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on running with wolves and breathing fire

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You see, the thing about falling in love with a wolf is that you think you need to keep an eye on the moon; watch it wax and wane—wait at home while he runs through the woods and comes back with green in his hair smelling like forest. And at night, you scratch ribbons of crimson all over his back because he likes the sting of it and you like the way he kisses you, after, when he’s all teeth and edges.

In the morning, you suck bruises into his collarbones and wonder why you fell in love with a man who couldn’t keep traces of you on him even if he tried. But then, when your father’s cruiser leaves the driveway, he kisses you. And you know it’s insensitive to say things like this about a boy whose family was set ablaze, but god, does he kiss like he’s burning.

You’re not seventeen anymore. Your buzzcut has grown out to be something he can hold onto, for now, something he can run his hands through with fingers that leave traces like ice, so cold it feels white-hot to the touch but you like it, the almost-pain that prickles your skin like you should get away before it starts hurting. But you never do, do you? You’re too soft, you’re good at holding on and bad at letting go and sometimes you place your ear over his chest and a hand over your own just to hear your hearts thump in sync like the beat of a song you haven’t quite learned the lyrics to. And you know you’re not old enough to call it love yet, but you can in your head.

So, you love him. But you know he’s still stronger than you. He’s still a wolf, and he could still snap your bones like twigs beneath your feet if he wants to.

You can tell yourself that this is temporary, or that this is forever, but the truth is that he’s broken, and you’re broken, and sometimes you can slam down the pieces of the puzzle as many times as you want but they still won’t fit, they still won’t fit, and even if they do, you’re still left with the blood beneath your nails from all the times you tried to stay alive at the expense of other people, and really, who are you when you’re just not quite yourself anymore? Sometimes you fight for so long you start to forget which side is the good one.

That night, you go to his place, because he doesn’t have a father lurking around. When you tell him, you slam your hand in front of your mouth because fuck—his father is dead, and you want to get away from yours but maybe he wants to be close to his.

—but he runs his hand through your hair and smiles and says there’s no need to apologise for not losing your father and you know you’re alright, forgiven. And when you’re in bed, you whisper softly to each other, as if trying not to wake someone while you’re the only ones there. He tells you about his family, about wolves and packs and running.

You say: do you miss it?

He says: I have a new pack now.

~

He’s a wolf—

—but maybe he’s just a boy, and you’re just a boy, and when his mouth touches your body you might be on fire, but remember, his family was on fire, too, and you can bet your life on it that he still feels the heat of it beneath the soles of his feet, and maybe he yells so much because he hears the roaring of flames echo in the silence, and remember when you kissed him? Remember when you kissed him?

Remember when the world got so loud you had to seek shelter? Baby, why do you always seek safety in other people? First: hair like fire—nails sharp, tongue sharper; you’ve spent ten years of your life wanting to be able to love her just right, your strawberry-haired wonder, your small-town girl ready for her big future. Then: the boy, your boy, your wolf; so strong, so beautiful. So beautiful you don’t know what to do with yourself. When he rips his claws through chests of rogue omegas to save someone, to save someone, to save someone—you want to close your eyes but can’t; you can’t ever stop watching, can you, boy? Because he’s so beautiful it blinds you, leaves you breathless and unable to look away, like a deer caught in the headlights of his tar-black camaro. God, he will crash into you. But god, will it be worth it.

~

Listen: you think he was made like this. Like stone. You think the steel of his spine has always been this hunched over, protective, but also leaning into himself, making himself smaller to fit inside the hands of other people.

Let me tell you this: he wasn’t. He wasn’t always this burnt out shell of a house his family built. He stood up straight and kissed his cousins on the forehead and god, he was whole. He was whole.

Boy, that night, he tells you to be still when he kisses you. Pins you to the bed where you once almost bled to death after an encounter with something you wish you could forget. You still dream about it, sometimes. About running while your leg was torn open, while your wrist was bent at an angle it shouldn’t. About claws and blood and being followed by something so much bigger, so much stronger and sharper and frightening. And while he has both your wrists tied to the headboard you wonder why there always has to be something to make up for the big bad wolf when its teeth are too busy nipping the inside of your thighs to care about the woods.

Later, when he’s asleep, you look at him, and you think yes, this is okay, this is more than okay, this is good; I think this is good and you know it’s good—better yet, you know it’s great, but you’ve always been wary of admitting victory because you’ve never really been allowed to keep it, and you look at him, and you run your fingertips over the sharp line of his jaw, and you think: yeah, I really want to be allowed to keep you.

