'Of all that breathes and crawls across the earth,
our mother earth breeds nothing feebler than man. '
Stiles is so completely fucked.
He knows this for certain the moment he chases after Scott into the Wasteland, out into the wide expanse of open land that's strewn with remnants of steel structures and brush, but he does it regardless because that's the kind of friend he is. Scott bounds off into the open space, out of his mind and in a wild rage so dense he can't even hear Stiles, and Stiles follows. Stiles feels like all he does is follow Scott, always two or three paces behind.
There's blood running down Stiles' arm, from the gash on his bicep that hurts like a bitch, that he's tied his handkerchief around tightly. There's an Abomination – huge and lumbering, breathing heavily and growing impatient – nosing around the scrapyard looking for him. He's hunkering down behind a large, empty gas cylinder, trying not to breathe too loudly or have a panic attack or anything that might alert the large, carnivorous creature as to his whereabouts.
Scott has been insufferable since he got bit – bit by that werewolf that had attacked their camp when they'd gone on a hunting trip with a group from Beacon – and everything has slowly slid downhill because of him. He continuously refuses to see anyone about it, refuses to take one of the syringes that keeps it under control, refuses to talk about it – but he still bounds off into danger like he knows Stiles has his back. Which he, predictably, does.
Even when it means Scott has run off and left him at the mercy of a beast that doesn't even recognize him as anything more than a particularly fast meal.
The handgun in his bag only has two bullets left, because he's been traipsing around in the Wasteland for too long, and they were heading back to get more supplies when Scott had gone batshit and attacked him without any real reason. The impromptu fight had led them down a hill, down a ravine, and into the scrap yard at the bottom that they had spent the last two hours trying to quietly sneak around. Then Stiles had hit him in the face with side of his pistol, hoping to knock some sense into his stupid fucking head, and Scott had circled around him, howled at nothing, and bounded off through the scrap yard.
Except that his antics and howling had alerted the presence of everything in the scrap yard – everything that was unable to keep up with Scott's sprinting and much more interested in the slow moving, injured human he had left behind in his wake.
So Stiles has a handgun with two bullets, a few half eaten rations, a canteen of water, and his dashing good looks; he's fairly certain none of those things are going to help against the creature getting closer and closer to his hiding spot. The creature who has probably not eaten a square meal in weeks and who can smell Stiles, even if it can't see him.
His main ammunition is always Scott. Scott is some sort of mutant wolf human hybrid thing now and he's freakishly strong and can bowl these guys over like it's nothing, and that's pretty much how they've been handling things the past few days. Except sometimes Scott can't control his wolfy self and he does crazy things like try to eat Stiles' face or leave him for dead in the middle of the mutant infested Wasteland.
A very careful, quick look around lets him know that the giant ambling thing is poking very close to where he's curled in against the cylinder, breathing loud and getting closer. Stiles is a fantastic runner, but he's tired and bleeding and, despite being huge, the abominations gain ground quickly; there's really nowhere to run, especially when he doesn't know what he'll be running towards.
There's a hiccup in the creature's breathing, almost like a sound of alert, and Stiles knows he's been found.
He takes in a deep breath, rolls away from the cylinder, gun gripped tight in his hands, and he rolls onto his knees and takes aim.
It's two successive shots from his pistol – bang! Bang! - right in the expressionless face, little more than a mass of black, melted skin and hair. The bullets sink in and the creature rears back, roar somewhere cross between a bird and a bear, and it's chilling and unsettling and then one heavy, thick arm reaches and and bats Stiles aside like a bothersome fly.
He hits the ground hard and rolls, rolls until he hits the side of something metal that creaks lightly underneath the impact, and then the ground vibrates underneath him as the abomination starts towards him again-
Then there's a sound like his eardrums exploding, a gunshot that is stupidly close and followed shortly thereafter by another hideous earsplitting screech. There's an echoing slide – like the sound of a pump action shotgun – and then a second very loud, very violent shot that isn't followed by a screech at all.
Stiles opens his eyes to the splatter on the ground in front of him, black and red liquid alike, strange globs of flesh and guts strewn across the metal and dirt. The Abominations' immobile, headless body is still standing, leaking strange fluids and smelling very distinctly of bile.
“Get off your ass,” someone growls, someone who comes into view as he presses one boot-clad foot against the still standing, dead creature's body and pushes it over into a heap. The someone is frowning, gleaming shotgun slung easy over one shoulder, face clean shaven and handsome in a way that is hard pressed to be found so far outside of civilization – and Stiles realizes the someone is someone he's seen before.
Not someone he knows – just someone he's seen before. The guy looks familiar more than anything – like someone Stiles has seen in passing, like maybe someone who has spent fleeting time in Beacon, hovering on the outskirts like they don't feel like they belong. There are plenty of people like that going in and out of the city, never staying longer than the time it takes to purchase supplies and catch up on current events, and this guy looks familiar in a way that means he could have been one of those he'd seen in passing.
Those people – this man - live outside the walls, out in the wasteland, and no one trustworthy lives outside the walls.
Stiles scrambles to his feet, wiping his face on his dirty sleeve. He stares at the pile of limbs and ragged flesh that is the Abomination, the head gone in splatter that streaks across the dirt, and he stares at the man – he looks familiar, but what is his name? - and takes in his demeanor and the scowl on his face, and he doesn't really know what to do. His body is tense because the danger isn't really gone – has just been replaced – has gone from something ugly and shambling to human and wearing leather.
He doesn't really want to let on that he's unarmed, but he so obviously is, otherwise why would he have been running, and he ends up holding both hands up in front of him as a sign of peace.
“Look,” he starts slowly, because usually talking gets him in more trouble than he's already in, especially in the Wasteland where everyone has lost their minds and nothing – nothing – is free. “I was just leaving. If this is your scrap heap – and it's lovely, by the way – I don't want it. I'm just looking for my friend – who is probably looking for me and, honestly, he's armed and dangerous and he'll kill you if you hurt me – and I'm just leaving. That's all.”
“Bleeding,” the guy says, and, when Stiles stares at him in part confusion and part horror, he continues. “You're just bleeding, you mean. All over the place.”
