How many times have I prayed
That I would get lost along the way? -- "The Regulator" by Clutch
Derek finds the kid behind a convenience store in Nebraska, cornered between the building and the dumpster. He's pale and skinny, hair cropped short in a ragged buzzcut that's starting to grow out, and gripping a baseball bat studded with nails. There are three prowlers pacing back and forth in front of him, another one beaten into a mushy pile on the ground at his feet. When one of the prowlers darts in, the kid lifts the bat and waits, steely-eyed and calm, so patient that for a moment Derek thinks he waited too long, he fucked up, he's a goner.
Finally the kid swings, connects, tears most of the prowler's face off with one vicious thwack! It staggers back and falls, thrashing on the ground as the last two prowlers come at him at the same time, one from each side.
Derek knows better than to risk his own neck to help someone else, but it's one kid against all those prowlers, and he's already taken down two. It looks like he'd have a fighting chance if he had a little help.
Derek shifts as he grabs his crowbar out of the truck, joins the fray, and it's all over in seconds.
The kid is bigger than he seemed at first glance, his shoulders wide, if a little boney. There's almost no fat on him, cheekbones sharp over sunken cheeks, but Derek knows he looks the same, worn down to sinew and bone by scarce rations and constant vigilance. Still, the kid looks beguilingly defenseless when he's not wielding the bat, eyes bright and curious in his young face, the back of his neck narrow and vulnerable.
His name is Stiles, he's sixteen years old, and trying to get back to California. That seems too coincidental to let pass, so Derek says, "So am I. You can come with me if you want." He's thinking of the way Stiles handled himself, and the way he handled the bat. He won't be too much of a burden.
Derek doesn't really expect Stiles to agree. Ever since the sickness, the law of natural selection has come back with a vengeance, and anyone will fuck you over to gain one bare inch of advantage in the survival game. Eat your food, steal your clothes, slash your throat and leave you for the walkers and the prowlers and the feral dogs. Stiles should be more careful.
Stiles shouldn't accept rides from werewolves he meets behind abandoned convenience stores. Stiles shouldn't toss his backpack in the truck and scramble into the front seat and trust Derek not to do something really bad to him. Stiles shouldn't look so happy to throw in with a guy he just met. But he does all of those things anyway.
"So. You're a werewolf, huh?" Stiles says, before they've even driven half a block. He sounds kind of pleased by the idea, which is a little surprising.
There's always been lot of anti-werewolf bullshit out there, even with all the laws they passed about discrimination. Most of Derek's kind kept a low profile even before the sickness, and it's even worse now. Prowlers are a lot faster and a lot more resilient than human zombies, which has only increased the hysteria. Plus, there's a rumor that the sickness started with werewolves, and one of them infected a human. Derek doesn't know if it's true, but it might as well be—a lot of the people who are left act like it is.
"So you're a human, huh?" Derek shoots back, deadpan.
Some people have a hard time telling when Derek is making a joke, but Stiles, who has known him all of ten minutes, doesn't seem to have that problem. He laughs and says, "Touché."
They make good headway the first day, though travel is still slow compared to how things used to be, before the sickness. A lot of roads are clogged with long traffic jams of abandoned cars, barricades blocking access to towns, even the ones that are empty now except for the infected. Once in a while, booby traps. Pits dug in the road and covered with tarps, that kind of thing. Derek lost his first truck—and a nice chunk of meat out of his thigh—to one in Indiana. His leg's fine now, and he likes the Range Rover better anyway.
The Range Rover's a workhorse, and can go around and over stuff when it has to, so sometimes they make their own road, bouncing across medians, or into fields full of shaggy, surprised cattle the zombies haven't eaten yet. The main problem is keeping it fueled. Derek's become an expert at siphoning gas, and he's got two big red plastic jerry cans strapped to the back of the truck for emergencies. He hasn't been left stranded yet. Stiles seems impressed by the Range Rover, and asks if he can drive it. The look Derek gives him makes him huff in annoyance and put his dirty shoes on the dashboard in retaliation.
Stiles is chatty, and overshares like he can't help it, hands moving constantly while he talks, so within a few hours Derek knows a lot about him. He doesn't seem to notice Derek doesn't return the favor.
"How'd you end up behind a convenience store in Nebraska?" Derek asks at one point, because he's curious, and also because he wants to derail Stiles' current monologue about the unfairness of standardized testing.
It works. In the blink of an eye, Stiles is off and running on that topic.
He was visiting his grandma in Cincinnati over his summer vacation when the sickness struck, he tells Derek. Buried her in the backyard, and barricaded himself in the house, thinking it would be over soon and life would go back to normal. Everyone had thought that at first.
Grandma had come back, later that night, smeared with dirt, pawing at the back door. Stiles had seen enough horror movies to know what to do.
As the sickness spread, and with it the resulting panic, Stiles took his grandma's Cadillac and hit the road. He made it all the way to Omaha before the car gave out; he had just appropriated another and was looking for supplies when he got caught out by the prowlers.
He's anxious to get back home. His father survived, he says with conviction. Derek thinks he's being overly optimistic—what the sickness didn't do, the zombies later did. The chances are probably slim Stiles' dad is alive, but they'll know soon enough.
"What about you?" Stiles asks, inevitably. He's chewing on the strings of his hoodie, which is kind of gross.
"I was living in New York, but I’m from California," Derek says. He shrugs. "Might as well go there." He leaves out the part about how being one of the few survivors of a zombie plague isn't the worst thing that's ever happened to him.
The closer they get to Lincoln, the more clogged Hwy 6 gets, so when Derek pulls over to refill the truck's tank from one of the red cans, Stiles takes a brand new Nebraska map out of his backpack and spreads it out on the hood.
"We could try this way," Stiles says, one grimy, chewed finger tracing a road that branches off the highway a few miles from here. "It'll take us a little north, but we can come back down here." He taps another road.
