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Friends of Early Theory

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we've left shore somehow
become the friends
of early theory
close enough to speak
of desire and pain of absence
of mistakes we'd make
given the chance.

                                                         (Viggo Mortensen, Communion)

 

     At first glance, today’s T-shirt was white. Inoffensive, plain old white. This was such a rare occurrence coming from Stiles Stilinski that Derek breathed a sigh of relief from the safety of his corner office and relaxed back into the perfectly calibrated, ergonomic embrace of his Herman Miller chair. He caught a jaunty wave through the window as Stiles bustled past, oversized headphones still around his neck, battered leather messenger bag jostling behind him as he rushed to his desk at seven minutes past eight, late as always. A Starbucks tray was balanced precariously in one hand while the other flapped uselessly to emphasize some point in a story without beginning or end. Derek strongly suspected Stiles had emerged from the womb mid-ramble, clutching an Xbox controller in his tiny fist. The only time he’d ever heard him stop talking was when they announced the release date of The Avengers 2, and Stiles looked like he might actually tear up.

     His intern, ladies and gentlemen. You’d almost think someone in HR had it out for him.

     A few minutes later, the door to Derek’s office swung open by about a foot, and a Venti skim double shot latte appeared through it at the end of a long-fingered hand; Stiles had learned to always lead with the coffee, because the first time he’d poked his head in and chirped his habitual “Gooooooood morning, Mr. Hale!” he’d gotten a stapler thrown at his face.

     Seemingly satisfied no office supplies were in danger of being flung in his direction, Stiles stepped the rest of the way inside the office and gently closed the door behind him. A bright smile stretched his wide, mobile mouth as he approached Derek’s desk and gingerly set the coffee down with a napkin thoughtfully folded underneath. Then he withdrew a breakfast sandwich in a plastic baggie and placed it next to the coffee, adjusting it so it was perfectly square with the desk blotter.

     “How are you today, sir?” he asked brightly—too brightly, leaning too hard on the sir like that was even a thing Stiles did—then stepped back.

     Same as he did every morning, Derek blushed a little at the sight of the sandwich, something he never asked for and in fact routinely told Stiles not to bother with, yet which nevertheless appeared like clockwork from the front pocket of Stiles’s messenger bag. Derek didn’t deal with thoughtfulness all that well, apparently; his response was always to accept the drink without thanks, only a grunted, “You’re late. Again.”

     The smile didn’t budge. If anything, it grew more determined. “John Noble was at Starbucks this morning,” Stiles answered. There was such a sigh in his voice that Derek didn’t doubt he was telling the truth. Usually his excuses were much more creative than that, and the amount of love Stiles had for cult sci-fi shows was legendary, even to someone like Derek, who failed to catch the majority of Stiles’s pop culture references on a good day.

     Stiles continued, “He was close enough I could’ve slapped him, but no one was saying anything because, dude—John Noble. You do not disrupt John Noble while he’s reading his morning newspaper. But the line was moving twice as slowly because everyone was kind of awestruck and looking around for Joshua Jackson or something, I don’t know, it’s not like Fringe is still on or even used to film here. I wonder if that’s how it used to be in Vancouver, like, all the time? Remember that time I saw Leonard Nimoy on the train? Same shit. This was slightly less of a big deal than the Nimoy sighting, but I might still write a Missed Connections post about it later since you never know what kind of shit Walter Bishop gets up to in his free time. He strikes me as the kind of person who’d be endlessly fascinated by the human cesspool that is Craigslist personal ads, and you just know Mr. Noble is as method as fuck. Er, I mean—heck.”

     Derek estimated the entire speech was delivered on less than a single breath, and he resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose between his fingers. This was New York City. Stiles spotted a different celebrity almost every day of the week, and Derek got to hear about all of them; even the unimportant ones like former Big Brother contestants. Okay, sure, Stiles might’ve come from a small town that didn’t even have a Starbucks but this was a little ridiculous.

     “Did you take your Adderall this morning?” he asked patiently.

     “What? Yeah, of course!” Stiles scrunched up his face when Derek remained plainly unconvinced. “Don’t give me that look. I’m not allowed to get excited about meeting one of my idols?”

     In trying to avoid looking at Stiles’s ecstatic expression, which reminded Derek far too much of an overeager puppy, he rolled his eyes and bypassed the heavy geek-chic glasses and the pilly black beanie in favour of studying Stiles’s T-shirt du jour, the top of which was visible beneath his oversized grandpa cardigan. To Derek’s dismay, it was not solid white like he’d first thought. While moderately better than the time Stiles showed up for a meeting with the logistics department wearing a shirt that said, “I’m not saying you’re stupid, I’m just saying you have bad luck at thinking,” Derek couldn’t help but notice this particular gem sported a picture of a giant pickle next to the slogan “I’m kind of a big dill.” He sighed.

     “How many times do we have to have the dress code conversation?” he asked wearily, as though Stiles hadn’t spoken.

     With a frown, Stiles looked down at himself, holding his arms out. “What’s wrong with my dress?”

     Glaring, Derek set down his coffee when he remembered gesturing emphatically with a hot drink in his hand tended to result in spills and his Gucci suits being ruined. Funny, but Derek normally never talked with his hands half so much as he did when Stiles was around, like he automatically felt the need to try to communicate with him in his own language.

     “Do you even know what a tie is?” he demanded, though he knew the answer already. “This is an office, not a hipster coffee joint.”

     “First of all, I’d be wearing more flannel if I thought this were a hipster coffee joint,” said Stiles with a little sniff. “Secondly, I’ve totally been wearing nice pants ever since the first time you threatened to run my jeans through the paper shredder. See? I’m a fancy boy. I even ditched the chucks.” Flashing Derek his best Zoolander face, he did a little turn to model his pinstripe trousers, which despite being an obvious cotton blend and suspiciously close-fitting—Jesus, was there anything not available in a skinny cut these days?—were admittedly a step up from jeans or the awful khakis Stiles often liked to wear, the ones Derek would’ve burned if he could. And true to his word, the shoes were a surprisingly spiffy pair of brown oxfords with a subtle pointed toe. Derek furrowed his brow. He’d never seen them before, and wondered how he could’ve missed something like that randomly appearing in Stiles’s wardrobe. Stiles still looked like a Real World reject, but Derek had to concede this was a vast improvement upon what he’d worn on his first day a couple months ago; thinking he was a teenaged delinquent who’d stolen an access card, someone had called security on him. While there seemed to be no end to Stiles’s supply of cardigans, hoodies, plaid, or ironic tees, Derek had learned not to expect miracles.

     “You’re here as a favour to your mom,” Derek reminded him in a strained voice, for all the good it would do. Stiles started to ask, “Just my mom?” but Derek cut him off. “My sister might think you’re hilarious, but she doesn’t have to look at you every day or have clients asking why there’s a high school student taking my calls. You should buy a suit.”

     That Stiles barely restrained his eye roll was a testament to how well he’d memorized Derek’s triggers over the years. The eye roll got Derek going even more than the sarcasm usually did. “I totally would if I weren’t working here as an unpaid intern,” Stiles sighed. “Kind of hard to invest in a new wardrobe when you aren’t getting a salary. If you would just offer me a proper job already—”

     “You know that’s not up to me,” Derek interrupted. This was yet another variation on an old argument with no end. Stiles was trained as a librarian, with the shiny master’s degree from Syracuse and everything, and right now the only position open at Hale Industries was for Derek’s executive assistant while they waited for old Mrs. Ramirez in archives to die or retire, whichever came first. Stiles was primed to replace her as soon as that happened.

     Derek’s mother, who’d been a close friend of the late Mrs. Stilinski, had pretty much strong-armed the CEO—Derek’s dad, naturally—into taking Stiles on as an intern after he graduated so he could get his foot in the door at a good company. They’d all known Stiles since he was still tall enough to walk under tables, and the Hales and the Stilinskis, which now only included Stiles and his dad, did Thanksgiving and Christmas together every year back in California. But that didn’t mean they could work miracles or create jobs where there were none, especially in this economy. Yes, Stiles was technically unpaid, though Derek knew for a fact his sister, Laura, as president of the New York offices of Hale Industries, had worked her magic to arrange a comfortable stipend to offset the high cost of living in New York, and there was enough water-cooler gossip about Stiles’s mysterious live-in sugar daddy to set Derek’s teeth on edge.

     Personally Derek thought Stiles would’ve been better off running the children’s department at a local branch of the NYPL, but the focus of his degree was in information systems. Derek still barely understood the designation or how it was different from good ol’ library science, but either way, Stiles was currently redesigning the Hale Industries database despite Mrs. Ramirez’s resistance to change, and he had IT eating out of the palm of his hand. According to Stiles, this was because he knew what a relational database was.

     If Derek hadn’t agreed that a more efficient archiving system was necessary, or if he didn’t have such a poor track record with assistants who either quit or went on stress leave after working with him longer than two weeks, there was no way he would’ve tolerated so much lip from someone who, outwardly at least, was little more than a punk with liquid Bambi eyes and a clever mouth. Sure, their history had something to do with why Derek tolerated Stiles, too, but Stiles made no secret of how much he enjoyed winding Derek up. It was like an official pastime with him, always had been. Even if, off the record, Derek tended to provoke Stiles’s backtalk more than was strictly necessary. He didn’t know how to initiate work-safe subjects like the weather or the Mets like a normal person, so this was the little game he played with himself, seeing how long their confrontations could stretch out each day. They left Derek with an elevated heartbeat and a flush high on his cheeks, but as far as he was concerned, it was a cheaper high than throwing himself out of an airplane or running with the bulls, and twice as exhilarating.

     Stiles made a frustrated sound that he attempted to cover up with a neutral expression. “I think, as senior VP, you’re probably underestimating the amount of clout you have just a tad.”

     “Maybe I don’t think you’re ready for a promotion yet,” Derek returned. “At the very least, you could try a bit harder to get here before me in the mornings. What’s the point of having an assistant if I have to pick up all my own messages before you waltz in?”

     “The only way I’d make it to the office before you every day is if I started staying here overnight,” Stiles all but sing-songed. Despite the jokey tone, there was a hard edge to his voice that made Derek regret starting the conversation at all. When Derek looked back at this later, he knew this was the point at which he’d realize one of them was no longer playing, and it wasn’t the person he’d have expected. “Don’t think I don’t know you have three spare suits hiding in your closet. When’s the last time you slept in your own bed? Since practically never ago, that’s when. Frankly, I don’t even think you sleep. So I make up for it with coffee and stories about the world outside your window.”

     “Cold coffee.”

     “Yeah, well, just be thankful I don’t spit in it, dude. Even that’s more than you deserve some days.”

     “Don’t call me dude,” Derek answered automatically, fists clenching. Stiles knew how much he hated that in particular, which meant he was purposely trying to piss him off. “And ask me again why you don’t have a permanent job.”

     Narrowing his eyes, Stiles grunted and then made for the door. He threw a saucy look over his shoulder, the effect of which was only slightly mitigated by his stupid Buddy Holly glasses. “It’s because my boss is a”—Derek started to stand up from behind his desk, threateningly, looking for just one reason to throw down the gauntlet—“really awesome person,” Stiles finished. He opened the door and slipped back out to the main part of the office, slamming it just slightly too hard behind him.

     Derek stared after him for a few seconds before he let out a strangled sigh, sat back down, and dropped his head into his hands to massage his temples. When he looked up again, through the glass that divided his office from the rest of the floor, he could see Stiles furiously texting someone from his desk with an angry look on his face. A moment later, Derek’s cell phone pinged with a message. Sure enough, it was from his sister.

     Stop being a dick to Stiles, said Laura, and Derek scowled, wondering what was his life that he was routinely ganged up on by his boss/sister and his fucking intern.

     He considered calling Stiles back to apologize, then thought better of it. Senior VPs didn’t apologize to the help just because they were in a snit, and Derek had far better things to do. Like addressing the towering pile of work on his desk, which he had indeed spent the night at the office trying to catch up on. Quarterly reports were due next week and shit was about to hit the fan. Derek had a tendency to sequester himself when important deadlines came due or he was particularly stressed out about something. It was sometimes a problem. He knew that. Like how he may or may not have forgotten to call home to say he was pulling an all-nighter, but that was beside the point. Derek worked his ass off for this company. A little understanding would on occasion, be nice.

 


 

     By the time the sun had started to set, much later in the day, the stack of papers on Derek’s desk had barely shrunk. He was debating, like he did every night, whether it was worth slogging on and trying to get a bit more done, or if he should pack up and head home like all the other sane people in the office. People who, unlike him, knew how to prioritize their families and loved ones, who knew how to keep work separate from the rest of their lives.

     Derek could barely remember what it was like not to be married to his job. It probably explained why his personal life was in such a shambles, but he didn’t know how to let go of one or the other enough to make a lasting change. He’d grown up watching his parents perfect the juggling act effortlessly, always having time for school plays and piano recitals; Laura seemed to have inherited this ability as well, but when it came to Derek, either his work suffered or he alienated everyone he cared about. No middle ground. His advisors and classmates at Stanford had always told him the only way to truly succeed in such a competitive business market was to cut personal ties and remove all distractions, but Derek was not, by definition, a lone wolf. He couldn’t imagine living his life without his family or his circle of friends, small as it was; without a boyfriend, who was far too tolerant of Derek’s temper, his uncommunicativeness. Too bad that’s the road he seemed to be heading down, though, because at this point even he wouldn’t have dated him. It was kind of miraculous he hadn’t been dumped already. As for his family, he was pretty sure the only reason they still put up with him was because they didn’t have a choice.

     There was a soft knock against the door. After waiting a perfunctory two seconds, Stiles opened it and stepped inside without waiting for an invitation to enter. Derek looked up with a not-unhappy sigh and set down his pen. They’d both been a bit on edge around each other since the morning’s conversation, which Derek wasn’t stupid enough to think was just playful, harmless banter. Stiles had walked away feeling pissed, and an angry Stiles was often a petty one. That was one of the less charming personality traits he shared with Derek that made peaceful coexistence particularly difficult some days. Who knew how many messages he’d “forgotten” to pass along by now?

