm himself to the point where contact with her is welcome. It takes some more cajoling, and possibly acting even more pathetic than he currently feels—which is saying something—but she eventually does, curling into his side ever so gently, one hand over his heart.

"Hey there, pretty girl," he croons, stroking her hair rhythmically. He's not sure who it's more calming for, him or her.

She shudders, her hand going to his thigh and tightening convulsively. She's stronger than she looks and it's not particularly comfortable, but he gets it, so he stays quiet. When she seems to have evened out a bit, he asks, "What was that?"

When she speaks it's almost too quiet for him to hear. "If Derek hadn't come back, you'd have died. And maybe—maybe we'd have never known. Or maybe the magic would have worn off, and we would have realized, well after it was too late, when we would have had to wake up and live with the fact that we let you die."

Stiles frowns. "What are you talking about? Magic?"

She sits up at that, looking at him, her eyes wide with surprise and uncertainty. Her, "Oh you've got to be fucking kidding me," is three-quarters pissed and one-quarter exasperated.

"Lydia?"

She takes a deep breath. "Nobody told you why it took us so long to find you? Or how it was that Derek was on his own when he got captured looking for you?"

It occurs to Stiles just how exhausted he's been as he admits, "Being fair, I haven't asked." He doesn't say that part of him had kind of thought either Derek had hared off on his own out of share contrariness. He also keeps to himself that he'd thought it possible he just wasn't considered the pack's problem for a moment.

Lydia blinks. "You would have."

Stiles is feeling too off his game to comment on that, to admit that he'd been too afraid to ask, so he doesn't. Instead he says, "This is, uh, probably what Scott meant when he'd said 'magicked,' yeah? Tell me."

She runs a hand over her face and says, "Derek called me, when he got back. He called and asked if I'd heard from you. But I had no idea what he was talking about, not even when he described you to me. Of course, after that I couldn't let it go, because even if everything was telling me I didn't know a Stiles, I know enough to get suspicious when any one of us so much as hints that something strange is going on.

"Derek had also contacted Deaton, who couldn't remember you either, but was willing to do some magic tracing, which was how Derek got caught in the first place. He'd called Chris and Braeden, too, who weren't hit with the spell, so between the four of us, we were able to follow the bread crumbs and find you."

Stiles makes himself consider both what she is and isn't saying. "Chris and Braeden weren't close enough to be affected by the spell. Same for Derek. Deaton and you were." He swallows. "Scott?"

"Yeah. Stiles, yes. "

Other pieces slide into place, little things about his dad he hasn't been able to read correctly. He'd thought it was just because he's so tired all the time. "My dad."

She captures his face with her hands. "Everyone who'd move heaven and earth to find you. Everyone but Derek."

"It was a trap for him."

"Yes. And they took you away from me to lay it. For that alone, I would have Ordered the warlock to sit while Deaton stripped him of every last molecule of magic."

"Jesus, Lyds." Stiles rests his forehead against hers. She's never been terribly comfortable with the things she can do with her Voice. It's rare that she uses it at all. To compel someone at that level—yeah, that was something.

"I'm never forgetting you again," she says, fierceness in her tone and the tight posture of her body.

"That's not what happened, not really. You know that. You know how magic works." As much as anyone does, in any case.

"How it works and how it feels are two different things."

She's shaking ever so slightly, which gives him the ability to say, "I love you. And you love me. We know this. This is the truth. Everything else is … stupid plot twists."

She laughs a little, as shaky as the hands still resting against his cheeks, so so careful of his jaw. "I came down from school for the weekend. Can I stay here?"

"It's cute that you think I'm going to let you leave."

*

Lydia's car is in the driveway when Derek gets back from the grocery store. He's expecting the heavy scent of pain that hangs in the air when he opens the door; it always smells the same after one of Stiles' physio sessions. He's not expecting the mixed in potpourri of panic and guilt. Derek raises an eyebrow at Lydia, who's reading in the armchair. Stiles is passed out on the couch.

She stands up and asks quietly, "Are there more bags in the car?"

Derek nods, and for the next few minutes they cart groceries in. Lydia seems amused by how much he bought, but she doesn't say anything. It's been a long time since Derek's taken comfort in making food. After the fire, in the period of time when he hadn't been old enough to get a job and Laura was working two, he'd made all their meals as his way of contributing. His guilt had driven him to throw himself into it, learning as much as he could about the art of cooking.

Since her death, he hasn't wanted to make food for himself, and even in her short stay, Cora's attitude toward his food had been to down it like it might disappear no matter what it was. For the short time before his fear had won and he'd forced Isaac away, the two of them had sometimes easily shared space in the kitchen, coming up with ideas and executing them, quietly enjoying the end product together. Outside of the very very rare quiet times in that short cluster of months, though, preparing a meal for more than just basic sustenance has been something lost to him.

He hates himself for how happy he is, rebuilding this house to make sense for Stiles, figuring out meals for them all, this pack that he's not really one of; hates that he would never be allowed this if Stiles hadn't been hurt because of him. Lydia says into the silence of him cleaning the chicken he's going to roast, "Whatever you're doing in your head, it's stupid."

"You think everyone who isn't you is stupid," Derek says lightly. He's aware she might be right, that his way of seeing the world has been warped, most likely beyond repair. He and Stiles both have their first therapy session in a week. They're seeing two different therapists who opened an office together. His is actually human through and through, but the son of a were-jackal clan from Nicaragua. Stiles' is the daughter of a nymph and a Romani psychic. Derek isn't sure what that means, in the end, but he'd liked her when he'd gone to meet her, the way her eyes were dark and patient, her smell calming.

Lydia doesn't argue with him. Instead, she says, "You should have mentioned that you hadn't told Stiles about the spell."

Derek closes his eyes. "Fuck."

"Yeah," Lydia agrees.

Derek glances over at the couch, which, now that he's taken the wall down, is immediately within his sights. "How'd he take it?"

"I think—I think it kind of made him feel better."

Derek frowns and begins rubbing a mixture of salt and thyme into the chicken, mostly to have something he can take even a little bit of his aggression out on. "Better."

"I get the feeling he assumed Scott just wasn't trying very hard to find him." Her voice is neutral, but she smells of frustration and anxiety.

"They're working on it," Derek tells her.

"I know. But—that he thought that, of Scott, of any of us—"

"It's not about you," Derek says. He takes a breath and counts to ten. "It's about himself. About feeling like killing while he was in his own skin, I mean, he already had issues after the nogitsune. But this, I think it pushed him past the place where he could rationalize it, hold onto the things that allowed him some shaky sense of self-worth."

Gently, Lydia asks, "Are we still talking about Stiles?"

Derek looks over at her. "We are. But there's a reason I know."

For a moment he thinks she's going to push. Instead she comes around to stand next to him at the counter. "Carrots and potatoes, yes? I can chop."

Derek hesitates for a second before kissing the top of her head. She reaches out, snagging an arm around his waist and pulling him into her. He doesn't struggle.

*

Derek's therapist smells of dark-roast coffee, dusty paperbacks and, ever so slightly, jackal. His office is full of natural light, neutral colors, and a couch perfect for sinking right into. The first thing he says after, "Hi, I'm Reese," is, "This isn't your last chance, but do you have anything you want to ask me as a way to begin?"

Derek thinks for a moment. Instead of asking a question, he admits, "I don't know how to do this."

Reese leans back in his own chair and says, "It's not an exact science. Are you willing to answer a few questions for me?"

"I'll try." Derek will; he just can't commit to anything more than that.

"Okay," Reese says, and there's no judgment, either in his tone or his scent. "Why are you here?"

"Because I told Stiles I'd go if he did."

Reese cocks his head. "Stiles is the kid in the other room?"

"He's older than he looks," Derek says. Then, "Yeah. Yes, that's Stiles."

"He's part of your pack?"

Derek's eyes flicker to the wall between Stiles and him. It's soundproof, which he's both thankful for and nervous about. He hates not being able to hear Stiles' heart, know that he's okay. "Maybe. I mean, yes." Derek makes himself look back. "As much as I have a pack, yes. He's part of it."

Reese writes something down. "And why is getting you to go to therapy such an incentive for Stiles?"

Derek opens his mouth, then closes it. Slowly, he says, "Stiles, he's … if you get far enough inside his skin for him to consider you his, there's nothing he won't do to see you safe and happy."

It's the first time Derek has acknowledged aloud that Stiles must care about him, at least a little, enough. But that they're both here proves that. Reese must notice something, because he stays silent as Derek tries to figure out how that makes him feel. He's not entirely sure, but there are strains of terror and contentment, that is certain.

When he meets Reese's gaze again, the other man asks, "And Stiles thinks you need therapy to be … safe? Happy?"

Derek brings a hand to the juncture of his neck and shoulder and rubs at the muscle, which has pulled tight there. "Happy. Or, well. At least healthy."

"And do you want that?"

Derek blinks. "To be healthy?"

Reese nods. Derek asks, "Who doesn't want that?"

"Evidently, you'd be surprised."

"I want." Derek stops. He's lived in terms of "need" or even short term desires for so long that making some kind of all-encompassing statement seems impossible. There's so much that he wants, so much that he's afraid of. He picks one concrete thing and goes with it. "I want to not be alone. And I—I want to believe that I deserve not to be alone."

Reese says, "Then let's start there."

*

Stiles sleeps on the ride back, waking suddenly, harshly, a few minutes before they're at the house. His breath comes quick and Derek can hear the way it sounds different, smell the pain of him still adapting to missing ribs. Derek rolls the windows down a bit because the strength of the smell is nauseating him. He turns the radio onto the oldies channel, because Stiles sings them in the shower sometimes—he's not listening, Stiles is just loud, okay—and says, "You're safe, Stiles. You're in the car with me; we're going home."

Stiles sticks his head slightly out the window and sucks in air, despite the fact that it clearly hurts. When his heartbeat has calmed to a resting rate and the worst of the panic has passed, he leans gingerly back in his seat and asks, "Can you—would you help me take a chair into the backyard? I just wanna … I don't wanna go inside yet."

It's a little chilly out, nothing harsh, but they're edging into February. California or no, they're far enough north for the wind to have a bite to it. Derek goes inside and gathers up the throws from the room he's been staying in. He got them out of storage while Stiles was still in the hospital without examining why. They're his father's, or, they were. His father had come from a pack just above the Mexican border—he'd taught Derek his Spanish—and was forever cold in the so-called "northern climes" of Beacon Hills. The only reason they still existed was because there were so many of them; Talia had packed a few away into the vault.

He's washed them—they hadn't smelled of his father anymore in any case, and the vault is dusty—and like the few other items he had grabbed from the vault, intending to use them in the house renovations, they've been sitting in Stiles' room while Derek uses it as his own.

The Stilinskis have a nice outdoor space behind their house, but it's painfully obvious neither of them has dealt with it in years, possibly ever. Since coming, Derek has mowed the grass and weeded, using the mindlessness of it on days when otherwise he'd peel his own skin off himself to deal with everything going on inside his mind. He wants to lay down some brick, create a patio-type area, but he needs to talk to the Sheriff about that and he's not sure how to approach it yet. He understands the man's hesitation to let him do all this work and supply the materials without recompense—he gets pride.

But Derek is swimming in money that means nothing to him, time that is open, and the need to fix things. It would be a mercy to let him, and Derek has no idea how to make the Sheriff see that.

Stiles is leaning against the house when Derek comes out with two kitchen chairs and three of the blankets. He sets the chairs facing each other and pads one of them with two of the blankets before ushering Stiles into the set up, arranging it so that his body is supported and he can put his feet up. He drapes the third blanket over Stiles, who looks at him with undisguised amusement.

Because it feels like some badly-needed normalcy, Derek says, "Shut up, Stiles."

Stiles just smirks. Derek rubs a hand in his hair and considers getting a third chair. It's not what he wants, not really.

Stiles says, "Derek."

Derek looks over and raises an eyebrow. Stiles rolls his eyes. "Go shift. I'll scratch behind your ears, promise."