It's probably a good idea—Stiles made it this far on his own, so he's obviously capable of navigating—but Derek isn't really listening. In the pile of junk spilling out of his backpack is another map, one for California, and on that one Stiles has marked Beacon Hills with a crookedly drawn red star.
"Is that where you're going?" Derek asks, not quite believing it. He points to the California map.
Stiles follows Derek's finger, then looks at him and tilts his head curiously. "Yeah. Why?"
"That's where I’m from. My family--" His family is probably dead. What little was left of it to begin with. Laura had assured him, during their final phone call, that she and Cora and Peter were fine, but that was months ago. They're probably all dead by now, but the only way to know for sure is to go to Beacon Hills and see for himself. Most days, Derek tells himself he wants to know for sure. "My family is from there," Derek says. "We have territory there."
"Really?" Stiles brightens noticeably at this connection, as tenuous as it is. "My dad's the sheriff."
"Your dad is Sheriff Stilinski?" Derek asks, incredulous, and the look on Stiles' face immediately goes from "bright" to "incandescent."
"You know him?" he asks eagerly. Then his grin turns mischievous. "Did he arrest you?"
Derek laughs. It's a short, rusty-sounding thing, but it's a laugh. "No. We had a problem with some anti-werewolf shitheads a few years ago." He's leaving out a lot of stuff. A lot. But he's under no obligation to share his entire life story with Stiles, even if it feels like Stiles is doing a pretty good job of sharing every detail of his with Derek, and it's only been six hours.
"Ah," Stiles says, nodding. He folds the Nebraska map back up. "Well, this is good! We're both going the same exact place. What are the odds?"
Yeah. What are the odds? Derek thinks. He has no idea how often he'll wonder that in the coming weeks.
They drive on, turning away from Lincoln when they come upon a giant roadblock made of concrete traffic barriers and sandbags, spray painted with dire warnings that the city is over run. There isn't much else, though, in the middle of Nebraska, and Derek starts to get nervous about gas. The sun is already low in the sky, and it's always worse after dark. The prowlers in particular--permanently shifted zombie werewolves, often roaming in packs--seem to be more active at night, which isn't surprising. Werewolves are always drawn to the moon.
Derek's learned that farms sometimes keep fuel on hand for the equipment, so the next time he sees one off in the distance they drive that way, hoping it's not just a waste of gas. There's no fuel tank on the property, but Derek manages to siphon some out of the old pick-up parked behind the barn, which takes the edge off his worry.
They try another place a dozen miles down the road, with similar results, and then strike gold at the next one. There's a tank, and it's got more than enough to top off the truck plus fill both gas cans. Even better, Stiles finds a third jerry can stashed in an old shed. Derek straps it to the top of the truck and fills it up.
There's an old rambling farmhouse that looks like it might be a nice place to spend the night, but as soon as they cautiously open the door they both reel back, gagging at the smell. There's more than one dead body in there, maybe more than four dead bodies, even. Derek shuts the door, saliva pooling in his mouth as he fights the urge to vomit, and they hurry back to the truck. Sometimes enhanced senses can be a curse, and that's never been more true than it is now.
Everything smells bad now. Rotting food, rotting animals, rotting people. The zombies are something else entirely--putrid decay with an undertone of infection. There's only so much a werewolf can block out. As they walk back to the truck, Derek discreetly hones in on Stiles' scent instead, trying to fix his poor overwhelmed nose. Stiles smells pretty good for a guy living rough, just warm skin and clean sweat, a little hint of Cheeto. It's almost heavenly after the house.
By now it's getting dark, and who knows if they'll find anything better, so after a short discussion they pull the truck into the barn and close the door behind them. Derek jams it closed with a pitchfork, which is just enough of an obstacle to slow down any infected, but not so much they can't make a quick exit if need be.
The barn's not bad. It smells like clean hay, and it's dry inside. Derek's slept worse, even before the sickness.
"Well, this is nice, too," Stiles says, with admirable optimism. He walks over and sits down on a bale of hay. "This'll make a pretty comfy bed," he says, bouncing experimentally.
"We're sleeping in the truck," Derek says, opening up the back and reaching for the rucksack he uses for food. "Safer." Behind him, he hears Stiles sigh, then get up and trudge over, elbowing his way next to Derek to grab his own stuff.
Stiles has an open bag of stale Fritos in his backpack, now smashed nearly to powder, and a bottle of Gatorade that has about a quarter inch of sediment at the bottom. Derek dines on a can of Beefaroni and some water. Gourmet meals by apocalypse standards.
By the time they finish eating it's full dark and getting chilly, and Stiles is yawning. Derek folds the seats down in the back of the truck and they crawl in, wrapping themselves up in snug blanket cocoons. Derek has a couple good sleeping bags he uses to make a nice little nest for himself every night. Stiles has a comforter with an obnoxious floral pattern on it and a matching pillow that Derek suspects came from his grandma's house.
Based on the day so far, Derek expects Stiles to yak his ear off, but Stiles falls asleep before Derek does, quick, like someone flipped his off switch. Derek's a little jealous, actually.
It takes him a bit to relax enough to fall asleep, so he spends a little time laying there, listening to the wind push against the barn, the creaky windmill by the house spinning. There are no walkers, no prowlers, just the slow, even rhythm of Stiles' breaths.
Derek drifts off, and sleeps until morning.
He wakes up a little too warm, another live body making a big difference in such a small space. Stiles has moved during the night and is now twisted up like a pretzel with his butt pressed against Derek's leg. Derek nudges him with his knee, and Stiles makes an annoyed sound and scoots away.
Before the sickness, Derek was a hit-the-snooze-button-five-times kind of guy, but now when he wakes up in the morning his first thought is all the zombies who want to eat him, which tends to make him get moving right away. He crawls out of his sleeping bag pile, and then out of the truck.
