Laura loved thunder storms.
Peter told her once that thunder was the sound of clouds crashing into one another, and she didn’t seem to care that it wasn’t true. She liked the idea that even the air could roar when it was knocked about.
They lived in the south for a while, and when the storms blew in she would run outside to stand barefoot on the warm blacktop and throw her arms out and her head back and spin and spin and spin.
The night Derek rolls into Beacon Hills, a storm rolls in with him. It feels like it’s been following him for days. Over state borders, into California and then up, keeping pace as the trees got thicker and greener all around the highway. When he finally shuts the car off in the shadow of his childhood home, the storm seems to stop and hover overhead. Water pelts down from the sky with no sign of stopping and the clouds rumble in the distance.
The house smells like her. He follows the scent through the rooms and it feels like trailing after her ghost, looking at the things she looked at and touching the things she touched. He finds the room in the tunnels where she was staying littered with her clothes, and her books, and her notes scribbled on bits of paper. He reads through them but none of it means much to him.
He’s been driving for three days. The link between alpha and beta isn’t meant to be stretched over thousands of miles and even if it weren’t tugging at him constantly, pulling him to follow her, the guilt was more than enough to get him moving. Eventually.
But the link is gone now. In the middle of the second day of his drive, Derek had to stop and pull over and puke on the side of the road. He pretended that he didn’t know what it meant.
But he knows.
He finds an old shovel out back but he doesn’t dig the hole.
Instead, he leans against the house - gently, because it’s frail in places - and he listens to the dogs and the men running around in the woods nearby. He imagines digging the hole, and finding Laura alive, and having to tell her that he was so worried that he dug a hole. He imagines her laughing at him.
* * *
“I don’t think Ms. Morell likes me.”
Scott’s setting the leg of a little yellow corgi while Stiles tries to study one of the books on herbs and powders that Deaton gave him. Across the room, Morell’s watching Deaton attempt to give Derek and his pack lessons in how to use the healing side of their werewolf abilities. Isaac, Erica, and Boyd are all doing fine, but Peter is sitting behind Deaton and flashing his eyes at Derek’s canine patient every time Derek starts to get the hang of what Deaton is telling him to do. Each time, the dog panics and Derek gets frustrated and Deaton scowls and scolds him.
The noise is beginning to grate on Stiles’ nerves. “Nonsense,” he says, because Scott’s still waiting for a response. He keeps his eyes focused on the book, trying to figure out where he was when he stopped paying attention to the words. “You’re adorable and chock full of valor. What’s not to love?”
Scott doesn’t say anything, but Stiles can feel him staring. When he finally looks up, Scott’s gaze flicks across the room and Stiles follows it to where Morell is cleaning her nails with the tip of a wickedly curved dagger.
Stiles sighs. “I wish I could pull that off.”
Morell glances up at them and Scott tries to wave. She glares and goes back to watching Derek’s dog freak out.
“She hates me,” declares Scott.
“She doesn’t hate you,” says Stiles. “It’s just that you’re so…nice.” Scott gives him a look that’s heavy with disbelief and Stiles ignores it. “It makes her want to puke a little. Besides, she doesn’t really like anyone. I don’t think she likes Deaton half the time.”
“She likes you,” says Scott.
“Yesterday she said you weren’t completely useless.”
“Yes, I see what you mean. I can really feel the love.”
“Coming from her that’s a pretty big compliment.”
Stiles can’t argue with that. He goes back to his book, but a moment later Scott’s head jerks up the way it does when he’s listening to something Stiles can’t hear. Stiles glances over to see Isaac smirking while he mutters under his breath, and a moment later Scott laughs and then casts a guilty look in Morell’s direction.
Stiles glares at the pages in front of him, but he can’t seem to focus on the words. He glares at Isaac, but Isaac doesn’t notice. Deaton’s trying to tell Derek to give it one more shot with the dog and Peter’s smirking behind him, so Stiles glares at him instead and his smirk just gets bigger.
Scott laughs again and across the room Isaac is grinning, so Stiles closes his book with a snap, mutters something about not being able to concentrate, and goes to stand next to Deaton, conveniently blocking the dog’s view of Peter. Derek glares at him but Stiles pretends not to notice and Derek has to give it up when Deaton snaps at him to concentrate. He tries one last time, and the dog finally relaxes against his hand.
“There, now you’re getting it,” says Deaton.
Derek grumbles that he’s doing the same thing he’s been doing, but he looks pleased just the same.
“Perhaps Stiles is your lucky charm,” says Peter. Stiles and Derek both turn to glare at him, but it only makes him laugh.
Later, on the drive home, Stiles says, “Have you noticed that Peter’s been trying to mess with Derek?”
Judging by the way Scott turns to stare at him, Stiles guesses that he hasn’t. “So what?”
“So he’s up to something,” says Stiles, but Scott doesn’t display an appropriate amount of concern at that so Stiles adds, “the last time he was up to something eight people died.”
“Maybe he’s only mad at Derek this time. Derek did rip his throat out.”
“Yes,” says Stiles, “and Allison and I set him on fire.”
Scott taps his fingers against his door while he thinks about that. “What do you want me to do?”
Stiles shrugs. “Maybe tell your buddy Isaac to keep an eye on him.” Even to his own ears it sounds catty, but Scott just nods and agrees to bring it up the next time he and Isaac hang out.
* * *
Stiles is waiting for a to-go order in the lobby of a Greek restaurant a week later when the woman at the counter says, “What’s the name? Hale? Okay, your order will be ready in about twenty minutes.” Her name tag just says ‘Breezy’ and she hangs up the phone with a smile and leaves to go hang the ticket for the cooks.
Stiles rolls his eyes. He’s fairly certain that Beacon Hills was a lot bigger before Derek moved back.
The phone is ringing again when Breezy returns, and Stiles tones her out until he hears, “Cancel the whole order?” She looks annoyed. “Yeah, of course that’s fine. Have a good day, sir.” The words are polite but the last part sounds astonishingly like ‘go screw yourself.’ She hangs up, rolls her eyes, and turns to go retrieve the ticket.
“Wait!” Stiles jumps up and darts over to the counter. “Was that call to cancel the Hale order?”
“Yes,” she says slowly, “why?”
“Was it the same voice?”
She frowns. “It was a guy.”
“But was it the same guy?”
“Don’t cancel it.”
She starts to shake her head and takes a half-step back, so Stiles says, “I’ll pay for it.” She thinks about it for a moment and then shrugs and rings it up for him. It comes in somewhere around fifty bucks and Stiles glares at the register for a second before grumbling and pulling out his card. “Don’t tell him I did this. Say it was paid by a masked vigilante who used cash. Actually, don’t tell him that either, he’ll know that was me.”
She smiles at him and he forces a smile in return, signs for the card, and goes back to his seat with a sigh.
Derek walks in ten minutes later and Stiles focuses very hard on looking like he’s playing games on his phone so it won’t look like he’s listening when Derek tells Breezy that he’s there to pick up the Hale order and asks if he can pay for it. Breezy tells him cheerfully that it’s already been taken care of and Stiles risks a glance up since Derek’s back is to him. He can’t see Derek’s face but Breezy’s smile is beginning to falter.
“By who?” demands Derek finally.
Stiles goes back to his phone, but in his peripheral vision he sees Derek turn in his direction and he’s sure that Breezy looked at him.
“Stiles,” snaps Derek.
Stiles glances up over the screen. “Derek.”
“Did you pay for my order?” Derek sounds remarkably as if he’s accusing someone of being a serial puppy kicker.
“Oh yeah,” says Stiles, voice dripping with sarcasm, “it’s my new thing. I call it ‘wasting money on people who hate me.’ It’s gonna be bigger than planking.”
Derek rolls his eyes. Further along the counter, beneath a sign that says ‘pick-up,’ someone calls out Stiles’ order number and he tries not to sprint over to it and run from the shop, because that would make him look guilty. He can feel Derek’s eyes burning holes in the back of his skull all the way out the door but he keeps his own eyes firmly forward. After all, not looking back is the only way to walk away from a disaster with any dignity.
* * *
A month later Derek’s car runs out of gas in the middle of a long stretch of road just outside of town and he’s actually really, really happy about it. It’s not that he likes being miserable, it’s just that good things don’t often happen to him. It’s a truth he’s learned to accept. His life, essentially, has amounted to a couple decades of proof that Murphy’s Law is true.
Or at least, that had been the case until this last month in Beacon Hills. The alphas hadn’t made a move yet, the hunters were quiet, Scott was working his way through summer school and the pack, though they’d never been exactly stable, seemed to be operating smoothly.
For four long weeks, Derek has been waiting for the other shoe to drop. And as if to add to that anxiety, nice things keep happening to him. He doesn’t know how else to describe it. He gets discounts at the shops and restaurants he frequents in town, every trip to the grocery store is a weird series of finding his favorite items almost sold out but not quite - there’s always just one left, like it was set aside for him.
The old women of the Neighborhood Watch have taken to offering him cookies and pastries whenever he walks past their favorite cafe, and he wouldn’t think anything of it except that he’s seen them slap away the hands of people who came after him expecting the same treatment.
So the car thing is inconvenient, but it also feels like life is finally getting back to normal. Of course, it’s also raining, and his phone is dead, and he’s a few miles from the nearest gas station. All in all it’s a perfect set up for the beginning of a movie about something horrible in the woods that eats tourists.