     Derek braced himself for the cold shoulder, but Stiles gave him a small smile as he approached the desk. An olive branch, maybe. At least that’s what Derek hoped it was.

      “Heading out?” he asked.

     It was a bit of a pointless question, considering Stiles had his headphones around his neck and his bag over one shoulder, obviously ready to call it a day, but Derek nevertheless glanced at the clock on the wall. The little hand was precariously close to the nine o’clock mark, and he grimaced. Sometimes he forgot that sunset was a bad way to judge appropriate going-home times in early summer.

     “Christ, I didn’t realize how late it was,” he said, rubbing a hand over his face. “I’m surprised you’re still here, actually.” Just because Derek liked to bust Stiles’s balls about being punctual, didn’t mean he expected him to keep the same—often unreasonable—hours. When Stiles first started working at Hale Industries, he’d always made a point of hanging around the office until Derek was ready to go home. After a while, Derek told him not to bother, because really, this was self-inflicted. Only one of them should suffer.

     “I lost track of time, too,” Stiles said easily. “Got a bunch of work done on the database, though. I think you’ll be happy with how it’s shaping up.” At Derek’s nod, he inched a bit closer to the desk until he was close enough to reach out and trace the edge of the wood. “I maaaaay have been in a bad mood earlier,” he hedged, though his gaze was unflinching as he studied Derek’s face. “Sorry about that. Things have been a little tense at home lately. You know, with the boyfriend.”

     Derek couldn’t help the way he stiffened at this, but hated himself for it all the same. People talked about their significant others at work all the time. With Derek, no less. Scott from Accounting, who was good friends with Stiles, visited their floor often and loved to complain about his tumultuous relationship with the CEO’s daughter from one of Hale Industry’s biggest competitors. Somehow Derek always seemed to get sucked into those conversations if he so much as walked past Stiles’s desk when Scott was present, though his response was always to grunt and pretend he’d forgotten something important back in his office. A part of him wanted Stiles to be able to do that, to talk freely and openly about his personal life at work just like everyone else, but somehow Derek always wound up being a jerk about it, saying the wrong thing. Shutting Stiles down.

     “You know I don’t want you talking about that here,” he said, a bit harsher than intended, and there was no mistaking the way Stiles’s face closed off, how he physically withdrew a few steps from Derek’s desk. Or, more accurately, from Derek.

     “Right,” he said belatedly, and Derek wanted to kick himself. Half his conversations with Stiles made him wish they came with a built-in rewind button, and this was generally why he liked to avoid talking to people if at all possible. “Almost forgot. Stiles’s love life is a no-go zone at the office. And you’re the last person who wants to hear about my problems or the fact that my boyfriend’s barely been home in the last two weeks.”

     Derek grit his teeth and stared down at his hands. “I just don’t think it’s an appropriate choice of subject matter for the workplace. We’ve gone over this. It’s not that I don’t care about—about stuff that’s bothering you.” He almost said “your problems” and caught himself at the last minute, knowing that would’ve been a grievous error indeed.

     “Well, in my experience, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck…” Stiles trailed off and then shrugged. “Whatever, man. I was going to ask if you wanted to grab something to eat, but I think I’m just going to peace out.” He tilted his head back a little so he was looking at Derek from down his nose, glasses obscuring most of his face. That he needed corrective lenses at all was the result of too many years spent in front of a computer. Stiles hated having glasses, but Derek was actually immensely fond of them. He liked how the frames emphasized his boyish features and set off his dark eyes. Except, that is, when they made it almost impossible to read his expression, like now. But then again, Stiles did that on purpose. “You going home at any point yourself, bossman?”

     For a moment Derek thought about reassuring him, of saying, Yeah, just gonna finish up a bit here and then I’m outta here, too, but Stiles’s blank look stopped him, killed the words dead on his tongue. He was silent for several awkward seconds until he managed, “I have a lot of paperwork to get through still. Looks like another all-nighter for me.”

     The frown Stiles wore deepened and he opened his mouth to respond, but the moment was interrupted when Laura rapped her knuckles against the glass and her head popped around the doorframe a millisecond later. “Hey, little brother,” she greeted, quickly followed by a genuinely warm “Hi, Stiles!” before she focused back on Derek. “What are you still doing here?”

     “Lots of paperwork,” Stiles answered before Derek could, using a frightfully chipper voice. “Derek’s gonna stick around to make sure it all gets done, every bit of it. No rest for the wicked, huh?” He flashed a grin, the kind Derek knew made half the women and some of the men in the office melt. Stiles, for all he liked to deny it, was a charmer at heart. Anyone with a lick of sense would’ve known to keep him on a short leash, though Stiles himself seemed oblivious to the number of people who threw themselves at him on a regular basis. Maybe that hadn’t always been the case, but it was now. This boyfriend of his ought to be more careful, thought Derek, if things were really as rocky as Stiles said. In fact, if he was letting someone like Stiles go unappreciated, he was a giant fucking idiot.

     Laura’s eyes, a darker olive-green shade than Derek’s own, darted between him and Stiles for a second. “Ugh, you’re such a control freak, Der. Assign someone to help you already. I know the quarter is almost up and all, but there’s no need to try and shoulder everything yourself. Delegation is one of the perks of management.”

     Once again, Stiles cut Derek off before he could speak for himself, this time with a laugh that bordered on obnoxious. “You know how Derek is,” he sighed. “Never happy unless he’s burning the candle at both ends. It’s admirable, really. If only we could all be more like him.”

     “Uh, excuse me, but no.” Laura wrinkled her nose and shot Derek a look that was all playful, which could only mean she was about to insult him somehow. Eerily enough, Stiles always did the same thing, though that was probably only one in a long list of reasons why they got along so well. “I kind of enjoy living in a world where people still remember what fun is.”

     She reached out and moved the collar of Stiles’s cardigan aside so she could check out his shirt, and then proceeded to chuckle until she snorted quietly. That was pure Laura right there, made all the funnier by how she tried to pass herself off as ladylike in her smart pantsuits and $800 heels. In spite of himself, Derek smiled, then ducked his head to hide it, especially when Laura kissed Stiles on the cheek.

     “That’s cute,” she said, and held out her arm to Stiles. “Why don’t you walk me home? It’s too nice out to take a cab.” Eyeing Derek again, she asked, “Are you sure you’re staying?”

     He nodded. “I’m sure. See you both tomorrow.” To Stiles he offered a weak smile and said, “Department meeting first thing. Try to wear something that doesn’t reference strippers or single moms, okay? Or the orgasm donor T-shirt. Dad actually called from California to give me shit when he heard about that one.” At this, Laura burst out laughing. “And for fuck’s sake be on time.”

     “Yessir.” Stiles gave a sarcastic salute and was halfway out the door before Derek could even tell him to get home safely, feeling cowed enough by their earlier conversation to want to make up for it under the wire, apologize without apologizing. But he lost his chance, and Laura let herself be dragged away with a significant look in Derek’s direction that said, You and me are talking about this tomorrow whether you like it or not. He couldn’t be sure what that might entail, though he had a pretty good idea.

     He sighed and looked back at the report in front of him, but it was quite a while before his mind settled enough for him to get any work done.

 


 

     Derek woke up to a not-insignificant weight on his chest and the tantalizing scent of coffee being waved under his nose. Sometime before dawn, he’d dragged a spare blanket and pillow out of the closet and went to sleep on the couch, hoping to score a couple hours’ rest before morning, but a quick look out the window showed him the sun was already good and risen. As he jackknifed into an upright position, Stiles yelped and grabbed the back of the sofa before he could be dumped onto the floor. He’d been sitting sideways on Derek like he was no better than one of the couch cushions, the little shit.

     “Fuck—Stiles!” he snapped, using his temper to try to cover the instinctual jolt of alarm. Derek frantically glanced towards his office’s glass partition and let out a relieved sigh when he saw that someone—Stiles, most likely—had had the courtesy to close the blinds so no one could see inside. He had no doubt a picture of himself passed out on the couch in nothing but a T-shirt and boxers would’ve wound up on Facebook in seconds. A quick glance at his watch showed him it was already almost eight o’clock, and he grimaced. He hadn’t meant to sleep so late. By now, people would be filing in, ready to start the day.

     “Good morning,” Stiles said once he’d managed to steady himself, resting far too comfortably on Derek’s torso. He had kind of a skinny ass and his sit bones dug into Derek’s stomach. In an uncharacteristically sombre voice, he said, “So I see you did spend the night here,” and idly fingered the edge of the blanket.

     Derek had no idea what that meant or why it was supposed to be important. Sometimes Stiles could be cryptic as fuck, enough to give Derek a run for his money, at any rate. Fighting off a yawn, he retorted only with, “Get off me. You weigh a ton.”

     “147 pounds is not a ton. You can bench almost twice that,” Stiles countered, pushing his glasses up his nose, but then he shrugged and hopped off. While Derek was rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, Stiles settled himself into the far corner of the sofa so that Derek’s feet rested against his thigh. He handed over Derek’s coffee, the Ziploc bag containing his still-warm breakfast sandwich wrapped in a paper towel, and a small stack of handwritten phone messages that suggested Stiles had arrived at the office earlier than normal. Derek wondered how long he’d been there watching him sleep. The thought didn’t make him uncomfortable.

     Miraculously, Stiles was wearing a pale pink button-down shirt that hugged his broad shoulders and looked pretty sharp with his pinstriped trousers. It was a little big on him everywhere else, and he still wasn’t wearing a tie, but beggars couldn’t be choosers.

     “Whose closet did we raid?” teased Derek, arching an eyebrow. It was difficult to summon the right level of sarcasm two minutes after waking up, but he had more or less learned from the master.

     Stiles responded with a cheerful “Fuck off,” and then asked, “Get all your work done?”

     “Made a pretty sizeable dent, yeah. I might actually get everything finished on time.” Derek took a sip of the coffee, sighed gratefully, and said, “Christ, that’s good. Thanks.” Normally he drank his coffee black, except when he was stressed or otherwise in the mood to relax his policy on suppressing his sweet tooth, in which case he took liberal amounts of both cream and vanilla syrup. It was girly as fuck, and Stiles hadn’t skimped on either. “See anyone interesting at Starbucks today?”

     For some reason that made Stiles laugh, face guileless and open in a way that made Derek ache with pleasure, and he smiled at Derek fondly. His fingers brushed Derek’s exposed foot. “Sometimes I forget that you’re a lot less of a dick first thing in the morning.”

     Derek’s immediate instinct was to push his foot more firmly against Stiles’s hand, welcoming the touch in spite of himself, but instead he pulled away. “Kind of like I sometimes forget you aren’t a total brat all the time,” he shot back, lips twitching behind the coffee cup.

     “Why do I get the feeling that, even when I’m sixty, you’ll still be reminding me I was once a little kid who used to follow you around everywhere?”

     They gazed at each other in silence until the buzzing of Derek’s Blackberry on his desk broke the moment. That was the trouble with work—there was always something to be done or something trying to get his attention, and it always seemed to run away on him before he was in a position to catch up. He sighed and then started to get up off the couch, a little reluctant since he had to admit the easy camaraderie with Stiles was a nice change. It’d been awhile since he’d felt that, and it bugged Derek that he couldn’t remember the last time they’d been so relaxed around each other, when every conversation didn’t hold a double meaning or poorly concealed hurt.

     The blanket pooled on the floor at his feet. Setting down his coffee and breakfast on an end table, Derek proceeded to stretch out his arms, neck, and shoulders while Stiles looked on in contemplative silence. “Want me to grab you a change of clothes?” he asked after a moment, voice suddenly husky.

     Derek glanced at him from over his shoulder. “You my personal valet now?”

     Stiles gave an annoyed grunt accompanied by an exaggerated eye roll. “Do you want the fucking suit or not?”

     Derek chuckled. “Fine, knock yourself out. Either the navy or the grey one. I’ve only got brown shoes with me.”

     He heard Stiles’s darkly muttered “Fashionista much?” as he approached the closet where Derek kept his change of clothes; or changes, plural, since he’d kind of been doing this a lot lately. “I doubt anyone would notice if you wore brown shoes and a black suit,” Stiles said more clearly.

     “I’d notice,” Derek answered, though Stiles probably had a point. Still, he thought dressing the part was important. It helped mitigate the sense of paranoia he sometimes felt that employees and competitors alike saw him as nothing more than the boss’s entitled son—a spoiled brat, a fraud despite his Stanford MBA. As a general policy, Derek liked to never give anyone a reason to find fault if he could help it, and in the corporate world at least, looking smart was part of it. Sometimes he didn’t know whether he wanted to strangle Stiles or congratulate him for refusing to kowtow to the norm. Derek, however, did, and not-so-secretly appreciated the confident aesthetic of a good suit, the power and traditionality of it. As such, he made sure he had a couple extra hidden away just in case, along with one package each of fresh T-shirts and boxer briefs in the bottom drawer of his desk. For emergencies. Having to wear the same underwear two days in a row counted as one in Derek’s eyes.

     From the way he caught Stiles watching him with a furrowed brow, Derek guessed he hadn’t known about the extra stash of clothing beyond the suits and shirts in the closet. “It’s almost like you’ve moved in permanently,” Stiles commented.

     Derek shot him a warning look. So much for easy conversation. “Don’t start on that again.”

     A shrug. “Just saying.”

     “No, you weren’t.”

     Huffing, Stiles pulled out the charcoal suit and a matching white button-down, plus an olive-green tie that hung inside the closet door. Derek was stripping off yesterday’s undershirt when Stiles walked back across the room and draped the clothes over the back of one of the chairs in front of Derek’s desk.

     Derek lost sight of him for a moment as he pulled his shirt over his head, but then went very, very still when he felt a light touch to his bare stomach. It became less tentative as Stiles stepped in close and settled his warm, large palm against Derek’s skin, fingertips ever so lightly stroking the dusting of hair on his belly. It took a few moments for Derek to shake himself out of his surprise, but then he wrenched the T-shirt off completely and stared at Stiles—no longer possible to look down at him, not for a long time now—who gazed back easily. Fuck, his glasses brought even more attention to his eyes than usual, making it nearly impossible for Derek to look away from the fascinating gold-amber-whiskey-caramel-brown irises, the colour as enigmatic and changeable as Stiles himself. His lashes were so thick his bottom lids looked kohl rimmed. Actually, “impossible” was a lie, because Derek’s gaze was equally drawn to Stiles’s plump, pink mouth, open on a promise. When Stiles looked at him like that, Derek felt like the most powerless man in the world.