The air is chilly, cold enough to see his breath, but it feels good after the humid warmth inside the truck. He wanders over to the barn door, yawning, and cautiously opens it a crack when his ears don't pick up anything zombie-sized moving around outside.
It's early, the sun just barely over the horizon, birds chirping, and the grass is crisp with frost. No walkers or prowlers in sight, so he takes a moment to relax and watch the sun come up a little higher. He'd love a big, steaming mug of coffee right about now.
He'd also love to go for a run, feel his body get loose and sweaty in the crisp air, feel the sun come up until it's warm on his shoulders. That'd be suicide, though—nothing attracts the prowlers like the sound of a beating heart, the smell of a warm body. Derek reluctantly closes the door and contents himself with some push-ups, some burpees, and some weightlifting in the form of moving around bales of hay. He's leaned out to nothing by now, his belt barely keeping his jeans up, his skin stretched tight and thin over his bones. You gotta stay strong, though, if you wanna live. He does another set of push-ups. Stiles sleeps through it all.
There's a water tank behind the barn, which probably isn't safe to drink for Stiles, but Derek helps himself. The water tastes slightly metallic, but not bad. Once he's slurped up a few handfuls he washes up a little, hissing between his teeth when he splashes the icy water on his steaming skin. As he scrubs his wet hands through his hair and his beard, he keeps one ear cocked for zombies while the other keeps tabs on Stiles, still snoozing away in the truck, but everything is quiet.
Stiles still hasn't moved by the time Derek's changed into clean clothes and rolled up his sleeping bags, and Derek's tired of waiting. They need to get going.
"Hey, rise and shine," Derek says, shaking him a little. Stiles is slow to wake up, burrowing deeper into his blanket, grumbling, until Derek grabs his ankle and drags him almost out of the truck, and then Stiles sits up like he's been electrocuted, all at once and looking ornery. So definitely not a morning person, then.
"Blarrrgh," Stiles groans, sounding a little zombie-like himself, as he blinks in the morning light. It's a miracle he's lasted this long on his own, Derek thinks. All a zombie'd have to do is wait for him to fall asleep, apparently.
"There's water outside, if you wanna wash up," Derek says, by which he means, Go wash up. He waits to see if Stiles gets the hint.
Stiles does. He yawns so hard his jaw cracks while he roots around for his bag, but he's awake and alert when he finally gets out of the truck, and he's put his shoes on. He takes his bat with him, even though he'll be just outside the door. Kid doesn't take any chances--with zombies, anyway—and Derek approves. That's probably how he survived this long.
Stiles comes back in shivering, the hood of his sweatshirt pulled up over his wet head, looking about as happy as a guy who just bathed with ice water can be expected to. After he tosses his stuff back in the truck, he walks over to where Derek is sitting on a bale of hay sorting through his rucksack, and takes a seat. He smells like flowery old lady soap and cinnamon toothpaste, and he changed his T-shirt. Derek knows he's out of food, so he hands him some Twinkies for breakfast.
"Thanks," Stiles says, voice still morning hoarse, as he tears the plastic open.
They eat in silence for a minute or two, dust moats floating in the sunbeam that's warming their feet, geese honking somewhere overhead on their way south for the winter. If Derek's had another moment this peaceful in the last couple months, he can't remember it.
"I never thought I'd become jaded toward Hostess products, but I was wrong," Stiles says forlornly. He shoves the last of his Twinkie in his mouth and swallows it without chewing. This crap is easy to find, and not rotten, so he's probably been eating just as much of it as Derek.
"I never thought I'd miss broccoli so much," Derek admits.
"Yeah," Stiles sighs, eyes going unfocused, like he's fantasizing about vegetables. He slithers down to sit on the floor, leaning back against the hay bale. His shoulder presses against Derek's knee, but he doesn't seem to notice. "And lettuce. Man, I can't remember the last time I had lettuce." He tips his head back as he closes his eyes, maybe imagining a nice head of iceberg. The sunlight makes his eyelashes look golden.
"Can't make a sandwich without lettuce," Derek says.
"Sure can't," Stiles agrees, without opening his eyes.
"Can't make a sandwich, period," they say in unison, a second later, and Derek snorts around a mouthful of Twinkie as Stiles grins up at him, squinting in the bright sun, and says, "Jinx!"
On their first full day together as travel companions, Derek discovers Stiles has an iPod and an adaptor he can plug into the truck, so they can listen to music. Their tastes don't overlap much, but it's better than nothing. Stiles still talks a lot, but it seems to be fueled by boredom than anything else—the long hours of sitting in the car make him antsy. Stiles has ADHD, and no access to meds.
"When we'd go on road trips when I was a kid, my mom used to give me a quarter for every lap I did around the car at rest stops," Stiles says, when he's explaining it. "Then I got to spend it on whatever souvenirs I wanted."
"I'm not giving you any quarters," Derek tells him. He hasn't actually seen a quarter in months.
"Going rate's a buck now anyway," Stiles says airily. "Inflation."
Derek pretends to think about it. "I've got a can of olives and some pork rinds," he offers. Worth more than money now.
"Deal," Stiles says and tries to get Derek to high five him. It fails miserably.
The extra stops aren't too annoying, and Derek quickly figures out that even if Stiles doesn't run laps around the truck, letting him get out and move around makes him feel better. It's not too much of a hassle to stop a little more frequently, as long as it's safe.
"I've got an electrical adaptor, too," Stiles says as he scrolls through the iPod. "I've been trying to find some clippers." He runs his hand over his hair, which is sticking up like porcupine quills everywhere it isn't mashed down flat. "I'm way overdue for a cut."
Derek is, too, he knows. His hair and his beard are both long and messy. He looks more like a werewolf than ever, or a deranged mountain man, depending on your point of view.
"Same here," Derek says. A trim wouldn't hurt. "I'll keep an eye out, too."
