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Spark and Burn

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Stiles straightens up as soon as he notices the stranger watching him, sweeping his foot over the small bell-like flowers he’d bloomed for a group of children on the side of the road. Stiles doesn’t have much more than a spark of magic, but even if he did—practicing witches don’t last long in this world, anymore.  He’s learned to be wary.  

The flowers turn to dirt under his leather soles, and he gives the man a wide grin and a nod before turning away, shooing the children off to play.   The back of his nape prickles from the man’s hard, unwavering stare, and Stiles fights the urge to rub his hand over it. 

The satchel across his shoulders is heavy with herbs, samples of moss, mushrooms—he’d had a successful trek into the inner sanctum of the preserve, but he’d been gone longer than he’d planned, and only hopes his father hasn’t been run completely ragged by the twins.

It’s well past noon, and Stiles’s stomach growls. At the inn, he slips inside and waves to Lydia behind the bar.

“We have visitors?” he asks.

Lydia shrugs.  “Came in just after dark last night.  A man and a woman, name of Hale.”  She looks at him meaningfully, and it takes less than a moment for him to catch on.

“Hale,” Stiles says.  Beacon Hills was built on land owned by Hales, but there hasn’t been a known Hale alive for over a century.  “You think they’re really Hales?” They don’t get many travelers in their tiny village to begin with, let alone ones claiming to be family of their founding.

“Anything’s possible,” Lydia says, nonchalant.

Stiles eyes her carefully, the way she isn’t saying yes or no.  “Have you seen anything?”

“You know that’s not how it works for me,” she says, but she presses a hand over his on the bar top.  “Watch yourself.”

The door opens slowly, flooding the room with sunlight, and a broad, dark, and handsome figure shoulders his way inside. He looks mean-spirited and brutish, and the bulk of his ire seems to be pointed Stiles’s way.

Stiles turns from him and says to Lydia, overly-bright, “You don’t have to worry about me,” and makes a mental note to tighten the wards around his house as soon as he gets home.

Lydia’s face tightens and she nods to someone over Stiles’s shoulder, and he feels the warmth of a body settle next to him on a stool.

He hears, “Can I have—” before Lydia thunks a pint in front of the man and says, “You’ll have an ale, and you’ll thank me for it.”

“Thank you,” he dutifully says, and Stiles smiles a little into his own glass, surprised to hear amusement in the words.

Stiles glances over at him, catches his eye. He’s dark-haired, with a thick layer of stubble over his chin and jaw, eyebrows thick as fuzzy caterpillars, eyes a rich light hazel.

The man, Hale, says gruffly, “You’re the healer.”

Stiles blinks. “I am?”

Hale gestures toward his bag, the flap fallen open at his side.  “Awful lot of herbs for just a stew, then.”

“Oh, I.” Stiles swallows thickly, tucks the bag closed again—he’s usually more careful than that.  “I help out a little. Why?” he asks.  “Are you in need?”

Hale quirks him a grin, but Stiles wouldn’t exactly call it friendly.  “No.”

“All right.”  Stiles bobs his head.  He raises a hand to Lydia, says, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“You’ll see me for supper.”  She slants a quick, hard glare at Hale, before leaning into Stiles’s other side.  She slides a couple coins his way and whispers, low, “For Mama, she’s having those headaches again.”

Stiles nods.  Hale is right, in a way.  His spark has only really been useful at light healing potions, but he’d hardly call himself a healer—they have a proper doctor for that.  His teas just happen to be the best in the village for aches of all sorts.  He says, softly, “I’ll brew her something fresh within the hour, and bring a packet of dried as well.”

He tips his hat to Hale after slipping off his stool and makes his way to the door.  Even outside again, with Hale still in the inn, he can’t shake the feeling of being watched.

*

Stiles lives at the edge of the preserve, in a small cottage in a small clearing that’s as far from the town proper as possible while still considered part of Beacon Hills.  He moved out there years ago, after Heather died, mainly because all of his neighbors had started to complain about the foul smells.

Tea making is smelly business when you’re doing it for magical reasons, apparently, and it was just easier to clean up the little abandoned cottage than deal with Mrs. Fincher’s sour looks or Lil and Davis’s overly-polite, “Maybe you could keep your shutters closed when you’re brewing?” suggestions, like Stiles has all the windows open in his house in the dead of winter for his health.

Well, it sort of is, he supposes, considering the amount of smoke he needs and the amount of air him and Claude and Johan require to breathe.

He likes the house in the woods well enough, and it’s not as if the three of them need much room.  There’s a nook off the kitchen for his own bed, and a loft for the twins to sleep in, and the old stone fireplace is wide and tall, perfect for his purposes.

He’s outside chopping wood when he spies his two little urchins trying to sneak up on him, their tow heads a bright beacon in the gloom of early winter.  Stiles heaves his ax against the stump, splitting the log down the middle, and tries to keep from grinning too hard.

Claude and Johan are pushing at each other, giggling as they hide behind trees—they make it behind him to the path toward the front door, Stiles can see them out of the corner of his eye, when suddenly he drops his ax and spins, leaping at them with a great roar, and the children screech and laugh as they run from him.

The front door bangs open and he scoops up Claude, staggering into the kitchen as if he’s a great weight, pressing his face into his belly, and Johan yells, “No, no!  Take me, take me!”

Stiles upends Claude onto a chair, leaving the six-year-old giggling at the table, and says, “Oh, I’ll eat you up next!” as he stalks Johan around the room, fingers curled up into invisible claws.

The fun only ends when Johan trips on a loose stone by the fireplace and falls to his hands and knees, scraping his palms and knocking his head into the hearth. 

He shushes him onto his lap, says, “Baby, baby, you’re all right,” into his hair.  There’s a red mark, but no blood, so it wasn’t as hard a fall as Johan is projecting with this wails.

Claude says, anxious, “Is he okay? Are you okay?” crouching down next them.

“He’s fine, Claude.” Stiles kisses both their foreheads.  “Did Grandpa feed you supper?”

Claude nods.  “Yes, Papa.”

“Time to clean up for bed, then,” Stiles says, and greets both sets of awwwws with a firm hand on each shoulder.  They’re just as worn out as Grandpa probably is, though, so it isn’t long before he hears their soft snores from above.

He sighs, heats a kettle of water for tea—a non-magical one—and starts sorting his newly acquired stock until he’s so tired he can’t see straight.  He falls into his bed after just barely managing to pull his boots and pants off, and he’s asleep before his head properly sinks into the pillow.

*

Stiles’s wakes to one of his parameter wards going off, one that makes the whole house shake, and he’s out of bed and shoving his feet into his boots and climbing up the loft ladder in his shirt and skivvies, shushing the soft cries of his boys—this isn’t a drill, and he tells them to keep quiet, no matter what happens, and to throw the knotted rope ladder out the window if they smell smoke.

He flies back down to the main room, heart pounding, and kicks the loft ladder aside, splintering it at the hinges. Only malevolent things trip the wards—not even bears trip the wards. There’s something outside that means them definitive harm, and Stiles isn’t going to go down without a fight.