But Derek is the something horrible in the woods (not that he eats tourists), so he sucks it up and starts walking. Half an hour later he’s soaked to the bone, miserable, and kicking himself for never remembering to plug his stupid phone in. He hears the sound of a car coming up behind him and turns. He’s not the sort of person that generally gets picked up off the side of the road but given his odd streak of ‘luck’ lately, he still manages to be hopeful.
When he realizes that the vehicle quickly gaining on him is a familiar blue jeep, he decides that he is definitely the butt of some sort of cosmic joke. He’s a little surprised when the jeep actually slows to a stop and Stiles leans over to shove the passenger door open. He considers ignoring the invitation, but walking in wet jeans is marginally less appealing than talking to Stiles, so he sighs and gets in.
“Where are we going?” asks Stiles.
“Gas station.” Derek folds his arms and leans against his door.
Stiles laughs, but it chokes off when Derek glares at him. That doesn’t stop him from saying, “You ran out of gas?” like it’s the funniest thing he’s heard all day.
Derek has no intention of answering, but Stiles doesn’t say anything else, he just waits. If prompted, Derek probably wouldn’t be able to explain how that’s different from just being quiet, but it is, so eventually he mutters, “I’ve been avoiding the gas station.”
“The guy that works there keeps talking to me.”
“Really.” Stiles’ voice is completely flat but the way the corners of his mouth begin to curl up heralds more laughter.
“Yes,” Derek grates out, “he’s never spoken to me before and now he talks every time I show up. Just wanders out of his little mini mart thing and starts chatting. It’s weird. And creepy.”
“That’s what creeps you out?” asks Stiles. “People being nice?”
Derek opens his mouth to protest, but actually that’s exactly what creeps him out so he closes it again and glares.
“Oh,” says Stiles.
“It’s not just him.” Derek knows he sounds defensive but he’s too tired and miserable to care. “Everyone in town’s been doing it. I’d blame the alphas but-”
Stiles erupts into laughter, which is actually the same thing that Erica did on the one occasion that Derek mentioned his concerns to her, and not for the first time Derek considers just killing them all and starting over somewhere new.
“What?” he demands.
“Sorry,” says Stiles, but he doesn’t sound it. “It’s not the alphas.”
Derek narrows his eyes. “What do you mean?”
“Look - I’m really sorry. I guess I sort of needed a project, because Scott’s been spending all his time with Isaac and -” he glances up and notices Derek’s still glaring at him and swallows.
“And your new project was me?”
“No,” says Stiles immediately. He glances at Derek again. “Not exactly. Sort of - I was just trying to stop Peter from making you miserable.”
“Because things that Peter wants are generally the opposite of the things that I want. Because he bit Scott and hurt Lydia and I’d just - much rather have you be the alpha.” Stiles shrugs as they pull into the gas station and when he shuts off the engine he looks up and Derek still can’t find any trace of a lie or a joke in his face.
Stiles laughs again. “Most of it was actually Ruth.” Derek’s never met anyone named Ruth and it must show on his face because Stiles adds, “She’s the old lady that lives across the street from me. She started helping me out after Peter recruited Rhonda - you should look out for her, by the way. She lives on Scott’s street and she’s vicious.”
“Why would Ruth help you -” Derek tries to come up with a word for what Stiles has been doing but he can’t.
Stiles suddenly looks twice as guilty and shifts in his seat. “About that. I guess she saw you climb in through my window and she’s seen us around...together...”
Derek raises an eyebrow and Stiles sighs, his red cheeks getting redder.
“She thinks we’re dating.”
Derek’s eyes narrow and Stiles winces. “And you corrected her.”
“I thought she’d be less likely to help if I did, so...no. No I did not.”
Derek’s hand shoots out out to smack Stiles’ head into the steering wheel again but Stiles jerks away, pressing his back into the door.
“Hey!” he snaps, holding up his hands and pointing an accusing finger at Derek. “I was trying to help, okay? Besides, what do you care what Ruth thinks?”
“I don’t care what Ruth thinks,” snaps Derek, “I care what Ruth tells people - specifically armed people - like your father. You’re underage, Stiles, I could get arrested! Again.”
“They’d need proof to arrest you,” says Stiles dismissively.
“I could get shot.”
Stiles tries to roll his eyes and shrug that off like it’s completely ridiculous. “My dad’s not a nutjob.”
Derek doesn’t grace that with a response.
“Okay, fine, you could get shot. But it’s not like he’s some wolfsbane-toting hunter type. It’ll just be a regular bullet.” Stiles actually reaches out and pats Derek’s arm in what he probably thinks is a reassuring manner. “You’ll walk it off.”
“Stop helping me,” says Derek.
“Right now, or after-?”
Derek shoots him a glare and shoves his door open so he can go in and buy a gas container.
“After,” Stiles decides with a broad, fake smile. “Cool. I’ll wait here.”
Derek shuts the door with more force than necessary because he knows it’ll annoy Stiles and Stiles mutters way to be an asshole under his breath because he knows Derek will hear it. In the distance, the clouds begin to rumble.
The storm lasts for four days, and Stiles doesn’t see Derek again after the first one. Probably that’s for the best, since Derek wasn’t exactly pleased with him, but Stiles doesn’t see much of anyone else, either. He goes around to Ruth’s for dinner one evening when the rain finally stops and he sits at her scrubbed wooden table with a glass of iced tea.
“How’s that boy of yours doing?” she has her back to him while she fiddles with a pot of chili on the stove. Stiles likes talking to Ruth for a lot of reasons, and one of them is that she refers to nearly everyone he knows as if they’re all cute little kids, rather than werewolves or ex-lizard monsters or recently dead murderers.
He suddenly remembers Derek almost slamming his head into the steering wheel (again) and his smile falters. “We’re not together,” he admits finally. “He actually sort of hates me.”
Stiles doesn’t bother adding that he sort of hates Derek back, because then he’d have to explain why he got her to help him do nice things for Derek in the first place and that’s not a conversation he wants to have. Mostly because he doesn’t have an explanation to offer that doesn’t involve monsters and murder.
She turns, one hand still on the ladle and the other flying to her hip, and scowls at him. “He broke up with you?”
“No,” says Stiles quickly, “we were never together. I just help him out sometimes, and I -” he shrugs. “You’ve seen him.”
Her eyebrows arch as she turns back to the stove. “I have at that. The lord blessed that boy something fierce.”
“I think he’d have taken his blessings elsewhere if it were up to him,” says Stiles.
Ruth’s shoulders tense and she spends a couple moments adding seasoning to the chili before she says, “I don’t know how he could hate somebody who helps him. I don’t see a lot of people lining up for the opportunity.”
Stiles gives the back of her head a rueful smile. “You’ve clearly never spoken to him.”
She humphs at that. “Do you want me to call off those favors?”
Stiles thinks about it for a moment before remembering the way Derek’s voice sounded when he admitted that all the niceness was freaking him out. “No,” he decides. “He might hate me, but he still deserves some happiness.”
Ruth gives him a fond smile, assuming that he’s being kind rather than vindictive. Stiles doesn’t correct her.
* * *
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about,” says Peter.
“Neither do I,” adds Isaac from his spot at the kitchen table, where he’s watching them with equal parts interest and trepidation.
Derek closes his eyes against Isaac’s curiosity and Peter’s amusement and tries to swallow his own burning frustration. He doesn’t get headaches, but if he did he’s pretty sure this is how they’d start. “I’m going to bed.”
“But I’m making eggplant lasagna,” says Peter.
“I hate eggplant,” snaps Derek, but Peter knows that. If he liked it, Peter wouldn’t be making it. He’s almost through the doorway when Peter speaks again.
“You should bite him.”
Derek freezes. “Excuse me?”
“All that loyalty and resourcefulness,” muses Peter, and when Derek turns to look at him his eyes are shining with a worrisome mixture of hunger and delight. “Imagine if it were directed at you.”
Derek can't think of anything to say that would fully express his disdain for that idea so he just glares and continues up to his room. He has neither the desire nor the intention to bite anyone, particularly someone he barely tolerates. Still, it takes him ages to fall asleep and he can’t help thinking of all the ways that things would be different if he still had someone he could trust the way Scott can trust Stiles - if he still had Laura.
The trouble with missing the dead is that you begin to find them everywhere, and Stiles, for all his faults and annoyances, has more in common with Laura than Derek cares to admit. But Derek’s tired of thinking about her and he’s definitely tired of thinking about Stiles, so for his purposes the ‘someone’ he wishes for is bland and faceless and has little in common with either of them.
* * *
Stiles stops by Ruth’s on a cold Sunday morning in October to find Rhonda sitting in her kitchen. He glares but Rhonda waves away his disapproval like it’s nothing more than a bothersome fly.
Stiles sits down across from her as Ruth comes in behind him, chattering away. He catches something about how she and Rhonda got up early and went shopping at the Farmer’s Market before Ruth sets a little package in front of him. She smiles. “I saw it and I thought of you. It’ll keep your head warm, since you insist on cutting off all your lovely hair.”
She runs a hand over his head as she turns away to get him a cup of tea. He tears the brown paper apart to reveal a fuzzy gray hat with the sort of long ear flaps that are meant to double as a scarf. The top of the hat is shaped like a wolf’s head, and the flaps have little claws dangling from the bottom, just below the small pockets which Stiles can’t imagine ever having a use for.
“Try it on,” says Rhonda. She smirks at him in a way that makes him think she knows more about Peter than she’s letting on, but then Ruth comes back with the tea and she watches Stiles expectantly so he tugs the hat onto his head. If nothing else, the way her face lights up means he’s actually going to have to wear the damn thing. At least it’s comfortable.