Actually, he maybe tied the handkerchief a little tight, because it's starting to become difficult to feel his arm at all. It also might also have something to do with the adrenaline pumping through his veins.
“It's my blood,” Stiles says, defensively. “I can bleed where I want to.”
“You're an idiot,” shotgun guy replies and gestures to him with the stock of the gun. “There's a place not far from here I'm staying at. If you come back with me I can take care of that.”
The blood in Stiles veins, that isn't running down his arm and dripping onto the ground, feels a little colder. His nerves tense up, in that fight-or-flight way that has become so familiar to him, like second nature, and he doesn't break eye contact because he's afraid of what might happen if he looks away.
There are a hundred different things in the Waste that are not his friend. There are Abominations and mutants, vampires and werewolves, miscreants and scavengers and cannibals, and he doesn't know this man – doesn't know his motives or his intent. Nothing in the Wasteland is free – no help, no assistance, is ever free – and Stiles has nothing to give in return.
“Pass,” he says, because he starts rambling when he gets nervous and he doesn't want to come across that way.
The guy rolls his eyes in exasperation. “You're going to die out here, you idiot.”
Which is, actually, probably pretty true. There are more Abominations in that scrapyard that he hasn't seen yet, but has heard. There's Scott out there, probably, and who knows if he's still off his rocker or not. There are all the other aforementioned baddies waiting behind overturned cars and rocks to jump out and eat his throat – and he's bleeding sort of splendidly all over the place, which is bad for his life span and also sort of doubles as a 'something delicious is over here' beacon to everything out there.
So he sort of feels like his options are a) run away and maybe die in the Wasteland, or b) go with this guy and maybe get eaten in his house. It's getting dark, the sun slowly turning orange, and he knows he doesn't have a whole lot of time to weigh his options. There's no way he can get back to Beacon before dark.
The guy steps forward, as though he's tired of waiting for Stiles to make up his mind, and there's a brief, quick moment where the adrenaline flies back through Stiles' veins. He takes a stumbling step backwards as the guy reaches out to grab him, and then everything is getting very light, and very dizzy, and then everything goes black.
He wakes up to the soft glow of an oil lamp and the uncomfortable strain of having slept on dusty floorboards for two hours.
“You're from Beacon.”
Stiles blinks rapidly, trying to clear his vision, and he finally notices leather jacket guy from earlier sitting on the floor next to him. He's got a tiny box next to him, full of stark white medical supplies that Stiles thinks are probably worth more than anything he's ever owned, and the presence of them feels strangely calming; like the guy really did drag him through the Wasteland just to patch up his stupid arm.
Stiles sits up, careful of his arm, and clears his throat. “You don't know that.”
“You're the Sheriff's son,” the guy says, looking up from the supplies for a minute, just to make eye contact, then he goes back to sort them out. “Wandering the Waste, alone, with no real supplies, no ammunition. You're either stupid or suicidal, or both.”
Stiles watches him work for a minute, trying not to take offense at having been called stupid by a stranger twice already, and his throat feels suddenly dry. “Look, I don't have anything to pay you with for your help and I'm not, I'm not going to-”
A snort interrupts him and the man looks up again. “Settle, kid. I don't want anything from you.”
Stiles isn't sure how much of that he believes. He hesitates for a while, deliberates, spends a long minute in his head wondering just how far he could get if he suddenly needed to bolt out the door, but he doesn't even know where he is. The guy is sitting on his heels, staring at Stiles impatiently, and it takes another long minute before Stiles peels his shirt off slowly, dried blood making an already unpleasant task worse.
He sizes the stranger up while he balls the fabric up and throws it to the side, feeling stupidly vulnerable. Stiles is still unarmed – has no idea where the shotgun has gone, but it can't be far – and doesn't know how much it would help if he even had a gun. He's been working out and sparring with Scott, but this guy is all broad muscle and he lives in the Wasteland by himself and there's a niggling doubt in the back of Stiles' mind that tells him he wouldn't win if it came to blows.
There's a set of strange tattoos peeking out from underneath the man's sleeves, faded ink in patterns that look familiar but mean nothing to Stiles, and, again, he's reminded that something about this man is strangely familiar in general. That maybe he's seen him somewhere else – that maybe he's more than just a passerby through Beacon.
The first touch of fingers against his arm makes him jolt involuntarily, like a twitch he can't keep under control, and he settles quickly and tries to pretend that he's not really so jumpy. There's the sound of paper tearing, the sudden smell of rubbing alcohol, and then the soaked pad is sliding carefully across the mess on his upper arm. The grip on his elbow is unsettling, completely unfamiliar and weirdly warm.
It's stupid that the most human contact he's had in years should come from a complete stranger in the middle of the Wasteland, who smells like gunpowder and leather and dust. He stares at the tattoos on the side of the man's neck, that scatter down beneath the collar of his shirt, and he gets distracted by the mark behind his ear, the dark black ink crudely sketched into a makeshift 'B' – almost like it had been branded there-
He must start, must jerk a little, because the guy's hand tightens briefly and he glances at him, irritated, and says, “Sit still, Stilinksi.”
It clicks into place like a puzzle piece in his mind that he does know this man. Not familiarly, not personally, but he remembers the vague sketches of his face on dusty wanted posters on the side of his father's office. There's a couple left, almost hidden behind the drawings and sketches of outlaws more imposing – more important to catch – but he remembers the face well enough. His name is Derek Hale – was part of the Hale family, who were prominent in Beacon until the chemical fire took their bunker and their lives – and, sort of briefly, Stiles can remember seeing this guy behind the welded bars in the jail behind his dad's office-
“Oh god this is all some horrible revenge scheme,” Stiles manages, amidst the desire to jump out one of the cracked windows. “Are you planning on gutting me and leaving me on my dad's doorstep? Is that why you're helping me?”
“Why would I patch you up if I were planning on gutting you?”
Which is a good question, one that Stiles doesn't really have an answer for. Although criminal behavior doesn't really have to make sense – especially not in the middle of nowhere, especially not where law doesn't reach. He watches Derek sift back through the tiny first aid kit.
“You expect me to believe you're helping me out of the goodness of your heart?” Stiles asks, still tense, voice cynical.