It’s days later, and he comes to you with trembling hands that you are now allowed to hold, and clattering teeth that you are now allowed to kiss quiet (just mouth to mouth—just breathing; boy, he’s shaking, and he breathes you in) and you think of when your father laid in bed for sixteen days after your mother passed and how he, how your boy, your wolf, didn’t stay still but followed his sister through states and over borders to a city that would never be home just to escape from the remains of his family, scattered around the forest like ashes.

He tells you it’s been a while, but not long enough to stop hurting, never long enough to stop hurting, and you want to say I know, I know and you want to compare it to your mother, but you don’t, because this isn’t about you, and this isn’t about her. So you ask him about his other sister, the one alive, the one away, and he says they’ve been calling but he never quite knows what to say to her. So you ask him: do you miss her? and he doesn’t look at you but still says yes, and then you ask him: do you need her?

He says she’s happy, there, without him, with others.

And you ask him again: do you need her?

And when he nods, you take him by the hand and press your lips to the shell of his ear and say: then tell her that.

He tells you he can’t, tells you she’s content where she is, with a guy and a pack (a real pack, one that isn’t broken, one that isn’t a ghost of things we lost) and she doesn’t need him. You know he’s not alone. You know he knows he’s not alone. But you also know he needs to hear it, sometimes. So you tell him.

You trace the veins on the inside of his arm and tell him there’s no weakness in admitting you love someone, and there’s no weakness in admitting you miss the only sibling left breathing.

He nods, and he kisses you, and you think yeah, maybe we’ll be alright.

But look, at the end of the day, you’re still a boy and he’s still a wolf, and you will always end up licking the blood from behind his teeth and he will always end up watching his claws when he touches you without holding back—so you learn.

You might be fidgety and unable to focus for too long, but you can connect circles with not enough ash and see the universe explode when you close your eyes, so you visit the veterinarian that isn’t a veterinarian and he makes you sit on the cold floor for hours doing breathing exercises until you think you’re going to fall asleep. You don’t really believe it’s doing anything, but when you come home, your wolf presses his lips to your neck and inhales and tells you you smell like magic. You shrug it off and lay in bed with him, but on the inside, you’re smiling.

Magic is strange. Thrums through your veins following an irregular beat you can’t quite figure out and warms you from the inside out, an endless, soothing buzz—

—it’s power. It’s so much power and it flows through you, setting all your nerves on fire and you need to learn how to access it, how to control it, how to keep it inside you until you’re ready but you can’t, can you? Because you found it, and now it wants out. And you feel like you’re bursting at the seams.

You spend three months trying to control it. Your wolf can smell it, says he can taste it at the back of his throat, the bitter-sweetness of burnt sugar and cinnamon and something else, something different. You try showering more, but the print magic leaves on you is like a coffee stain; fading but never really leaving. Weeks later, you look at the candle, and it lights.

~

You see, the thing about falling in love with a wolf is that you think you need to keep an eye on the moon, but the truth is that looking up for so long makes you vulnerable, distracts you long enough for others to rip out the remains of your heart and sink their teeth into it like rabid dogs.

And your wolf can’t always be there to protect you, but he doesn’t have to anymore, does he, boy? So you tell him you were born powerful; tell him your mother gave you the strength; show him the way fire exits the tips of your fingers not through excess heat but through power of will. You show him the way the fire flickers with every beat of his heart because you’re tuned to him in a way that influences the way your magic flows through veins even when it’s just this, just you and him, just flames. When he closes his eyes, you know he can hear it, too: the roaring inside you that sounds so much like his house set ablaze it makes him shudder with the thought of it.

You’re not a dragon, but you can be. You can build cities out of nothing, out of flames, out of ashes; light him with the touch of a hand, mark him, burn him, but you don’t. You don’t want to. This has never been about hurting him. So that night when he fucks you, he’s not the only one who has to be careful not to let his strengths take over.

~

It’s a month later when you’re trapped and dying, blood smeared all over your body like someone tried to mark you, paint you red, and you try to summon the fire but you’re empty, now, aren’t you, boy? Empty, and there’s nothing left to save.

You know your wolf will come, probably, but you don’t know when, and you’re hurt, you’re so broken and all these open wounds keep on bleeding. They tied you up, and they don’t know about human skin and the way it blisters and oozes pus after being tied up for eight days, and you only know it’s been eight days because they cut lines in your back every morning. The marks hurt, but not as much as the absence of fire that runs through your veins like liquid gold.

You know your wolf will come, probably—but really, what do you know? He might be dead, he might be dead (it’s a mantra that repeats like a broken record, something you can’t get out of your head, something you haven’t been able to get rid of, but if he was dead, you would feel it, right? You would feel it. You love him so much you would feel it) but the truth is: you don’t know how much longer you can hold on. You might be dead too, if he doesn’t come soon enough.