He plasters a big smile on his face and says, “Thanks.”
Ruth smiles back and runs her fingers over the soft faux fur of the hat. “You’re welcome.”
He has to run errands for his dad after brunch and on his way home he stops to get gas and pulls up to the pump behind a familiar black Camaro. He tries not to laugh at the look on Derek’s face while the gas station attendant chatters away, but then he figures he’s been slammed into enough things that he’s allowed to find it funny, so he laughs anyway. He gets out, pays for his gas, sets up the pump to fill his tank and wanders over toward Derek’s car to worm his way into the conversation. If there’s anything Stiles is good at, it’s talking.
He lures the attendant (a nice young man called Jerry) away from Derek, who sags against the side of the Camaro with a sigh. A moment later, Stiles brings the conversation to a stuttering halt and Jerry, after an uncomfortable, hesitant glance between them, retreats into the convenience store.
Derek doesn’t say thank you.
“You need to do something about Peter,” Stiles tells him.
Derek removes the gas pump from his car and doesn’t meet Stiles’ gaze. “Is he bothering you?”
Stiles blinks. The answer is yes - deprived of whatever joy and entertainment he was getting out of making Derek’s life miserable, Peter has taken to turning up wherever Stiles happens to be and generally just being creepy. “That’s not what I meant,” says Stiles, because he set the guy on fire. As long as Peter’s not outright trying to kill him, he figures he’s doing okay.
The pack is another story. When school started back up, Scott insisted that Isaac be included in their morning carpool and Isaac then insisted that Erica and Boyd be included as well. Stiles is starting to feel like a chauffeur for lunar-sensitive teenagers, but he’s also getting a lot of secondhand information about how things are going over at Derek’s werewolf frat house.
“He’s freaking out the other betas,” he says. “I know you think he’s your responsibility or whatever, but Isaac and Erica and Boyd have never killed or mauled anyone, so I think they deserve priority. It’s hard for them to relax or listen to you when he’s standing around doing that creepy thing with his -” Stiles gestures absently, but there’s no one part of Peter that’s creepier than all the other parts of Peter, so he ends up saying, “- everything.”
Derek doesn’t respond, but he doesn’t glare either. The gas pump feeding Stiles’ car clicks off, so Stiles shoves his hands into the little pockets of his hat flaps. Their use, apparently, is to give him something to do with his hands during awkward silences. He starts backing up and Derek doesn’t move, so Stiles waves at him without removing his hand from the pocket and the little flimsy claws dance through the air.
“Nice hat,” says Derek.
Stiles puffs himself up. He’s unreasonably proud of the hat, mostly because Ruth got it for him while he wasn’t even around and it makes him feel special, so he says, “Yeah it is,” like he’s challenging Derek to disagree.
Derek rolls his eyes and Stiles shoots him a smug grin before turning around and going back to the jeep. He doesn’t glance back again until he’s putting the gas pump away, but when he does he catches Derek smirking as he climbs into the driver’s seat of the Camaro.
* * *
“Sorry, man, we’re going out of town. My dad called out of nowhere and he’s got this whole thing set up with his parents and my mom’s parents and her mom says she has to go because now there’s an olive branch involved or something - my mom’s not happy about it.” Scott gives a helpless shrug.
Stiles sighs. His dad has to work, and it won’t be the first Thanksgiving he’s ever spent alone, but that doesn’t make the prospect any more pleasant. “Tell her I wish her good fortune and, should that fail, a hero’s death.”
“We’re not going to battle.”
Scott rolls his eyes and claps Stiles on the shoulder before taking off. His mom’s picking him up for school for once, so Stiles drives Erica and Boyd home and then finds himself alone in the Jeep with Isaac, who looks less pleased the closer they get to the Hale house.
“Got any plans for the weekend?” asks Stiles.
“No,” says Isaac.
“How do you feel about almond pea soup?”
Isaac frowns and shrugs and says, “Okay, I guess,” so Stiles takes him to Ruth’s. If nothing else, helping Isaac avoid Peter for a little while longer has to earn Stiles some brownie points. Since it seems that Isaac is becoming a permanent fixture in Scott’s life, Stiles figures he’ll have to budge up and make room for him the same way he did with Allison, and now seems as good a time to start as any.
“I hope you don’t mind I brought someone with me,” he calls out when he walks into Ruth’s house.
“The more the merrier,” she calls back.
Stiles leads Isaac into the kitchen and introduces him, and Ruth showers him with questions and attention that make him look both grateful and slightly uncomfortable. Mostly she spends the meal talking about the Neighborhood Watch meetings and Rhonda’s continued attempts to get the poor young man who runs them to die of embarrassment.
“What are you doing for the holiday?” she asks eventually, and they glance at each other before ducking their heads to focus on their food.
“Well surely you’re doing something,” says Ruth.
Stiles suddenly and desperately doesn’t want to tell her he doesn’t have plans, so he turns to Isaac and asks, “Does that house have an oven?”
Isaac looks up, his discomfort temporarily overridden by curiosity. “Yeah, that’s actually one of the first ‘improvements’ Peter made. Derek’s convinced he’s going to use it to burn the rest of the place down while we sleep.”
Ruth laughs as if Isaac were joking and Stiles smiles to encourage that misconception. “Okay,” he says, “let’s table that discussion for later. On a scale of growling to evisceration, how pissed do you think Derek would be if we commandeered his kitchen to make a Thanksgiving feast?”
Isaac thinks about it. “At most I’d say mild injury. Nothing life-threatening.”
Stiles should probably be more interested in why Derek’s possible mild-injury-inducing rage doesn’t concern him, but he’s too busy acting as if that, too, was a joke. “I can live with that. Do you want to commandeer Derek’s kitchen to make a Thanksgiving feast?”
Isaac shrugs and nods and starts to smile. “Sure.”
* * *
They barely manage to get the food into the kitchen before Peter arrives to see what all the noise is about.
“Make yourself useful,” says Stiles, passing Peter onions and a cutting board, and to his surprise Peter goes to work on them without comment. Stiles and Isaac get the turkey stuffed and in the oven by the time Derek shuffles into the doorway and glares.
“Morning, sunshine,” says Stiles cheerfully.
“What are you doing?” demands Derek.
Stiles thinks Derek is probably trying to look intimidating but between his disheveled hair and the way he has his arms wrapped around his middle and the fact that his pajama bottoms are too long and almost completely envelope his feet, he misses intimidating by a wide margin and falls somewhere in the vicinity of adorable.
Stiles swallows and pretends that ‘adorable’ hasn’t entered his Derek Hale vocabulary.
“It’s Thanksgiving,” says Isaac by way of explanation.
Derek doesn’t look impressed.
“Either get over here and help with the food prep or get out,” says Stiles, “you’re ruining the happy Thanksgiving vibe we’ve been working on.”
Derek narrows his eyes and mutters, “There better be coffee when I get back,” before turning and disappearing back up the stairs.
“Does coffee affect werewolves?” asks Stiles.
“No, he just likes it,” says Peter.
“It’s bitter and dark like his soul,” adds Isaac. Stiles laughs but he also gets a fresh pot started because he really doesn’t want to get torn to shreds. Especially not before dinner.
Derek returns half an hour later, still grumpy but properly dressed and fresh from a shower. He pours himself a large mug of coffee and leans against the counter in front of the sink and seems to bask in it as if it’s the most delicious thing he’s ever tasted. Stiles makes a mental note that Derek likes his coffee the same way the Sheriff likes his coffee, and then makes a mental note to erase that mental note because he doesn’t care.
“You finally got it right,” Derek tells Isaac a few minutes later, after he’s started his second cup and looks much more at peace with the world.
“I got it right,” Stiles corrects him, “You can repay me by skinning and halving those potatoes.” He points at a bag of them on the counter next to the sink. Derek raises an eyebrow, which Stiles ignores, and when the second cup of coffee has been drained Derek actually grabs the bag of potatoes and starts washing them. Stiles manages not to do a victory fist-pump but it’s close.
They spend nearly an hour working together to get all of the food ready to go, but most of the actual cooking doesn’t need to happen until much later. Stiles ends up trying to get Isaac to teach him basic self defense and fighting techniques, but Isaac’s not very good at it so Derek starts teaching both of them while Peter sits on the back of the couch and smirks.
Punching Derek, even with his permission, is a daunting task. Mostly because it feels a lot like punching a brick wall and has about as much effect. But Derek tells him he’s getting better and Stiles figures Derek doesn’t care enough about his delicate psyche to lie about it, so that’s something.
Peter’s somewhat less supportive. He pipes up, when Stiles takes a step back to nurse his aching knuckles, with, “You should just wear your wolf hat. No one will want to pick a fight with someone who’d wear that thing in public.”
Derek smirks and Isaac lets his fist drop and turns to stare. “You have a wolf hat?”
“I’ll have you assholes know that it was a gift,” says Stiles, “from Ruth, who is considerably cooler than anyone here.” When Derek’s expression clouds at the mention of her, Stiles quickly adds, “And who is now aware that I’m single, by the way.”
“Really? Because I was handed three pastries yesterday,” says Derek.
“Oh come on,” says Stiles, rolling his eyes, “who complains about free pastries?”
“At least they’re not bullets?” offers Stiles.
Derek continues glaring while Peter snickers and Isaac looks somewhat lost.
“She may think she’s helping me win you over,” admits Stiles. “I had to give her a reason why we were doing nice things for you in the first place.”
“Hang on,” says Isaac, “she thought you were dating Derek?”