"Cool," Stiles says, then, "Oh, I love this song!" and turns up the volume.
During a lunch break at a burned out truck stop somewhere between Lincoln and North Platte, Derek learns why Stiles was so accepting of Derek: Stiles' best friend is a werewolf.
"Maybe you know him!" Stiles says happily, drumming on his knee with his thumb. "Scott McCall? No? What? Why are you looking at me like that?"
"We don't all know each other," Derek says, irritated. He wads up his Combos bag and tosses it onto the grass, ignoring Stiles' disapproving glare. Stiles still thinks it's wrong to litter. He doesn't seem to realize things are probably going to get a lot worse than this, and not stop getting worse for a long time. In the grand scheme of things, litter is inconsequential.
"What'd you say your last name was?" Stiles asks, digging the creamy filling out of a Ding Dong with his finger. Despite his grousing about how Hostess heavy their diet is, he's got a major sweet tooth, and goes for the sugary foods almost every time.
Derek never said what his last name was, but he's willing to share it now. Might as well get it over with. "Hale."
Stiles' face tells all. His eyes widen, his mouth drops open in a soft O. He's heard the story. Everyone in Beacon Hills has heard the story. Only a few people know the extent of Derek's culpability.
"It's okay," Derek says. "You don't have to say it." The last thing he wants is sympathy all these years after the fact. He doesn't deserve it anyway.
Stiles sucks the sugary filling off his finger and goes back for more. "My mom died when I was eight," he says after he rolls his tongue around his mouth. Derek usually hates it when people do this, share some tragedy from their own past in an attempt to bond with him or let him know they understand how it feels. No one understands how Derek feels.
"I hate telling people about it," Stiles goes on. "They try to say nice things, but I can always tell they're thinking how glad they are they're not in my shoes." He looks up at Derek, wry. "So, thanks. For once I'm not the unluckiest bastard in the room."
Derek can't help it—he laughs. As soon as he does, Stiles' wry look turns into a grin.
"Glad to help," Derek says, opening his bottle of water. His teeth feel like they've got about an inch of sugar fuzz on them.
Stiles holds up his Gatorade, motioning for Derek to do the same. "To the Dead Parents Society," he says.
"Almost everyone left is in that society," Derek points out, but he taps his bottle against Stiles' anyway, and they drink a toast to family members lost forever.
The next morning, Derek wakes up with Stiles' skinny butt inches from his face. He reaches up and pokes it with one finger, but all that does is make Stiles snort and snuffle before his breathing levels out again. Derek pokes him again, harder this time.
"Wake up and get your butt out of my face," Derek snarls, poking him a third time, even harder.
This time Stiles jerks and the rolls away, mumbling insults and four-letter words under his breath as he tugs his ridiculous blanket over his head. Derek finds himself choking back a laugh. Having Stiles around is definitely good entertainment.
The morning is much the same as the last one: washing up, eating crappy food, continuing on in the general direction of Beacon Hills. Twice is all it takes to establish the pattern, so that's how most mornings play out after that.
Things are pretty uneventful the next few days, or as uneventful as they can be when you're crossing the country in the midst of a zombie plague. Derek and Stiles get along pretty well, despite being so different, and having someone else in the truck certainly makes the miles go faster, even when they're crawling along the shoulders of log-jammed highways.
They don't see many regular people along the way—everyone's learned to keep a low profile now, because a stranger is just as likely to hurt you as help you. Once in a while as they pass through a town Derek catches movement out of the corner of his eye, too quick to be a zombie, or hears people talking somewhere off in the distance when they get out of the truck to look for supplies, but no one approaches them. Once they see a car going the other way on a divided highway, but it doesn't even slow down, so Derek keeps driving. Better that way for everyone, probably.
Stiles manages to scavenge some clippers and a nice pair of scissors, and they give each other haircuts while they're parked safely inside a lumber yard fence. Stiles' haircut takes no time, just putting the right attachment on the clippers and running it over his head, but he uses the scissors on Derek. It takes a lot longer, so long that Derek starts to get a little nervous, but when he checks himself in the truck's side mirror afterwards, it looks amazingly decent. It's maybe not perfectly symmetrical, but…eh.
Pleased with the results, he lets Stiles get the clippers going again so he can trim Derek's beard down to what he calls "manly scruff."
"Much better," Stiles say approvingly, when he's done. Derek looks at himself in the mirror and has to agree. "Now I won't feel like I'm bunking with Charles Manson."
"Hilarious," Derek says, and cuffs him on the back of the head. It's bristly now, freshly shorn, and he looks even more vulnerable with less hair, eyes bigger, cheekbones more prominent. He looks like something a prowler would love to eat. Derek makes himself think about something else.
"Thanks," Derek says gruffly, when they get all the prickly little hair trimmings brushed off and are settling down for the night. He feels better without all the wild hair, a little bit more like his old self. Six months ago, Derek hated that version of himself. How times change.
"See, I am good for something," Stiles says as he primly adjusts his old lady blanket.
Stiles is actually good for quite a few things more than that, as Derek increasingly learns. He's a whiz at finding back roads and alternate routes, can recap with mind-numbing detail the plot of any sci-fi movie made in the last twenty years, and has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of numerous random topics ranging from the history of jousting to different types of bread mold. It's like traveling with the human version of Google.
The worst thing about traveling with Stiles is that he's a bit of a pack rat. He grabs a lot of random stuff when they're scavenging, useless and appalling things like pink lawn flamingos and a ceramic mug shaped like a boob. He grabs stress balls and fake flowers and novelty keychains, until Derek has to put his foot down before Stiles completely fills the truck with useless junk. Sometimes they sleep in empty houses, but when they can't find a suitable place they sleep in the truck—keeping the clutter to a minimum is a priority.