"Har har," Derek says, but he goes back up to Stiles' room and shucks his clothes before letting himself melt into the wolf. He's needed this for a while. He's wanted to run since his body healed up enough for it to be attractive, but hasn't had the ability to be away from his phone, or in a form where someone couldn't get hold of him if Stiles needed him. He's slept shifted outside Stiles' door more than a few times, but that's about it.

He lopes down the stairs and out to where Stiles has his head tipped back, eyes closed, soaking in the sun. He noses at one of Stiles' hands, and sure enough, Stiles gives him skritches. Derek makes a pleased sound before padding off to make a few lazy circles around the yard. It's not a run, nowhere close, but it's nice to be outside in this skin, to feel the grass and dirt beneath his paws, smell with his wolf-nose.

When the wolf has ascertained that all is safe and well, and some of the restlessness underneath his skin has been siphoned off, Derek romps back over to Stiles. He's asleep, but it's the good kind of sleep, settled and easy. Derek curls up next to the chairs and decides an afternoon nap in the sun won't hurt anything.

*

Derek goes for a run that night, all the same, once the Sheriff is home and all of them have eaten. He runs until even the wolf's body is sore. Then he pushes, running back. By the time he shifts and gets into the shower, most of it has healed itself. The hot water feels good all the same.

He puts on some sweats, but isn't yet tired enough to sleep, and needs to find something to do. The nap from earlier probably wasn't the best idea, although he can't bring himself to regret it. Stiles had looked better during dinner, too, calmer and somehow more Stiles.

He finds himself wandering downstairs. In the ex-dining room Derek had pulled up the carpet to discover old oak floors. He's been sanding them down by hand, enjoying the focused physicality of it. He foregoes that, however, given that he's just taken a shower and the "study" where Stiles is now sleeping is close enough that the noise might wake Stiles. Instead, Derek starts paint-taping around the baseboards. The new windows should arrive soon, at which point he'll do the work of reconfiguring the walls and putting them in.

He's almost done with the tape when he hears the Sheriff come down the stairs and stand behind him. "You could ask for help, you know?" says the Sheriff after a minute. "I'm no genius of redesign, but I know my way around a toolbox."

Derek tears off the last of the tape and makes himself turn around. "I know."

The man tilts his head. "Do you?"

Derek glances down at his feet and gives the question some attention. "I—I asked for help. I asked if I could do this."

"And this is what you need."

There's something inside Derek's chest, almost like the beginning of laughter, but it's harsher, more intense. He presses his knuckles to his breastbone and finds himself shaking his head. "No. But it's something."

He can feel the Sheriff's gaze on him. He gets the feeling the other man is waiting him out, and Derek has no doubt he can do it. He's been in law enforcement a long time. And it's not that Derek doesn't want to talk. It's that, like so often, he's not sure how. Even if he knows what he wants to say in his head, it never comes out of his mouth quite right.

He forces his shoulders to relax and says, "Even—even when I was a kid, a teen, and I mean, I was basically a shithead for most of my adolescence—taking care of the pack was … comforting. Stupid, tiny things, like helping my mom with Cora when the two of them were going head to head, or letting my gram try to teach me how to knit, or reminding my dad to sleep when he'd get involved in a project.

"I pretty much smothered Laura when we were on our own. She was good about not pointing it out, but, I was over the top. Between the guilt and the grief, it was pretty much the only thing that gave me moments where my head was quiet."

The Sheriff says softly, "And then you lost her, too."

Derek presses the heels of his hands into his eyes and does not cry. He lets his hands drop to his side. "I wasn't confident enough to do it for the new pack. I thought—I don't know what I thought. That being hard on them was safer. I—" Derek shrugs.

"And after that there wasn't anyone."

"Not that, I mean." Derek smiles, or at least tries to. "Scott and Stiles weren't interested." He sighs. "I suppose it's hardly fair to do it while Stiles can't really protest, but."

"Scott and Stiles, first of all, were in high school. When was the last time you met a high schooler who was capable of admitting he needed anything?"

Derek blinks. It's a valid point.

The Sheriff smiles at him. It's small and a little sad, but genuine. "It's not a crime to care for people, kid. Or to want to take care of them."

No, it's not. Derek knows this. It's just that he also knows it tends to end very, very badly, when Derek is involved.

*

After a month, Stiles starts doing things like trying to go up the stairs to get something from his room, instead of just asking someone, or deciding he's going to make dinner. It ends, invariably, with him panting from exhaustion, gritting his teeth against tears. Derek knows that he should let Stiles suffer through it, so Stiles might learn better, but, well, Derek doesn't think pain is going to override Stiles' stubbornness. Also, Derek can't. He cannot sit there, knowing he could do something about it, and just decide not to. He knows; he's tried.

The first time, he takes Stiles' pain, then pulls him up and all but carries him to the couch. Stiles sometimes sleeps better on the couch, because he can hear Derek or whoever else is in the house puttering around.

The second time, Derek takes him into the office and puts him in bed, shifting and curling up next to him. He's not certain why he stays. It might be because he's tired, too. Or because Stiles keeps having nightmares, and leaving him is too anxiety-provoking. Either way, they both wake up two hours later, Stiles down so hard he actually drooled and Derek feeling like he's just had the best nap of his life.

Since it works, it becomes a thing for Derek, a superstition, maybe, that he can keep Stiles safe if Derek just stays nearby while Stiles is sleeping. So, even if Derek is in the middle of something, he sets it aside. It calms both of them down.

Reese says, "That's a lot of trust, sleeping around someone."

Derek shrugs. It is, and they both know it. Reese presses, "Is it because of what happened? Because he doesn't put any of it on you, or was it like that before?"

Derek thinks about the sound of a bone saw and the overwhelming smell of chlorine. He thinks of the warmth of a hand on his shoulder, contrasting the cooling blood on his hands. "Before. Probably … probably a long time now. With him."

"But there are others?"

Derek chews on that for a moment. "I don't know that I'd sleep around them. But, maybe."

He had with Braeden. Oh, not for a while, but he had, and it had been novel and delicious and illicit in a way the sex never was. Sex Derek is familiar with. Intimacy is something else entirely. "I—I trust the pack."

"In what way?" Reese asks, tilting his head.

Derek shakes his head. "I don't understand the question."

"Do you trust them not to harm you?"

"Yes." Derek does. Despite the rockiness of his beginning with Scott, with Stiles, with Lydia, he knows they don't mean him harm. He think Malia even considers him family, in her own way. And neither Kira nor Jordan mean anyone harm. Liam , Hayden, Corey, and Mason are still unknowns, but he's seen the way they come over on weekends, spend time with Stiles, make sure he's okay in their own, high school teenagers' way.

"Do you trust them to protect you?"

It feels like betrayal not to. "I—I trust Stiles and Scott to try."

"But?" Reese prompts.

"Scott would do it because that's what he does, who he is. I could be a total raging psychopath and he'd still want to help me in some way, even if it was just to get me locked away where I couldn't hurt anyone else." Not unlike a certain uncle Derek mostly tries not to think about.

"And Stiles?"

"Stiles—" Derek knows the answer to this, he does, but every time he even thinks about it his chest feels tight, it's hard to breathe for reasons he's not ready to explore. "Stiles would do it because I'm pack. I mean—I mean I'm pack to him. Close enough to pack, I guess."

"Really?" Reese asks, no judgment in the question, but a sprinkling of doubt.

Derek shrugs. "Scott keeps dropping hints that I could have a place in it, if I wanted. I'm just not sure I fit."

"That's important, and we'll come back to it, but I was trying to ascertain if that was the truth of Stiles' motivation."

"Oh." That's easier to talk about. "Stiles, he protects the pack," Derek explains. They're alike in that way. It's one of the reasons he feels at ease around Stiles. They might go about things in different ways, but they both have the same endgame.

"I don't think he does," Reese says casually. "I think, from what I've learned listening to you, that Stiles protects what he considers to be his. And that sometimes, maybe even most of the time, that coincides with pack."

Derek closes his eyes and beats back the equal parts panic and hope that statement causes. When he opens his eyes again, Reese is watching him, knowingly. The therapist says, "Think it over, Derek. Run on it. Sleep on it. But don't run from it or sleep to get away from it."

"Mean," Derek mutters.

Reese smiles the smile of the saintly and innocent.

*

Shelta, Stiles' therapist, probably has some element of heightened senses or something. She always seems to know more than she should. He tells her he sleeps better with Derek's wolf nearby and she asks, "How'd you figure that out?"

It's a trap, Stiles knows this. Even though he's tried to convince himself that he should probably get his money's worth by actually talking about his problems, he can't help thinking of this in those terms. Nevertheless, he forces himself to say, "He does that when I—when I've overdone it."

"Overdone it," Shelta says, not a question.

Stiles gives her an unimpressed look. "You probably diagnosed that personality trait in my first session."

She laughs, and agrees, "Probably."

Her laughter always unloosens something in Stiles, like a drug. He smiles sheepishly. "I'm bored. And—and Derek is doing like Extreme Makeover on my house and I'm sitting around on my ass."

"And doing physical therapy and trying to catch up on some of the school work you're missing so you don't feel so behind when you go back and working with Lydia to figure out some way of preventing a disruption to the pack bonds through magic and—"

"Okay." Stiles holds his hands up in defeat. He's finally gotten to the point where it doesn’t hurt much to move his arms.

"You're an overachiever, that's fine, that's great, overachievers get shit done. But you have absolutely no patience with yourself, and that's not great."

"If I'd had patience with myself, I probably would have ended up homeless and telling random people on the streets stories that scare them. The ADD—I had to be in control. And yeah, the medicine makes it possible, but it's all me from there on out. And dad needs someone to actually pay attention, and there's nobody else, I can't just expect the universe to figure that one out. The panic attacks were bad enough with me keeping a wrap on things, if I'd just let myself go … Jesus."

"To some extent that's probably true," she gives him. "But being hard on yourself became a coping mechanism somewhere along the way. Probably after your mom was gone, and you had to depend on yourself a lot more. I'm not saying it's a bad thing. You needed it. And it got you through, and that's … the importance of that cannot be overstated."

"But?" Stiles asks dryly.

"But it's not just you and your dad anymore. I'm not positive it ever was. I get that Scott and Melissa weren't really in a place to be a support system until after she kicked her husband out, but they were there, and they loved you. Both of you. And now there's Lydia, and Derek, and Malia, and Kira, and even Jordan and Liam and Hayden and Mason and Corey and Deaton and possibly Braeden and Chris. You're pack to most of them, or part of a pack that's important to them, and that means something to all of them, the way it does to you."

It's not that Stiles thinks she's wrong. Well, he doesn't know how far his currency with Liam, Mason, Hayden, Corey, Braeden, and Chris extends, but probably at least somewhere. Enough that the latter two helped to come and get him, even if it was at Derek's request, and the former four have been spending their Saturdays with an invalid. "I've forgotten how to be any other way."

"I know," she says. "I know. But we just have to help you remember, that's all."

She always makes things sound so simple. He laughs, feeling his eyes burn. "Where the hell would I even start?"

"How about just telling Derek you feel safer when he sleeps nearby, rather than exercising yourself to exhaustion to make him feel like he has to?"

Stiles goes still. She sighs. "I'm actually pretty good at my job, Stilinski. It's why you pay me."

"I don't know if I can do that," he tells her.

"Okay," she says, no disappointment or judgment anywhere in her voice. "But try."

*

Stiles has seen Shelta another three times before the day he finds himself at that tipping point in his stretches, the moment where he can push himself past his own endurance, or he can stop and just ask Derek if he's willing to stay with Stiles for a bit. Stiles stops.

He stops, but he doesn't get up, doesn't seek Derek out. He's not sure how long he sits there, thinking about what he should do, before Derek finds him. Stiles is sitting on the couch, so Derek sits down as well, looking over at him. After a moment, Derek asks, "Everything okay?"

