Disclaimer: I own nothing.
Author Note: In this AU, everybody is a little older, Stiles and co are around college age, Derek and Laura older. The same age gap from the show is present.
THE TRUCK STOPS HERE
Jackson hit the mat hard. Derek sighed. He could feel a migraine starting.
Jackson growled something under his breath but got to his feet and lunged for Scott. Scott managed to remember Derek's teachings better this time and actually used some technique when he took Jackson down. Scott looked at Derek eagerly. Derek didn't smile but he inclined his head.
Scott beamed, and Derek called them all to attention. It was a good point to end the class on.
"Jackson, you show improvement next time, you'll get your chance," he said before Jackson could start complaining.
Jackson's mouth snapped shut, but he still sneered. He had to work on being less predictable.
The class bowed in a ragged line before heading for the locker room. Derek started stacking the mats. His other classes had to help him clear up but this one never did because they all had work immediately afterward and according to Jackson, that was torture enough. The Truck, that was all they called it. The Truck was where they worked. Some kind of food van not far from the dojo, always parked in the same place and with enough loyal customers to keep the business afloat. Whatever. Derek had never been to it but it seemed to keep his students honest and legally employed and therefore didn't cause the kind of trouble that'd bring serious headaches the Hale's way.
Speaking of which, Laura honked the car horn outside, to let him know that she was there to help with the lock up. She'd already finished mentoring classes for the night, so the Hale Dojo would now be shut 'til tomorrow. He waved a hand at the window to let her know he was almost ready to start. He could shower at their apartment.
Once everything was back in its place, Derek took one last look around and started checking all the rooms and locks. His students should have exited the building by now but he checked for lock-ins anyway. People needing somewhere warm for the night tended in slip in sometimes too. Laura had started from the front and so was outside again by the time Derek was done. Jackson was flirting with her but she was shutting him down with a smirk of her own. It was a regular thing that went nowhere for Jackson but he was apparently unwilling to give up. The others were calling for him to move because they were carpooling and his car-keys were pretty essential. Laura waved them off, Derek didn't. Something smelled different and weirdly familiar in the car.
Derek shrugged a shoulder. "Nobody got hurt."
"So, a good class."
At home, Laura didn't unload dinner ingredients from the fridge. Derek's eyebrows lowered. That was weird. Even weirder was Laura revealing a large covered cup of something warm and presenting it to Derek with great ceremony. She looked almost manic with glee.
"And this is…?"
"Dinner," Laura pronounced, lobbing a spoon at him with considerably less ceremony. "Seriously, I've had mine already. This one's all yours."
Derek frowned at her, because take-out broth was new and unusual for anyone, let alone them. But Laura clearly wasn't going to leave him alone until he ate some, so he peeled back the lid and wow, there was that smell again. Chicken and vegetables. It tasted almost like the soups that their aunt had made, the really good ones that they'd all craved during winter. Derek drank the whole cup. Laura was smiling wide when he crushed the Styrofoam into the trash.
"Amazing, right? You can thank your students for that. I got it at the Truck after class."
The Truck again. Derek snorted and argued with her for the rest of the night, about TV channels and who was cooking tomorrow. He went to bed late and dreamed about Aunt Edie's chicken broth and how Aunt Rachel had always insisted that Edie was cooking it wrong and how much Callie had loved it. He woke up with the smell still in his nostrils.
It stayed with him for the rest of the day, no matter how many katas he did. When he was retrieving a fresh shirt from his bag, he found a slip of paper wrapped up in it. Directions to the Truck in Laura's handwriting. Of course. She knew everything.
His frustration with the whole situation hadn't disappeared by the end of his last class so he very quickly found himself following the scribbled directions. He told himself that if he saw who was making broth from the Hale family memories, then maybe he'd stop thinking about it. There, parked in a very crowded spot, was a huge truck. It looked twice as big as the food trucks that Derek had seen around before. There was steam rising from it and crowds of people, laughing and yelling and eating really good-smelling food.
Derek could see Jackson working behind the counter, alongside Danny and Erica. Derek wove through the pressing crowds to get to the front. He could hear some of them asking to meet the Chef, but the Truck employees all refused to make that happen. Apparently the Chef was never seen. It was a policy thing, and he was way too busy anyway. Derek scanned the menu board. There were some weird flavor combinations up there – corn and prawn, bacon and horseradish. Derek ordered four slices of pizza.
Erica did something weird with her eyebrows when she took his order. "Sensei, actually exploring the world outside the dojo?"
