An ache blooms in Derek’s chest as he stands next to Cora, watching Lydia and Stiles walk down the aisle towards them. He forces air into his lungs and breathes in home and pack (even after all the years of being away from Beacon Hills). Twined through them all is Stiles’s scent, the one that sent him running all those years ago. He still smells the same, bittersweet and comforting, tinged with caramel and salt, and drawing the attention of every alpha and alpha-in-training in attendance.
“She’s beautiful,” Cora whispers, fumbling for his hand and dragging his attention back to her. “I can’t believe she wants to marry me.”
“She’s the most intelligent person I know,” Derek says. “Of course, she wants to marry you.”
Cora smiles at him, bright and joyous and edged with tears. Her hold on his hand tightens enough to crack a bone — Cora-speak for I love you — and he can’t help grinning back at her.
He’s still smiling when he moves around to place Cora’s hand in Lydia’s and when he raises both their hands and kisses their knuckles before releasing them to each other. That gesture’s not in Lydia’s dearly held script, but he wants, needs, them to know that he’s happy for them.
The gesture comes as close to making Lydia lose her composure as Derek has ever seen her. The brush of her lips against his jawline is almost as soft as Stiles’s plaintive, “Don’t I get one?”
“Not from my girlfriend,” Cora says.
Before Derek has to even think about the way Stiles raises an eyebrow and tilts his head at him, the minister clears her throat and asks, “Shall we begin?”
“We shall,” Lydia says, turning to face her, and with that, they return to Lydia’s script.
Derek does his part through the ceremony, not hesitating until it’s over and he has to walk back down the aisle with Stiles. Lydia had insisted that they should be arm in arm, but they ignored that directive, just as they had during the rehearsal.
This close, Stiles’s scent wraps around Derek, steals away any ideas he had about talking to Stiles. Finally, at the end of the aisle, he turns to Stiles and says the first thing that comes to mind. “Thank you.”
“Huh?” Stiles tilts his head, gives him a wicked grin, and then waggles a finger in his ear. “I think I’m going deaf. Did you just thank me?”
Derek suppresses simultaneous urges to growl at Stiles, kiss him, strangle him, and throw him over his shoulder and run off with him. Business as usual, then. “Yes,” he grits out.
“Heh.” Stiles’s hands do this complicated thing, making Derek think he’s either going to get punched or hugged. “Okay, then,” Stiles says, taking a step back instead of doing either of those things. “I guess that’s it. We should talk, yeah? Sometime? After dinner, maybe? Since we’re at different tables. Or not-tables, since Cora got her way about not having a formal sit-down thing.”
Then, Stiles gives him an awkward clap on the bicep and takes off to join a group of people around his age that Derek doesn’t know. He stands there for a moment, ignoring the people streaming around him on their way from the fancy hall to the reception area outside, before letting Malia drag him over into a conversation with Isaac and some guy named Charlie.
After that social obligation is done, Derek helps himself to a bottle of water, a plate of food from the various tables, and finds a spot in the shade over by a willow. The fact that the spot is half screened by the drooping leaves and branches of the tree doesn’t make him a creeping creeper who creeps (no matter what Stiles used to say). It just means that he doesn’t do people very well and he doesn’t want to do anything to fuck things up for Cora or Lydia.
Eventually, the food and drink are gone and Derek is out of excuses, even to himself, for staying hidden. He ventures out and follows the lure of a familiar sound to the dance floor where Stiles and Malia are holding hands and spinning in circles. Stiles is laughing, with his head flung back and his neck bared.
He’s beautiful, Derek can’t help thinking. His eyebrows draw into a scowl at the thought because this feeling, this dizzying lightness in his chest, is one of the reasons why he didn’t want to come back to Beacon Hills. Stiles isn’t too young anymore, but he’s… Derek sighs, not even wanting to finish that thought.
Instead, he turns his annoyance on the motley group of alphas and alphas-in-training who surround Stiles as soon as Malia lets go of his hands and falls into Isaac’s arms.