Stiles bristles. “Try not to sound too shocked. I happen to be a catch.”
Isaac ignores that. “Dating you comes with free pastries? Can I date you?”
Stiles rolls his eyes. “Can we go back to punching each other? Please?”
* * *
Either the alphas don’t hear him coming or they don’t think he’s a threat. There are three - a female and two males - all younger than the other alphas Stiles has seen from the pack so far.
He’d been having dinner with his dad when he got the call from Allison. “Trouble,” she’d said, “Isaac’s in trouble.” She gave him an address and he didn’t wait for his dad’s permission, he just took off. He had no idea how he was going to explain that, just like he had no idea why he thought he was just going to be able to walk up to the three Alphas with nothing but a baseball bat and take their new chew toy away from them.
He works out nicknames for them as he creeps forward. He started doing it the first time he and Scott had a run-in with their pack; they never seemed inclined to introduce themselves and Stiles needed some way to keep them straight in his head.
The guy who laughs at everything becomes Chuckles, and the other guy is Cupcake because he looks serious and rugged and Stiles expects to find the juxtaposition funny later. Isaac keeps running his mouth off at them and he’s probably only doing it to help distract them until Stiles can get within striking range but Isaac’s a little too good at riling them up. Before Stiles is close enough to do anything, the woman lashes out, claws glinting in the yellow streetlight before digging into Isaac’s stomach. Isaac cries out and falls back.
Stiles decides to call the woman Slasher just before he brings his bat up to meet the back of her skull. She spins, dazed but not down. Stiles hits her again and she crumples.
He spends a little too much time panicking (I did that, I really did that holy god-), which only leaves him with a brief moment to realize that he doesn’t have time to get the bat up to defend himself from Cupcake. Cupcake raises a clawed hand and snarls, and then makes another noise that Stiles isn’t sure how to categorize as an arrow bursts through his head from the side.
Stiles doesn’t even wait for him to hit the ground; he dodges to the side and comes up beside Chuckles, who’s looking around, half-crouched, too busy trying to see where the arrow came from to defend himself against Stiles’ bat. Another two hits and Chuckles stays down.
Stiles drags Isaac up off the ground, ignoring Isaac’s cry of pain, and the two of them begin to shuffle back across the parking lot as fast as possible.
“My jeep’s not far,” Stiles promises.
Isaac grunts, but he doesn’t say anything. Stiles is holding one of Isaac’s arms around his own shoulders to keep him upright and Isaac’s other arm is wrapped around his stomach where Slasher mauled him. Stiles is so busy worrying about whether Isaac’s even going to make it back to the jeep that he doesn’t notice the car until it screeches to a halt in front of them and he looks up, horrified, to see his dad.
The Sheriff starts to get out and Stiles glances back at the three bodies in the parking lot. Two of them are already starting to stir.
“Get back in the car.” Stiles pulls the back door open and shoves Isaac in. “He needs help and they’re getting up, we have to go.”
“You bashed their heads in,” says the Sheriff, and Stiles is still holding the bloody bat in one hand so he can’t really argue with that. “One of them got shot with - with an arrow?”
“I know,” says Stiles, “I know it’s a lot but they’ll be fine. Fine enough to chase us if we don’t leave right now, and Isaac’s hurt, dad. We have to go.”
“Get in the back.”
Stiles dives in and his dad sits down in the driver’s seat and stares out the window at the two shapes climbing to their feet.
“Go,” says Stiles, “Go now.”
The Sheriff slams his door shut and pulls back out onto the road with a screech. Stiles doesn’t waste time trying to convince him to go to the clinic, he just calls Melissa and tells her to get Dr. Fenris and a stretcher and meet them at the emergency entrance.
The Sheriff tries to tell Stiles to stay in the car when they get to the hospital but Isaac gets his arm back around Stiles’ shoulders and won’t let go, so both boys make it out of the police cruiser. Stiles doesn’t wait for his dad’s permission to start helping Isaac limp up to the building.
Melissa and Fenris rush forward immediately to help Isaac onto the stretcher and Melissa disappears with him while Stiles grabs Fenris’ arm to keep him from following.
“I don’t have time for your woe-is-me bullshit. Isaac’s a werewolf and I don’t know whether he’s allergic to anything you’ve got in there. I need you to help him as best you can without giving him anything until I can get someone down here who knows what he’s doing.”
Stiles fixes him with a cold, hard glare. “If he dies because you gave him the wrong drugs, his alpha will kill you.”
Fenris swallows and nods and takes off and Stiles sags a little, running a bloody hand over his hair before looking up to see his father staring at him like he’s never quite seen him before.
Stiles looks away and pulls his phone out. He calls Deaton first, and Deaton promises to be there in less than five minutes. Then he calls Derek.
“What?” is apparently Derek’s idea of an appropriate greeting.
“Isaac got attacked. He’s at the hospital, you have to get here now.”
“Why the hell is he at a hospital?” demands Derek, and Stiles can hear muffled noises as Derek does whatever he needs to do to get ready to leave wherever he happens to be. It sounds like he’s pulling on pants, but Stiles forces his mind away from that train of thought.
“My dad was driving,” says Stiles. “He watched me bash a couple skulls in, he wasn’t really in the mood to argue.”
“You did what?” demands Derek, and in the background Stiles’ can hear the slam of a door and footsteps on stairs.
He hears Peter say, “I told you-”
But Derek snaps at him to shut up and more doors slam before a car engine turns over. “Whose skulls?”
“I don’t know their names,” says Stiles, “alphas, younger ones. Not too bright and not too skilled. They didn’t even hear me coming.”
“I don’t know.”
Derek swears and there’s a scuffling noise as the phone gets passed off.
“Barring any unfortunate police activity, we should be there shortly,” says Peter. “I believe Derek has some colorful suggestions as to what Scott ought to do with his phone if he’s not going to answer it.”
Stiles doesn’t bother mentioning that he hasn’t actually tried calling Scott yet. “See you when I see you,” he says, and he hangs up before Peter can respond.
He goes to call Scott but the Sheriff says, “Stop,” and Stiles swallows and exits out of the recent contacts menu. He stares at his phone for a moment, wipes some of the blood off on his hoodie and shoves it in his pocket. It’s quiet out - apparently the Beacon Hills E.R. isn’t really an exciting place to be on a Tuesday night.
“So,” says the Sheriff, but Stiles can’t quite meet his eyes. When the silence begins to drag out, he continues, “Really? You’re not going to offer me an explanation for this? For any of it? I need you to help me out here, Stiles, because I just drove you away from a crime scene and I don’t even -” He drags a hand down his face and then brings it back up to shield his eyes for a moment, like the sight of Stiles is painful. “All I can think is that nothing has made sense for over a year now, and the only person who’s been at or around all the crime scenes is you.”
Stiles’ mouth falls open. “I’ve never killed anyone.”
“But you know,” says the Sheriff, “you know who killed those people last year. Who killed Laura Hale and Kate Argent and all the others.”
Stiles doesn’t deny that.
The Sheriff turns away from him for a moment, running his hands through his hair before spinning on his heel to face Stiles again. “Who are you?”
Stiles has no idea what to say to that, but his dad seems to expect an answer, so he says, “I’m your son.”
That earns him an ugly laugh. “My son? My son doesn’t lie to me, my son doesn’t protect murderers, my son doesn’t bash people’s skulls in.”
Stiles looks down at his hands. They’re still bloody, and it’s Isaac’s blood mostly but he still tucks them away beneath his arms. “You’re wrong.”
“Please tell me how,” says the Sheriff.
“I’m not ‘protecting a murderer,’” says Stiles, “ I don’t give a flying fuck about him. I’m protecting you. You can’t arrest him - the holding cells couldn’t even keep Isaac in and he’s new at this. You have no way of holding any werewolf, much less a powerful psychotic one, so yeah, I lied.
“And you know what? Those people tonight - they’ll be fine. I did what I had to, to stop them from killing Isaac - who still might die, by the way. And if he does, those three idiots are going to turn up cold in a ditch somewhere and I’m not going to waste my time being sad about it.”
The Sheriff’s eyebrows shoot up for a moment before his eyes narrow. “Werewolves?”
“Is that what you just said? My holding cells can’t contain werewolves?”
Stiles’ mouth works for a moment but he can’t really see a way out so he says, “Yeah, well, they can’t.”
“Werewolves. Seriously? That’s what you’re going with?”
“I can get Scott to show you later, there’s a whole face thing that happens, it’s very cool. When it’s not lethal. Which - Scott’s never killed anyone, that’s not-” Stiles stops talking when he hears the squeal of tires and he turns to see the Camaro approaching. “For the record, Derek’s never killed anyone either.” He doesn’t actually know if that’s true but for his dad’s sake he tries to sound sure.
“Derek Hale?” demands the Sheriff, as if there’s a plethora of possibly murderous ‘Derek’s in Beacon Hills.
Derek’s out of the car as soon as the keys are out of the ignition. “Where’s Isaac?”
“Melissa took him. Deaton’s on his way,” says Stiles, and he points toward the sliding doors. Derek goes without sparing Stiles and the Sheriff another glance.
Peter slides out of the car and slinks up to stand nearer to Stiles than Stiles would like. He brushes invisible dust off his coat and offers the Sheriff a charming smile.
“You’re not going in?” asks Stiles pointedly.
“I’m not overly fond of hospitals,” says Peter.
“Sorry - you’re Peter Hale, aren’t you? The missing coma patient?” asks the Sheriff.
Peter’s smile broadens. “I am, thank you.”