He’s terrible at offensive magic. He can grow flowers and brew teas and start fires, sometimes, if he tries hard enough, but even then it drains him so badly he can hardly move for days.  He conjures up balls of blue flame in his palms anyway, and hopes he doesn’t have to use them—they’re for light, not for burning, and if he adds any other type of intent to them, he’s not sure how long he’ll last.

The door slams open with a well-placed boot heel and a woman and a man, armed to the teeth, step through.

Hale has a scowl on his face, his eyes seem to glow in the moonlight, and the woman shoots an arrow through the meat of Stiles’s thigh before he can even open his mouth to yell.

The pain is bright and burning, and tears gather at the corners of his eyes.  He gasps in shock. The blue lights snuff out without a thought.

Hale leaps toward him with an ungodly roar, and suddenly there’s a hand gripping his throat.  Stiles is slammed against the far wall faster than he can blink.  His fingers scramble at Hale’s grip, windpipe close to being crushed.

“Where are the children?” Hale says, and there’s something funny with his voice, it’s a growl and a rasp, his teeth glint bone-white and sharp.

Stiles presses his lips together and closes his eyes when Hale shakes him.

“Tell me where they are,” Hale says. “I can smell them.”

He can what? When Stiles looks at him again, Hale’s eyes are blood red.  “Demon,” he whispers, and Hale laughs, mouth full of fangs, and Stiles rasps out, painfully, “Wolf.”

The woman shouts, “Derek, here,” and Stiles watches in slow, horrified motion as she jerks her head toward the loft, the ruined ladder—she makes as if to jump the ten feet straight up, and Stiles can’t even scream, the hand at his throat squeezing all the breath out of him.

His one leg is numb, but he kicks out with the other, claws at Hale’s arms, all of it so ineffectual that Hale arches an eyebrow at him. “Have you no strength, witch?” he says, oh fuck, oh no, worse than demons or wolves they’re witch hunters.

“I’m—I’m not—”

“What? Not a witch?”  Hale snorts, derisive, and lets up just enough on his throat so Stiles doesn’t pass out.  “I think we have more than enough proof of that.”

The boys are crying, they’re screaming, and Stiles has never felt such hopelessness and rage in his entire life, not even after his mother died, or Heather.  “You bastard,” Stiles says, spits.

“Papa!” Claude yells. “Papa!”

Johan is fighting like an animal in the woman’s grip—she stands like a hell beast on top of the loft, a child under each arm, and leaps to the ground like it’s nothing, without even a stumble.

Please,” Stiles says, all the fight leaving him in a single lurch—he can’t get free, shock and blood loss is making him shake, and Claude is full of huge, sobbing tears. His heart pounds loud and aching, he grips the front of Hale’s shirt, fists the fabric with hands full of tremors, terrified for his boys.

The woman growls at Johan, “You’ll hurt yourself,” easily outmaneuvering his kicks and punches.

“Please, no,” Stiles says.  “I’ll do whatever—“

“Shut up,” Hale growls, and he tightens his grip again.

His gaze starts to blacken at the edges, spots of light going in and out of his vision.  He says, “Stop, s-s-stop,” and sees Johan finally kick out of the woman’s arms—she grabs his wrist, but he yanks and yanks until Stiles is afraid he’ll break—

He hears, “Papa, Papa, no,” and a slightly hesitant, “Derek, are you sure—” before everything goes black.

*

For a split-second, after he jolts awake in his own bed, he thinks he’s dreamt the whole thing.  Except his leg feels like it’s on fire and his throat is so swollen he can’t even cough, and he folds up into himself, rasping breaths he can’t fully take in.  Stars sparkle behind his eyes as his leg jerks, and he fists the sheets beneath him, panic stricken.

Someone says, “Breathe.  Breathe, you’re fine,” and pries one of his hands out of the blankets, places it on a firm chest.  “Breathe with me, Stiles, in and out.”

He forces himself to obey, to block out the terror, feels his heart slow down, feels himself draw as deep a breath as he’s going to get, and then he collapses onto the bed and starts sobbing. The sobs are a hoarse mess from his sore throat, and there are hands on his back, down his thigh, and suddenly he can’t feel the pain anymore.

He hears, “Papa?” and he thinks oh thank god, and reaches out blindly for Claude, pulls his little body toward him and buries himself in a hug. Thank god.

“Johan?” he manages, and there’s someone crawling up behind him, a voice, soft and deep, saying, “Be mindful of his leg,” and then he’s got another octopus wrapped around his head.

He drifts off again, safe and warm.

*

The cottage is a mess.  There’s splintered wood everywhere, from the ladder, from the door, from the kitchen table.  Their stack of bowls are broken, the pantry collapsed, but he’s still got Claude and Johan and there are two demon wolves staring at him from the other side of the room.

He has a broom handle out, brandished at them, Johan and Claude herded behind him, and the Hales have the good grace to not point out that Stiles is listing decidedly to the right.

Stiles doesn’t know what to say, where to start—if they’re not going to kill him, take his children, why are they still there?

There’s a resemblance between them, their eyes and dark hair, the shape of their mouths, so Stiles thinks they’re most likely brother and sister instead of husband and wife.  The woman has a small frown on her face, her palms out, but Stiles can see the top of her quiver over her back; he has no doubt that she’s still within arm’s reach of her bow.

The man is unreadable, blank-faced.

They both look so normal, and Stiles is starting to think maybe he’d hallucinated the fangs and claws, he’d been running out of air, after all.

A small mewl breaks the tense silence, and Stiles half-turns and looks down at Johan incredulously.  He’s got what is probably one of his Grandpa’s barn kittens tucked into his tunic, curled up by his heart.

Johan’s brown eyes turn liquid and beseeching.

“Oh no,” Stiles says, words a hoarse reminder of how bruised his throat still is.  “How did you sneak him past me?”

Hale coughs lightly, and Stiles jerks back to him so fast he nearly loses his balance.  Small hands grip at his shirt, and he flushes in embarrassment that his six-year-old twins are basically the only things keeping him upright.

“We apologize for any… inconvenience,” Hale says, and Stiles’s jaw drops open.

They apologize?

The woman palms her face and says, “Derek.”

They apologize?

Stiles jabs his broom handle at them. He says, “Out.”

Hale takes a step toward him. “Stiles—“

“Out,” Stiles says again; how does he know his name? Did Lydia say it yesterday? He can’t remember, and it doesn’t matter.  “Out.”

“Sit down,” Hale says in a low growl, and luckily Stiles’s response to that is anger instead of panic; he vaguely remembers his attack earlier, feels his ears heat with the knowledge that this man had held him through it.

Hale says, “Sit down before you fall down,” a command couched in softer sounds than before, but Stiles isn’t buying it.

“You shot me,” Stiles hisses.

The woman makes a helpless sound, says, “I’m—”

“Out!” Stiles uses the last of his voice, the end of it cracked with both nerves and hurt.

“Okay, okay,” the woman says. She backs toward the door, hands still up and placating.

“But, Cora,” Hale says.  He’s immovable in the center of the room, glaring at Stiles.

“He’s not going to sit anywhere with us in here,” she says. “Come on.”