     Stiles’s expression, meanwhile, was a mixture of everything from pleading to cheeky, but what he didn’t appear to be was conflicted. In fact, Stiles looked very, very sure of himself, dangerously so. The heat of his hand wrenched a shiver out of Derek. Without quite meaning to, he took a step forward, even as he said, “What are you—”

     “What does it look like?” said Stiles with a challenging arch to his eyebrow.

     He bit his lip, and Derek was defeated. Immediately he wanted to fall to his knees, wanted to push up the hem of Stiles’s shirt and bury his face in the perfect curve of his waist, wanted to suck a mark onto that pale skin to mark his claim, even if no one else saw it. The way Stiles smiled at him said, Go on, tell me you don’t want it, too. I dare you. The hand moved up until it rested over Derek’s heart, and then Stiles moved closer so their chests were pressed together.

     “Stiles—” Derek croaked.

     “I know, just think of how wrong it would be,” he murmured, gaze flickering playfully, excitedly, between Derek’s eyes and his mouth. ”What would the rest of the office say? Someone could walk in here at any time; see me on my knees for you.”

     Derek hissed out a breath. Improbably, he was already half-hard. Without meaning to, even though he realized, belatedly, how it must look, he darted his tongue out to wet his lips and felt his stability waver when Stiles bit down on his own, looking Derek dead in the eye as he did so. Fuck.

     A wicked smirk flashed across Stiles’s face before he sank to his knees. It took Derek a moment to process what was happening, and he jumped at the heat of Stiles’s hands on his thighs as he slithered down Derek’s body. Whatever reprimand Derek thought to voice died on his tongue and emerged as a quiet moan instead when Stiles leaned in to nuzzle against the place where Derek’s thigh met his groin; then, more boldly, against his crotch. Stiles’s gaze remained fixed on his even as he opened his mouth against the growing bulge in Derek’s boxers, tongue flicking out to tease him through the fabric. Really, it was so much damning proof of how badly Derek wanted this that Stiles didn’t even need to try to persuade him, the hot pressure of his lips effectively silencing any protest Derek could’ve made.

     He was panting slightly as he pulled back, and when Derek settled a hand upon his head and stroked his fingers through his hair, Stiles leaned into the touch, blinking slowly behind the lenses of his glasses. “It’s been way too long since we’ve done this,” he murmured in a rough voice, and Derek shivered to see he wasn’t the only one wearing his need like a mantle. Stiles’s expression took on an unexpectedly vulnerable cast as he asked, “Do you still want me? Do you want me like I want you?”

     It didn’t matter that he had his mouth a scant inch away from Derek’s dick; at the question and the undeniable hopefulness in Stiles’s face, all Derek wanted was his kiss, and he hauled Stiles back up to his feet in order to get it. The brush of cotton against his bare chest made Derek shiver, but then Stiles’s lips were sliding hotly against his, mouth open and ready, hands flying to Derek’s face to cup his jaw.

     Once encouraged, Stiles attacked Derek’s mouth almost violently, but Derek was smart enough to read it as gratitude, as relief screaming out of him in the way Stiles melted into his embrace, spine arching like his whole body was a dowsing rod calibrated to Derek’s touch alone. Hands finding their way to Stiles’s hips of their own accord, Derek happily held him as close as he could get, unable to prevent the needy whimper that escaped him at the perfect searing softness of those lips, the confident thrust of tongue and nip of teeth.

     Somehow Stiles got them turned around until he was pushing Derek back towards the couch, their feet bumping together and threatening to become tangled, but then Derek’s calves hit the sofa and he was forced to sit down or fall down. Stiles was in his lap instantly, still kissing him, but now his hands were buried in Derek’s hair and tugging. A tiny kitten growl reverberated in his throat when Derek dragged his fingers up Stiles’s spine through the shirt and dug them into his shoulder blades.

     The office phone started to ring as Stiles pulled away and reattached his mouth to Derek’s earlobe, which he bit down upon like a warning in case Derek should even think about answering it. Instead he moaned as Stiles traced the whorls of his ear with his tongue, breath loud and hot enough to make him shudder, and then the kisses traveled south so that Stiles could lavish attention on his throat, scraping Derek’s stubble with his teeth and pushing the rims of his glasses into the tender skin beneath his jaw . Their hips moved together in unison, Derek rocking up and Stiles grinding down, desperation borne of too much absence, and Stiles harshed out an indecipherable “please” before he crushed their lips back together. Derek just clutched him tighter, wrapping his arms around Stiles’s waist, and tried to hide his groan in the other man’s mouth.

     Abruptly, because that’s how these things always went, there was a knock at the door and then Laura’s voice saying, “Derek? Are in you there?” The doorknob rattled; Stiles had had the foresight to lock it when he’d first come into the office, but Derek nevertheless jumped at the noise like someone had tasered him.

     They jerked away from each other at the same time, staring at each other with wide eyes, but where Derek imagined his face was alarmed, panicked, Stiles looked only pleading. “Don’t answer,” he whispered fiercely, touching his forehead to Derek’s. “If you don’t say anything, she’ll assume you’re not here and go away. You don’t have to answer.”

     “Don’t have to—?” Trailing off incredulously, Derek shook his head and tried to ignore Stiles’s gutted expression, the clench of his fingers into Derek’s skin. In a sharp whisper, he said, “Jesus, what’s gotten into you? This is my place of work, Stiles. Yours, too. For fuck’s sake, I can’t just ignore my boss even if she is my sister.” He attempted to push him off, but Stiles wouldn’t budge, clinging to Derek with stubborn octopus limbs. “We shouldn’t be doing this. It’s not right.”

     Derek stood up, lifting Stiles with him like an oversized koala bear. Without proper support, Stiles was forced to loosen his legs from around Derek’s waist and drop his feet to the floor. He would’ve stumbled if not for Derek’s arms about his torso, but as soon as he had his balance he shoved hard against Derek’s chest, almost sending him toppling back onto the sofa again.

     “You know what?” he hissed. “Screw you. Just… screw you.”

     Unable to stop himself, Derek took a step back. With his hair in total disarray and his glasses knocked askew on his face, Stiles looked like a debauched fratboy. It might’ve been almost comical, but he was angrier than Derek had ever seen him. Usually Derek was the guy everyone expected to fly off the handle at the smallest provocation, not Stiles. That shocked him enough to want to put distance between them, even though he wasn’t entirely sure what he’d done to deserve so much outrage, the force of it all but twisting Stiles’s expression and seeming to darken his eyes to the colour of pitch. He could feel like an enigma to Derek at the best of times, but right now he honestly didn’t have the first idea what Stiles might do.

     “That’s kind of uncalled for,” he said, voice as steady as he could make it, trying to sound commanding without raising it above a whisper. “What did I say that isn’t true?”

     Laura knocked again before either of them could get another word out. “Derek, seriously, would you open the freaking door? I can hear you idiots whispering.”

     Scowling impressively to match the deep flush that had spread upwards from his jaw, Stiles threw one last, baleful look at Derek and marched towards the door. He threw it open almost hard enough to make it bang against the opposite wall, then dodged past Laura without pausing to say hello or acknowledge the startled expression on her face. Laura stared after him for a second, speechless, but luckily was possessed of reflexes quick enough to hurry into Derek’s office and shut the door behind herself when she saw Derek standing there in nothing but his boxers. By then his erection had wilted to the point where he didn’t give another thought to whether he might potentially embarrass himself in front of his sister.

     “What the hell is going on?” Laura demanded. She gestured expansively, encompassing Derek, his office, and the now-absent Stiles in a dramatic fashion reminiscent of Stiles himself. “I was going to ask why the fuck you weren’t picking up your phone, but now I’m kind of more interested in what you were doing in here with Stiles that didn’t involve any clothing. And more importantly, why he left here looking like his next move will be to set your effigy on fire in the lobby.”

     Derek made a noise that was halfway between a sigh and a strangled grunt, dragging his hands through his hair. The action was so demonstrative of his stress level that Laura’s face softened into a look of genuine concern. She crossed the remaining few feet between them and laid a hand on Derek’s shoulder.

     “You can use your words, brother mine,” she coaxed. “I believe in you.”

     He knew the lighthearted tone was an attempt to get him to open up, but Derek rolled his eyes and gently shrugged her hand off. “Fuck off,” he answered gruffly. “I slept here overnight. Nothing’s going on.” He gestured at the suit Stiles had laid out for him. “I’m not wearing any clothes because I was trying to change when you barged in here.”

     A distinctly disbelieving look crossed Laura’s face, though she held up her hands placatingly and took a step back. “Okay, dickwad,” she said, sounding all of twelve years old and like a disapproving older sister at the same time, “I didn’t barge in anywhere; Stiles was the one who stormed out. And since when do you need his help getting dressed? Furthermore, that doesn’t explain what he was pissed off about.”

     “We just had a disagreement.”

     Laura persisted. “About what?”

     “Nothing important.” Hoping to distract himself—and his sister—Derek grabbed fresh boxers and an undershirt from the packages on his desk, then turned his back as he started to change. He didn’t have any qualms about being briefly naked around her—they had a big family, and despite the size of their childhood home, privacy had been pretty relative growing up—though he knew Laura would politely turn away as he exchanged his day-old underwear for a new pair and slipped the white T-shirt over his head. It bought him enough time to steady his voice as he lied, “Stiles asked again about when we planned to hire him permanently, and I told him I didn’t have a clue.”

     When he turned back around and started putting on his suit, he saw that Laura was biting her lip and fiddling with her Tag Heuer watch as she stared off through the window of his office. She frowned. “That doesn’t make any sense. He and I talked about it on the way home last night and he said he understood the reasons for the delay.”

     Derek leveled her with a look. “Stiles thinks the sun shines out of your ass, Laur. He loves you. Of course he wouldn’t get mad at you over a thing like that.” It was a little absurd to be having this argument over a lie, but even hypothetically, Derek knew it was true. Stiles gave him way more shit than Laura, always had. For a while, Derek had assumed it was the real-world equivalent of throwing rocks at the boy you liked on the playground, but lately Stiles’s attitude had been far less oblique. To be fair, Derek had given him more than enough reasons to be genuinely cross, not that he’d ever admit that to Laura, who had a history of trying to play armchair psychologist in her spare time.

     The creases in her brow only deepened and she met Derek’s eyes, honest confusion in her gaze. “What the fuck are you smoking, Derek? Stiles loves you, too. Do I have to remind you that you’re the one he—”

     “Stiles hasn’t been too fond of me lately,” interrupted Derek as he slipped his arms into his dress shirt and then started to button it up. “Things have been a bit tense, but it’ll pass.” That was probably the biggest lie he’d told this decade.

     “It’s been tense because you’ve been giving Stiles a hard time ever since he started working here. You seem to need to prove to everyone you aren’t playing favourites or something. Like anyone could accuse you of going too easy on him, or that Stiles doesn’t bust his ass in the first place.” Though her tone was patient, Laura folded her arms at him and shook her head. “Maybe you should worry less about the office rumour mill and more about not pissing off the guy whose opinion of you actually matters. Although I gotta say, locking yourself in your office with him isn’t exactly the way to stay off the radar.”

     Derek looked up from buttoning his cuffs and pressed his mouth into a hard line. “Did you seriously just come in here to lecture me, or does this visit have a point?” he snapped, wanting desperately to be finished with this conversation.

     With an exaggerated roll of her eyes, Laura turned on the wicked point of her snakeskin Louboutins and sauntered back towards the door. “Jesus, and you accuse Stiles of being a brat,” she said calmly. “No, I just came in here to give you a heads-up that Uncle Peter has a meeting with the CEO of Argent Inc. this morning, and since he still doesn’t have a new assistant of his own yet, he’s asked for Stiles to sit in to take notes. Just because you’re such a dick, I’m going to let you be the one to pass along that particular bit of good news. So have fun with that.”

     She walked out without waiting to hear Derek’s response, and as such missed his exasperated sigh. Stiles got along with pretty much everyone, but for some reason he hated Peter Hale with the fury of a thousand suns. Derek had never found out what the story was behind that, though he was the first to admit there was something of the creepy uncle type about Peter; they’d had words more than enough times over the way he sometimes looked at Stiles, the way he praised the young man’s talents a bit too effusively, and as a general rule everyone knew to keep them as separate as possible. The problem was, Peter was still Derek’s superior. He could try to talk him into borrowing someone else’s assistant for what was likely to be a tense meeting between him and Chris Argent, but Peter was bound to refuse, and Stiles would probably look at this as a spiteful move on Derek’s part for turning him away.

     It was a win-win situation, really. No way any of this would come back to bite Derek in the ass later, none at all.

 


 

     Derek knew he could be a coward sometimes, knew it as sure as he needed to work on his diplomacy and making his sense of humour less biting, or curbing his tendency to let his temper get the better of him, but he wasn’t really sure how badly he’d fucked up until Laura came storming into his office much later that afternoon. She slammed his door closed with so much force that he saw half the office jump in response through the glass divider. Almost like a reflex, he glanced in the direction of Stiles’s desk and saw it was still empty, as it had been for most of the day.

     “What the fuck did you do?” she demanded in introduction, hands planted on her hips. There was so much outrage in her face that Derek didn’t think for a moment she was messing around. “I just got off the phone with the fucking HR manager at fucking Argent asking me to fax over a reference for Stiles, so you had better fucking tell me, right now, what the fuck you did, or I swear to God I will beat the living shit out of you, little brother or not.”

     For several long moments, Derek could only stare back at her in shocked silence. He was aware his eyes had gone wide and his eyebrows were probably several inches higher than they’d been a minute ago, but he couldn’t formulate a response as his mind raced and raced.

     “What are you talking about?” was the very succinct answer he eventually managed to scrape together.