Even after Derek stops the incoming flow of cheap crap, the stuff that's already there keeps finding its way under his seat, into his rucksack, under his butt when he's trying to sleep. It's like Stiles is slowly taking over every inch of Derek's space, one neon green plastic skeleton at a time.
Derek thinks he should mind that more than he does.
On a day Stiles will probably remember fondly forever, they scavenge a house outside Cheyenne that's obviously the former home of a comic book nerd. Stiles ricochets through the house like a humming bird on speed, rhapsodizing over the boxes of comic books and the shelves of statues, and the giant cardboard cut-out of Captain America in the corner of the dining room.
"Only what you can carry!" Derek reminds him as he digs through the dresser, looking for a shirt or two. Derek's two new rules for scavenging are take only necessities and only what you can carry. Stiles skirts the edges of both rules constantly. Derek can hear him out in the living room having a joygasm over God knows what right now. "And don't forget to look for food!" he yells.
Stiles grumbles something under his breath, too low even for Derek to make out, but a few seconds later Derek hears the sound of cupboards opening and closing.
"You should go check out the clothes," Derek says, when he comes out of the bedroom and finds Stiles struggling to zip the zipper on his backpack. "All the shirts have comic book characters on them." Derek isn't exactly picky at this point in his life, but Stiles will probably appreciate them more.
When they get out to the truck, Derek shoves a pair of newly acquired jeans and some underwear into the bag with his dirty clothes, where he'll leave them for a day or two. He hates wearing stuff that smells like other people.
Then he turns to Stiles. "Show me," he says, jerking his chin at Stiles' backpack.
Stiles rolls his eyes, but Derek was right to insist, because when Stiles opens it up, it's about half food and half books. Cheap science fiction paperbacks, it looks like. Derek disapproves. The truck is already more cluttered than he'd like, and books aren't a necessity.
"Please?" Stiles begs, clutching an armful of the books to his skinny chest, pleading with his big, baby deer eyes. "I miss reading."
"I've got books," Derek points out. Not many, but a few. He's always liked to read.
Stiles grimaces. "Yeah, but they're boring and stodgy. I miss reading interesting books."
Derek should have his head examined, but he glowers and says, "Fine. But you keep them with your stuff."
"Right, yeah, absolutely," Stiles says, even though they both know the damn things'll be spread all over the truck in a day or two. Derek will probably end up using one as a pillow.
That night they find another farm, and more gas, but Derek doesn’t like the look of the house—not secure enough—so they sleep in the truck again. Stiles is pissed, and complains about the chilly temps and the hard surface and the way he can't stretch his legs completely or sprawl out. Which is total bullshit because by morning he'll have his butt wedged into Derek's armpit anyway. He doesn't need a whole lot of room. He doesn't even use what little room they have.
It snows that night, just a dusting that'll melt as soon as the sun comes up, but it's really cold—or at least feels that way to two California boys--and Derek drifts to half-consciousness in the night with Stiles pawing at his sleeping bags, shivering even though he's wearing almost all of his clothes. Derek groans in irritation but relents, rolling so Stiles can open up Derek's blanket cocoon and worm his way inside, flattening himself against Derek's back.
"Jesus, I'm frozen solid," Stiles says through chattering teeth, but he definitely isn't. He's warm against Derek's back, except his nose, which he buries in the back of Derek's neck. Derek makes an annoyed sound, which Stiles ignores. Stiles is snoring again about thirty seconds later, and since there's nothing else to be done about it, Derek just goes back to sleep, too.
When Derek wakes up again in the morning, they've flipped over and now he's spooning Stiles. They're pressed together from head to toe, and Derek has his arm looped around Stiles' belly, holding him against his body. Stiles is using Derek's other arm as a pillow…and drooling on it.
This isn't what Derek had in mind when he asked Stiles to come with him, and he's very aware that Stiles is just a teenager, but it feels good to simply sleep with someone again, share space and warmth. It's something Derek didn't do much even before the sickness, and certainly not after. He'd forgotten how comforting it is, curling around a warm body that smells a little like him now, listening to another heartbeat, and Stiles doesn’t seem to mind the closeness. He can't keep his butt to himself anyway.
Just having Stiles around in general is already starting to shift from being convenient to being a welcome change. Derek's a pack animal, and one who's been living alone too long. It's nice, having someone to think about and take care of besides himself. It makes him feel less alone, which he's always had a tendency to be, even around other people.
There's a little voice in the back of his head that whispers that this is dangerous, nothing good can come of this, remember what happens when you let people in, but Derek ignores it. Pulls Stiles a little more snuggly against his chest and ignores a lot of things.
Stiles reads out loud while they travel, working his way through his new collection of scavenged books one at a time. They're all Star Wars novels.
Derek has no idea who most of the characters are because he only knows the first three movies, so Stiles keeps stopping the narrative to explain, and inevitably that sparks a fight because Derek is a purist with strong opinions about this so-called expanded universe bullshit. Stiles has equally strong opinions in favor of it. Derek mocks a lot of the stuff in the books, and Stiles gets mad and starts changing the details of the stories on the fly, turning the Ewoks into werewolves, which Derek considers a massive insult.
It's a pretty decent way to pass the time.
One afternoon, they pull over to eat next to a particularly picturesque piece of Wyoming. It's a little early for lunch, but Stiles' leg was starting to bounce, which means he needs a break from being in the car, and the weather's nice, so why not.
They devour about half a dozen Slim Jims while passing back and forth a box of Cheez-Its, sitting on the tailgate and watching the clouds sail by overhead. The trees are already turned, a lot of them past their peak, but the sun makes everything look better, highlights the little splashes of yellow and orange still left among the brown.
That's one thing the sickness couldn’t take away—the seasons will still come and go. Derek can remember thinking, after the fire, how mindboggling it was that the world went on like nothing had changed, when for Derek everything had changed. It doesn't seem as strange to him this time around.