Your captors are in the room now, and they’re playing catch with your ripped T-shirt and watching TV and they’re pale—they’re so pale you think their skin might be see-through, their veins a sickly type of green, their teeth yellow. Sometimes, when they come too close, you grow cold, like someone has replaced all your summers with ice, and they trace lines over your chest with knives that never go too deep but almost; small droplets of blood escaping, and you ask yourself how it would’ve been like if you had learned how to protect yourself. When one of them kisses your neck, you can’t think of anything but how you might never get out.

Then: fighting. You don’t know how much time has passed.  You’re chained to the wall and it’s all teeth and claws, all tearing and ripping and you’re so far gone you don’t know whether you want to be saved, anymore. Then: wolf. He’s here, he’s here, face against your neck, and he says I’m going to undo the chains, okay? and you don’t know what to say, you don’t know anything, because you can’t feel your arms and you can’t feel anything else, and really, what’s there when there’s no fire left?

~

You wake up in a bed and you’ve forgotten how to speak. Your father is there, crouched over you looking forty years older—he looks like he’s trying to protect you, but it’s too late, isn’t it? Your wolf is there, too, but he doesn’t dare touch you and you want to cry, because you can’t move your hands and you can’t feel your hands and he’s there, there, there.

Your father says your name in a whisper, like he can’t believe you’re here, and he touches your face and your neck and you think he’s crying, yeah, he’s totally crying, and all you want to say is dad, dad, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry but you’ve forgotten how to, you’ve forgotten how to turn the air at the back of your throat into sounds, and your tongue can’t quite curl around the words—

You go under, and when you come back up, it’s three days later and you’re on fire. Your voice is raspy when you murmur names and apologies, a jumbled mess of tears and heaves and I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. When your wolf kisses your forehead, you sigh, content, and settle back into the pillows while he takes your pain, black veins on his arms like streams through the forest he probably hasn’t seen since you were taken.

You cry, say I couldn’t get the fire, I wanted to burn them, I wanted to burn them, Derek, please, I need to burn them but he looks at you mournfully, shakes his head, says I burned them for you; and then: The fire is gone, Stiles. It’s not coming back.

You lost the spark. They took you, held you for two weeks and beat the magic right out of you. They bled you dry; no trace of power left in your veins. You tremble. If the fire is gone, you ask, then why do I still feel like I’m burning?

I don’t know, he says, maybe it’s just burning out, like a fever.

And every time you sob there’s another scar, another howl, another song left unsung. With every sigh a part of you dies. You think about un-being a person. About losing. You ask your wolf to leave, but he refuses.

In some way, you’re grateful he does.

When you’re home, you get rid of all the mirrors. Your reflection sickeningly pale and disappointing when you catch yourself standing in front of one and you can’t look at yourself anymore, can you? Because you’re not who you thought you were—who you thought you could be, if you tried hard enough.

You hope one day you’ll be able to look at yourself and not see something broken anymore, not feel the ice around your heart clench in memory of the dragon, but you know it won’t be anytime soon. Your wolf looks hesitant when you put them in boxes, but he doesn’t say anything—he just takes your hand.

~

It’s the fourth day you’ve woken up screaming and you’re kissing him, you’re kissing him—you’re holding his hand and counting his fingers while you kiss him, because this is the only thing that can calm you down. You wonder when he’s going to leave, when he’s going to grow tired of your trembling. Boy, you want to be allowed to keep him, don’t you? You’re just afraid you can’t give him what he needs.

You know he loves you, even without fire, but you had the chance to be dragon and they took it from you with so much force you’re still feeling the aftershocks with every breath you take. You scramble into his lap, grinding into him like it’s the last thing you’ll do and this is a new kind of fire, this is something else, a slow-burn, a small light getting coaxed out of you, like the first time you looked at the candle and it lit.

When he comes, you sigh contently, sagging down against him while he takes you in his hand and tugs, slowly, slowly, making you arch your back and mumble and plead, a soft Derek, Derek, please, I need toI wanna, I wanna

—you come, and you moan, and he kisses you quiet and catches the stickiness in his hand, making you lick it up, lick it up and you do so, curling into him and falling back asleep and you think yeah, I really want to be allowed to keep you.

~

You’re too thin, too fragile, skin like paper and if someone pushes too hard, you’ll tear and everything will pour out of you before you get the chance to stop it. You clench and unclench your fists in the shower, trying not to look at anything that might show you how bad you’re looking.