Hale stares him down and Stiles holds his gaze, hands trembling around the broom—what good would a broom do, if this man decides to leap at him again?  Would he even be able to stand his ground?  But Hale just spins on his heel and stalks to the door.

He says, “We’ll be back,” before slamming it shut, the hinges barely holding, and Stiles thinks no, you won’t.  Not if he has anything to do with it.

*

Stiles is stuck for the moment, he knows that. He can’t make the walk to town himself, and he can’t risk sending Claude or Johan out into the woods, not with the Hales somewhere out there.  His father won’t miss him for days, especially since he only just returned from a trek into the preserve.  He’ll notice the children’s absence more, but it’s not unusual for them to stay close by Stiles’s side after a long journey.

The twins sleep curled up around him that night, the kitten—he’s not sending the poor little thing into the mouths of those beasts, no matter how many times he’s told Johan no before—draped over his sore neck, a furry breathing lump of warmth.

On the second day, he fashions a top on the broom handle and uses it as a crutch to venture out and reset the ward the Hale’s had tripped.  He eyes the tree line warily, but doesn’t notice anything but the squirrels.

He fixes the hinges of his door, thanks his lucky stars that the wood is thick, and that the few splinters at the latch have hardly made it useless.

The third day, Stiles thigh feels hot and tight. He drinks so many cups of special tea he’s going to the privy every hour, and he cleans the wound thoroughly, grimacing at the angry red of it. There’s no pus to suggest a deep infection, though, so he wraps it with clean cloths and tries to figure out how to repair the steps to the loft.

The fourth day, there’s a pile of wood in front of his door, and a basket of fresh bread and a dead rabbit.

His heartbeat speeds up as he scans the yard, wondering how they could’ve gotten through without tripping the wards—the only way, Stiles knows, is if they truly meant him no harm, but that doesn’t stop the anxiety or cold fear.  He takes the wood for the hearth and leaves the food and bars the door for the rest of the day.

The resilience of children is astounding, though, and on the fifth day Claude and Johan are driving him mad, and all they want to do is run through the woods and go visit their Grandpa and show him little Polly, the patchwork kitten, and visit the McCall’s for sweets and Lydia for cakes and Stiles wraps a scarf around his neck and tries to hide his limp as they walk into town, because the last thing he needs is for his dad to worry.

His dad would probably send out a search party for the Hales, if they haven’t shown their face in town again, that is, and Stiles doesn’t want him to have anything to do with whatever he saw that night. Demon wolves?  Something not human, that’s for certain.  The more he thinks about it, the more he knows they were definitely not human.

Claude grasps his hand at the end of the trail, where Stiles pauses to leave his crutch leaning up against a tree, and says, “You’re not going back there alone, are you Papa?”

Stiles can feel the little tremors in his fingers that belie the brave front he’s been putting on—they’d both jumped at the chance to stay with their Grampa for a few days, it happens several times a month, they’re all used to the twins showing up at his father’s house out of the blue to sleep over.  But Stiles suddenly realizes that the boys had wanted out of their own house, they’d wanted them all out, and Stiles feels a rush of anger again, that those strangers could do this to them all with so little thought.

Stiles forces a grin and says, “Someone’s got to fix the ladder to the loft, Claude.”

Johan, Polly perched on his shoulder, says, “I don’t want to sleep in the loft again,” and Stiles closes his eyes and wonders if they’re ever going to feel safe at the cottage, no matter how many ways he thinks of to strengthen the wards.

“Come on, let’s go see Grandpa,” Stiles says, pushing a little on the middle of Johan’s back. “And remember, no talk of the Hales. We don’t want to worry him about our little misunderstanding.”

Claude looks just like his father when he frowns. He says, “Grandpa will want to know.”

Stiles just cups Claude’s chin and says, “I’ll tell Grandpa, but not until after we know the Hales have left.  We don’t want any more trouble, right?”

“Right,” says Johan, and Stiles doesn’t have any real faith that they’ll keep their mouths shut, but he figures it could at least buy him a few days.

*

Derek Hale is waiting just outside the property perimeter of his house when Stiles finally makes his way back. His father had been suspicious, but hadn’t pressed; just stood there, disappointed frown in place, as Stiles had waved goodbye and started hobbling home.

His leg hurts, he’s exhausted; his body doesn’t even have enough energy to drum up a healthy dose of apprehension toward Hale.

Hale wrinkles his nose and says, “You’re unwell.”

“Am I?” Stiles says, stalking past him. He’s sweating under his coat, clammy and light-headed, and he barely registers Hale following him to his door.

“You’ve got an infection,” Hale says.

Stiles says, “I’m fine,” shortly, and moves to shut the door in his face. 

Hale’s palm flattens on the wood, stopping it, and his nostrils seem to flare at the jolt of panic that zips up Stiles’s spine. Can he smell the fear on him? Does he crave that, is that why he’s still there? 

“You smell rotten,” Hale says.  He forces the door all the way open again, and Stiles stumbles back a step, makes a small cry when he puts too much weight on his wounded leg, his crutch slipping out from under him and skittering across the floor.

“Gee, thanks,” Stiles says, but his words are breathy, and he reaches out blindly for the back of a chair. 

He feels Hale grip his shoulders as his head spins, pain and fear and nausea climbing up his throat.

The last thing he remembers is throwing up on Hale’s shoes.

*

He’s conscious in flashes—water he coughs up, warm fingers on his forehead, cool cloths on his chest.

He remembers his mother—her soothing hushes and lilting lullabies, ones he hasn’t heard since he was a babe.

He remember the wolves—

Their eyes glow eerie red and gold when they catch him, breathless from a run in the forest, fangs dripping saliva as they snap in his face, and they keep him alive as they eat him up, one of them forcing him down with an open maw at his throat, stinging cuts and hot rancid breath, as the other shreds his thigh open with human-shaped claws—there’s pure, molten fire splitting his leg apart, and he screams so long and loud his echo is a howl.

*

When he wakes, Cora Hale is lounging at his table with a knife and a piece of kindling she’s stripping bare with the blade.

“You didn’t tell the townspeople,” she says, eyeing him appraisingly.

Stiles swallows with a click, reaches for a mug of what looks like water by his bed—he sniffs at it, knowing who placed it there, and decides to hazard a sip anyway.  His hands shake with exhaustion; his entire body feels like a limp piece of wheat, a rung out rag, damp with stale sweat.

“Why would I do that?” he says. Why would he place the people he loves most in danger with that knowledge, of monsters in the woods, unless he absolutely had to?  They are far too overprotective of their own, Scotty and his father especially, and he’s almost certain the Hales would rip them all apart.

Cora places the knife on the table and slowly gets to her feet.  She says, “You should rest,” and Stiles watches her hazily as she moves to stoke the fire.

“How long have I been out?” Stiles mumbles, eyelids already heavy again.

He thinks he hears Cora says, “A few days,” but that can’t be right, his father would be knocking down his door if he left the twins with him that long without reason.

“Sleep,” Cora says, and he does.

*

His father and Claude are watching him with matching expressions of concern when he comes to again, Claude curled up on the floor by the chair his father’s pulled up close to Stiles’s bed.