     In the space of a blink, or at least that’s what it felt like, Laura had crossed the office and was leaning over Derek’s desk with her hands braced a couple feet apart, elbows locked and nails all but digging into the wood. Not for the first time, Derek considered what an intimidating presence Laura could be. Her eyes were a furious shade of green like they only got when she was holding in unshed tears, and sure enough her lower lids were blurry with moisture.

     “They’ve been trying to steal him from under our feet for since day one, Derek,” she said, in the kind of tone one might use on a small child, “but if they’re asking for a reference, that means—”

     “—he’s already applied for a job,” he finished in a horrified whisper.

     Laura’s lips twisted into a smirk that looked not at all satisfied. “Got it in one. So again, I repeat: tell me what the fuck you did. Because if Stiles is looking to quit, there’s only one person who could’ve driven him to it. And that person is you.”

     God, where did he even start? Was it the incredible gong show that’d driven Stiles out of his office this morning? Or the fact that Derek had chosen to inform him of the impending meeting with Peter in an impersonal email? Or any of the other million fuck-ups he’d made in the past two months since Stiles started working here? Take your pick, he thought, knowing Laura was absolutely correct in her assessment of the situation. If Stiles had a reason to jump ship and go work for their biggest competitor, it wasn’t because he didn’t like the lack of pay or thought the coffee in the staff lounge was shit; it was because Derek was an awful boss and a horrible person who’d failed at making Stiles feel respected and important. As an employee. As anything. The painful thing was, all Derek could think was why Stiles hadn’t done it sooner.

     “I didn’t know,” he said at last, voice breaking a little.

     One of Laura’s hands covered Derek’s where it rested on top of the desk blotter. “Why didn’t you tell me things have gotten this bad? I would’ve… talked to him or something.”

     “It wouldn’t have helped.” Derek made a frustrated sound, knowing perfectly well that if anyone should’ve talked to Stiles prior to this, it was him. He thought of how Stiles had stolen a dress shirt in an attempt to impress him this morning, how he’d brought Derek coffee and tried to sneak it past him that he’d made Derek’s breakfast, too, both this and every morning, like Derek couldn’t tell the difference between homemade and store-bought. All of that was stuff people did only when they were trying to tell someone they cared, when words weren’t cutting it. And then Derek had practically gone and kicked Stiles out of his office after he tried to show that affection in a different way. It wouldn’t have been the first time they’d fucked over Derek’s desk, far from it, but Derek had pushed him away like an unwanted suitor. Right then, he couldn’t, for the life of him, remember why he’d done that.

     Derek started to pull his cell phone out of his pants pocket, but then thought better of it; Stiles wouldn’t answer his call. Hell, he’d probably be offended if Derek even tried.

     “Where is he?” he asked instead.

     “Do you really think that’s a good idea?”

     “What?”

     “Going to talk to him.” Biting her lip, Laura withdrew her hand and promptly stuffed it into the pocket of her suit jacket, looking awkward and unsure. It was reassuring, in a way, that she didn’t know what to do here either. Although if Derek had told her the half of it, she’d probably be more inclined to give him a piece of her mind than stand around acting uncomfortable. “Derek, I’m not sure he’ll want to speak to you right now,” she pointed out gently.

     “Do you think I’m interested in giving him a choice?” Derek shot back, anger coming out of nowhere. It wasn’t directed at Laura or Stiles, but it overwhelmed him so quickly he couldn’t curb it in time.

     His little outburst drew a scowl out of Laura. “Okay, well, that’s assuming he’s still in the building, which I highly doubt. He probably knew I’d hear from Argent today. I’d have hightailed it home, if I were him.”

     Except that Stiles wasn’t Laura and Laura wasn’t Stiles. He wouldn’t go anywhere Derek might easily find him. The thing was, Stiles wasn’t as opaque as he liked to think, and Derek paid better attention than people gave him credit for. He knew right away where Stiles would’ve gone, if not home. Of course, maybe Laura was right and he’d disappeared himself to someplace else entirely; Manhattan was a big fucking place. But Derek was willing to bet Stiles was still in the office, because Stiles didn’t typically run away from his problems unless he was playing at trying to be caught.

     “I’ll find him,” Derek promised her grimly. “Just let me handle this.”

     “You’d fucking better,” warned Laura, stepping back as Derek came around the desk. “Make this right, Derek. I am not losing Stiles to Chris fucking Argent because my brother’s a miserable bastard who doesn’t know how to appreciate a good thing. So whatever you’ve done, fix it.”

 


 

     Derek took the elevator down a few floors to where the Hale Industries library made its home, a surprisingly sprawling collection of old client records, microfiche, business archives, newspaper clippings, and whatever else the company’s librarians had faithfully curated until now. Although Hale Industries had been in existence for generations, founded as Hale & Sons by Derek’s great-great-great-great grandfather, he didn’t have the slightest idea how they could have enough to fill a dedicated library, much less one that took up half a floor. When posed with the question, Stiles had balefully admitted a significant chunk of the collection consisted of crap that had been tossed into the archives for want of anyplace better to put it, a corporate junk drawer. Maybe Derek was just imagining it, but he always thought he saw a predatory glint enter Stiles’s eyes whenever he talked about how much of the collection he would cull if he had free rein. Since it was usually followed by a detailed rundown of all the space it would liberate for a staff gaming lounge, Derek usually zoned out by then.

     Whether or not Stiles realized it, however, he pretty much already had the run of the place. He didn’t officially possess the title of “senior librarian,” but it was close, and most days he did as he pleased. It was a measure of Mrs. Ramirez’s acceptance of Stiles that she’d been taking more and more time off in preparation for her retirement, meaning the department was, more often than not, completely empty but for Stiles or the occasional intern—well, interns other than Stiles—they hired to keep up with reshelving.

     Sure enough, the library was quiet and softly dark when Derek pushed open the glass doors leading into the stacks. He gently called, “Stiles?” but received no answer, pretty much as expected. Frankly, it was more significant that he didn’t hear anyone else respond either. Just to be sure, Derek locked the doors behind him, then wandered through to the back, heading for the break room. This, like most other departments at Hale Industries, had its own private lounge where staff could retreat for a breather without trudging downstairs to the cafeteria.

     But the library break room was special because, quite simply, no one except Stiles would be caught dead using it. Windowless, sterile white, and often used as a secondary storage room for boxed-up cleaning supplies and spare metal bookends, it was the one room in the entire office that seemed to have escaped the notice of the company’s interior decorator. (Stiles, keen to bridge the gap, had thrown up Batman movie posters, a single hydrangea plant he was forever forgetting to water, and a Nerf dartboard.) The broken microwave and stiff-backed couch further discouraged all comers. Derek and Stiles had fooled around in there a few times, and while Derek had been at first wary of interruptions, Stiles had waved his concerns away with a bland “Seriously, no one knows this place exists. Everyone assumes it’s a janitor’s closet.” More importantly, Mrs. Ramirez and Stiles were the only two people who had a key. And Derek, of course. Because Derek was the boss.

     If he knew Stiles at all, this was where he’d have gone. Derek was almost 100 percent sure he would find Stiles stewing in there by himself when he opened the door, except that when he jammed his key in the lock and tried the handle, the door only opened a scant quarter inch and refused to go any farther.

     “Stiles, what the hell?” he demanded, giving the door another impatient but ultimately fruitless shove. When he tried to peer through the gap, he could only glimpse the edge of the sofa. Stiles had probably shoved a chair up under the doorknob. Expecting Derek to find him, but unwilling to make it easy. “I know you’re in there.”

     “Fuck off,” came the terse reply.

     Derek caught himself grinding his molars together until his face began to ache. Stiles was going to drive him to a mouth guard or, worse, getting his fucking jaw wired. “You know I’m not going to do that.”

     “Yeah, considerate as always. You’d put a Neanderthal to shame.” There was a thump as something hit the door—a thrown shoe, from the sound of it, and Stiles wasn’t deranged enough to go destroying company property—and then he added, “I don’t fucking want to talk to you, Derek, so just go back to your paperwork or wherever. Or die in a fire, I don’t give a shit.” There was a derisive laugh. “Oh, I forgot. That’s Mr. Hale to you.”

     “Can you stop acting like an infant? I’m not having this conversation with you through a closed door.”

     “Well, you got one thing right at least; we’re not having this conversation at all.”

     Resisting the urge to growl, although Stiles sometimes made it really, really goddamned difficult not to act like a complete barbarian, Derek gritted out, “Stiles!”

     “Derek?”

     “Unblock. The. Door.”

     Another thump; Stiles threw the other shoe. “Oh my God, did I stutter the first time I said it? NO.”

     Derek’s face had heated up to the point where he was sure his cheeks were bright red, and he took a step back to stare blankly at the offending door. He was going to break it down, he realized. That was going to happen. Stiles wouldn’t come out and Derek needed to get in, and there was no way the two of them would end up in a room together unless Derek took matters into his own hands. Which apparently involved kicking in a door in the office where he worked. On account of a man he probably shouldn’t be sleeping with, if anyone here had anything to say about it, because Stiles was sunshine and flowers and Derek was just… Derek. Scowly old bossman Derek who smiled only once a century and had a hard time making polite conversation at the office Christmas party.

     Fuck, security was going to have such a good time with this when it came up on the feed.

     Of course, Derek could just let all this go and walk away. That was an option, too. Just not one he was ready to consider. Obviously he’d let things go long enough already if this was the point they were at, sniping at each other through a door Stiles had barricaded himself behind like Derek was someone to hide from.

     Bile rose in Derek’s throat at the thought, sour-tasting the way the truth so often was. He would never think of doing something to hurt another person, except out of self-defense or to protect a loved one. The idea of deliberately harming someone he cared about, much less Stiles, was ludicrous, but Derek had only ever tried to avoid hurting him in the past and usually wound up achieving just the opposite. There was no disputing that fact, really, not with Stiles shouting at him to go away, to leave him alone. The odds that Stiles actually thought he had to protect himself from Derek were low, but when forced into this position, Derek found himself slipping into an aggressive role against his better judgement, backed into a corner and seeing no other option.

     “I’m coming in,” he warned.

     A sharp bark of laughter trailed off into a snort. “Yeah, good luck with that,” Stiles retorted. “Should I stand back or something?”

     Derek had never kicked a door down in his life, and even as he stepped back to give himself room, he wasn’t entirely sure it would work. It always looked easy in movies, but this wasn’t a fucking movie, and while Derek worked out regularly and was something of a kickboxing devotee, he certainly did not have super strength. He was either about to seriously injure himself, destroy company property, or end up looking like a complete tool. Or all the above.

     The thought occurred to him to take off his suit jacket and tie, give himself some room to move, so Derek did that. He draped the discarded jacket over the back of a nearby chair, then rolled up his shirtsleeves. The cool rush of air conditioning over the exposed skin of his throat and forearms made him realize he was already sweating, and he hadn’t even done anything yet. But there was no time like the present. Taking a deep breath, he clenched his fists, lined himself up with his right foot slightly forward, and then delivered a sharp, powerful front kick, aiming the strike with the heel of his foot to just below the doorknob.

     He expected two things to happen: first, that he’d experience a debilitating shock of pain upon impact, and second, the door would remain closed. Derek was the most surprised of anyone when not only did the kick not cripple him, but the door burst open to the sound of splintering wood. The momentum carried him forward unexpectedly, tripping him up, and he probably would’ve overbalanced or run into the opposite wall of the lounge if Stiles hadn’t been there to catch him. That he did actually catch Derek was itself surprising, but Stiles was like that; he’d probably jumped up off the couch to steady him without meaning to, and from the way Stiles scowled a half-second later and shoved Derek away, that was almost certainly what’d happened.

     Derek brushed himself off and took a quick glance around the room, noticing right away the shattered wooden chair that lay upon the ground. It was of flimsy construction, part of the crappy dining set someone had installed in the library lounge a million years ago, and obviously that’s what Stiles had used to prop the door closed before Derek kicked it in. There were still three chairs left, but Derek immediately felt ashamed of himself for having wrecked a perfectly good piece of furniture in a fit of rage, and even angrier at Stiles for having goaded him to that point in the first place.

     “I can’t believe you just did that,” Stiles said, all wide-eyed innocence that Derek didn’t buy for a second, though he seemed genuinely surprised as he glanced between Derek and the broken chair. “You’re such—you’re such a bad employee.”

     As if his bullshit threshold wasn’t practically nonexistent at the best of times, Stiles’s glibness made Derek glower, eyebrows scrunching together. He reached out to grasp the edge of the still-open door and slammed it closed. The lock and doorjamb were still busted, but Derek immediately felt better for having some semblance of privacy, even with the library otherwise dark and empty. When he turned back, Stiles was watching him with an air of caution, though a part of Derek was relieved to see it was wariness and nothing more; not fear. In fact, he thought he detected a bit of smugness just beneath. Angry and bristling, yes, but no less satisfied for all that. But then, Stiles had never reacted to Derek’s temper in a normal way. He very much enjoyed pissing Derek off.

     Still, it was better to think about why Derek was here, and not how much pleasure Stiles might be getting out of riling him up. “Fucking Argent?” he demanded, refusing to be derailed, and he stalked forwards even though he knew Stiles wouldn’t give an inch. “Don’t even get me started on you thinking it’d be a good idea to apply there in the first place, but I had to find out from my goddamned sister?”

     The expression on Stiles’s face hardened, and Derek could practically see him steeling his resolve. “And why do you give a shit, huh?” he shot back, a muscle tightening above the tense line of his jaw. “You barely fucking acknowledge my existence except when you’re treating me like your personal slave, and you certainly couldn’t care less if I’m happy here—which, for the record, I’d really like to be, except that you make it nearly impossible, in addition to acting like you’re ashamed to be fucking me.” Stiles gestured widely and in a way Derek could only interpret as defeated.

     That took the wind out of Derek’s sails a bit. “Stiles, I’m not—” He trailed off with a frustrated sound. He wasn’t what? Ashamed of Stiles, or fucking him? He stared at a random spot on the ground for a moment before continuing. “Look, you have no idea how people’s opinions would change of us around here if they knew we’re screwing—”

     It was the wrong thing to say and Derek knew it immediately, but Stiles cut him off before he could hope to rectify the error, his eyes as sharp and silencing as his tone. “Oh my God, Derek, do you even realize how fucking much you’re missing the point? Not to mention how off-base you are?”