He's always liked fall, especially when he was a kid and it meant football games and Halloween costumes, caramel apples eaten out on the front porch during the full moon. Even back then he'd liked the way the leaves crunched under his feet, and seeing his breath steaming in the air when his sisters chased him through the trees behind the house. He hasn't really let himself think about those things in years, and now that he is he can practically feel the itch of wool sweaters and the slime of pumpkin guts in his hands, smell the dead leaves, the inevitable pot of chili on the stove, the candy corn his dad loved so much.
For years it hurt to think about those things, but now it's only a bittersweet sting. Maybe Derek's finally gotten enough distance, or maybe things have just reached the point where they're so terrible in the present that his memories are a comfort instead of a burden. It only took the whole world going to hell for that to happen.
"When I was a kid, my dad used to rake big piles of leaves for us to play in," Derek says, for no reason he can fathom except that he's thinking about it now and it doesn't hurt and he wants to share it with Stiles. "We used to bury each other and try to hide when my mom wanted us to come in for dinner."
Stiles is silent for a moment, like Derek's surprised him, and he probably has. Derek hasn't said much about his family, holding his tongue of out habit even though at this point he knows the entire Stilinski family history, right down to what kind of underwear the sheriff wears (boxer shorts, plaid preferred).
"Just so you know, I'm picturing a bunch of little wolf puppies rolling around in a leaf pile," Stiles says eventually, turning to smile at Derek. There's something careful in his eyes, though, like he knows this is a big deal for Derek to talk about his family with someone else.
Derek scoffs, and accidentally inhales a throat full of Cheez-It crumbs. Stiles looks annoyingly proud of himself as he whacks Derek on the back a lot harder than is probably necessary.
"We can't turn into actual wolves that young," Derek says, after he's taken a few swigs of Five Alive—pickings are getting very slim—and can talk without coughing.
"Oh," Stiles says, looking genuinely disappointed by this piece of information. "Can you now?"
Stiles doesn't know that question is like a knife to Derek's heart, and it's Derek's own fault for even talking about himself in the first place. This is what he gets for opening his big mouth, Derek thinks. Just because some of his memories are bearable now doesn't mean they all are. This is still a painful one.
"It's…pretty rare," Derek says, side stepping a direct answer, but then he looks over at Stiles' face, the harmless curiosity there, and says, "My mom could. My older sister can. Mom always said I would be able to, but…"
Derek stops, looks down at the half-eaten Slim Jim in his hand, and his stomach does an unpleasant somersault.
The fire happened right around the time he probably would have been able to start going full wolf, so he never got to try. His mother, who would have been the one to guide him, was gone forever. Laura had offered to teach him, but he'd refused. He didn't deserve the power and respect that went along with achieving the wolf shift. He didn't deserve to be like his mom.
"I haven't really tried. Since the fire," he finishes. Stiles already knows about the fire, so at least he won't have to explain that. He makes a silent wish that Stiles won't ask him anything about the fire. That'd be too much.
Stiles nods knowingly. "I gave up playing the piano," he says, closing one eye and using the other to peer deep into the box of Cheez-Its before he sticks his hand in and brings up the last few broken crackers. "My mom was teaching me, before she died." He shrugs and the side of his mouth pulls down before he crams it full of crackers. You know how it is, he's saying. And Derek certainly does.
Stiles is content to let it drop after that, and they talk about nothing consequential as they finish their lunch. Once they're back on the road, Derek gets a little involved in his own thoughts as Stiles reads on beside him. Derek lost the thread of the story several hundred miles ago, so it doesn't really matter if he listens now.
Derek hasn't given much thought to what might happen once they get to Beacon Hills, mostly because his feelings about that place are a tangled up mess of guilt and shame and self-loathing. Stiles doesn't actually talk about it much either, aside from his continued insistence his dad is still alive. Right now they're focused on surviving the trip, which is as it should be, if they want to make it.
It's way too early to say anything to Stiles, but now Derek's thinking that if they continue to get along, he and Stiles can stick together once they get home, too. Despite Stiles' many statements to the contrary, Derek is skeptical that Sheriff Stilinski survived the sickness, and it doesn't sound like Stiles has any other family in the area. There's his friend Scott, but who knows if he fared any better. Derek doesn't really expect to find any of his own family alive and well, either. His odds are a little higher, but still pretty dismal.
Stiles is tough, and a fighter, but he'd still be safer with Derek than on his own, even after they stop moving. Derek hasn't set foot in California since he fled at the age of eighteen, but he knows Laura eventually built a big new house where the old one had stood. Derek will probably have it all to himself, lots of room, and Stiles wouldn't be a bother. Maybe he'd want to come and live there.
Maybe he'd want to come and live there even if Derek's family did make it through the sickness. It would probably make living in that house a lot more bearable for Derek, having one person around whose life he hasn't irreparably ruined.
Maybe by the time they get to Beacon Hills they'll be so sick of each other they never speak again, but as it stands now Derek's been growing more attached to Stiles by the day. He's enjoying his company in a way that feels effortless and probably wouldn't even be noticeable if Derek hadn't spent so many years being wary of liking anyone too much. But if you can't like your only friend in the entire world, what use is there in having one?
And Derek does like Stiles. Quite a lot, actually. It's stupid, but just being in the truck with him, listening to him go on about Darth Maul and the Naboo blockade and Yanth the Hutt or whatever the fuck this story is about is enjoyable. His voice is familiar and comforting now, and Derek likes the way his hands grip the book as he reads. Even better, Stiles smells happy today, which is kind of a miracle given their circumstances. If Stiles had Derek's nose, he might even say the same thing about Derek.
He doesn't notice he's doing anything weird until Stiles stops reading. When Derek glances over, Stiles is staring at him, the corners of his mouth slowly curving upward, like he's about to bust out a grin.
"What?" Derek asks, resisting the urge to check his beard for stray Cheez-It crumbs.