Stiles opens his mouth to say, "Yeah, fine," and what comes out is, "For certain values of okay?"

Derek reaches out to touch him, to take some of the pain, but Stiles shakes his head, scoots away minutely. Derek backs off easily, but the concern on his face deepens. "Stiles?"

"You were doing something," Stiles says.

Derek looks down at himself, as if to assess the veracity of this statement. "I—uh, I guess, yeah. Nothing that can't be done later."

"You always—you stop what you're doing. When you're worried about me."

Derek lifts an eyebrow. "This from the guy who used to play hookey at the drop of a hat if he was worried about any of us?"

Stiles almost tells him it's different. He stops to think about why, though, and can't come up with much of a reason. He still doesn't know how to ask for this, and trying to is making his chest hurt, makes his lungs strain in a way they haven't outside of nightmares in weeks.

Derek must catch something, because he says, "Breathe, Stiles," and counts breaths for him until Stiles' patterns even out.

Stiles decides to try something Shelta has suggested, something he's been too chicken-shit to try yet. He forces himself to say the things he's thinking the way he would normally ramble, would normally cover over things with random topics and facts. What comes out is, "I sleep better when you're near. Shelta says it's a safety-association thing, that humans, despite not being wolves, have certain heightened sense perceptions, especially ones in packs, and that we latch onto things that we know will keep us safe and it helps even through the barrier of unconsciousness because sense perception is incredibly strong, and anyway, the point is—"

"That you think you have to work yourself nearly to death to get me to help you, instead of just asking," Derek finishes. He doesn't sound amused or judgmental. He sounds understanding, if maybe a little sad.

"Yeah," Stiles agrees. "That."

"We could have an agreement."

Stiles motions for him to go on. Derek draws a breath. "I nap with you after physio or exercises, until you tell me you don't want me to anymore. And if there's a time when you need it, when you can't ask, you go into the office and talk about whatever. If I hear you talking from that room in the middle of the day, I'll know."

"I think you might be enabling bad habits," Stiles mutters.

Derek shakes his head. "Step one. Things take time. Small steps. There'll be stuff with me too. There is."

"Like what?"

"Like the fact that I tend to sleep shifted outside your room every night without telling you. And I should. Tell you."

He probably should, but Stiles says, "I get it."

"Now who's being the enabler?"

Stiles smiles. "Shuddup. 'm tired."

"Yeah," Derek agrees with a miniscule smile of his own. "Let's go take a nap."

*

The sun room, when it's finished, becomes everyone's favorite room in the house. Derek outfits it with a hanging day bed on one side of the room, and a simple trestle table up against a window nook that runs the length of the room. Stiles watches him make both, silent and absorbed in the task.

The new pieces make the room cozy and functional, and nobody can resist taking breakfast in there, or dinner, for that matter. And the swing is basically the perfect place for Stiles to study or read, or even curl up and nap. Stiles is lying on the swing, looking up at the skylight above him, when he says quietly, "There's three highly-ranked architecture schools in San Francisco."

Derek, lying on the window nook, pops his head up over the table and asks, "Huh?"

"Not that that has to be what you do, but you're sort of really freakishly good at it, and you seem to enjoy it, and so I was looking at programs, because, yeah, my brain, which you know, you know about that, and the point is, there are good programs and—and you wouldn't be far. Is the point."

Derek sits up. "Okay. It's crossed my mind."

"But?"

"I'm trying to figure out where this is coming from. Because it doesn't feel like it's concern that the world see my architectural brilliance."

"It has that element," Stiles says mulishly.

"But?" Derek mimics.

"I just—it's not that I can't go to school without you near." Stiles chews on his lower lip for a moment. "Maybe. Probably. Well, I mean, eventually, I'd be able to. But I'm not ready."

"Okay," Derek says, softly, and like there's more to it.

Stiles sits up, rubbing a hand over his face. "Even if I taught you how to use the computer—"

"I know how to use a computer."

"—and stuff," Stiles graciously ignores that complete lie, "I don't think I could sleep without knowing you were okay, and I realize that's codependent, and yes I've spoken with Shelta about it, but she says it's not abnormal at this point in the healing process, whatever the fuck that means, and it's not that you'd have to go to school, obviously, it's just that I really, I mean, I can't live in the dorms with some poor unsuspecting normal dude from, like, I don't even know, Idaho, or whatever, and wake the guy up every night, and I figured if I went back full time I could divert some of the student loans to splitting housing with you, because it's not like San Francisco is some heinous place to live, despite it not being pack territory, and just, until I got my shit figured out we could, you know, support each other through that, uh, healing process, I guess. But you asked about school back when we were—anyway, you asked about school and it didn’t occur to me until just now that probably that was just you working your hardest to distract me and that was why I thought, you know, architecture."

Stiles sucks in a breath, realizing he hasn't for a while. Derek watches him, one hand tracing over the grains of wood in the table. "Reese said the same thing to me. About the healing process thing."

"Oh."

"I've been in talks with a real estate agent, looking for two bedroom condos near the school that I can tool around on, sell at a profit in a few years."

Stiles blinks. "Seriously, I know this is like, pot and kettle, but why can't you ever just tell me these things before I word vomit all my issues on your face?"

Derek shrugs. "I have issues."

It takes a second, but then Stiles finds himself laughing. It still aches to do so, and when he laughs so hard he snorts he feels decidedly uncool, but he can't care, because he hasn't laughed like that in so long, so long he can't remember the last time it happened and it just feels so damn good. He looks over, and sure enough, Derek has his face turned to the table, which is a sure sign he's laughing, too.

*

Lydia lands an internship with the Brookings Institute that summer which allows her to network while also surreptitiously working on some of the side projects she's been doing regarding pack treaties. She spends a week at home after finals before heading to the opposite side of the country. Three-fourths of it is spent in Stiles' sunroom, hogging the swing. Stiles doesn't complain. For one thing, it's nice to have her around, no matter how short a time period he gets her for. For another, she's been a huge help to him in getting himself up to speed so he can test out of some of his math credits, which will free up room for him to focus on his major and perhaps not have to stay in school an extra year. If nothing else, financially, that would be a huge help.

Scott comes back and returns to working at the animal clinic. Stiles' dad has some contacts, so he helps Malia get a forest ranger internship in a preserve three towns over. Kira's spending the summer in Japan, which kind of sucks, but is for the best, since she's still working on control, and there are better teachers to be found there than anywhere in the States.

Stiles had intended to apply for a number of internships this summer, all in criminal justice and law enforcement. He tells Shelta, "Not that feeling better isn't a good thing, but it's kind of making me feel…"

"Like you're missing out on even more of your life?" she asks.

Stiles makes an exactly gesture and smiles ruefully at her. Thirty minutes later, and without realizing exactly how, he's been cajoled into signing up for summer school classes in at least two subjects that interest him that are not related to his intended career. He asks, "Exactly how is this going to make me feel better, again?"

She rolls her eyes at him and says, "Just do it, Stilinski."

He tells Lydia, "She reminds me of you, a little, Shelta."

Lydia nods, once. "Then whatever she tells you to do is probably right."

They spend two hours together on the computer, trawling through Berkeley's online offerings. He ends up taking Game Theory in the Social Sciences and Intro to Cognitive Science. As he's filling in his information, in between talking to the financial aid office and trying to figure out if he can get some of this covered the next time he files a FAFSA, he says, "I wish you weren't going."

He doesn't mean to say it. The minute it's out of his mouth he stills, and says, "Fuck, I mean—"

She shakes her head. "I know." She leans into him. Her weight is not all that substantial, but she's steady and warm, and tells him, "As excited as I am, I know. I wish I weren't leaving right now, either."

Stiles draws in a shaky breath. "Sorry, I didn't mean—"

"I know," she says again. "But Derek's going to be here. Derek, and your dad, and Scott, and I'm just a phone call away. Besides, you wouldn't believe the shit I've threatened if I come back to you having hit a road block, any road block, that could have been avoided."

"I'd believe," he tells her quietly.

She kisses the crown of his head and says, "You're gonna be fine. We're all gonna be fine."

*

Stiles goes out to Walnut Creek with Derek to look at some of the places he's been scouting. It's a little farther from school than Stiles would have chosen on his own, but the area basically backs up into Diablo Creek National Park, and he sees the wisdom in that.

It's the first time he's left the house for anything aside from physio or talk therapy since they got him home from the hospital. The casts and slings and other accoutrements of healing have all been removed, the last coming off nearly two weeks earlier. It hasn't hurt to chew in nearly a month.

He still feels like all the parts of him aren't aligning correctly, like a panic attack is waiting just over some unseen ridge.

When they get there, the real estate agent holds her hand out to Stiles when Derek introduces him and the ridge comes into sight. Stiles manages to force his hand out, to curl it around hers, but he knows he's not breathing right, and he feels locked into place, like there are monsters behind him that he can't see, that if he could just turn around he'd be fine, but somehow he can't.

He doesn't hear Derek say anything to the agent, but the next thing he knows, Derek's lifted him up onto the hood of the car and put Stiles' head down and between his knees. Derek's counting breathing patterns for Stiles and though it takes a while, Stiles listens. Glancing to see that the agent is standing by the building, on her phone, Stiles says, "Great. That's … great."

Derek frowns at Stiles. "Can we both agree that it's not really surprising you don't want to be touched by people you don't know right now?"

Stiles digs his fingernails into his jeans. He's got a long-sleeved shirt on despite the fact that it's in the upper eighties, and no, this is not a surprise, but that doesn't make it less frustrating. It doesn't make him feel any less weak.

Derek kicks gently at one of the tires and asks, "You know about me and Kate?"

Stiles head snaps up at that. He does. He put the pieces together shortly after Peter ripped Kate's throat out. He's never said anything to Derek, though, because fuck, there are some things a guy does not need to relive. Ever. All Stiles does is nod.

Derek looks at his feet and says, "Sometimes I still don't like people I don't know touching me."

Stiles reaches out, which seems strange if he thinks about it, but is the only move that makes sense to him. When Derek responds, coming in to rest his forehead on Stiles' shoulder, Stiles says, "You handle it, though."

"Took years," Derek mumbles. "Laura spent a fair amount of time playing bodily guardian between me and others without even really knowing why, just that I freaked when touched, even accidentally. There were more than a few times she had to cover for me partially-shifting, something I'd grown out of two years before the fire. Before Kate."

Stiles cups his hand around the back of Derek's neck. "When did it change?"

Stiles feels Derek's sort of-smile against his shoulder. "When two punk kids trespassed on my territory in the preserve and one of them smelled something like pack and the other like a buck twenty of determined fierceness and love."

"I was totally a buck thirty five! And that—that is not a smell," is what Stiles comes up with. Because, no, "You thought I was a shithead for like, three years. Maybe more."

"I still think you're a shithead," Derek tells him, all false reassurance. "You are a shithead."

Stiles bobs his head in dry agreement. Derek laughs a little, quiet and intimate. He says, "But you helped save my life less than a few weeks later."

"Because you convinced us we needed you."

"Mhm," Derek says mildly. "Okay."

"Derek—"

Derek straightens up. "I'm not saying you were my family back then. You weren't. You weren't my pack, you weren't even my friends. But you were safe. Always. And although I wish you still didn’t, I think you know how much that means, now."

It hurts to swallow, but Stiles does. He had learned so very, very long ago, to push past the pain. The difference is, this time Derek is here, reaching out, touching a finger ever-so-lightly to Stiles' wrist, a slim line of black-blue running up his vein. Stiles shakes his head, without knowing exactly what he's trying to say.

Derek says, "Let's just go see this place. Decide if we could make it ours. Safe."

"Safe," Stiles agrees, and after a moment, jumps off the hood of the car. He grabs onto Derek's hand, and Derek grips his, steady and warm and strong.