     “Then tell me what the fucking point is!” Derek threw up his arms. “Tell me what the fuck you were hoping to achieve by going to work for those rats at Argent.”

     Stiles shook his head, glaring at Derek with his mouth twisted in an ugly sneer. “That’s just it, dude,” he spat. “I didn’t hope to achieve a single fucking thing by it. I applied there because I had literally nothing to lose by trying to jump ship. At best, I figured I’d get a job working for someone who actually thinks I have something worthwhile to offer. And at worst, even if they told me no, maybe I’d finally manage to grab your fucking notice.”

     The admission surprised Derek into silence for several seconds, which had probably been Stiles’s intention, but as soon as the pieces clicked into place, Derek couldn’t find it in him to stay shocked. He was all about the big gestures, Stiles. Derek had always admired that about him, the way he could put himself out there, go all in, without pausing to get caught up in fear and self-doubt the way most people did. Sure, Stiles had insecurities just like the next person, but he always seemed to push through them in favour of going after the ultimate goal. Sometimes it was an utter disaster, sure, but it was always about risk versus reward for Stiles, and reward always won out. He would’ve been a holy terror on the stock market. After all, he’d never bothered to hedge his bets about Derek, had he?

     “You were going to walk away from everything just to make a point?” Derek hissed. He took another few steps forward and grabbed Stiles’s wrist, holding on tight even when Stiles immediately tried to jerk his arm back. “Is this all some fucking big joke to you, Stiles?”

     For a moment, Stiles’s eyes went wide and hurt, though he covered it up quickly with a scowl. “How can you even ask me that?” he asked bitterly. “Don’t you see it’s the total opposite?”

     “I don’t pretend to understand anything you do,” Derek grated out. “But whatever your intention, you’ve succeeded. You got my fucking attention, Stiles. Now what do you plan on doing with it?”

     “Are you for fucking serious? What do you think I want to do with it?” Stiles threw his hand up, and for a second his face twisted in such a way that Derek couldn’t ignore the bruise-like purple shadows beneath his eyes. A long, slightly trembling finger came up to jab Derek in the centre of his chest, with almost enough force behind it to send Derek rocking back. “We need to talk about what’s going on with us, Derek. Maybe you’re fine carrying on like this—whatever’s even going on between us anymore—isn’t seventy shades of fucked up, but I just… I can’t deal with the lying, the fucking sneaking around and pretending like we have everyone fooled. I’m completely aware of what people will think, and I don’t care. Okay? Because the only people we’re fooling is ourselves.”

     “You’re not the only one whose reputation is on the line!”

     “Fuck your reputation and fuck you, Derek,” Stiles spat with a scary amount of vehemence. It practically contorted his face, and Derek was a little surprised not to feel actual spittle flying at him. “Do you know how sick to my freaking stomach it makes me that I had to threaten to quit before you’d sit up and take notice? I’m through with keeping my mouth shut just because you refuse to listen. Spout your bullshit about keeping personal lives and the office separate or whatever the fuck you want, but I am done with it. You hear me? I’m done.”

     No answer suggested itself to Derek straight away, unless he counted the sudden, sickening need to grovel and demand Stiles take back his words. But that wasn’t about to happen, however much his stomach continued to churn and tighten with each consecutive moment he continued to do nothing. Mutely, they stared each other down, Stiles’s jaw clenching and unclenching as though he couldn’t decide whether he was angry or spooked or just… done.

     Feeling equal parts terrified and confused, which was something Derek seemed to experience around Stiles a lot—more than he was prepared to admit, at any rate—he made a conflicted noise in his throat and wrenched Stiles closer until they were chest to chest; not a whole lot different from where they’d been this morning, actually, except this was probably straying a lot further into abusive asshole territory than was remotely acceptable. Not that Derek had any designs on lifting a hand to Stiles—well, other than the one he already had around Stiles’s wrist—and he’d outgrown the whole physical intimidation bullshit a long time ago. Stiles had stopped being affected by it sometime in the fifth grade, anyway, as unimpressed by Derek’s behaviour as one might be with an older sibling’s big-kid posturing. But Derek needed to do something to hide the fact that he was coming up empty, that he was more at a loss than he’d ever been.

     At Derek’s prolonged silence, a furious brightness went into Stiles’s eyes behind the glasses, and Derek almost took a step in the other direction before Stiles shot forward, grabbing fistfuls of Derek’s shirt. “No, you don’t get to just walk away from me now, Derek. You’re the one who barged in here, so don’t you dare—”

     The last word was scarcely out before Derek lurched forward and jammed their mouths together so hard there was an audible clack of teeth and their noses butted painfully. It was jarring and hurt far more than Derek expected, but this time he didn’t hesitate. He dropped Stiles’s wrist and reached for him, hands flying up to cup Stiles’s warm, flushed face.

     The kiss obviously took Stiles by surprise; for a moment he was stiffly still, shoulders hunched up in shock, but then Derek’s fingertips traced the shells of his ears with a gentleness Stiles must’ve found discordant or otherwise offensive, because he huffed angrily and dug his nails into Derek’s shoulders, spurred into action with the angry wariness of an animal who’d been pushed too hard, too far, too often.

     He shoved Derek backwards with his hips until the only recourse was for Derek to clench his hands in the wispy softness of Stiles’s hair, holding their faces together—holding on for the ride, more like—while Stiles all but attacked his mouth in retaliation. It was probably the most violent kiss Derek had ever experienced, and it twisted him up inside to think he was the one who’d pushed Stiles to that, that this was what he had to offer in place of the conversation Stiles had demanded. But it wasn’t not like he wasn’t angry, too. He was, damn it. Derek had just as much of a right to his anger as Stiles. Didn’t he? It wasn’t like he was the one trying to walk out, though Derek was acutely, painfully aware there was more than one way to leave your lover.

     When Stiles bit down on his bottom lip with particularly vicious force, Derek winced, then touched a hand to his mouth as Stiles pulled back to glower at him meanly. Derek’s fingers came away bloody. His brow furrowed even as Stiles slid his hands down to clutch at Derek’s hips and he pressed their foreheads together.

     “I know what you’re doing. Stop trying to make me hate you,” Stiles hissed, the words breaking around a jagged swallow. There was a pleading edge to his words that made Derek’s chest clench. When he lowered his head to suck and bite kisses along Stiles’s neck, turning the skin dark pink, Stiles gave a pained whimper. “Derek. I’m not fucking around.”

     Derek made a hard noise in his throat and bit down on the edge of Stiles’s collarbone where it was visible through the open V of his shirt. Stiles, somewhat gratifyingly, cried out softly. “You think that’s what I’m doing?” Derek challenged.

     “I think you’d do just about anything to get out of having a conversation where—” Stiles gasped as Derek’s palm slipped down to cup him through his pants, “—you might have to acknowledge what an asshole you’re being.”

     Pulling back slightly, Derek met Stiles’s eyes. “I’ve always been an asshole, Stiles. Never tried to pretend otherwise.”

     “On top of being patently untrue, that’s a pretty lame excuse to hide behind and you know it. You don’t get to act like you’ve been doing and expect me to absolve you of everything just ’cause you say ‘I told you so’ after. It just makes you an even bigger dick and a victim-blamer on top of that.”

     Derek opened his mouth to deliver a counterargument and realized he didn’t know what to say to that, actually. He was at an impasse with himself; there was no denying the astuteness of Stiles’s assessment, but at the thought of saying, “You’re right,” Derek’s throat caught.

     And they should talk about this, he knew, because Stiles was a talker and a problem solver and had never, at least until now, balked at the task of trying to rearrange all Derek’s puzzle pieces into something resembling sense. His dogged persistence, however much it irritated the fuck out of Derek sometimes, was also Stiles’s best quality. He could never bring himself to give up on anyone, not even the people who hurt him; nor, apparently, someone as bullheaded as Derek. For years Stiles had kept at him like he was little better than a particularly stubborn equation. Even lacking most of the variables, even conditions that could change at a moment’s notice, Stiles just found new and increasingly creative ways to solve for X. He made Derek feel like he made sense.

     For reasons Derek had never understood, not even when Stiles was a kid and Derek was… well, less of a kid, it didn’t phase Stiles that Derek sought comfort in obtuseness, obscurity, or, frequently, downright belligerence. In all honestly, because this was Stiles they were talking about here, it’d probably just goaded him on more. Stiles was a dog with a fucking bone when he set his mind to something, and Derek had been his project for going on over a decade now.

     Why did he bother, though, really? Sure, Derek would’ve moved heaven and earth for Stiles if he could, but he never felt like it was enough to prove his worth; and anyway, somehow it always worked out that just the opposite happened, Derek finding new and increasingly baffling ways to fuck up. Even on a bad day, though, it was clear Stiles wanted to give him the moon. And for what? Derek had never given Stiles much of anything in return, and he wasn’t so stupid to think he could assign value to the throwaway dalliances he’d been offering lately. They were worth next to nothing, those office fucks and those furtive, shame-rushed kisses, the ones Derek always found a way to escape before they could become something more, before they could make him remember what they were really about. Stiles was more than smart enough to know he deserved better, too. But he kept coming back, kept returning to scratch away at the itch like Derek was the half-healed scab on his elbow, motivations as mysterious as ever.

     Or at least he had. Where Derek was used to seeing a look of stubborn determination was a flinty coldness in Stiles’s eyes he couldn’t quite parse, though if he had to guess, he’d say it meant maybe Stiles had finally reached his breaking point. It made Derek wonder if he wasn’t in fact a total monster if even Stiles had given up on him. If he’d finally resigned himself to watching Derek unmoor himself with the impartialness of a migratory seabird. Maybe that was for the best; Derek was plenty aware of his own shortcomings. Wasn’t it the greater kindness to let him go rather than keep him chained to Derek’s emotional deadweight?

     So he took the coward’s way out and kissed Stiles again, sighing when Stiles gasped and kissed him back with a hot, open mouth. He told himself he could effectively stopper the flow of Stiles’s words this way, and tried not to think about where he’d lost the part of himself that found it easier to push his lover around than listen to him, though something small and scared inside him knew Stiles was done talking. That he had nothing left to say to Derek and even less he wanted to hear from him. The thought should’ve worried Derek—and make no mistake, it did, flooding his mouth with the sharp, unexpected taste of acid—but a sick part of him only felt relieved. Not for himself, but for Stiles, for the fact that his good sense was still intact. And yet even despite that, a small part of Derek stubbornly hoped he could still make Stiles feel good, that maybe this could all still fade away like a bad dream if they could fuck, connect; remember.

     Derek clasped his hands around Stiles’s hips in a way that was tight and unforgiving, fingers hard against bone. He spun him around without warning and shoved Stiles face-first over the couch. There was no mercy in the action, and Stiles would’ve slammed his head into the wall were it not for Derek’s steadying hold. But it was as though Stiles had expected something like that, since he grunted angrily and caught himself with his forearms against the back of the couch, bracing himself on the cushions with his knees spread wide. It was almost too easy for Derek to fall into place behind him, momentum bringing his chest flush with the wings of Stiles’s shoulder blades. He released Stiles’s hips to grip his hands where they dug into the couch, curving around him like a lone parenthesis.

     “Here’s what I think,” Derek hissed into his ear, and further made his point by rolling his hips slowly against Stiles’s. It was vulgar as fuck, if he was honest, but Stiles still gave a shudder. That alone was enough to get Derek halfway to erect in about eight seconds flat. “I think you’re all fucking talk, just like you’ve always been, and you aren’t going to just walk away because you never leave anything without making sure you’ve gotten the last word in. So which one is it, Stiles? Is it that you need my permission to leave, or do you just want to shut my mouth for me and make sure it sticks? I have a feeling you knew exactly which one it would be the second you made that phone call to Argent.”

     Stiles jerked back against him, playing at resistance. Derek knew the difference; but he knew also there was no way he would hold Stiles down if he thought Stiles might seriously want to get free. “Fuck you,” Stiles spat, turning his head in an attempt to glare and bucking his hips backwards.

      “Rich, coming from the guy bent over a sofa. Don’t pretend like I don’t know you,” Derek chastised. “I’m right, because you wouldn’t be here right now otherwise, and you certainly wouldn’t be letting me touch you like this. We both know how well you can hold out when you’re trying to make a point.” There was another brief struggle in response to that, and Derek was helpless to ask, “Why do you keep coming back for this?”

     “Why do you? Why can’t you just let it go?” Stiles’s voice cracked as he asked, “Why can’t you just let me go if I’m not what you want anymore?”

     Not that he wasn’t close to breaking already, but that hitch in Stiles’s voice pushed Derek over the edge. He seized Stiles roughly by the hips again and this time flipped him over, pushing him down onto the couch cushions before he climbed on top and pinned him there with his body. Stiles grunted beneath Derek’s not-inconsiderable weight but, taking his hand, Derek shoved it down between them and curled Stiles’s fingers around the firm line of his cock, huffing softly when Stiles tightened his grip of his own volition. He may not have been able to satisfy Stiles’s other questions yet, but this Derek could do.

     “That feel like you’re not what I want?” he demanded. If only Stiles knew. He was the fucking dream. The feelings weren’t the problem; telling him that, telling him how fucking much Derek needed him… that was the real stumbling block.

     But Derek’s reticence on the matter notwithstanding, Stiles let himself be kissed, accepting the violence of Derek’s mouth against his, the claiming pressure of his tongue and the bite of his teeth. He squirmed around until he got comfortable, legs coming up to wrap around Derek’s hips and pull him in closer, tighter, locking their groins together so that each shift and rock of their bodies made helpless sounds bubble up in Derek’s chest as Stiles’s hand continued to grip his erection through his trousers, massaging it as much as the limited space would allow.