"You're smiling," Stiles says.
Derek cocks an eyebrow at him. "So?"
"You didn't used to do that much." Stiles has no idea what an understatement that is. "Looks good on you."
East of Cheyenne they find a nice little hobby farm, with a zombified hobby farmer shuffling around in the empty pig pen. It looks like there were chickens, too, and maybe a cow once upon a time, but all the animals are either dead or run off. The grass outside the chicken coop is littered with bones and bloody feathers.
"Wow, and I thought regular zombies smelled bad," Stiles says, covering his nose. The farmer—a prowler—turns toward him and snarls, starts plodding in their direction through the muck. "That was nothing compared to one that's been hanging around in pig crap for God knows how long." The zombie farmer snarls again, like he's offended.
"Just be glad you don't have a werewolf sense of smell," Derek says, trying not to breathe through his nose. It's disgusting. He leans a little closer to Stiles. He'll take the hint of Cheeto over that any day.
There's a rake propped up against the side of the pig pen, so Derek grabs it and snaps the handle in two while Stiles opens the gate, which must have blown shut and trapped the prowler inside, because it's not latched. The weather is shitty, cold and drizzly, wind whipping at their faces, but they wait patiently on either side of the gate until the prowler stumbles through it, and Derek takes care of it with one quick stab.
Derek can't hear or smell any other zombies, but they're still cautious as they check out the rest of the property. The barn's nothing special, though it does yield a little gas for the truck. It's when they peek out the back of the barn that they find the real prize: a greenhouse.
Stiles is literally struck dumb when they walk inside, mouth agape, bat dangling from his hand. The entire greenhouse is full of vegetables: lettuce, onions, cabbage, herbs, and so much more, growing out here in the middle of a gray and brown autumn wasteland. Everything is so fresh and colorful and alive that for one embarrassing moment Derek feels his throat get tight.
It's not much warmer in the greenhouse than it is outside, and some of the plants are starting to wilt, so they found it just in time. With no one to tend it, all this will probably be dead in no time.
Once he shakes off his shock, Stiles wrestles a carrot the size of Derek's finger out of the raised dirt bed and wipes it on his pants before biting into it, while Derek snatches a handful of snap peas. They wander through the greenhouse, stuffing their faces with unwashed vegetables, not caring about the grit in their teeth. There's a vine with cucumbers on it.
When they finally tear themselves away—Stiles carries a tomato with him that he eats like an apple—they find the house is small but sturdy, and kept up. A porch out front with two rocking chairs on it leads into a cramped kitchen with a table under the window, the wood floor smooth and shiny from years of scrubbing. A woodstove takes up one corner, a door that leads down to a cold cellar the other. There's a dog bowl next to the door, but no dog.
The farmer couldn't have been infected too long ago, because there's still eggs and milk in the cellar that haven't turned yet. They also find some potatoes, and jars of homemade jam stacked neatly on a shelf. On the floor is a bottle of champagne, and four bottles of beer. Derek can't remember the last time he saw any kind of alcohol; booze was one of the first non-necessities to run out in the stores, either because people were hoarding it or drinking to forget the horror around them.
"Wow! Score!" Stiles says, after he lights the small candle he found on the top step and can finally see what Derek sees. Derek isn't sure which of the things down here he's talking about, but he agrees with the sentiment.
The main room of the house looks like someone's vacation cabin, complete with a fireplace and a rag rug. On the opposite wall is a doorway with a curtain that's pushed back just enough to reveal a bedroom. Two comfy stuffed chairs face the fireplace, one with a soft red shawl draped over the back and a set of knitting needles with a half-finished scarf attached resting on the arm, so there was a woman, too.
Out behind the house is a well with a hand pump, and what's left of the woman.
They barely glance at her—just another unlucky stiff in a world packed with them—as they check to see if the pump still works and take turns drinking from it. The water tastes good, clean and cold, but even if it didn't, this is where they're staying tonight. They go back to the truck to get their stuff without even talking about it.
Stiles shoulders their packs while Derek grabs all the blankets that he insists have to be folded neatly every morning, much to Stiles' obvious annoyance. Derek's loosened up a lot of his traveling rules since Stiles came along, but he's standing firm on this one.
The front door has two strong locks on it and a crossbar that looks recently installed. Stiles busies himself securing the door while Derek continues on with the blankets, taking them through the main room to the bedroom without discussing it with Stiles. The bed looked big enough for two, and they're used to close quarters.
When he pushes the curtain aside with his elbow, though, Derek pauses in the doorway and looks at the room. There's a big wooden wardrobe in the corner and one bed in the middle, neatly made and covered with a wool blanket. An old wind-up alarm clock sits on a small table next to the bed, with a Bible and a candle. On the other side of the bed is a matching candle and a little wooden frame with a piece of fabric in it, a half-finished picture stitched on it. Needlepoint? Embroidery? Derek doesn't know the difference, if there is one. The picture is a Christmas tree, for a Christmas these people will never celebrate.
Derek's seen a lot of bad things, even before the sickness. And he's long since stopped feeling guilty about helping himself to other people's belongings out here on the road, but for some reason this cozy little house suddenly gets to him. These two people were making it. They had food, they had water, they had shelter, they had each other. He could picture living like this with Stiles, just the two of them, getting by, depending on each other like these people did.
But now their home is just another place ripe for the picking. Derek thinks of all the vegetables, lovingly tended, grown by their hand. The empty chicken coop, the champagne in the cellar they were probably saving for a special occasion. Who knows how long they could have made a go of it here, if they'd managed to escape notice. Two people, out here in the middle of nowhere, where you can see a car or a zombie coming for miles, still somehow got caught unaware, and now they're dead. The animals probably attracted a prowler.