Derek pointedly didn't tip her and accepted the slices with cutting silence. There was a sheet of paper with his receipt, asking for feedback. A glass jar of pens was helpfully placed on the counter. Derek took a green one as he passed. He sat nearby, a ragtag collection of lawn furniture spread out around the Truck. The pizza was great – flavorful with perfectly melted cheese. Derek tossed the paper napkins and stared briefly at the questionnaire, intending to throw it into the trash too. But to his total surprise, the aftertaste of the unexpectedly brilliant flavors pushed words out of him onto the paper.
You must be crazy to put those flavors together.
He didn't sign his name or leave any kind of contact details. He quickly handed it over the counter before he had the urge to write any more. Jackson smirked and produced a shiny square of card from an apron pocket.
"Good customers get delivery."
Derek raised an eyebrow. "It's my first time here."
Jackson shrugged and for once, his mouth didn't sneer. "Chef's decision."
At home, Derek stuck the card up on the fridge under a koi fish magnet. Laura grinned and painted her nails violet.
"Thank fuck for that."
Laura shut the finance book with a sharp snap. Derek cracked his neck. They'd been working on the dojo's money margins for hours. Neither of them enjoyed it, but after their last finance manager had run off with a chunk of the profits, they didn't trust anyone else to do the job.
"We need this," Laura declared, taking the Truck card off the fridge.
Derek wanted to protest, but the words died on his tongue when he thought about the chicken and vegetable broth and the weird flavor-clash pizzas. His stomach rumbled and cast his vote for him.
Laura laughed and ordered two pies and two large orders of curly fries. Using Derek's name got them delivery, a fact that made something fizzle through Derek's skin. Scott knocked on their door soon after.
"Hey, Sensei and Sensei," he smiled. "Dinner is served."
Derek paid, it was his turn, and watched as Scott lounged in the doorway, chatting to Laura about the Truck and his amazing girlfriend Alison. She was different to the rest of her family, he was still insisting. Derek snorted and deliberately ignored the conversation. He'd known Kate Argent, that was enough Argent for his lifetime.
"Oh!" Scott pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket. "For you, Sensei."
He handed it to Derek and then rushed off, his cellphone in hand. He was probably late for something. Laura retrieved plates and silverware, breaking open her pie with a warm serene smile. The steam from it flushed her skin and she relaxed like all her strings had been cut. Derek forked into his pie and found steak and...asparagus? The gravy was thick and full of flavor. Derek dragged curly fries through it as he read the note that Scott had given him.
It was smudged with flour and at least one gravy thumbprint. You're the famous Sensei Derek. I'm imagining the Cobra-Kai guy from 'The Karate Kid' movies. Please wear Jackson out as much as possible. Great choice on dinner. P.S. Crazy flavor combinations are killer combinations. It worked on you :)
Laura laughed, reading over his shoulder and munching on fries. She always oversalted hers. "You've got the Chef's attention. Please exploit that."
Derek was going to screw up the paper and throw it away. But his hand reached for a forkful of pie instead and he had to finish up the fries before they got cold. Laura plucked the note from his grasp and stuck it up on the fridge next to the delivery card. She grinned at him like she was laying down a challenge.
"You're going to write back."
Derek glowered at her. He didn't write back to people. He taught his students and he hung out in the apartment. Only apparently now he also went to a food truck in the middle of town too. And that crazy Chef had compared him to John fucking Kreese. His students were responsible for that, he was sure of it. Erica probably thought she was being hilarious. Laura probably thought so too. Damn it.
Derek hunched over the paper in his room – the only place he got any privacy. He realized, with a growing horrified certainty, that if he didn't reply, Laura would hound him. His students probably would too. He wouldn't get a moment's peace. He gritted his teeth. He didn't have to write an essay, just a few words. He could do that for a headache-free life.
He addressed the feedback to Chef Crazy, complimented the pastry and gravy, though pointed out that he liked curlier fries. Also he was a better Sensei than John Kreese. What exactly had his students been saying? He'd put Jackson through more sprints and demos if the Chef thought about rare steaks.
There. He'd written back. Laura asked about it as soon as he exited his room to grab a beer from the kitchen. He held the refolded paper up in response.
"You're all grown-up," she teased. "Think you're ready for a play-date?"
He flipped her off and chugged his beer.