*

They don't like the first place they see, not enough natural light, and Derek's not allowed to alter the external walls. The second place smells wrong to Derek, which is more than enough for Stiles to agree that it's not right. The third and fourth places are too far from the park for Derek's liking, and not close enough to the school for Stiles to think it evens out in the wash. The fifth place they put an offer in on, but the seller rejects it and won't come down enough for them to agree on a price.

The sixth place has paper-thin walls. The seventh place has black mold. The eighth place, though, well, it needs new electrical and a new roof, but the foundation is solid and Derek gets them to bring down the price by twenty grand based on those two problems. They take it. Derek hires contractors to do the roof and the electrical, continuing to stay at the Stilinski house in the meantime.

He uses the computer Stiles has convinced him is a necessary evil to return to school to start redesigning the space, running each decision by Stiles. The third time Derek puts the ever-changing floor plan in front of Stiles, Stiles looks up from where he's trying to understand game theory and asks, "You know that if you hadn't come along, I probably just would have lived on my couch for however long it took me to climb those stairs or something, right?"

"If you hadn't come along I'd probably have let Peter become my alpha and then he probably would have killed me to be part of the alpha pack when they came along."

Derek says it so calmly that it takes Stiles a few minutes to understand that he's really hearing those words. He blinks. "Um. You've thought about this a lot, I take it."

"Reese has this thing with making me do that. It's annoying and I should probably not pay him for it."

Stiles smiles, "Okay, grumpy bear."

Derek rolls his eyes. Stiles' smile widens into a grin. Derek says, "The thing is, you did come along."

"I did," Stiles says.

"And I didn't have to just survive."

Stiles puts his hand over Derek's shoulder. "Hey."

"It took me a long time to figure it out, I know."

"Derek."

Derek pushes the screen toward Stiles. "But you're smarter than me."

Stiles doesn't think that's it, exactly, but he looks at the computer and says, "Maybe we could have a reading nook somewhere?"

*

Derek takes out a quarter of the front wall and builds in a bay window with a window seat half the size of a bed for the nook. Stiles says, "Always taking it to the next level," with a bit of mockery, but it's fond, and he falls asleep there the first night, waking when Derek snuffles up to him, brushing a cold nose against the space of his stomach where his shirt has ridden up.

Stiles makes grumpy sounds at him and flails, but Derek herds him down the hall to the room he's set up for Stiles. Stiles goes in the door pliably enough, but then stops, and won't continue. Derek cocks his head and waits. Stiles sits down, collapsing more than anything.

Derek lays down so he won't be towering over Stiles. Stiles says, "Okay. I'm not—I know you've been sleeping as a wolf pretty much non-stop for half a year now, and I, I don't know if that's okay or not. It wouldn't be with Scott, I know, and you don't really talk about, uh, your feelings about, well, most things, although, again, pot, kettle, but especially about being a wolf, about what that means, and if being the wolf that much is okay or not, but—"

Derek nudges Stiles, because his breathing is speeding up in a way that's worrisome. He weighs the knowledge that Stiles does not speak as freely when Derek's in human form against the need to actually talk to Stiles about this, and in the end pads over to his room and grabs a pair of boxers in order to shift and come back in. He sits down across from Stiles and waits.

Predictably, Stiles looks to the side and doesn't say anything. Derek says, "I never—I didn't know that—" He stops and tries to order his thoughts, frustrated by the swirl of words that aren't helping in his brain. "It's not the same. Scott. It's—he's not born, and it's different. I—they're both my skin, they're just … my skin."

Stiles nods, but doesn't say anything else. Derek bites the inside of his lip, but offers, "If you need me that way, I can—"

"I just, you being across the hall is. Far."

"Okay," Derek says softly.

"But I—"

"Sleeping with you as the wolf is not a hardship." It's an understatement, and Reese would give him a silent judging look, one that said, "don't be a coward." Because wolves are tactile; Derek is tactile, for years taking it where he could get it, through violence or anything. And if Stiles is willing to give it when he's in wolf form, then that's fine, that's more than fine, that's everything Derek needs.

"I'm—" Stiles presses his hands flat against the floor, tensing his muscles. "I'm saying you don't have to. You can…you can choose your form. I just—I need. You."

Derek is still thinking about how to acknowledge that statement, about how to honor the level of vulnerability Stiles is displaying, when Stiles stutters, "I know that's not healthy, I know, and I'm working on it, it's going to—"

Derek puts his hands up, not so much to quiet Stiles, although that ends up happening, as to try and give himself some thinking space. "It's not just my skin. The wolf, the human, neither are skin deep."

"I know?" Stiles frowns, his scent a mixture confusion and affront.

Derek can't help smiling a little. "It's that, I'm human enough that I survived on my own, but I'm wolf enough that it was miserable. All of it, every minute. And maybe it's not healthy to need someone else. I honestly don't know, and maybe we should talk with Shelta and Reese about it, probably, even. But even if we assume that normal matters, and that this isn't pack-normal, there's a lot of added factors between us."

Stiles opens his mouth, but in the end just shakes his head. It doesn't seem like a refusal, though, so much as an acknowledgment that he doesn't know what to say. He slumps and Derek can feel the exhaustion rolling off of him, days of packing and driving things back and forth and the stress of being in a new place and returning to school soon all taking their toll.

Derek says, "C'mon," and stands, pulling Stiles up, escorting him to the bed, where they both crawl in, curling into each other as if it's not the first time they've done this without Derek sporting a full body of fur. Derek pulls the covers over them and Stiles mumbles, "Night," into his shoulder. It tickles, and Derek drops into sleep with the echo of a laugh in his chest.

*

Skyping with Reese is better than talking over the phone, since at least Derek can see his face, but he's robbed of the scents, the tiny air shifts that he's learned to not even so much notice as just feel. All of the extra signs that inform both his wolf and his human, help him struggle through the social discomfort of being himself, are gone.

Reese says, "I have no intention of stealing your soul."

Derek flips him off, but doesn't follow up, mostly because Reese's facial expression is understanding, and he most likely does get it, being part of a pack. Instead he says, "Stiles and I are worried we might be codependent."

"When you say 'worried,' do you mean you're worried about it at the moment, or as a long-term condition?"

"Um." Derek looks down and then decides, "Yes."

"All right," Reese says, somewhat more gently than usual.

"Just say it," Derek tells him, "because you're freaking me out."

Reese shakes his head. "No, it's nothing like that. I just think it's too early to be worried about anything aside from both of you feeling like you can get through the day and the night without major emotional backlash."

"But what if we get through that by being codependent, and then we can't stop?"

"It's possible," Reese acknowledges. "And then there's probably going to be more therapy, to fix that problem. But one day at a time, okay?"

Derek will give him that there's merit in that approach, but it feels dangerously dismissive. Derek's eyebrow must do something revelatory, because Reese says, "Codependence really does look very different in a case like yours and Stiles'. I'm not saying it's a great thing, or even healthy, but it is sometimes a necessary element of pack dynamics. The worst of it might be mitigated, but a pack is not a friendship, or even a family. It's a unit of survival. And that makes things complicated and different."

Derek feels immeasurably small, but he has to ask, "Shouldn't I know this?"

"Why?" Reese asks it quietly, as if he knows how much it will hurt. "Derek. You were fifteen when you lost those connections. And adjacent to this pack or no, you've never been able to truly seal any new bonds to even give you a type of emotional, by-experience lesson in these things."

And Derek knows, he knows, but acknowledging how much knowledge is just missing is like losing them all over again. It's like seeing Erica come alive in front of him, and holding her stiffened corpse in his arms. He spends several minutes with his eyes closed, breathing, going through all the mantras Reese has made his practice, trying to hear the strong, flat "no," Stiles says whenever he sees a hint that Derek is feeling guilty over the fire.

When he's got a handle on it, enough to speak, all he can manage is, "Yeah."

Reese repeats, "One day at a time, Derek. Human or wolf or whatever, that's all any of us can do."

Derek knows. He's just not sure he believes.

*

On the first day of school, Stiles gets to his nine am lecture a half hour early so that he can guarantee himself a seat in the back of the class, preferably in the corner. It's going to be hard enough focusing in a room with that many people nearby, he needs to at least be in a defensible position.

He makes it through the period. His notes are a mess and he can't remember a thing anyone said, but it's a statistics-based prerequisite for a Criminal Justice major and Lydia has promised to help him catch up on anything he needs for finals purposes.

He's got another class at one. He's planned his day out carefully, because otherwise he's afraid he'll go back to the apartment, hide, and not leave again. Instead he goes to the campus gym and runs a mile—the most he can do just yet—and does a few circuits of the weight training regimen his physical therapist put together for him when Stiles had healed up enough to be in the position of regaining strength.

He showers in the locker room—thankfully, showers are single-stall with curtains—before finding a bench to eat the snacks he packed for himself. He's definitely not at a place where he can be naked in a space with other people, let alone strangers.

He makes sure to be at his next class early so as to garner that prime back corner seat. The run and the food help with his concentration a little, and he actually has some notes that seem logical at the end of the period.

The bus ride home is crowded and Stiles is about to come out of his skin. He fumbles for his phone, hits the first speed dial—his dad—and says, "If you can, just talk."

His dad, bless him, doesn't ask questions, just says, "Hey kiddo, I was gonna call in a bit. I'll assume you're heading home. Things are pretty quiet since you left. Scott is still in town for a few days, so he's been dropping by to check my vegetable intake on your behalf, you'll be glad to know."

"I'm thinking about coming out to you guys during your fall break. Derek was mentioning something about the pack going down the coast a little bit, renting a house or something for the weekend. He sounded like he was extending an invitation, so I thought if it wouldn't be your old man getting in the way—"

Derek had asked Stiles if that was okay before mentioning it to his dad, so Stiles says, "Yeah, I'd like that. We would. Me and Derek. And uh, the p—rest of us."

"Great," his dad says, and keeps talking until Stiles is able to get off the bus, traipse the few blocks back to their condo and close the door behind himself.

He slides down the door, sitting on the floor and says, "I'm home. I'm okay. I'm home."

"Okay," his dad says. "It's okay if you're not, too, kid."

Stiles nods. His head feels heavy. He got plenty of sleep last night, but he's so tired. He revises, "I'm as okay as I'm gonna be right now."

"You're doing great, Stiles. You hear me?"

Stiles hears, he does. "Love you."

His dad sighs, but he says, "Yeah, you too. Gonna drive you crazy if I call and check in tonight?"

Stiles tries for a smirk. "You've earned it."

He can hear the smile in his father's voice. "Damn right I have."

Stiles hangs up and considers sleeping right there. Derek will still be at school. He started a week earlier. Stiles suspects that if he were a wolf he'd be able to smell the excitement on Derek every time he talks about tartan grids and biomimicry and the complications of riparian land as a functional site for building, and a crap ton of other things that Stiles has to Google search on the sly. Listening to it is quickly becoming Stiles's favorite thing, especially when he can do it from the window nest while munching on tortilla chips from the delivery place that makes them so fresh they come hot.

The thought gives him the energy he needs to drag himself to said window nest and text Lydia, "1st day down. No disasters. Win."

He's looking out the window, watching the sky and concentrating on breathing slowly, when she texts back, "my hero."

Stiles leans his forehead against his knees, blows out a breath and says, "Well, Charlie Brown, it hasn't been such a bad day after all."

*

Derek drives up to Sacramento on a Thursday, because he's only got one class on Thursdays, and it's from eight to ten in the morning. That gives him plenty of time to drive up, kidnap Scott for a couple of hours, and drive back without Stiles having known he was gone. Not that it's a big deal if Stiles finds out, Derek just doesn't like leaving him alone in the condo any more than he absolutely has to.

The drive up isn't terrible at that time of the day, not even once on the bridge. Derek rolls the windows down, turns the music up, and doesn't let himself think too much.

Once he's there, it's easy enough to find Scott. Stiles has Scott's schedule, in case of emergency, so Derek just sits outside the building of where Scott has work-study on Thursday mornings. He gets off at noon. Derek hears him before he sees him, he's chatting with someone, a coworker, maybe.