“Most people find 'thank you' to be an appropriate response to that,” Derek replies, pulling a piece of thread easily through the eye hole of a small needle. “Your distrust is a good instinct to have, but I can rip out your jugular with my teeth and I haven't, so settle, princess.”
Stiles' mouth snaps shut with an audible 'click', because he can't really disagree. He watches, tense and unmoving, until Derek shifts further into the disappearing bubble that was once his personal space and pushes a beaten flask into his hands.
Stiles eyes the metal container warily, before unscrewing the cap and recoiling a little. “Oh god, what the hell- Oh man. I think this died like two years ago.”
“I would drink it if I were you,” is Derek's only advice, and only warning before he shifts closer again, one hand braced against Stiles' shoulder, and slides the first pass of the needle into the skin of Stiles' bicep.
Stiles jumps involuntarily, even though the grip on his shoulder tightens and forces him back down. The pain of the needle passing through skin is far sharper than the ache of the wound, makes him feel suddenly awake and nauseous, and he inhales sharply and takes a large gulp of whatever is living in the flask. The liquid is harsh and bitter, strong in a way he has no real comparison for, except maybe a much more exaggerated version of the moonshine he and Scott had swiped once, and it burns down his throat like fire.
He coughs into the hand holding the flask, trying not to choke and failing miserably.
There's a twitch at the edge of Derek's mouth, that might be the beginnings of a smirk, but Stiles watches it appear and vanish in the span of a few seconds.
The stitching is sort of awful, in the way that impromptu medical treatment always is, but it doesn't take long. By the time all of the tiny, careful, even stitches are stretching Stiles' skin back into place he's almost numb from it; he's more than a little numb from the alcohol regardless. Derek's warm hands wrap bandages around his arm, still absurdly careful for someone who blew the head off of an Abomination hours prior, and they leave Stiles' skin feeling tingly and alive.
When the wound is bandaged up, when Derek has given him back some portion of his personal space, Stiles feels like the air is a little lighter. He exhales slowly, rubs the bridge of his nose, but his body is sore and it's difficult to figure out what he should say.
“You can sleep here tonight – I'll keep watch,” Derek offers and Stiles is forced to finally take notice of the single full size bed in the corner of the room, old and musky and foreign. The idea of sleeping there makes his nerves bundle up furious inside him, until he feels sick with them, and he stares at the small bed and wonders, briefly, of running stupidly out of the shack and taking his chances with the after dusk crowds that hover across the landscape.
It only takes a minute before Derek glances at him, like he can practically feel his uneasiness, and he levels him with a calculating gaze. “I'm not going to touch you, kid. Calm down.”
Out of the goodness of your heart, Stiles thinks to himself, and, silently, he hopes he's not making a huge mistake.
There's very little argument left in him after the day's events, and the alcohol makes him tired and willing to swallow his nerves. He's sore and he needs proper sleep, laying horizontally and preferably not in the dirt or on the floor, and Derek isn't really acting excessively creepy. Which is maybe a warning sign, or maybe it isn't, Stiles just really can't tell anymore. He's already taken help from a stranger, in a part of the Wasteland he's never been in, and there's still that niggling portion in his brain that tells him to stay on guard, but leaving now is suicidal.
The bed is older than dirt and there's a spring sticking through on the edge, but it feels ridiculously good after the day he's had. He lays on it and exhales slowly again, tries to pretend like he feels safe enough to sleep, even if his eyes keep opening to slits to keep an eye on the outlaw in the shack with him.
Derek rolls his eyes and sits on a wooden stool, shotgun resting across his knees.
Stiles almost doesn't expect to wake up – expects, still, to be strangled or disembodied in his sleep – but he does. He wakes up to the bright sunlight seeping in through broken windows and through cracks in the walls that had been unnoticeable in the dark. The sunlight is almost a facade – it's bright, but not warm – and there's a chill to the morning that is familiar and not unbearable.
He sits up slowly, testing out his arm to see how it moves, how it bends, and notices Derek moving quietly around the room. The other man is gathering up supplies in a backpack and doesn't so much as give him a glance before he pulls a piece of cloth out of the backpack and flings it in Stiles' general direction. It smacks him in the face, because he's still distracted with his arm feeling like shit, and he pulls it away with a glare at Derek that is completely ignored. The fabric is grey, is a shirt that has been mended a few times but is very much intact, and he realizes it is probably for him to wear. His own shirt is useable but blood stained and torn in thirty places – from the Abominations, from nearly being mauled by Scott when he'd knocked him over to run off into the wilderness by himself – and it's probably best to give it up.
With the shirt comes another burst of gratitude, another strange flip flop of nervousness and wariness that comes with kindness he's never really had a chance to experience, and he wonders if this is something that will be a constant in Derek's presence.
The catch in his throat is hard to swallow, but he manages.
“What are you doing out here?” he asks, or maybe kind of blurts out, and regrets it instantly. He wants to know – he almost needs to know – but there are some answers in the Wasteland that you're better off not knowing; there are some things that will get you killed for asking. It seems more likely with an outlaw, more likely that he has something to hide, and that it might not be any of the Sheriff's son's business.
Derek doesn't look perturbed though, doesn't so much as glance back at him while he packs up the first aid kit.
“I'm drifting,” he replies, like it's not really some big secret. Which is untrue, because everyone has their reasons for moving around the Wasteland and they're all better kept secret, all better kept out of public knowledge.
“A drifter,” Stiles repeats, then slides the shirt over his head. “What kind of drifter?”
“The kind who is inexplicably nice to idiot teenagers,” Derek replies, easy. “If you're going to Beacon I can take you as far as the mountain pass.”
Stiles watches him carefully. “Is that as close as you can get before alarm bells start going off?”
Derek just snorts and grabs his own bag from one of the broken chairs.
The first few hours pass in relative silence. Stiles tries several times to start up conversation, but the hard stare it gets him for his trouble makes him bite his tongue the next time a thought pops into his head. He doesn't want to seem ungrateful, or nosy – because nosiness is never appreciated out here, never – so he doesn't speak at all for an exceptionally long time.