Never hungry anymore, are you, skeleton-boy?

You turn the water hotter than you can bear, skin red and prickling, it hurts, hurts, hurts, hurts—

—your wolf comes in, says he smelled pain, smelled desperation, smelled misery.

You say: Don’t look at me, don’t look at me.

He says: How can you do this to yourself?

Sometimes you forget there is no such thing as freedom.

Later, when your nails cut into your skin with so much force it draws blood, he presses his lips against your ear and whispers a broken please don’t do that. The red looks good on your skin, like art, and feels even better, like all the terror crawling beneath your skin has a way to get out, now. You say you’re sorry, but you’re not—you’re happy; you’re relieved; you’re so much better now.

~

The candle has burnt out, but you’re all void of fire and there is no one else to light it. Scott came by, but you told him to leave—it’s so easy to blame others, isn’t it, boy? If they’d saved you sooner, you wouldn’t have trouble using your hands. If they’d saved you sooner, you would be able to sleep at night. If they’d saved you sooner, you would’ve still had the fire.

Your wolf stays, always, even on full moons, even though you tell him to go; his whole body shakes when you touch him. You ask him if it hurts.

Burns, he says; you don’t feel anything, and you don’t see anything on his skin, and thinking about fire makes you want to puke. The bathroom is the only room still tainted by mirrors, and when you enter it, you look at your face until you don’t recognise yourself.

You’re far away from your body when the pain hits. Maybe it’s burning out, Derek had said when you asked about it, like a fever. The fire is remapping your insides. Burning up all the veins and regrowing them, turning your bones to ash. When you close your eyes, the universe explodes, all the planets and constellations falling apart behind your eyelids. You don’t know what’s happening, don’t know if this means it’s coming back or being burned out of your body forever. A cleanse or a return; the rebirth or the final death.

So you wait.

~

You’re still waiting. The universe has sealed itself shut behind your eyes, but there is no rumble of fire in your fingertips. You have lost track of time—the world has ended and the world has begun again, and you are still waiting. There is nowhere left to run. There is nowhere left to run. Your wolf says run to me, then—I want to help. I will always be here to help. But that’s the point, isn’t? He will always be there to help. So you tell him. Your wolf is hurt, but he does not show. He never will.

~

It’s months later and he’s still there to help. You never ask him to, but he’s there, just in case, like a computer on stand-by, always standing on the sidelines of your messed-up life, a net waiting to catch, a hand always there to steady you when you feel like stumbling.

It has gotten unnerving, and your wolf has worn down more and more, like he’s getting tired of it too, of standing on the sidelines, of being the everlasting hope that keeps you upright.

Why don’t you just fucking leave, you scream, during a fight, when you collapse and draw blood and close your eyes until you don’t feel like you’re going to cry and he’s there, he’s always there, he won’t ever not be there—it’s what you want to do, isn’t it? It’s a lie. You know it’s a lie. You’re tired of my shit, so why don’t you just fucking leave, just go, Derek, just go! No lies. You want him to scream, to push you against the wall, to stop treating you like you’re going to break. You want him to yell at you.

I love you, is all he says. Reaching out but not touching. We’ll work this out, Stiles, I promise.

You close your eyes. Easy for you to say. You clench your hands into fists ready to crumble the remnants of your life. You didn’t lose the fire.

No, Derek agrees. You open your eyes at the tone. But I almost lost you.

You exhale, and everything falls into place.

~

Derek has been around death too long; he knows what it smells like, what it tastes like, what it feels like slipping through his finger. He carries it around in memories of his family, in the ashes still sticking to his skin, guilt buried six years down and six feet deep. You know he’s lost too much, too fast, too soon, and you’re not one of those things, but you are. He might not have lost you, but it was close enough.

You lay in bed with him and say nothing but his name. He has stopped saying yes and what? about an hour ago, and you only murmur it occasionally, but you kiss his chest and he has a hand in your hair that feels safe. His other hand has your wrist and bends it—it hurts, but it’s therapy, and Derek is always there to make sure you do your therapy; even post-coitus with lovebites blooming all over your neck and shoulders. Hurts, you hiss, and Derek kisses the top of your head and hums, stopping his ministrations for a second to leech the pain from your trembling hands.

You know I’m actually not supposed to do that, he tells you. The doctor said the pain is good. You have to go through it. You close your eyes, say yes, I know quite reluctantly, clench and unclench your hands and press your lips against his chest once more before murmuring okay, go on, I can take it.

So Derek goes on, and it hurts, and you might not have fire but you have him, and he is all these flames pressed into one person, and yet he’s not a burnt out shell.

He’s the sun.