Scott spots Derek the second he's out the door of the building, glancing over at him with a smile and waving. He breaks off from his friend and comes over to sit next to Derek. "Thought I felt something familiar."

It's exactly what Derek needs to hear, what makes it possible for him to have the conversation he needs to have. He says, "I'll treat you to lunch."

Scott grins. "Hasn't Stiles taught you never to offer starving college children free food?"

"Slow learner," Derek tells him.

Scott laughs. "Pizza good?"

"As long as it's actually good," Derek says.

Scott doesn't rise to the bait, just follows Derek out to his car, and gives directions. Once they're at the restaurant—which, Derek will quietly allow, is redolent of tomatoes without chemicals and creamy cheese—they sit across from each other, and Derek lets Scott ask all the questions he wants about Stiles.

The pizzas come, and Scott says, "You didn't drive up here to tell me Stiles is handling himself."

No, Derek didn't. Scott and Stiles check in with each other every day. Derek cuts at his pizza with a fork and knife. He's not actually particularly fastidious about pizza usually, but it's helping him calm his nerves. Scott, who somewhere along the way learned all the things Derek kept trying to teach him, must catch something in Derek's smell, the beat of his heart, because he says, "Derek."

Derek looks up at him. He swallows. "I—being an omega, it's…" He doesn't know how to describe it. It feels like Scott should know, only he doesn't, because he's always had Stiles. And even if he had known, it wouldn't be the same, because nothing is quite the same as being born into a pack and then losing it.

Scott sets his fork down a little too carefully. "You're not an omega."

"Scott—"

Scott shakes his head and says, "No, Derek," in a quiet voice that brooks absolutely no argument. "No. Fuck." Scott's eyes flash red for just a moment, but not at Derek. Scott takes a breath and says, "You drove up here to ask me to join the pack, which never should have happened, because I should have told you that you were part of it the minute you chose to be. That there was always a spot waiting there for you."

Derek gets it, then. "Because Stiles wants it."

The look Scott gives him can only be described as heartbroken. "Don't get me wrong, the fact that Stiles wants you in the pack is incredibly helpful to the situation, but no, Derek. In this case, Stiles could be two hundred percent against you joining the pack, and you'd still have a place in it."

Derek shifts. "You shouldn't be ignoring Stiles' instincts."

Scott facepalms. "I appreciate that, with everything and all, you're looking out for this interests, but wow, really not the point."

"You've never wanted to be part of a pack with me," Derek points out. He does it softly, because he's not here to start a fight, and a little because it still hurts to say aloud.

Scott looks up and shakes his head again, his eyes still just a little too bright. "Derek, I was fifteen when I was turned against my will by your uncle. Then you broke a promise to me and wanted me to bend to your will, when everyone aside from my mother who'd ever had me in their power had used it to either harm or manipulate me. Even if none of that had been an issue, I was terrified that being part of your pack would mean leaving Stiles behind. You didn't seem super fond of him back then, and that wasn't on the table.

"And then, when I became an alpha, you still were one, and when you weren't, it—it seemed cruel to suggest. You'd given that up to save your sister's life. You didn't need some punk-ass kid asking you to be one of his betas."

Derek's not sure he would have been able to accept just then. "And after? When I was losing my powers? Did you just—was I not valuable to the pack?"

The twin scents of anger and regret that roll off Scott are answer enough. But he looks Derek in the eyes and says, "I wanted you to want it. And I was evidently too stupid to see that you needed to know I wanted that."

"I want it," Derek says. The words are so much easier than he thought they would be. They feel almost like the first swallow of fresh air after being inside too long.

Scott nods and swallows a little tightly. "Welcome to the pack, Der. Better late than never."

*

Derek hears Stiles coming from the bus stop, which is about a block away from their place. Stiles isn't being loud, just discussing something that involves copyright and California rulings with his dad. If Stiles is within hearing range for Derek, though, Derek will hear him.

Derek goes back to his own homework, looking up long enough to mouth "Hi," and receive a smile when Stiles walks in. Stiles goes immediately to the kitchen and rustles around, finishing up his conversation with his dad. When he's said goodbye, he returns to the "breakfast nook," where Derek does most of his work. He puts the peanut butter jar between them and sets to cutting up an apple.

Derek pushes aside his book and opens the jar. When Stiles hands him a slice of the apple he takes it and dips it into the peanut butter. When he's done chewing and swallowing, he says, "I went to see Scott today."

Stiles stops cutting for a moment. "Something wrong?"

Derek shakes his head. "No, everything's fine, and it was fine when I went up."

Stiles draws the "o" in "Okay," out.

"The pack, it's unusual in a lot of ways. Reese keeps pointing out all these things that I never learned about packs, but it's not like I didn't know anything. For one thing, packs don't usually have kitsune and were-coyotes in them. And whatever the hell Corey is. But really, mostly, it's that this pack has tangents in a way most don't."

"Tangents," Stiles says, shaking his head. "I don't—"

"Like, your dad. He's not pack. Except he is, through you. Tangent. And Melissa. Chris, in a way, because Scott will never not count Allison as pack. You see?"

"All right," Stiles agrees. "What does this have to do with you?"

"I was part of your tangent. And it wasn't that it wasn't good enough, I swear, Stiles, but I wanted—I asked Scott to be part of the pack."

For a moment, Stiles' scent is all over the place with confusion and then anger and then something else Derek is puzzling out when Stiles says, "You are pack. Fuck, Derek, you didn't—even if Scott had been stupid enough to say no, necessitating dire revenge from my father, and me, and probably Lydia and definitely Braeden—"

"He said yes, Stiles. This is not—you're making this a thing and it's not."

"What's a thing, Derek Hale, is that you somehow thought you could almost kill yourself trying to save my life and not be part of the pack. Even putting aside all the times before when you saved our asses."

"I—I was yours. But I needed to hear the, my alpha say I was his. I can't explain it, okay? I needed it."

Stiles dips a piece of apple as if it has personally offended him. He takes a deep breath and says, "Okay. I'm glad you got what you needed."

Derek waits.

"But you were still pack. No matter what the fuck Scott decided."

Derek smiles down at the table. "Okay."

"Okay," Stiles says, and bites into the apple.

*

By the time fall break rolls around, Stiles can run two miles, even three sometimes, and it's the first thing he does when they get to the rented house. He drops his stuff off and goes down to the coast, shedding his shoes, and runs, breathing in salt and moisture. He's not surprised that Derek comes with him—they run in the park every weekend—but is surprised that Derek stays in his two-footed form. That's not standard operating procedure at all.

Stiles assumes it has to do with the beach being more open and visible to others and doesn't ask. They get back to the house and Derek goes back inside to get them glasses of water, which they sip on the patio, overlooking the beach. They're the first to get there. Stiles has figured out that Derek is more at ease when he knows the smells of a place without having to separate out the smells of the people in the place.

So quietly that Stiles barely hears him over the sound of the waves, Derek says, "I probably should have asked before now, but is it going to bother your father that we're sharing a bed as humans? Because I can shift, while we're here."

Stiles looks at the glass in his hands. "Would it be more comfortable for you to?"

"That—I don’t." Derek pauses. "I thought you understood that both forms are me."

Stiles shakes his head and looks up, over at Derek. "That wasn't what I meant. I meant … emotionally, I guess."

Derek looks as confused by this question as he seemed by the last, so Stiles tries again. "If you don't want to have to explain things, or—or think about them."

Derek is quiet for a moment, and then says, "Think about them," flatly.

Stiles closes his eyes for a moment, using a breathing pattern Shelta has made him practice, one that both calms him and slows him down, gives him time to think. Derek doesn't rush him. When he opens his eyes, he says, "You scare me."

Derek's expression changes from confused to horrified within less than a second, leaving Stiles scrambling to say, "No, I mean—no, that came out wrong."

"You don't have to—"

"No," Stiles barks, more sharply than intended. "No. You—the way you make me feel safe scares me."

Derek opens his mouth, then closes it. Stiles laughs somewhat helplessly. "Fuck, you'd think all the hours I've spent talking about this with Shelta would make me sound less batshit."

"You're not crazy." Derek says it simply, and with conviction, like it's Fact.

Stiles waves his hand. It's beside the point. "The thing is, you're big and warm and soft as a wolf, and I know you'd disembowel anything that tried to hurt me with your teeth. And all of that should make me feel safe, and it does, but not as safe as when I wake up and you hold me and say something like, 'right here,' or 'gotcha' or even just, 'breathe,' and I know—I know I'm okay."

"Then I'll stay human, and if your dad asks questions—"

"I'm not worried about my dad," Stiles says. He isn't, either. His dad has never judged him for his ADD, or the fact that he looks like his mother, or anything else Stiles can't help. He's not going to judge him for this.

"Then—"

"You know what I smelled like around you before, Derek." Stiles forces out the words. "Before you left. Before you came back. You knew. And you were—kind enough or wise enough or maybe just disinterested enough not to say anything—"

"Teenagers smell like that all the time, Stiles," Derek interrupts. "And it was just physical. It's—it's different when it's not."

"The point remains, I should—I. Fuck." Stiles drinks the rest of the water and sets his glass down. He breathes through his nose, out his mouth. "You know how I smell now."

Derek hesitates, but he nods. "Like the emotions without the arousal."

Stiles flinches, but nods as well. "So, you know it's not fair to you."

Derek frowns. "No. No, I don't know that."

"Derek—"

"If you could smell me, you'd know I'm right there with you. You'd know why Scott's more careful about touching you, that it has nothing to do with you guys mending things. You'd know."

Stiles laughs, even though it hurts. "Okay, so it's not option one, where you think you have to care for me because I'm pining and you feel guilty, great. It's option number two where I'm broken and can never give you—"

"Wow, no." Derek doesn't seem aware he's spoken for a second, just staring at Stiles. Then he says, "Have you—you can't have talked to Shelta about this."

"I've talked to her about you." Pretty much every session we have these days.

"Stiles, you were—fuck." Derek swallows and forces himself to say, "You were assaulted. And you haven't talked to her about survivors of that sort of thing, and how desire doesn't always just come rushing back. About how every survivor handles it differently. I—I was a lot like you. I didn't want to touch anyone until, fuck, I don't know, Julia, I guess, and who even knows if that was real. Braeden. Six, seven years later? There are others who use desire as a way to reclaim their own control. And everything in between. It's not, you're not fucking broken."

Stiles eyes are stinging and his face is wet. He wipes angrily at the tears. "I feel like it."

"I know," Derek tells him. "But for once, you're wrong."

Stiles tries to laugh, he does, but what comes out is a sob. Derek's in his space, then, warm even in his human skin, steady, and safe. His arms wrap around Stiles and he says, "Right here."

*

Scott and Kira arrive a few hours after Derek and Stiles, with Lydia not far behind. Stiles' dad is a few hours later than predicted, having gotten called in on a last minute domestic disturbance. Malia walks in shortly after him, although if the look on Derek's and Scott's faces is any indication, she's been out there for some time.

She barely looks at Stiles, instead offering to help unload groceries and make beds and do other things around the house. All things that she hates.

Stiles catches her when she's unpacking in the room she and Lydia are going to share. Derek and Stiles are sharing, Scott and Kira, Lydia and Malia, and Stiles' dad is taking the futon in the living area. Lydia looks over at him and says, "I'm going to get my toes wet."

Malia stands like she's going to follow, but Stiles says, "Malia. C'mon."

She runs a hand through her hair. "I don’t know what to say, Stiles. Is that what you want to hear, I don't—"

"So tell me how school is, or about the guy Kira says you're dating, or, fuck, anything. Just talk."

She wraps her arms over her chest, and Stiles notices her claws growing into her arms, but he stays silent. She says, "What if what I want to say is 'I should have noticed?' I should have—"

Stiles shakes his head and crosses to her, pulling her into a hug. For a moment he has the automatic reaction of panic that he hasn't quite managed to get past when anyone other than his father or Derek is in his space. He pushes it back, though, breathes in her familiar smell, melts into her known shape. After a moment, she grabs on, shaking, but he knows it comes from an exertion of control—she's broken ribs on more than one occasion from holding on too hard.