     Stiles seemed hungry for the contact, despite—or perhaps because of—his frustration, mashing his face against Derek’s until his glasses got crushed uncomfortably between them and he had to fling them away. The break in the kiss was a good opportunity for Derek to grab two fistfuls of Stiles’s shirt and yank it free from the waistband of his pants, rucking it as far up his torso as he could, baring inches of pale skin to his roving hands, skimming them up Stiles’s ribs and underneath the pink cotton to reach his chest, his small, firm pecs and pointed nipples. It was a good idea, getting naked. Derek wanted that, wanted Stiles spread out beneath him so he could make up for that morning’s blunder. The whole day’s blunders, really. He liked to think he could better express with actions what he couldn’t put into words.

     Stiles caught onto the plan eagerly, releasing his grip on the front of Derek’s pants to help. But his shaking fingers worked on each button of the pink shirt with something less than precision, so Derek quickly joined in, starting from the bottom so that he and Stiles met in the middle. Pushing Stiles’s hands aside, Derek shoved the shirt down over his shoulders while Stiles simultaneously shrugged out of it, struggling within the fabric until one arm was free and the whole mess was left dangling from his right wrist. He’d probably busted the other cuff but Derek truly couldn’t give less of a fuck, chuckling at the sight Stiles made and catching his wrist gently, stilling Stiles’s hand so he could unfasten the remaining button.

     Derek tried to sit back on his heels, itching to shed his own shirt and pants and maybe help Stiles the rest of the way out of his, but the legs around his waist restricted his movement somewhat. Stiles loosened the grip of his thighs when Derek silently ran his fingers up his shins, asking without words for him to let go. Once he was able to move freely without risk of elbowing Stiles in the face, Derek whipped his tie off the rest of the way before starting on his cufflinks.

     This time Stiles didn’t bother to assist. Instead he laid back to watch while he panted audibly and trailed his fingers down his own sternum as though he was desperate to touch something. He was magnificent, Derek thought—but of course he was. Stiles was never anything but, not when he had bad breath and sleep hair or crust in his eyes or the occasional zit on his forehead, not when he was sick and ruddy-cheeked and sneezing snot everywhere, not even then. Derek didn’t think it was possible he’d ever get tired of looking at Stiles. And like he was plainly aware of this fact, Stiles locked his eyes firmly to Derek’s as he moved his hand lower, lower, until he slid his palm over the front of his trousers and gave a quiet moan. Visual motivation to hurry the hell up, Derek surmised, and he smirked to himself. He was all too happy to oblige, pulling both his undershirt and button-down over his head as soon as he’d undone enough buttons at the neck. Next, he dropped his hands to unbuckle his belt, only to find Stiles’s hands already there.

     Derek wasted no time jumping up from the couch to kick off his shoes and pants and remove his socks, then bent to divest Stiles of the same, crawling back between the younger man’s legs when they were both good and bare-assed. His cock had fattened considerably in the moments between getting Stiles on his back and the two of them undressing, and Derek had to squeeze the base of his shaft to get himself under control. Nevertheless, he couldn’t swallow the soft groan that escaped him as his naked flesh came into contact with Stiles’s, their erections rubbing. The skin of Stiles’s stomach was already wet with precome. Derek was about to get a hand between them to stroke them both at the same time when Stiles’s voice stopped him.

     “I don’t want foreplay,” he managed, sounding as ragged as his expression looked. As if to drive the point home, he closed his fingers around Derek’s wrist, then slid them down further to encircle Derek’s cock, pointing it in the direction of his entrance like Derek might not be able to parse his meaning. “Put it in already.”

     “I think you missed your calling as a poet,” deadpanned Derek, even as he dutifully went still.

     Stiles shook his head minutely, mouth a tense line. “Don’t give a shit. Just fuck me.”

     With an exasperated sigh, Derek pushed himself up onto his knees, balancing with one hand against the back of the couch. He knew Stiles was purposely skirting the line between passive-aggressive and aggressive-aggressive, intending to make Derek pay for their earlier spat by withholding the sense of intimacy they both normally craved. Maybe Derek didn’t deserve it—most probably he didn’t—but he couldn’t quite figure out why Stiles was bothering to have sex with him at all, if that’s how he felt. It wasn’t like Derek didn’t give a shit about intimacy or affection by comparison, but of the two of them, Stiles was the one with the mean sappy streak. He’d bitched at Derek before about not kissing enough during sex, had unironically called it “making love” once or twice within Derek’s hearing, and now he was saying “just fuck me” like he had somewhere better to be.

     The silence must’ve stretched out long enough to clue Stiles in to Derek’s hesitation. “What’s the freaking holdup, man?” he snapped, then gave an impatient shift under Derek that seemed to suggest he might actually get tired of this and walk out. “You want to bone or not?”

     “Not if you keep bitching at me,” Derek shot back, mouth twisting. “Jesus Christ, you got a hot date to get to or something?” Off the returning scowl, which would no doubt precede some comment about how that was probably more Derek’s style, he scoffed to head Stiles off at the pass. “You have any lube handy?”

     “Wallet. In my pants.” As Derek leaned over to retrieve Stiles’s pants off the floor, digging around in the back pocket for his wallet, Stiles added, after a weighted pause, “… there’s a condom in there, too.”

     Derek sat up abruptly, clutching the wallet. He looked pointedly down at Stiles, but Stiles wouldn’t meet his eyes. “Since when?”

     Stiles shifted uncomfortably. “Since now. Just… hand it over.” He snatched the wallet from Derek and rooted around in one of the pockets for the aforementioned rubber and sample packet of lube. Tossing the wallet aside, he handed the items over, still without meeting Derek’s gaze. When Derek refused to accept the condom, Stiles shook it at him insistently. “I’m serious. Here.”

     Dumbly, Derek accepted the proffered foil packet. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d used a condom with Stiles but it was a pretty clear line being drawn in the sand that signalled the end of something, even though they’d only started to get physically intimate a few minutes ago. What disturbed him was how shocked he was to have it thrown in his face. But what could he honestly say? “No”? He’d only succeed in looking like an even bigger asshole than he already did.

     So Derek took the condom and tore the foil with his teeth, then extricated the little rolled-up sheath and placed it over the head of his dick. A muscle twitched in Stiles’s jaw, though he said nothing as Derek rolled the latex down over himself with some difficulty, struggling with how his cock had chosen to soften somewhat during their exchange. When Stiles opened the lube and moved to get himself ready, Derek shot a hand out and grabbed it from him. “I can do that,” he said, the quiet determination in his own voice catching him by surprise.

     “Okay.”

     Stiles dropped his hands to ball them into fists at his sides and whimpered softly at the first touch of Derek’s lube-slick fingers against his entrance, then spread his legs a bit wider and canted his hips up for easier access. Derek went slowly, the fight and some of the urgency having gone out of him, though he couldn’t help but feel his actions came across as chastised, to say the least. He leaned forward to kiss Stiles even as his fingers circled and prodded gently at his hole, working him open while he gently slid their mouths together. Stiles didn’t kiss back, only emitting quiet grunts as Derek stretched him, muscles clenching hotly around Derek’s knuckles. He kept going, sucking on Stiles’s bottom lip until the younger man started to squirm, arching beneath him and whining.

     “Come on,” he said against Derek’s lips, speaking with a forcefulness that seemed to defy the softness of the kiss, clinging to their earlier combativeness with classic, Grade-A Stilinski stubbornness. His hands pushed into Derek’s hair and jerked him back, sinking his teeth into his neck. Stiles dragged them down Derek’s throat with just enough pressure to edge the line between pleasurable and too painful. “I want it now, just give it to me,” he muttered when he was satisfied Derek wasn’t going to argue with him.

     There was no reason to delay further despite the unspoken “get it over with already” Derek imagined was tacked on to the end of that sentence; he’d gotten hard again fingering Stiles and was achingly conscious of how long it’d been since he’d been with Stiles this way, since he’d felt that lithe, long body writhing under him and begging for Derek to make him come. Without arrogance, Derek hoped it might be possible to fuck the belligerence right out of him, bring them back to a level playing green he recognized instead of the minefield they’d been navigating as of late.

     A gasped “Fuck, you feel so good,” punched out of him as he lined himself up against Stiles’s entrance and then slowly pushed inside, mouth falling slack at the way Stiles’s whole body seized up and a harsh noise slipped past his lips.

     Derek started to thrust gently, long, slow strokes that fucked Stiles open and made his thighs clench where they had once again wrapped themselves around Derek’s waist. The heat and tightness gripping his cock made Derek feel lightheaded, stomach bottoming out somewhere around his knees, but when he tried to turn Stiles’s head towards him to get at his mouth, Stiles merely pushed his face into the space between Derek’s neck and shoulder and left it there, panting wetly against the skin for several long minutes. He didn’t cry out or curse or moan, or do any of the things he normally did, not even when Derek angled his hips just so to hit Stiles’s prostate. He just hung on and accepted the fucking and generally did an acceptable impression of a living glory hole, a warm receptacle for Derek’s cock.

     It was perturbing enough that Derek pulled back to look at him, pressing Stiles’s shoulders down into the sofa cushions so he couldn’t follow him up, though he seemed pretty determined to continue deploying the full starfish with arms in Derek’s direction. Stiles had never been anything but an enthusiastic partner, and the sudden sense of ennui he was projecting shattered something painfully in Derek’s chest. He grimaced and felt his face heat up with—what? Mortification?—but Derek wasn’t totally surprised to see that Stiles wasn’t remotely hard, his cock a soft, unimpressed-looking anemone against his stomach. Okay, it wasn’t that unusual to lose an erection when bottoming, at least at the initial rush of pain, but by now he should’ve been responding at least a little.

     At first, Derek didn’t know what to say. Then, dumbfounded, because he couldn’t think of another way to be: “Are you not… enjoying this?”

     Stiles blinked up at him with brown eyes that were unguarded but not exactly void of guilt, then averted his gaze entirely, shifting his shoulders with what Derek could only describe as awkwardness. “You can just keep going,” he murmured in a tone that was probably meant to sound encouraging, but to Derek’s ears sounded merely… indifferent. Uncaring. Maybe he was projecting, but he didn’t think so. Stiles seemed bored out of his skull, and more than that, he seemed uncomfortable, and the thought was enough to send Derek reeling back, pulling free of Stiles’s body with as much gentleness as he could muster, even in his haste to separate them. The thought of having sex with a less-than-willing Stiles made his stomach turn so sharply Derek thought he might vomit.

     “What, you mean keep fucking you while your brain is on another planet?” he demanded, collapsing back against the opposite side of the couch. He’d never had an erection wilt so fast, and in a sudden bout of shame, covered himself with his hands, hating how exposed Stiles’s apathy made him feel. “Why’d you ask me to fuck you if you’d rather be someplace else? Why’d you accuse me of not wanting you when it’s clear that if anyone’s not wanted here, it’s me?”

     That vanquished the indifference quickly enough, roused the anger back in Stiles like a flash fire to dry brush. Twin blotches of colour appeared on his cheeks as he sat up very straight. “Because maybe it’s the only fucking way I can get you to be in the same room with me for longer than five minutes,” he shouted, the sudden shock of volume making Derek flinch in reaction.

     Stiles shoved himself up off the couch furiously. Not bothering to check if they were done here, which Derek supposed was confirmation enough in itself, he started grabbing his clothes off the floor and putting them on haphazardly, struggling into one sock before he started on his pants, shoving his arms into the shirt before he’d even zipped his fly.

     The tirade continued even as Stiles dressed. “You won’t talk, you won’t listen, and you sure as fuck won’t make love to me”—there it was, Derek thought numbly, the incurable romantic still alive in there somewhere, if suffering—“so I figured, hey, maybe this jackass I thought I was in love with will give me the time of day if I can convince him to give me the d.” When Stiles snatched up his remaining sock, his shirt was buttoned all wrong and his hair was in elflocks.

     Derek bit back a hurt retort at the words, finding himself once again stuck for anything useful to say. Instead, all he could manage was, “Where are you going?” though the answer was pretty fucking clear: anywhere but here. Away, far away, and towards anyone but Derek.

     “I can’t do this anymore,” Stiles said gravely, and went suddenly very stiff, arm raised in the middle of some gesture Derek couldn’t begin to guess at. He watched Stiles’s Adam’s apple bob as he swallowed, took in the wrecked, downward twist of his mouth and the gridelin shadows beneath his eyes, thrown into sharp contrast beneath the fluorescent lights overhead. Then Stiles choked out, “We used to like each other, man. And I—I fucking loved you, okay? I would’ve given you anything but I know all of this”—he gestured between them, the sock in his hand flapping—“isn’t worth losing myself for. This is cheating, what we’re doing, and it’s wrong, because every time we end up back here we’re not thinking about what we both have to go home to after. That we’re just doing even more damage to something that’s obviously already broken beyond repair.”

     The way Derek’s throat seized up could’ve been anaphylactic shock, so difficult was it to breathe of a sudden. “What are you saying?” he choked out, making an aborted motion to rise from the couch and move closer to Stiles, maybe prevent him from leaving, though the way Stiles quickly reversed a step away from Derek stopped him dead.

     “I’m saying maybe we need to accept this isn’t working,” said Stiles. “Maybe we need to think about moving on.”

     As if taking his own advice, Stiles gathered the rest of his clothes and hunted down his shoes from where they’d ricocheted off the door. Clutching them close to his chest, he slipped out of the room, dodging around the broken bits of chair. He left Derek sitting there, shivering and naked and utterly at a loss, for once unable to move or think or explain away anything that’d just happened except to understand the one devastating, salient fact that mattered: Stiles was going, going, gone.

 


 

     The deadbolt slid closed behind him with nothing more than a subdued click, but to Derek it was a gun going off and announcing his arrival home, loud enough to make him flinch and immediately strain to hear if his entrance had been noticed. When after a moment no greeting was called out, no acknowledgement given, he exhaled heavily and leaned back against the heavy wood door, taking a moment for himself to let his eyes fall shut and just breathe. Admittedly, it’d been awhile since he’d been back to his house or paused to catch his breath. Doing both all at once was quite a lot more overwhelming than he’d prepared himself for, like taking a skydive into shark-infested waters or being told he’d won the lottery and had terminal cancer in the same breath. Whatever the proper metaphor was here, Derek’s stomach seemed reluctant to pick itself up from where it’d flung itself at his feet during the brief taxi ride into Greenwich Village, and he’d let the meter run over another three dollars just sitting parked in front of his old brownstone. Because this was New York and cabbies probably saw far stranger things on a daily basis, the driver had let it go without comment, accepting Derek’s reluctantly handed-over money with nothing more than a nod and a grunt of thanks.