“That wasn’t a compliment,” says Stiles.
“I can’t help but notice that you’re not in a coma,” says the Sheriff.
“No,” drawls Peter. “Perks of being a werewolf.”
Stiles turns to glare at him. “Do you mind? We were in the middle of a private conversation.”
“I really don’t,” says Peter. “Carry on.”
“You’re a dick,” spits Stiles.
Peter just smirks at him. “Says the boy who set me on fire.”
Stiles actually laughs, but it’s a mean sound. “You know, I don’t even have a comeback to that - I have several. Would you like a complete list or should I just pick the most important one?”
“Top three?” asks Peter.
“Scott, Laura, Lydia,” says Stiles, ticking them off on his fingers.
Peter’s eyebrows shoot up but Deaton and Scott arrive before he can say anything about it and Stiles turns away to lead them into the hospital. He knows they don’t really need his help, but at least Peter won’t follow him in. To his relief, his dad trails after them, leaving Peter alone in the dim light outside.
* * *
It always starts the same way. The prickling of his skin itching to shift and warp and stretch, his bones aching to crack and reform, teeth and claws begging to come out, feet longing to run, run, run.
Once upon a time, Derek controlled the shift by thinking of the smell of his mother’s hair as it fell around him when she leaned over to help him with his homework, or the sound of his father’s laughter - a robust noise that could fill any room in their house. But all of that had started to feel like another lifetime. Or someone else’s lifetime, maybe.
Pain keeps you human, so after the fire he latched onto that. Any time he felt the change sneaking up on him, he remembered the price his family had paid for his rash behavior. He watched the sag of Laura’s shoulders and he measured the bags beneath her eyes and he remembered laying awake at night in those first months after they lost everything, listening to her stilted, shuddering breaths as she tried to keep him from hearing her cry.
That, in itself, had been enough, but his long list of sins just keeps getting longer with every misstep that leads to more death and violence.
Derek has plenty of reasons to be angry.
So it comes as a surprise when the anger suddenly isn’t enough. Fenris is trying to keep Isaac stable but Isaac keeps crying out, his pain and terror nagging at Derek and making his claws and fangs start to grow as he paces in front of the door. He would have burst in long before now and knocked Fenris into next month, but Melissa is standing in the way with her hands on her hips. Her lips are drawn into a tight line and she smells like fear but she’s glaring at him and she doesn’t flinch when he growls.
Derek and Melissa both turn to see Scott, Deaton, Stiles, and the Sheriff approaching from the end of the hall.
“Where the hell have you been?” snaps Derek, but Deaton ignores him and Scott glares. Deaton goes right into the room without pausing but Scott stops when he reaches his mother to ask if she’s alright.
“Fine,” says Melissa, without taking her eyes off Derek. She actually sounds sympathetic.
Scott gives Derek a wary look, but then Stiles says, “It’s fine dude, go help the doc.”
Scott nods once, and disappears into Isaac’s room.
“Derek,” says Stiles.
Derek grits his teeth even as they continue to grow and he eyes the door that he knows will take him to Isaac. He has no intention of listening to a bunch of platitudes, and he’s about to take a step forward when a hand wraps around his elbow. He looks down, red eyes meeting brown ones, and wonders how Stiles got that close to him without him noticing.
Stiles’ whole body is tense, he reeks of sweat and blood and fear, but he smiles. It’s a real smile, and even if it’s stretched a little too thin it still contains all the stubborn hope that Derek thought only Scott could be foolish enough to hang onto.
“Everything’s going to be fine,” says Stiles, and to Derek’s surprise he isn’t lying. He pulls his hand away before Derek can ask him to and just stands there with him and waits. The steady pumping of his heart is a more convincing argument for patience than anything anyone has said so far.
Eventually the door opens and Melissa stands aside and Fenris beckons and Derek’s off in a rush to see Isaac, to sneak him out of the hospital and back home. There’s no time to worry about the echo of Stiles’ voice in his head or the ghost of his heartbeat.
Derek brushes it off, pretends to forget it, keeps his distance when Stiles and Scott come around to hang out with Isaac while he’s couch-bound and healing. But Laura’s birthday rolls around and he can’t look at Peter so he drives out to a bunch of hills and trees he doesn’t know and runs until his lungs burn and his legs ache. He stops to rest and feels his claws begin to slide out, and he tries to make himself angry, goes down his list starting with the first day Kate Argent smiled at him but it doesn’t work.
For once, he’s not angry. He’s just tired and desperate. It feels like his skin is paper thin, like it’ll collapse at the slightest bit of pressure and then he’ll spill everywhere and he doesn’t want to. He crouches down, curling in on himself, burying his head in his hands and he hears it again in the back of his mind - everything’s going to be fine, and the steady thrum of truth, like Stiles has found some way to haunt him without having to die first.
It’s already starting to get dark when he drives back to Beacon Hills, and by the time he reaches Stiles’ house the stars are out. He parks on the road and slips behind the houses and up to the roof outside of Stiles’ room. He doesn’t knock, doesn’t even really listen too closely, he just sits there with the house and the hum of electricity and all the little noises of the person moving around within. It feels strange - too warm, like stepping into a hot bath when your feet are ice cold. He leans his head back against the wall and focuses on Stiles’ heartbeat until everything begins to feel calm, until his skin feels like skin again.
The window slides open and he jumps and starts to panic, but then Stiles pokes his head out and raises an eyebrow. “My dad’s not here.”
Derek’s not sure what he was expecting to hear, but that wasn’t it. He doesn’t have any excuse for being on Stiles’ roof, though, so he just says, “Oh.”
“I’m attempting to make dinner. If you want, you can come laugh at me as I fail.”
“I was just-”
Stiles throws his hands up and shakes his head, says, “Don’t even want to know, dude,” and vanishes back inside. He leaves the window open. “It’s mac n’ cheese night!”
Derek tells himself he only goes in because he has to find out how anyone could mess up macaroni and cheese. They have a long argument about whether the dish is better plain or with salsa and somehow Derek loses a bet that he doesn’t remember wagering and gets roped into playing Call of Duty to settle the debt.
About an hour later, he remembers that this isn’t his life. That they aren’t friends and he has responsibilities and he can’t sit around playing video games. The paper-thin sensation starts to return, as if every piece of him is fragile and exposed and he can’t figure out why Stiles is just sitting there quietly rather than trying to break him apart.
He starts trying to come up with a way to escape, but before he can say anything Stiles shuts the game off.
“Window’s still open,” he says.
Derek looks up at him, wonders if he should apologize or explain, but Stiles doesn’t seem insulted or upset, so Derek just leaves.
* * *
Stiles is freezing cold and pretty sure he’s strained something by the time he fixes Ruth’s satellite dish and goes back inside. He wipes his feet off and takes the hot chocolate she hands him and says, “Can you write me a letter of recommendation?”
Her eyebrows furrow. “For fixing satellite dishes?”
“No. I’m going to apply for a friendship and I want to do it right.”
Ruth opens her mouth and then closes it again, but after a moment she seems to decide not to argue with him over what the ‘right’ way to go about making friends is. “Sure. When do you need it by?”
“Whenever you get around to it,” says Stiles. “No hurry.”
The next day as he’s driving Scott, Erica, Isaac, and Boyd home he asks them the same thing.
“It feels like you’re giving me a homework assignment,” complains Scott.
“I could write it for you,” offers Stiles. “’Not only is Stiles my best friend and the smartest human being I know - aside from Lydia Martin, of course - he’s the only reason I’m still alive today, and I-’”
“I’ll write it,” says Scott, rolling his eyes.
“Can I write one?” asks Boyd. ”I’ve got some observations to make about your character that start with the ‘fuh’ sound.”
“All entries are welcome,” says Stiles, “but I’d appreciate it if you refrained from using inappropriate language.”
“Are you going to tell us what this is for?” asks Erica.
“No, not really.”
* * *
He spends the evening putting together a resume. Under ‘Experience’ it says things like, Best Friend to Scott McCall (2004-Present), and Forced Acquaintance to Jackson Whittmore (2007-Present) with duties listed underneath. Under ‘Skills’ he’s written Bullshitting and nothing else. He stares at the blinking cursor for a while before wandering downstairs and plopping down on the couch. His dad glances at him a few times before muting the T.V.
“You hate hockey.”
“Yeah,” says Stiles.
“So what’s up?”
“What would you say are some of my more admirable skills, as a friend?”
“Well, you’re loyal. And dependable. And trustworthy, even if you aren’t always honest.”
“I was hoping for more actionable stuff. Like what do I really bring to the table, in a friendship? Aside from being able to bullshit my way out of pretty much anything.”
“Language,” chides his dad absently. He thinks for a moment. “You’re a good judge of character, and you’ve got good instincts.”
Stiles nods and offers his dad a smile. “Yeah, thanks.”
“What is this about? Why do you need to be able to bring anything to the table?”
Stiles shrugs. “I just don’t feel like I can really do -” he stops himself from saying ‘anything’ but he can’t come up with another word to take its place so he just lets the sentence hang.
“Friendship isn’t functional in an ‘actionable’ way, Stiles. Loyalty and insight and all those things may not be quantifiable or tangible but they’re still assets. They’re still important. And they make you important. Anyone would be lucky to have you as a friend and if someone’s making you feel like that’s not the case-“
“-No, dad, that’s not - it’s not like that. Thanks,” says Stiles.
“Well, if it was like that, they’d be wrong.”
Stiles leans over and hugs him. “Thanks,” he says again, and he goes back upstairs to add loyal and insightful to his list.