Peralta, Derek names the Argentinian alpha who slides in behind Stiles and puts a hand on Stiles’ hip. Stiles shimmies sideways, dislodging his touch, but he smiles at Peralta, seeming far more encouraging than discouraging.
At least Ito seems to take it that way. The alpha-in-training reaches out and takes Stiles’ hand, twirling Stiles around, kissing his knuckles in an old-fashioned gesture before releasing him.
That seems to be a signal for McNally, the new alpha of the Brooklyn pack that sheltered Derek and Laura. She catches Stiles as he stumbles back from Ito. Sliding an arm around his waist, she moves in close to his side and dares to press her nose against the skin behind Stiles’ ear. She murmurs something to Stiles, a movement of lips that Derek can’t read, the words lost beneath sounds of music, laughter, and conversation.
Derek knows what she’s scenting, the twined sweet and sour that is unique to Stiles. The growl that gathers in Derek’s chest is barely eased by the way Stiles shakes his head and steps away from her. Maybe he wouldn’t feel this way if Stiles was dancing with someone from the pack or left the dance floor, but Stiles doesn’t. He keeps on dancing with the men and women surrounding him, teasing them, letting them in close, too close, before putting a few scant inches between them again.
Unable to watch any longer, not wanting to see whether Stiles chooses any of them, Derek turns away and heads for the bar. He doesn’t know anyone in the short line, so he pulls out his phone and pretends to be absorbed in his news feed.
None of the headlines can distract him from the images that cascade through his imagination: his hands touching Stiles’ hips; his nose pressing against the fragile skin behind Stiles’ ear; his lips against the steady pulse in Stiles’ neck, scenting him, licking up a drop of two of his musky sweat. .
“What can I get you?”
Surprised out of his thoughts, Derek barely manages to tone an eye-flashing snarl down into the weighted silence of a scowl.
“Wolf-brewed beer it is, then.” The bartender twists off the cap with a snap and a hiss, and pushes the bottle across the counter toward Derek.
Before Derek can tell him that he’d rather drink tap water than Peralta’s gift, the guy’s moved on to the couple behind him, asking to see their ID before he’ll serve them alcohol.
It’s Cora’s wedding, he reminds himself, not for the first time. Instead of making a scene and demanding the bartender stop flirting and get him something else, Derek picks up his beer and walks away.
He ends up on the other side of the dance floor with an even better view of Stiles, who is sandwiched between Peralta and McNally. They’re close enough that Derek can barely see any space between the three of them.
Raising the bottle to his mouth, Derek takes a long swallow. The beer bursts cold and sharp on his tongue. The bitter aftertaste is a reminder that he could lose control if he drank enough, and God is he tempted.
“It doesn’t help.”
Confused, Derek turns to Sheriff Stilinski, Stiles’s dad, and raises an eyebrow. “It can’t hurt.”
The Sheriff, and Derek can’t think of him any other way, especially after being arrested by him, gives him a knowing look. “Of course it can. Ask any of the guys down in the lock-up for DUI or drunk and disorderly or battering the shit out of their loved ones.”
There’s nothing Derek can say to that, absolutely zero, because the Sheriff is right. It’s not as if Derek even needed to be drunk to batter the shit out of Stiles back when they lived in the same zip code. He takes another swallow of beer, but it doesn’t mask the sour taste of guilt that’s rising up and choking him.
“That doesn’t help either.” The Sheriff runs a hand through his hair. “Guilt’s a vicious bitch and even nastier when you mix it with alcohol.”
“I’m not...” Derek pauses to think about what he can say to Stiles’s dad, before throwing caution to the wind. “I’m not good for him. Too old. Too many bad experiences. I’d only hurt him.”
His silent again hangs unspoken between them.
“Too old when he was sixteen, definitely,” the Sheriff says, “but not so much now when he’s twenty-four.”
“Maybe,” Derek allows.
His gaze drifts back to the dance floor. Something in his chest clenches when Stiles isn’t just right there. His nostrils flare, but there are too many people around to identify Stiles’s scent. His voice though, that’s different. The sound draws Derek’s attention over to one of the bars, where Stiles is standing in line with the McNally alpha.