"No," Stiles says.

"It's not that simple, idiot," she tells him.

"Magic," he argues.

"Then what about after?" She pulls away from him and he lets her go, let her pace. "What about when you were in the hospital and living at your house and—"

"Malia," he says again.

She stops, but her eyes are blue and she's curled in a way that tells him she seconds from shifting. He says, "I need you now. I need my friend now."

She pants from behind fangs, but they slowly recede. Quietly, she says, "I miss you. I—but I wasn't there."

Stiles opens his mouth but she shakes her head, sharply. "Not just because of the magic, Stiles. Because I wanted to hurt you by staying away; I wanted you to be as lonely as I was."

Stiles swallows, because, yeah, that hurts. But she's got tear tracks on her face, and though it seems far away now, he can remember how he'd stopped talking to her for the most part, pulled himself as far from her as he had from Scott, made it so that even if she'd needed him, it would have been hard to get his attention. He rubs a hand over his face and says, "I think that might be how breaking up with people goes."

She makes a face. "Let's not do that again."

"No," he agrees.

She crosses her arms again and says, "Tell you about my guy if you tell me about Derek."

"Christ," Stiles mumbles. "That's seriously invasive, you know that, right?"

She shrugs, unremorseful. "Part of being in a pack."

He is calling Mason and commiserating about being human in the midst of these assholes as soon as he gets a chance. For now, though, he says, "It's not exactly like that."

She sits down on the bed and says, "But it's not exactly not, either."

That might be the truest thing there is to say about the whole situation, so Stiles sits down beside her and says, "Mostly, right now, he feels safe."

Malia leans in against him, her head resting on his shoulder. "Lot to be said for safety."

*

Stiles comes into the kitchen smelling of Malia and relief. It's a good smell, full of pack and resolution. Derek smiles and says, "Your dad found some old-timey butcher shop between Beacon and here and bought a whole side of venison."

Stiles rolls his eyes. "Don't even front, you're gonna be making bi-weekly trips to this place now that you know it exists."

Derek shrugs. He's a wolf. It's in his nature to be carnivorous. And as much as he is in no way opposed to a good hunt every once in a while, he doesn't have the time to be doing it every month or so, then actually butchering and preparing the deer. He's also human: he knows how to use a credit card.

Stiles hops up on the counter and dangles his legs a little. "What else'd dad bring? Cheap beer? We could braise it."

Derek nods. "Roast some potatoes. I'll let you make the salad."

"You mean he actually brought things with which a salad could be made?" Stiles sounds dubious.

"I pressed the issue," Derek tells him. "Softly."

"Did he mumble about wolfsbane bullets?"

"Little," Derek admits. It had been grumbly and fond and Derek's stomach had hurt a little at how real it all was, being part of this family he'd stolen.

"That's how he shows his love."

"Yeah," Derek agrees, because he knows.

"Der," Stiles says and somehow he's in Derek's space without Derek having noticed. It should scare Derek, the way Stiles slips past his guard, past all his senses, natural and super. He thinks he should maybe pull away. He doesn't.

"Der," Stiles says again, and his lips are on Derek's forehead, one hand spread over the small of Derek's back, the other on his hip. "It's okay."

Derek laughs, because, "You don't even know what 'it' is."

"No," Stiles agrees easily. "But I know your body language for 'I took something I shouldn't have.' And I know that it usually comes out after you've managed a moment of normality, of pack or family or even just friendship. I know all that. So I know I'm right."

Derek finds himself grabbing onto Stiles—he should let go, he should—breathing deep into the curve of his shoulder. "He's your dad."

He doesn't really mean for Stiles to hear it, says it too quietly for that. Stiles says, "Yeah, well, I'm surprisingly good at sharing for an only child."

"Stiles—"

"You get to have this." Stiles sound so fucking sure, like it's just a fact, something he read in an authoritative source.

The thing about Stiles, is that he's right far more often than he's wrong. It's not enough on its own, but between therapy and the pack and moments like these, it's starting to have an impact. Derek takes another deep breath. "We could put some carrots and celery in with the venison. He might even eat it, between the beer and the meat."

"Fucking genius," Stiles says, and doesn't pull away.

*

When night falls, Derek shifts. The air is almost too salty here on the coast, but he can still smell the strange mixture of licorice and antiseptic that has always defined Scott, the hint of ozone and green tea that surrounds Kira. Lydia—when she finally stopped wearing so many scents Derek could actually tell—smells of graphite and something spicy, like chili powder, only not. Derek's never been able to completely put his finger on it. Jordan always has a baseline of cordite and, hilariously, to Derek's mind, strawberry jam. Malia's coyote controls her scent, wild and full of moonlight. The sheriff exudes coffee and store brand laundry detergent, which Derek finds almost unbearably comforting.

And of course, Stiles. Stiles whom Derek has gotten so used to smelling—the chemical tang of Adderall, the ink of whatever pen he's been chewing, Old Spice shampoo and Speed Stick deodorant, cinnamon floss and cinnamon toothpaste, cotton and wool—he sometimes almost doesn't notice the smell, it's just everywhere and everything.

Malia shifts, too, and for a while they chase each other on the beach. When he tires, though, he trots up to Stiles, who's sitting at the firepit on the back patio of the house, next to his dad. Derek settles between their chairs, huffing in satisfaction when Stiles' hand drops down to ruffle his fur.

Stiles looks up at the sky. The stars are visible here. Derek wishes he knew how to navigate by them, that he could always take himself and Stiles where the stars led. Stiles yawns and says, "I could fall asleep, here."

Derek raises his head enough to nudge at Stiles' hand. Stiles grins. "I won't. I just, you know, could."

His dad says, "Get to bed, kiddo. I'll put out the fire."

Malia, who's leaning against the railing of the patio, says, "I might sleep out here."

They all smile a little at that. The Sheriff says, "Or I could leave it."

In the silence that follows the fire crackles, safely contained in the pit. It's a relatively still night, the wind quiet, allowing the sounds of the waves to reach them. It's Lydia who breaks the silence. She looks at Scott, and says, "We should do this every year. Make a pack tradition. The first one."

Scott nods. "Yeah. Maybe a second one having to do with solstice. Deaton says there used to be pack traditions around each of the solstices. That could be one more. Or four."

Derek shifts back, taking the blanket Stiles offers to him and wrapping himself in it. "My—there's some stuff my family used to do. Mom's favorite was fall, so that was a big one. Summer tended to get a little, ah, neglected."

They all stare at him for a second too long, and he realizes this is the first time he's voluntarily brought up his family in their presence. It's well overdue, something Derek can realize even without help from Reece. Or, well, perhaps he can realize it because of all the help Reece has given him. Either way, he knows.

Scott breaks into a grin and says, "That'd be great, man."

Stiles reaches out, and squeezes his hand. Kira says, "To new traditions," and raises the nearly-empty water bottle she's been nursing.

Derek grabs at Stiles' soda and takes it, ignoring Stiles feigned annoyance. He raises it. "To pack."

Stiles steals the soda back and says, "To family."

He looks at Derek as he says it, before glancing back out at the others. Derek recaptures Stiles' hand and kisses the knuckles, murmuring, "To family."

The others are repeating it as well, but all Derek can hear is the perfectly even, contented beat of Stiles' heart.

*

Stiles is correct in his assertions. He has no doubt his father knows he and Derek are sleeping in the same bed with all their human parts, but his dad doesn't so much as raise an eyebrow. Instead he spends a lot of time with Stiles on the beach. It's a little too cold to really swim, but it's nice to put their feet in, play catch, whatever, and then make their way to the house for a warm shower and some coffee.

It might be break, but all of them still have homework, so they spend hours of the day around the large dining table, scribbling and typing and reading, occasionally pestering one of the others for help. Stiles and Derek make food sometimes, and other times they order in. There's a town about ten miles out, and evidently that's not too far for delivery in these parts.

On the last night, the pack curls up in the main room, twining into each other's space. Even Stiles' dad makes his bed on the sofa, staying with them. Stiles misses Mason, Corey, Liam, and Hayden, and he can tell Scott does too, but otherwise it's pretty much perfect. He mumbles, "Yeah, we gotta make this a thing," and drifts off to sleep.

*

Whether it's because Derek has made Stiles face it, to some extent, through their conversation over the break, or because it is just time, Stiles finds himself starting his next appointment with Shelta by saying, "I don't want to be afraid of kissing Derek. Or of Derek kissing me."

"Worthy goal," she nods.

Stiles feels dizzy and realizes he's not breathing right. Shelta sits on the other end of the televid waiting for him to slow his breathing, calm down.

When he has, she says, "That could be enough for today, just admitting that."

He shakes his head. "No. I want—" He grits his teeth and forces down what feels like a scream, but is probably a whimper.

"This is going to take time, Stiles." How she manages to say shit like that without sounding condescending, Stiles will never know, but she does. After a pause, she asks, "What does the fear feel like?"

Stiles closes his eyes to think, but panic comes quickly in the dark so he opens them back up. He presses his fingers to the table hard enough to hurt. "Like I have nowhere to go. Like danger at my back. Like swallowing blood from screaming too hard."

"All right. Tell me one thing that feels like safety."

The first thing that comes to mind is, "Fur under my fingers." Stiles winces. "That's probably fucked up."

"Why?" she asks.

He raises an eyebrow. "Safety's not supposed to rest in other people. Even if they are supernaturally strong shapeshifters."

Shelta shrugs. "Trauma and rape are specialties for me, you know this."

It's the first time she's said the r-word in front of him. It hurts to swallow and his skin itches, but he gets it, gets that he needs to be able to hear it. Eventually, he'll need to be able to say it. Stiles has read enough books on recovery in the last six months to probably teach a course in it. Just as soon, of course, as he gets his own shit together.

"You're hardly the first person to find safety in another," she continues. "For some people it's a parent, or a best friend, or sometimes a pet. Humans are social creatures. And yes, we have to learn to depend on ourselves for all manner of things, but at the end of the day, we depend on each other, too. It would be one thing if Derek weren't fully aware of the facts and hadn't consented to be in this position, but he is and he has. So, no, I don't think it's that fucked up. I think it's somewhere to start."

"Start what, exactly?" Stiles asks.

"Start relearning how to feel safe."

"Just…think of Derek when I get scared?"

It's her turn to raise an eyebrow. "Just start a list of things that feel like safety. Start with the feel of Derek's fur and tease out others. And when the fear creeps in, do your best to find your way to any of those thoughts. Even if you can edge out the fear for a second, then a few, it's progress."

Stiles rubs his hand over his face. "Yeah, this is gonna take a while."

Dryly, Shelta says, "Good thing kissing Derek is pretty considerable incentive."

Stiles laughs. "Truth."

*

A few nights after they get back to the apartment, Derek has a nightmare. It happens. Sure, not as often as Stiles, although Stiles is five hundred percent certain that's only because Derek has had more time to process a lot of his shit. But yeah, it happens. This one, though. Derek wakes with his eyes wolf-blue and his claws shredding into the mattress seemingly unaware that Stiles has been actively shouting his name for at least a minute.

He falls out of bed so hard he almost rolls completely over and plasters his back against the wall, panting harshly. Stiles sits up and says, "I'm all right," over and over again until he thinks Derek is actually hearing him. Even if Derek hadn't been shouting "Stiles!" interspersed with a few adamant shouts of "No!" here and there, Stiles knows he'd be worried that he'd hurt him. Scott had been the same way the first few times they'd fallen asleep in a bed together after turning, and he hadn't even had nightmares. Stiles has gotten used to Derek's compulsive need to check him over after these incidents.

Sure enough, as soon as Derek has fingernails and eyes that don't glow in the dark, he's across the bed, sniffing at Stiles, attempting to make sure he's fine without actually touching him. Stiles says, "Hey," and grabs Derek's wrists, pulls him into a hug. Derek is still frantically checking for injuries, just using his hands where he can reach as well, now.