He has four letters of recommendation (five if he counts Boyd’s, but he doesn’t really because it’s only one sentence) within a week. He finishes writing his cover letter, clips everything together, slides it all into a big sturdy envelope, and writes a name and address on the front.
The moment that’s done, it’s as if the envelope has transformed into something more than an envelope. It sits on his desk and he sits in his chair and it feels like they’re having a staring contest, like it’s daring him to put it in the mail. Like it has become something that’s capable of daring him to do anything. He glares at it, feeling stubborn and contrary, and goes to bed.
* * *
Derek spends most of Christmas Eve morning driving around trying to find everything he needs for what Isaac has described as his ideal Christmas dinner. His recovery is slow going, but he can finally walk around without too much pain, so at least he’s making progress.
When Derek gets back to the dirt road that serves as his driveway, he finds a mail truck idling on the shoulder. He turns in and comes to a stop next to a mailman who seems to be debating whether or not he’s prepared to follow the road into the woods to find the house. Derek rolls the window down and regrets it immediately; the guy reeks of fear.
“Can I help you?”
“I’m supposed to deliver something but there’s no mailbox.”
Derek raises an eyebrow but the effect is lost because the mailman doesn’t look at him. “I’m Derek Hale.”
“Oh good!” The mailman turns and shoves a large envelope into Derek’s window. He barely waits to make sure Derek grabs it before he retracts his hand, does a nervous little wave, and scampers back to his truck. Derek watches him drive away with a scowl and sniffs the envelope. It smells like fear and paper and it’s addressed to him. He shrugs and drives up to the house.
He unloads the groceries and puts everything away before he finally turns his attention to his mail, tearing it open as he walks into the living room where Isaac is still camped out on his couch.
“What’s that?” asks Isaac.
“Don’t know,” says Derek. He reaches in and pulls out several papers that are held together by a binder clip. He stares at the one on top for a long time.
“Now what is it?” asks Isaac.
“An application for friendship,” says Derek, because that’s what it says at the top of the cover letter.
Isaac frowns for a moment before something clicks. “Is it from Stiles?”
“How’d you know?”
“It’s an application for friendship,” scoffs Isaac, as if that explains everything. Derek can’t think of anyone else who would actually put together an application so maybe it does. “Plus, he asked everyone for letters of recommendation a couple weeks ago.”
Derek nods absently.
“Sit down so I can read it over your shoulder,” says Isaac.
Derek finishes reading the cover letter, tugs it free from the binder clip and puts it back in the envelope before he sits down so that he and Isaac can read the rest together.
The letters of recommendation vary widely in tone. Ruth’s is kind and heartfelt, Isaac and Erica’s are both blunt but complimentary, and Scott’s strikes Derek as being tongue-in-cheek. It begins, Not only is Stiles my best friend and the smartest human being I know - aside from Lydia Martin, of course - but he’s the only reason I’m still alive and I don’t know what I’d do without him. Those things may be true, but Derek can’t imagine Scott saying them voluntarily.
Apparently Isaac can’t either, because he says, “He didn’t tell us anyone else would read these.”
The last page has one sentence on it, signed by Boyd, which just says, “I’ve met worse people.”
Derek slides the papers back into the envelope and plays with the binder clip for a few minutes. “What am I supposed to do with this?”
“I saw a picture on the internet of someone who strung them up and used them to hang pictures on the wall,” says Isaac.
Isaac hesitates. “You weren’t talking about the binder clip.”
Derek drops the binder clip back into the envelope with the papers and tries to find something else to do with his hands.
“Is there a reason you can’t just be friends with him?” asks Isaac.
Derek leans back against the couch. “This doesn’t require a response?”
“Well if you wanted to play along there would need to be an interview and then, if you decide to hire him, a contract. But I don’t think he’s expecting you to. Stiles just...does things. Like getting the whole town to be nice to you. Or like when Lydia was having a hard time coming back to school and he set up that ice skating thing.” Isaac thinks for a moment and then chokes and starts coughing.
Derek twists around to watch him. “Are you okay?”
“Yes,” says Isaac, though he’s clearly trying to hide something. “Fine. Absolutely fine.”
Derek scowls at him but decides not to push it. “Peter won’t be around today, just so you know.”
“He have something against Christmas Eve?” asks Isaac.
“It’s his wedding anniversary,” says Derek, and then he gets up and goes to the kitchen to get started on dinner.
* * *
When Derek and Laura were little and they wouldn’t go to sleep, their mother always strapped them into the car and drove them around town. She rolled all the windows down so they could smell the forest and the cool night air and she turned off the radio and sang to them in a language Derek can’t remember anymore.
Laura had done it too, after the fire. She rumbled along the streets of dark, unfamiliar towns, sometimes for hours, with her arm hanging out the window and the music up so loud she couldn’t hear herself think.
Derek has been driving around at night a lot, lately, but he doesn’t drive aimlessly the way his mom and Laura always had. He drives along scenic back roads and takes winding paths through subdivisions on a planned route that brings him by the houses of each pack member. He slows down as he passes them, finds their heartbeats, safe and steady and fast asleep, and then moves on.
It’s a slow night, quiet and dark the way holiday nights usually are since most people are at home with their families. Erica, Isaac, and Boyd had fallen asleep in Derek’s living room watching claymation Christmas movies, so his drive just includes Scott and Stiles. Scott’s still awake, his window one of the the few on his street that are still illuminated, but he and his mother are safe so Derek moves on. He drives toward Stiles’ house and wonders if macaroni nights are special occasions or if he’s always welcome there. He wonders if climbing in through the window is like entering an alternate universe where he’s allowed to sit around and make stupid jokes and fumble with controllers and complain that he certainly wouldn’t be taken out that easily by mere bullets.
He wonders those things with one hand on the steering wheel and the other hand riding the icy wind that rushes by outside his window and he allows himself to keep wondering until he reaches Stiles’ house and can’t find a heartbeat.
The jeep is still in the driveway so Derek parks behind it and gets out, and he tries to write off the dark empty silence of the house and the faint smell of foreign wolves in the driveway but when he gets past Stiles' car he can see the symbol of the alpha pack painted on the door. He pulls out his phone and calls Stiles, but he can hear Stiles' phone ringing within the house so he hangs up and spends a long while staring at the slightly open door.
He doesn’t smell blood, but not every death is bloody, and he finds that he wants very, very much not to find a body inside. He thinks about Laura and the hole he dug for her and how well wanting something not to be true had worked out for him then. He leans back against the front of the jeep, memorizes the scents of the alphas who came here, but he doesn’t go in until it occurs to him that if he doesn’t search the house someone else will have to. Someone like Scott.
Derek pushes the door open with his foot and performs a cursory search of each room, but he finds nothing - no body, no signs of a struggle, no ransom note. Stiles’ phone is on his desk, and he’s got five missed calls and two unread text messages. Derek looks long enough to see that the texts are from Scott and Allison but he doesn’t read them. The phone calls are from Scott, Isaac, two from the Sheriff, and one from ‘Grouch the Magic Wolfman.’ Derek rolls his eyes.
He calls Scott on Stiles’ phone.
“Finally! What was the emergency your dad got called in for?”
“Stiles is missing,” says Derek. “The alpha symbol is on his door. I don’t suppose you two idiots had any idea where they’re squatting?”
“Why would they want Stiles?”
“Probably because he assaulted two of them.”
“Erica and Boyd are with him.” Derek sits in Stiles’ chair. “There’s no note and I haven’t gotten a threatening phone call, which means they either want something from him or they just want to teach him a lesson about what happens when you hit sociopaths over the head with a bat.”
“Do either of those options end with them sending him home alive?”
“Probably not,” says Derek.
“Shit,” says Scott.
They’re both quiet for a moment before Derek swallows and closes his eyes and says, “Do you think the Argents know where the alphas are?”
“You’re suggesting we ask the Argents for help?”
Derek rolls his eyes again. “No, you’re right, we should just wait for them to send him back in pieces.”
“No,” says Scott, “you. You are suggesting we ask the Argents for help? You flip out every time I even mention them.”
“I don’t ‘flip out,’” snaps Derek, “I express valid concerns, and when exactly have I been wrong?”
Scott chooses not to answer that. “Allison’s not really talking to me at the moment. We need someone she and her dad will talk to without shooting first,” says Scott.
“Someone like the Sheriff?”
* * *
Stiles is really sick of being kidnapped. His skin is stiff where a trail of dried blood leads down from his temple, following the curve of his jaw and sliding down his neck to dip under his collar. His head throbs so furiously that he wants nothing more than to lose consciousness, but he can’t lose consciousness because he’s trying to keep up with Derek, who’s dragging him relentlessly through the woods, away from the alpha den.
The alpha den which, as far as Stiles can tell, is currently being sieged by hunters.
He cries out when his right knee fails him and he goes down hard, but Derek’s hand is fisted in the back of his shirt so he’s yanked back to his feet in seconds. Derek loops Stiles’ arm around his shoulders and keeps them moving.
“Sorry,” mumbles Stiles. Derek doesn’t respond, and Stiles doesn’t say anything else even though the wrist Derek’s holding was already sprained and Derek’s vice grip is making it worse. Stiles focuses on keeping his feet moving until they make it back to Derek’s car, where Stiles falls into the passenger seat with a relieved noise that’s somewhere between a groan and a sigh. He closes his eyes and listens to Derek’s footsteps coming around the back of the car, Derek’s door swinging open and slamming shut, the jingle of keys, the roar of the engine. Wheels crunch over gravel and then whisper over blacktop and Stiles slumps over, letting his head fall against the glass.
