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The Trail You Leave Behind

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It takes Chris Argent and the Calaveras less than two weeks to track Kate Argent down and put her in the ground – permanently this time. Chris puts the bullet in her himself, and Derek gets the call on his way back from the airport where he dropped Braeden off. He doesn’t need visual confirmation; the trust forged with Argent over the winter is enough for him.

That’s new.

He sits in silence on the floor in his loft and slowly shifts from human to wolf and back again, watching the way his hands turn into paws, the way his snout comes into his range of vision as it elongates and sprouts fur. It’s surprisingly easy to do segments, to reach up with human fingers and touch his canine nose. It’s wet. He thinks that’s the way it’s supposed to be, but he’s not really sure. The click of his claws on the floors makes a comforting noise as he trots around the apartment, sniffing the corners of the room and brushing against the sparse furniture. It’s the calmest sense of self he’s had since—he doesn’t even remember since when.

That’s new too.

His bed still smells like Braeden, and in his new form, it smells a little like Jennifer Blake too, and it makes him bristle. He can smell Isaac, as well, and at a stretch, Erica through the fading note of Boyd’s scent. Derek’s chest aches. He shifts back, sits cross-legged on the floor and rubs his palm over his breast bone, wonders why he hasn’t taken up residence in one of the other apartments in the building – he could, they’re his, just his, and he should probably buy a new bed as well, maybe get the hole in the wall fixed if he’s to, well, just if.

He lays back against the cold floor and lets the sense of soft-sore calm wash over him. Kate Argent is dead, and she’s not coming back. Derek got back what she took from him, got Scott and Kira back from Mexico, helped Stiles keep Scott’s beta from clawing them both to death, and said goodbye to Braeden without feeling sad. Derek feels like his mother’s son, like he’s, maybe, finally the wolf he always thought he’d be, growing up. The thought makes him reel. Maybe he should call Cora.

But for now, he’s just tired. A bone-deep exhaustion that turns his bones to lead and makes his eyelids heavy, makes him shift to all fours again and curl up right there, in the middle of the floor on his belly, close his eyes and let deep sleep claim him.

 

---

 

After Derek throws out his bed and the couch he picked up off a sidewalk, calls a team of contractors and gets them to work on the hole in his wall and the other apartments in the building, he leaves California.

He tells himself it’s just temporary, and maybe it is, but either way it feels good to get in his car with his meager belongings and just start driving. He brings the warmest of his clothes, a fluffy, dark sweater he’s never worn, a stack of worn, dog-eared books, the kettle from the kitchen. He follows Highway 80 for a while, veers off onto smaller roads frequently to find wooded areas to run in before redressing and getting back on course. He catalogues all the subtle changes in scenery, the smells of new trees and old rock, of grass and wildlife and the changes in the wind. He sleeps, shifted, under a blanket in the back of the car – he wouldn’t fit comfortably in his human form, anyway, so he figures it’s a resourceful kind of luxury, being able to bend his legs and bow his spine like he can when he’s a wolf. The car smells like pack, and people.

Cora went south to ground herself, but Derek goes north when he hits Iowa. The trip has stretched itself ten times longer than what would have probably been necessary, what with all the stops and the long nights of uninterrupted sleep, but he has the time. He has all the time in the world. The thought simultaneously lightens him and scares the shit out of him, but he doesn’t examine it too closely.

It’s a Wednesday when he finally parks his car, rents a small cabin close to the Canadian border and lets the wilderness swallow his existence. The remains of slowly melting snow covering the area like a cold, wet blanket dulls sounds and smells, leaves a crisp tang of frost in the air, especially in the mornings. He hunts on four legs and sleeps in his woolen socks because the cabin is drafty, reads the same six books, and sleeps and sleeps and sleeps.

And Derek, for all that he’s remained cautious and vigilant since he was sixteen, finds himself sitting on his little wooden porch in the fluffy dark sweater and thinking yeah, this is it, this is good.

That’s where Stiles eventually finds him.

Derek has been gone for over a month—maybe he’s up to two, he can’t remember, actually, losing time is refreshing—and the ground is thawing. It smells amazing. It also means that the sound of Stiles’ Jeep can be heard from a mile away in the dimming evening light, crunching over the narrow, patchy gravel road leading into the woods. Derek knows the sound of that engine well by now, and if he strains a little, he can hear Stiles swearing at the trail under his car when he hits a bump that almost tore the chassis off Derek’s Toyota on his way up.