     The house wasn’t totally silent. Faint music drifted down to him from upstairs. Derek didn’t know what that meant for him, exactly. An argument was almost certainly in store, or else a few snide comments about why Derek had bothered to show his face in these parts after having been absent so often, so long. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant thought. But angry boyfriend or no, to avoid making his presence known now would be pretty goddamned unforgivable. Dreading whatever look of hurt or disappointment or, worse still, indifference, might be there to greet him, Derek did briefly consider it, pictured himself slipping back out the door and finding the nearest bar in which to drown his sorrows… But no, enough was enough. And so he gently set his briefcase down next to the hall table, hung up his overcoat on the coat hook, and toed off his shoes, wasting another couple seconds aligning them neatly in the closet next to a hastily discarded pair of chucks.

     Upon further investigation, the second floor, which housed the living room, library, offices, and a guest bedroom, was empty. Derek continued up another floor, searching for the source of the music. His slow trudge up the stairs would’ve been quiet if not for the damning squeak near the top step, and Derek sighed in knowing defeat as he stopped in the hallway outside the third-floor master bedroom and the light spilling out from the half-open door.

     Hesitating for a moment only, Derek rapped gently with his knuckles and pushed the door open. Cautiously stepping into the room, he took in the lone figure sitting at the edge of the bed, not doing anything, just… staring into space and holding a picture frame loosely in his hands.

     Derek’s entrance was acknowledged only by a gaze that flickered briefly in his direction before it skittered away, and Derek swallowed, risking a soft “Hey,” though it probably sounded more wary than anything. He withdrew the heavy black frames he’d slipped into the inside pocket of his suit jacket before leaving work, and held them out like what he hoped was a peace offering. “You forgot your glasses at the office. How can you even see anything?”

     That, apparently, was a start. Looking up at him again, though there was no mistaking the tiredness in his expression, Stiles considered the glasses in Derek’s hand for a moment, then shrugged.

     “You’re home,” he said, not answering the question or accepting the glasses. He was still wearing Derek’s pink button-down shirt from earlier, though it looked considerably more rumpled than when Stiles had first arrived at the office that day. “I’m surprised you even remembered how to find it. What’s the occasion?”

     It was hard for Derek to say he refused to be drawn into this game when his whole hand was bad; his hand, in fact, was totally shit, and he got the distinct impression Stiles knew it. Derek wanted to say, You know perfectly well what the answer to that is, or You didn’t exactly give me much choice, but he heard how stupid that sounded in his own head, how childish and defensive and scared. Coming out with a thing like that would just be a waste of air, and since Stiles might not be inclined to listen to too much of what Derek had to say, it occurred to him he might need to use his words wisely.

     Of course, that’s when they chose to desert him, sticking in his throat like little bones.

     Instead he huffed impatiently at the comment and stepped around the bed to place the glasses on the bedside table, since Stiles didn’t seem inclined to reach out and take them. He’d long suspected Stiles took to not wearing his glasses when he wanted to avoid fully engaging with people. Like maybe it was easier to pretend to make eye contact with someone when you couldn’t properly make them out. Not, that is, that Stiles was remotely trying to look him in the eye right now.

     It was in moving to the other side of the bed that Derek noticed something that had failed to catch his attention before: beside the open closet revealing the neatly ordered rows of all his suits and shirts and pants on one side, the barely contained chaos of Stiles’s wardrobe on the other, was a battered duffle bag and a half-open suitcase partially filled with clothes and toiletries. Derek had never really bothered to imagine what it would feel like to have the heart stop in his chest, but he was pretty sure that’s precisely what he experienced the moment his brain caught up to what he was seeing and a small, winded sound escaped him.

     “Stiles,” he said, unable to look away from that half-packed luggage, the word a punched-out gasp. “What the hell is this?”

     When no answer came, Derek turned back to look at Stiles and found him staring at the picture frame in his hands. Suddenly it clicked in Derek’s mind what Stiles was holding; a photograph of them together at Laura’s wedding, holding each other and laughing and in love and every other fucking cliché he could think of, but happy. Its usual place of honour was next to Stiles’s side of the bed.

     Derek found his coordination long enough to stumble forwards and deliver a feeble shove against Stiles’s shoulder, trying to get him to look up.

     “Stiles!”

     At that, Stiles finally shifted his gaze away from the picture and up to Derek. “What does it look like?” he asked, and his tone wasn’t harsh or cruel, even though Derek wanted to stagger back as if struck. “You can’t honestly tell me you’re surprised.” His voice was as nakedly devastated as Derek had ever heard it, and the largeness of Stiles’s eyes even without the glasses, the gauntness of his cheeks, seemed to cause a sudden hollow crack in Derek’s willpower, a not-pain that redistributed the heaviness in his chest and brought about a very real, very physical response Derek didn’t anticipate.

     He did stagger then, despite, he thought, not having twitched a muscle, having not even decided to move forwards, and went down to his knees like a rock. In his pressed suit trousers and fitted jacket, the movement felt even more wooden, seams straining against the bunch and pull of his muscles. From his tense perch in front of him—then suddenly above—Stiles went totally stiff, expression a bit horrified at the sight of Derek kneeling before him.

     Stiles’s hand had been resting against his knee, and Derek leaned towards it before Stiles could think better and snatch it away. Derek wanted to clasp it in his own hands and hold it against his face, wanted to feel the warmth and softness of that skin. But he settled instead for pressing his forehead against Stiles’s knuckles, closing his eyes tightly; there was an aborted flinch and though Stiles didn’t pull away, Derek could feel his fingers twitching.

     “Der—” he began, but Derek cut him off.

     “What you said,” he rasped, throat constricting. At the soft, questioning noise Stiles emitted, Derek gritted his teeth and let the silence hang for a moment, struggling to find his voice again. Finally he added, “About us being broken,” forcing each word out with not-inconsiderable effort. His voice came out in an embarrassing gasp. “You meant it, didn’t you? I didn’t think—I didn’t know—how much you meant it.”

     Stiles often complained that Derek’s propensity for silence made him want to babble more, an uncontrollable compensation tactic. For once, Derek understood what Stiles meant by that, faced with an alarming and irrepressible urge to keep talking when Stiles didn’t say anything or give any kind of nonverbal acknowledgement of Derek’s question. As if filling the silence with words and words and more words would make up for the hard knot of apprehension in his gut, might otherwise help him ignore how he felt fit to drown in panic, the desperation that’d been slowly suffocating him since Stiles left the office that afternoon.

     But it seemed as though he couldn’t even get that much right. Derek’s mouth worked uselessly for a moment and he looked up at Stiles, face beseeching. Ultimately the attempt at eye contact failed, too. Chastened, Derek lowered his gaze again and decided it was probably safer if he didn’t look at Stiles’s face for this part, afraid of what he’d find there.

     But Stiles caught him off guard by reaching out and taking Derek’s face between his hands, holding him there, making him see. Derek shuddered, hating that Stiles could restrain him with nothing more than a light touch and a quiet break in his voice, but even though he jerked involuntarily, he didn’t get up from his knees.

     “How could I not mean it?” he asked quietly, tracing Derek’s eyebrows. “After today, after everything, I don’t know how I could have not meant it. Hell, I don’t know how you couldn’t have thought it either. We’ve been on this collision course for a while, dude. Like… months. Almost since I moved here. Kind of a long time to watch your relationship going down in flames without thinking about bailing out.”

     “Just because I agreed with everything else you said, didn’t mean I thought that,” Derek choked out, trying, with everything he had, not to bury the feelings somewhere inside him where they’d be safer, silent. His fight-or-flight instincts were going absolutely batshit crazy right now, fear making his palms sweat and his heart race, and every word was like pulling a needle out of his heart. “I know I’ve been fucking up, Stiles, I do. haven’t been here for you, literally or figuratively, I’ve been a total dick at work. Making you lie for me and hide this part of yourself, pretending to everyone like I’m not fucking madly in love with you. But I don’t—” He trailed off in a frustrated grunt, knowing he was making a horrible botch of this. “I didn’t think it was this bad, Stiles. I mean, I knew it wasn’t great, how could I not. But I never thought this whole time you might just be… done. With me. With all this, everything we’ve built.”

     Derek swallowed loudly and took a few moments to try to compose himself. In actual fact, he thought he just made it worse, because he felt the telltale prickle of tears in his eyes even as he tried to squeeze them shut tighter. What, was he going to have a fucking cry now? Right, that was definitely the way to convince Stiles his boyfriend wasn’t a totally pathetic loser on top of an emotionally unavailable fuckup.

     “I need you to talk to me,” he said, not knowing what else to say to make this whole fucking slow-motion train wreck stop.

     At last, Stiles responded. “Me—talk to you?” he repeated disbelievingly, eyebrows shooting up his forehead. Stiles barked out a bitter laugh. “You’ve been acting cagey as fuck for months, and that’s what you decide to open with? Seriously, man? Fuck right off with that. And don’t talk to me about what the hell we’ve built here, because you’re the one who broke it.”

      Pushing at Derek’s shoulders, Stiles started to rise from the bed. Derek winced at the coldness of the words, but instead of backing away his hands shot out and seized Stiles’s wrists, trying to hold him in place. “Don’t go,” he begged, voice too loud, too frantic, and he realized that one demand was simultaneously the most desperate and most honest thing he’d ever said. It felt like he’d clawed it out of his chest with his own fingers, but he didn’t release his hold, not even after Stiles seemed to give up and slumped back down to the mattress with an unintelligible sound, shoulders sagging.

     There was another pause, this time as Stiles threw his head back to glare at the ceiling, but as soon as he lowered his face back down Derek saw he wasn’t glaring, but crying, eyes scrunched up to hold off tears and failing as he gasped “holy fuck” to himself. Instead of trying to pull away again, Stiles’s hands clenched into fists and then released so he could grasp at Derek’s. Then he said, louder, “I’m trying not to,” addressing him in a thick voice. Derek saw him swallow, heard the click of his throat. “I’m trying not to, okay? I have been trying not to. Even when I was packing that fucking suitcase, I was trying. But you’ve made it so fucking hard, Derek.”

     He’d come home expecting anger, shouting, but all Derek was getting from Stiles right now was overwhelming misery and the strong sense that Stiles was as utterly fucking clueless as he was. The thought was more or less confirmed when Stiles leaned forwards and brought their foreheads together, breath puffing warmly against Derek’s face.

     “Do you want to be with me?” he demanded, echoing his question from that morning but with infinitely more sadness. “Do you still want all this? Us? You need to tell me, Derek. I… I need it. Because right now I don’t know anything and it’s killing me. Do you get that? I can’t… I can’t do it anymore, not like this. I deserve better, I deserve to feel like you give a shit. You promised me that once and I fucking deserve it, do you hear me?”

     It could have been Stiles’s touch or his words, but Derek suddenly felt utterly empty; empty because he hated that Stiles could sound so lost and so totally ignorant to the one fact that pretty much defined Derek’s whole existence, which was, simply, that he loved Stiles. He didn’t want him to leave, despite all prior appearances to the contrary. The thought of Stiles walking away left him so terrified, in fact, that somewhere along the way he’d started to believe it was easier to let go first than watch Stiles withdraw. Derek was a lot of things, a lot of them less than good, but he couldn’t look Stiles in the eye and lie, not about this, not even by omission.

     So he gave up and let himself bow under the weight of it all, every fucked-up thought that’d never entered his head telling him Stiles was more than he had a right to, that no one ever got to be that happy, ever. Someone had told him that, once, told him he wasn’t worthy, wasn’t anything, wasn’t worth a second fuck or a backwards glance, wasn’t worth the shit on her shoe. And Derek had pretty much grown up believing that despite anything Stiles or his sister or his family had ever said, had cultivated, instead, his own inner purgatory of fear and insecurity that could twist and distort just about anything, if he let it. He felt it every time he walked into his office, every time Stiles smiled at him or kissed him good morning, even after almost a decade together.

     None of the ugly certainties he conjured in his own head had a name—well, maybe there was one he could think of—but Derek felt like he’d unwittingly summed it up moments earlier with those two little words: Don’t go. The feeling had been weighing on Derek for a long time—too long—but hadn’t really hit him properly until today, not until he watched Stiles walk away from him and suddenly realized he was the one who’d made that happen, who’d done this. To call it a self-fulfilled prophecy didn’t even fit, because this felt much, much worse than anything Derek had ever imagined, even in his darkest moments of doubting himself as a man, a lover, a partner.

      “I still want you,” said Derek, which was the truth in its simplest form. He was afraid he wouldn’t be able to say it, but the words came surprisingly easily when he reached for them hard enough, when he wanted to say them hard enough. “I love you. I don’t—I’ve never not loved you or not wanted to be with you.”

     An impossibly quiet, impossibly hurt noise came from the back of Stiles’s throat, and then he was sliding completely off the bed and onto the floor, somehow wrapping himself around Derek without toppling them both over.

     “Then Jesus Christ, Derek, what the hell is going on with you?” he whispered, voice agonized.

     Suddenly his hard stare was too much again and Derek wanted to lower his eyes; started to, until Stiles wrenched his face back up again, unwilling to be ignored.

     “I have been trying to understand but it’s like—it’s like I’ve known you my whole life and right now I don’t freaking recognize you at all.” His tone took on an edge of pleading; Derek recognized it only because he’d heard it coming from his own mouth not a minute ago. “Please, please tell me what’s happened to us. You have no idea how many times I’ve turned it over in my head and I just—don’t fucking understand why you’ve been pushing me away when I thought we were doing everything right. I don’t know where things went bad and why you’re so freaking pissed off at me all the time.”

     The way he threw himself back against the end of the bed was reminiscent of the mini-tantrums Derek could remember from Stiles’s adolescence, irritated grunts and sullenly bitten lips, but he could tell the act he was now witnessing was a display of frustration, not a sulk. Stiles had simply… run out of words, difficult as that was for him. Or maybe he just refused to say anything else until Derek had coughed up an explanation.