He’s holding his hand, and squeezes it hard when Stiles looks at him.

“Dad?” Stiles says.

“You gave us all a scare, son,” he says. “We’re lucky Derek found you when he did.”

Stiles blinks up at him.  Lucky? “Uh. Yeah.”

He hears squeals, loud enough to travel through the cottage walls from outside, and tries to struggle upright. Where’s Johan? How could his father just—

“Calm down.”  His father presses a hand to his chest, keeps him lying flat. “Everything’s okay.”

But everything isn’t okay, because Stiles can’t move and the Hales are child-snatchers and witch hunters, at the very least, and Johan is alone with them.

And then the door bursts open and Hale staggers in with Johan clinging to his back like a monkey, red-cheeked and laughing, and a stunned breath whooshes out of him.  He stares at Hale, wide-eyed, as he swings Johan off his back and catches him around the middle before carefully setting him on his feet. His gray-green eyes are bright when he catches Stiles’s gaze, his mouth is smiling, and his countenance only dims minutely when he sweeps a look over Stiles’s prone form.

“Sheriff,” Hale says. “There’s a storm rolling in.”

Stiles’s father squeezes his hand once more before letting him go. “Right.  Let’s go, boys. Looks like you’re stuck with me for a little while longer.”

The boys cheer, even as they clamor to give Stiles kisses, and Stiles has no idea what’s going on, but his father is leaving with Claude and Johan and Stiles can only think that, at least, is good.

*

He sits at the table that night, for supper, wrapped in blankets and clutching his spoon in a white-knuckled grip, determined to get more of the stew in his mouth than on his shirt.

Hale glowers at him from across the wood, and Cora ignores them both for her whittling, and none of them talk.

The wind batters at the shutters, and the heavy thuds of frozen rain sound on the roof.

Afterwards, he drifts off to sleep in an empty house. He has no idea where the Hales go, where they take cover from the storm, and he doesn’t care, and in spite he bars the door behind him.

*

Stiles winces awake to what sounds like vengeful hammering, and peeks out of his nook to see—a shirtless Hale trying to piece the ladder of his loft back together.  There’s a spiral tattoo in the middle of his back, and Stiles watches the muscles ripple and flex, listens to Hale’s soft cursing as he does a poor job of lining up new wood with old.

The bar across the door is gone, and Stiles has no idea how it was removed.

In a bid to look closer, he pulls blankets around him and skirts the kitchen table, staying a wary distance from Hale. The bar is in pieces by the hearth, he recognizes the metal hooks among the splinters, and he doesn’t have anything in him to be surprised by that.

He says, “You know, you’d do better to fix that outside.”  The light is dim in the cottage, even in the day.

Hale doesn’t startle, even though he’d given no indication that he knew Stiles was there.  He says, “I know,” and deftly fits a nail with his fingers, hammering it home with a surprising accuracy that makes up for what is obviously a lack in skill. “Cora’s outside.”

Stiles doesn’t know what exactly he means until he creaks open a shutter by the front door—Cora is outside, in the gray haze of a damp morning after a storm. And she’s doing the washing. There’s a vicious twist to her hands as she snaps the clothes out of the wash bin, her spine is tense as a rod, and there’s a barely leashed violence to her that practically screams she has absolutely no desire to actually do the washing, and screw everyone who even attempts to approach her during the heinous job.

The washing isn’t usually that bad, but Stiles can only think of his sickness and be perversely satisfied that the woman that skewered his leg in the first place is made to clean up after him, even if he wishes her and her brother to the far side of Hell.

He’s still at a loss of why they aren’t already there.

Stiles settles down at the table and notes, for the first time, how one of the legs is mismatched, obviously another Hale fix.   The table wobbles slightly now, and Stiles rests his hands on it as he says, “Why are you here?”

Hale grunts.   There’s a sheen of sweat on his skin.  It’s uncommonly warm in the cottage, with the fire high and Hale’s constant movement.  Stiles watches in fascination as a single droplet slips from the hair at his nape, travels down his spine to wet the damp cloth at his waist—his trousers are low and nicely tight and Stiles can’t help but admire the shape of his ass.

He should be afraid, but he’s having trouble fighting off the unexpected wave of desire, and Hale throws a briefly amused look over his shoulder at him.

Stiles scowls and stares down at the scarred table instead.

*

Stiles hears the howls at night, like wolves are pacing around his cottage, and he burrows deeper into his covers when he hears a scrape at the door.

*

When the ladder is done, Derek attempts to fix the wobble of the table, and then the bar of the door—he gives Stiles a meaningful glare, which he takes as a warning not to lock him out again.

There are still parts of Stiles that seize up when faced with Derek’s undivided attention, but what started as fear is now a muddled mix of anxiety and arousal, and it’s, honestly, driving him a little crazy.

Cora wrinkles her nose at him, but she can go hang.

He expects his father and the twins back any day, and he’s nearly given up hope that the Hales will leave before then. The pantry is still spit apart, after all.

That night, Derek brings him rabbit and pheasant and Stiles cooks both on a spit over the hearth fire, and magnanimously serves all of them at the table, instead of throwing the Hales’ portion outside.

Cora eats quick, exchanges a look and a nod with Derek before leaving them for the rapidly falling dark.

Stiles feels Derek’s eyes on him as he pulls his meat from the bones with his teeth, he grows antsier and antsier with the loaded silence, until finally he says, “Spit it out, Hale.”

Derek waits another long moment before he says, “You’re a witch,” but his tone isn’t nearly as accusatory as it was the night he’d said those words to him before.

“I’m a spark,” Stiles says.  He snuffs the candle in the middle of the table with a pinch of his fingers, wills it to flicker to life again with a flick of his hand. “I could grow you daisies in a snow storm, if I ate a hearty enough breakfast.  I could soothe your stomach cramps with a tea.  I’m not a witch.”  He doesn’t bother saying that he got his spark from his mother, who was just as much of a lackluster magician.  Witch.  Hah.

“This is a witch’s cottage,” Derek says.

Stiles scowls at him.  “It is not.”  Stiles has lived there for almost three years, and before that it was abandoned for many more.

Derek gets to his feet, walks the length of the room to the far wall, opposite his bed.  He stomps his boot to the floorboards until he hears a hollow sound, the creak of wood over a pit, and not solid ground.  He sends Stiles an arch look.

“Wolf,” Stiles says, a pointed accusation that makes Derek flinch, slightly, before baring blunt, human teeth in a grin and—punching a hole in Stiles’s floor. He rips up splintering pieces of wood with bare fingers to make it larger, making even more of a mess in Stiles’s home than he had before.

Derek grins bigger but not brighter, and his eyes flash red at Stiles before he jumps down inside.

Stiles scrambles to slide a candle into the lantern and limps toward the hole.  He leans over, sees the red of Derek’s demon eyes in the pitch blackness beyond.

Derek says, “The light, Stiles,” and Stiles eases down onto his belly, keeping his bad leg as straight as possible.

He drops his arm down, watches in awe as the lantern illuminates what looks like an entire room under nearly a third of his house.  Bottles and books, cobweb ridden, are crammed into every nook and cranny of the cellar.