“Stay awake,” orders Derek.
“I’m not concussed, just tired,” says Stiles.
Derek reaches over and pulls him upright. “Stay awake,” he repeats. “What did they want?”
“You,” says Stiles.
“But you know where I live,” says Derek.
Stiles scowls. “So? I may not have super werewolf powers but I can control my mouth. I didn’t tell them anything.”
"Why not?" The question ends up sounding more hostile than Derek wanted it to but he doesn’t bother trying to smooth it over.
"I'm sorry, you're mad at me because I didn't give you up?" demands Stiles.
"I'm mad because I don't understand why you wouldn't."
Stiles’ entire body tenses and he turns away from Derek for a moment before turning back and saying, "Pull over.”
Derek glances at him, biting back a wince at the bruises coloring his jaw and the blood caked along the side of his face. "What-"
"Pull over," repeats Stiles, and he doesn’t sound annoyed or incredulous anymore, just quiet and furious and sad. Derek pulls the car over.
Stiles unbuckles his seatbelt and opens the car door and for a moment Derek thinks he’s going to throw up but then he manages to get himself out of the seat before Derek can stop him. Derek sits there, stunned, as Stiles starts hobbling away.
Derek shakes himself and gets out of the car. "What the hell are you doing?"
"Storming off," says Stiles, even though he couldn’t outpace a snail at the rate he’s going.
"You're going to tear your knee up," says Derek. "You won't be able to play lacrosse."
Stiles keeps walking, apparently unimpressed with that argument. Derek crosses his arms and glares. The only other person who’s been able to drive him to such incredible heights of frustration is Laura, and she had invested a lot of time and effort into finding the most efficient ways to piss him off. For Stiles, it seems to come naturally.
"Stiles, get back in the car."
Derek rolls his eyes skyward. "Why not?"
Stiles spins to glare at him but his knee gives out again. Derek hurries over to help but Stiles pushes him away.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" demands Derek.
"You, dumbass," says Stiles with a glare. "Look, I know I'm not really a great person, and I realize that I'm not always easy to be around, but what exactly am I doing that keeps giving you the impression that I'm a colossal asshole?"
Derek stares at him. "What?"
"You keep pulling this crap, and I figured maybe when you did it in the pool it was because we didn't know each other very well but I thought - despite the fact that you haven't said anything about the application - that we were friends now. Or something like it."
Derek folds his arms again, as if they could create any sort of useful barrier between him and the look that Stiles is giving him. "Okay," he says.
"Okay," repeats Stiles, his voice flat and furious, and Derek feels like something is slipping away from him.
"Yes, we're -" Derek swallows. Stiles' expression is still stormy and Derek doesn’t think agreeing with him will be enough. He tries again, this time using what he's begun to refer to in his head as Stiles-Speak, "- as I understand it there's supposed to be some sort of interview process but I expect it'll go well."
That earns him a laugh but it’s not a very nice one. "Really? You expect it to go well?" sneers Stiles. "Well in that case you should fire your HR person, because if they're hiring people that you expect are going to give you up at the drop of a hat, they're not doing a very good job."
Derek’s mouth nearly falls open. "You're mad because I don't know why you didn't tell them where to find me?"
"I'm mad because you still don't trust me," snaps Stiles.
Derek takes a full step back and drops his gaze and a couple minutes pass in tense, miserable silence before Stiles sighs.
"Look my whole storming off thing was pretty badass as gestures go but I don't have my phone and I really can't walk back to town. Can you just help me up and give me a ride to the hospital and I'll let you go back to doing whatever it is you do?"
There are a lot of things Derek wants to say, like I'm sorry and you're the first human I've carried on multiple conversations with since I was sixteen and I don't think you're a colossal asshole, but instead he says, "Sure," and helps Stiles back to the car.
* * *
Isaac moves his legs to make room for Derek on the couch, but instead of picking up his book and reading like he usually does, Derek just sits there and glares at nothing.
Isaac glances around but he can’t hear Peter anywhere nearby so he says, "What's up?"
"I don't want to talk about it," says Derek.
"Okay.” Isaac goes back to reading.
About twenty minutes later Derek says, "Stiles is angry."
Isaac's eyebrows rise. He's already received several texts from Stiles on the subject so he says, "I think that's a bit of an understatement."
Derek glances at him and then away again and huffs out a breath.
"He likes you," says Isaac.
"I think your information is out of date," says Derek.
"No, it's not. I realized it when he sent you the application. Stiles does stuff like that, but he doesn't do it for everyone. The only other examples I could think of involved Lydia Martin."
"That's ridiculous," scoffs Derek, "I'm -" he tries to come up with a word for a moment and then just gestures at himself.
"I think your mirror is out of date," says Isaac.
Derek glares at him.
Isaac goes back to his book.
"What am I supposed to do?"
"How the hell should I know?" asks Isaac without looking up. "You're both really weird. I can never tell if you're going to kill each other or start kissing."
"That's ridiculous," says Derek again.
"Next time you're together I'll film it so I can play it back for you later," mutters Isaac.
"Do you know when the library's usually open?" asks Derek.
Derek sighs and gets up. "I'll be back later. Text me if you need anything while I'm out."
"Sure thing," says Isaac. When he hears the front door close he mutters, "freaks," even though he knows Derek can still hear him.
* * *
Scott finds Stiles in the E.R. and settles into the chair next to his bed. “Your dad came by to talk to Deaton about werewolves and Derek and you,” he announces after a moment.
“Great,” sighs Stiles.
“Do you want to know what they said?” asks Scott.
“Not really,” says Stiles.
Scott glances up at him for a moment and then gets up and pushes Stiles over so that he can sit next to him on the bed.
“You’re a lot cuddlier as a wolf,” says Stiles irritably.
“Is that a bad thing?” asks Scott.
“No.” Stiles still sounds annoyed, but he lets Scott put an arm around his shoulders and they lean back and stare at the ceiling together for a while.
“I don’t like it when you get kidnapped,” says Scott.
“You and me both, buddy.”
Stiles gets eight stitches, a wrist brace, a knee brace, and a lesson on how to turn properly to avoiding tearing his joints apart. It’s condescending and he doesn’t appreciate it, since his leg wasn’t initially damaged by turning.
Scott drives him back to his house and on the way he says, “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Not really,” says Stiles. When they pull up to the house Stiles notices that the mailbox is slightly open so he limps over to close it and finds a giant envelope stuffed inside. There’s no address on it, just his name scribbled across the front.
“What’s that?” asks Scott.
Stiles shrugs. “Come on.”
Scott comes in with him and leans over his shoulder as Stiles opens the envelope and starts to pull out two pieces of paper.
“What’s an application for friendship?” asks Scott, and Stiles lets the papers drop back in.
“I think it’s Derek attempting to apologize for being a dick,” says Stiles.
“With a friendship application?”
Stiles shrugs. "I sent him one first."
Scott thinks about that for a moment and then says, “Asking the Argents for help finding you was his idea.”
Stiles’ eyes widen with surprise before he smiles and ducks his head.
Scott sighs. “For the record, I think this is a terrible idea.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” says Stiles.
“Why do you only have crushes on people who are mean to you?”
Stiles winces. “Don’t call it a crush. One does not simply crush on Derek Hale.”
Scott throws him a worried glance. “Then what-”
“I don’t know,” says Stiles. “He’s just not crush material. He’s-”
“Friendship application material?” asks Scott. He looks deeply uncomfortable but Stiles appreciates that he’s making an effort.
“He did just save my life. I like that in a person.” Scott raises an eyebrow and Stiles shrugs. “It’s a friendship application, dude. You can calm down.”
“Uh-huh,” says Scott. “If he gets out of line you let me know.”
“You are not about to give me a bad-touch speech.”
“I’m just saying, if-”
“No,” says Stiles, “I’m going to take a shower and when I get back we will be on a brand new topic of conversation.”
He picks himself up off the couch and makes it to the hallway before Scott calls after him, “If he hurts you, I’ll kill him.”
“That’s not very heroic,” says Stiles, and Scott just shrugs. Stiles rolls his eyes but he smiles as he starts to make his way up the stairs.
* * *
The best thing about his dad knowing about werewolves is that Stiles doesn’t have to come up with any dumb stories about what happened to him. The worst thing about his dad knowing about werewolves is that when he finally bursts into the house an hour later, having worked to clean up the mess left by the Argents and the alphas (neither of whom sustained much in the way of casualties, though there was a great deal of blood and quite a ruckus), Stiles can’t pretend that his life wasn’t in danger. There’s nothing he can say to wipe the look of fear and worry and anger off his dad’s face.
Scott excuses himself with a promise that he’ll see Stiles later and Stiles sits on the couch with his dad pacing in front of him.
“How could you have kept this from me?”
“I already told you, you can’t arrest-”
His dad waves that excuse away and snaps, “You don’t get to decide what I should and should not know, Stiles, not when it comes to things like this. You’re seventeen! You-”
“Yeah,” snaps Stiles, “I am seventeen, and what am I supposed to do if something happens to you? Something that never would have happened if I could have just kept my mouth shut? I’m not going to be responsible for that, not for you too.”
“What do you mean too?” demands his dad.
Stiles swallows, leans back and looks away. His dad walks around the coffee table and sits down on the couch, but he doesn't say anything at first and they don't look at each other.