“Your place is filled with sweaty builders,” Stiles offers by way of greeting when he folds himself out of the car. He’s wearing way too little clothes for 26-ish degrees.

“I know,” Derek replies, stuffing his hands into his pockets as Stiles trudges up to the cabin, rubbing his arms. He gets an eye roll in return. The action is so achingly familiar it almost makes Derek smile. Almost.

“I’m aware you are, thanks, that’s where I finally managed to get an address—they weren’t exactly forthcoming with that, by the way.” His shoulders do a sudden, miniature drop, and his brows bunch.

You left without telling us again.”

Derek shrugs, offers Stiles his best whatever face. Stiles squints at him for a moment, and then a small, skewed smile spreads on his face.

“Asshole.”

Derek huffs and turns to open the door. Stiles walks in with his shoes on – yeah, Derek’s the asshole – and lets his gaze flick around the small cabin.

“Well. This is underwhelming,” he says, and meanders in to brush a hand over the small wooden kitchen counter.

“It’s enough, right now,” Derek replies, closing the front door behind them. There’s a beat of silence where Stiles eyes the books by the bed and the dirty windows. When he turns around, he’s grinning.

“I figured that’s what you’d be doing way up here – a wolfy soul search. Communing with nature,”

“Stiles—“

“Howling at the moon,”

“Stiles—“

“Finding your inner canine Buddha—“

Stiles.”

Stiles stops mid-word.

“What are you doing here?” Derek asks, crossing his arms. Stiles’ skin is pebbling where his sleeves are rolled up. He bites the inside of his cheek briefly and lifts one shoulder in a non-committal gesture.

“Spring break. Thought I’d visit.”

“It’s a drive of a day and a half without breaks,” if you take a more economic route than Derek did, “not a short trip to San Francisco or the beach.”

Stiles grimaces. “It’s not like I crossed the country to be faithfully at your side or anything, don’t get your wires crossed. My dad thought some fresh air would do me good, so.” The word hangs in the air for a moment.

“Your dad doesn’t know you’re here, does he,” Derek says, and it’s not a question. Stiles grins, and it’s almost painful to look at.

“Nope,” he replies, popping the p loudly.

“He does know I went on a road trip, though, so as long as I check in every day and let him know I’m fine, this is just part of my soul searching. Or something,” he adds in an absent mutter, already moving on, kicking off his shoes and picking up the nearest book off the nightstand. Derek’s read The Da Vinci Code a dozen times by now. If he had known Stiles was coming, he’d have asked him to bring new books. He’d probably have asked him to not come at all, too, but. He doesn’t mind.

Now that isn’t entirely new—but it also kind of is.

“Oh yeah!” Stiles suddenly exclaims with a flourish and stalks towards the door, past Derek, “I brought food, I didn’t know if you even had a fridge or if you’d been living off the land, so to speak.” He glances at Derek when he steps into—into Derek’s boots. Without even lacing them up. Derek feels his ears burn, which is ridiculous, because he’s a wolf, for fuck’s sake, there’s nothing wrong with living off the land or whatever Stiles wants to call it, it’s actually perfectly natural that the mini fridge isn’t even plugged in, at least for him, so.

“Oh my god, you totally have, haven’t you,” Stiles says, deadly serious. Derek looks at the wall.

“No, it’s cool,” Stiles says, and that’s unusual, for him, letting things go. “Saves money too, I guess, pretty resourceful of you,” and then he steps outside to half-crawl into the back of the Jeep, stepping on Derek’s shoelaces all the way.

After that, it’s not even—it’s not awkward. Which is weird.

They eat Stiles’ gas station food and Stiles complains about the cold until Derek relents and lends him a sweater. He even lights up a fire in the hearth, and Stiles sits with his feet so close to it Derek gets worried he’s going to set fire to the shoes he is still wearing. Derek isn’t a fan of open fire, but he’s okay with this. Stiles chews on two Red Vines, surprisingly quiet, while Derek watches the flames lick at the firewood.

“Me and Malia broke up,” Stiles offers, after a while. Derek glances to his right at Stiles but doesn’t say anything, waits for Stiles to figure out how to continue. His nose scrunches briefly, as he fits his front teeth into the grooves on the remaining Vine.