“This isn’t for canning, is it?” Stiles asks. A shiver makes its way down Stiles’s spine, and dread pools low in his belly.

There’s a pile of bones in the far corner, small and delicate and human, and Stiles doesn’t want to think about what they’ve been sleeping over for far too long.

Stiles swallows hard. “You thought—you thought I—” He can’t say it, can’t hardly even think it.  “You were rescuing them, then,” he finally ends with, and Derek looks up at him, somber, and nods.

*

Stiles can’t sleep—he watches helplessly as Derek and Cora bring up book after book, trinkets and bottles, bones.   The last gets their own pile in the clearing; the firsts get thrown into a bonfire. The flames flash green and ugly every time something burns all the way to ash.

Stiles chokes on the smell, has to cover his mouth and nose with wet cloths, but the Hales finish their task with a grim sort of determination.

In the middle of the night, the bones get a grave and their bowed heads. 

Stiles swipes at wet cheeks, and it’s past dawn before he can fall into bed, over-exhausted and drained.  He stares at the ceiling and thinks about moving back in with his father.

The Hales, still smelling of smoke and despair, wordlessly climb the ladder to the loft, but Stiles is fairly sure, despite the deep silence, that nobody falls asleep for hours.

*

The Hales upend his entire store of salt all over the cellar, and Stiles doesn’t say a word.

The boys find the hole in the floor endlessly fascinating, and it’s slow work to fix it.  Derek shoos them away every few minutes, and finally Stiles takes them out to the edge of the clearing, out past the fresh grave, and lies down on his back in the grass.

It’s chilly, but the sun is high and bright, and the wind is still. Claude and Johan race each other through the tall grass, and Stiles can rest his head on his hands and close his eyes and forget for a little while.

He startles at a touch to his side, but it’s just Cora, settled cross-legged next to him, gazing off in the direction of the twins.

“We’ll need to leave soon,” she says.

Stiles should be rejoicing, but instead he feels—abandoned.  He says the words he’s been thinking since Derek ripped up his floor.  “How did you know?”

Without looking at him, Cora says, “The Hales founded Beacon Hills, do you know?”

Stiles nods.  “Yes.”

“And then there weren’t any more Hales, and no one wondered why.”  Cora sighs. She says, “Dozens of years ago, a witch lured stray children into her cottage and roasted them alive.” She pauses, looks down at her hands, folded into fists in her lap.  “When the Hales tried to roust her, to slay her, she took the two youngest and made them watch as she locked the rest of them in a house and razed it to the ground.”

There hasn’t been a Hale in Beacon Hills in at least a hundred years, Stiles knows, and whatever memory of a fire was gone with them.  “But you—” Stiles cuts himself off, not sure what to say.

Cora flashes gold eyes at him and grins. “Werewolves can live for a very long time.”

*

“How did you escape,” Stiles says later, voice low in deference to the sleeping twins.

Derek shrugs.  “She underestimated the viciousness of a new alpha, all of ten years old. I ripped out her throat.”  He clicks his teeth together, snapping at Stiles. “With my teeth.”

Stiles doesn’t feel fear anymore at the flash of fang, not even a little. His heartbeat kicks up, and Cora rolls her eyes and slaps her hands on the table, getting to her feet.  “I’m bedding down with the children,” she says, daring them to tell her no.

Derek crowds him into his bed, mindful of his leg. He pushes their bodies together, slips hands up Stiles’s shirt and nudges his face into the length of his neck, pressing careful kisses along the yellowing bruises, a soft hurt sound in the back of his throat.

“I’m fine, I’m okay,” Stiles whispers, tugging on Derek’s hair, pulling him up until their mouths meet and Stiles can arch and rub against him, and Stiles hasn’t felt the weight of another person against him in bed since Heather died, and nothing else has ever felt so hot and right.

He pushes at Derek’s tunic, shoves it up to his armpits and Derek says, “Be quiet, be still,” against the thin skin under Stiles’s ear, and Stiles bites his lip to keep from moaning as Derek skims fingers under the waistband of his pants, clutching at his hips.

He leans back, keeps his grip firm and Stiles body trapped against the mattress, writhing helplessly.  He grins, wolfish, and says, “Be still,” again as he slips down to tug at the ties of Stiles’s pants with his teeth.

Stiles has to bite the meat of his palm to keep from yelling, and then he wipes that smug look off Derek’s face by returning the favor.

*

In the morning, all traces of the Hales are gone.

*

It takes nearly a week for Stiles to make it out of the house again and into the village.  Lydia forgives him his nearly month away by way of gossip.

“You had the Hales staying with you,” she says, skeptical.

Stiles takes a sip of his drink and flexes out his leg. The wound is mostly healed over, even though it’s still sore to walk.   “I did,” he says.

“Huh,” she says, and then when’s he’s got a good mouthful, “Did you take both to your bed?”

Stiles spits out the ale across the counter, and Lydia gives him a look that’s a cross between disgusted and smug.

“Lyds,” Stiles says, frowning, but Lydia just throws a rag at his head to clean up the mess.

“Speaking of house guests,” she says, “the Argents are putting up a cousin.”

Judging from the way her nose wrinkles on cousin, Stiles surmises that the person in question hasn’t endeared themself to many people in town.

“Who?” Stiles asks.

Lydia flips a lock of copper red hair over her shoulder.  “A Miss Kate. Allison seems to adore her.”

Allison has a blind spot for family, has ever since her mom passed.  She’d been in raptures about her grandfather, the past year, and that old coot was as nasty and mean-tempered as a snapping turtle.

“What do you think?” Stiles asks.

“I think she pings all my sensors,” Lydia says sourly, “but I can’t figure out why.”

Stiles pays for his drink and makes a stop to the McCall’s, where Melissa fusses over his leg and Scott rolls his eyes at him behind her back.

Melissa boxes his ears as she passes by with a salve, and Scott says, “Ow!  What was that for?”

Melissa says, “You know why,” and hands the small tin to Stiles with the admonishment to rub it in daily. “It’ll help loosen the damaged muscle. I don’t see what kind of fall could have caused this,” she says knowingly, but Stiles knows he doesn’t have to actually ask her to not tell his father.

She won’t.  She never does, not if they’re staying safe.

“Thanks, Melissa,” Stiles says.

Scott jumps up to help Stiles to his feet, and then pulls on a coat to walk with Stiles to his father’s.

They bump shoulders companionably, and Scott says, “Try not to disappear like that again, okay?” and Stiles is a little gratified by how much Scott obviously missed him. 

Scott’s a hopeless bachelor who believes whole-heartedly in love, losing himself and his surroundings often in the first throes of it. He’s been through so many true loves over the years; there’s a bet going on how long it’ll take for him to fall for the new teacher’s daughter, and how long it’ll take for them to separate as close friends instead.

Stiles says, “I’m thinking about moving back into the village.”

Scott’s eyes widen in surprise and delight. “Really?”

Stiles nods.  He’s not sure if he can stay at the cottage, even with everything salted and burned.  He’s not sure he can stay there with the strange hole in his life the Hales left.