He doesn't speak at all, really, until there's a shot from over a distant hill that Derek had been eying for the last ten minutes. The shot whizzes past Stiles' head by a fraction, close enough that he swears he sees it, and he barely has time to react to it before Derek's hand curls around his upper arm and jerks him bodily behind an outcropping of rock.
Gunshot in the Waste is almost a liability. It echoes, loud and quickly, across the cluttered, metallic remains and it gives away your location and it draws in Abominations.
They crouch behind the stone barrier, careful to keep all limbs tucked behind the rock, but they don't return any shots. Bullets are not rare in the cities, but the cities are few and far in between and Derek is carrying a shotgun, but not much else, and there's very little chance of him hitting his target at this distance. Stiles thinks back to his own handgun, bullets spent, and tries not to feel like a sitting duck.
The bullets ricochet around them, off of metal and rock, and they are probably in more danger of ricocheted fire than they are of a direct hit.
“Scavengers?” Stiles asks, because he hadn't seen anyone before they'd ducked down, and because he knows the area well enough to move through it quickly but not enough to survive in it.
Derek shrugs, like he doesn't know or doesn't care – or both – and Stiles wonders what he's gotten himself into following this man out into a zone he doesn't really know, into territory neither of them knows who it belongs to. There is another shot and it sounds closer, like maybe the group shooting at them is moving in, moving from cover to cover and slowly surrounding them, and it lodges something uncomfortable in Stiles' chest that makes him feel cornered and desperate.
Beside him Derek is staring through a crack in the rocks, but his eyes are distant, like he's not even really seeing what's going on, and it's really not the best time to be contemplating the meaning of life or whatever-
“Derek-” Stiles glances around them, like there might suddenly be an ambush, but there's no one yet, and when he glances back at Derek the man is pulling his backpack off and shoving it into Stiles' hands.
“Take this,” he says, and Stiles slips it onto his own shoulders because he doesn't really know what else to do. Then Derek cocks back his shotgun, presses two more shells into the double barrels, and slings it back into place. He hands that to Stiles too, with a piercing look, and says, “You better know how to shoot.”
The gun feels heavy, much heavier than Stiles' handgun, and it's been meticulously cared for and is probably worth more than Stiles' hide. He nods though, because he's confused and some part of him has decided to trust Derek, to let him decide how they're going to get out of this, and because he doesn't really feel like he has a lot of options.
“Stay here,” Derek tells him, pulling his shirt over his head and chucking it into a pile beside the rock – which is a really weird thing to do in the middle of a battle, but - “Shoot anyone you see.”
“What the hell are you doing?” Stiles asks, incredulous, because he's been quiet for a really long time and his better judgment is slowly taking a back seat to his desire to know what the fuck is happening. “You're unarmed! You can't just-”
“Stay. Here,” Derek growls at him – really growls, like it boils out from within him, his eyes flashing dangerously – flashing red – and Stiles recoils, hands clenched around the shotgun, and he thinks, oh.
Then Derek is bursting out from their hiding spot, racing across the sandstone, and Stiles can only see him for a few seconds through the cracks in the rock, just long enough to see the beginnings of the change-
“Holy shit,” he breathes, then turns back around to keep his back to the rock, to make sure no one is sneaking up behind him, shotgun still in his hands.
It shouldn't be weird because Scott is the same way. Scott has been shapeshifting since he got bit – fur and strange eyes, long limbs and even longer teeth – and Stiles has read up so much on shapeshifting and werecreatures and all of that shit in the past few months that he thinks he could probably be considered an expert on it, but it's different. It's very different.
Scott is his friend, has been his friend forever, and Stiles knows him.
There's the crunch of rock, like that of it underneath a boot, and Stiles takes a deep breath and rests the shotgun against his good shoulder and aims at the shadow sneaking up on his hiding spot.
It's not until they're moving again – Derek's shotgun back in his hands, like it's his safety blanket or his child or something, although Stiles is still toting around his backpack like some sort of pack mule – that Stiles really has time to think on it more.
They're picking their way through the remains of what might have once been a town, although now it's all rubble and steel grates, and the sun is slowly beginning to set like a distant timer. They can't be out after dark – can't make camp in the open space, with nowhere to hide once the sun goes down. There are too many things that thrive in the night, too many things that see far better than they do, and it's suicide to put yourself in that.
“We should be looking for somewhere to hide,” Stiles says, because he feels like, maybe, if he says it out loud then something habitable will appear.
“We're not stopping,” Derek replies, like it's just that simple. “These grounds are spoken for and we don't want to get caught here.”
“Your superior sense of smell tell you that?” Stiles retorts dryly, although some part of him thinks that there is probably truth behind the quip. “You know, you could have mentioned that you're... you know.”
Derek glances at him then goes back to staring straight ahead. “You talk too much.”
Which is unfair, because Stiles has been obscenely quiet for most of the day. He thinks the truth there is that Derek talks very little.
“It's not like I'd freak out – I have a friend like you – it's just, you might warn a guy-”
“Is this the same 'armed and dangerous' friend you threatened me with yesterday?” Derek asks, and maybe there's a hint of amusement there, lining the edges of his eyes. There's a hint of a smirk there, that Stiles almost thinks is his imagination, and it does a lot to lessen the intimidating aura that Derek seems to exude – not that being intimidating in the Wasteland is a bad idea.
“Actually, yes,” Stiles answers, almost proudly, but it fades a little with the reminder of Scott's disappearing act and the subsequent events. “We got separated yesterday, actually. I was going to go look for him, but... out of ammunition, one good arm – I mean, I'm loyal, don't get me wrong, and sometimes I'm extremely stupid – but there's no way I can find him like this-”
“He went back to Beacon,” Derek says, interrupts, and Stiles' mouth snaps shut for a minute and his feet stop moving. Derek stops moving long enough to give him a once over. “I just said we can't stop here.”
“You saw him?” Stiles asks, good arm flailing a little as he tries to find the right words to articulate. “You saw him? How did you know it was him? Did you like... sense him or something? I mean, it could have been just another werewolf.”
“He attacked me yesterday and I beat his face in,” Derek replies, nonchalantly. “He mentioned you were trapped in the scrapyard and I said I'd take a look.”