“I got really mad about something really dumb, it was stupid. We talked about it, and about our whole thing, and decided it was probably best to sort of,” he makes a vague gesture with his hand, like a floundering bird, reaches for the bag of licorice. “I don’t know. Maybe we’ll be like Scott and Allison, keep coming back to…”

Derek lets him trail off. There’s very little he can say to that, after all. Stiles nods to himself, and then looks at Derek.

“I’m okay, though. We’re still friends and I’m actually pretty good, you know?”

Derek looks at him until Stiles starts looking uncomfortable.

“Why are you here, then?” he asks. Stiles frowns.

“If you’re good,” Derek elaborates, “why are you spending your spring break driving to Minnesota?”

Stiles actually seems to think about that for a while. Then he shrugs.

“Who knows, man. Maybe I needed some quiet. You seem pretty good too, why are you here?”

Figures. Stiles always knew how to press people’s buttons.

Derek stands up instead of replying. That has to be enough conversation for one day, especially after having been staying in complete solitude for two months.

“I’m going to go to sleep,” he announces to the room, mostly to Stiles, maybe a little to himself, and moves to put the fire out.

“Uh,” Stiles says, stumbling to his feet. He smells warmed through, by the hearth and Derek’s sweater, like contentment and light sweat under his armpits.

“You can share the bed. If you snore or fidget, I’m kicking you to the floor,” Derek says simply, and picks an extra blanket up from the pile by the door. He has a lot of blankets.

The bed is narrow, and Stiles’ spine presses into Derek’s back, but he falls asleep quickly and he doesn’t snore or fidget (much).

 

---

 

Derek wakes up early like he does every morning. Stiles is dead to the world on his stomach, cocooned in his and Derek’s blankets, his arm hanging off the side of the bed. Derek undresses quickly and shifts, padding to the door and nudging it open. It’s clear outside, and his breath clouds the air in front of him when he follows the scent of a small critter somewhere a little east of the cabin.

He eats a vole and manages to catch a grouse too – mating season is coming up, and the males are a bit stupid in the spring, clueless and ruffled. He trots back to the cabin with the bird hanging from his maw, to find Stiles on the porch with a mug of what smells like coffee. He acknowledges Derek like he would his human form, which should be weird, but isn’t, considering who Stiles is, and what he’s seen.

“You done preying on the wildlife?” Stiles asks, sitting down on the edge of the porch. Derek drops the dead bird in his lap. Stiles makes an eugh-noise and shoves it onto the ground.

“Dude, not cool, I only brought one pair of pants,” he grumbles into his coffee. Derek’s glad he brought the kettle, at least; he may not have used the fridge, at all, but coffee’s nice. He trots inside to shift and redress before noticing another full cup on the kitchen counter, which gives him pause.

“Thanks,” he says, when he joins Stiles outside, mug fitted snugly into his palm. Stiles just nods, sips his own coffee. He glances at the bird still on the ground.

“Aren’t you going to eat that? Isn’t it, y’know, kind of nasty?”

“Not really, no. My body processes food differently in the wolf form. My appetite too.” In his human form, a raw vole would probably make him sick, but not as wolf – different organs and all that. Derek had no idea he would actually become fond of hunting down prey and eating it still warm if you’d asked him just a few months ago. Now, it’s like letting go, like giving way to a whole new kind of second nature he didn’t know how to measure before managing the full shift.

“So what’s the hang-up? Isn’t it kind of a waste killing it and then leaving it?” Stiles asks, finishing his coffee. Derek eyes him.

“I figured we’d clean it and actually cook it. Or something.”

“Do you know how to clean a bird?” Stiles asks, eyebrowing Derek in a way that kind of makes him want to slap him around, a little bit.

“No,” he admits.

“Well, I don’t either,” Stiles replies, “and since I don’t assume you have Wi-Fi out here, we can’t very well look it up, now can we.”

In the end, Stiles actually texts Scott and makes him look up some instructions. Derek’s pretty sure Scott is sincerely horrified wherever he’s spending his spring break like a normal god damn teenager, especially when he starts attaching graphic pictures, but Stiles looks thoroughly satisfied with himself, which does weird things to Derek’s mood. They make the simplest stew known to man for dinner and eat it sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the fire, and Stiles digs out more snacks from the back of the Jeep – it’s like an arsenal. Derek rediscovers his love for Reese’s Pieces and Stiles looks weirdly pleased again, but Derek is not touching that.

They go to bed, and Derek can feel Stiles’ presence, pressed against his back, more so than the night before, which is frustrating. They’re literally ass-to-ass and back to back, and Stiles seems tense. Fucksakes.