Finally, his dad takes a deep breath and Stiles tenses, steeling himself for any of a hundred different accusatory or disappointed things he expects to hear, but all his dad says is, “Your mom had cancer.”
Stiles’ head jerks back around to find his dad watching him intently. “I know.”
“There’s not a single thing you could have said or done - or not said, or not done - that would have changed what happened to her.”
Stiles opens his mouth and then closes it, swallows, blows out a tense breath and says, “I know. I just - I feel like I made it harder, sometimes. I don’t - you just broke up a hunter-werewolf battle royale, don’t you have more important-” that earns him a slap to the back of the head and Stiles manages to look offended for a moment before his dad leans over and hugs him.
“There is nothing more important to me than you.”
Stiles’ throat closes up before he can say anything, so he just hugs back.
It’s not until much later that he finds himself alone in his room and he finally pulls out Derek’s application again.
The first page starts off with the predictable but depressing, Relative to Hale Family (1989-2004), but the next line makes Stiles’ breath catch. Patsy to Kate Argent (2004). The list of duties beneath it are more or less a long list of slurs against Derek’s character and intelligence, and after that it says Brother to Laura Hale (1989-2010) and ??? to Scott McCall (2010-Present). The skills section is even more sparse than Stiles’ had been and the ‘letter of recommendation’ is a quote from Peter that says, “He’s my favorite person who’s ever ripped my throat out.”
Stiles digs up some white-out and paints over the Kate Argent section. When it dries, he writes Confidential, redacted on top and stows the application away in his desk.
Stiles sleeps through most of the next two days but when Scott calls him on Saturday and invites him over to watch movies with Isaac, Stiles finally drags himself out of bed and manages to shower and make himself presentable. Erica and Isaac are in the living room when he and Scott get there and when Stiles asks about Derek they both point vaguely upward in the direction of Derek’s room.
Stiles eyes the stairs with distaste for a moment before sighing and starting to climb them. He finds Derek reading on his bed, which is essentially a stack of mattresses with blankets piled on top, and Derek thoroughly ignores him. Stiles leans against the doorway and glances around the room, which looks oddly welcoming. It’s less burnt than the rest of the house and the huge window that takes up most of the outside wall allows plenty of wintery sunlight to fall over the stacks of books and piles of clothing scattered around the floor.
“Okay,” says Stiles.
Derek’s hands tighten on the book but he doesn’t respond.
Stiles rolls his eyes. “As I understand it there’s supposed to be some sort of interview process but I have it on good authority that it’ll go well.” He pulls a little plastic ball out of his pocket and says, “Happy Christmas, by the way,” before tossing it. Derek catches it by reflex and turns it over in his hand as Stiles continues, “I won it. I mean it came out of one of those claw machine things in the mall but those are mostly a rip-off so whenever I get anything, it feels like winning.”
The ball contains a crappy metal ring with a wolf’s head on it, and Stiles is sure that there are probably very few possessions that Derek has desired less in his lifetime, but that’s the trouble with getting Christmas presents for people when you don’t want them to know that you care. The present isn’t so much the ring as it is the fact that Stiles was thinking of Derek when he wasn’t around, but he’s not willing to explain that so he shoves his hands in his pockets and says, “So I hear the alphas all got out more or less in tact.”
“Yes,” says Derek. He pops the plastic ball open to get a closer look at the ring. “I’m beginning to think that Kate was the only member of that family who was actually any good at hunting werewolves.”
Stiles’ eyebrows shoot up. “Are we joking about that now?”
“Peter is,” says Derek, setting the ring on his bedside table.
“Sorry. It must suck having him around all the time.”
“It sucks marginally less than murdering him did.”
Stiles nods. “Well, Scott and I brought movies if you want to-”
Derek looks back down at his book and says, “Can you just stay here and talk about something?”
Stiles opens his mouth to say something - yes or why or maybe who are you and what have you done with Derek Hale, but nothing comes out.
“It was really quiet when you were missing. Like it was when I first came back and I’d just like it to not be quiet for a while without having to be around anyone.”
Stiles smirks and says, “I don’t count as someone?”
“You’re safe,” grunts Derek, and it sounds like an insult or an accusation.
Stiles is fine with that. He kicks off his shoes and sits down on the corner of Derek’s bed, folding his legs beneath him before launching into the story of how he convinced Scott once when they were little that Melissa probably hated her blue scrubs and would be much happier if they were tie-dyed.
As it turned out, Stiles was mistaken.
* * *
The alphas quiet down a little following the showdown with the hunters. The pack doesn’t exactly relax - they still make sure no one goes anywhere alone and they’re all a bit jumpy in public - but the atmosphere when they’re together seems lighter. They spend New Years watching the Beacon Hills fireworks display from the edge of the woods. Scott’s mom and Stiles’ dad supply coolers so they can bring soda and Erica, Isaac, and Boyd play with bottle rockets while Scott slinks off to look for Allison.
Stiles was only permitted to come along on the condition that he stay off his knee as much as possible so he plants himself on a tree stump and watches the others rough-house while trying to keep an eye on his dad and Melissa through the trees.
Derek drops down to sit on the ground beside him and leans over to see where he’s looking. “They’ll be fine.”
“Huh? Oh. Yeah. I know, I just - does it look like they’re sitting a little close to one another?” Stiles tries to ignore the fact that his shoulder brushes against Derek’s as he shifts to try and get a better view while he’s talking.
“Does it matter?” asks Derek.
“Well, yes. Do you know how cool it would be if Scott and I were legally brothers? Like, lived in the same house and had bunk beds brothers?” asks Stiles.
“Aren’t you a little old for bunk beds?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, bunk beds are ageless masterpieces of leisure furniture.”
Derek snorts at that.
Eventually the fireworks start and Scott slinks back out of the woods. He doesn’t look overjoyed, so Stiles assumes his mission to find and win back Allison didn’t go well, but he doesn’t look sad either so at least it wasn’t a disaster. He glances at Stiles and Derek and narrows his eyes for a moment before giving Stiles a pointed look.
“You remember what I said?”
“Please leave,” says Stiles.
“Okay, but you-”
“I remember, thank you, go make sure your wacky pals don’t set each other on fire.”
Scott keeps glaring until Stiles shoos him and he finally trudges away to join the other betas.
“What did he-” begins Derek but Stiles shushes him.
“The sky’s exploding, I don’t want to talk about Scott.”
The last and biggest firework launches at midnight (or 12:03, according to some phones, but who’s counting?) and as the pieces fizzle down and Erica and Boyd wrap around each other, Stiles leans down in a fit of insanity and kisses Derek’s cheek.
Derek glares, and there’s something so marvelously Derek about glaring over a kiss on New Years that Stiles suddenly finds that he can’t wipe the big stupid grin off his face.
“That’s harassment, Stilinski.”
Stiles laughs. “You going to report me, Hale?” When he doesn’t get an answer he looks down to find Derek staring at him, only he’s not glaring anymore.
“No,” he says.
Stiles tries to do a quick calculation of exactly how grounded he’ll be if his dad catches him making out with Derek Hale, and then he hears Scott say, “So, Sheriff, how’s it going at the station? Are you fully restaffed yet?”
Stiles thanks god for best friends. “On a scale of growling to evisceration, how-” he begins, but before he can finish the question Derek kisses him. He tastes like diet cola and his stubble scratches Stiles’ chin and Stiles wonders if all tongues are that soft or if Derek’s is special. Derek’s hand slides up, fingers curling around the back of Stiles’ neck and Stiles reaches over to slide his hands up to cup Derek’s jaw and he’s pretty sure it’s the greatest kiss of all time until he over-balances and falls off the stump into Derek’s lap with a yelp.
“Stiles?” calls the Sheriff.
“Fine,” says Stiles quickly. He disentangles himself from Derek and they sit across from each other on the ground, faces flushed and slightly out of breath even though neither of them had done anything particularly taxing. Derek looks guilty and seems to be getting guiltier by the second and he opens his mouth but Stiles holds up a hand and says, “Shut up.”
Derek opens his mouth again and Stiles throws a stick at him. “Shut up,” he repeats. “Here’s how this is going to go. I’m going to say Happy New Year, and you’re going to say Happy New Year back, and we’re going to go and hang out with our friends, and you’re not going to apologize because that was awesome and you don’t get to be a dumbass and ruin it.”
Derek manages to look impressed, offended and amused all at once.
Stiles picks himself up so that all of his weight is resting on his good knee and leans over slowly, giving Derek plenty of time to dodge before Stiles bumps their foreheads together. “Happy New Year, idiot.”
“Happy New Year, jackass,” says Derek.
Stiles kisses Derek’s temple and Derek helps him to his feet and they make their way over to where Scott is employing increasingly embarrassing efforts to distract the Sheriff while Melissa and the betas look on with a mixture of pity and amusement.
When they’re walking back to the cars later, Scott hisses, “You owe me.”
Stiles laughs. “Thanks buddy. I mean it, from the bottom of my heart. I’m thinking about getting your face tattooed on my ass to show my appreciation.”
“Gross,” says Scott.
“You’re right, we should just get matching BFF tattoos.”
“I hate you,” says Scott.
“I love you too,” says Stiles. They’re quiet for a few minutes, surrounded by the soft voices of the rest of the pack and the chirping of bugs and the scurrying of little animals and the gentle whisper of wind as it rushes through leaves. Beacon Hills still isn’t safe - hasn’t been for a long while and probably won’t be for a long while yet - but Stiles can’t think of any place he’d rather be. “Hey Scott?”
“I think I aced my interview.”
Scott pushes him over and claims that he tripped on a root.