Scott says, “The Widow Whittemore is thinking of moving in with Jackson.  We could be neighbors!”

Stiles laughs.  “You won’t like it when the smell drives you off,” he says, but Scott just swings an arm over his shoulders and hugs him into his side.

*

There’s a blonde woman he doesn’t know standing over his children when they reach the front of his father’s house.

They’re clutching hands, and Johan has Polly the cat pressed tight to his chest.  They’re wide-eyed and tense, and Stiles yells, “Hey!” because he can’t run to them, not with his leg, not how he really wants to.

The blonde looks over at him, a smile blooming over her face.  She’s pretty, in a sharp way, and her grin makes Stiles think of serpents, of rotten things and worms.

“Yours?” she says, patting Claude lightly on the head.

Stiles wants to rip her arm off, but he’s not sure why. This must be Miss Kate.

“Yes,” Stiles says.  He maneuvers himself in front of them, and Scott, sensing his mood, follows his lead.

“They’re lovely,” Miss Kate says, grin never dropping. She nods at Scott. “Mr. McCall, how wonderful to see you again.”

Scott says, “Sure,” and crosses his arms over his chest.

“What brings you to our little town?” Stiles says.

She flicks a hand absently.  “I found something I thought I’d lost,” she says. “It’s so nice when that happens, don’t you agree, Mr…?”

“Stilinski,” Stiles says shortly.

Miss Kate’s gaze flicks to the house behind them and then to Stiles again.  “Ah,” she says, “The sheriff’s son.  Which makes these lovelies his grandbabies.”  She goes to pat Johan on the cheek, but Polly hisses and swipes at her, and Stiles revises all he’s ever thought about cats.  Cats are obviously wonderful judges of character, and not at all of the devil.

Miss Kate takes a step back, shooting Polly a brief, nasty look before her face smooths out into bland politeness again. “I have business with your father. Would you care to join me?”

“No, thank you,” Stiles says. “We must be getting home.”

Miss Kate’s grin grows teeth. “Oh, I insist. After all, this concerns you as well.”

“Scott—“

“Scott can go ahead home,” she says, faux pleasantly. “Can’t you, Mr. McCall?”

Scott grits his teeth, but nods stiffly. His eyes are a little wild, and Stiles goes to place his hand on his arm, wondering what’s wrong, but Miss Kate curls a hand over his bicep.

She’s strong, abnormally so, and Stiles has spent the past few weeks with werewolves.

“No one’s going to get hurt,” Miss Kate says, “so long as you tell me what I want to know.”

*

It’s pitch black, when Stiles comes to. He smells earth and mold, and he knows before he conjures the weak blue flame in his hand that he’s in the cellar of his cottage.  Of the witch’s cottage.

Stiles had been unprepared for the rage, for the burning hatred, when Kate, when the witch, had realized they’d set her stores on fire.  Every book and bauble.  Kate was a miasma of rotted skin, throat a gaping wound, when she’d dropped her glamour, and he could only thank god that he’d thought to insist his father and the twins stay behind.  That she’d wanted to keep up appearances enough that she’d agreed.

He’d used up just enough energy to seal the house, locking her in with him, before passing out.

Light filters from the splintered hole in the floorboards—again, he thinks, and Derek won’t be here to help him fix it, this time.

Kate hisses, “You’re awake,” her voice a thin shade of human.  “Good. This will be so much more satisfying when I can feed off your screams as well.”

Stiles refuses to look up at her, doesn’t want to see the scarred remains of her face.  Whatever Derek had done to her a hundred years ago—it wasn’t pretty. It’s a shame that her death didn’t quite take.

“What do you want?” Stiles says. He knows what she wanted, but her old magic is in the earth now, Stiles knows her current powers are barely above his own.  If that wasn’t true, she’d be long gone by now.  He can feel the pressure of the cage he’d created around them, even this far into the dirt. It pulses like a live thing under his body.

“You,” she says, surprising him enough that he glances up at her.

Her teeth are incongruently white against her flaking, smiling lips.

“What?”

“I could smell the Hales on you,” she says. “I could smell them, and completely missed the magic.”  She sounds delighted, gleeful.

He fully expected them both to die there, in the cottage, but—“What do you mean?”

“Your magic, Mr. Stilinski. It’s been so long since I was last awake, but there’s a recipe for everything.” She taps her head with a finger.  “I still know how to eat a spark.” Her voice gets lower, and Stiles shrinks back against the wall. “And when I get out of here, I’ll skin those lovely little children of yours, and that beastie they call a cat.”

*

Stiles takes stock of his surroundings, mentally flipping through his admittedly small bag of tricks.  He can hear Kate humming through the floorboards, the creak of her feet as she skips around the room in high spirits, and forces the sick feeling in his gut to go away.

He can’t think of anything now but what he can do to stop her.

He’s got dirt underneath his hands. He’s got candles. He’s got a few pieces of splintered wood.  He’s got the salve from Melissa in his pocket.  He’s got his wedding ring around his neck on a chain, and he’s got an arrow wound on his thigh.

His mother always told him all his spark needed was will, and maybe a little bit of blood and sacrifice.

Quickly, he pops open the top of the tin of salve. It’s oil based, Stiles knows, and he lurches to his feet, gropes in the dark until he finds the wooden beams holding up the cottage above the cellar. He uses two fingers to spread the concoction around the top of the beams, as far up as he can reach, willing that there will be enough to generously go around.

Above him, he hears the clang of pots, the sing-song words of true witch spells.

He crouches to the ground and ignores the stab of pain from his thigh.  If this works, it won’t matter how much damage he does to it now.

Under his palms, he feels the faint stirrings of dirt and he calls to whatever roots are closest—the sprouts wiggle under his hands like worms, but he’s exhausted already, and he can feel them weaken and lie still.

Cursing, he rips at his pants, tearing it all the way up his thigh.  The wound is covered in newly pink skin, thin and delicate from healing, and he gathers up his nerves, a deep breath, and a sharp, splintered piece of floorboard—he jabs it in, quick and hard.  He bites his lip to bleeding to stop a scream of pain, heaves a quiet sob as he feels blood well up out of his leg, pour out onto the ground.

He presses his palms in it and forces all the will he has left into the newly formed shoots, feeding them on his blood, his sacrifice, until the ground around him starts to rumble.

Kate curses and stumbles.

He hears the thunderous crack of the floor tearing open on the other side of the cellar, sees the light from the room above filter in over a cluster of vines nearly the thickness of Stiles’s arms. He hears Kate scream, and then chant louder, frantic.

There are candles in the cupboards, and Stiles wills them all to light, and watches, numbly, as the salve-ridden beams above him go up in flames.

*

He hears Heather in the darkness. He hears her crying. He hears her telling him not to leave their babies alone, like he would ever want to, and then he wakes up.

*

The first thing Stiles notices when he opens his eyes is that his father has a gun pointed at him. Only, Stiles realizes blearily, it’s not actually pointed at him, but rather the demon wolf crouched over him.  A great, hulking beast with his mouth pulled back in a snarl, even as the clawed-hands cradling him are careful not to even scratch.