“Hey,” Stiles says, jostling Derek a little when he cranes his neck. Derek does the same, until he can make out some of Stiles’ profile.

“Wake me tomorrow when you go for your run. I want to see how long I can keep up with you on four legs. For scientific purposes.”

Derek rolls his eyes to no one in particular. Scientific purposes, right, Stiles is just a curious little shit and doesn’t know how to just come out and ask nicely if he can examine this new, unknown thing.

“You’re in terrible shape,” Derek points out, and Stiles elbows him in the ribs.

“Fuck you, just wake me up when you do.”

 

---

 

Derek does, after shifting, and to no one’s surprise, Stiles is a whiny baby around seven am. Derek ends up biting him on the ankle with just a little bit of teeth, which literally gets Stiles leaping out of bed and about four feet across the floor before he falls on his face with a groan.

“You suck. It seriously can’t be said enough,” Stiles says when he puts his socks and shoes on, and Derek snaps at his feet to get him out the door.

Stiles really is in terrible shape, at least when it comes to cardio, because Derek knows for a fact he’s actually pretty strong – long-distance though, he’s awful. Derek herds him longer than he probably would have this early himself, just to piss Stiles off, and he’s gasping for breath when they get back to the cabin, Derek carrying another unsuspecting grouse because Stiles had refused to use his damn hands so Derek could breathe something else than feathers.

“I never asked—how come you’re getting work on the loft done now?” Stiles asks, when Derek’s dressed and they’re eating outside in the early-morning sun, more simple stew with Doritos on the side because why the hell not. Derek chews and swallows before he replies, because unlike Stiles, he knows how to eat like a human being (which is funny, almost hilarious, actually).

“I thought I’d start renting out apartments,” he replies, wiping the corner of his mouth with his thumb.

“To who?” Stiles asks, with his mouth full like a caveman. Derek shrugs.

“Not sure. Maybe Scott and his mom. They’ve been struggling with money.”

Stiles winces visibly. “Scott told you about Peter’s money.”

“He did.”

“And you’re sure you’re not mad?” Stiles asks, before shoving another spoonful into his mouth.

“Like I told Scott, no. It’s not my money. And considering Peter is locked up now, you could have probably kept it.”

Stiles groans. “That’s what I said!” He shakes his head, chews thoughtfully for a while.

“What about your apartment? The hole in the wall is fixed. It actually looks inhabitable now.”

Derek shakes his head slightly.

“I’m finding another place in the building when I get back. I don’t—too much happened in that room.” Boyd happened. Jennifer happened. The nogitsune happened. Derek happened.

“So you’re coming back, then?”                                                                                                                                               

The question catches him off-balance. Stiles looks guarded but weirdly hopeful, and Derek wonders when he got so good at reading him – or other people in general. Derek knows when Stiles is nervous, or hopeful, or when he’s torn, torn between running for his best friend or staying with Derek who could only see shapes and outlines and Stiles’ penetrating eyes at that point. The only time Stiles didn’t stay was because Derek told him to go. That has to mean something, somewhere, to someone.

“I think I am,” he says, and Stiles nods, goes back to his food, Dorito dust on his fingers and his top lip.

“Would you—“ Stiles cuts himself off. He smells anxious, and still a little like sweat.

“Would you come back when I go back? Scott could still use some mentoring. You know, with Liam.”

Derek stares at him.

“So it’s only Scott that wants me to come back,” and it isn’t really a question, because he’s kind of annoyed, now, kind of weirded out by how close they’re sitting and it’s doing things to him when Stiles lies around this particular subject. Stiles tilts his chin up in defiance.

“So what if it’s not just Scott. Would you care? Do you care? Because I have to be honest with you, man, I had the feeling we were all a lot better after coming back from Mexico, but you still split. Again. Fucked off and only left your address with a stranger in Kansas overalls, which is a pretty shitty move, even for an asshole like you.”

It’s a low blow, and Derek knows it’s a defense mechanism, something Stiles does when he feels trapped. Sometimes Derek recalls the appeal of having Stiles versus Scott with him in high-stress situations, because while Scott is strong and fair, Stiles is sharp-edged and lethal when he gets backed into a corner, uncaring of who he cuts. It’s efficient. It’s kind of beautiful.

