Late September a dozen years later and Derek runs until his lungs give out, until even the whipcracking twigs under his feet sound like only gunfire. He’s not running from anything, not these days, not anymore, but old habits like old grudges die hard; there’s a picnic table at the edge of the property line and a storm on the edge of the horizon, pushing on to greener pastures with wreckage in its wake. Derek watches the forest watch him with its wounded eyes, branches hanging loose and ragged in the thin wind. He doesn’t blame it for its reticence, for the way, today, it refuses to warm to him—he scares the birds and badgers back into their hidey-holes, wishes he could thank them for comparing him to thunder.
It is autumn like autumn has never come before, autumn like a first run or a last stand. Later, tomorrow, the forest will sing; just now, Derek is its only sound.
The picnic table, when he reaches it, is scarred and scared and quiet about it, old wood swollen thick with new rain. He catches both palms against one side and bends double, heaves out breaths his lungs are loathe to carry. When he rests, stretching out long on the least-worn bench, it lets out one low moan in its strain. Derek closes his eyes in apology and lets his fingers wander, catching on notches, whorls, easy splinters his skin refuses to hold. Here, the line of hand-carved tallies Boyd left when they were hunting ghosts; here, the gash an Argent’s arrow dug into the surface; here, a long-since dried piece of chewing gum, the brand Laura used to hoard when they were children. They’ve beaten her raw, this table and the forest she’s kept by, but Derek can’t bring himself to be sorry. He’d rather be the storm than the wreckage. He’d rather beat raw than be left beaten, and, after all, it’s only a table.
“You’re having it again, aren’t you,” a familiar voice says, and Derek opens his eyes to find the sun two hours lower in the sky and Stiles, his head cocked, a cup of coffee in each hand. “The crazy hermit fantasy, where it’s you and the woods and a hatchet. Right?”
“I wouldn’t need a hatchet,” Derek says. His breath is coming easy now, soft ash-white halos littering the air whenever he releases it. Stiles is wearing two sweatshirts and a jacket, and his hands are huddled around the coffee cups, fingers pressed together like they’re trying to stonewall the heat in; cold, then, the air chilled by the storm’s abandonment. He smiles.
“But you are having it,” Stiles says, smiling back. He places one coffee cup on Derek’s chest, his grip on it lingering until Derek replaces it with his own. Their fingers brush, and neither of them notices; it’s too familiar, these days, to merit a moment of pause. “I can always tell. You get this face.”
The wind whistles through the trees, and Derek makes the most ridiculous face his muscles will allow, crumpling his brow together and twitching his jaw to one side. When Stiles laughs, loud and surprised, the forest answers him with birdcry. It always has liked him best.
“Weirdo,” Stiles says. He reaches out, the knuckles on his free hand brushing the side of Derek’s cheek; they’re cold today and scarred forever, the raised leavings of old battle catching against Derek’s lengthening stubble. Derek closes his eyes again and hears Stiles’ sigh, huffed out but telling, too, even before he plants one foot between Derek’s spread thighs and levers himself onto the top of the table. “I brought a book; feel free to pretend I’m not even here.”
As though that’s possible, Derek thinks, but doesn’t say. Stiles would only call him on it later, a storm on the horizon in his own right, collecting Derek’s moments of thoughtless sentimentality like Laura with that chewing gum. He’s an encyclopedia of minor sins on his best days, Stiles, a veritable disaster on his worst ones, but he’s softer, even now, than he ever likes to let on. They both are, really; Derek supposes that’s the game of it, trying to catch one another saying the sorts of things other couples might drop thoughtlessly, collecting each others’ embarrassments like someday they’ll add up to something. The longer they play like they’re playing at it, the less they have to worry about what it means, what it’s always meant, what they stand to lose. The longer they play like they’re playing at it, the less time they have for the fall.
Then again, it’s possible Derek’s being maudlin. It’s been three years of this game—Stiles is probably just a bastard. After all this time, Derek really wouldn’t be surprised.
The coffee cup radiates heat against Derek’s left palm, and he drops his arm and leaves it to rest on the ground, pressing the tips of his fingers into the earth. His right hand reaches out, questing blind until it finds the fraying edge of Stiles’ jeans, and Derek tugs lightly at a loose thread, rubbing it against his thumb as it unravels. Stiles murmurs a small noise of protest but doesn’t comment, and Derek doesn’t have to open his eyes to see him; he’s hunched, almost definitely, over a dog-eared paperback with a spine cracked from folding, balancing it in one hand and sipping his coffee with the other.
“You’re reading Kafka again, aren’t you,” Derek says. It’s less curiosity than cumulative experience. “For the record, that’s still not funny.”
“A true blow, since you’re known for your sense of humor,” Stiles says, habitual sarcasm at a low hum. When he kicks out lightly at Derek’s hand, Derek catches his ankle and keeps it for himself; Stiles laughs, breathed out and soft, but doesn’t argue.
Derek does have the hermit fantasy now, lets it slip over him like an old blanket, a familiar farce to pass the time. He used to dream of it, back when his tongue always tasted of ash and his waking hours shrieked louder than his nightmares; alone in the woods, with nothing but the shirt on his back and the fire in his eyes, he thought he might finally be free. It never came to anything, bitter nights and blood-stained days he slogged through recalling summer air, winter’s cutting chill, the slide of a stream against his skin after a heavy rain. There was always something to do or someone to save, an alpha to follow, an alpha to be, and Derek learned to purge the taste of ashes with the sharper scent of duty. Eventually, even that faded away, and Derek doesn’t know why he still envisions the solitude he never really went looking for. Old habits, he supposes. It’s nice, in its way, having something that so refuses to die.
“Derek,” Stiles says, hushed, some time later. “Look.”
Derek opens his eyes, and Stiles is hunched just as he imagined, the book set to one side, his gaze fixed on a point in the distance. That’s almost certainly what Derek is supposed to look towards, the eyeline Stiles has established, but his view’s so good from here; he lets his eyes rake across the line of Stiles’ throat, the hollow just behind his ear, the breath ghosting out of his half-open mouth, until Stiles catches on and grabs him by the shirtfront.
“Not at me, you ridiculous excuse for a person,” he mutters, flushing as Derek allows himself to be hauled upright, slotted in between Stiles’ bent legs. “Out there.”
When Derek turns, the forest nearly blinds him, red-orange-yellow and painted brilliant in the last hurrah of daylight. He blinks against the rush of color, startled, and only sees the black bear when he looks the second time. It’s resting on its hind legs at the edge of the treeline, smart enough to know better than to approach a scent like Derek’s but visibly curious anyway, staring at them with beady eyes.
They’re solitary creatures, black bears, trundling through the woods at the pace of their own will. Derek howls a greeting, soft enough that he won’t frighten it away, and doesn’t envy it its lot at all.
“I’m never really going to be a hermit in the woods,” Derek says, as the bear rocks back onto his front paws, pads a half-hearted territory line into the dirt and makes his way into the forest. He turns to tuck his face into the soft expanse of Stiles’ chest; it’s layered with two sweatshirts and whatever’s underneath, his jacket falling open around Derek’s shoulder, and still, somehow, it’s warm.
“God,” Stiles says, not-quite-laughing against his ear. He slides one hand under the back of Derek’s shirt, chilled fingertips pressing between his shoulder blades; the other hand, hanging loose before, comes to rest against Derek’s heart. “God, you idiot, I know.”