“Derek,” Stiles croaks.  He’s covered in soot and ash, they both are, and Cora is pressing both of her palms so hard over his leg that it doesn’t even feel like a leg anymore.

She growls, “You’re an idiot,” at him, but he hears the shake of fear in her voice.

Derek’s face melts into human as he looks down; he relaxes minutely against him as Stiles palms his cheek, rubs flakes of skin off where he must have burned, the skin under already healed to a shiny pink.

Stiles imagines he’ll have scars from burns himself, but he can’t pinpoint any individual hurts from the massive painful throb that is his entire body.

Stiles says, “We must have woke her up, when we took out her things,” a low rasp, and Derek grips his hands and says, “Stiles, Stiles, you’re not making sense,” and Stiles realizes he’s speaking the old language, the way his mother always did after using her spark too much.

“Stiles,” his father says.   The barrel of his gun is pointed to the ground now, he looks washed out and ashen.  “Christ, kid.”

Stiles swallows words that no one would understand and buries his face in Derek’s throat.

*

“We were five days out when we came across a merchant who mentioned a new Argent showing up in Beacon Hills,” Derek says softly, mouth pressed close to Stiles’s temple. “Nothing good ever came from Argents. Cora had a bad feeling.”

Cora snorts.  “Right. Cora did.”

Derek ignores her and goes on, tightening his grip around Stiles, “The Banshee at the inn nearly screamed the walls down around us.”

Banshee, huh. They’ve never had a name for her, before, Lydia will love that.  Stiles is propped up in the grass, leaning into Derek’s shoulder, waiting for his father to get back from the village with Melissa.  He can hardly move, but somehow Derek is keeping the worst of the pain at bay.

The cottage is a smoldering ruin, already down to blackened bones, but he doesn’t have enough energy to feel bad about it. “How did—” His lungs burn, and he coughs, helplessly, face pressed into Derek’s shirt.

“There was something keeping us from getting in,” Cora says. “We’d been trying for hours to break through the barrier, and then it just—dropped, when the house went up in flames.” She mimes an explosion.  “Derek broke down the door and dove into the fire to drag you out.”

He drained his spark, Stiles thinks. He feels hollow, scraped empty, every part of him exhausted.  The tips of his fingers throb, oddly, even as his leg is still numb.  He drained his spark and the seal he threw must have fallen, luckily before the house burned enough to collapse on itself. He watches the smoke spiral up into the deepening night, orange-red chunks of wood falling apart before fading to black.  He shivers, thinking of the vines he’d grown to grip the witch in place as she burned. “Are you sure she’s…?“

“Yes.”  Cora grins.  “I cut off her head, this time.”

*

Claude and Johan cry when they see him, and Stiles imagines it has more to do with him being covered in soot and blood than anything else.  Kate had been unfailingly, if creepily, kind to them, in the time it took for Stiles to convince her to leave them behind, so at least they didn’t have the horror that was Kate’s true face to haunt their nightmares.

The makeshift sled they had dragged him into the village on probably didn’t make matters better, either.

“Papa,” Claude says, “are you all right?”

“Yes, of course,” Stiles says, and it’s mostly not a lie. He’s alive and they’re safe, and that’s all he cares about, now.

Johan tries to give him the long-suffering Polly—he has to make her a special meal, for all that she puts up with so easily—and Stiles just reels them in for kisses, holds their hands in his grimy ones, to stave off one of them accidentally touching one of his burns, and shares a look of commiseration with the cat.

They set him up in Stiles’s father’s own room, deaf to his protests, and suddenly he’s alone with a bathtub and Derek, and he has no clear idea of how that happened.

“Did my father just leave you to bathe me?” Stiles asks, incredulous.  Stiles’s father has seen Derek as the demon wolf, and has yet to have any answers about anything that happened that day, he’s surprised he isn’t sitting in a corner with a shotgun over his lap.

Derek grins, helps Stiles sit on the edge of a chair, and proceeds to strip him of his boots, stockings, and the shredded remains of his pants.  “Your father left Scott to bathe you, only I pushed him outside and locked the door.”

“He couldn’t have been happy about that.” Stiles’s breath catches in a rush of pain as Derek skims his shirt off, the cloth sticking to seared skin along his arms and back.

“I didn’t give him time to complain about it, honestly,” Derek says. 

He walks Stiles over to the tub, and when Stiles hesitates at the lip, trying to figure out how to step inside without tearing at the stitches Melissa had put in, Derek catches him around the middle and deftly plops him inside.  He keeps hold of him as he lowers himself down, making sure his left leg and thigh, cleanly bandaged, is held over the rim and out of the water.

Stiles watches, worn out and limp, as Derek soaps a rag and starts cleaning one of Stiles’s arm, mindful of the smattering of burns.

“They aren’t that bad,” Derek says when Stiles flinches at the sting. “More from embers than actual flames. You were lucky.” Derek flashes him a gentle smile, and Stiles blinks at the way it softens his entire face.

“I was lucky you were there,” Stiles says, and Derek ducks his head, like he’s bashful, and that is possibly even more surreal than surviving a house fire and a witch.

Derek slowly scrubs each of Stiles’s fingers, then moves to his other arm, and Stiles might be half-dead with exhaustion, but he hums with pleasure, tilting his head back to bare his neck as Derek rinses the cloth and starts up his chest.  “You know,” Stiles says, “you’re still filthy, too.”

Derek laughs.  “I don’t think I’d fit in there with you.”

“Nonsense,” Stiles says, “I’d make room,” but he doesn’t press.

Derek makes him shift up, among protesting groans, to wash down his back, and by the time Derek starts on his right leg, Stiles is shivering slightly in the now-tepid water.

He reluctantly says, “I think it’s time to get out.”

Derek nods and shucks his shirt, and then his pants, and Stiles watches, both incredulous and admiring, as Derek quickly scrubs the soot and dead skin off his own body.

“That’s disgusting,” Stiles says, staring.

“I can tell when you lie,” Derek says. He arches an eyebrow at him.

Stiles shrugs, unrepentant at being caught out, then starts the arduous task of maneuvering himself out of the bath.

With a small noise in the back of his throat, a not-quite-human growl, Derek helps him to his feet and carefully dries him off, pulling one of his father’s night shirts over his head, and Stiles is tucked into bed before he really knows what’s happening.

Derek pulls a pair of his father’s pants on and slides in next to him, and Stiles is too tired to think of how his father will most likely attempt to kill Derek when he finds them like this, despite the fact that Stiles is a grown man with children. He gropes for Derek’s hand with his eyes closed, curls their fingers tight together.

“Thank you for coming back,” Stiles says, stifling a yawn into the pillow.  “I know—you must have better things to be doing.  I won’t ask you to stay.”

“Don’t worry,” Derek says.  He feels a light press of lips on his forehead. “We won’t leave again until you’re well.”

*

The hole in his leg is worse than the arrow wound, but under the watchful eye of Melissa it doesn’t fester.

His only night with Derek is the first one, and he has no idea where the Hales go at dusk after that, but they come back, faithfully, every day.  By the end of the week Stiles is hobbling to Lydia’s, leaning on Derek for support, and by the end of two a crutch does him just fine.