“What? Why didn't you – I don't know – mention any of this before?!”
“Because in the wake of recent events there hasn't been a great time to have tea and a mild discussion over the absurdly stupid werewolf you've been harboring,” he steps forward, and Stiles, to his credit, doesn't take a step backwards. “If you haven't noticed, this is still not a good time.”
Stiles gestures at him with his free hand in spazzy, indeterminable motions. “How am I supposed to know this isn't something you've pulled out of your ass? You conveniently forgot to mention that my best friend, who you met yesterday and who you know I was looking for, attacked you?! Do you realize how that sounds coming from an outlaw?”
“An outlaw who has saved your ungrateful ass twice so far-”
“Ungrateful?! I don't know your motivations! What if you're planning on murdering me in front of the city to teach my father a lesson?!”
“Do you realize how fucking stupid-”
Derek stops talking mid-sentence, mouth still open. He's facing Stiles, but both he and Stiles' eyes have flickered over to the nearby overturned cars and scrap that have been piled into a small mountain off the trail. There's nothing moving.
Stiles swallows, voice lowered. “Probably just the metal settling.”
Derek clenches his jaw tight and turns, readjusting the shotgun over his shoulder. “Whatever. Move faster.”
They pass two or three rusting green metal highway signs proclaiming how many miles to a half dozen towns that may or may not exist any longer. The one they're closest to is a town Stiles' has never heard of, 'Brook', and he realizes why when they cross over the half-stumps of what used to be a wooden fence and there's an abandoned circle of buildings decaying in the square. Whatever the town used to be it's not anymore; there is dust and trash, blowing in the wind, but otherwise there's nothing moving and not so much as footprints in the dirt.
It's eerie to stumble across remnants of the old world, of the way things used to be. It's all before Stiles' time and all he knows of it is what he gathers from stories, from the leftovers strewn everywhere, and the pieces they're all still putting together of a life they never lived. The shambles of houses left in the town are vacant of insects or vermin and the majority of them are little more than a wall or two that has somehow managed to stand. Stiles doesn't know how safe they'll be staying here for the night, but the sun is sinking over the horizon and there are far worse places to be in the Wasteland at night.
When they find a house with four walls and half of the roof still remaining – with holes littering what's left and half the rafters crashed to the floor – it's pretty much the best they can do. There's no door, just the doorway where it once went, and Stiles lets Derek pick his way through splintered wood and crumbled brick to thoroughly check that the inside is empty. He thinks that the odds of something jumping out at them is slim, but he figures there's a better chance of Derek surviving such an oddity than him.
They set up “camp” in a corner of the house that seems the most fortified; there's one doorway leading into it, and a boarded up window in the room proper but little else. There's no fireplace in the room, but it would hardly be safe to light one regardless. Stiles settles for finding the most comfortable stretch of dusty floorboards and curling in on himself, on the side of his body that is still free from injury.
“How do you get the lycanthropy shots in the Wasteland?” he asks, because the quiet is unsettling. There's no sound coming from the rest of the town, just the settling of dust and stone, and the wind through the cracks in the walls makes him think there's something there that isn't. He misses Scott – misses camping with him, talking about digging up treasures buried from long ago, trying to figure out how to cure him.
Derek sits next to him, let's his back rest against the wall and does not lay down. “I don't need them.”
“You can fight it off?” he almost sits up, but it seems like it might be painful and he settles instead for just glancing up at where Derek is frowning at him. Frowning seems to be Derek's default setting.
“I didn't get bitten. I was born this way.”
“Oh,” Stiles says, and doesn't know what else to say beyond that. He supposes it makes sense, that there would need to be a start – a chicken before the egg, so to speak – but he wonders why it was never something he considered before. He wonders what makes Derek different to the werewolf who bit Scott, who gave him the disease and ruined their lives.
Derek sighs and rubs a hand over his face. “Go to sleep.”
Stiles wakes up with the coil of a dream he can't remember in the back of his mind and the tingle of anxiety in his fingers. He flexes his hands and stares into the dark. There is minor moonlight shining in through cracks in the roof, in the walls, but even with such dim lighting the room is still empty; Derek is asleep next to him, breathing even, his head pillowed on his arms. There is no sound from outside, not even the wind, but there is something tight in Stiles' throat that tells him he woke up for a reason; something, survival instinct maybe, tells him not to go back to sleep.
He climbs carefully to his feet, ignores the soreness of his wounds that think he should lay back down and stop moving. The shotgun is laying on top of the backpack, in a pile of their meager supplies, and he takes the reassuring weight in his hands and he moves whisper-quiet to the edge of the doorway. He stops against the wall, just short of peering around the corner, because he hears the noise like a sharp prick in his ears: the sound of boots against dust covered wood. The floorboards in the hallway shift underneath the weight of something, slow and careful and quiet, and Stiles' heart is beating so frantically in his chest – is pounding so loudly in his own ears – that he doesn't know how whatever it is doesn't hear it.
The gun doesn't make him feel braver. He glances back at the shadow against the wall and there are glowing red eyes watching him; Derek is awake, with his eyes on Stiles and his ears listening closely to the sound of someone else in the house breathing, and it's more reassuring than the gun.
Stiles stays with his back against the wall, gun in his hands, and waits. He keeps his eyes on the doorway next to him, even though he can see Derek moving towards it. There is a moment where he thinks everything is taken care of – because Derek can apparently take on Abominations and bandits and whatever else is lurking out there – and between the two of them surely they can hold their ground – and that's when the gunshot goes off.
At first Stiles thinks it's from his gun – that he's accidentally fired – but it's not. There's a flash from the hallway, of gunpowder striking, and Derek makes a noise that's not at all human and hits the floor on his knees, a heavy weight that unsettles dust and makes the floor shake underneath Stiles' feet. There's a rush from the hallway, voices speaking a language Stiles doesn't know, and then there are heavy boots moving into the doorway, the gleam of a pistol; raiders. The guy doesn't see Stiles, pistol trained on the werewolf panting on the floor, and this morning Stiles hadn't held a shotgun and now it's a steady, stable weight in his hands.