Laura commandeered his reply to the Chef and gave it to Erica for delivery. Erica grinned and tucked the paper somewhere under her shirt. Derek glared and considered forcefully taking it off her but Laura kept talking about 'setting a good example' and docking his pay if he scared off another student. He was sure that nothing less than Godzilla would scare off Erica, but somebody else in the dojo might freak out. So he firmly shut it all out of his head and ran his students through drills, noting that Danny was showing the most improvement and that Isaac needed to work on his balance more, he was being felled far too easily. He didn't think about the Truck, or the Chef, and he definitely didn't think about gravy thumbprints and rare steaks.
He got a reply, delivered by Boyd, a few days later, peppered with more Cobra-Kai digs and a claim that a dish involving steak and the Chef's favourite steak sauce might be added to the menu board soon. It was and Derek scribbled feedback in lemon-yellow ink – steak should be rarer, sauce was passable. And the fries still aren't curly enough. The Chef replied quickly, in a flurry of indignation and grease-spots, his handwriting spikier and his words sparkier. Derek kept on meaning to throw away the notes, but he never got around to it.
He was still curious about the Chef's identity, but he didn't ask his students. They were way too involved in his personal life already and he still couldn't find a way to leverage them out. They didn't respond to threats, he'd taught them too well. None of them called the Chef by his real name, not even Scott. Clearly the Chef's privacy was taken seriously. Derek understood and lived that.
As long as the Chef kept on producing his ridiculous dishes, and wrote a note or two, he could be whoever he wanted.
Every year, around the anniversary of their parents' deaths, Laura and Derek shut the dojo for a day. All classes were canceled and the place went completely dark. The students were always respectful, treating both Hale siblings with a sometimes awkward consideration for the rest of the week.
Laura did different things each year. Once she did a charity run, another time she stayed with friends. She always did something though. Derek sometimes visited the graves – neat little stones and pretty carved words that didn't come close to summing up two extraordinary lives. His parents had taught him everything that he now taught his students. It'd saved people's lives. Then the car crash had happened and blood and glass was everywhere and Laura had packed everything up, including him.
He hated her for that sometimes. Other times, she wrapped herself around him and whispered childhood words against his neck. She smelled very faintly of home – wood shavings and five-spice and that faded glimpse of Mom's shortcake. Most of that home smell had disappeared from both of them now, replaced by the city and the smoke. Only the aroma of the dojo was a common thread back to the past; sweat and chalk and reused mats.
That year, Laura hugged Derek close and whispered something about summer vacations and did he remember how big the moon had been that time that they'd all swum in the river? She headed out to lunch with friends, her feet clad in leather boots and her hair freshly dyed red.
Less than an hour later, a delivery from the Truck turned up. A delivery that Derek hadn't ordered. He didn't recognize the delivery guy either, who just shrugged and said it'd all been paid for. The guy handed over a warm cardboard box and a folded piece of paper.
A pie and a tub of thick whipped cream. Derek's eyebrows shot up but he broke open the pie. The Chef's pies were usually the best thing on the menu and Derek wasn't going to turn down a free one. Blueberry. Blueberry pie and whipped cream.
It was the first dessert pie that Derek had ever tasted from the Truck. Of course, it was amazing. The fruit was tart and perfect with the cream and the pastry flaky. He boxed up a piece and left it in the fridge for Laura. He stared at the note for a long time, not unfolding it, not reading it. He made himself busy instead, doing his daily workout, going through the mail, watching television.
Eventually, with the early evening light painting colors across the carpet, Derek opened up the sheet of paper.
Time doesn't heal. You just get used to having the pain, right? Hope the pie's good company.
Derek stared. It was clearly written by somebody who knew grief, who was embedded in it. He traced the words with a fingertip before sliding the note into his wallet, his thoughts tumbling as he waited for Laura to get home. She arrived back with tiny star-like flowers in her hair and a tired smile. She loved the pie too.
The next morning, Derek penned a simple reply – It was – and wordlessly handed the note to Scott. All his students eyed him carefully but none of them asked. The session was muted but still profitable. Progress was made. Scott loitered afterward and with a sort of half-smile held up his cellphone to reveal a picture of the empty pie box. Laura had sent it to him with the message 'tell the Chef thank you.' Of course she had.
"The pies are awesome, right? He creates a new filling every year on the day his..."
Scott broke off quickly, his eyes widening as he seemed to realize that he was about to say something he shouldn't. Something revealing about the Chef? Derek arched an eyebrow.
"Would he want you telling everybody?"
Scott frowned. "You're not everybody."
Derek's expression twitched. Not everybody. He was somebody that the Chef sent a blueberry pie to free of charge. Scott must have seen something in his expression because he nodded and headed for the door, calling a goodbye over his shoulder.