"Hey, there's some homemade bread and it isn't even moldy yet," Stiles says as he comes up behind Derek. He peeks over Derek's shoulder, sees what Derek's looking at, and shuffles closer until he's pressed up against the back of Derek's arm. He stays quiet, waiting.
"Maybe we should bury them," Derek says. It's a stupid idea, a waste of time and energy. Stiles will probably point that out.
"Okay," Stiles says, after a moment.
Derek tosses their blankets on the bed, and Stiles follows him out to the barn.
They find a shovel and a hoe, and a pick-axe that Derek uses to loosen up the first few frosty inches of dirt. It's sweaty, tiring work, but Stiles is methodical about it. He's had practice recently, of course; he's the only one of them who's buried anyone since the sickness started. Even the government stopped after a while, unable to keep up with the sheer volume of bodies at first, and then, when they figured out what was going on, the burn order went into effect.
Moving the bodies is messy business, and they put on gloves they find in the greenhouse to do it. They put the man in first and then the pitiful remains of the woman, mostly just bones and hair, scraps of a warm coat, one blue and white stripped mitten. She probably knitted the mitten herself, Derek thinks, staring down at it.
Stiles suddenly says, "Wait a sec," and jogs off toward the house. When he comes back he's got the unfinished scarf, fastened to the ball of yarn with the needles. It looks like the same bright blue yarn as the mitten.
As Derek watches, Stiles kneels down and gently sets the whole thing in the grave. They finish filling the hole back in together, Stiles scraping the dirt in with the hoe while Derek wields the shovel. Neither of them says anything. What is there to say?
The mood is a little somber after that, but survival is survival, and they have to eat, and all the food here will go to waste anyway if they leave it. Derek makes omelettes with lots of veggies—mushrooms and onion and red bell peppers. Fried potatoes. Toast. The cooking is a little uneven, because neither of them have a clue how to manage the temperature on a wood stove, but hot, fresh food never tasted so good.
When that's gone they finish off the bread, toasted and slathered with butter and raspberry jam. Derek makes himself an actual cup of hot coffee, nearly weeping over the smell of it. Stiles pours himself a big glass of milk, then adds about half a bottle of Hershey's syrup he finds in the cupboard.
The temperature drops and the rain picks up as the sun goes down, so Derek builds a fire in the fireplace and they settle in the chairs to enjoy it for a while. There's a guitar hanging on the wall, but neither of them knows how to play, and the crackling of the fire is nice enough. For all that they've essentially been camping while traveling, they've never dared build a fire, for fear of attracting zombies.
After a bit, Derek gets up and retrieves the beer from the cellar. It's a brand he's never heard of, but when he cracks one open and takes a cautious taste it's pretty good. Stiles is slouched down so far in his chair his butt is practically off the seat. He holds his hand out for the bottle and for a second Derek almost says no. He's not old enough to drink.
Stiles knows what Derek's thinking. He rolls his eyes and says, "Dude, if you can litter, I can drink. Hand it over."
He's right, so Derek does.
This isn't Stiles' first encounter with alcohol, Derek suspects, because he drinks two of the beers and only gets mildly buzzed. They don't talk much, just sit and drink and put more wood on the fire until they start to overheat and have to strip down to their T-shirts. Derek's never seen Stiles in short sleeves before; his arms are hairier than Derek expected, and he's got tight, round biceps to go with his strong hands.
"We can actually wash up with hot water tomorrow," Stiles says dreamily, rolling his head along the back of his chair to look over at Derek as he rubs his fingers over his chin, which is just starting to sprout bristle. Stiles still shaves his face when he can—he refuses to grow an apocalypse beard. His face is flushed pink with the heat from the fire, and probably also the beer.
"Your turn to lug the water tomorrow," Derek tells him. They'd cleaned up their dinner mess with warm, soapy water heated on the wood stove in one of those speckled black pans pioneers use in the movies. Derek washed all the dishes and put them away, hung the dish rag back on the hook above the dry sink. It was pointless, and no one would ever know but them, but Stiles didn't bring that up.
Stiles is watching Derek's face, his eyes gleaming in the light from the fire. "These people made you sad," he says, voice soft.
"Yeah," Derek admits.
"Me, too," Stiles says. He takes another sip of beer, stares into the fire again. "Been a while since I felt sad for someone I didn't know," he says. "I was starting to worry about myself."
"Me, too," Derek says.
The bed is nice and roomy, but they migrate toward each other in the night anyway, and Derek wakes up the next morning with his arms around Stiles again. Stiles is snoring against Derek's chest and probably not yet aware that his hips are flush with Derek's, pressing their hard dicks together through the layers of blankets between them.
It makes Derek feel things he probably shouldn't about someone he can't just walk away from, and definitely shouldn't about someone as young as Stiles is, but what the hell, the world's ending, and the rules of society don't count for much anymore anyway. As long as he doesn't act on it, no one but him will ever know. He's really starting to like the way Stiles smells.
Stiles looks more innocent and like less of a smartass when he's sleeping, and prettier even than some girls Derek's known. His eyelashes are dark and delicate against the fragile skin under his eyes, and his mouth is really pink. He's probably lucky it was Derek who found him. There are some bad people out there.
Derek brings his hand up to rub the back of Stiles' fuzzy head, letting his thumb stroke the tender skin behind his ear. Stiles' breath skips and he starts to wake up, but he doesn't pull away, just lets Derek keep petting him, relaxing even more heavily against his body. Eventually Stiles yawns, muffling the sound in Derek's chest, and then one of his hands worms its way into Derek's blankets and hunts around until it finds Derek's shirt, slides under it and rests warm against his bare skin.
Outside, a rooster crows. The lone survivor, maybe. Neither Derek nor Stiles make any move to get out of bed.
Stiles doesn't do anything else, just lets his hand rest against Derek's back. Derek keeps doing what he's doing, nothing more. It stays pleasant, non-sexual, and that's good, Derek thinks. More reliable, less likely to end in disaster.