The blast of it knocks the raider over in a heap, stumbling and crashing into a wall that only barely supports the weight, and the man is screaming -
There are more footsteps, just enough to be one more person, and they're rushing into the doorway as Stiles pushes another shell into the gun; they don't get through the doorway before Derek lunges at their throat. Up close is worse than hearing the mayhem from behind the safety of rocks. The sound of someone's head tearing from their neck is a disgusting squelch of skin separating from skin and bone disconnecting from socket; there is gargling, and screaming, and then the thud of a body hitting the floor.
The man he shot is asphyxiating on his own blood in the corner of the room, and Stiles' hands are shaking. There is another thud, of Derek falling back to the floor, and Stiles is silently praying to gods he doesn't even believe in; just – seriously – don't let there be more of them. He carefully sets the shotgun against the floor, keeping it in range, and he kneels next to where Derek is doing a splendid job of bleeding everywhere.
“We need to move,” Derek grits out, though he's doing a piss poor job of getting to his knees. “Gunshots. Bad.”
“You need to stop moving,” Stiles corrects, and there's enough moonlight for him to push Derek back onto the floor with his hands on his shoulders. It's too dark to tell where the gunshot is, but Stiles' right hand is wet against the leather. “You're literally going to bleed to death. Look, I only know very, very minor first aid, but we should probably get the bullet out-”
“It's in the wall,” Derek manages, and Stiles doesn't know whether it's a good sign or not that a bullet went completely through Derek's body, but he's willing to look at anything positively at the moment. “I don't need-”
“You are literally bleeding to death as we speak, don't tell me you don't fucking need help-”
“Just-” a sticky, wet hand grabs his and moves it, from his shoulder to his chest, to torn and wet fabric, and presses his palm against the hole there. There is movement underneath his skin, like water trickling out of a faucet, and Stiles isn't sure how anyone can bleed this much and still be functional; fucking werewolves, seriously. “Fuck, Stiles – press harder-”
He does. He presses hard enough that he pushes Derek onto his back, onto dusty floorboards, and there's a gasp of pain and the hand on his own clenches painfully. Stiles presses his palms against the wound, presses like he might be able to push it away, and feels the rise and fall of Derek's breathing underneath his hands. Some part of him doesn't think he could do this if it were bright daylight, if he could see the red up to his elbows that he knows is there, and part of him thinks he would do anything to keep Derek from dying in front of him. He's trying to keep his knees from digging into Derek's side, trying to keep firm pressure on the wound he can't see but knows is there.
There's a hand curled around the back of his neck he hadn't noticed a moment ago, but that probably moved there when they both went stumbling back. It's strangely intimate, even though Derek is all but writhing in pain, even though his fingers are digging into the scruff of his neck just on this side of painful. There is something to be said about the effect that having Derek's harried heartbeat beneath his fingers has on his own, or the way his stomach feels empty and nervous with every ragged breath Derek draws.
“I have no idea what I'm doing,” Stiles admits, and he doesn't think this is proper first aid, or any first aid whatsoever. It reminds him of when he was little, after his mom's death, and how his father would blunder about in their tiny bathroom, trying to find out how to open the antiseptic and failing miserably. He also thinks they're a little past antiseptic and bandages.
The thing Derek had been warning him of – the gunshots, and the noise, and how it's all bad – is starting to creep back into his mind as a primary concern. With Derek breathing evenly, if harshly, there's enough time for Stiles to really start to worry about the amount of noise made, and the gunshots, and the smell of blood permeating the air. He doesn't know if there are Abominations in this zone, but he knows they travel towards sound and that the smell of blood will lure them in when they get close enough. There's nothing to be done about it right now, not with Derek bleeding out underneath him, but he's going to worry himself sick regardless because that's pretty much his best skill.
“Be still,” Derek breathes, and Stiles tries his best. It's hard to stay perfectly still, because his nerves feel as though they are literally jumping around under his skin, and because he keeps wanting to glance behind him at the open doorway – as though something might be there, trying to make their night worse than it already is. “It's-” a quick, pained breath, then it evens out again, “I heal quickly.”
Stiles knows, or at least he thinks he knows. Scott heals quickly too and from almost anything, although he's never been shot so Stiles doesn't really know how he fares on that front. So he thinks he has a good grasp on werewolf healing abilities, but Derek takes another shaky breath and then Stiles feels skin moving underneath his hands. The pulse of blood has all but stopped, which is good but also surprising, and he can't really see anything in the dark, but he sure as hell can feel it all knitting back together under his palms.
He doesn't jerk his hands away, because Derek is still holding him there – pressing his hands against the hole in his chest – but he absolutely does flinch like he's going to. “Holy shit, Derek.”
He's not positive, but he's pretty sure Scott's bullet-healing abilities are not this honed.
“I need an hour,” Derek says through clenched teeth. The hand at Stiles' neck slides away and, curled into a fist, hits the wood with enough for to shake the floorboards Stiles is sitting on. The hand covering Stiles' moves too, lets him go carefully, but the wound doesn't reopen. Derek looks like he wants to curl in on himself, hands clenched tightly and his eyes closed, in pain. Even freed Stiles sort of stares at him, lost, and doesn't immediately move away. He realizes, sort of belatedly, that this is probably difficult to have someone watch.
Stiles wipes his shaking hands on his pants and stands up, fumbling for the shotgun. “Yeah – okay. An hour. I can keep watch for an hour. Jesus Christ, seriously, the things I get into. I am never leaving town again.”
He takes the pistol off the man he killed earlier, trying not to look at his hooded face or the fact that he's bled out onto the floor in a thick puddle. None of it is going to do very much good against anything dead set on getting into the house, but Stiles is sort of hoping any predators will have the decency to wait until his attack wolf has healed up before venturing inside.
The sun is peeking over the horizon before Derek manages to struggle to his feet. It's been a little over two hours – maybe three – and he is stretching out his muscles when he walks down the hallway and into the main room. There is a handgun in a holster, strapped to his thigh, that hadn't been there before. Stiles figures it's prudent to pick over the corpses for things they could use, but he's a little relieved that he wasn't placed on scavenger duty. Derek's clothes are worse for wear, even if the black and brown hides the blood stains and dust better than anything else, but at least he's on his feet.