The thought twisted around Derek's head, refusing to leave him alone. Laura smiled at him differently now, with a hint of a smirk and something proud and encouraging. She was feeling something new too. There was a warmth present, Derek realized, that had nothing to do with the heat of pastry and cream.
The thought bubbled, inviting and worrying.
The Chef's birthday was coming up. Derek heard about it from his students – how the Chef wasn't going home to see his father, how he'd probably work because he actually enjoyed it to the point of obsession. Derek wondered, not for the first time, how old the Chef was. The notes had a young voice. Was he the same age as the students? Had they all met at college? They said he worked practically full-time, and yet somehow he was their boss? Jackson never sounded happy about that. According to Isaac, Jackson's parents had enough money to buy the Truck three-times over, but he was being forced to work for a year as some kind of lesson. It'd ratcheted up his resentment. It always showed.
Ever since she'd heard about the Chef's upcoming birthday, Laura had been bugging Derek to do something about it.
"I'm not saying hire out a sideshow." She dug her chin into Derek's shoulder and folded her hands over his heart. Derek's hand joined hers there. "You're allowed nice things, Derek."
It seemed like the Chef's birthday was being discussed everywhere. Scott talked with the others about what kind of cake they should order, what had the Chef's Mom always made? Derek's mind wandered to his own Mom's recipes, how he'd helped her in the kitchen sometimes. Had the Chef learned that way too? Derek had especially loved Rocky Road, the stickiness on his fingers as he stirred all the ingredients together, his Mom laughing at his 'concentrating face.'
One of the old recipe books that Laura had brought with them contained a recipe for Rocky Road. Derek found himself reaching for the book several times, and buying marshmallows and chocolate. Laura bought other ingredients and left them on the kitchen countertop with a note - now you've got no excuse! Derek glared. It would be a waste not to use it all. Derek hated waste; he especially hated being the cause of it.
He spent an evening in the kitchen, heating chocolate and taking great pleasure in crushing crackers. Laura took a photo of him holding a rolling pin and was made to promise that she'd never show it to the dojo's students, otherwise she wouldn't get even a taste of the dessert. It was a simple recipe and he'd done it before so he wasn't going to screw it up now.
He cut the batch into firm squares and bundled them together in saran wrap. He wrote a quick note on a piece of card and as he headed out the door, Laura shouted that he should pick her up a box of fries. Derek gritted his teeth; he was going to do this, he was going to get this over with. The Truck wasn't too busy for once but he still skirted around the line at the counter and knocked on the 'staff only' door at the back. Danny answered, a couple of flour handprints adorning his t-shirt. He didn't look surprised to see Derek.
"Hey, Sensei. You need somebody?"
Derek quickly handed over the card and parcel before he could talk himself out of it. Done. Nothing had been wasted in the kitchen. The note was simple – Don't cook anything on your birthday. Don't let Scott cook for you either. It still felt like he was handing over a bomb, or a baby.
"For the Chef," he bit out.
Danny didn't ask questions, he just nodded and smiled as he read the note. "Good advice. I'll make sure he gets it."
The door swung shut and Derek felt like he could breathe properly again. He shook his head, ordered Laura's fries, and headed home with the box tucked under his arm. There. Something was wrong with his insides though. Parts of him were jangling around, churning like they really shouldn't be, and his skin felt too tight.
He thrust the fries at Laura when he got back, needing to get to his room as soon as possible. As he passed, Laura ran a hand through his hair.
"Good job, little brother."
His skin tightened even more.
The knocking at the door was different when Derek next ordered from the Truck. He frowned. Something sounded…off. He tensed and opened the door, ready to spring, as a young woman with red hair and a tooth-sharp look in her eyes strolled in. She passed him a takeout box and looked him up and down. Derek's hackles rose.
"I wanted to see what all the fuss was about," she announced.
Something about her was familiar, her bearing, her hair color. It clicked - Jackson was dating a redhead and had flashed around photos of her on his phone. Lydia. According to Isaac, she was scary and was smarter than anybody he knew. Derek met her gaze with a hard one of his own. His hackles stayed up. There was something about the way Lydia looked at him, like she could mentally break him down into his component parts and make sense of every single one without him having to say a word. It was extremely unnerving. Lydia smiled, she clearly knew the effect she had on people.
"If you hurt the Chef, you'll end up in the next soup."
There was a dangerous slice to her smile. That, Derek could respond to. His smile showed teeth. The moment stretched, silent with aggression. Then Lydia nodded and flipped an artistically-folded piece of paper toward him. She left as suddenly as she'd arrived, leaving Derek to scoop the note up off the floor. It was folded into an origami shape. It looked like it might have been a bird once, with a very sharp beak.