Stiles talks, just says things, like, "We're in your bedroom, because I like the skylight in it," and, "you can tell me what you saw, it's okay, you can tell me," and anything that comes to mind, just so Derek can hear his voice. Eventually Derek settles into the hug, and Stiles rocks him a bit.

Derek says, "Sorry," his voice rough.

Stiles knows it's not from screaming, Derek's vocal chords have already repaired themselves, but he kisses Derek's forehead and says, "I've got peppermint ice cream in the freezer, c'mon."

Derek follows Stiles to the kitchen, where Stiles grabs a serving bowl and puts four scoops in it. He moves to the sofa and is patient as Derek curls around him in a way where they can both eat from the bowl, but Derek doesn't have to let go. Stiles feeds him a few spoonfuls anyway, not because it's easier, but because it's calming for both of them.

Derek is still shaking ever so slightly, a tremor from head to toe, when he says, "I want to take you to Iceland."

More thrown by this pronouncement than he probably should be, what comes out of Stiles' mouth is, "You hate planes."

"Yeah," Derek agrees.

"You don't have to—"

"I'm not helpless."

Stiles blinks. He sets the bowl on the coffee table so he can shift to see Derek. Derek's looking away, so Stiles puts a hand to his cheek, gently forcing the issue. Derek looks at him, fierce and scared and lost and desperate. Stiles strokes his cheek. "No," he says, "you're not helpless. But I don't—"

"I was. When he hurt you, I was helpless. Couldn't affect the outcome either way. But now I can—you want to see the Northern Lights. And I can get you there. I want to see you see the Northern Lights. More than I don't want to fly."

Privately, Stiles will admit that he's not ready to be that far away from Derek, and he doubts Derek is anywhere near ready to be that far away from him. It's not optimal, but Shelta keeps telling him it's a problem for another day at the moment. She might have a point. The first few weeks of just leaving the house without Derek had involved no less than six panic attacks. And Stiles knows Derek, for almost the first full month after Stiles' release from the hospital, would get so panicked being out of hearing range from Stiles that he would forget he had driven places and run all the way back to the Stilinski homestead. Things are improving.

Stiles does want to see the Northern Lights. And it's not the money that's holding him back. He's figured out, between Shelta, and his dad, and even Derek, in his rare moments of actually admitting to things, that spending money on pack helps Derek, is part of his healing process. But, "Okay, but what do I get to do for you?"

Derek frowns. "Deal with me while I'm on the plane?"

"No go, built into the vacation package, try again."

Derek shifts Stiles again and reaches for the bowl. Stiles doesn't stop him, he's clearly thinking, which is all Stiles asks. When Derek is scraping the bowl, he says cautiously, "I'd like to drive down to Cora. This summer. But I—not alone."

"Done."

"You might have an internship."

"Yep," Stiles agrees easily.

"It's a five day drive. Both ways."

"More if we stop and see some sights. Which I think we should, for the record."

"That would—we'd probably be gone for a month."

"Yeah, something like that. Good to know, I'll look into two-month internships, or maybe something I can continue part-time during school next year."

"Stiles," Derek says softly.

Stiles presses his forehead to Derek's. "There's nothing more important than my family. There's never going to be."

Derek's voice breaks slightly when he repeats, "Stiles." Stiles just snuggles in closer.

*

Thanksgiving is held at Liam's house. Until the sprawling split-level pack-house Derek has been drawing and re-drawing for months now can actually be built, Liam's family's house is the largest. Stiles can tell his parents are somewhat confused by having acquired not only Liam's friends and girlfriend, but their parents and siblings—in the case of Hayden—as well, although not in a bad way. Rather, his mom looks like all her dreams have come true, and she's scared to trust in any of it. Stiles doesn't blame her. Liam's back on track to manage a lacrosse scholarship and he's got people watching out for him. Compared with when he'd transferred to Beacon, it's night and day.

Derek spends the first ten minutes they're there scenting the pack. Even Corey and Mason take it with good grace, and the rest are either reassured by it, or simply used to it. Melissa, because she's awesome, pulls Derek into a hug so he doesn't have to try and make it look normal. Stiles and Derek had settled themselves in Stiles' dad's place earlier that day, so the Sherriff has already been taken care of.

Stiles makes his way into the kitchen to help Mason's dad and Liam's mom, who are evidently in charge of most of the cooking. Hayden's sister is helping out too, and Stiles manages to squeeze her on the shoulder, say, "Hey, Val. Happy Thanksgiving."

She grins and says, "You too, kid."

He rolls his eyes. She's not even a full six years older than him. She grins some more, and goes back to stirring what smells like heavily alcohol-laced cranberry sauce. Stiles goes in search of a way to help out, and Mason's dad puts him in charge of the biscuits. Derek finds him a few minutes after he's started, and starts searching for the ingredients for honey butter. Even with the extra people in the kitchen, they find a rhythm with each other.

When the biscuits are in the oven, Stiles hip checks Derek on his way out the kitchen and goes to pretend he's actually paying attention to the football game, mostly to wiggle under his dad's arm and fall asleep there for a bit. Derek will watch the biscuits. Lydia comes and frames him in on the other side, with Jordan squeezing between her and the sofa arm. He wakes up to Malia having perched behind him on the back of the sofa, and Scott having settled at his feet.

He looks over to see Derek watching them from the kitchen. Stiles' stomach grumbles—he'd skipped breakfast in preparation—and his dad laughs. "Dinner's almost ready."

Stiles helps the rest of the pack set the table. His dad hands him a cider and mumbles something about "proper adult supervision." Stiles does his best to look like an absolute angel. His dad is super not buying it.

Thankfully, Liam must have made it clear to his parents that they needed enough food to feed a small country, because that's about what there is, and it's just enough to handle the pack. The parents who are in the know all look at the carcass of what was once a glorious feast with resigned amusement. The parents who haven't been brought in yet look at it with a muted horror.

Stiles deflects with, "That was the best turkey I've ever had; I'm gonna need the recipe."

"Ditto for the cranberry sauce," Lydia says.

Derek says, "You don't cook," to her.

Lydia shrugs. "Jordan does. Sort of."

Jordan manages all of three seconds before having to cover his face and guffaw into his hands. Valerie's right behind him, along with Stiles' dad. Then the contagion sets in, and nobody is able to stop for a while after that.

*

For the week of finals, Stiles fuels himself with Adderall, coffee, and Snickers bars, and basically forsakes things like meals and rest. Derek, whose finals thankfully overlap Stiles'—his start two days earlier and Stiles' end half a week later—basically does the same thing, except without the Adderall and with the addition of peanut butter straight from the jar.

After his last final, Stiles walks out of his building, feeling disoriented and detached and not looking forward to the bus ride at all. He blinks three times when he sees the familiar SUV outside the building. He swings in on the passenger side and tells Derek, "I love you. Unironically."

Derek rolls his eyes, but the corner of his mouth quirks. He says, "You might wanna nap; it's about six hours until we get there."

Stiles frowns and looks over his shoulder. Sure enough, Derek has packed Stiles a bag. Knowing Derek, he probably remembered more of the essentials than Stiles ever does. "Um. Did I forget about a trip?"

It's possible: Stiles is really strung out.

Derek asks, "You trust me?"

Stiles doesn't have to think. "Yup."

Stiles catches the intake of breath that tells him Derek wasn't certain that was going to be the answer. All Derek says, though, is, "Get some sleep. I'll wake you when we're near."

It's pleasantly warm in the car, a nice contrast the outside snap of December air in the northern quadrant of California. Stiles hasn't slept more than three or four hours at a stretch in close to a month. And yeah, he trusts Derek.

He curls up against the window and drifts off before they're even on the freeway.

*

Stiles wakes to the sound of Joni Mitchell playing in the background and the light outside having faded into early dusk. He says, "Hey."

Derek hands him the water bottle from the middle console. "Feel any better?"

"I seem to be able to follow a complete line of thought, so, yeah." Stiles takes a few swallows. "Where are we?"

"Almost there," Derek says, which is less than illuminating. Stiles sings along to He Comes for Conversation, mostly just to annoy Derek.

Around ten minutes later, Derek pulls into the Wilbur Springs property. Stiles asks, "Are we taking a vacation?"

"Getaway," Derek tells him.

"Those two words mean the same thing."

Derek shrugs. "I like my word better."

"Derek, seriously—"

"Seriously, you had me tell you about the Slovenian thermal pools something like seven times."

"It was twice," Stiles argues.

"Okay," Derek says, in the most fake agreement Stiles has ever heard.

"Dick," Stiles mutters.

"Look, if you want to wait until you can get to Slovenia, that's fine by me." Derek parks the car in front of the lobby and goes to unbuckle his seat belt. Stiles puts a hand over Derek's and looks at him.

Derek's mouth quirks, and he uses his free hand to reach out and squeeze Stiles' shoulder. Stiles pulls back, then, allowing Derek to get out of the car and check them in. He comes back with a room key and the two of them grab their bags and head in the direction they've been given.

They evidently have a cabin to themselves. It has a lot of light wood accents and windows that will pour natural light in once the sun is up.

Stiles is still tired, but he's also famished, now that he has the brain space to think about silly things like eating. He asks, "There food nearby?"

"We can do room service."

Stiles was raised on the salary of a county employee, so that idea is as foreign to him, if not more, as beaming up to Mars for a quick snack. "Sounds awesome."

Derek's clearly a bit confused by his enthusiasm, but just tosses the menu to him. Stiles catches it, takes a few minutes to peruse, and tosses it back. Derek has him order, because Derek is clearly done talking to people who aren't Stiles for the day.

Stiles hangs up the phone and, after a second, says, "Thanks."

Derek shakes his head, but Stiles shakes his in response. "No, seriously, Derek. I—for listening, for bringing me here, for doing it now, when I need it so much."

Derek says, "I needed it too."

Stiles sighs, but doesn't argue the fact that that doesn't matter. Instead, he sits down by Derek on the bed and leans in, plastering himself against one side. Derek kisses the crown of his head and may or may not mutter, "You're welcome."

*

They only spend a couple of days at Wilbur. They split the time between soaking in the pools, sleeping, reading, and eating. Anything else more strenuous is banned. Stiles keeps his shirt on, even in the pools, so Derek does too, even after Stiles says, "You haven't got anything to be ashamed of."

Derek rolls his eyes. "Neither do you. And I'm telling Shelta you said that."

Stiles makes a face. "Believe me, it's already on the list of things we talk about."

Derek believes him, but makes a note to tell Shelta anyway. Stiles sometimes mentions things he thinks are important to Reece, too. Reece has asked, more than once, if Derek feels all right with that. It takes Derek some time to figure it out, but he finally realizes: "That's just the way pack is."

When Derek says it, Reece looks like a proud older sibling, but all he says is, "All right."

Derek lets Stiles drive some of the way back, since the destination isn't a surprise, Stiles isn't exhausted anymore, and trying to get Stiles to sit for six hours without something to do is sheer folly. They make it to Stiles' father's house in the early evening, and the two of them whip up dinner while waiting for him to get home.

The Sheriff is a little late, but neither of them mentions it, instead falling graciously into bear hugs, and settling around the table to tell him about the springs. They spend the evening playing Yahtzee and watching Miracle on 34th Street. Derek follows Stiles up to his room and they crash there.

The next morning, Derek wakes to Stiles tugging him out of bed. He grumbles, but Stiles says, "C'mon," and brings him coffee that's rich and hot as he's getting out of the shower. Stiles pulls him into the car, and Derek asks, "We going somewhere?"

"No, I just got into the car to sit here," Stiles tells him.

Derek punches his arm lightly, but lets him have his secret. He's jittery in a way Derek knows signifies excitement. Stiles takes them out to the preserve, and then hikes a little further in to one of the clearings that Derek had shown him in the months after their captivity. The rest of the pack is there, and there's a jumbled greeting shout of "Happy solstice!"