Stiles is sore from standing in the front doorway all night, shotgun propped uncomfortably against his shoulder, and his nerves bouncing in his veins. He feels relief at seeing Derek mobile, and breathing, and alive – and also, despite everything else, a little in awe. It's probably a combination of exhaustion, and the after effects of adrenaline he's been holding onto for hours, and the fact that he seriously thought he would be trekking across the Wasteland with a dead werewolf's shotgun by himself this morning, that shuts off the part of his brain that might ask him if what he's doing is a good idea. He steps towards Derek before he gets to the doorway, hand brushing aside the leather and fingers spreading the hole in his shirt wider, and it's all disbelief – because, even knowing it must be true, he can't imagine someone healing themselves of a gunshot wound in a matter of hours.
Disbelief or not, the skin under his fingers has knit itself back together, as though that's something completely normal for it to do. There is light scarring, that looks like tiny pieces of shattered glass, and even as Stiles watches it the markings are fading, lighter and lighter as the minutes pass. He stares at the healed wound, taken aback, and he doesn't realize Derek's hand is around his wrist – like he's crossed territory he wasn't invited into – until he glances up, to ask what kind of fucking super werewolf are you exactly, and finds Derek staring at him. It's weird, because there's an edge to his eyes – and they're red, which sometimes they are and sometimes they aren't, but they definitely are now – but his grip on Stiles' arm is careful, wary but careful.
It's weird because Stiles' first thought isn't that he should be afraid or that he should back away. Derek's eyes are on his, and then they're on the space between them, at Stiles' hand on his skin. His eyes are on Stiles' mouth, lips parted like someone stole the words from his tongue, and Stiles thinks – anxious, heart beating in his chest – that Derek is going to kiss him. Which is an insane thing to think about the outlaw werewolf who found you in the Wasteland, who could be someone or no one and who is dangerous all the same. There is a pulsing in his veins, excitement and nerves, that feels centered underneath the pad of the thumb that is sliding slowly – carefully – along his wrist. His wrist is still smeared in Derek's dried blood, up his arms like war paint.
“I thought you were sneaking out with my supplies last night,” Derek says and he sounds chagrined, frustrated with himself – or with the world – or maybe even with Stiles. “I should have realized you heard something, but I thought... ”
Stiles doesn't know why he's not offended at being thought of as a thief; it probably has something to do with all the assumptions he made about Derek less than a day ago. “Why would you go to all this trouble to help me if you thought I was planning on stealing your shit?”
“I thought you were different than everyone else. I just didn't expect to be right.”
Me either, Stiles wants to say, but instead he rocks forward on the tips of his toes and kisses Derek, because at the rate they're going one of them is probably going to step on a landmine in the next half day and that means he has nothing to lose. It's not the first time he's kissed someone, but it's the first time he's felt it in every bone and every limb in his body, like something uncontrollable in his blood. This is the first time he's kissed someone and thought we could have grown up together – I could have known you – we could have changed all of this.
Derek is warm, because there's something inhuman burning through his veins that he pushes beneath the surface, and his callused fingerprints are filthy against the side of Stiles' jaw. Derek smells like copper and gunpowder, like a man back from the dead, and Stiles finds he doesn't mind; there's the sun rising, and the ground beneath them, and they're alive.
His mouth is dry when Derek inhales sharply, like there's something caught in his chest, and pulls away.
“We need to move,” he says and Stiles nods, because the worst thing they could do is forget where they are.
Derek's muscles relax, the tension in them bleeding away, and the red in his eyes dwindles; he squeezes Stiles' wrist briefly, like a parting gesture, and lets him go and moves around him.
Air that had felt heavy before feels light now, like a weight lifted off of them. Stiles breathes in, breathes out, and turns to follow him out of the house. He bites his tongue until he tastes copper, because he already knows the answers to all the questions racing around in his mind. Derek is a stranger, an outlaw, in the Wasteland. He is a werewolf, and an unknown, and Stiles has his own life to think about. He has his father, and Scott, and the people of Beacon, and it's not like he's running on a shortage of people to worry over. Logical reasoning doesn't change how he feels though, and the reminder of his heart beating rapid-fire against his chest is hard to forget.
They're halfway through the mountain trail when he sees the city in the distance. Beacon is a sea of wood and metal, surrounded by tall steel barricades that partition off the perimeter. There is barbed wire coiled along the top of the outer wall, bright and reflective in the sunlight, and it looks like home. Stiles has never lived anywhere else, has never known another life, and everything he has and cares about is safe beyond those walls. He remembers when his mother was still alive – when she taught him to tell time by the sun in the sky, and how to find safe water in the middle of the Wasteland, and how to scavenge useful parts and pieces from what had already been picked thoroughly clean. He remembers her smile, and her laugh, and the way she had looked out of the gates and wished for more.
When they stop along the mountain trail and pass a canteen between them, Stiles says, “Do you miss living in Beacon?”
“Not enough to regret what I did,” Derek says, easy, like he's had plenty of time to let the bitterness wash off his tongue. It's difficult to understand in some sense, because Stiles is the sheriff's son and he's been raised in a civilization that espouses law and order above all else. He realizes that his view of the world is very linear, that he has only seen a sliver of what is out there. He realizes that law and order is black and white, while the Wasteland is grey, grey, grey.
The posters say 'murder' and his father speaks of a troubled young man, who runs like the guilty but who confesses to nothing, and it's easy to judge when you don't know the whole story. Stiles doesn't know the whole story, because he won't ask and Derek won't say, but he doesn't think murderers save teenagers in the Wasteland and then escort them home, or save their life an indeterminable amount of times along the way, or share valuable resources like food and water without expecting anything in return. Stiles doesn't know Derek well enough to pass anything more than blanket judgment and, really, he doesn't know him at all; he still doesn't think Derek is the kind of person who indiscriminately kills others.
“What about second chances?” Stiles asks, standing and wiping the palms of his hands on his pants. His elbows and wrists are still grimy – red and brown and black with everything – but the palms and pads of his fingers are a clear spot; he doesn't want to know what's underneath his fingernails. “Redemption?”