Each day that passes, Derek closes up more and more. Stiles can see it happening, sees the smiles fade and stop, the blank, unreadable look fall over his eyes as he looks at Stiles, and Stiles grins brighter at him to compensate, ignoring the ball of lead low in his belly, the pressure around his heart.

He isn’t surprised when Derek tells him they’re leaving.  There’s no flash of hurt, because Stiles has already, he acknowledges to himself, been in pain over this for days.

Derek is over a hundred years old. Stiles is barely five and twenty, with two young sons to raise. He’s under no delusion that Derek should stay for him—who is he, to ask for that?  They spent a short month together what seems like a lifetime ago, and even that month was pared down by bad feelings and mistrust.

Still, it would’ve been nice to even be a momentary consideration.

Cora says, “He doesn’t know how else to live, but there’s only so much revenge in anyone’s true heart.”

“Poetic,” Stiles says bitterly.

Cora’s mouth turns up at the corners, not quite a smile.  She raises her glass to him, sardonic.  “Tortured souls usually are.”

*

Derek kisses him goodbye, this time. He does it like he doesn’t mean to, like he can’t help himself, but that doesn’t make Stiles feel any better. Derek presses him against the side of his father’s barn and sweeps his mouth open with his tongue and bites at Stiles’s jaw before burying his face in Stiles’s throat. 

Stiles wraps his arms around Derek’s back and holds on.

*

Stiles and the boys move into Widow Whittemore’s empty house, and the season rolls over into midwinter, dumping several inches of snow across the village and preserve.   Claude and Johan are giddy with it—they seem to forget about the Hales, about the witch, as easy as breathing, between one frigid moment and the next.

Kira and Scott are married—to the surprise of almost everyone except Finstock, who collects quite a sum of coins—when the first sprouts of spring are spotted, and Stiles coaxes an arbor of lilacs to bloom in the church courtyard where they say their vows.

The boys turn seven and Claude gets taller, much to the disgruntlement of Johan.  Polly turns fat and lazy, because all of them spoil her, and they have to pick another of his father’s barn kittens to actually catch the mice that sneak into the pantry.

Stiles celebrates his twenty-six years with a bottle of whiskey, and it’s been nearly seven whole months of no one threatening his life, and he’s completely insane to miss that, right?

He rolls an empty glass in between his palms, sitting at Lydia’s, and tells Scott, “I think I should rebuild the cottage before summer.”

Scott stares at him, wide-eyed.

“Before the weather gets too warm to work,” Stiles clarifies, and Scott says, “I know what you mean, Stiles, I just don’t see why.”

Stiles shrugs.  He’d loved the little cottage, for all that it was apparently an evil witch’s lair.  He liked being in the woods, he liked having his space.  He still thinks of their house in town as the Widow Whittemore’s, it can never be their home. For all that he’d thought he’d never feel safe there again, he misses the cottage like a torn limb.

Scott sighs and slumps down in this seat. “It’ll take more wood than we have in town,” he says, finally.  “We’ll have to travel north, take Boyd and Erica with us.”  He gives Stiles a lopsided smile.  “If I ask nice enough, Isaac will help us with the build.”

Stiles pours himself another drink, and one for Scott, as well.  “To Spring,” Stiles says, forcing cheer, clinking their glasses together on the table. “To new life.  To you and Kira.”

Scott picks his up glass, eyes the amber liquid in the dim light.  “Happy birthday, Stiles,” he says, softly.

One more year down, Stiles thinks, and allows himself a small moment to wallow. Like this, maudlin, he can admit that, perhaps, he’d expected Derek to come back again by now. That maybe they’d be building up the cottage again together.  He shakes it off, though. Stiles is prone to worry, to obsessing, to big swells of highs and lows, all Stilinski men are—which, unfortunately, doesn’t bode well for Claude and Johan—but Stiles is determined to move forward; the boys deserve that and more of their father.

“To new beginnings,” Stiles says, and downs his drink in one long swallow.

*

It’s full summer by the time the walls are finished. They’d ended up building further into the clearing than the old cottage, filling in the cellar with dirt and rocks—Stiles grows a thicket of roses over it, to keep the children away. They move in when nearly all the roof is done, and they sleep sprawled out on the floor in the middle of the front room. 

The cottage is bigger than the old, he’s made walls for a room to himself, this time, and the boys are to share a bed in another, but more often than not they end up in the loft Stiles had made for storage, anyway.

Isaac carves them a table and chairs and new bowls, and Erica gives them all their old linens.  Before long the cottage is a cozy home again, and the trees are turning red and gold, and the wind smells like damp autumn, and out of the scorched ground Stiles grows pumpkins, three sizes too big to be naturally born.

Nearly a year has passed when Stiles hears howls in the night again.

*

The hairs on the back of Stiles’s nape prickle. He unbars the door and sits at the kitchen table with a mug of tea, long after the twins have gone to bed. The fire is hot on his skin, and he absently rubs at the still-shiny marks on his arms, most no bigger than a pea.

When the latch on the door finally lifts, Stiles is in the midst of nodding off, slumped in his chair, and he blinks blearily at the figure framed in the firelight—a hulking black beast, with glowing red eyes. 

He drops to all fours as he moves inside, more graceful than his form implies.  His fangs are bone-white, large as fingers, sharp as knives.  He faces Stiles at the hearth, and Stiles, fully awake now, heart pounding high in his chest, slips to his knees beside him.

“Do you think to scare me?” Stiles says softly, reaching for him, smoothing his palms over the wiry fur of his chops. “Do you think I could forget?”

The demon wolf nuzzles into Stiles’s arms, huffs hot breath along Stiles’s stomach as he curls up on the floor.

*

Stiles is nearly asleep again when Derek shakes out of his wolf, bare human arms circling Stiles’s waist to lift him to his feet. Derek guides them soundlessly to his room, his bed, and climbs in after him.

“Where’s Cora?” Stiles asks sleepily, because he knows one isn’t far from the other.

Derek says, “In the village,” and Stiles feels the rumble of his words where he’s pressed up against Derek’s chest.

“I missed you,” Stiles whispers, and Derek says, even softer, “I, too.”

*

They don’t sleep late, since Claude and Johan wake them up just after dawn with happy cries, crawling onto them, bony limbs poking all over their soft parts.

Derek growls and tucks them close, then rolls them all to the floor in a heap—he chases them out of the bedroom with a roar, the children squealing as they fling open the latch of the front door, and Derek only seems to remember he’s naked when he reaches the chill outside the nearly-banked hearth. 

Stiles presses a palm over his mouth to stop from laughing, but Derek is limned with the orange glow of dawn in the open doorway—the boys’ laughter echoes throughout the clearing, and Stiles holds out his hand and says, “Come back to bed.”

*

“I was born here,” Derek says, mouth pressed against the top knob of Stiles’s spine.  “I want to die here as well.” 

“Not soon, I hope,” Stiles says, clutching at the arm around his waist.  They need to get fully up, soon.   The boys need to be corralled, and breakfast needs to be made.

“No,” Derek says softly. “Not soon.”