“Stiles was far too young when Claudia died,” the Sheriff says.
Derek hums in acknowledgment but he doesn’t take his eyes off Stiles or the hand that McNally places on Stiles’s lower back to guide him up to the bartender.
“I didn’t take her death well,” the Sheriff continues, and Derek can hear the thread of pain and loss in his voice. “There’d been a car accident that night, and I was late getting to the hospital. Too late to say goodbye. Too late to stop Stiles from being alone with her when she died.”
“I’m sorry,” Derek murmurs, because he has to say something even if he doesn’t know what.
“Yeah, me too.” The Sheriff lets out a long sigh. “Mixed all that guilt with alcohol. Night after night. Whenever I wasn’t working. Got to the point where I’d rush into the house after a shift, tossing something frozen into the microwave, just so I felt like I could justify that first drink.”
“I’m not…” Derek raises his bottle. “I don’t do that.”
“Oh, I know. I’m not saying you do. Hell, I don’t drink like that anymore because it almost cost me Stiles.”
Derek glances over at the bar, at the way Stiles is smiling at McNally as he takes a glass from the bartender. “He wouldn’t have let that happen.”
“He wouldn’t have had a choice.” The Sheriff’s despairing guilt makes Derek look away from Stiles and at him. “There’d been a car accident, in almost the exact same spot as the night Claudia died. It brought back all that guilt. I didn’t even bother with dinner that night, just threw off my uniform and headed for the scotch. I was deep in my second, or maybe third glass when Stiles came wandering downstairs. He was…” the Sheriff’s voice breaks and he takes a deep breath before going on. “He was holding my gun. I’d been in so much of a hurry that I hadn’t even bothered locking it up.”
Derek hasn’t a clue what to say. So he puts a hand on the Sheriff’s shoulder, needing to reach out somehow.
“I don’t remember what Stiles said. Something like, ‘look Daddy’ maybe? All I remember is the gun going off. The sound of it. Like the end of my life.” The Sheriff blinks and passes a hand over his eyes. “It was the damndest thing. That bullet just blew past Stiles’s ear and slammed into the ceiling.”
The idea of Stiles dying before he met him, before he got to know him, is like a gut punch to Derek. He closes his eyes to stop them flashing and forces his fangs and claws to stay hidden. Then, letting out a breath, he gives the Sheriff’s shoulder a gentle squeeze. “You wouldn’t be able to get rid of Stiles that easily.”
“Yeah.” The Sheriff’s grin is crooked and half-hearted, but it’s there. “But that’s not the point here. The point is that guilt isn’t ever going to do anything but get between you and what matters. It might even cost you everything that matters.”
Unable to stop himself, Derek looks over at where Stiles is at the edge of the dance floor, drink in hand, McNally far too damn close, swaying to the music.
“What’s more important,” the Sheriff asks, “Stiles or your guilt?” He takes Derek’s beer bottle away and gives him a push towards Stiles. “I know which one I picked.”
Derek could have resisted the Sheriff’s shove without any effort at all, but he doesn’t. He not only lets himself be propelled forward, he keeps on going until he’s right in front of Stiles. He ignores the red heat of McNally’s gaze and focuses on Stiles, feeling the weight of his curiosity, breathing in caramel and salt, and says, “Dance with me.”
“We were…” McNally starts to say, but Stiles interrupts her with an, “Are you sure?”
The possibility of more, of a lifetime, hangs on Stiles’s question, and Derek blurts out, “Yes,” before he can change his mind.
Stiles abandons his glass on a nearby table and steps towards Derek, holding out his hand. “We’re still talking later,” he says.
“Of course, we are.” Derek takes his hand, and they walk on the dance floor together, just as the music changes abruptly from something loud and fast to a quiet, slow beat.
They don’t so much dance, as sway together. Derek can’t smell anything but Stiles’s scent, can’t hear anything but Stiles’s heartbeat. He can’t feel anything but Stiles’s arms around his neck and Stiles’s lips against his.
“Everything that matters,” Derek whispers, to himself as much as to Stiles.