Thanks, how did you know? Rocky Road's my favorite.
Warmth spread through Derek's veins. He could smell chocolate on the page; see smudges of it at the edges. It was a feeling of wanting, wanting more, wanting to make the Chef feel as warm in return. It was more than vaguely terrifying. It set his teeth on edge, but conversely also made him want to run closer, to watch the Truck. He still couldn't throw the notes away.
Later, Laura watched him write a reply – I didn't. Good to know the recipe still works. Her smile was sad and soft and needled under Derek's skin. He kept his eyes down.
"You can go talk to him. You guys are stuck in a stalemate – communicating but no actual contact."
Her tone said exactly what she thought about it. Derek didn't reply. Laura kept on pushing him. She wasn't the only one. His students kept asking when he'd next be by the Truck, and why he hadn't ordered anything lately. Derek growled and set them harder tasks in class. He tried to push the residual warmth away, but it stubbornly clung on.
The next note from the Chef was almost hesitant, like setting foot into unknown territory – I keep wondering what your voice is like. I've seen pictures. I'm thinking low. Scott says it is. I need more though.
Derek swallowed. The heat only increased. It was becoming nuclear now. The Chef was thinking about him, thinking and wanting more. The Chef seemed young, almost hyperactive, in his notes. That should have been a red flag right there. But Derek found himself wanting to know more too. He wanted to write back with a visit and find out.
Only he hadn't been that kind of person in years. Not since before his parents' death, before he and Laura had moved to another city, before he'd met Kate Argent.
Laura pressed a kiss to his forehead. "You're an idiot. He's old enough to run his own business. Age isn't an obstacle unless you make it one."
Derek still didn't order any more take-out.
He mentally constructed different replies to the Chef over and over again. He wasn't ordering take-out, but he still wasn't letting go. He couldn't. He worked out and ran miles and even hit the bars for the first time in forever, to drink and maybe fuck the feeling away. But the heat still wasn't fading, it was keeping him warm.
Laura left a ridiculous amount of Truck menus around the apartment. One stared at Derek from the back of the bathroom door. She ordered soups and pies and fries. The smells seeped into the apartment's walls. Laura made sure that he didn't get one bite. She grinned at him over her coffee, steam wreathing around her hair.
Ideas for notes were still circling in his head, even when sleeping. The warmth ached within him. It'd never felt that way with Kate.
I wonder about you too.
He handed the note to the delivery boy who'd brought his wonton soup. The wontons were shrimp and the soup was spiced and left a pleasant burn on Derek's tongue. He clenched his fingers so tight that his knuckles whitened. A huge part of him wanted to grab the takeout guy and take the note back. The whole situation felt too much like falling. But Derek stayed where he was. Because the soup was hot and delicious, and because he really did wonder.
Laura must have noticed the empty soup container because later that night she leaned her head against his shoulder and didn't mention the Truck once.
The next night, there was a knock at the door. Derek frowned. He hadn't ordered anything and Laura was out. It could be Lydia again. If his students ever improbably needed something out of hours, they'd call first, a rule established early on.
When he opened the door, he found a pale young stranger with expressive eyes and a smile somewhat playing with his mouth. His left foot tapped nervously and there was a very familiar take-out box under his arm. He and Derek stared at each other for a beat. The still-present heat in Derek welled up strongly.
The kid snapped out of the silence first. "I brought cake. You didn't order it, I know, but we were both curious and my staff decided I needed a night off. Seriously, they staged a mutiny. Lydia's in charge of the ship right now. The Truck, obviously. I mean, it hasn't grown sails and made for the harbor. They locked me out. I'm firing them all tomorrow."
Derek stared, his heartbeat choking his throat as his mind whirled with information and instinct. The stranger's words dried up, only he wasn't a stranger anymore. This was the Chef. He looked younger than Derek had imagined, and there was a consuming frazzled energy to his movements and speech. There were scars on his hands and the deeply-embedded smell of grease and flour hanging over him.
The heat felt like it would engulf Derek. He couldn't look away.
"Yes," he said at last, snapping the lengthy thread of silence. "Yes, I'm curious."
The Chef's expression flowered from anxiety into relief and hope and hunger. The heat felt like fire now.
"Stiles," the Chef said softly, holding out his hand.
They stared at each other again for a second or two. When Derek eventually took the offered hand, it felt like an electric charge went through his body. It felt like, finally, somebody was going to stop his fall.