“If I were the type to stay put in one place,” Derek says, as he hefts the backpack back onto his shoulder, “then you would've been digested by now.”
“Yeah, well, I don't know if I'm going to be patrolling scrapyards with Scott ever again.”
Which leaves – what? Rotting away in town, hauling in resources from the transports, and wasting away his life behind towering metal walls? Beacon is bustling, is a constantly busy hub for trading and bartering, and it isn't as though there isn't a future there; it's not a collection of shacks in the middle of the Wasteland. Stiles' mother couldn't sit at home either, couldn't bear to not see what the horizon was keeping a secret, and what did it get her?
Derek had been forced out – he hadn't gone willingly – and maybe it had been for the best. The man on the wanted posters bears only a vague resemblance to the man who stands next to him, who looks like he spends every day appreciating the sun rising and the wind in his hair. The Wasteland is unforgiving, harsh, but Derek has found a way to live in it and he hasn't been in Beacon in – what? - 5 years or more? It isn't as though everyone has to end up buried in the dust.
They're halfway down the mountain trail when they hear the transport. Heavy tires, loud engine, and it's fairly visible further down the trail. The brief moment of panic Stiles feels disappears entirely when he realizes he recognizes the colors of the Beacon emblem splashed across the front of the vehicle. It's still too far away to make out any distinct details, but it looks like one of theirs and it's moving slowly – like it's looking for something or someone. There is something tugging at his chest, because they've stopped behind a pile of scrap and Derek is not moving any further down the path. He has the quick, terrifying thought that he doesn't want to be found, before stuffing it to the back of his mind and ignoring it entirely; he has to go home.
“I can't get any closer,” Derek says, and he's probably got this to an art by now – sneaking around transports from major cities, ignoring the patrols that move along the Wasteland trails. “I can watch from the ridge while you walk the rest of the way.”
The thing about the Wasteland is that, regardless of how shitty it is and how much they have to try to thrive in it, it's their world. The reality is that you fight tooth and nail for what you have, to stay alive and to protect those you care about, and there's no real time for second guesses – for waiting. There isn't time for Stiles to wonder if he really wants to go back to Beacon; he has to go back, because his father is there, and Scott is there, and everything he's ever known is there. There's no question about where Stiles belongs or where he will end up before the day is done.
“Okay, well, if you change your mind about being a wandering vagrant you know where I live,” Stiles offers, and it earns him a smile – small, and amused, and rare – in return.
This is goodbye because there are no halfways in the Wasteland. You trust someone completely or you don't trust them at all. Which makes Derek such an anomaly – such a disruption in Stiles' life – because Stiles wants to trust him, entirely, and it's really a terrifying proposition.
“Take care of yourself, Stiles,” Derek says, and, strangely, he looks like he means it.
Stiles wakes up with his legs tucked underneath him, fraying rope biting into his wrists, and the smell of axle grease from behind his head. There is a dog barking nearby, and angry voices arguing over whether or not he's worth crossing raider territory to sell or whether there's a chance anyone in Beacon is interested enough to pay ransom; they don't know who he is, because they can barely tell their asses from a hole in the ground, and he's going to count that as a point on his side. His body aches, probably from where he's been laying against a train track for who knows how long, and the side of his head is wet with what is probably his own blood.
“Stiles,” Scott whispers to him, from somewhere near his left. Stiles is actively regretting Scott's new commitment to his shots, because it would probably be super helpful to have a half-rabid werewolf on the loose right about now, but it also would've been super helpful to have stuck to his plan of not traipsing around the Wasteland with only Scott. There's no cease in the arguing from further away, so Stiles thinks it's safe to assume their captors are far too involved with their own personal mutiny to worry about their hostages.
“I think I can get my hands free,” Stiles whispers back, and he's not a criminal – doesn't typically take hostages or tie people up – but even he is sort of baffled as to why they would choose to tie him up with the first available length of whatever they found; the rope is unraveling underneath his squirming, into dust and fibers and nothing. Maybe this is a new gang – maybe this is their first kidnapping or something. Stiles gives points for effort, but they're failing the rest of it.
“Stiles,” Scott whispers again. “I think they're planning on eating us.”
Stiles cranes his neck to look at him, even though the angle makes it sort of painful, because he needs to glare at Scott because what an awful joke at a time like this- but Scott's face is not a joking face. Which, yeah, of course they've been caught and taken hostage by cannibals; that's pretty much just standard fare in their day-to-day now, isn't it?
“Fuck my life,” Stiles murmurs, and he hopes that maybe the arguing will escalate, that they'll start fighting amongst themselves, but he's not counting on it. The sound of arguing is closer now, accompanied by the sound of heavy footsteps against the dirt, and Stiles stops struggling and lays still. There are dusty boots in his line of vision, and he glances up at the masked face of one of their sub-par captors so that he isn't kicked awake. The man leans down, grabs him by the collar of his shirt, and drags him to his feet; maybe not smart, or experienced, but definitely strong.
“Fourteen days without food and you bring the smallest ones in the Waste,” he says, talking to someone else but looking at Stiles. He's eying him like he's a particularly disappointing rabbit he's caught, rather than a human being; he looks hungry, and Stiles feels his blood run a little colder.
“Never fuckin' happy, are ya?,” one of the other men says, and he's standing up and throwing down a cooking spoon angrily. “It's not like ya ever help go huntin'-”
Then there's a sound like his eardrums exploding, a gunshot that is stupidly close, and the head of the man who is holding him splatters – tissue, and muscle, and blood – and Stiles is stumbling backwards, out of a dead man's grasp. Screams, and yelling, and more gunshot. There's a familiar echoing slide – like the sound of a pump action shotgun – and then a second very loud, very violent shot, and the man across the camp falls face first onto the ground next to his spoon.
Stiles' face and arms and clothes are splattered with blood that is, thankfully, not his own. Scott is staring at him with wide eyes.
The shotgun gleams slightly in the campfire light, and Derek rests it against his shoulder and sighs – a little too loud for it to be real; he looks relieved, even if he's playing at exasperated. “We have to stop meeting like this.”
Scott looks lost, and a little terrified, but there's a swell in Stiles' chest and he can't help the laugh that's surprised out of him.