     “You’re not the one I’ve been pissed off at,” he murmured, once he’d had a second to get his breathing under control and consider what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it. He eased himself into an upright sitting position next to Stiles, legs stuck out in front of himself. “You get that, right?”

     “Uh… no,” Stiles grunted. He nudged Derek hard with his knee and levelled him with a determined stare, mouth screwed up in a stubborn moue that had trouble written all over it. “If I did, we wouldn’t be here, jackass. Also, you don’t get to pass this off as a stupid misunderstanding on my part. This is all you, buddy. So you wanna fucking talk, then talk.”

     Derek sighed and rubbed his hand over his face, smearing tears and probably snot around. He probably looked like a wreck, but the hard part was over, wasn’t it? Stiles was here, he was staying, he was listening. All Derek had to do was let the truth come tumbling out, open his mouth and—

     “Have you been cheating on me?” Stiles blurted. Derek thinned his lips into a hard line, both at the interruption—so like Stiles—and the question itself. But Stiles’s jaw was clenched so hard it actually looked painful, tendons standing out starkly, and Derek wanted to take him into his arms too much to be annoyed.

     “No,” he said firmly, shaking his head for emphasis. Suddenly it made sense: Stiles’s intent scrutiny whenever Derek spent the night at the office, his leading questions, even the frequently forced cheerfulness; why, and this perhaps most telling of all, he’d insisted on the condom when they had sex. Derek wasn’t the unfaithful type, not with the relationship track record he had, and until now he’d always felt certain Stiles knew it, too. But clearly there were a lot of things Stiles had started to question, things it had never even crossed Derek’s mind to reassure him about. He grabbed Stiles’s chin and turned his head so he had to meet Derek’s eyes. “Not once. I wouldn’t do that to you, ever.”

     Stiles wrenched his face out of Derek’s grasp and slapped feebly at his hand. “Don’t say it like it’d be the first time it happened when a relationship’s on the rocks,” he scoffed, then proceeded to worry at the hem of his shirt. “People throw themselves at you wherever we go. Like, constantly. You act like you don’t notice but I know you aren’t that dense; you know what you look like. And when’s the last time you’ve slept in our bed, huh? A month ago? Either you’re spending your nights at the office or you’re sleeping in the guest room or on the couch because you”—Stiles made air quotes with his fingers—“‘don’t want to wake me up’ when you sneak in after midnight.”

     “You always complain when I do.”

     “Yeah, well, all the trademark signs of cheating were there, is all I’m saying. Laura said there’s no way you’d fuck around, but—” Stiles shrugged a little, blinked back the moisture gathering at the corners of his eyes again. “What was I supposed to think?”

     That Stiles had gone to Derek’s sister with his fears made Derek blanch, but that was hardly the point in question here, nor was the fact that Laura had never once said anything about it. Voice cracking, Derek filled in the blanks.

     “So you’ve been bringing me coffee and your little homemade breakfast sandwiches each morning, assuming I was in someone else’s bed the night before.” Said out loud, it kind of made Derek want to vomit or bash his head against something, or both. He’d always had a hard time acknowledging such a blatant act of caring on Stiles’s part, knowing there was nothing but love behind the gesture and wondering what the fuck he offered in return.

     The smile that flickered across Stiles’s face had no happiness in it. “Yeah, how stupid is that, hey? When really you were just… avoiding me this whole time.”

     Sighing again angrily, this time at himself, Derek pitched his head back so it bumped the end of the bed. For a moment, he closed his eyes and listened to the quietness of the room, mostly silent except for Stiles’s breathing and occasional sniffles, the music he’d left on from before. It should have been peaceful but right now was anything but. This is our bedroom after the war, he thought, recalling a song Stiles had made him listen to years ago, both of them probably thinking, That’ll never be us. Derek felt blindly for Stiles’s hand until he could close his fingers around it, pull it into his lap and hold it there like an anchor. Stiles let him, and then Derek began to speak.

     “I’ve never… you know I’ve never done this before,” he said quietly, feeling Stiles’s gaze on him. “Almost ten years and I still feel like a failure at it, being a boyfriend, a partner. And now living with someone. I mean… you aren’t just anyone, you’re you. But I didn’t ever think it would be so challenging to make a space for you when you’d already been a part of my life for so long.”

     He thought back to that first week a few months ago, Stiles fresh out of his master’s program, living and working in Manhattan for the first time. Living with Derek for the first time. They’d celebrated their seventh anniversary a couple weeks after that, but years of school and living in different cities had kept things mostly long-distance except for holiday visits and the rare occasion Derek and Stiles both managed to be in a same place for an extended period. Derek had thought it would be exactly the same as when Stiles came to stay with him, when the drawers he dutifully kept empty were suddenly full of logo tees and plaid shirts and cheeky Batman underwear, skinny jeans hanging in the closet and Stiles’s clothes on the floor, only to disappear again a couple weeks later. A month, if they were lucky.

     But it turned out there was a huge difference between having your boyfriend crash at your house during spring break and having to renovate a spare bedroom for his office so his boxes and boxes of books and computer parts and video games had a place to live; a huge difference between the frantic, joyful fucking that followed after a semester-long separation and the endless, drawn-out arguments over whose stuff would get crammed into storage during the process of amalgamating their separate belongings, furniture, lives. Derek keenly remembered the small meltdown he’d had when Stiles spilled hot chocolate over the expensive linen sofa in the living room, how he hadn’t spoken to stiles for days behind that incident even though he knew it had nothing to do with the cost of the upholstery cleaning. He wasn’t a loner by nature, but it’d been years since he’d lived with his family or Laura, and as it turned out he’d sort of forgotten how to cope gracefully with having another person in his space. Well, obviously.

      When he opened his eyes to look at Stiles, he found his boyfriend watching him steadily back, expression unreadable. “I know this sounds crazy, Stiles,” he said. “Poor fucking Derek, can’t play well with others, not even to have his boyfriend live with him. Trust me, I’ve been through it all in my own head.”

     “I’m not thinking it’s crazy,” Stiles answered evenly. “I’ve never thought that about anything you’ve ever told me, provided you actually talk to me about it and don’t just bottle everything up inside. Then all I see is how you act, for better or worse.”

     And his behaviour had definitely been worse, that much was so clear it hardly needed to be said. Derek nodded in acknowledgement and continued, “I kept waiting for everything to suddenly click and for me to stop feeling like a stranger in my own house, like I didn’t have to hide everything about how I lived from you. I thought it maybe meant I was doing something wrong, that there was some trick to it I wasn’t getting.”

     At one point he’d told Laura it was like having their parents come to stay with him for an extended period of time; pretending like he wasn’t a slob or that he sometimes forgot to take the trash out for two weeks or wouldn’t throw out the thing in his fridge that’d been growing mold for months. He couldn’t keep plants alive, he didn’t know any of his neighbours (a crime, that, when it was so fucking obvious Stiles was the type of person who’d have the whole neighbourhood eating out of his hand before the end of the first week, a standing invitation to every backyard BBQ and birthday party and bar mitzvah because he was the kind of person who always said hello on the street or brought muffins around to introduce himself). Stiles was supposed to see all that, every last part of Derek he’d successfully managed to hide away from even his lover, and still want to fuck him? Yeah, right.

     He shifted uncomfortably at the thought and watched Stiles’s eyes narrow, clearly trying to puzzle out what was going through Derek’s head now. “Don’t get me wrong, I was willing to keep working at it until that happened, but it occurred to me one day that maybe you were hating it, that you were realizing what a fucking nightmare I am to live with. That… I dunno, that it would make you change your mind about what you’d signed up for, about wanting to put up with me forever.”

     “You are a nightmare to live with,” Stiles deadpanned, and after pause added, “but I’m not exactly a picnic to be around 24-7 either. I see the way your eyes bulge out when you find chips or cookie crumbs in bed, or when I let wet towels pile up in the bathroom until the linen closet is empty and you’re fucking screaming at me to just do a load of laundry already. Or that time I decided your shirts don’t really need to be dry-cleaned and then accidentally left a red sock in with the whites.”

     Derek cringed at the mere mention of that fight. He may have called Stiles an irresponsible child, and Stiles may have called him an unfeeling dick back. Stiles had slept at Scott’s all weekend and Derek hadn’t slept a single wink until he was home again.

     Tightening his fingers around Stiles’s, Derek looked down at their joined hands and released his breath, surprising himself with how shuddery it came out. He’d stopped crying but apparently still felt pretty unmoored, unsteady. Experimentally, he gave a tug against Stiles’s hand, then let out a moan of total despair when Stiles didn’t simply let himself be pulled closer, but effectively clambered into Derek’s lap and pushed his face into the crook of Derek’s neck. Like it was the most natural thing in the world—and it certainly still felt like it, Derek discovered—he pushed his free hand into Stiles’s hair and held it there, held Stiles and felt the tiny, huffing sobs begin against his throat that made him want to break down in earnest.

     “I’m sorry I’m such a fuckup at this,” he whispered, not needing to speak louder than that with Stiles so close.

     “You’re not a fuckup; you just suck at trusting people. Myself included.” Stiles pulled back to look at Derek with wet eyes, sniffling. “Seriously, though, I can’t do jack shit with your apology; you gotta show me that you mean it, that something’s gonna change.”

     Derek grunted. “Stiles. I get where you’re coming from with the whole ‘letting you in’ thing, but I don’t feel like that changes the fact that we’re shitty roommates. I don’t even know where to start with that.”

     There was a small cuff to Derek’s head and Stiles scowled through his tears. “Why don’t you try being less of a control freak for five minutes and accept that it’s not gonna be sunshine and flowers and morning sex 100 percent of the time? You don’t think I feel judged having you around to observe my worst habits all the time? I’m the sloppiest gay man ever. Now I’m living in this fucking beautiful house that you bought with your adult job and your adult money, and I know next to nothing about maintaining or owning a home. Not to mention that I make next to fucking nothing; I can’t even afford to pay for groceries in this city, seriously. I look over our expenses here and half the time I want to throw up over how little I contribute to this household.”

     “You don’t have to.”

     Stiles rolled his eyes. “Well, yeah, Derek, I know you’ve said that from the beginning—except I kind of do. And I know part of the reason you’ve wanted to keep things quiet at work is so that the rest of the office doesn’t go around saying I’m a goddamned gold digger, kept woman, whatever, but I hear the gossip that goes around anyway. In most people’s eyes I’m just a dumb kid who landed a nice sugar daddy to foot the bill while I play at being a grown-up.”

     That was no exaggeration; Derek had watched the rumour mill go into overdrive since almost the first day Stiles started working at Hale Industries, feeling disgusted and simultaneously powerless to set people straight, knowing he’d probably just make things worse. Stiles always put on his mask of indifference and pretended not to care how little credit some of his colleagues gave him, but Derek knew better than most people what it was like to have all your achievements written off as either good fortune, a handout, or a combination of the two. Worse still, what it was like to start to wonder whether there wasn’t something to it. “I’ve been listening to that my whole life,” he said. “It kind of goes with the territory when your daddy’s the CEO of the entire company.”

     “Right, and in exchange you act like you were born with a ten-foot pole up your ass. That’s been working really well for you so far.” With a sigh, Stiles set his jaw and fixed Derek with a determined stare, and Derek got the feeling what he was about to say was important, that if Derek forgot everything else about this conversation, it’d be okay as long as he remembered this. “Maybe it’s time you stop treating me like some random asshole and start trusting me to have your back. I’m on your side. You could stand to let your guard down around me every once and awhile, let me take care of you for a change. No one can be in control every second of the day. I didn’t move to Manhattan just to watch you struggle on your own until you crash and burn. I kinda thought that was the whole point of us being partners. Sharing our burdens and all that shit.”

     “When you put it that way, I understand the appeal,” Derek deadpanned, unable to resist allowing himself a brief flash of humour. The way Stiles’s mouth crooked up showed it didn’t go unappreciated, but he also couldn’t leave it there. “I do know you have my back, Stiles. I… I want to try harder to show it, make you feel like you’re getting everything you deserve. Even if that means letting you do more of the work.” That sounded nice, if scary, but Derek guessed Stiles would say that’s the whole point. Letting go of the reins and trusting there was something else maintaining your course than just physics and blind luck.

     Showing more of a smile, though he attempted to hide it by biting his lip, Stiles gave a subtle nod and leaned in to press his lips against Derek’s temple, then his mouth when Derek turned his head just so. The kiss was chaste and brief, but it made Stiles expel a shuddering breath and clutch Derek tighter.

     “It’s the best kind of work,” he said. “I don’t want to lose you either, jackass. The thought of walking away just about fucking killed me.”

     In Derek’s mind, there was little doubt it may have actually killed him if he’d come home just a little bit later and found Stiles already gone and his side of the closet empty, or if he’d somehow failed to make him stay. He knew this conversation could’ve gone very differently, and he still wasn’t exactly sure what he’d said or done to convince Stiles to stick around, but maybe that wasn’t for him to understand. Knowing might make him lazy, might make him forget how truly terrified he’d been at the thought of watching Stiles slip through his fingers for good. Fear wasn’t the reason he’d be motivated to do more, try harder, but it wouldn’t hurt to keep him in line either.

     “I’m glad you’re here,” he said, meaning still and for now and always, even when I don’t understand how I got this fucking lucky.

     “Me too.”

     Those long fingers of Stiles’s raked against Derek’s scalp as he slowly combed through Derek’s hair, effectively gentling him though Derek was starting to feel more relaxed already. At the saucy smirk that slowly pulled Stiles’s lips up at one corner, though, Derek started to tense again, albeit for a very different reason. Oh god, how had he let himself get distracted from that? He shivered when Stiles brought his mouth right up close to his ear and let Derek feel the warm puff of his breath, then the unmistakable scrape of teeth against his earlobe.

     “I’ve missed you kind of a lot lately,” he whispered. “In more ways than one. Help me unpack these bags, and then maybe I’ll remind you how good it can feel to have someone else take the wheel.”

     A quiet moan found its way past Derek’s lips. “I trust your judgement,” he answered. And feeling grateful, at ease, lighter than he had in maybe years, he let himself taste Stiles’s smile and simply let go.