“I don’t recall you checking up on me after we got back—any of you,” Derek bites back, but it’s mostly for show; his head is in a whole other place, busy cataloguing the past few months and the way Stiles’ eyes harden and his nostrils flare, taking the bait.

“You know what—“ Stiles starts, rising off the floor, but Derek pushes forward, covers the lower half of his face with his palm and pulls him down. Stiles snarls something under his hand, and then he goes very, very still. Derek fits his mouth to Stiles’ jugular, just the barest press of teeth. He can feel Stiles’ pulse thrumming and smell his arousal spiking, like old, pent-up and contained energy.

“I’ll come back,” he rumbles lowly, teeth catching on skin. He feels, rather than sees, Stiles’ Adam’s apple bob when he swallows. He’s not afraid at all, and that’s probably the best part; he hasn’t been scared of Derek for a while now.

He nips at Stiles’ jaw, which feels surprisingly easy, and gets a satisfying hitch of breath in return before Stiles’ hands come up to fold over his shoulder blades.

“Are we going to have sex?” Stiles croaks, and quickly clears his throat. “Because I feel we should have sex, if that’s something you would be into.”

Derek’s pulse is already starting to race, just from the smell of him, from the bluntness that’s probably always gotten him into a lot of trouble, and always will.

“Is it something you’re into?” he asks, in lieu of an actual answer, because he is, definitely, and they’ve been very slowly warming up to this silly argument leading to this moment since Stiles held him up in the pool, probably. It’s a tremendously satisfying thought, having worked on something this long without completely fucking it up, even if they didn’t know it – Derek didn’t, really, but it makes sense now. It makes a lot of sense.

“Oh I’m into it,” Stiles breathes, before yanking his head back and finding Derek’s mouth. It’s like opening a dam.

They kiss until Derek feels dizzy with it, until he has Stiles pulled halfway into his lap, grinding down every time Derek grinds up, and it’s amazing. They kiss just like they argue, trying to win, to get the upper hand, always unconsciously leaving room for the other one to retaliate in between blows.

Derek realizes he’s said the last part out loud when Stiles groans and stills, his open mouth pressed into Derek’s cheek, panting.

“Don’t talk about blowing right now, I swear to god—“

“I could, though,” Derek interrupts, sucking a hickey into Stiles’ neck like a teenager, grabbing his narrow hips and shoving him down until he keens.

“I could blow you, right here, in the middle of the woods, out in the open—“

“I’ll get fucking pneumonia, Derek, take me inside, seriously, I need something soft to sit on or you aren’t getting shit,” Stiles rushes out, his hands grabbing and releasing the back of Derek’s neck. Derek stands, pulls Stiles in to press hard, biting kisses into his mouth, and duck walks them both inside and in the general direction of the bed in the corner.

He’s almost proud that Stiles doesn’t take his word for it that werewolves don’t get diseases – “I don’t care if you’re a werewolf or not – no glove, no love until I’ve seen some papers. If you put your hand on my throat, I’ll let you beat me off on your stomach, though—“ – and simultaneously slightly horrified by the amount of condoms spilling out of the glove compartment, when he detaches himself long enough to walk buck naked out to Stiles’ car to get them – “Malia told me to bring them. Don’t ask.”

After, Stiles is tipped crookedly onto his back, close to the headboard, boxers around his thighs, still wearing his socks. The back of Derek’s throat still tastes like latex, and Stiles is faintly complaining to himself about something or other concerning how long he got to actually be in Derek before he was pushed away and jerked off without the condom until Derek smelled like him everywhere, but Derek doesn’t really care. He manhandles Stiles until he can mold his back to Stiles’ front, and then they’re quiet. Stiles’ teeth work the knob of bone at Derek’s nape.

“You’re a cuddler,” he states, uselessly, after a while.

“So?” Derek asks, glancing back where Stiles has moved to press his nose into his shoulder.

“Just wouldn’t have guessed, ‘s all,” he rumbles, voice spent and drowsy even though it’s only one in the afternoon. Derek huffs out a breath.

“You are too,” he points out, and Stiles chuckles – Derek’s never heard him chuckle before.

“It’s cool, man. Nothing wrong with being a cuddler, I’m just saying.”

“Go to sleep, Stiles,” Derek orders, a little gentler than he would have liked.

“We should drive to a town tomorrow,” Stiles mumbles, already drifting off. “If we’re staying the rest of spring break, I need some real food.”

“Grouse is real food,” Derek counters, but Stiles is already snoring. Figures.