Derek looks over at Stiles who shrugs. "We didn't have time to plan much, but a picnic's not so hard. Next year we can—"

"Do it again," Derek says.

Stiles grins, slow and genuine. Corey says, "We made fudge," indicating Mason in the "we."

Kira says, "I brought one of those big bubble makers."

Derek buries his face in the back of Stiles' neck for just a moment and mumbles, "Yeah, we can do this again."

*

On the twenty-fourth, Derek wakes up late, but earlier than Stiles. The Sheriff is at the station, but he promised to be home no later than six. Outside of going to Germany the year before, doing the things Laura and he had always talked about, Derek hasn't celebrated or even acknowledged Christmas since the fire.

He has promised himself—well, Reece—that he'll take it slow this year, tell the others if he's having a hard time. For the moment, though, he's well rested, and he has a Plan. He'd grocery shopped with Stiles a few days earlier, letting Stiles pull together all the things for Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas Day lunch, but he'd grabbed a few things himself.

He sets to making German pancakes and cinnamon butter and brewing some coffee. Stiles slinks in just as the coffee is finishing. He still has bed head and smells of sleep, but there's an overlay of mint toothpaste and some of the hand lotion he's addicted to. Derek says, "Morning."

"Shoulda woken me," Stiles tells him, grabbing a couple of mugs. "I need to get the turkey cooking soon or it won't be ready."

"When has the pack ever been on time?" Derek asks. "Besides, Hayden and her sister are bringing those tiny empanada things as appetizers, and everyone's going to need time to recover."

"You make a fair point."

Derek laughs softly, melting the butter over low heat. Stiles comes to stand behind him, placing the mug filled with coffee on the counter by his side and tucking his chin on Derek's shoulder. "That smells ridiculously good."

It's possible Derek is paying a little too much attention to the butter, since what comes out of his mouth is, "Now you know how I feel all the time."

Derek's muscles tighten the second he realizes what he's said and he's opening his mouth to apologize when Stiles says, "Huh," tugs on Derek's hip to get him to turn slightly and takes advantage of Derek's partially open mouth to plant a kiss there. It's quick and awkward and not really sexy and Derek loses his mind so completely for a second that the only reason he avoids third-degree burns from the saucepan at his back is because Stiles pulls him away from the stove, then flattens his hands against Derek's chest.

Stiles blinks. "I wasn't planning that."

"Okay," Derek says, amazed he can talk. After a second he realizes it's because he needs to know, "Are you okay?"

Stiles is taking deep breaths through his nose. Seconds pass, then maybe a minute, and Stiles steps back. He reaches around Derek and flips the stove off. Then he straightens and looks at Derek. "I smell good?"

Derek rubs a hand over his face, but then forces his hand to his side and nods.

Stiles cocks his head. "Like cinnamon butter?"

Derek shakes his head. Then offers, "Better."

Stiles swallows. "Could you—I mean, I know I just, but, I wasn't thinking, it just happened and I don't think I can do that on my own again, so could you maybe kiss me, now?"

Derek reaches out and cups Stiles' jaw in one hand, running his thumb over the line of it. "You sure?"

Stiles' voice shakes when he says, "So sure," but his eyes never waver and his scent is eager.

Derek leans in and nips at his lower lip, then soothes it over with a soft kiss. Stiles breathes out and mumbles, "More."

Derek smiles, just a little, and pecks at the corner of Stiles' mouth, tongue darting in to find Stiles' and then retreating every bit as quickly. Stiles' moans and falls forward a bit, chasing Derek's tongue. Derek catches him, stabilizes him, and whispers, "Take what you want, it's yours," into his mouth.

Stiles sucks in just the tiniest bit of Derek's lower lip and holds it. It's a perfect sort of torture. Derek holds himself still until Stiles tugs on his shirt, and then he responds, letting Stiles lead, but matching him point for point. Derek loses all sense of time until the oven timer goes off. Stiles breaks things off, leaning against Derek's chest and panting for a moment.

Derek props him up against the counter so he can remove the pancake from the oven.

Stiles says, "Good thing you were baking. Otherwise we might've still been at it when dad walked in."

Derek snorts. "More kissing, or cinnamon butter and pancakes?"

"Cinnamon butter and pancakes, then more kissing."

Derek can get behind that plan.

*

Art by FictionForLife

*

There's less breathing room in the Stilinski house than at Liam's place, but the pack isn't hard put upon to crowd in close, intruding upon each other's space. Derek watches—his lips still buzzing from the hour and a half he and Stiles spent on the couch after breakfast, despite his awareness that it's purely psychological—as Stiles lets Malia curl around him, Mason shoved up against his side, without even flinching. The visual is a Christmas present in and of itself.

Scott moves into Derek's space, Kira coming up on his other side. It still takes Derek a second to allow it, to settle, but once that moment is past, it's comforting. Scott says, "He looks good. Healthy."

Kira hums and follows that up with, "So do you."

"He's a fighter," Derek says.

"Yeah," Scott agrees. "And he's got you in his corner."

"Scott—"

Scott wraps his palm against the back of Derek's neck and squeezes. Derek freezes for a moment, the memory of his mother and the long ingrained habit of disallowing that type of touch colliding. Outside of a mate, nobody except an alpha is allowed that privilege, shown that vulnerability. Scott, though, because he's no longer the kid who used Derek without blinking, or who never stopped to listen to Stiles, says, "Just remember that I'm in yours, too. Both of yours."

Derek nods, melting a little into the touch, the tacit approval and acceptance in Scott's words. Kira leans into his chest and Derek wraps an arm around her. Stiles looks over at them in that moment and grins, mouthing, "Merry Christmas."

Derek flushes for no good reason, and buries his face in Kira's hair.

*

Christmas Day is quiet, just Stiles, his dad, and Derek. There's no tree in the house, because Stiles always hated fake ones, and real ones are too much of a pain to clean up. But there's a hearth on the fireplace with stockings hanging. They get a fire going, and make hot chocolate and French toast.

Stiles has gotten Derek a drafting table. It has to be put together, but the note tells Derek, "somehow, I think you can manage it." It'll be nice, more than nice, really, not to have to use their dining table, clearing it off whenever they have the time to actually sit down and have a meal together.

Stiles and Derek went in together to get the Sherriff a package of Giant's tickets for the upcoming season.

Derek unwraps the Sherriff's gift to him to find a shoebox. Atop is a note that reads, "Let me explain before you open."

Derek looks over at the Sherriff, who's twisting his mug in his hands. He clears his throat. "After five years of so-called 'dormancy' if a person has neither paid for, nor accessed a safety deposit box, banks drill the box and turn over the contents to governmental custodians, usually in the state last listed as a residence by the owner. In—in Laura's, case, that was New York. But whoever handles these up there is good at their job, and noticed there was a death certificate and a next of kin. When they couldn't find you, they checked the tax records and found your property records, but not a residential address. They sent the box to us, hoping we'd be able to find you."

Derek's fingers clench on the box. He doesn't remember how to use them.

Gently, Stiles lays his fingers over Derek's, and pulls them carefully away from the box. He pries the top off, and inside is a manila envelope. Equally as careful, Stiles opens the envelope and tips the contents into his hands. The envelope is stuffed with what must be forty, fifty, maybe more pictures, all of Laura or Derek, or both of them. In their New York apartment, exploring Central Park, outside the Guggenheim for the first time.

Derek breathes in through his nose and out through his mouth. His voice cracks and strains when he says, "She was a terrible photographer. But she had this old, not even digital, point and shoot camera and she—after the fire she took it everywhere, took pictures obsessively. I could never find them, I tried, when I went back, to get the few things I cared about, I tried, but I—I figured maybe she'd never developed them, or, I don't know. I don't know what I thought."

Stiles is looking at a picture. It's one of the two of them, doing one of the million stupid-touristy things Laura had insisted on at first, a way to keep them moving, keep them alive. They're on a boat—the Circle Line, probably—and they're both wrapped in scarves and Derek looks like he wants to be anywhere but on that damn deck, but Laura's got her arm around his shoulder, her head leaning into him, and she looks fierce, determined that they're going to have a good time.

Stiles says, "She was beautiful, Der."

Derek swallows around the lump in his throat and nods his head. The Sherriff says, "I'm sorry if I—"

But Derek shakes his head. "This is—" He takes another deep breath. "Yeah. She was beautiful."

*

Stiles and Derek leave for Iceland the morning of the twenty-sixth. It's a nine hour flight. Three hours in, when the first set of horse sedatives Deaton got hold of for Derek wears off, and he's starting to twitch beneath his skin, Stiles pulls him into the bathroom, and they make out against the door for longer than is strictly considerate of others. But it gets Derek breathing evenly, and Stiles is able to get him to focus on The Losers for a couple of hours before Derek resorts to sedation for another three. They indulge in another strictly-above-the-waist mile high session, and the two of them fuck around with the Sudoku puzzles in the flight magazine until they land.

Despite being close to evening for Stiles and Derek, it's "morning" in Reykjavik, or at least as close as it comes in the winter months. Most of the town seems pretty shut down that early in the morning, but they manage to find a local coffee chain that is blessedly open and inhale a few cups of caffeine before heading to the hotel to drop off their bags.

Stiles had originally wanted to go full bore that day but he admits, as they tool around Laugavegur, shopping for the pack and generally ogling some of the weirder options for souvenirs, "Yeah, okay, you had a point about wanting to faceplant."

Derek snorts, but just says, "It took me half the cruise to get my sleeping patterns to where they needed to be for Europe."

They have a late lunch/early dinner at the Perlan. Stiles loses time at the top level, gazing out; Derek a warm line against his side. The food is an adventure, much more high-end than anything he's used to trying. It's rich and for once Stiles finds himself slowing down to break down the taste of things, experience them.

He expects Derek to laugh. Instead, Derek says, "Here, try some of mine, too," and puts a little on the bread plate for Stiles to dig into. Derek even lets Stiles order both desserts, and they share them half and half. Stiles thinks, with no little amount of amazement, this is probably what love looks like, and when they get back to the hotel, despite both of them being exhausted, he kisses Derek against the door of their room, slow and thorough.

They fall into bed, barely even taking off their shoes, and neither of them wakes shouting.

*

It's still dark when they leave the city, but then, it's dark most of the time. It's fifty-five-ish miles out of town and into the woods to where Derek has rented them an Aurora bubble. Stiles chatters facts about the Aurora Borealis at Derek, things he's certainly said before, but Derek doesn't seem annoyed. It's not clear Derek is actually listening, but Stiles doesn't need active listening, he just needs an ear.

He's shoehorned books on Iceland into his moments between running and classes and making food and plans for the house with Derek. He's forgotten a good chunk of what he's read, but not the good stuff, the interesting parts.

They reach the bubble in the light hours, so they take some time to hike. Really, they take some time for Derek to hike and for Stiles to follow half-heartedly and throw snow balls at him. When the light begins to fade again, they crawl into the bubble and change into dry clothes. Derek opens some of the snacks they've brought, and they share them, both a little tired from the cold air and energy expended.

Stiles says, "Nap?" and Derek nods, and it's the best thing in the world, climbing into bed with Derek in their warm little pod, the night sky stretching vast above them. Stiles is the first to wake, Derek's heartbeat thrumming in his ear.

He opens his eyes and says, "Holy shit. Derek."

Derek wakes suddenly, with a, "Stiles!" but Stiles presses his mouth to Derek's and says, "No, no, I'm fine, I'm here."

"What—" Derek starts, interrupted by Stiles pushing him onto his back. Above them, the sky has swirled and mixed into hundreds of different shades, glimmering brightly, eerie and wondrous.

Stiles breathes, "I've always wanted to see this."

Derek pulls Stiles into his hold and says, "They're all yours."

Stiles laughs, a tiny sound in his throat, but he doesn't shake his head and he doesn't argue. He just keeps looking at the sky.



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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile