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A Heart is a Heavy Burden

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All of this is Lydia's fault. All of it. If she hadn't insisted that Stiles leave the hat shop and trek to Beacon Hills proper to celebrate whatever trumped up victory the King felt like celebrating this time, none of this would have happened. Of course, Stiles’s life would have been bland and boring and not much fun at all. But that’s not what Stiles is focusing on right now. Right now it’s all about the blame. And the blame? It totally belongs to Lydia.

*

The morning Stiles's life changes isn’t gloomy or foreboding at all. Oh no. Far from it. The sun is shining, birds are singing, and Lydia Martin is on a mission.

Her pretty, strawberry blonde hair is done up in curls and the mini-hat Stiles made just for her pinned on top at a jaunty angle. Her walking outfit is the finest to be seen and her boots have twenty brass buttons running up the side. There is a fan in one of her delicate hands, a filmy shawl around her shoulders, and a look in her eye that tells Stiles she is up to no good.

“I’m busy, come back later,” he says when she marches her way into his workroom, boots clicking against his hardwood floors.

“Not today, you’re not,” she tells him, the fingers of her free hand closing around his bicep. “Today you are escorting me out into the town. I hear the new buns at Cesari's are to die for and you are taking me to get one. Then you are going to walk with me along the water’s edge while I eat it. You are going to buy me a flag and a cool glass of lemonade that I am going to sip at while we celebrate the bravery of our troops with all the other good citizens of Beacon Hills.”

Stiles makes a face at her because really now. He lets out a sigh and shakes his head. Lydia had decided about a week ago that Stiles was getting a little too chummy with his merchandise and had been harping on him about getting out more ever since. Today’s variant on the common theme is apparently this plan of hers to get him out in the streets, waving flags and cheering at airships floated by.

Stiles didn't want to be out in the street, waving a flag or otherwise. Stiles didn’t want to leave his hat shop at all. His hat shop is his happy place, the one spot in all of Beacon Hills that is his and his alone. He could sit for hours among his hats, chatting amicably at them while deciding which trim went with what, weaving endless stories about their possible futures as easily as he weaves ribbon through lace.

But what Stiles wants doesn’t really matter right now because Lydia is a force of nature, and Stiles knows better than to stand in her way. If she wanted this day trip bad enough to get all gussied up for it, this day trip had better happen. Or else. And since Stiles has even less of a desire to deal with Lydia’s brand of or else than he does to leave his precious shop, it is best to just smile and accept his fate.

So Stiles ties off a knot, cuts the thread, and gives the hat in his hands a smile. “You’re a fine one, alright,” he praises it. “Any man would stand proud with you on his head.”

He sets it aside with a pat, then tidies up his sewing box and assorted paraphernalia. When that is done, he looks around his workroom and sighs.

“Must I go?” he ask, though he already knows what the answer is.

She nods, smiling at him brightly, and Stiles tries to respond in kind, he really does, but he's pretty sure he fails, seeing as how Lydia's smile falters and she lets out a sigh.

"Oh Stiles," she says, her voice fondly exasperated. "Come along. Out into the sun with you." Then she's lacing her fingers with his and tugging him out of the shop, tapping her foot impatiently as she waits for him to lock up.

*

"Why are we even at war again?" Stiles asks her, his flag dangling limply from his hand.

Lydia shrugs, her eyes on the parade taking place in the sky. "The missing Prince, I think. Or the new tax on pistachios. I'm not really sure. But that's not the point, Stiles. The point is that you are wasting away in that silly little shop of yours. Don't you want to do more with your life? I mean, honestly. Even Scott has found a reasonable trade. Though what Wizard Deaton is thinking, taking him on as his apprentice, is beyond me."

"I like 'that silly little shop' of mine, Lydia. I like it a lot. And I don't like hearing you belittle it. You know that."

Lydia sighs. "What I know is that your mother started that shop and loved it with all her heart, and when she died your father took it over because he loved her too much to let her dreams end with her. But as soon as you showed the least amount of promise, he turned the whole thing over to you and scampered off to reclaim his position as Sheriff of Beacon Hills and you've been dutifully tending to things on the homefront ever since without one thought about what you would actually want to do with your life. You deserve more than that, Stiles. You know you do."

Stiles makes a disgruntled noise. "There's nothing wrong with owning a hat shop. It's a perfectly respectable trade."

"Well, of course it is." Lydia tosses her hands up, her flag fluttering wildly as it arcs through the air. "No one is saying it's not. But is it what you wanted for your life? Can you honestly say that you aren't bored out of your mind?"

Stiles opens his mouth, then shuts it, then opens it again. "That's not the point," he says sulkily.

Lydia twines her arm through his, leaning her head on his shoulder. "I kind of think that it is," she says softly, "but I'm not going to push you any more about it today."

Stiles lets his cheek rest against the top of her hair, ignoring the way the feathers on her mini-hat tickle his nose. "I know you aren't trying to be malicious about it, Lydia," he tells her. "I know you only have my best interests at heart, but I'm not like you. I don't crave adventure. My life is just fine as it is and if I end up puttering around my hat shop until I'm old and grey, well, that's alright by me."

Lydia snorts and tilts her head so that she can peer up at him, her eyes mischievous. She opens her mouth, but whatever she was going to say is lost when Allison Argent bustles up to them.

"There you are!" She latches onto Lydia. "Stiles, I hope you don't mind, but there is something that I absolutely must show Lydia."

"Not a bother at all," Stiles reassures her, giving her a bright smile. "You are actually doing me a favor, taking her off to menace someone else."

Lydia gives him a dark look, but Allison laughs, her pretty eyes dancing. "Tell me again why I'm letting your best friend court me instead of you?" she asks

Stiles lifts a shoulder. "Probably something to do with the fact that he's mad about you and the only thing I'm interested in is hats."

Allison laughs again and Lydia's dark look gets darker still. "I'm going to do something about that,” Lydia promises him. "Just you wait and see."

Stiles doesn't reply, just gives her a wry look and watches as Allison whisks her away, leaving Stiles on his own. Which is a blessing, really, because being on his own means that Stiles is free to vacate the premises. He shoves his hands into his pockets and whistles to himself as he ambles away from the docks.

He doesn't whistle for long, though. Throngs of people are pushing past him, hurrying down towards the spectacle on the beach, and Stiles is having a hard time making any sort of forward progress. He darts into an alleyway, hoping to find a people free zone, but runs slap into a handful of bored looking soldiers.

"What do we have here?" one of them asks, grinning as he leans forward, weight resting on his musket.

Stiles gives an awkward laugh. "Sorry to have bothered you, gentlemen. Just got a little turned around. I'll be on my way now." He pivots, but is prevented from making good on his promise by a rough hand on his arm.

"Stay awhile," the soldier says. His friends smirk at each other, nudging one another with elbows.

"I really can't," Stiles tells him, trying unsuccessfully to break free of the man's hold. "I've got a pressing engagement clear on the other side of town."

The soldier opens his mouth, but snaps it shut again, his eyes going wide. His hand drops away and his face pales as he quickly takes a step back. "Wizard Hale," he mumbles, which makes no sense at all.

"Um, nope," Stiles corrects him. "Stiles Stilinski. Of the Beacon Hills Stilinskis. Nothing Hale related about me at all."

"He was referring to me, actually," a voice growls in Stiles’s ear.

Stiles jumps, flailing as he spins around. The man behind him is tall, elegantly rugged, and definitely the brooding kind. He's dressed in knee high boots, dark, skin-tight trousers, a grey linen shirt and a long leather jacket that flairs out when he moves. It's the perfect darkly handsome wizard outfit, like he picked it out special from the darkly handsome wizard catalog. He's even got a darkly handsome haircut: all silky black and sex tousled, rising in peaks and spikes to perfectly frame his face. Dear god. His face. No wonder everyone is always going on about Wizard Hale stealing hearts. Though Stiles bets he doesn't have to steal them at all. No, Hale probably just has to glower a bit and hearts are just tossed at his feet for him to take or leave at will.

“Come on, then,” Hale says, his eyebrows doing something fascinating.

Stiles blinks at him, mouth dropping open as Stiles stares. It’s probably not a good look for him, but then, not much is. And, besides, if anyone deserved a little mouth opened staring, it’s Hale with his ruggedly handsome features and day old stubble and all those muscles and wow. “Huh?”

Hale rolls his eyes, takes a step forward and loops an arm over Stiles’s shoulder. “It’s not much of a rescue if I leave you where I found you, now, is it?”

“Is that what this is? A rescue?” Stiles asks, stumbling a bit at the warm weight of Hale’s arm.

Hale makes a low sound, almost like a growl, his arm tightening like a band. Stiles gulps, remembering that this is not just any darkly handsome wizard. This is Wizard Hale. A dark and dangerous wizard indeed, with a creepy moving castle and a rumored habit of eating the hearts of nubile young things like Stiles for breakfast.

“Definitely a rescue,” Stiles babbles. “What else could it be? So yeah, lets get on with it. The rescuing, that is. Not the heart stealing. Because I happen to like my heart where it is, thank you very much. And, besides, a darkly handsome wizard such as yourself can do much, much better than my plain, boring, old heart.”

Hale makes a huffing sound, almost like a laugh, but his expression is stern when Stiles dares to peep up at him, eyebrows pulled low on his brow.

“So, um, I was actually going back home,” Stiles says, when they have moved far enough along not to be in any danger of being overheard. “Which is, uh, back up the hill? In the opposite direction from where you are headed.”

Hale does that growling thing again and Stiles bites at his lip, because really he just wants to go home and take a bath and forget that this day ever happened. But instead he’s being lead to who knows where by a wizard with a particularly unsavory reputation. Not exactly what Stiles would consider a good thing.

“I mean, I’m really very grateful to you and all for the saving that occurred. I really wasn’t happy with where that whole creepy soldier situation was going, but, um, a bath. That’s a thing that I would like to have happen. Followed quickly by a pot of tea, a crunchy apple, some snuggly jim-jams and me rediscovering the wonder that is my bed.”

He pauses to let Hale respond, but no response is forthcoming. Stiles sighs. “I guess I can arrange that plan to, you know, include walking. Lots and lots of walking. In the wrong direction. Because that’s always a fun thing to do.”

“We’re being followed,” Hale says and Stiles feels his skin tighten.

“What?” he yelps, eyes darting about.

He can practically feel Hale’s eyes rolling as he say, “Don’t look.”

“Kind of hard not to look,” Stiles tells him, “when you know that you are being followed. Is it those soldiers? Because I wouldn’t have thought that they had the nerve. I mean, did you see their faces when you stepped out of the shadows? By the way, what were you doing in those shadows? I mean, it was very convenient for me and all, so I’m not complaining, but shadows in alley ways aren’t exactly what you would call a happening spot.”

“Do you never shut up?”

Stiles scowls. “I can shut up. I shut up all the time. In fact, I’m going to shut up right now. This is me, shutting up.”

“Really? Because it sounds to me like you talking.”

Stiles scrunches his face at that and fights the urge to stick out his tongue. He glances very subtly to one side and then the other.

Hale huffs again. “I thought I told you not to look?” His voice is a soft whisper in Stiles ear.

“I’m not looking,” Stiles protests, even as he attempts to look some more.

“You are most definitely looking. But it’s all moot now. At this point we have little option but to draw attention to ourselves. So I guess it doesn't matter that you've been doing that all along."

"Hey!" Stiles protests because, really, he didn't ask to be rescued or anything. He could have gotten himself out of that spot. Probably. Most likely. If he ran like hell, screaming his head off the whole way.

Hale doesn't reply, just sort of gestures with one hand and they are suddenly rising up into the air.

"Oh lord," Stiles bites down hard on his lower lip, eyes going wide as he frantically clutches at Hale's side. It's not dignified, but who cares about dignity went they're floating in the air?

"Just keep walking. Come on, you can do this," Hale says, his gruff voice oddly reassuring. "One foot in front of the other, Stiles. You can even talk to me, if it makes you feel better."

Stiles frowns. "Don't go doing me any favors."

"Don't worry, I won't."

Stiles narrows his eyes and opens his mouth, but then remembers that he's currently walking on air, thanks to the dastardly wizard at his side, and should probably refrain from antagonizing said wizard until his feet are back on the ground again. He snaps his mouth shut, determined not to be the one to break the silence between them. But silence and Stiles are not friends, so it's not very long before Stiles is babbling again.

"So, what brings you to town? Out seeing the sights? Or were you just in the mood for a little shadow lurking? We've got some pretty nice shadows, here in Beacon Hills. Some of the best in the kingdom, if you don't mind me saying." He glances over at Hale, trying to gage his reaction. All Stiles learns is that Hale still manages to pull off attractive, even with a constipated look on his face. "Fruits and veggies," Stiles tells him. "Essential to all diets. Even the diets of scary wizards like yourself."

"Is shutting your mouth physically painful for you?" Hale asks, his tone flat. "Because I'm sure I could come up with something to fix that."

"Shutting up! Right now. Buttoning my lip. And throwing away the key. Except that should be locking my lip, since buttons don't have keys and--" Hale lets out one of those growls of his and Stiles chokes on nothing. "Right," he says, once he's managed to clear his throat. "Shutting up."

Hale doesn't reply, of course he doesn't, just keeps walking them wherever they are going. Stiles wants to comment on how amazing the view is from up here, on how the people look like miniatures and how wide the world is, spread out below them, but something tells him that Hale wouldn't appreciate his comments, so he keeps them to himself. He doesn't even say a thing when he notices that they are angling down, coming closer to the roof line, though he can't help the excited little exclamation he makes when he realizes where they are.

"Oh! That's my very own shop. I've never been happier to see it."

Hale makes a pleased sort of sound and when Stiles looks at him, he can see a hint of a smile playing at the wizard's lips. Figures he's happy to be rid of Stiles. Not that Stiles can blame him. Not when Stiles is pretty much equally happy to be rid of the wizard.

“Well, that was something,” Stiles says when Hale deposits him neatly on his balcony. “Not every day a man gets the opportunity to walk on air.”

Hale snorts. “What you need to do is walk yourself inside before our company arrives.”

“Our company? Oh! The people following us. But, I mean, the air. How did they track us if we were all up, up and away?”

“Don’t trouble yourself with it, boy.” Hale’s voice is dismissive. “It’s not you they are interested in.” Then he pushing back from the balcony, dropping drop to the street in a flutter of leather jacket.

“Show off,” Stiles shouts after him.

Hale doesn’t respond, but then, Stiles didn’t expect him to.

*

The knock on the door comes when Stiles is just about ready to drop into bed. He ignores it, because anyone with eyes can tell that they are closed. Anyone with eyes except whoever it happens to be out front, that is, since the knocking doesn’t stop. Instead it grows louder, until Stiles can’t ignore it any more.

He wraps a dressing gown around himself and stomps down the stairs, muttering angrily all the while. Stiles barely opens the door a crack, just far enough to peer out into the street.

“I’m sorry, we’re closed,” he says, his voice expressing clearly how sorry he isn’t.

The woman on the stoop gives him a smile that doesn’t reach her eyes. “Not for me, you’re not.”

Stiles gives her a tight smile in response. “I hate to contradict a patron, but I think you’ll find that yes, even for you, we are.” He goes to shut the door, but she makes a flicking motion and instead of shutting, the door flies all the way open. Stiles jumps back, barely avoiding getting smacked by his own front door. “Hey, would you look at that,” Stiles grumbles as his visitor saunters past him, “looks like we aren’t closed after all.”

His guest sneers her way around his shop, face scrunched up like she smells something bad. She pauses in front of a display of pink hats, fingering the brim of a delicate ice pink bonnet meant to tie under the chin with a bow

Stiles lets out a snort. “Isn’t that hat a little young for you?” he asks, because no one over the age of sixteen could possibly pull of one of his sweet and simpering numbers. "How about this one?" he suggests, picking up one of the hats he privately thinks of as a dark and dangerous. "Black velvet trimmed with raven feathers and a fascinator. Much more in keeping with your whole..." He waves a hand to indicate the tight leather outfit, overdone makeup and bottle brightened curls.

“Did you just call me old?” the woman asks, her voice brittle and her eyes all but flashing.

“Um, no?” Stiles gives her a half smile. “Maybe? Not intentionally, anyway. I mean, look at that hat. It’s meant for someone who hasn’t learned how to properly bat her eyelashes yet. And you, well.” He shrugs.

Her eyes narrow. “What are you insinuating?”

“I’m not insinuating anything,” Stiles protests. “Just a stating facts. That hat would look terrible on you. I refuse to sell it to you. It would, at best, make you look old and desperate. If you were really unlucky, it would push you right into the creepy zone. Like one of those old women who collect dolls made with real human hair.” Stiles shudders, thinking about it. “What sort of person would I be if I let you walk out of here with an unflattering purchase? The kind that quickly finds himself out of the hat selling business.” Stiles gives her his best smile, which she ignores. “Here, try this on. Tell me it isn’t much more suited to you.” He holds out the dark and dangerous in what he hopes is a tempting manner.

The woman ignores it, but she also stops grubbing up the sweet and simpering hat, too, which Stiles is going to count as a win. "You're very brave," she says, smiling in a way that makes Stiles's skin crawl. "Not many people would be willing to insult the Witch of the Waste to her face. Even less would be able to tell her she looks old and refuse to sell her a tacky little hat. What a brave thing you are. No wonder he was intrigued by you."

Stiles swallows back panic. “The Witch of the Waste?” he stutters. “I had no idea. Although, really, now I’m even more convinced that you shouldn’t have that hat. Or any of my hats, actually. None of them would suit your witchiness.”

“Suit my witchiness?” the Witch of the Waste repeats, her tone as cold and flat as her eyes.

"Um." Stiles’s words seem to have deserted him, not that he can blame them. He's already used them to insult one of the most powerful-- and evil, if the rumors are to believed-- people in the world. He called her old and desperate and creepy. So yeah. Already used up his words, thanks. Stiles swallows, hard. "Um," he says again, because she's just staring at him, with that bland, disinterested look on her face and those dead, dead eyes and oh god.

"What an interesting, interesting boy you are," she murmurs. "Far too interesting and pretty to be left to run loose. Who knows what sort of scrapes you might get into, how many rescues you might need? Oh, no. That certainly can’t be allowed to happen." Her hand flies up, filling the air with purple dust. Stiles coughs and tries to back away, but the world is spinning, the ground shifting beneath his feet. "The best thing about that curse is that you can't tell anyone about it."

Stiles hears a loud whooshing sound, and then everything fades to black.

Chapter Text

Stiles wakes slowly, his body aching all over. He goes to sit up and slumps back down with a yelp. "My back," he complains, digging the knuckles of his right hand into the small of it to try to relieve some of the pain.

He groans as he pushes himself to sitting, then slowly climbs to his feet, the movement hurting in unexpected ways. "What's wrong with me? Why do I sound like death and feel like I'm a hundred years old?"

Stiles glances down at himself and doesn't understand what his eyes are telling him. "What?" he says blankly, trying to reconcile the way his trousers seem to be hanging off his frame, the bow of his legs and the gnarled look of his hands.

"No, oh no."

He rushes towards the mirror, or at least tries to, but his body doesn't respond properly, and his "rush” is more of an ungainly hobble. He's out of breath by the time he reaches it, his heart beating far too fast in relation to the effort expended. But that's nothing compared to what happens when he finally catches sight of himself.

Stiles makes a helpless sound as he stares at the unfamiliar face staring horrified back at him. Old. So old. Wizened, even. Wrinkles bracket his mouth and line his brow. His cheekbones are sharp, skin loose, almost baggy, in the gaunt hollows below. And his eyes. Sunken into his skull with unflattering pouches under them. His hands come up, fingers pressing into the sagging flesh. Stiles lets out a sharp, hurt sound as he takes in, once again, mass of wrinkles and age spots his hands have become.

"This isn't real," he tells his reflection. "This is a bad dream brought on by too much sun and excitement. I'm asleep in my bed and any moment now I'm going to wake up and laugh at myself sick with relief."

But he doesn't wake up, no matter how many time he slaps himself.

*

Stiles keeps the hood of his cloak pulled tight around his face as he scuttles through the streets, no doubt looking like ten times more suspicious a character than if he walked normally. But Stiles can't bare the thought of anyone seeing him like this, so he keeps to the shadows, slinking along as best he can until he reaches his destination.

He knocks furtively at the door, eyes darting around, and lets out an aggrieved sigh when no one answers. He knocks again, a little louder this time, and is rewarded by a dour faced Lydia cracking open the door. Her expression shifts from annoyed to confused and she pulls the door fully open.

"Yes, grandpa?" she asks, her voice far more respectful than Stiles has ever heard it.

"Lydia,'' he hisses, "it's me, Stiles."

She gives him an incredulous look. "I'm sorry--" she starts, but Stiles cuts her off with an impatient jerk of the head.

"When we were ten you convinced me that we should build a set of wing and try to fly. I ended up with a broken leg and your mother made you learn tatting as punishment. You had to turn over all your lace to my parents to make up for the loss of my assistance in the shop. You didn't speak to me for three months because of it, which I still maintain was grossly unfair, since the whole thing was your idea in the first place. Convinced it's me yet?"

Lydia gives him a horrified look. "What happened to you?"

Stiles opens his mouth to tell, but nothing comes out. He tries again with the same result. The third time he opens his mouth, Lydia stops him with a held up finger.

"Not able to talk about the curse?"

He nods angrily. "And all because I wouldn't sell her a hat. A hat that would have been perfectly miserable with her."

Lydia lets out a disbelieving snort. "A disgruntled customer did this to you?" Stiles lifts a shoulder in acknowledgement. "Did she at least give you the terms for how to break the curse?"

Stiles shakes his head. "All she did was go on and on about how interesting and pretty I was and how I couldn't be left running loose because I might need rescuing or something."

"Rescuing?" Lydia's eyes narrow. "Why would you need rescuing?"

"How should I know?" Stiles snaps back. "The Witch of the Waste is just crazy, alright? Who knows why she does anything?"

"Stiles!" Lydia's eyebrows shoot up and her face takes on a pinched look. "Get in here," she tugs him into the house and shuts the door firmly behind him. "You should know better than to mention the Witch of the Waste in public," she says in a harsh, almost panicked voice.

Stiles gives her a flat look. "What more can she do to me? She's already made me a hundred years old. I should have just sold her that stupid hat."

Lydia's expression goes thoughtful. "Tell me everything she said to you," she demands and Stiles readily obeys because Lydia is the smartest person he knows and if anyone can get him out of this predicament, it's her.

He takes a steadying breath when he finishes, staring up at Lydia with hope surging through him. She’ll know what to do. She always knows what to do. Except this isn’t like the time he came to her with a broken hat form and a pleading expression. Or the time Didi tried courting him and he needed an out that wouldn’t crush the poor girl’s heart. Or any of the hundreds of other times Stiles has come to Lydia in a scrape. Because this time she’s got a conflicted look on her face, her lower lip caught between her teeth, and her hands bunched in fabric of her skirt.

“He,” she says slowly.

“Huh?”

Lydia’s features tighten. “She said ‘he.’ Who is ‘he,’ Stiles?”

Stiles squinches his face up. “Well,” he stretches the word out far longer than it’s meant to be stretched. “Well, it’s possible she meant Wizard Hale, who just happened to, uh, come to my aid, if you will, on the way home from the our outing yesterday.”

“Stiles!” Lydia snaps. “You had a run in with Wizard Hale and you didn’t think you should mention that at all?”

“Oh, sorry for not telling you. I was kind of freaking out about being--” his words cut off in a tangled yelp and he gestured angrily at his body.

Lydia makes an exasperated noise. “You idiot,” she says, only half fondly. “Everyone knows the Witch of the Waste is obsessed with Wizard Hale. They’re like a love story gone wrong or something.” Lydia sighs. “She wants his heart for some reason. So just,” she lifts a shoulder, “get it for her and I bet she’ll break the curse.”

Stiles gives her a disgusted look. “Be serious.”

“I am.” Lydia doesn’t bat an eye.

Stiles snorts. “Right. Well. I’m just going to be off now.”

“Stiles!” Lydia reaches out, catching hold of his sleeve. “Think about it, alright? If the Witch of the Waste cursed you, then the Wizard Hale is going to be your best bet for breaking it.”

“I would never give anyone’s heart over to that overblown hag,” Stiles snaps. “Let alone the heart of someone who got me out of a fix. Wizard Hale may have a crap reputation, but he seemed nice enough yesterday. Sure, he was a little surly and not very socially apt, but not everyone can be a social butterfly. And nothing he did warranted the sort of pain and misery he would be subjected to if the Witch of the Waste got her grubby hands on his heart.”

Lydia presses her lips together, but nods like she understands. “Fine. Don’t go after his heart. But you should still try and find that castle of his. Wizard Hale is the most powerful wizard in the kingdom. Surely there’s something he can do about...” She waves a hand in Stiles direction.

Stiles shoulders slump. “Do you really think that is the best solution for my, uh, problem?”

Lydia nods. “I’ll take care of things at your hat shop while you’re gone, okay? Send me a letter when you get settled. I promise to keep an eye out on my end, just in case something promising crops up.”

“Right. Will do. I’m just going to, what? March out into the hills and wander around in circles hoping that Hale’s mysterious moving castle suddenly appears and takes me in?”

Lydia rolls her eyes. “Please. You’ll take a carriage to his last known location and start hunting from there.”

Stiles grumbles to himself, but can’t find a flaw in her logic. “I guess I’d better head home and start packing,” he says.

Lydia reaches out, catching one of his gnarled out hands in hers. “You’ll be fine, Stiles,” she tells him, her eyes soft. “You always are.”

“Sure I will,” he replies, not even bothering with a smile.

*

It isn’t arduous to find out where Hale’s castle was currently residing. All Stiles has to do is borrow the telescope from the shop down the street and spend an hour gazing up at the hills. Soon enough he has visual confirmation and a direction to point himself in. He hefts a sack over one shoulder, heads down into the village proper, and books himself a one-way ride up into the woods above Beacon Hills. Once he's there, however, it rapidly becomes clear that wandering around and hoping for the best is pretty much going to be his modus operandi for the foreseeable future.

Stiles grumbles to himself, because that's what he's good at, and sets to wandering at as fast a pace as he can manage. Thing is, though, he's sort of really, really old. And being really, really old means that “as fast a pace as he can manage” roughly translates into the rate of molasses moves in winter time. Seriously. Snails are passing him by. And his hip aches. And his knees sort of wobble every time he takes a step. And he's gasping as if he's been running at a breakneck speed for an hour instead of hobbling up a hill for less than twenty minutes.

"Being old is terrible," he pants. "How come no one ever told me how terrible it is?" He looks up at the clear sky and scowls. "Why is it so sunny? The sun hurts my eyes. I need shade. Or a good hat. Why don’t I have a hat? I’m a hatter. I ought to have a hat. And, speaking of things there ought to be, why isn’t there a nice creek to refresh my water supply with? Or a stick? A proper walking stick. Because my back is killing me right now and maybe if I had a proper walking stick..." He trails off because he's not really sure what, exactly, having a walking stick would do for him except that he's seen lots of elderly folk with them and it stands to reason that they have them for a purpose other than, you know, it being the fashionable thing to do.

"A stick," he repeats, because why not? There's no one around to hear. And even if there was, they wouldn't think anything of it. He's old, after all, and old people are known for being a bit batty.

He marches along, muttering to himself, eyes peeled for signs that a castle has recently passed by, but all he sees are trees and trees and more trees. And, on occasion, the hindquarters of some animal or another. Being outdoorsy was never really Stiles's thing, what with the future in the hat making industry all neatly marked out for him, but still, he enjoys himself. Well, enjoys himself as much as a suddenly ninety-year-old who is hiking uphill in the woods can, anyway.

After about two hours, though, Stiles has had about as much fun as he can handle. So he scouts himself out a nice, flat rock to have lunch on and then rests a bit in the sun after. Stiles is just about to pack up and start on again when he sees a nice looking branch sticking out of a nearby bush.

"That's the ticket," he crows, doing a bit of a shuffle step as he makes his way over to it. Stiles rolls back his sleeves, rubs his hands together and then tugs. Nothing happens. He braces his foot against a convenient rock, wraps his hands firmly around the branch, and tries again. The bush shakes a bit, but the branch doesn't slip free.

"Come on!" Stiles jiggles the branch up and down, arms straining as he huffs and puffs. "Stupid stuck branch. What use are you in that bush? No use at all. Come free from there, you'll be much, much happier if you do."

He gives it another firm shake and is rewarded by it finally flying free. Well, "rewarded" is one word for it. Other people might use other words to describe what happens when the branch finally comes free, flipping high up into the air and knocking Stiles off his feet. Still, a result is a result, right?

“Being old is pants,” Stiles groans, righting himself again. He glances over at where he thinks the branch ended up and his jaw falls open. "You're not a walking stick," he says somewhat stupidly. "You're a scarecrow. A very fine one, actually, with a nice tail coat and top hat and a head carved out of a turnip. Which is a fine use for a turnip, if you ask me. Anything is a fine use for a turnip, really, other than as a food source. I much prefer potatoes, if you have to have a root vegetable in your diet. Well, alright, potatoes aren't exactly root vegetables. They are modified plant stems. But who really cares about all that? Not me. And certainly not you. Because you are a scarecrow. Which is lovely for you, I'm sure, but not what I need at all." Stiles lets out a sigh and kicks at the leaf mold at his feet. "What I need is a walking stick. Why couldn't you have been a walking stick?"

The scarecrow bounces of it’s own volition and Stiles takes a quick step back. "Holy god, you're enchanted. Brilliant. Just what I had hoped for. A creepily enchanted bouncing scarecrow with a turnip for a head. My life, I ask you."

The scarecrow bounces in a neat circle around him, which Stiles tries not to find sinister, then hops off to who knows where, taking whatever hopes Stiles had of finding a suitable walking stick with him.

"Well, how do you like that?" Stiles makes a face at its rapidly retreating back. "Not even a thank you. What is the world coming to these days?" He shakes his head resignedly as he makes his way over to the rock he had picnicked on. Stiles gathers his belongings slowly, because slowly seems to be his new style, and then starts back up the hill, grumbling about life in general and age in specific as he does.

*

Stiles doesn’t really start to worry until the sun starts sinking down, because worrying isn’t really something Stiles tends to let himself do. He decided a long time about that if he let himself worry about all the things worth worrying about, he would worry himself into an early grave. Which... well. With the way things are going, is even more of a genuine concern than it may have previously seemed to be.

But now it is definitely getting dark and the wind is starting to pick up and Stiles is worried. Very worried. Because no one wants to spend the night out in the woods less than a suddenly-ninety-year-old man with zero outdoorsy skills.

Stiles keeps marching along, for lack of anything better to do, while he chews on his lip and worries for all he is worth. "Why did I think I needed a walking stick?" he asks the world in general. "What I clearly needed was a tent of some sort. And a sleeping bag. And maybe some pots and a few pans. What was I thinking? All I packed was a couple of spare outfits that probably won't fit me anyway and barely any food at all. Oh, and three books on sorcery which I'm sure will come in very useful when I'm starving to death." He scowls and scuffs the toe of his boot.

A gust of wind buffets him and Stiles tugs his cloak tighter. "The wind goes right through you when you're old," he complains. "Why is that?"

No one answers. Not that Stiles was expecting someone to. He hasn't seen a soul since he was dropped off this morning. Not unless you count that creepy turnip headed scarecrow, which Stiles isn't doing because thinking about that would only make him even more sour about the fact that he still hasn’t been able to find a decent walking stick. And that his arms are sore from working it out of that stupid bush. And, just to make the picture complete, he thinks that there might be a rock in his boot.

Stiles sighs to himself, hunching against the cold. "Of course. Of course. It's late and cold and I'm wandering around in the dark. With a rock in my boot. Because why not? Why not? Oh, I don't know. Maybe because of the cold. Or the dark. Or the wild animals that no doubt roam these woods looking for fools like me to make their dinner. I always knew I wasn't cut out for the adventuring lifestyle. I always knew I would end up as wolf chow if I left my cozy little shop."

There is a loud crack a short ways off, and Stiles jumps, spinning towards the sound.

"Who's there?" he asks, even though he's pretty darn sure that he's the only person for miles around. Sure enough, no one answers him. "Hello?"

There is another loud crack, closer this time, coupled with a rustling sound that does not bode well at all. Stiles feels his heart speed up.

"Fair warning," he calls out, "I'm a tough old codger if ever there was one. I'd give you indigestion and who knows what else. So yeah. Pretty sure you don't want to eat me."

The sound is closer now, a rhythmic thump, thump, thump that has Stiles glancing around in hopes of spotting something, anything he can use as a weapon. Of course, there is nothing. Not even a pine cone. Not that Stiles thought he could do much with a pine cone, but still. It would be nice to have something to throw.

Stiles sucks in a breath as the bushes directly to his right begin to shake. "This is it," he tells himself, straightening up his spine. "We who are about to d-- ack!" Stiles cuts off with a squawk, tottering backwards, clutching at his chest. "Turnip Head!"

The stupid thing just bounces closer, spinning like a top, its tattered coat flaring out in its wake.

"Are you trying to kill me?" Stiles barks out, glowering at the scarecrow with all he's got.

The scarecrow stops hopping in dizzying circles and tilts in Stiles's direction, something dangling awkwardly off of one arm. Stiles narrows his eyes at it, then lets out a whoop.

"Alright! A walking stick! What a brilliant Turnip Head you are. The very best Turnip Head there ever was!"

He takes hold of the scarecrow's hands and swinging him about in a lazy waltz, laughing and whooping all the while. Stiles dances until he's red in the face, huffing and puffing like, well, the old man he currently is.

"Just let me," he waves a hand towards a nice looking tree, which he then makes his way over to and leans up against. "This stick is just what I needed. You done good, Turnip Head. You done real good. The only way you could have done better is if you helped me find Hale and that blasted moving castle of his."

The scarecrow jerks and bobs its way into Stiles's space, forcing Stiles to back up a step. "Hey, watch it," he chides, but the silly thing keeps coming, in a way that feels very much like herding to Stiles. Probably because it is herding Stiles, back down the hill at a sharp angle from the way Stiles went up.

"What are you doing?" Stiles demands, feeling more than a little ridiculous. "Stop it, you have no idea where you are going. I have no idea where we are going. And I really need to, because otherwise I really will be wandering around in the wilderness waving a white flag and hoping to stumble on some sign of civilization."

He might as well be speaking to the wind, for all the good it does him. "Fine, fine," he grumbles, giving up on any pretense of control over the situation.

And it's a good thing he does, because ten minutes later he stumbles his way into a clearing where the hulking mass of Hale's castle is resting.

Chapter Text

"Hello?" Stiles peers around the bulk of the door. "Anyone home?"

No one answers him. Now, typically that would be Stiles's sign to high tail it out of there, but in this instance, it's actually in his favor. If no one is home, after all, no one can bar the door. He pushes further into the entryway, shutting the door behind him softly. There is a short flight of steps in front of him, which Stiles slowly climbs, his joints still sore and aching from the cold on top of the day’s exertions.

He makes his way over to the hearth in the center of the room where a fire is lit. It’s warm and bright and Stiles is drawn to it like a moth. He holds his hands out to it as his eyes dart about the room. It would be considered spacious, if not for all the clutter. The workbench is piled high with heaven knows what, the dining table is lost in a sea of dirty dishes and the mantle is covered in papers and dust. There are cobwebs fighting for space in the corners and a thick film on the windows and at least three inches of ash piled up around the hearth. Stiles lets out a snort. Apparently wizards are far too busy and important to be bothered with petty tasks like housekeeping.

"What a mess," he says to himself.

A face suddenly appears in the flames, its even features pulled into a scowl. "Who asked you?"

Stiles jumps back, yanking his hands away. "A fire demon!" he yelps.

The fire demon sneers at Stiles. "Relax," he says in a bored drawl, "there's nothing of yours I'm interested in. Cursed bits are bad for digestion, and even if they weren't, I only consume the best of the best."

Stiles rolls his eyes. "Someone has a high impression of himself."

"I am the personal fire demon of the Great and Powerful Wizard Hale," he says in a roar, puffing himself up to three times his original size until he is sporting a torso from the waist up. A very fit, defined torso, actually, with matching arms, all whipcord muscle and grace.

"You do know that you are made of fire, right?"

The fire demon gives him a sour look. "Yes," he bites out. "Your point?"

"Don't you think that's a little much? I mean, come on. Fire has no use for muscles."

"So what? I should just be flabby and old and ugly?" The words "like you" aren't said, but then they don't have to be, given the amused cast of the fire demon's features.

Stiles scowls. "I'm not exactly looking my best right now, thanks to reasons that are beyond my control, but even if I was I wouldn't be all naked and muscular and vain."

"Of course not," the fire demon agrees with a smirk. "You wouldn't have anything to be vain about."

"I don't think I like you," Stiles says, his eyes narrowing.

"I don't think I care," the fire demon shoots back. "Want to tell me why you are lingering in my domain?"

Stiles raises his eyebrows. "Last time I checked it was Hale's moving castle, not random fire demon who thinks he's all that's moving castle."

"Jackson," the fire demon tells him. "And the only reason it's not Jackson's moving castle is because Hale is a glory hound who doesn't like sharing the spotlight."

"He didn't seem like one to me," Stiles muses. "I bet that if the truth were out, we would see that Jackson's the glory hound and Hale's the poor sap stuck with him through a spate of bad luck."

Jackson lets out a crackle of a laugh. "Do you always make up stories with no basis in fact?"

Stiles nods. "You'll find that it's a specialty of mine."

Jackson crackles again. “I think I like you,” he says.

“I still don’t like you,” Stiles informs him.

“I still don’t care,” Jackson snaps back.

“Good. Just so we understand each other then.”

Jackson eyes him dubiously. “Why do we need to understand each other?” he asks as he reach for a log. He takes a bite of the end and then scowls. “Damp again. I don’t know how many times I’ve told those three idiots of Hale’s how to properly cure and dry firewood, and they still can’t get it right. What do I have to do? Sear the instructions into the ceiling?"

Stiles chortles, glancing around for a place to sit. He sees a low stool nearby and tugs it close with his walking stick. "Sounds like someone is just a tad bit high maintenance, too," he says as he settles himself down.

Jackson gives him an unamused look. "You want to talk about high maintenance? How about we have a little chat about how much energy it takes to move this hunk of junk from hither and yon at Hale's request? Or how much time I have to spend heating buckets and buckets of water for him and his moronic apprentices? And don't even get me started on how often I'm expected to sink down into almost nothing and bend my neck so that they can make over-cooked eggs and burnt bacon. And what do I ask in exchange? Nothing but a nice clean hearth and proper kindling."

“Seems to me like you were asking for properly cured firewood, not kindling, but I’m not here to argue semantics,” Stiles muses.

“Why are you here?”

Stiles opens his mouth and snarls when nothing comes out.

“Just as I thought,” Jackson says, his tone sly and his expression smug. “Cursed. By a powerful witch. Bet you want Hale to break the spell, don’t you?” Stiles nods and then scowls when Jackson laughs. “You and every other hapless fool who has gotten on the bad side of a magic wielder. Don’t bother. Haven’t you heard? Hale doesn’t have a heart. He’s not going to care what your situation is, no matter how good your case may be or how big your puppy eyes are.”

“Out with it,” Stiles says.

“Out with what?” Jackson asks far too innocently.

Stiles waves a hand. "Out with whatever plot has got your eyes so bright and your lips twisted up in that self-satisfied smirk. Give me some credit here. I may be old, but I can still spot a con a mile off."

Jackson gives him a sulky look. "It's not a con. It's a trade of services. You get me out of the scrape I'm in with Hale, and I'll get you out of yours."

"I'm not in a scrape with Hale," Stiles says, just to be cheeky.

Jackson makes a hissing noise. “Do we have an agreement or what?”

Stiles chews on his bottom lip a bit, then sighs. “We have an agreement,” he says, ignoring the way Jackson crackles.

*

A loud pounding startles Stiles into full consciousness. He jerks awkwardly, letting out an undignified yelp, which only gets yelpier when he topples off of his stool. "Thank god no one saw that," he says as he stands and brushes himself off.

“I saw," Jackson tells him.

"You don't count." The pounding starts up again, clearly coming from the front door. "You get a lot of visitors, for being camped out in the middle of nowhere," Stiles observes.

Jackson lets out a rude snort. "Shows what you know."

Stiles chooses to ignore the comment, focusing instead on the pounding. "Should I get that?"

"No. That's what the idiot apprentices are for,"Jackson says with a lazy yawn. He puffs up to what Stiles is starting to think of as his proper height and reaches for a log. He gobbles it down with far too much snapping and crackling for Stiles's comfort and then belches out smoke. Meanwhile the knocking just keeps on coming.

"No, really, it's no bother."

Stiles takes a step towards the door, but is stopped by a harsh sound from Jackson, who swells up his cheeks and bellows, "Porthaven door!" before sinking back down so low that only his hair is showing.

A door slams upstairs and then feet patter down the hall. A curly haired boy comes dashing down the stairs. "Thanks, Jackson," he says as he grabs a cloak off of the workbench and tosses it over his shoulders. He pulls up the hood and his face transforms into that of an older man, complete with bushy beard.

The boys clatters down the stairs to the entryway, spins a dial next to the door so that a bright blue swatch is showing, and then pulls open the front door, revealing a careworn looking woman. "Yes, my dear?" he asks in a deeper voice than he previously used.

The woman gives him a tight smile. "My husband sent me to pick up his order. A charm to protect his ship."

"Yes, of course." He gestures up the stairs. "Just a moment, I believe Wizard Hale left it on the table. Would you like to come up?"

"I'm fine here," she replies, glancing around nervously.

Stiles pokes his head over the rail and smiles down at her in what he hopes is a reassuring way. "You made the right choice," he tells her. “The state of these rooms is disgraceful. But don't you worry, Old Stiles is here now to set things right. I'll have things spic and span in no time flat and the next time you husband needs his charm, you'll have no qualms about resting by the fire a ways with me."

The woman gave him a startled look, then smiles politely. "Perhaps,'" she says with a duck of the head.

"Perhaps indeed," Stiles chuckles. "Who knows, maybe I'll even have a kettle on and some fresh baked cookies to go with. Nothing cheers a place up like fresh baked cookies. And this place is woefully in need of cheering. Almost as much as it is in need of cleaning."

She laughs at that and Stiles nods, pleased with himself. He notices the boy disguised as a man staring at him and gives him a frown. "Hop to, young man. It's rude to keep her waiting."

The boy shoots him a sour look, but doesn't say anything, just hurries back down the stairs and hands the woman a brown paper package done up with string. "Have him dust the main mast and around the bow of the ship and that will do the trick," he instructs. "When properly applied, the charm is good for three months."

The woman makes a sound of agreement as she hands over a pouch fat with coins. The boy pockets it without counting it-- which seems odd to Stiles, but then few people would be foolish enough to short a wizard his due-- and then holds open the door.

"Have a nice day, my dear," he says and she murmurs something in acknowledgement before exiting. He latches the door shut behind her and then pushes the hood of the cloak off. His features shift back instantly even before it settle against his shoulders.

The boy climbs the stairs slowly, eyeing Stiles as he does. "Jackson," he says, "who is this?"

"Say hi to the newest addition to the castle, Isaac," Jackson replies lazily. "Stiles has agreed to cook and clean in exchange for room and board."

"I have not!” Stiles protests.

Jackson raises an eyebrow at him. "Feel free to leave if you'd like. The door's that way."

Stiles sucks on his teeth. "Fire demons are not to be trusted," he mutters, earning a laugh from Isaac. Jackson, damn his fiery eyes, just preens.

*

Isaac, as it turns out, is the youngest of Hale’s three apprentices. He’s also the nicest. Well, Boyd could be nicer, Stiles isn’t sure because Boyd hasn’t really opened his mouth around Stiles yet. Just raised an eyebrow when he came downstairs and found Stiles puttering around, clearing off the table for breakfast. He didn’t stay long enough to partake in the meal, just grabbed a roll and a wedge of cheese before heading out to do something no doubt awe inspiring or mysterious or both.

Erica, though, Erica is a different story completely. She's all coy looks and saucy smiles and Stiles would swear she was flirting with him if he wasn't, you know, going on a hundred at the moment. She winks at him as she heaps her plate high with sausages, hash browns, and eggs, then sips at her coffee like she knows the secrets of the universe.

Stiles is... not scared or frightened or anything. He just has a healthy respect for her is all. Her and her sharp, sharp teeth and that tongue that keeps darting out to lick the rim of her cup and oh hell. She most certainly is flirting with him, and he's ninety.

Stiles doesn't know what his face is doing, but it must be something special because Isaac leans over and whispers, "Don't mind Erica, grandpa. She doesn't mean anything by it."

Erica laughs, those sharp teeth of hers flashing. "I most certainly do mean something by it," she says, but Stiles can see that she's more interested in provoking a reaction than following through on her smiles.

"This is going to be fun," Stiles mutters to himself as he tidies away the dishes.

Erica has vanished upstairs again and Isaac is settled in at his place at the workbench when Jackson lets out a chuff of amusement. Stiles shoots him an enquiring look, but before he can say anything the knob by the door spins to black and the front door blasts open.

Hale is strides through it, long leather jacket-- is it a jacket? At that length? Surely it’s a coat. Or maybe a duster. It looks like a duster. Or what would happen if a duster and a cloak had a baby-- billowing in his wake, his features pulled down into a scowl.

"Welcome home, Master," Isaac says, a smile on his face.

Hale grunts in Isaac’s direction, marching past him as he heads for the stairs. He has one hand on the banister when he stops and turns towards Stiles. Stiles does not meep, no matter what anyone might say. Hale stares at him in aggressive silence, then shifts his attention towards the hearth.

"Jackson," he bites out.

The fire demon yawns lazily. "What?"

Hale's already dark expression goes darker still, like when a cloud passes over the moon. Except scarier. And yet, still somehow attractive. Not that moons and clouds are generally attractive. Unless you are the nature type or something.

Stiles is yanked out of his thoughts when Hale growls. "Explain."

"I need a clean hearth," Jackson answers, his voice smug. "And your brats need food. Stiles here is going to take care of all that for you, since you can't be bothered."

"Stiles." Hale's eyebrows jerk up in surprise as his focus shifts back to Stiles again.

Stiles gives him an awkward wave. "Nice to meet you, your wizardliness."

Hale's eyebrows jerk back down and Stiles sorta gapes at him because really. Who has such mobile eyebrows? Darkly handsome wizards, that's who. Darkly handsome wizards who are apparently done with Stiles, since Hale doesn't bother with any pleasantries at all before stomping his way up the stairs.

"Well," Stiles says huffily as Jackson laughs.

Chapter Text

“This isn’t my idea of a castle. Castles are big and grand and filled with wonders. This is place is small and grubby and filled with rubbish,” Stiles mutters to himself as he hauls yet another batch of trash out of the small room that no one could tell him the use of and that he’s decided to claim as his own.

It’s not really a room at all, actually, just a curtained off alcove that Stiles is sure is deep enough for a bed. Right now there is no bed in it, though. Just a number of boxes stacked haphazardly and some shelves on the wall. Shelves piled high with an ungodly amount of crap. Stiles has been cleaning it out for the last three hours and doesn’t seem to have made a dent at all.

“Stop insulting the product of my labor,” Jackson calls to him, puffing himself up so that he can cross his arms over his chest as he glowers.

“Stop producing poor products with your labor,” Stiles snarks back, though he thinks his tone might suffer due to severe wheezing.

"No one else has a problem with it," Jackson mutters, a sullen look on his face.

Stiles worries for a moment that he's hurt the fire demon's feelings. Then he remembers that fire demon's don't have feelings except for an overabundance of pride. Still, he keeps his mouth shut instead of saying that everyone else living in the castle seems to have a pretty low standard when it come to non-personal aesthetics, focusing instead on emptying out years of accumulated junk out of his future bedroom. Bed-nook. Whatever.

"It's not easy to build a castle," Jackson says, clearly taking Stiles's silence as a continuation of their dispute instead of the easy out Stiles intended it to be. "Especially not one that is always moving. Why does it have to be moving? If it was kept in one location, I could have gone all out. It could have been a marvel of modern architecture, with turrets and arches and lovely bits of filigree.”

Jackson lets out a sigh. “But no, Hale doesn't want a normal, stays-where-you-built-it kind of castle. He wants something portable. Something that he can make me lug about when the fancy strikes him. Because that's something I want to do. Move a massive structure from hither and yon for no good reason. And I don't care what he says, having the Witch of the Waste panting after him is not a good reason. She's just as likely to catch up with him when he's flitting about the countryside as she would if he were in a secure, defensible location."

"Huh. So the Witch of the Waste really is after Hale," Stiles muses. “Nice to have that bit of gossip confirmed.”

Jackson crackles unhappily. "Is that all you got out of that? What am I saying, of course it is. You and your obsession with Hale. Actually, everyone and their obsession with Hale. I don’t get it. Sure, he’s pretty enough, but he’s broody as the day is long and twice as surly." He makes a disgusted noise. "Anyway, it’s his own damn fault that she's hot on his tail. I told him to stay away from that one. I told him that she was a bucket of misery just waiting to spill on his head. But would he listen to me? No he would not. 'I don't have a heart,' he said. 'I'm in no danger from her,' he said. Like him not having a heart would deter her at all." Jackson snorts. "Hah. It just make her even more eager to get her grabby little hands on it. Like I would let that happen. Stupid woman would put me out in no time flat." He snorts again.

"You know," Stiles says causally, "Hale probably doesn't want you airing all his dirty laundry in front of me."

Jackson snaps and snarls but at least lets the conversation, as it were, drop. And Stiles is happy with that. Because hearing Jackson go on about the Witch of the Waste makes Stiles’s skin itch and Stiles doesn't like that at all.

*

It ought to worry Stiles how easy it is to fall into a pattern. It really ought to. Because nothing about this has been what he would call easy to assimilate to. But it doesn't. Worry him that is.

Instead of worried, Stiles is... content. Happy even. He gets up in the morning, stretches out a bit in bed, and then hobbles his way over to the hearth to cook a ridiculously large breakfast. Erica, Isaac and Boyd stumble downstairs by the time the bacon has finished sizzling, their plates in their hands and eager looks on their faces. Hale appears about thirty minutes later, looking as fresh as a daisy, if you overlook his perpetual scowl. He habitually waves off breakfast, making do with a cup of coffee that he nurses while passing out tasks to his motley crew. Said motley crew makes faces or crows, depending on who is assigned what (point of fact: Boyd never joins in neither activity, no matter what his task for the day might be) then heads up the stairs to finish preparing for their day. Hale uses this time to grill Stiles about what Stiles will be doing to keep himself occupied (do not even think about cleaning my room again; keep away from my spells; don't poke your nose into any dealings with my patrons, you are not helping, not matter what you might think) and when he feels that he has growled at Stiles enough, he absconds to who knows where.

Isaac et al. pop back in around noon, just in time for whatever lunch Stiles has decided to prepare, and spend the early part of the evening going over whatever spells Hale has set them to. Isaac, for all he is the youngest, seems to have the most advanced spellwork, Boyd is more often tasked with complex potion work, and Erica, well. Stiles isn't sure what Erica is given to work on. She spends most of her time muttering darkly and creating loud bangs, but Hale always seems pleased with her progress. Stiles contemplates asking her from time to time, but he's fairly certain he's better off not knowing what caused the acrid clouds of glowing purple smoke or why Erica's finger nails have turned bright red again.

After a few hours of study, it's time for dinner. It, surprisingly enough, only takes a few day for the trio to start tidying up without Stiles nagging at them, which pleases Stiles to no end. Now they do it readily enough, almost happy to be pulling down plates and setting out the silverware. Hale generally turns up right as they are all sitting down to eat, taking the seat at the head of the table. Jackson puffs himself up across from him and the two engage in fairly pleasant conversation. Well, pleasant for Hale and Jackson anyway. Stiles finds that he spends most of the meal alternating between snickering in his sleeve and engaging in mildly indignant muttering under his breath. Isaac, Erica, and Boyd do neither, having long since perfected the ability to not react to anything Jackson or Hale might say.

When the meal is over, Hale and his apprentices go over the tasks he set them. Hale is gruff, but fair, never stinting in his praise or curt in his explanations. Stiles putters around, tidying up dinner dishes and whatever else might be laying about, blatantly listening in on everything Hale has to say. The hour or so after dinner might possibly be Stiles's favorite time of day, no matter how he complains about being the only one who does any work around the misshapen heap of a castle.

It doesn’t take long for everything to be back in its proper place, seeing as how Stiles prides himself on keeping his domain neat as a pin, so he often spends the last half an hour of his day sitting by the hearth, warming himself while conversing with Jackson. Sometimes-- not quite frequently enough for it to be called often-- Hale will join him. Hale doesn’t speak much, just sits at lets Stiles’s babble wash over him, a half smile tugging at his lips.

And those nights, the nights where Hale sits with his long legs propped up on the hearth and his strong arms crossed over his chest, snorting occasionally at whatever Stiles has said, are the best nights of all.

*

Establishing a pattern of being doesn't mean permanence. Stiles knows this, he does. But it does help to settle Stiles down, makes him feel less like he's half a heartbeat from freaking out. Being old is... no fun. No fun at all. He's achey at the weirdest times and always vaguely tired for no reason at all. His knuckles throb when it's damp out and sitting by the fire is like old person catnip or something. Still, he's gotten use to it, same as he's gotten use to life in a moving castle.

But every now and then something crops up and reminds him that all is not well, that he is not in the state of being that he ought to be in. And more and more often that something is Hale. Hale, with his aggressive good looks and soft growls and stupidly attractive scowl. Hale, who spends hours primping and preening in his bathroom, filling the whole of the castle with perfumed smoke. Hale, who waltzes out of his room in dark leather and heeled boots, his hair rising up in those soft spikes, looking fabulously unobtainable, even if Stiles were still his awkward, weedy self and not the grandfather he has no call to suddenly be.

Stiles knows it's not Hale's fault that seeing the wizard in all of his glory triggers something bitter and ugly inside of him, but Stiles can't help but snap and snarl at him in spite of that. Stiles can't fight off the itch between his shoulders when Hale looks at him, his eyes soft in the firelight, that sort of smile of his dancing about his lips.

And if Stiles chooses to take his growing frustrations out on the dishes and dust and heaps of wash, well, that's no one's concern but his own.

*

As soon as dinner is on the table, Stiles bustles upstairs, dragging down one of the massive rugs covering the floor of Erica's room after him.

"Aren't you hungry?" Isaac asks, his eyes worried.

"Obviously not," Stiles snaps, stomping down to the door and flipping the dial. He storms out the door, over to a tree and flips the rug over a sturdy branch, muttering all the while. Stiles isn't sure how long he pounds out his frustrations on the rug, but the sun is starting to sink and his arms are starting to ache when he sees Hale sauntering towards him.

"Stop beating that rug," Hale snaps, his frown even frownier than usual. "It's as clean as it's going to get."

Stiles ignores him, same as he's been ignoring him all afternoon. What call does Hale have to still be there anyway? He's all kitted up, swathed in form fitting attire with rings on his fingers and a dark smudge of kohl lining his eyes. His hair is up in its peaks and spikes, looking so soft that Stiles fingers ache from not touching it. Hale has put effort into his appearance, more so that he typically does, and he has no call to be flaunting the result of said effort in Stiles’s face.

Stiles gives him a baleful look and slaps the rug a final time before lowering the switch with a pant. "Now it's done," he says, raising his eyebrows in challenge.

Hale does that sort of smile of his, the one that never fails to make Stiles foolish heart skip a beat. "If you say so," he replies, clearly humoring Stiles.

Stiles lets out a snort, muttering to himself about fancified wizards and their messes and how very ironic it is for said mess making wizards to try to tell their castle-keepers how to do their job. Hale might or might not laugh at that, depending on how one defines the word laugh. That would, under normal circumstances, cause a fluttering in the region of Stiles's chest, but today it just makes him even more surly.

"Out of my way," he snaps, "it's hard enough dragging this heavy thing about without messy, messy wizards underfoot."

Hale doesn't reply, but the rug is suddenly being lifted out of Stiles's arms.

“What are you doing?” he snarls, because Stiles is not in the mood to be humored.

“Shut up, Stiles,” Hale says, his eyebrows pulled down on his face as he carts the rug back into the castle.

Stiles makes a face as he follows him back inside. “Don’t tell me to shut up.”

Hale adjusts the rug on his shoulder and starts up the stairs with it. “Shut up, or I’ll make you shut up. Trust me, Stiles, you don’t want to go with option number two. My spells aren’t known for being pleasant.”

“Did you just threaten me?” Stiles gapes at him. “I think he just threatened me,” he tells the room, not bothering to head up the stairs in Hale’s wake.

“Of course he threatened you,” Jackson says, “you’re being your typical, annoying self.”

Stiles gives the fire demon a dirty look. “See if I get him to cut you any more of that mountain oak you like. And see if I do any extra chores either,” he calls up the stairs. Hale lets out a growl and Stiles frowns. “I didn’t ask him to come outside and pester me about how I’m doing my work. I don’t go sticking my nose in his spellwork, do I? So what call does he have to come poking around in my cleaning?”

Erica lets out a snort. “You stick your nose in his spellwork at least three times a day.”

Stiles gives her stink eye. “Who asked you?”

“You did,” Boyd points out.

Stiles opens his mouth, but shuts it again when Isaac comes to stand by him, a concerned look on his face. "Don't worry about Hale," Isaac says, patting Stiles's on the shoulder. "He's a bit broody when he's courting."

Stiles's eyes widen. "He's courting?"

Erica rolls her eyes. "Pining," she says. "Pining is what he's doing. And lurking in dark corners. That's what he's good at."

Isaac gives her an aggrieved look. "Hale does not lurk in dark corners."

Jackson lets out this crackle of a laugh. "Yes, actually, he does. It's part of the stalking stage of his courtship."

"Right." Boyd pushes up from the table. "If you all have decided to descend into petty gossip, then I'm going to turn in for the night."

"Don't be a spoilsport," Erica calls after him, but Boyd doesn’t so much as grunt in acknowledgement.

"So," Stiles says as casually as can be, "Hale's courting then?"

Erica gives him a sharp look, but nods. "Has been for awhile. Someone down in Beacon Hills, if Isaac's intel is right."

"Hey!" Isaac scowls. "My spellwork is twice as good as yours and even you can do a fairly competent trace."

"You put a trace on him?" Stiles asks, impressed in spite of himself. It's a fairly gutsy move, doing that kind of spellwork on as powerful a wizard as Hale.

Isaac shakes his head. "Lord, no. Not on him. I put it on his one of his rings, which already had a pretty powerful charm on it. I'm sure Hale noticed anyway, but he didn't remove the trace or stop wearing the ring, which is pretty much tantamount to approval as I am concerned."

"Anyway," Ercia cuts in, "we knows it's someone in Beacon Hills. Who it is specifically doesn't really matter."

Stiles nods. "Not until he bring them home, anyway."

"Oh." Isaac gives him a surprised look. "No. There will be no bringing them home."

"Why not?"

"That's not how Hale works," Erica explains. "He's not that kind of man."

Jackson snorts. "I would say he's the love 'em and leave 'em kind, but that would imply that Hale 'loves 'em' and we all know that's not the case."

Stiles rolls his eyes. "You aren't still trying to convince me that Hale doesn't have a heart."

"He doesn't," Jackson, Erica, and Isaac all say together.

Stiles sighs. "Everyone has a heart."

"Hale doesn't. You should believe me, I know," Jackson is so smug it makes Stiles want to smack him. "And he wasn't courting either, no matter what these fools might say."

"Yes, yes, we all know," Erica drawls. "You're Hale's special friend, so you know every possible motive he could have for every possible move he might make. If you say he isn't courting, then it might as well be written in stone." She makes a face. "Because you have insight into his inner manpain that all of us wish we had and we all envy you greatly for it. Except for how we don't because no one cares about Hale's inner manpain. All we care about is his magical ability and you can't tell us jack about that."

I care about Hale's manpain Stiles thinks, but he has the good sense not to say anything.

Isaac yawns widely and then pushes back from the table. "That's enough snarking at the fire demon for one night. I’m for bed," he says, picking up his cup and taking it over to the sink.

"Me too." Erica scoots her chair back and then stands, her cup in her hand. "Thanks for the cookies and tea, Stiles,” she says, pausing to drop a kiss on his head on her way to the sink.

"Just wait till I tell Hale about that," Jackson crackles, a mischievous look on his face. "He won't be pleased to know that someone is crowding in on his turf."

"I thought Hale wasn't courting anyone, and if he was, it was meant to be someone in Beacon Hills," Stiles says around a yawn.

"He isn't," Jackson says sharply. "Hale never courts. He shows his interest through a disturbing about of lurking and brooding and staring sullenly into space."

Stiles laughs. "That sounds like our Hale, alright."

Jackson sniffs. "Our Hale?" he asks with a raised brow. "There is no 'our' about it, Stiles."

"Fine, fine." Stiles waves him off with an amused look. "Your Hale, then. Though who knows why you want to have a claim on the big, broody brute."

"Fire demons have a very close bond with their witches and wizards. A sacred bond, some might say."

Stiles rolls his eyes. "Some might at that, but not you, Jackson. Not when you are actively trying to break said bond."

Jackson gives him a sour look. "Only because my wizard doesn’t appreciate me. He doesn't listen to my advice at all, and look at where that has gotten us. Stuck in a damp, dripping hulk of a castle that has to constantly be moved about so the greediest witch in the history of witches can't get her claws into Hale's heart and thereby put me out!"

Stiles wants to say that Jackson is pretty dang paranoid, but then, he's a fire demon and being paranoid is par for the course. Plus, the Witch of the Waste does seem like the type to put a rival's fire demon out just for spite. He would reach out and pat Jackson's should reassuringly, but Jackson's shoulder is made of fire and fire and flesh are not friends. So Stiles settles for giving him a friendly look and says, "I'll do my best to break your bond, Jackson. And, should the Witch ever come close to stealing Hale's heart, I'll do my darndest to keep that from happening too."

Jackson gives him a beady-eyed look. "See that you do, Stiles," he says, "see that you do. And while you are at it, see that you stop letting people kiss you."

"Oh, for the love! There's no meaning behind a kiss like that. And even if there was, it's none of Hale's concern."

"A kiss is a kiss," Jackson replies. "And everything that happens in Hale's castle is Hale's concern."

Stiles makes a face at him. "You are perfectly ridiculous. Go ahead, tell him that Erica gave me a peck on the cheek. Ten to one, he'll just laugh in your face. Well, scowl in your face anyway. I'm not fully convinced Hale can laugh."

"You can't be that much of an idiot," Jackson says, his voice dripping with disdain.

"And that's my cue to head for bed," Stiles tells him. "The dishes can wait."

"Hale won't like that you are shirking your responsibilities," Jackson calls after him. Stiles doesn't bother to dignify that with a response.

Chapter Text

The thing is, Stiles sort of is shirking his responsibilities. Not here, at this odd conglomeration of rooms Jackson's insists is a castle, but the ones he has back home in Beacon Hills. Lydia said that she would take care of things with his shop and all, but that was months ago and, other than a letter or two, Stiles hasn't been in contact with her. So who knows what might have happened. The whole shop might of burnt down in his absence and he wouldn't be any the wiser.

It's not like Stiles wants to go back, but that he feels like he ought to. Want to, that is. That he should have been making more progress towards breaking the curse instead of spending all his free time cleaning and cooking and trying to make sense out of the chaos Hale and his miscreants cause. Something twists inside him when he thinks about how little he has actually done on the curse front, how he hasn't even managed to get around to asking Hale for help.

Not that Hale would be inclined to help him. Hale hasn't warmed up to him the way all the others have. No, Hale is more likely to growl something threatening in his direction than offer to break the curse. But still. Stiles should have at least asked. If he can't even do that much, what's the point of him even being here?

*

"I'm thinking of going home," Stiles says to no one in particular. His musing is greeted by a crash as Isaac drops his spellbook, a sharp intake of breath from Boyd, and Erica loudly protesting. Stiles blinks, startled the reaction. "You lot didn't think I was going to stay here forever, did you?" he asks.

They all three give him blank looks and Jackson makes a hissing, popping sound.

Stiles shakes his head. "You all know I'm," the words choke off and Stiles gestures at himself. "I only came here to try and change that. It's been, what, three months and nothing has changed. I might as well resign myself to the fact that this is how I'm going to be from now on and get back to my real life."

"Don't go, Stiles," Jackson says, his voice angry. "Hale won't like it if you go."

Stiles rolls his eyes. "Hale doesn't like it that I'm here. He'll probably throw a party if I go."

"Hale won't like it," Jackson repeats sulkily and Erica rolls her eyes.

"Who cares if he likes it or not, I want you to stay, and so do Isaac and Boyd." She gives him a beseeching look.

Isaac nods his agreement. "Things are better with you here."

"Much better," Boyd says.

Stiles lifts a shoulder. “Thanks, I guess. But you don’t have to puff up my ego to get me to stay. It’s not like I can go, even though I want to.”

Boyd furrows his brow at that. “Of course you can go. You aren’t a prisoner here.”

Stiles huffs. “Of course I’m not a prisoner. Be sensible. But I can’t leave either. This hunk of metal you lot call a castle doesn’t exactly lurk in the center of town. No, it’s more of an edge of civilization sort of deal you’ve got going on here. And these old legs aren’t made for the kind of walking that would need to occur in order to get me from the edge of civilization to my own humble abode.”

“So take one of the doors to whichever city is closest to your ‘humble abode’ and travel from there,” Erica says with a shrug.

Stiles rolls his eyes at her. “Kingsbury and Porthaven are too far away to even contemplate that working. The kind of travel those locations entail would cost an arm and a leg and I don’t have that sort of money laying about. And who even knows where Hale's Black Portal of Mystery leads to. Certainly not my hat shop. No, the best and closest option would be the green portal leading to the woods above Beacon Hills, but, like I said, I can’t hack that kind of a walk. And even if I could, I would just get lost again. The only reason I even found the castle in the first place is because Turnip Head lead me to it."

"Turnip Head?" Isaac asks with a wrinkle of his nose.

"Did I never tell you the story of my adventures with Turnip Head?" Stiles asks. Isaac shakes his head and Stiles gives him a smile. He settles himself back in his chair and launches into his tale, happy to have something to have an excuse to change the subject.

*

While Stiles might have been pleased to have the conversation move on to other things, it's impossible to make his brain do the same. He finds himself brooding more and more often on the fact that he is, for all intents and purposes, stuck here.

Not that the castle is a bad place to be, it's not by any means, especially not now when all the news from home seems to be about how well the war isn’t going, but Stiles hasn't seen his father or his friends in months and months and he misses them. He misses Scott's scrunched up, confused face, and Lydia's exasperated expression. He misses Allison's attempts to teach him the arts and skills of a Hunter, even though he has no affinity for it at all, and his father's anecdotes about the number of cats belonging to charming widows getting stuck up in trees-- a fact that has nothing, he insists, to do with how handsome the Sheriff coming to rescue said cats might be.

And, truth be told, Stiles is more than a bit worried about how isolated he is from what’s really going on in their lives. Lydia’s letters have become more omens of impending doom, each one devoted to convincing Stiles that disaster looms over the horizon and even Scott’s blatherings about Allison have been interspaced with grim sounding tales of conscription drives and forced rationing of what use to be plentiful goods.

Stiles has tried to get Hale to confirm his friends’ stories, but Hale refuses to engage in any conversation on politics other than to say that the premise for the war is false. Hale ranted for over an hour about how he has reason to believe that the Witch of the Waste is behind their prince’s disappearance, that he informed the king of his reasons for believing such, and that the king ignored Hale is his eagerness to use his brother’s disappearance for his own ends.

Which is interesting and all, but does nothing to calm the growing ball of worry in Stiles’s gut. He wants to go home and see for himself how things really stand. Stiles knows that there is nothing he personally can do, if things have gotten as bad as it sounds, but still.

He is homesick in the worst possible way and feels grumbly and out of sorts because of it.

*

“Stiles!”

Stiles sticks his head out from his sleeping nook and frowns at Hale. “What?”

Hale frowns right back. “The coffee is terrible and you burned the bacon.”

“If you don’t like it, maybe you should find someone else to do your cooking for you,” Stiles snaps, retreating back into his comfy nook. He hunkers down in his bed, wrapping himself up in his covers.

“Stiles!”

Hale sound angry, but then, Hale always sounds angry at Stiles, and Stiles is sort of sick of it. So instead of responding, he just lets out a sigh and then rolls onto his side, facing the wall away from the nook’s opening.

“What’s wrong with him?” he hears Hale ask.

“Stiles doesn’t like it here any more,” Jackson replies. “Stiles wants to go home.”

“What!”

Hale’s voice is surprised, with an edge of something else to it, something Stiles would call hurt, if it were anyone else, but is probably just some form of annoyance, since it’s Hale. Stiles rubs his face against his pillow, willfully ignoring the hum of conversation in the outer room. Or at least he ignores it until there is a knock on the frame of the opening to his nook.

“Go away.” Stiles doesn’t bother to roll over, just scrunches down further in his blankets.

“If you want to leave, you should leave,” Hale says, his voice flat.

Stiles squeezes his eyes shut, trying to convince himself that he’s not hurt by how easy it is for Hale to tell him to go.

Hale makes a frustrated sound. “You aren’t obligated to stay here. If this is about that fool’s bargain you made with Jackson--”

Stiles flips over with a squawk, limbs flailing about as he struggles to sit up. “You know about that?”

Hale snorts. “It involves my fire demon. Of course I know about it.”

“Of course you do,” Stiles says faintly. He chews on his bottom lip, frowning.

“You shouldn’t feel like you are trapped here.” Hale’s face does that thing where it looks like it’s painful for him to speak. Stiles opens his mouth but Hale isn’t done yet. “I don’t want you to feel obligated to stay, just because I want you to.”

Stiles splutters, choking on nothing at all. “You want me to? Stay, that is?”

Hale gives him that constipated, painful look again. “Everything works better when you are around,” he grits out, his hands clenching into his fists.

Stiles feels his jaw drop. “You like me,” he says, feeling stunned.

“I never said that I didn’t,” Hale replies, his eyebrows pulling low on his face. “Is that what this is about? Your wanting to leave? Did I make you feel unwelcome?”

“No, no!” Stiles shakes his head. “Nothing like that. And I don’t want to leave. Not really. I just feel like I ought to go home. Check in on things. Make sure Lydia hasn’t decided to start selling flowers or love charms or something. She never did much like hats.”

Hale’s eyebrows do that inverted vee thing, the one that makes his face look years younger and oddly hopeful, which, by the way, is not fair at all. “You want to visit your shop.”

“Well, and my dad too. And Scott. And Lydia. Have you met Lydia? She’s amazing.” Stiles voice goes a little dreamy at the end, the way it always does when he talks about Lydia.

The inverted vee thing is gone in an instant. “Lydia Martin,” Hale growls, eyes flashing red for a moment.

Stiles gives him a stunned look. “That was quite a reaction,” he says after a long pause.

Hale looks away. “Stop sulking about, burning bacon and refusing to dust.”

“I’m not sulking about,” Stiles protests, even though he totally is. “And what do you care about the dust?”

Hale doesn’t reply, just turns his head so that he can stare at Stiles like he’s a particularly confusing spell that Hale is trying to puzzle out. Stiles shifts on the bed, uncomfortable under the weight of it.

“Alright, alright,” he says when he can’t take the starting any more. “I’ll stop with the sulking. I just... miss home. I don’t want to stay there, who knows what sort of things you all would get up to without me here to be the voice of reason. But it would be nice to visit. Especially with all this talk of war...” Stiles trails off, knowing that Hale isn’t inclined to revisit that subject.

Hale makes a sound that could mean that he understands, but could also mean that he wants Stiles to shut up. Stiles chews on his lip, and decides that they might as well just end this conversation now. He pulls the blanket close again and pointedly rolls onto his side, but this time facing the wizard because he isn’t rude enough to turn his back on the other man.

Still, him turning himself into a blanket cinnamon bun ought to be a giant sign that Stiles is ready for some more alone time. Except somehow it isn’t, seeing as how Hale just stands there, a constipated look on his face instead of vanishing into the shadows the way Stiles is expecting him to.

“Uh, do you mind?” he asks.

Hale gives him a blank look, then jerks back, surprise splashed on his face. He growls under his breath, then he turns on his heel and leaves for parts unknown.

*

The next few days are a flurry of activity, in which a glowering Hale and three very put upon apprentices storm and stomp their way around the castle, measuring and remeasuring and muttering under their breath in a very Stiles like manner. Tables are pushed aside, rugs are rolled up and odd circles and shapes are drawn onto the hardwood floors in a way that would be upsetting to Stiles if it weren’t for the fact that something is clearly up.

And that said something will probably result in all the mess being rendered moot.

Turns out, Stiles is right.

All the fuss has been generated because Hale is going to expand the castle. Expand it so that Stiles’s can have a proper room instead of a nook, which would be lovely in and of itself, but is just one of the many changes Hale has in store.

There’s going to be a wash room with large windows and an indoor line so that Stiles doesn't have to drag laundry out to a lake and then haul it-- dripping everywhere-- back up the shore to be scattered about on rocks and bushes. Not that Stiles has ever complained about that at all.

Hale's also putting in a proper pantry with an ice box, so that their food doesn't have to be stored in random boxes and baskets in the main room any more. And Hale is also including a small half room for Stiles to do whatever he wishes with, since everyone else has a workspace and it's only fair that Stiles has one too.

But best of all is the fact that Hale plans to link one of his door portals to Beacon Hills proper, which means that Stiles will be able to visit whenever he likes.

“I can’t believe you’re adding a Beacon Hills door!” Stiles squeals when he’s told the news, dancing about as much as his weary old legs can manage.

He’s smiling so hard his face hurts, laughing like a demented old goon. But Hale doesn’t seem to mind. Quite the opposite in fact. Hale is smiling. Scratch that, Hale is beaming at Stiles with his strong arms crossed over his chest and a fond look in his eyes.

“You’re the very best wizard in all of the world,” Stiles enthuses, catching hold of one of Hale’s arms and tugging it free.

Hale frowns at him a little, but Stiles doesn’t care, just laughs even louder and spins around Hale in a way that ought to be dizzying, but is just plain exhilarating.

“Thank you,” he says between fits of laughter. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” And Hale’s frown vanishes like mist in the morning sun.

Chapter Text

The first person Stiles chooses to visit is Lydia, because his father, Scott and Allison are all still blissfully unaware of his condition-- though they both did express a great deal of displeasure at his disappearance and only sort of accepted his excuse of “needing some time for himself.” And because Lydia is the best source of knowledge. So to Lydia’s house he eagerly goes.

He knocks on her door, shifting anxiously from foot to foot, excited and nervous all at the same time. It opens a crack, just enough for Lydia to peer out. She makes a happy sound at the sight of him before closing it again and undoing the latch.

“Stiles!” she says, bustling out to wrap him in a tight hug. “You look,” she shake her head and then gives him a smile. “Good isn’t what you look. Not with you still being the wrong age. Happy? Yes, I think happy will do.”

Stiles wishes he could say the same, but he can’t in all honestly. Lydia doesn’t look happy. Or good. Lydia looks careworn in a way Stiles has never seen her before, and something inside of him aches at the sight. Lydia has always stood in as his ideal for perfection and to see her with faint bags under her eyes in a crumpled walking dress just doesn't make sense.

He gives her a tight smile and then follows her inside.

"Are you alright?" he asks as soon as the door is shut behind them.

Lydia gives him an incredulous look as she leads him into her receiving room. "Of course I'm not alright right now. No one is alright."

"Why would you say that?" Stiles frowns as he sits on one of the spindly chairs. "What is going on?"

"There is a war going on. Where have you been living, under a rock?" Lydia snaps, her expression exasperated, and Stiles finding himself wondering why he missed it so much.

"No, in a moving castle," he grouses, wishing he was back there right now instead of being pinned like bug under the weight of Lydia's stare.

She makes a frustrated noise. "You can't be that oblivious to what's been going on out here. Have you even read the letters I sent?"

"Yes, of course I did."

"Well?" she raises a brow.

Stiles shifts a little in his seat. "Alright, I'll admit it. I skimmed over those bits." It’s not true, the bits are the parts he reread the most, but Stiles doesn’t want to have all his fears concerned so early in his visit.

"I didn't write to you so that you could skim through the unpleasant bits," Lydia says with a hiss. "We are at war. War, Stiles. It is ugly and nasty and dragging on far too long. But still. Everyone has to do their part. You have to do your part. Are you listening to me?"

Stiles chews on his lower lip, clearly they are having this conversation now, whether he wants to or not. "I'm an old man now. What can I possibly do?"

Lydia sighs. "I don't know, you could end that stupid curse you are under for starters. And maybe convince that no account wizard you hang out with to stop shirking his duties and take up for the cause."

"What, Hale?

"Yes, Hale." Lydia's voice is quaking with anger.

Stiles just shakes his head. "He's not going to take up for the cause or anything like that. I can promise you that. Hale thinks that no magic user should ever get involved in politics. It just ends up escalating things. And I have to admit, I think that he's right."

“Please," Lydia bites out. "That only works if the other side agrees. But they don't. They have plenty of magic users on their side with no compunction at all about escalation."

Stiles nods. "I know that, same as I know that the King has a handful of magic users of his own, aside from Hale. So I can't see why Hale should sacrifice his moral code just to add one more weapon to the King's arsenal. Especially when the whole basis for this war is shaky at best."

"The prince being missing is not shaky," Lydia protests.

"No, I agree with you there. Prince Danny is definitely missing. But the assumption that our political enemies had anything to do with it is."

"Don't be naive," Lydia snaps. "Of course they had something to do with it. I can't even fathom how you could believe otherwise."

Stiles rubs his eyes and sighs. "I think we are going to have to agree to disagree here."

Lydia makes a face. "It must be nice," she says, her voice vicious, "being able to ignore what's happening around you. I would love to be able to bury myself away in the country and whistle while the world burns down."

"Lydia--" Stiles starts, but she cuts him off with a shake of the head.

"No, Stiles. You don't get to take that tone with me. You haven’t been here, you haven't lived through the air raids. You haven't seen the result of their attacks with your own eyes. It's easy to take the moral high ground when it's not your life that's being threatened."

Stiles sucks on his teeth, debating what he should say. He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. "Hale thinks this is all a scheme to draw him out into the open. He thinks that the Witch of the Waste is behind the prince's disappearance. He thinks that she started this whole debacle because she knew that the King would demand that he join in the defence of the country."

"Oh, so what? He's going to sit on the sidelines and not join in because it's safer for him not to?" Lydia shakes her head in disgust. "Is that the sort of company you keep these days?"

Stiles shakes his head. "No, Lydia, that's not it at all. Hale is working on this from a different angle. He's hunting her down on his own. You know, same as I do, that her spells will all end with her death. Or at least weaken enough that he can break them without a magical backlash. So, no, Hale isn't falling in with the King's plans, he's not visibly joining the war effort, but he is working towards ending this mess the best way he knows how."

Lydia gives him a calculating look. "Or at least that's what he wants you to believe."

"Hale wouldn't lie to me about that. He wouldn't lie to me about anything, actually. It's not in his nature."

"But it is in his nature to protect the things he cares for," Lydia says thoughtfully.

"Well, yeah. But I don't see how that factors in at all."

"You wouldn't," she replies, her expression shrewd. "You wouldn't."

*

Stiles's visit with Lydia leaves him feeling shiftless and out of sorts. He snaps at Erica, sniffs at Jackson and generally avoids Hale as much as he can. He's laying in his bed, pretending the rest of the world doesn't exist, when someone knocks on his door.

"Go away," Stiles says, because he knows perfectly well that he's in a funk and that any conversation he engages in will suffer as a result.

"Stiles."

Hale's voice is particularly dark and broody and Stiles lets out a sigh. It's better for everyone if Stiles just lets the wizard sulk at him for a bit, but that doesn't mean that Stiles is going to enjoy it.

"Stiles," Hale says again, anger creeping into his tone.

"Alright already. Come in."

Stiles sits up and moves on the bed until his back is pressed against the headboard. He circles his arms around his legs, resting his cheek against his knees, and watches as the door opens. Hale hesitates briefly at the door, then seems to steady himself. He walks into the room and over to Stiles's bed, his eyebrows pulled down in a low vee. He doesn't say anything, though. Just stands there, staring at Stiles with that slightly confused, completely unhappy look on his face.

"Yes?" Stiles asks when the silence finally gets to him.

"You aren't happy," Hale grits out.

Stiles shrugs as best he can while circled up on himself. "Tough day."

"Lydia?"

Stiles nods. "She just," he puffs out a breath, "doesn't understand."

Hale gives him an expectant look, like he's waiting for Stiles to go on, but Stiles doesn't have it in him to explain. "Would it," Hale pauses. "I know that you came here looking for something. I know that you haven't found it. Have you ever thought that you would be better off if you just gave up your search and went back home?"

Stiles scowls. "And just accept that this is my life? Is that what you think I should do? Give up any hope of finding a way to--" His words cut off and he snarls silently for a moment before taking a deep breath and trying again. "I know that you aren't willing to help me, okay? I get that. And, just for the record, I would like to point out that I never asked you to in the first place, but I can't give up. I can't stop looking for a way to fix this mess."

"That's not what I--" Hale starts, but Stiles runs over top of him.

"And, also, my bad mood? Has nothing to do with my current state of being and everything to do with the fact that Beacon Hills is under attack. That the whole kingdom is under attack, and there's pretty much nothing I can do about it. Not unless I somehow stumble across the missing prince, which is highly unlikely since no one has seen him in over a year. And that's fairly depressing in and of itself because Danny is awesome. Everyone likes Danny. He's like a real live Prince Charming straight out of a fairy tale or something."

Hale's expression goes pinched. "I won't join in a pointless battle. I won't play into the Witch of the Waste's hands. Not even for you."

Stiles glares at him. "Once again, have I asked you to? Have I ever asked you to do anything for me? The answer to that is no. Because I know better than to think you would ever put yourself out on my behalf."

Hale makes a hurt sound, his hands curling into fists at his sides. He opens his mouth, but Stiles is done with this conversation.

"Just, don't," he says, slumping down on the bed and rolling to face the wall away from Hale. "Please, Hale. Don't."

The wizard sucks in a breath, but doesn't say anything. He just stands there for a long moment before leaving, shutting the door quietly behind him.

*

They don't talk about it later, because that's not the sort of relationship they have, but Stiles does notice that Hale seems to have stopped brooding about as much and is more committed to finding a way to combat the Witch of the Waste. He sets his trio to learning defensive spells and complex potions that he cautions them to handle with extra care. His mood is still sour half the time-- he wouldn't be Hale if it wasn't-- but it's clear that he's focusing his energy on the problem the Witch and this unnecessary war present.

Stiles does his best to stay out of their way and keeps his muttering to a minimum. Jackson, however, does neither. He puffs himself up and crosses his arms over his chest, his bright eyes focused on the flurry of activity occurring around him,

"You're going about this all wrong," he tells Hale one evening about a week after Stiles's trip to see Lydia.

Hale doesn't so much as glance at him, his attention engrossed by the book in his hand.

"Hey, don't you ignore me. I'm your fire demon, aren't I? We share a bond, don't we?"

"I heard you wanted to break that bond," Hale replies, his eyes still glued to the page.

"Lies," Jackson hisses, his face morphing into something that might have passed for righteous indignation if not for the shifty glances he keeps sending in Stiles's direction.

Hale snorts. "Keep your nose out of my business and I'll keep mine out of yours."

"But yours affects me," Jackson whines. "If you try and use that spell, you'll put me out. You know you will.” He lets out a loud, dissatisfied crackle. “Why are you even going after her? I thought we had agreed that it was best to avoid her attention."

"Things change." Hale's tone is flat and disinterested, but Stiles can see that his knuckles are white where he is gripping his book.

Jackson shots a decidedly wicked glare at Stiles. "I knew you were trouble. Cursed things are always trouble. Even when they pretend to be harmless old men."

"I am a harmless old man," Stiles protests, because, for the moment at least, he is.

Jackson hisses and spits. "You're a meddlesome troublemaker is what you are."

"That's enough," Hale growls, snapping his book shut and pushing to his feet.

Jackson makes an angry sound, but doesn't say anything and Stiles spends the rest of the evening trying not to notice the evil looks the fire demon is sending in his direction.

*

"I can't believe you never told me!" Scott says when Stiles finally gets the courage to visit him.

Stiles rolls his eyes. "What part of 'I can't talk about it' didn't you understand?"

Scott gives him a frustrated look. "Couldn't you have told me to talk to Lydia, since apparently she knows?"

"I could have done, but there didn't seem like much point," Stiles admits.

"Not much point!" Scott hops up, flailing his arms about in agitation. "Did you forget that I'm apprenticed to Wizard Deaton? Huh? Because I think that maybe you did."

Stiles sighs. "Scott," he starts, but Scott cuts him off with a shake of the head.

"No. Look, Stiles, you're my best friend. You've been there for me for everything, from what happened with my dad right through to Mr. Argent rejecting my request for Allison's hand. And you've helped me with everything. You're the one who pointed out that Mr. Argent might be more favorable if I had a means of supporting his daughter, you're the one who told me that Deaton was looking for someone to take on as an apprentice and that being a wizard is a respectable trade. Don't you think that I would have moved heaven and earth to help you the one time you need it?"

“I know you would have wanted to help,” Stiles admits. “But, Scott, Deaton’s a great wizard and all, but he’s not Hale. Hale is the greatest and most powerful wizard in all the land.”

Scott snorts. “He is not.” He crosses his arms over his chest and gives Stiles a sulky look. Stiles is reminded forcibly of Jackson, and can’t help but smile.

“Sit down,” he says, tugging on Scott’s trousers until he huffs and collapses back onto the couch besides Stiles. “You’re right, I should have told you sooner. Well, not told so much as shown, but whatever. Point is, you are right. But, in my defense, I wasn’t exactly thinking clearly and you haven’t exactly had the best of results with all things magical yet.”

“I’m better now, I swear. I haven’t blown up anything for at least two months.”

Stiles laughs at that and Scott pushes at his shoulder.

“Shut up,” Scott grouses. “A lot of people blow things up when they first start learning magic. Deaton said so.”

“I’m sure they do,” Stiles agrees.

Scott’s pouty face just gets poutier. “I hate you.”

“Yeah, I can tell.” Stiles smiles wide. “I missed you. A lot.”

“I missed you, too.”

They both sort of stare at each other for a bit, then Stiles jostles Scott’s leg with his own. “So, you going to try to fix me, or what?”

Scott shrugs. “I guess I have to, since the wizard you did go to hasn’t been doing squat.”

“Don’t bash Hale, he’s very busy with all sorts of great and important things.”

“I think you’re a great and important thing and maybe Hale ought to be busy with you.”

Stiles splutters at that, choking on nothing and Scott blinks in confusion.

“What?” he asks, his brow furrowed. “What did I say?”

“Nothing,” Stiles tells him, “nothing at all.”

Chapter Text

Scott knowing means that suddenly there is a lot more action on the “trying to fix Stiles” front. Scott’s not anywhere near far enough along in his studies to be able to do it on his own, but he’s sure that, if they can find the cure, Wizard Deaton would be more than willing to add his not inconsiderable power to the mix, and between the two of them, they ought to be able to do the trick.

Stiles is... not unhappy about this development, but not exactly happy either. He likes it here in this lurking monstrosity of a castle. He likes the way Isaac’s eyes go wide when he gets a spell right, the way Erica wrinkles her nose as she pours over a potion. He likes sharing space with Boyd, how he can be quiet with the other man in a way he isn’t able to with anyone else. Stiles enjoys sniping and snapping back and forth with Jackson, loves how bright the fire demon burns when he thinks he’s got a one up on Stiles.

And, well, Stiles likes Hale. Likes him a lot. Likes him in a way that Stiles isn’t exactly comfortable with admitting to himself.

Because Hale is a darkly handsome wizard and Stiles overly chatty shopboy-cum-castle-keeper who happens to be trapped in a grandpa’s body. And Stiles knows enough about the world to know that stories featuring darkly handsome wizards and overly chatty shopboys-cum-castles-keepers don’t end well for the shopboys at all.

*

“Stiles!”

“Five more minutes,” Stiles mutters, tossing an arm over his face.

“Stiles, get out of bed now!” The words are accompanied with a loud bang and a crash, sounding for all the world like someone let off a handful of firecrackers in Stiles’s comfy room.

He jerks fully awake, twisting away from the sound. He falls out of his bed, of course he does, and lands at Erica’s feet. She’s laughing, of course she’s laughing, as she watches him struggle to free himself from his bedding.

"Someone is banging on the Beacon Hills door," Erica says when Stiles finally escapes from the tangle of blankets and sheets. She’s leaning against the door jam, sharpening her nails with a knife, which is only slightly better than when Boyd feels the need to pick his teeth with that extra large dagger of his, but still.

“So why don’t you answer it?” Stiles says with as much of a scowl as he can muster in light of the scary nail sharpening that is going on.

Erica gives him a wide, frankly terrifying, smile. “Because it’s for you. It’s always for you. No one in Beacon Hills ever asks for Wizard Hale at all. And, since it’s for you, there’s no point in me answering it.”

"Shouldn't you be off terrorizing innocent village folk at the behest of your master?" he snipes, because really. It's too early to be dealing with this right now.

She rolls her eyes at him, pushes of the door jam and slips the knife into her boot. "Of course I should be. But I'm not. Ask me why I'm not, Stiles?" The grin she give him is two parts terrifying to one part arousing. "Go on, be a good lad then and ask me."

Stiles scowls at her. "Lad," he huffs, "I'm three times your age. Just look at me."

"So?" Erica smirks at him. "You’re still a little laddie under all those wrinkles, aren’t you?"

The face that Stiles is making can't possibly be attractive, but it somehow manages to soften Erica's expression from feral to just plain bitchy. She laughs as she steps forward to ruffle his hair. Stiles swats at her hand, but, of course, he misses.

"Aren't you a doll?" she coos, and Stiles sort of wants to double check to make sure no one cast a reverse reality hex on him when he wasn't looking.

"Breakfast," he mutters to himself, because every morning requires a breakfast. Even mornings that start with Erica and knives and altogether too much cooing for Stiles’s peace of mind. Especially mornings that start with Erica and knives and cooing. Dear god, why is she still cooing?

"Get breakfast after you answer the door," Erica advises, then she's slinking out of his room, no doubt to return to that lair of hers to plot new, even more terrifying ways to wake Stiles up.

Stiles watches her go, her hips swaying and rolling in a way that makes him think that maybe all the terror would be worth it. She glances back over her shoulder at him and then winks and Stiles feels his face heat.

“Breakfast,” he repeats, because breakfast is something he can handle.

He waddles his way over to the hearth and tosses Jackson a log. Jackson makes a greedy noise and tugs it deep within his coals. “Hardwood,” he says with an appreciative moan.

“Only the best for my favorite fire demon,” Stiles tells him as he tugs down the skillet. “Now, where did Isaac put that basket of eggs?”

“Erica was right, you really should get the door first,” Jackson says around a mouthful of log. “Whoever it is, they are getting impatient.”

Stiles grumbles to himself about people who are fool enough to come before breakfast deserving what they get, but he shuffles across the room and down the short steps to the door. “Beacon Hill door,” he mutters to himself, glancing at Jackson for confirmation. Because even if Erica said it was, it doesn’t hurt to double check.

Jackson makes a lazy sound in acknowledgement and Stiles twists the knob so that the purple patch is showing. He pulls the door open and sees Lydia’s lovely face frowning at him from over a stack of leather bound books.

“Took you long enough,” she grouses, shoving the books at him as she crosses into the entryway.

Stiles gives her his best stink eye. “What do you expect? Old man here.”

Lydia makes a face. “Only because you refuse to be sensible about it. Honestly, Stiles, you could have been restored to your weedy, spastic self ages ago if you just gave her what she wants.”

“Oh, yeah. Because that’s a great idea. Just hand over the heart of some helpless schmuck to the Witch of the Waste.”

“Hale isn’t helpless.”

“I notice that you didn’t argue the schmuck bit,” Stiles says, raising an eyebrow.

Lydia gives him a flat look. “Aren’t you going to offer me coffee or a chair or something?”

Stiles waves a hand in the direction of the hearth. “Go make it yourself. I’m sure Jackson will be his typical accommodating self.”

Lydia huffs at that, but hunts out the coffee pot and fills it with water. Stiles watches her set it neatly in the coals and then settle onto the stool to wait.

"Make me eggs while you're at it," Stiles says with a distracted air as he spreads out the treasure trove of books Lydia brought in front of him on the workbench.

"I'm not your servant," Lydia tells him, but she pulls three eggs from the basket and eyes the thick cuts of bacon with look that lets Stiles know it will be making an appearance in his breakfast as well. "Bend your neck, Jackson," she instructs.

The fire demon makes a rude noise. "Not unless you give me a good reason."

Lydia sets down the eggs and the skillet and picks up the poker. "Bend your neck," she repeats, her voice going sharp.

"I will in exchange for, oh say, those lovely eyes of yours. Or a hand. I could use another hand."

Lydia raises an eyebrow at Jackson, prodding at him with the poker. "Don't even try that with me. I know better than to give anything of mine willingly to a fire demon. Now bend your neck, or you will be sorry."

Jackson scowls at her before puffing himself up to twice his normal size. "Tell her to stop poking me, Stiles," he complains. "Hale wouldn't like it if I told him you let strange witches poke me. He'll like it even less the fact that you let someone into the castle at all."

"Do as she says," Stiles replies, not bothering to glance away from the text he’s reading. "Or I'll clean your hearth again."

Jackson lets out a loud crackling hiss. "You wouldn't! Not after last time! You nearly put me out. You know I can't go out. I'm tied to Hale, remember? I go out, he goes out."

"Humans can't go out like fires can," Stiles points out. He chews on his bottom lip, eyes scanning the page in front of him.

Jackson growls. "Hale isn't a human. He's a wizard."

"Even less chance of him being put out," Stiles replies. "A wizard as powerful and paranoid as Hale is would have most certainly developed a spell or ten to prevent just such a thing from happening. Same as he developed a spell to remove his heart to keep him being vulnerable to petty human emotions or whatever."

Jackson hisses and spits and generally makes a fuss, but he doesn't tell Stiles's he wrong, which Stiles's takes as proof that his current theory for why Hale is heartless is right. He also bends his neck, finally, which means that the room is soon filled with the sizzle and hiss and delicious smell of eggs and bacon.

“Breakfast,” Stiles says with a happy sigh, his whole outlook on the day brightening.

Lydia snorts. “Boys.”

“Hey now, I think someone of my lofty stature certainly deserves the title of man.”

Lydia snorts again. “Self-impressed boys who can’t find it in them to break ridiculous curses cast by over-blown windbag witches don’t deserve anything more than a lump on the back of the head.”

“I hate you,” Stiles tells her, his lip curled up in disgust and everything.

“You love me. Don’t even try to deny it.” Lydia is smirking, Stiles doesn’t even have to look to know it.

“I could hate you. You never know.”

Lydia scoffs. “You’d as soon hand over Hale. Now shut up and read. I have to have those back to Wizard Deaton before dusk or suffer dire consequences. And there is no way I’m suffering anything of the sort on your behalf.

“I hate you,” Stiles says again, but he says it soft enough for Lydia to pretend not to hear.

*

Lydia leaves shortly before dusk, taking her books and her sass with her and leaving behind a melancholy Stiles and equally dejected Jackson.

“I know why I’m upset, but what’s got your spark down?” Stiles asks the fire demon after trying to unsuccessfully trying to perk him back up with a handful of mountain ash twigs.

Jackson just ignores him, burying his face in a pile of ash.

“Come on, bright guy. Take a bite. You know you want to,” Stiles encourages, poking at Jackson with a sturdy looking twig.

“Go away,” Jackson mutters through the ash.

Stiles lets out a sigh. “It’s Lydia, isn’t it?” he asks, his voice resigned. He knows all the hallmarks of an infatuation with one Lydia Martin better than most, seeing as how he was convinced he was in love with her for most of his short life.

Jackson lets out a loud, displeased crackle. “I’m not talking to you about this.”

“You really should. I am her best friend, you know. I could totally offer up pointers. Not that, um, you could...” Stiles sucks on his teeth. “You know that you are a fire demon, right?”

"What's your point?" Jackson snaps, rising his face out of the ashes to glower at Stiles.

Stiles leans back from the hearth, resting on his haunches. "Um, just that, well, people and fire demons don't really mix well. Witches and wizards can handle themselves where fire demons are concerned -- well, most of the time, that is. You always hear about these big fiery blowouts and how this wizard lost his right hand and his front teeth to some skeezy fire demon that reneged on his promises or how that witch was burnt out from the inside because some shifty fire demon sent too powerful a surge of magic through her. Not really pleasant stories, actually." Stiles frowns. "Maybe I don't want to help you out, here."

Jackson makes a displeased sound. "Oh, it's all about the big, bad fire demons, isn't it? Never mind that half the time a fire demon ends up with the raw end of the deal, losing all their freedom and most of their power when they accept a bond. Or the fact that almost all of those 'tragic' tales are due to some lazy witch or wizard who doesn't have more than a scrap of magical talent and sports an ego too big to admit it." Jackson scowls, shooting sparks out of his eyes as he shakes his head. "But sure, go ahead, rant on about how terrible fire demons are. Whatever. It's not like you would ever be lucky enough to bond with one. The only thing interesting about you, Stiles, is the curse you're under."

"Thanks for reminding me of that," Stiles says dryly. He crosses his arms over his chest, tapping his shoulder with the mountain ash twig. "So that's why you want out?" he asks after a long moment.

"What?"

"That's why you want out," Stiles repeats. "The whole loss of your power and freedom thing?"

Jackson flickers a little, like he's surprised, then plasters a haughty look on his face. "I'm an extremely powerful demon," he says with a look that tells Stiles that Stiles could never grasp the logic behind Jackson’s actions.

Stiles has to fight not to roll his eyes, to keep his voice conciliatory when he says, "Well, obviously. Look at what you do with this castle. Not any old fire demon could pull that off. And that's not the half of it. I know you supply Hale with a large reservoir of power and you take care of all the simple charms and spells he's got running about this place. And you let him dole out some of your energy to the trio to help them learn how to incorporate two streams of magical energy together and get an idea of how a fully functional bond with a fire demon ought to feel." He leans forward, eyes locked with Jackson's glowing ones. "You're something special, Jackson. We all know it. Even Hale, though he's absolutely terrible at showing it."

Jackson blinks, looking flustered. His mouth softens and he almost smiles. Stiles can't help but smile back at him, encouragingly.

"So, about Lydia," Stiles starts, but stops short when the almost-smile on Jackson's face vanishes.

"Leave it," Jackson spits out, shrinking in on himself until only the tip of his head is visible, hair dancing like real flames on the hearth.

Chapter Text

It starts slowly, so slowly that at first Stiles thinks he’s imagining it, the way Hale just doesn’t seem to be around as much, or as interested in talking to Stiles when he is around. Hale is a mighty and powerful wizard, after all, and Stiles is... well. Stiles isn’t a particularly clever person. He doesn’t have a wide range of experiences. All Stiles can say is that he’s Hale’s castle-keeper. So of course Hale has more important things to do than sit an evening with him, chatting about nothing in particular.

It hurts a little, knowing that Hale no longer wants to spend his free time in Stiles company, but it’s not unexpected. Stiles was a novelty, nothing more, and the thrill of his newness has run its course. So Stiles doesn’t protest when their nightly ritual falls by the wayside. He doesn’t say anything when Hale stops coming to dinner, or complain about how Hale has gotten much more snappish and terse with his trio of apprentices. Because Stiles is not Hale’s friend, after all. He’s Hale’s employee.

And if Hale is harsh to everyone, Jackson included, and dismissive in a way that leaves Stiles muttering bitterly to himself about being overworked and underappreciated, well. That’s just life. If Stiles got confused for awhile, if Stiles thought that maybe there was something there, then that’s on Stiles’s head and no one else’s. Stiles is a fully grown man. He can accept that he was wrong about what was going on between them.

But what he can’t accept, what forces him out of his self-imposed resignation, is when Hale tells his motley crew to stop looking for a solution to the Witch of the Waste problem. Because that is not on at all. Hale promised he would do something about the Witch, he gave Stiles his word. And Hale can’t just pretend like he didn’t. So Stiles girds up his loins and marches off to beard the wolf in his own den.

Or in his castles's main room, as the case may be.

*

“I don’t have to explain myself to you,” Hale growls at Stiles when Stiles confronts him, his eyes flashing red in warning.

“Oh yes you do,” Stiles shoots back, he steps forward and jabs at Hale’s chest with a finger. “Don’t think you can just slither out of this, Hale. We have an agreement. You know we do.”

Hale bats his hand away, lips curling up unpleasantly. “Yes, Stiles, we did. I was agreed to look into it. And I have. Thoroughly.”

Stiles waits for him to continue. When he doesn’t, Stiles rolls his eyes and says, “And?”

“And what?” Hale crosses his arms over his chest.

“You looked into things thoroughly,” Stiles prompts. “That means you found something, right? What did you find?”

Hale shakes his head. “I didn’t find anything. Stiles, there is nothing I can do.”

"What do you mean there's nothing you can do?" Stiles asks incredulously. "Of course there's something you can do. There's always something that can be done."

"No," Hale says with a glare, "there isn't."

“But, Hale, you’re the most powerful wizard that ever was. The things you can do are amazing, spectacular. I’ve seen you accomplish feats that no other wizards would dream of achieving. If anyone can do this, if anyone can find a way to bring the Witch of the Waste to justice, it’s you.”

Hale gives him an annoyed look. “Thank you for that, Stiles, but I really didn’t need a motivational speech. None of your over-the-top flattery is going to change my mind.”

Something inside of Stiles cringes at Hale’s derision. He bites at his lip, feeling hesitant, but then shakes his head and presses on. “It’s not flattery. It’s fact. You are the best. You’re amazing when you put your mind to it. All you need is the right lever and you can move the world.”

Hale snorts. “I’m not pursuing this, Stiles. You need to accept that and move on.”

“But,” Stiles eyes sting and his throat is tight, “but I don't’ understand. Why are you just giving up? It doesn’t make sense.”

Hale lets out a long sigh. "I found a way to do it,” he admits reluctantly. “But Jackson was right. The spells I would need to work would drain him."

Stiles swallows back his urge to cheer. "Drain him? How much of a drain are we talking about? Would it put him out?" he enquires, because he knows that putting Jackson out is not something that they should risk having happen.

“I don’t think so, no,” Hale says slowly, “but that isn’t the point. I’m not going to do it.”

"Why?” Stiles demands. “If it won’t put him out, then I don’t see what the problem is.”

"Of course you don't," Jackson snips from the hearth. "You aren't the one that would be left drained."

"You would recover," Stiles says with a roll of the eyes.

"Yes, but how long would it take? How long would Hale be without his powerboost? You know he would never agree to anything that might weaken his claim to the title of greatest wizard of them all." Jackson's tone is bitter, his expression unimpressed.

Stiles makes a face at him. "Please, Hale is not that shallow."

Jackson sneers. "Oh really?" He glances at Hale. "Go on, tell him. Tell him how much you value your power and control. Tell him how you suss out any hint of emerging power, how you track down all possible magic users and watch them to make sure they aren't a threat to you and your plans."

Hale makes a low growling noise, but he doesn't say anything, doesn't object at all.

"Hale?" Stiles’s voice is high, vulnerable.

Hale growls again and Jackson crackles out a laugh. "Go on, tell him. Tell him about the weeks you spent in Beacon Hills, tracking down the rumors of a talented little magic user, an up and comer based out of a hat shop, of all things. Tell old Stiles here about how you watched and waited and lurked in the shadows until the right moment appeared, how you swooped in like a hero, saving the day so he wouldn't question why you were there or how you knew where his home was."

Stiles sucks in a breath, his eyes going wide. "Oh lord," he says backing up a step as he tries to reconcile what he's hearing with what he thought he knew. "No," he shakes his head. "No, that's not what happened."

Jackson laughs again, flashing Stiles a nasty smile. "And that's not the best of it. Not by far. Don't you ever wonder, Stiles, why Hale's never asked you about your curse? Haven't you ever stopped and thought about why he never brings it up, when it's clear to everyone with a scrape of magical talent exactly what sort of a spell you are under. It would be so easy for him to break it. He wouldn't even have to use me at all. Hale could do it with his own personal abilities. But he hasn't done it, has he? And he's never going to. Don't you even wonder why?"

"You're lying. Hale, tell me he's lying." Stiles turns to Hale and his heart sinks because Hale has that perfectly blank expression of his in place, his eyes are red, his fingers are claws, but he's not growling. He doesn't even look upset. Just perfectly, hatefully blank. "Hale?"

"You stupid, stupid boy. You still don't get it. You think you mean something to him? You think all your puttering about and fireside chats have endeared you to him? How many times do I have to tell you, Hale doesn't have a heart. He doesn't care about you and your problems. He doesn't care that he's the reason why the Witch of the Waste targeted you in the first place. All he cares about is his comfort, his personal safety. And if he breaks that curse, well he can kiss both of those things goodbye. She would know exactly where he was and she would be here in an instant. Do you really think, can you honestly believe, that Hale's going to help you and your no account town fight off the Witch of the Waste at great personal cost, when he can't even be bothered make the effort to break the paltry little curse you are under?"

Stiles sucks in a breath, his heart hammering in his chest. "Is it true?" he asks, his voice barely above a whisper. "Tell me, Hale, is it true?"

Hale doesn't speak, doesn't move for a long moment, just stares at Stiles with that cold, hard look on his face. Then he slowly inclines his head. Stiles feels like he's been sucker punched, his whole body jerking back. He shoves a fist into his mouth and bites down hard, shaking his head from side to side.

"Stiles." Hale takes a half step towards him, hand out stretched.

Stiles stumbles back, his thoughts racing. "I can't be here," he says. "I can't be around--" he cuts himself off and glances about frantically.

Jackson smirks at him. "So leave," he says in a bored drawl. "It's not like anyone wants you here."

And that's just what Stiles does.

*

Stiles ought to go back to his hat shop, he means to, but somehow he finds himself outside of Lydia's door. He doesn't knock on it, though, because knocking is the first step in acknowledging a whole lot of things he'd rather not acknowledge right now.

Stiles isn't sure how long he stands on the front step, staring at Lydia's door, but it's long enough for the cold night air to have settled into his bones and for the neighbors to start giving him shifty looks. He probably would have stayed out there longer, bitterly regretting his life choices, if Lydia herself hadn't bustled up the steps and nearly crashed into him.

"Stiles!" She gripped his arm tight, her eyes wide with surprise. "What on earth are you doing here?"

Stiles lets out a half sob of a laugh and Lydia's expression shifts from surprise to concern. "Come inside, come inside. Sit yourself by the fire. Or, well, sit yourself by the fireplace and I'll start up a nice fire."

She takes her key out of her bag and quickly opens the door, shooing Stiles inside. "Just let me take off my hat," she says, setting her bag on the table in the entry way and reaching up to unpin the stylish mini-hat Stiles made for her a lifetime ago.

Stiles sucks in a breath, tells himself it will all be alright. This is why first born sons don't go out to seek their fortunes. He knew all along that his life should be spent in the safety of home, working at his mother's hat shop and not looking for adventure.

Lydia frowns, her perfect lips curving down in an almost pout. "Do you need a drink? You look like you need a drink. Tea? Coffee? Something more bracing than that?"

Stiles clears his throat. "Tea, if you have some at hand. But don't put on a kettle just for me."

Lydia gives him an exasperated look, the same look she’s been giving him for the last thirteen years. It's comforting in its familiarity, but upsetting at the same time because nothing has changed, and yet everything has changed. He's not the same Stiles, the Stiles content with his lot in life. He wants things now, dangerous things. Things he knows he can't have, things that have already done a great deal to crush his heart.

He sucks in a shuddering breath, tells himself to just stop already. So Hale never liked him, so what? They were never more than passing acquaintances to start with, never friends, though he he secretly hoped that they were. Hale growled and scowled and threatened to rip Stiles’s throat out with his teeth. Which wasn't a threat Stiles ever felt Hale would go through with, but still. Threats like that are not part of normal friendships.

And, yes, it was disappointing to learn that someone he had grown to care for hadn't felt the same sort of bond developing, but it wasn't the end of the world. Far from it. Sure, Stiles would never have another fireside chat with Hale-- his bright green eyes focused so intently on Stiles, like all that mattered were the words coming out of Stiles's mouth-- but there would be other firesides and other eyes that might actually belong to someone who could come to like him for his scatterbrained ways.

Stiles does not sigh. He doesn't. And he doesn't bury his face in his hands and slump forward either. Hell, he doesn't feel mopey and dejected at all, if he's going to try and delude himself.

"Stop sighing," Lydia says.

Stiles glances up at her through his fingers. Sometimes between when she gave him the look that started him down this train of thought and now she has acquired a full pot of tea and a platter with sandwiches on it. "You're a goddess," he croaks, reaching for one of the yummy morsels.

Lydia slaps his hands away. "Not until you tell me what's going on."

Stiles gives her a grumpy look. "But sandwiches!"

"But nothing," she snaps back.

He lets out a huff. "Fine. Hale's a heartless bastard and Jackson’s a jackass and I can't live in that stupid not-castle with a heartless bastard and a jackass so I'm home. Which shouldn't be terrible because it's home but somehow home isn't home anymore and, and..." His words trail off into another sigh.

"You should have just turned him over to the Witch of the Waste and been done with it," Lydia says with a sigh of her own. "But no, that would be too logical, that would make too much sense. So, of course, you chose to go with the 'fall hopelessly in love with the heartless bastard' option instead."

Stiles's jaw drops open. "I'm not in love with Hale," he protests.

Lydia pats his hand. "Oh honey, you are." She hands him a sandwich. "Here, eat something. It will make you feel better."

"I don't see how," Stiles grumbles, but he eats the sandwiches he was given, and then another for good measure.

*

It should be comforting, how easily Stiles falls back into his old life. Sure, there are differences -- silk prices have tripled since he's been gone and women have become very attached to the idea of veils -- but in the grand scheme of things, nothing has changed. He wakes up at the same time, completes the same tasks, eats the same food and then drops exhausted into bed. Then he wakes up the next day and does it all over again.

It's not comforting, though.

Not in the least.

Not unless you find mind numbing, bone aching boredom to be comforting, which Stiles most emphatically does not.

So it shouldn't be surprising how excited Stiles gets when his shop door opens and Isaac walks in, his eyes wide and his curls in even more disarray than normal.

"Oh thank god, you're here!" he says, which makes no sense at all.

"Of course I'm here," Stiles replies, setting down the hat he was trimming and wiping his hands on his apron. "Where else would I be?"

"Dead in a ditch, if Hale is to be believed, or selling your soul to the Witch of the Waste, if you want to listen to Jackson."

Stiles makes a face. "Why would anyone want to listen to Jackson?" He crosses the room and locks the front door, switching the sign in the window to closed. "Come in, come in. I've got a pot of stew over the fire. I'll ladle you up a bowl. You look like you haven't eaten anything since I left."

Isaac gives him the saddest eyes ever as he follows Stiles into the kitchen. "That's because I pretty much haven't. Jackson refuses to bend his neck for anyone but Hale and Hale is in a funk and either brooding in his room or out doing who knows what and so there hasn't been a proper meal served since you up and ran away. Why did you do that, Stiles? Didn't you like it with us?" His voice takes on a mournful note at the end and Stiles can read between the line enough to know that Isaac is really asking if Stiles liked him.

Stiles presses his lips together as he ladles out the promised stew. "It's ridiculous to say that I left because Hale doesn't have a heart, since that's what everyone's been telling me since the beginning, but," he shrugs, "I left because Hale doesn't have a heart and I, unfortunately, do."

He sets the bowl of stew in front of Isaac and then hands him a spoon, which the boy instantly starts to fiddle with.

"Don't you miss us?" he asks, his voice small. "We miss you."

Stiles ladles himself some stew as he tries to form a response. "Of course I miss you," he says finally. "But I can't, I couldn't stay, Isaac. It had nothing to do with you or Boyd or Erica. It doesn't even have to do with Jackson. He's a fire demon, he can't help his nature."

Isaac chews at his bottom lip. "So this is about Hale, then."

Well, obviously. Didn’t Isaac hear the bitterness in Stiles’s voice when he said that Hale had no heart? Because Stiles had certainly heard it. Stiles sighs, settling himself at the small table, his bowl in front of him, a spoon in his right hand.

"Hale is..." He struggles for words. "Hale is who he is," Stiles finally says with a head shake. "My understanding of him was," he pauses, "skewed. When my misperceptions were corrected, well, I didn't react well. Running away from something is never the right answer. But now that I've had time to think about it, I realize that leaving was the best choice for all involved. It hurts, not being able to see you and Erica and Boyd, but it really is for the best."

"Whatever Hale said, you know he didn't mean it," Isaac tell him, his face ernest.

Stiles snorts, he can't help himself, then eats a spoonful of stew as he tries to formulate an answer that doesn't consist of 'Hale is a heartless bastard who hates me twice as much as I hate him.' Stiles eats another bite of stew when he realizes that he's not going to be able to. Formulate an answer, that is. Or face the fact that Stiles doesn't hate Hale at all.

Isaac makes a sad sound and chews on his lips some more, but doesn't say anything and, before Stiles realizes it, their second bowls of stew are gone.

He clears his throat awkwardly. “Best clear this up then,” he says, standing. Isaac nods, pushing his chair back as he picks up his bowl and follows Stiles to the sink. Stiles gives Isaac a smile as he takes the bowl from him, washing it quickly before setting it aside to dry.

They stand next to each other, watching the bowls slowly dry, like that is at all a normal thing to do, long enough for Stiles to start to get twitchy. He’s about to open his mouth and say who knows what when Isaac clears his throat and gives Stiles a tentative look.

"Is it alright if I visit sometime?' he asks, his voice hesitant and vulnerable.

"Of course," Stiles answers instantly. "You're always welcome in my shop. And you can tell your fellow apprentices that the same goes for them.

Isaac beams at him, wide smile splitting his face, and then launches himself at Stiles. Stiles staggers back with a muffled grunt, but can't find it in him to be aggrieved, no matter how tightly Isaac hugs him.

*

After that Stiles’s sad little routine gets a tad bit brighter, thanks to regular visits from his favorite trio of mischief makers. Isaac comes the most often, and Boyd the least, but rarely a week goes by when he doesn't see all three of them at least once. Stiles makes them assist him in the shop, waiting on customers, helping him block hats, and, on one memorable occasion, helping him trim.

None of them have a knack for it-- Isaac has butterfingers and can't sew a stitch to save his life, Erica smiles too sharply for the clientele's comfort (they all end up edging away from her no matter how sweet she tries to be), and Boyd, well. Boyd does everything with aplomb, but looks miserable while doing it. But still, it's nice to have them around, nice to have an extra set of hands to lighten the load and someone other than hats to chat with.

It would be better if the three of them could stop mentioning Hale, but, well, nothing in life is perfect.

Chapter Text

"Are you ever going to talk about this?"

Stiles looks up from the table of hats he's arranging and frowns at Lydia. "Talk about what?" he says, like he isn’t perfectly aware of what is getting Lydia’s goat. She huffs at him and taps her foot, her jaw tightening. Stiles give her his best smile and tries not to twitch. "Lydia?"

She frowns at him and sighs loudly. "You're in love with Hale."

Stiles opens his mouth to protest, then snaps in back shut, his shoulders slumping. "And so what if I am?" he asks dejectedly. "He's not in love with me. Lord knows, he's not even in like with me. He hasn't even bothered to so much as write me a note in the two months since I left his stupid not-castle."

Lydia snorts. "You mean he hasn't thrown himself at you feet and begged for you to change your mind after you told him you couldn't bare to be around him? Shocker."

"That's not what happened," Stiles snaps at her.

"Um, yes. It is." Lydia pretends to fluff her perfectly coifed hair.

Stiles glowers at her. "You weren't there."

She lifts a shoulder. "I have my sources. And my sources say that there is one perfectly wretched wizard moping around his big, lonely castle, to match the perfectly wretched hatter moping around his small, lonely hat shop. Now what is a girl like me to do in a situation like this?"

"Nothing. A girl like you knows better than to meddle in something that doesn't concern her."

Lydia scoffs. "A girl like me has meddling in her blood, Stiles. And you know it."

Stiles shakes his head. "Not this time. Please, Lydia, just let it be. Maybe he is moping, who knows, but it's probably just because he misses having his house cleaned and his pack of miscreants well fed. It's not..." He shakes his head again. "Don't make this into something it's not. Hale wasn't my friend. He wasn't. Friends don't lie to each other, they don't--" Stiles cuts out with a frustrated sound, fisting his hands into his hair. His old, gnarled hands. Into his thin, white hair. Stiles closes his eyes and tries his hardest not to cry.

Lydia clucks her tongue and her heels click on the hardwood of his floors as she moves to his side. Her gloved hand rests on his shoulder, warm and comforting, but she doesn't break the silence. Stiles sucks in a deep breath, then another, before placing one of his hands over hers and opening his eyes.

She smiling at him, a soft, sad sort of smile. "Oh, Stiles," she says, hand squeezing tight on his shoulder before dropping away. "It doesn't have to be this hard."

Stiles open his mouth to tell her that he's not trying to make things hard, but shuts it again when she shakes her head. "Oh, Stiles," she says again, then she's wrapping him up in a hug so tight that Stiles fears for the safety of his brittle old bones.

*

Stiles isn’t unhappy with his return to his old life. He’s not. How can he be, when there is so much for him to do and see? He gets to see Scott and Allison and all his old friends again. They go to lunch together every other Saturday. And there’s Sunday tea with his father and twice weekly visits from Lydia and life is lovely.

On top of that, he gets plenty of time with the trio and regular walks in and out of town. His shop is doing better than ever, his hat are positively flying off of the shelves. So why would Stiles even think about being miserable? He’s got everything he ever wanted. Sure, he’s still as old as the hills, but that’s not so bad anymore. He’s used to it. And it doesn’t really affect his life in any meaningful way. Stiles is perfectly happy.

Why wouldn’t he be?

*

"He misses you," Erica says slyly as she sews a cluster of grapes onto a summer bonnet.

Stiles makes a face at her, but otherwise doesn't respond.

"He does," Erica continues, because she's terrible at picking up on hints. "He asks after you in that oblique way of his everytime we get back from visiting you. And he lurks in the hallway, listening in whenever we happen to mention your name in passing. I’ve even heard him muttering about how foolish it is for you to be out here, with no protection at all. There’s a war on, don’t you know?"

Stiles snorts derisively at that. Of course there’s a war on. The war just happens to be a huge part of why Stiles is no longer a resident of that stupid, lurching castle. He purses his lips and sews on like Erica didn’t say anything at all.

"It's horrible for the whole castle, the way he mopes about. Worse than that time when he called the spirits of darkness after Isaac tore a hole in his favorite leather jacket. You remember that, right, Stiles? The spirits filled the castle with their howling and Hale’s skin went all green and slimy looking? Isaac was so scared, he ran up to his room and hid under the bed. But you weren’t scared at all. You just made that face of yours and told Hale to stop being such a baby. You dragged him upstairs and dunked his head in the bathwater and told him you wouldn’t put up with his nonsense. Remember?"

Yes, Stiles remembers. He remembers everything that happened during his time with Hale in that ridiculous moving castle. But it doesn’t matter if he remembers or not, because Stiles isn’t going back and he isn’t going to rise to Erica’s bait. So he sniffs derisively and continues trimming the hat in his hands.

“You miss him too, don’t you?” Erica asks, her voice light, but her eyes narrowed and knowing. “You miss his antics, the way he fills the room with a brooding, melancholy air. Admit it, Stiles, you want Hale back in your life as much as he wants you back in his.”

Stiles’s mouth tightens at that and he stabs into a felt hat with a needle much more viciously than perhaps is called for. Which isn’t very fair to the poor hat. Stiles winces in sympathy and mumbles an apology to it, because it's not the hat's fault he's upset.

"I'm serious, Stiles," Erica says, tying off a knot and then snipping the thread with her teeth. "He's morose, completely dejected. Sulking about like a lost little puppy." She picks up a cabbage rose and eyes it speculatively. "It pathetic. Almost as pathetic as someone else I could name, who sulks about in his hat shop, mooning over a surly wizard."

"Erica," Stiles snaps, slapping a hand down on the table top.

She smirks at him and holds the cabbage rose up to the bonnet. "I know, I know. Too much." She sets the cabbage rose down and reaches for some purple ribbon. "Now, like I was saying--"

Stiles pushes to his feet, snarling about interfering harpies who can't keep their noses out of other people's business. All he gets for his efforts is another smirky look and a cackle of a laugh.

*

To take his mind off of the whole Hale situation, Stiles decides to head out into the town. He wanders up and down the streets, stopping in any shop that happens to catch his fancy. He is just coming out of a store that had the most intricate lace he had ever seen when he hears an oddly familiar thumping sound.

Stiles whirls around, eyes wide as he spies the long, awkward form of a scarecrow, bouncing its way towards him. Stiles lets out a laugh, shaking his head bemusedly. "Turnip Head!" Stiles grins. "What brings you to Beacon Hills?"

Turnip Head, not surprisingly, doesn't reply, just hops closer and closer, his gloved hands fluttering in the breeze. When he reaches Stiles, he hops a neat circle around him, then sways back a little, before leaning close.

"You're in a sad state, my friend," Stiles says ruefully, eyeing the tattered coat and battered hat that Turnip Head is sporting. "A sad, sad state indeed." He clucks his tongue mournfully, then grins the scarecrow a bright smile. "It's a good thing you bumped into me, as I happened to be the best man in town to remedy what ails you." He adjusts the basket of goods he's carting home higher up on his arm and then takes hold of one of the dangling gloves that make up Turnip Head's hands. "Come on, let's get you back to the shop. I'll have you fixed up in no time at all."

Turnip Head does a dip bob combination and the spins around in that dizzying fashion of his, so that he is directly in front of Stiles, hopping backwards up the road.

"You are ridiculous," Stiles tells him, ignoring the strange looks the townsfolk are giving him. "Absolutely ridiculous."

And it's true, but that doesn't mean that Stiles isn't enjoying the spectacle Turnip Head is making. He catches the scarecrow up on all that has happened to him since he last saw the poor cursed being, laughing his way through descriptions of Isaac and Boyd and Erica. But he sombers when he gets to the part about Hale proving his heartlessness and Jackson sneering as Stiles's stupidity. Stiles sighs and shakes his head.

"Ah well," he says with a shrug. "There's no smoke without fire, right? We all have to learn that lesson some time or another, and this was just my time. But it's not the end of the world. Not even close. Sure, I'm a little bit less wide eyed than I was, but everyone with a lick of sense will tell you that's a good thing. And being old, well, it's got some benefits. People let you go first, you know. And they are generally more polite to you as well. The other day, a pretty young thing kissed me on the cheek and called me precious. Which would have never happened if I was in my normal form. There's absolutely nothing precious about Stiles Stilinski, gangly hat maker extraordinaire. But Grandpa Stiles? He's got them lined up in rows to kiss his withered old cheek."

Turnip Head does that tilt bob thing again, his painted-on mouth brushing awkwardly along the side of Stiles's face and Stiles can't help but laugh. "I guess I can count you among my admirers, too," Stiles says with a wink. Turnip Head twists and spins, the tattered ends of his tail coat fluttering behind him in the breeze and Stiles can't help but grin.

He chatters on aimlessly the rest of the way to his shop, talking about this and that, mentioning a rumor he heard about movement from the troops in the south, and how the sun seemed to be washing out the hats he kept in his west facing windows faster and faster these days and before he knows it, he is stumping up the stairs to his shop.

Stiles holds the door open with a flourish and a bow. "Come on in, my fine friend," he says as Turnip Head bounces his way up the steps, "and have a look around."

A few hours later Turnip Head is on his way back out again, dressed in a fine new coat made of a deep blue, with matching britches and a pair of white gloves that Stiles just knows are going to be dingy in no time flat. But Turnip Head had insisted on them, same as he insisted on the poorly made top hat that Stiles keep in back, out of sight of his regular customers.

It was the result of one of Isaac's better attempts at hatmaking, but still is an unsightly, lopsided thing that Stiles would be embarrassed to see on the head of any gentleman, be they enchanted scarecrows or otherwise. He had tried valiantly to get Turnip Head to settle on another hat-- any other hat-- but the scarecrow had been determined to have it, and in the end Stiles was forced to let him have his way.

“Take care!” he calls after the scarecrow, smiling fondly as Turnip Head bounced out of sight.

*

The attack, when it comes, is not unexpected. There have been rumors that the enemies forces were on the move, that they were heading this way. Stiles has been on edge for weeks, spending his nervous energy on fits of hat making, which have done wonders for increasing his quarterly profit margins, but nothing to calm the anxiety that prompted it.

The day before the attack the air seemed heavier, almost, hot and still without the cool breezes autumn typically brought to Beacon Hills. Dogs barked for no reason, cats refused to be petted and all the birds seemed to have vanished overnight. Families snapped at each other one moment, then clung to each other tight. And all around there was a sense of waiting, like the calm before a storm.

So, no, the attack is not unexpected at all.

But the source of it is.

*

Stiles is out behind his shop in his meager garden when it happens, pulling at the weeds that stubbornly return year after year. He's muttering to himself, because that's what Stiles is good at-- grumbling about gnarled old hands and creaking, cracking knees-- when a loud blast rends the air. Hot air buffets him as he is knocked back by the explosion. His ears are ringing and he is blinded by dust as he struggles his way to his feet.

"What?" he asks dumbly, even though it's clear what must have occurred. A stray bomb had fallen out of the clear blue sky and struck his poor, humble hat shop. Stiles sucks in a breath as he stumbles forward, eyes widening at the sight of the damage.

"No," he says, shaking his head in disbelief. "This can’t be happening. How is this happening?"

He's still standing there, staring at the wreckage, when another blast rocks the ground, almost knocking him back off his feet. Stiles twists towards the sound, eyes searching the sky for any hint of an airship, but none is to be found.

"Magic," he mutters. "It always comes back to magic."

"Oh god, it's his shop!" Stiles hear Lydia say, her voice cracked and ragged. "Stiles!" she shouts. "Stiles!"

"Out back," Stiles calls to her. "I'm safe, back in the garden."

He hears feet pounding towards him, then Lydia is rounding the flaming heap that once was his home, her long hair trailing out behind her, tears streaming down her face. "I thought you were dead," she sobs, slamming into him hard enough to knock him back a step.

"It will take more than a sneak attack to end me," Stiles says as she wraps her arms around him and squeezed him tight. "There, there,” he soothes, but Lydia only cries louder. Stiles pats ineffectually at her back. "I'm fine," he reassures her. "Lydia, I'm fine."

She raises her face from his shoulder and glowers at him. "Never do that again," she says, her eyes flashing and her voice fierce.

"Never do what? Survive a magical attack?"

"This is no time for your jokes," Lydia snaps, her eyes narrowing.

Stiles smiles weakly at her. "When better?"

Lydia doesn't answer, just hugs him tight. Stiles lets her, taking as much comfort from her as he can. "What am I going to do?" he asks, his throat dry and his eyes burning with unshed tears.

Stiles isn't sure how long they stay like that, arms wrapped around each other as they watch his house burn, but eventually they are jarred apart by the sound of running feet and Scott's frantic calls. Stiles is on the verge of shouting out to him when there is a loud whoosh followed by a blast of icy air.

The flames vanish in an instant, leaving smoke and the smell of burnt things in their wake. Stiles lets out a sound that is one part relief to two parts dismay as he takes in the damage. Lydia's arms squeeze him tight, then release as she steps away. Stiles turns to her, mouth open in amazement, and she gives him a watery smile.

"Magic," she says with exasperation only someone mostly immune to magic can pull off.

Stiles opens his mouth to say who knows what, but shuts it again when he hears someone talking to Scott. The words are indistinct, but the voice is oddly familiar. He glances at Lydia, who gives him a concerned look and shakes her head.

"Should we go to the front?" he asks her softly.

Lydia scrunches up her nose at the idea, then reluctantly nods. "You have to face them sometime, I guess."

"Face who?" Stiles wonders as he lets her lead him out to the street. The answer is obvious the second he rounds the flaming wreckage.

Isaac and Scott are standing together, heads close as they talk in low tones. Boyd is next to Isaac, nodding his agreement every now and then, and on the other side of him is Erica, looking like she wants to stab something with that knife of hers. Stiles lets out a thrilled sound at the sight of them, taking a quick step forward before he sees Hale, standing to one side with arms crossed over his chest and an angry look on his face, glowering at Stiles like he purposely set his house alight to get Hale's attention.

Stiles jerks to a stop, Lydia nearly colliding with his arm. "What are you doing here?" he asks, his voice leaden.

Hale's eyebrows shoot up at that, forming that inverted vee that never fails to make him look young and vulnerable, but does he answer? Of course he doesn’t. Stiles waits long enough to have that fact confirmed, then gives him a dark look, and proceeds to ignores him completely while the others circle round.

Hands clasp his shoulder and smiles brighten faces. Words tumble out fast and excited, no one even attempting to pause or let others have their turn. They laughs and grin and pat him on the back, not at all caring that Stiles can't cipher out a thing they are saying.

"Give him space, give him space," Lydia finally says, shooing the crowd away.

Erica looks for a second like she's going to challenge her, but then Lydia gives her a deeply assessing look and Erica backs off, much to Stiles’s surprise. He grins at Lydia. "You've got to teach me how to do that."

She makes a face at him. "You can't explain something innate, Stiles."

He makes a face right back at her and has a very witty retort all lined up, but he never gets to say it, because that's when the Witch of the Waste appears.

Chapter Text

The Witch of the Waste looks just like Stiles remembers her: tall and blonde with a toothy smile. Once again, she’s in an outfit that is slightly too tight for her age and composed entirely of dark leather, because some people can’t help but give in to a stereotype. "Lovely to see you again, Hale," she says, her eyes flashing dangerously. "It's been years. I was starting to think that maybe you were avoiding me." She pouts a little and gives Hale a simpering look.

Hale glares at her, his hands fisting at his sides, but he doesn't reply, and that doesn't suit the Witch at all. She gives him an annoyed look, then saunters over and grabs Scott's chin. "What is this?” she asks, twisting his head from side to side to peer at him. "Another one?" she lets out a perturbed sound. "Is there something in the water here? Something that produces pretty little magic users with tragic hair cuts and big puppy eyes?" She sighs and shakes her head. "It really is a good thing I've decided to burn this town to the ground."

"Kate," Hale snarls and Stiles blinks at him.

"Kate?" he repeats, incredulous. "Her name is Kate? But that's such a nice name."

The Witch shifts her attention from Scott to him, her eyes narrowing in a way that is as creepy as it is familiar. "Are you saying I'm not nice?" she croons.

Stiles rolls his eyes. "Well, obviously."

Kate lets go of Scott's chin and takes a menacing step towards Stiles. "You haven't learned a thing, have you?" she hisses.

"Forget about him," Hale says dismissively, moving to intercept her. "He's not the reason you are here."

Kate laughs, her pretty face contorting into something ugly as she does. “Oh, but that’s where you’re wrong.” She shakes her finger at him, like you would at misbehaving child. “Someone’s been very, very naughty,” she croons. “And do you know what happens to naughty boys? They get their toys taken away from them.”

The air around her hand goes hazy and in the center of her palm a ball of sickly green light coalesces. It hisses and pops and looking at it makes Stiles’s stomach feel queasy.

"Now don't be hasty," he says, holding his hands in front of him as he backs up.

Kate laughs, a delightful sound that has no right coming out of a the Witch of the Waste. "Finally realized who you were playing with, did you?" She makes a tsking sound. "Far too late, I'm afraid."

The ball of light shoots out towards Stiles and Stiles has a moment of clarity, where he suddenly realizes that this is it. He's about to die. He hears his friends shouting, telling him to run, to try to get away, but Stiles can't run, can't even think about moving. All he can do is stare at the ball of sickly green light flying towards and wonder how it is possible for his life to be over before it even began.

He squeezes his eyes shut and prepares for the end, but instead of having the ball evaporate him, he is knocked, quite painfully, to the ground. Stiles lets out a grunt, his eyes popping open in startelement a moment before Wizard Hale lands on top of him.

Stiles groans as Hale's elbow jabs painfully into his ribs. "Did you have to fall on me?" he gripes.

Hale makes an aggrieved sound. "No, I didn't. I could have just let that energy ball hit you, but somehow I didn't think you would like that, seeing as how it would have meant that you would now be dead."

"Not being dead really is the better option," Stiles has to admit, "though I'm really not fond of you being on top of me. Old, brittle bones here, Hale."

"Isn't that cute?" Kate sneers. "You think you can save your pretty toy. Or rather, your old, brittle toy. Sweet, really. Too bad it's not going to work. I'm stronger than you, Hale. Stronger and smarter and just an all-around better person, too. So how about you just drop that sad little shield of yours and give the old coot up. I promise that once he's out of the way, I'll make you feel so good. Just like old times."

Stiles gives Hale an incredulous look. "Really?"

Hale scowls and rolls away, rising smoothly to his feet. "It was a long time ago," he says dismissively, but the Stiles can see that the tips of his ears have gone red.

"Not that long," Kate says with another one of those simpering smiles. "I can still remember the way it felt, the way you felt." She bites her lower lip, her eyes going half lidded.

Erica makes a gagging sound. "That is just," she shakes her head, "far too much information for me to be comfortable with hearing."

"Well, no one asked you, precious," Kate says snidely. "Why don't you just run along now, dearie? I wouldn't want a sweet little thing like you getting hurt."

Erica narrows her eyes, her mouth opening for what will no doubt be a cutting reply, but Boyd grabs her arm and shakes his head. Erica doesn't wilt, because Erica doesn't have it in her to wilt, but she does snap her mouth shut, though Stiles can't help to notice the pools of faint blue light surrounding her balled hands.

So, unfortunately, does the Witch of the Waste. "What's that?" she asks, her eyes widening as her mouth forms an "oh." "Does somebody want to play, too?" Her lips curve up into a nasty smile a second before she lobs a ball of green light at Erica's head.

Erica slams her hands together over her head and a bright blue shield burst into existence around her. The ball of light slams into it, shattering into a cloud of sparks. Erica stumbles, her shield wavering as the witch lets out another laugh.

"Run, you idiots," Hale snarls, pushing up off the ground and then reaching down and yanking Stiles to his feet. "Run!"

His grip shifts to Stiles's arm and he drags Stiles along in his wake towards the smoldering rubble that use to be Stiles's shop. He darts in through a hole in the side of what once was Stiles’s front room, then makes his way to the relative safety of Stiles’s work room. The long front window has blown out, but the walls are all still intact.

"You have really bad taste in women," Stiles tells him, as his trio pour into the room. "I mean, really bad. Worse than her taste in hats. And, let me tell you, I know from experience that her taste in hats is terrible."

"Not helping there, Stiles!" Erica tells him, then she cocks her head to the side and gives Hale a look. “Join our forces to form a shield?” she asks.

Hale lets out a low rumble in response, which Stiles decides must mean “why, yes, what a lovely idea” because the three apprentices raise their hands and suddenly a multi-colored bubble forms around them.

“Looking good,” Stiles says, because he’s not one to stint on the compliments, though the peeved look he gets in response almost makes him wish he was. Stiles frowns, eyes darting around the room. “Hey, where are Scott and Lydia?” he asks, realizing for the first time that they were missing.

Boyd nods a head towards the blown out window. “They broke left when we went right. If you stand over here, you can just make them out, hunkered down by what use to be your garden shed.”

Stiles makes his way over to where Boyd is standing, and pushes up onto his tiptoes. He can just barely see the faint purple and yellow shield surrounding Lydia and Scott. He sucks on his lower lip, wishing they were here, under the trio’s much stronger looking shield. Scott isn’t far along in his studies to be able hold something as advanced as a shield for long, and Lydia’s partial immunity means that she can only cast defensive spells, and even then with limited reliability.

 

But they are where they are and there is nothing that Stiles can do about that now. Except hope that the Witch directs most of her attention towards the trio’s defensives instead of Lydia and Scott’s. Which seems rather counter intuitive, seeing as how Stiles is under the trio’s shield and would really rather not have to deal with the effects of a full scale attack. Especially when Hale, the one with the most power and skill, seems to be disinclined to join his considerable assets in with those of his apprentices.

Stiles gives a Hale an aggrieved look. “Aren’t you going to do something?” he snaps. “She pretty much has complete advantage here, and that’s not really helping me feel very confident in my continued life expectancy.”

Hale glowers at him. “What do you want me to do, Stiles?”

Stiles shrugs. “Throw a light ball or two? Turn into that wolf monster thing and rip her throat out with your teeth?”

Hale scowls and shakes his head. “Do you even know what you are asking me to do?”

“Stand up to the Witch of the Waste? Who, hey, just happens to be trying to kill you?” Stiles shakes his head. “Really, Hale, I thought that was obvious.”

Hale opens his mouth, but whatever he was going to say is cut off when a ball of green light explodes directly against the shield the apprentices are maintaining. It flashes ominously and Stiles winces, ducking down reflexively, an arm going up over his head.

“See what I mean?” he says, refusing to feel silly for ducking. “They aren’t going to be able to fight her. They can barely keep a shield up.”

Hale growls for a second before shoving Stiles onto the ground, Stiles’s hip barking hard against debris. Stiles hisses in pain, then groans in dismay as Hale’s full body weight settles on top of him.

“How does that help at all?” he wheezes, shoving at the wizard’s shoulders.

Hale snarls at him, his mouth full of fangs and his eyes gleaming red. A part of Stiles knows that he ought to be gibbering with fear at the sight, but that part is small and easy to ignore in favor of the much louder part of Stiles that wants to pinch one of those elongated ears between his finger and thumb and tug, because really. Was shoving him onto the ground necessary? No, it was not.

So that’s just what Stiles does. The pinching, that is. And the yelp Hale lets out is extremely satisfying, thank you very much, even if the pinching doesn’t, in fact, convince Hale to stop with the full body contact already. Hale just growls and yanks his head away, eyes peering up at the skyline for any hint of... Stiles doesn’t know what. Magic, most likely. Not that staring off into space will be much use, but then, Hale’s the wizard. So who knows, maybe it will be. Of some use other than giving Stiles an up close and personal view of Hale’s neck, that is. Which, just for the record, happens to be comprised of taut, tan skin that looks mouthwateringly firm and very nicely muscled.

Stiles squirms a little under Hale, feeling horribly awkward. “Why are you even here?” he splutters, flailing about for some way to get back on safe mental ground. “I thought for sure you would slither out of this, the same way you slither out of anything that looks like it might be work." He prods the wide expanse of Hale's back. "Answer me, Hale."

Hale does not answer him. But Hale does get off of him, pushing up into a crouch to scent at the air.

“Smell anything, boy?” Stiles asks as he rears up in an ungainly crouch of his own.

“Shut up, Stiles,” Erica tells him, her voice wavering in a way that makes Stiles feel bone weary.

“No, I won’t. He needs to do something.” Stiles shoves at Hale’s back. “You hear me?”

“We all hear you,” Boyd snaps, and Stiles winces back, because Boyd never loses his cool.

“I know you are trying to help,” Isaac says softly, “but right now isn’t the time. Just let Hale think a bit and he’ll come up with something. You’ll see, it will be brilliant. Hale is always at his best under pressure.”

Stiles gives Hale’s back an inquisitive look. “Are you, then?” he asks.

Hale waves a hand at him without turning his head, telling him without words to shut up already. Stiles lets out an grumble, but shuts up. They are still in the middle of a battle, after all. And if Isaac says that Hale just needs a little time to plan, well, Stiles can give him that time.

Stiles bites his lip and shifts around a bit until he can see comfortably around Hale's bulk. He winces at the sight meets his eyes. The houses on either side of his are gone, turned to smoldering rubble. The Witch of the Waste is clearly making good on her promise to burn Beacon Hills to the ground.

The air is full of shouts and screams, panic almost visible in the streets. Off in the distance, there are people running, fleeing the scene with whatever they have managed to grab. Some have overfilled packs, some have nothing but the clothes on their backs. Stiles sucks on his teeth, wishing that he had never returned home.

There was always a war, yes of course there was, but Beacon Hills was never a major target. There’s nothing to be gained by attacking them, what with them being so far from any major city, tucked up in the foothills like they are. But now they are under direct attack. And why? Because Stiles Stilinski got the Witch of the Waste’s dander up.

Plain and simple as that. His shop is gone. His neighbors’ homes are destroyed, and for what? So that the Witch of the Waste could have her final show down with the Great and Powerful Wizard Hale. And wasn’t that just peachy? Stiles balls his hands into fists and rails silently at the fates. He should have just accepted the curse. He should have just stayed at home, meek and quiet, and lived out the remainder of his days. But no, he had to go out into the woods. Had to enlist the help of the most dangerous wizard he knew of and get tangled up in all sorts of mischief. That’s what comes of a first son trying to be more than he is.

A loud boom rends the air, tearing Stiles from his thoughts. "Have you figured out a brilliant plan yet?" he asks, because time is not on their side. Sooner or later the Witch of the Waste was going to turn her full attention back to them. And if they hadn’t come up with something by then, well, Stiles didn’t want to think about what would happen next.

"No, I haven’t." Hale's voice is harsh, his face like a thundercloud when Stiles glances at him in startlement.

"What do you mean, you haven’t?" Stiles gives him a bewildered look, then rolls his eyes and nods. "Oh, wait. I had forgotten for a moment who I was talking to. The Great and Powerful Wizard Hale, Captain of the King's Off-loaders, widely known for his prowess in slithering out of anything that might possibly require effort or work. Of course you aren't going to come up with anything." He lets out a derisive huff. "I will, though." He shakes his head again, giving Hale a disgusted look, and then goes to move around him.

Hale lets out a growl, his hands shooting out to wrap around Stiles’s shoulders, pushing at him until he is pressed firmly along the wall of one of the houses that line the alley.

"Let go of me," Stiles snaps him, as he attempts to break Hale's hold, though he knows the wizard is unnaturally strong.

Hale's eyes flash red. "No."

Erica lets out a pained sound, drawing Stiles eyes to her. He sucks in a breath when he sees the way her hands are trembling, how the bright blue of her magic has faded, going near colorless in the mix. Boyd’s orange is looking sadly pastel too, and Isaac’s gray could almost pass for a white.

Stiles throws a hand up towards the shield. "Look at that, Hale! Look at how weakened they are. They won’t be able to hold up much longer, especially not if she goes for another direct attack." Stiles tries to twist out of his grasp and feels the warning prick of claws against his skin. Stiles lets out a sharp gasp, momentarily going limp, before gritting his teeth and redoubling his efforts.

"Stop that," Hale hisses, his grip tightening, claws pushing painfully into the meat of Stiles's shoulders. "You're just going to end up hurting yourself."

"Who cares if I do?" Stiles snaps. “Who cares about me at all, when there is a Witch on a rampage out there? Hale, you have to stop her. You’re the only one who can!”

Hale doesn’t say anything, just curls his lips back and exposes his teeth and just like that Stiles admits defeat. He goes limp in Hale’s grip. "I hate you," he says bitterly. "I really and truly hate you."

Hale winces at that, a look of hurt flashing across his face so fast Stiles almost misses it. Then he's nodding, his lips compressed in a flat line, and that indifferent mask of his in place. "No more than I expected," he says, his voice as cold as his expression.

“That’s enough flirting, boys,” Erica says, but her voice lacks any of its usual snap. Stiles cuts his eyes to her and is horrified to find her visibly wilting.

Stiles steels himself, opens his mouth to try once again to change Hale’s mind, but Hale growls out a terse, “Shut up, Stiles,” and Stiles, well, he loses what little of his resolve he had found.

He gives Erica a sympathetic look, reaches out as far as he can, and just barely manages to brush Isaac’s shoulder with his fingers. Stiles then locks eyes with Boyd, and gives him a nod. It’s not much, but still. Stiles feels better, knowing that he’s offering them his support.

Stiles wants to go to them, wrap them up tight in a hug, and tell them it will all be alright, which is patently ridiculous, since the trio are all wizards-in-training and Stiles is a milliner-cum-ninety-year-old. But still, the urge is there.

Unfortunately, so is a certain Witch, who has decided to take a break from all the ball lobbing at poor, unfortunately villagers and has moved right into the monologuing. Which, really. Why do all villains feel the need to monologue?

It’s all blah, blah, blah, I was wronged. And blah, blah, blah, now you’ll pay. Although, in her defense, the Witch of the Waste is a pretty good monologuer, although she’s a little heavy on the oddly sexual references. Really, Stiles didn’t need to know just how much she liked licking Hale’s “soulless abs.” Which, how are abs even soulless?

Stiles looks around for someone to ask that question to, but finds that everyone except him is paying attention to the Witch’s ranting. And that makes sense, it does, but that doesn’t help Stiles out at all. He sighs to himself and crosses his arms over his chest, settling in for what is likely to be a long wait.

He tunes back into the Witch in time to hear her rambling on about Hale’s heart and how it rightfully belongs to her and wow. Is that what all this is about? Heartless Hale’s missing heart? Stiles sighs again, and earns a round of glares for his efforts.

“What?” he asks, defensively. “Am I not allow to think that that this is all a bit absurd? She’s after his heart.” Stiles gestures at Hale with a roll of the eyes. “Like getting that is some kind of prize.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Did you have something to say?”

Stiles startles, his shoulders hunching as he realizes that the Witch is addressing him. He pokes his head up enough to see her, her leather jacket billowing out behind her in an artificial wind.

“Erm,” he chokes out, wishing he had kept his stupid mouth shut. “Just, I mean, it’s an awful lot of effort you are expending, don’t you think? And for what? Hale’s heart?” Stiles lets out a snort. “Why would you even want that?”

The Witch laughs at that, a cold, mean laugh, then gives Stiles a smile that makes his blood run cold. “You really know nothing about magic, do you? It’s adorable, really, how pathetically ignorant you are.”

Stiles scowls. “Better ignorant than desperate, I’d say.”

“Excuse me?”

Stiles lifts a shoulder. “You heard what I said: you’re desperate. For Hale, of all people. That’s got to be a new low.” He hears a warning growl from Hale, but ignores it. “I mean, really. Of all the people in the world, you decided to fixate on him? Why? Why could you possibly want him so bad? What can having his heart do for you?”

Hands closes on Stiles shoulders, hands that end in fingers with claws, and the owners of those hands hisses in Stiles ear, “Shut. Your. Mouth.”

But Stiles ignores him and the threat his clawed hands represent, staring boldly at the Witch before him. “Well, aren’t you going to tell me why you want his heart so badly? You have to know you can’t force someone to love you.”

“You precious thing,” she coos, “you precious, foolish thing. You think this is about love?” She lets out another of those blood chilling laughs. “Honey, love has nothing to do with this at all. I want his heart. Not his affections. Because the heart is the seat of all power, isn’t it, Hale?”

And just like that, it hits him. “Oh,” he says faintly, his knees going weak. He would stumble, but Hale’s clawed hands are still holding him in place. “Oh,” he says again, then he’s struggling to be let free. He understands now. He understands it all.

Hale’s heart. It’s always been about Hale’s heart. That’s the key to everything. To why the Witch of the Waste is so obsessed with Hale, why Hale is the way that he is. And, most importantly, why things have soured with Hale’s and Jackson’s bond.

Hale, the heartless man.

Hale, whose missing heart isn’t missing at all.

Stiles lets out a choked laugh, jerking away from Hale’s hands. “I’ve been such a fool,” he says, laughing bitterly at himself. “Oh, how you and Jackson must have laughed at me.”

Hale frowns at him, eyes dark with some unknowable emotion. “What?”

Stiles laughs again, that same hollow, bitter laugh. “You know exactly what,” he says.

“I don’t think this is the time or the place for the two of you to be having this conversation,” Boyd says, his tone dry as dust.

“What’s wrong with now?” Stiles wants to know.

“Kind of in the middle of a battle here, in case you failed to notice,” Erica says with a roll of the eyes.

As if to prove her point, the Witch rears back, takes aim, and tosses out the largest ball of sickly green light Stiles has seen yet.

“The shield, it’s not going to hold!” Isaac shouts, and Stiles drops to the ground, arms flying up over his head.

Chapter Text

The ball crashes into the shield, causing it to shatter, the recoil of which brought a storm of debris down on them. The window frame splintered as large chunks of plaster and brick tumble to the floor, forcing them all to run. Stiles darts to the right, out the side of the building towards what’s left of the alley that used to run between his shop and the building next door. There is a large amount of the neighboring building left intact, and he’s sure he can find a place to hide inside of it. He spies a likely spot to enter and angles for it, but stumbles as Hale’s hand closes around his wrist, yanking him the opposite direction

“What are you doing?” Stiles shouts, trying to twist free, but Hale’s grip holds and Stiles finds himself once again stumbling along in Hale’s wake. Hale doesn’t answer him, just runs faster, tugging at Stiles until Stiles fears for the safety of his arm. “Let me go,” he pants as his pace starts to flag. “Come on, Hale. You know you can go so much faster on your own.”

Hale lets out a growl. “Don’t waste your breath,” he snarls, before cutting abruptly to the left and yanking Stiles along with him.

Stiles trips at the sudden change in direction and slams down hard onto the ground, his arm wrenching painfully. He lets out a gasp of pain, tears forming in his eyes. “I can’t go any further,” he says, “You’ve got to leave me.”

Hale drops Stiles’s arm and Stiles lets out a moan, his other hand coming up to clutch at his wrenched shoulder.

“Thank god, now go!”

But Hale doesn’t go. Instead, Hale bends down, wraps one arm around Stiles’s bony old shoulders and shoves the other arm under Stiles’s knobby knees, lifting him up like Stiles weighs no more than a baby bird.

“What are you doing, you fool?” Stiles writhes in Hale’s grip. “You’re going to get yourself killed. Let me down! You stupid, stupid wizard. Let me down and save yourself.”

“Stop that,” Hale grits out. “All you’re going to do is hurt yourself, flailing around like a fish.”

“I am not flailing around like a fish!”

Hale snorts, but otherwise doesn’t respond.

“And I wouldn’t be flailing around at all if you had just left me back where I was,” Stiles grumps. He waits a moment to see if Hale has anything to say for himself. Hale, typically, does not. Stiles opens his mouth to say something no doubt clever and witty, but there is an explosion a few feet in front of them that causes Hale to twist in a way that is very precarious indeed and Stiles finds himself clutching at the wizard’s soft leather duster, his face pressed tight against Hale’s shoulder, and really. There’s no coming back from that. So he just buttons his lip and lets Hale carry him to wherever it is Hale is set on going.

Stiles twists so that he can see over Hale’s shoulder and watches as Boyd and Isaac valiantly trying to distract the Witch, orange and gray balls of light coming from the shelter they’ve found at regular intervals while Erica protects them by intercepting incoming blasts with balls of blue magic. Scott and Lydia are doing his best to maintain a shield, but the yellow of Scott’s magic is so pale it’s nearly see through. Lydia’s contributions are a bright, vibrant purple, but Stiles knows her magic knowledge is more tailored to defensive spells, which means the pair of them are pinned down like sitting ducks.

And the person who has the most magic, the most skill? He doesn't seem to be contributing to the battle at all. Oh, no. After finding themselves a nice, space spot inside of what used to be Stiles’s neighbor’s backroom, Hale decides that all he really needs to do is cast a shield over them and then just sit there, doing nothing. Stiles wants to snarl something out to the wizard about the irony of that fact, but he can’t seem to focus his outrage into words. All he can do is crouch beside the wizard and watch through a hole in the wall as the helpless scene unfolds around them.

The Witch of the Waste seems tireless, smirking as she easily lobs ball after ball of light. She fends off Boyd’s and Isaac’s attacks, hardly seems fazed at all by Lydia’s attempts, and actually laughs every time Scott sends a wobbly ball of light her way.

“Pretty little puppy,” she coos, not even bothering to wave away his attacks.

Stiles buries his face in his hands. “There is no way for this to end well for us, is there?” he asks. He isn’t expecting an answer, and so he isn’t surprised when he doesn’t get one.

He is surprised, however, when he looks up and finds Hale studying him intently.

“What?” he asks harshly, completely out of patience with the wizard. “Why are you staring at me? Why aren’t you doing something, anything, about that?” He throws a hand out in the direction of the battle.

Hale looks pained. “Stiles, you have to know--” he starts, reaching out with one hand, but Stiles is distracted from whatever it was Hale thinks he should know by the familiar sound of thumping.

“No,” he says, shaking his head as he pushes to his feet and hobbles over to the edge of their hiding spot. “No, this can’t be happening. Not now.”

But it is happening.

Turnip Head is hopping towards them, his once-fine coat tattered and his silly gloved hands fluttering in the wind. He’s already past where Isaac and Boyd are hunkered down, and gaining ground quickly towards the spot where Scott and Lydia have taken shelter.

“Turn around, you stupid thing,” Stiles says, waving him off like that will do any good.

“Get down!” Hale grabs the back of Stiles’s shirt, yanking hard, and Stiles flails backward.

He falls against the wizard and then scrambles away, giving Hale a cold, hard stare. “I’m not letting that poor thing get blasted to bits,” Stiles tells him through gritted teeth. “I’m not.” Then he’s up, darting away before Hale knows what is happening.

Stiles rushes out of what’s left of the workroom, down a hall filled with debris, up and over a pile of bricks and out into the open air, ignoring the way Hale howls after him. Stiles’s legs are tired from all the running he has done today, his hands sting from a number of little cuts, and his knees still ache from when he fell to the ground, but he’s determined not to let anything happen to Turnip Head. He mutters under his breath as he runs, telling his legs its just a little ways further, that they can make it, and somehow they do.

Stiles reaches Turnip Head halfway between the alley and what use to be his far side neighbor. He glances quickly around and sees Scott and Lydia frantically gesturing to him from the insides of his house. Stiles grabs hold of the scarecrow’s gloved hand and starts to tug him them, though he’s not sure how much safety the pair can provide. They are, by far, the weakest of the group assembled. Still, both are much better magic users than Stiles can claim to be. But before he can reach them, a blast of green magic hurls to the ground barely a foot in front of them.

Stiles is knocked off his feet by the blast. He tries to push up so he’s sitting, but his arms don’t want to obey him. Stiles groans and forces them to move, ignoring the pain as he stumbles up to his feet. When he gets there, he realizes he might as well have just stayed down, because a ball of green magic is arcing its way towards him and there’s nothing he can do to stop his fate now.

He dully recognizes the sound of Hale shouting his name, sees the deep red that’s been missing from the battle flare to life, but he knows it’s too late. Stiles closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and waits for the end.

But the end doesn’t come.

Instead there is a horrific cracking noise and Stiles can't help but cry out at the sound. He opens his eyes and sees a tattered heap on the ground.

"Turnip Head!" He rushes across the short distance between them, gathering the scarecrow in his arms. "You snapped your pole, you poor, stupid thing. Why would you do that? Didn't you realize what she was going to do?" He’s crying now, fat, ugly tears, as he tries to fit the broken edges of the pole back together.

"Stiles!" Hale appears out of nowhere, his eyes glowing red as his hands wrap around Stiles’s shoulders. “Come on, you can’t stay here.” He lifts Stiles up for the second time that day.

Stiles holds Turnip Head tight against his chest as he is carried along by Hale, not even trying to fight the tears. He tells himself it will all be alright, even though he knows it won’t be. The scarecrow hasn't so much as twitched since being hit.

Stiles isn’t sure how, but Hale gets them to where Scott and Lydia are camped out. Stiles recognizes the tile pattern on the floor and gives a hollow laugh. They are in his kitchen, or at least what remains of it.

“Stiles,” Hale says, his voice low and gruff, “you have to let that thing go.”

Stiles shakes his head. “No, it isn’t that bad. I mean, it’s just a busted pole, right? That’s nothing. We can get him a new pole. Easy as pie.”

“Stiles,” Hale says again, then cuts off with a snarl when another ball of light slams against Scott and Lydia’s defenses. His hands dart through the air and a thick layer of red light blooms to life over their heads.

“Oh, now you do something,” Stiles says with a sob. “Now that it’s too late.”

Hale makes an aggrieved noise. “You can’t possibly blame that thing’s demise on me.”

“Of course not,” Stiles snaps back. "He did it for me. He jumped in front of that curse for me. If anyone is to blame for what happened, it’s me.” He looks down at the heap of broken wood in his arms. “I’m so sorry,” he says, before bending down and pressing a damp kiss to the top of the scarecrow's head.

Instantly a strong wind develops, tugging Turnip Head out of Stiles’s arms and carrying him up into the air. Stiles lets out a startled cry, staring up at the scarecrow, then he winces, averting his eyes as a bright white light surrounds it.

"No!" Hale’s voice is raw, filled with something Stiles can’t name. Stiles glances at him in confusion, only to have his attention brought back to the bright white light when he hears his name.

There is a man standing where Turnip Head use to a be. A tall, handsome man with a smile on his face and a light in his eyes that’s dazzling to behold.

Stiles shakes his head, brain struggling to process the sight before him. That can’t be the missing prince. It just can’t. Except that, somehow, it is.

Prince Danny Mahealani, live and in person. Smiling at Stiles like Stiles is his world.

Stiles stares back at him until he hears a loud cry of pain and his attention is forced from the handsome prince across the battleground to where the Witch of the Waste is curled in on herself.

“The backlash of her curse breaking must have weakened her,” Stiles hears Lydia say. And that makes sense. Because even someone as out of the loop about magic as Stiles knows that magical repercussions are nasty things.

“Should we take advantage of that?” he asks, looking around at the faces of his companions. Lydia looks fiercely determined, Scott hesitant but eager, and Hale... Stiles isn’t sure how to identify the look on Hale’s face.

“You’re right,” Hale says, his voice still raw. “We need to press our advantage.”

He whistles, loud and clear, and a golden light seems to pour out of him, arching up and around his limbs like fire. It’s gone in a flash, but Stiles knows what it was: Hale has finally called on Jackson to join in the battle.

Something flashes deep in Hale’s eyes, and the wizard nods to himself before crossing the distance between them. His hands come up to curl around Stiles's shoulders and he leans in close, almost like he is going for a kiss. Stiles tenses, not sure how to respond, but the wizard veers off at the last moment, angling in for Stiles's neck instead of his mouth. Hale's lips are so close to Stiles's skin that he can feel the phantom touch of them as Hale breaths in.

"Hale?" Stiles's voice wavers in a way that will probably upset him when he thinks about it later.

Hale doesn't respond, just pulls back and gives Stiles a look Stiles can't quite identify, then he's bounding over the side of the shelter, rushing out towards the Witch of the Waste like he hasn't a care for the consequences.

What happens next is a blur. Stiles sees Hale and the trio dash across the ground, all four sending spell after spell arcing towards the Witch of the Waste. The sky fills with flashes and bangs. Bright balls of light hurl at each other and leave devastation in their wake. Dark shadows rise up, writhing around as if they are in agony before vanishing again. Sound seems to flicker on and off, words coming to Stiles as if across a great distance, half of which he doesn't understand, can't fathom the meaning of at all.

"Hale!" he screams, in warning or fear, he doesn’t know. "Please, Hale!" But the wizard pays him no heed.

Stiles watches as Erica, Isaac, and Boyd attempt close the distance between themselves and their master, only to be knocked back by the Witch as easily as if she were swatting at flies. Lydia enters the battle, her crisp purple magic flaring up in peaks and spikes, twisting through the Witch's defenses a time of two, though never doing enough damage to give Hale the advantage he needs. Even Scott joins the fray, tossing wobbly balls of pale yellow towards the Witch, which splash up against her shield with no visible effect at all.

Only Stiles remains on the sidelines, hands clenched tight together as he mutters frantic advice to the participants of the battle. "To your left," he tells Erica, who can't possibly hear him, but still manages to dodge the blow anyway. "She's weak on the right," he says to Isaac, who promptly aim his next attack where Stiles directed, though he couldn't have heard.

The prince comes up beside him, lays a hand on Stiles shoulder and Stiles can’t help but take strength from the warm weight of it. “Believe in your friends,” he says, his voice soft in Stiles’s ear, “and that will turn the fight to their advantage.”

“I do believe,” Stiles tells him fervently, hands clenched into fists at his sides. “They will overcome her. I know they will. Hale is the most powerful wizard ever to have lived. And Jackson is the best fire demon a wizard could have. Together they are undefeatable.”

And, as if to prove his words right, at that very moment Jackson's fire magic flares up, brilliant, golden, and blinding to look at, mixing in seamlessly with the deep ruby red of Hale's. Their power swirls up around them into a mass of energy that hurtles at the Witch, smashing into her defenses and stripping them like they were never there.

The Witch lets out an awful scream, green magic bursting out of her, pushing towards the group of combatants. It brushes up against Isaac and the boy crumples where he stands, dropping instantly to the ground.

“No!” Stiles jerks to his feet, desperately wanting to rush to his friend’s side, but is stopped by the prince’s strong hands.

“Believe!” Prince Danny tells him. “Believe that he will be alright. Believe that your Hale and his compatriots will achieve a great victory and they will.”

Stiles nods to himself, forces his eyes closed and believes with everything that is in his heart. “Hale will defeat her,” he says, his voice filled with confidence. “Hale will defeat the Witch of the Waste. This war will end and everything will be as it should.”

Stiles keeps his eyes closed, keeps repeating the words over and over until Prince Danny’s hands squeeze tight on his shoulders.

“Open your eyes,” the prince says.

Stiles obeys his prince’s command, and when he does he sees Hale standing proud, the Witch nowhere to be seen.

Chapter Text

"You did it, Stiles!" Prince Danny’s hands tighten on Stiles’s shoulders, then release as the man lets out a happy laugh. “I knew you could!” He spins Stiles around and sweeps Stiles up into his arms.

“Erm.” Stiles flails a bit, not sure what to do with his hands. He chews at his bottom lip, feeling even more awkward than when he had been trapped under Hale's bulk. “What are you doing?”

The prince quickly sets him down, a confused look marring his handsome features. Then he huffs out a laugh and shakes his head, that heart-melting smile of his coming back onto his face-- dimple at all. "But of course, I'm getting ahead of myself. Where are my manners?" He dips into a neat bow, then straightens and holds out his hand. Stiles stares at it for a bit, then glances up at Prince Danny face.

"Um," he says again, his throat going dry.

"Take his hand," Lydia shouts, and Stiles glances over his shoulder at her, a frown firmly in place.

He opens his mouth, ready to tell her where she can put her helpful advice, but all snippy comments fly out of his head when Hale, who had been watching them with a scowl entrenched on his face, gives a soft cry and then crumples to the ground.

“Hale!” Stiles twists around, hand coming up to his mouth as he watches as Isaac rush forward. He drops to his knees beside his master, a stream of spells pouring out of his fingertips. Stiles sucks in a breath, wanting to hurry to aid them, but knowing Isaac possess far superior knowledge and skill where healing magic is concerned. Even Boyd and Erica are standing back, letting Isaac handle the situation. Still, that doesn’t stop Stiles from wanting to go to him, to do something, anything, other than stand there helplessly watching.

The prince steps up behind him, his large hands coming to rest again on Stiles’s shoulders. “He’s probably just overtired,” Prince Danny assures him, but Stiles just shakes his head.

“No, it’s more than that,” Stiles says. And, as if to prove Stiles right, Hale’s chest jerks up off the ground, though his eyes remain closed and his head dangles limply at the end of his neck. Hale coughs and a cloud of red magic pours out of his mouth. It surrounds the wizard, forming a what Stiles would call a shield if it didn’t look so wrong.

Isaac’s voice rises, his gray magic rushing out towards the pulsing red cloud. Stiles isn’t sure what is supposed to happen when the two magics meet, but he’s fairly sure that having the gray magic start hissing and boiling is not it. Isaac lets out pained yelp, going pale and swaying, so that Erica and Boyd both feel the need to reach out and steady him.

"No!" Stiles shakes free of Prince Danny's grip and forces his poor, aching legs to run once more. Because this is Hale, laying lifeless on the ground, surrounded by a sick looking, pulsing cloud of his own magic. And that’s just not acceptable.

Stiles quickly covers the space between them, but is prevented from dropping down to Hale’s side by Scott, who throws himself in Stiles’s path.

“Get out of the way,” Stiles snarls, shoving at Scott, who doesn’t budge an inch.

Scott shakes his head, giving Stiles a heartfelt look, and says, “You can’t touch him, Stiles. You can’t. No one can touch him when that curse is on him. You saw what it did to Isaac.”

Stiles lets out a sob and clutches at Scott’s shirt. “We have to save him.”

“Stiles,” Scott’s voice is filled with regret, “I don’t think that’s possible.”

“No!” Stiles jerks away. “No, that’s not true. There’s got to be something we can do!”

Scott gives Stiles a sad look. “There’s nothing we can do.”

“You don’t know that. You can’t possibly know that. You aren’t that far along in your apprenticeship. There could be a million ways to save him and you just don’t know!” Stiles is shouting by the end, his whole body vibrating with anger and fear.

“Stiles,” Lydia says, stepping over to lay a hand on his arm. “The fight weakened him too much. There’s nothing any of us can do. If a wizard uses more magic than they can spare, the end result is inevitable.”

Stiles shakes his head. “No. He didn’t do that. He would never do that. Hale is a slitherer-outer, he always finds a way not to pay the full costs. And this isn’t any different. We just need to think like him. What would Hale do, when going off to face his sworn enemy? He wouldn’t put all his eggs in one basket, that’s for sure. No, Hale would set something aside, leave something in reserve. Now what would he-- Jackson!” Stiles lets out a whoop. “Of course, it always comes down to Jackson!”

He turns towards the trio and fixes them with a look. “The castle? It’s still connected to Beacon Hills, right?”

Erica nods. “Of course it is. How do you think we all got here so fast?”

Stiles waves off her question. “I’ve got to get to the portal,” he says. “I’ve got to get to Jackson. It’s Hale’s only hope!”

He takes a step and staggers, his legs giving out on him. If not for Scott’s quick action, Stiles would have ended up on the ground. “No,” Stiles moans, jabbing a finger into his aching thigh. “No, you can’t do this to me. Not now.”

“Allow me,” Prince Danny says, swooping down to lift Stiles into his arms. “Just direct me, Stiles, and I will make sure you arrive at your destination.”

Stiles gives him a flustered look. “But,” he shakes his head, “are you, I mean, don’t you have more important things to do? You’re the missing prince, after all. Surely there are more pressing matters you need to attend to.”

Prince Danny gives him another of those dimpled smiles. “There is nothing more important than helping you,” he says, his expression open and sincere.

Stiles frowns at him. “I think you are mistaken, but I’m not going to tell you no. Not when it means getting where I need to go.” He glances around at the concerned faces of his friends. “The Prince and I are going to the castle to see about a fire demon. If the rest of you could just,” he glances down at Hale, “just, make sure he doesn’t die before we get back. Can you do that? Please?”

Isaac lets out a whimper, his big blue eyes filling with tears, but he nods resolutely. “We’ll do what we can,” he says, his voice determined.

“See that you do,” Stiles tells him with a nod. Then he glances up at Danny. “Alright then, lets go.”

“Not without me.” Lydia steps forward, a fierce look on her face.

“Lydia,” Stiles starts, but she cuts him off with a shake of the head.

“No. You are going to need me. Don’t even try to argue with me, all you will do is waste more time.”

Stiles doesn’t like it, but he knows that she’s right. There’s no turning Lydia aside when she’s made up her mind. So instead of trying, he just nods and then gives the prince directions to the portal.

*

When Stiles imagined any situation that involved his return to Hale’s castle, it has always been in a blaze of self-righteous glory, after Hale has begged and groveled and pleaded enough to soothe Stiles’s wounded pride. It never, ever involved Stiles being carried over the threshold bridal style by one of the most beloved princes in all of modern history. But that is exactly how it happens.

Too bad Hale isn't actually around to witness it.

But then, if Hale had been around to witness it, it wouldn’t have needed to have happened. And, really, doesn't Stiles have more important things to focus on right now other than how disappointed he is that Hale isn't able to witness someone appreciating him? Why yes, in fact, he does. He has so many things to focus on, not the least of which is how high the ashes in the fireplace have risen and how low Jackson’s flame has sunk.

“Put me down, put me down,” Stiles demands, thumping Prince Danny on the shoulder. “I’ve got to see to Jackson.”

The prince lowers Stiles down gently, making sure he's steady on his feet before moving back. “There you go.”

Stiles gives him a quick smile. “You really are a charmer,” he says, “you’ll make someone very, very happy someday.”

Prince Danny gives Stiles one of those heart-melting smiles. “I certainly hope so,” he replies.

“Would someone just put me out already? I shouldn't have to suffer through listening to this,” Jackson hisses as he rolls his eyes.

“Lovely seeing you again, Jackson,” Stiles says as evenly as possible, reaching for a log to feed the flickering fire.

Jackson grabs at the end of it before Stiles is ready, nearly scorching Stiles in his eagerness. “Which I could say the same,” he says, his mouth full.

“As much as I enjoy trading pleasantries with you, I really am in rush right now, so let’s just cut to the chase. You’ve got Hale’s heart and I need it.”

Jackson snorts. “Not happening.”

“I need that heart.” Stiles grabs at his hair, wishing it was long enough to properly pull. “Hale needs it. He’s going to die without it.”

“He’s going to die one way or the other,” Jackson says with a causal shrug, but his eyes refuse to meet Stiles's.

Stiles swallows back the denial that springs to his lips. “So then why don’t you just give it to me?” he asks instead, trying to keep the desperation he’s feeling out of his tone.

“Because if I give it to you, I’ll probably go out. And I won’t if I keep it.”

Stiles lets out a snarl. “If you let him die, I will make sure you go out. You just see if I don’t.”

Jackson gives him an unconcerned look. “I’m not going to give you Hale’s heart, Stiles. You can’t be stupid enough to think that I am.”

“Yes, yes I am. Because you are going to give it to me, if I have to toss bucket after bucket of water on you before you do.”

“I can’t just give it to anyone, you know,” Jackson says with a smirk. “That’s not how it works. Hearts aren’t something you just hand over like yesterday’s trash. Only someone who Hale--”

“Jackson,” Lydia’s voice cuts through whatever the fire demon was going to say. “Give Stiles that heart.”

The fire demon gives her a dirty look. “I don’t think that I will.”

“Oh yes, you will,” Lydia’s voice is hard, her eyes narrowed. “You are going to give Stiles Hale’s heart and you give it to him now.”

Jackson lets out a loud hiss. “And why should I do that?”

“Because I have something better to offer you than a heart that rightfully belongs to someone else.”

Jackson’s eyes widen and he flairs up to full height. “Are you, do you, Lydia?” His voice is soft and full of wonder.

She gives him a watery smile. “Yes,” she says, and Stiles still isn’t sure what exactly is going on, but he knows that he shouldn’t be here, watching this. His skin feels tight and his throat aches and no, he shouldn’t be here at all.

Stiles shifts a little, and clears his throat. “If you would just, uh, hand over the heart, old Danny Boy and myself will clear out and leave you two alone.”

Jackson doesn’t look away from Lydia, just reaches down, digs about in the coals and then pulls a large one out, which burns extra bright. “Here,” he says, holding it out to Stiles. “Blow on it once, then hold it tight against your chest to keep it warm.”

Stiles licks his lips and steps forward, cups his hands under Jackson's and says, “Okay, let it go. I won’t let it fall.”

Jackson’s eyes are still locked on Lydia’s face, but he slowly opens his fingers and a warm, solid weight drops into Stiles eager hands. Warm flames lick at Stiles's palms, the bright white of Jackson's magic flairs up, bright as the sun and shot through with incandescent gold, before receding away as a pale red takes it place. With each beat the color deepens, until it is the rich, deep red of Hale's magic. As if from far away, Stiles hears the prince let out a gasp, but Stiles can't take his eyes off of the heart, can't help but watch it flutter and jump, fragile and yet heavy as a stone.

“It’s still the heart of a child,” he says wonderingly as he studies it, fascinated by the way it glows and how soft it feels in his hands.

“For heavens sake, breathe on it,” Lydia says, breaking Stiles out of the trance he was in.

“Right, right,” he says, pulling it close enough to his mouth that his lips nearly brush against the side. Stiles sucks in a deep breath, then slowly exhales over the heart. It flares white hot in his hands and Stiles yelps, but then it cools quickly.

“Press it against your chest, Stiles, hold it as tight as you can, and hurry. It won’t survive long and neither will Hale, if you don’t get it in him soon.”

Stiles nods. “Got it.” He pulls at the lacings on his shirt, pushing Hale’s heart tight against his skin, directly over where his own heart is beating. Hale’s heart gives a shudder, stopping momentarily, and when it starts beating again, its rate matches Stiles’s own.

“What are you waiting for?” Lydia asks. “Go!”

Stiles goes.

*

“What took you so long?” Scott says, rushing over to Stiles as soon as Danny carries him into the ruined street that use house his home.

“Jackson,” Stiles replies tersely, not wanting to waste time on explanations when his goal is so close. “Set me down,” he tells the prince, who instantly complies. “Thank you,” Stiles says, flashing the prince a grateful smile. The prince gives him a sad one in response and Stiles would ask why the long face, except...

Hale.

Stiles drops to his knees, one hand cupping Hale’s heart tight to his chest, the other hovering above the ominous red layer of magic. “No change?” he asks, glancing up at Isaac.

“None at all.” Isaac licks his lips. “Stiles, I know you want there to a be a cure, but I really don’t think--”

Stiles cuts him off with a shake of the head. “Quiet. I need to concentrate.”

He closes his eyes and focuses all of his energy on Hale, his near lifeless body, sprawled out on the hard ground, the frantic beating of his still childlike heart. Stiles’s eyes snap open and just like that he knows. Without any question or doubt, Stiles knows what he needs to do.

Stiles lifts Hale’s heart to his lips one more time, sucks in a deep breath and then exhales over the heart again. Then he covers it, holding it gently in the palm of his hands, and slowly lowers his arms towards the distorted shield.

Tendrils of red magic leap off of it, licking over Stiles’s hands and up his arms. Stiles hears someone suck in a breath and a faint “no” but doesn’t let it lessen his resolve. Slowly, confidently, he presses down until the backs of his hands are brushing against Hale’s chest. Stiles’s rotates his wrists, pushing Hale’s heart into Hale’s body.

Pain flares in his hands as bright red light explodes out of Hale’s chest, but Stiles doesn’t let that stop him. “This is your heart,” he tells Hale, his voice barely above a whisper. “It’s a heavy burden, I know, but it’s yours and you need to carry it now.”

The words are barely out of his mouth before Hale’s heart sinks into his chest. The cloud of red magic contracts, then expands, exploding out with a force that knocks Stiles onto his back. Stiles doesn’t even attempt to get up, just lays there as aches and pains bloom into being, as if his body is saying “enough already.”

Besides, he doesn’t need to move to know that he was successful. He can hear Hale coughing, can feel the rubble around him shift as the wizard sits up. Erica is laughing and Isaac is babbling about how afraid he was and Stiles doesn't need to contribute anything at all.

He closes his eyes, utterly exhausted, but then opens them again when he hears Hale say his name.

“Can’t you let an old man rest?” he asks, blinking up at Hale’s concerned face.

“Stiles.” Hale’s tone is almost pained and his face is doing something Stiles can’t categorize. “Stiles, I know this isn’t an ideal time, but,” he runs a hand through his hair, his perfectly disheveled hair that frames his ruggedly handsome face-- which is somehow made impossibly handsomer by the weary lines creasing it-- and Stiles can’t help but turn away from the sight.

Hale’s perfect. As perfect as he’s always been. And Stiles...

Stiles doesn’t want to deal with that, right now.

Stiles lets out a sigh. “Whatever it is, it can wait,” he says.

“No,” Hale’s voice is hard, resolute. “No. It can’t wait. I’ve waited too long already. And I know it’s too late, the events of this afternoon have shown me that, but I must speak. I must tell you how much you mean to me, even if it does me no good at all.”

Stiles swallows, then lets out a sigh. “A simple thank you would have been enough,” he says. “You didn’t have to go all out. I know how hard it is for you to talk about anything resembling an emotion.”

“Don’t,” Hale gives a jerky shake of the head. “Don’t mock me, Stiles. I know it’s not reciprocal. I’ve accepted that you don’t, that you can’t--” He cuts off with a growl. “Just, please, don’t mock me. Not about this.”

“What are you talking about?” Stiles struggles to sit up. “Not reciprocal? What’s not reciprocal?”

Hale gives him a pained look. “Are you really going to make me spell it out?”

Stiles flails. “Spell what out? What are you talking about?”

“I love you,” Hale snarls. “Are you satisfied? I love you, Stiles Stilinski, though it does me no good.”

Stiles blinks at him. “Oh, is that what all the fuss was about?” He shakes his head ruefully. “Well, now you’ve done it, Hale. Now you’ve really done it.”

Hale squeezes his eyes shut, his whole body going tense. “I don’t expect anything from you,” he says in a low voice.

“That’s unfortunate,” Stiles tells him, letting a hand come up to cup the wizard’s cheek. “Because after a statement like that, I expect rather a lot out of you. It only makes sense, I’m afraid. One does tend to expect a lot out of the person they love.”

Chapter Text

Hale jerks away from Stiles touch like it burns, his face hardening into an ugly scowl. “I asked you not to mock me,” he says, the words practically spit out as Hale’s eyes flash dangerously red.

“Hale?” Stiles’s voice wavers in a way he is not proud of at all, his fingers curling in protectively around his palm. He isn’t sure what reaction he was expecting his announcement to get, but this is not it.

The wizard gives Stiles a disgusted look. “You’re just like every other person who has come panting after my heart. Desperate to be the one to finally find it, as if that means anything at all. You’re pathetic.”

Stiles’s mouth falls open in stunned disbelief, his insides twisting with hurt.

Hale sneers at him. “Do you feel special now, Stiles? Do you? Did you think that if you were the one to solve my great mystery, I would fall at your feet and declare my love?”

A part of Stiles wants dearly to point out no, he didn't. But, well, hadn't that just happen anyway? Was he the only one who remembered Hale saying that he loved Stiles first? Why was Hale lashing out at him? In point of fact, Stiles hadn't done anything except tell Hale that his feelings were not as one-sided as the wizard had believed them to be.

“I don’t understand,” he stammers. “All I did was say that I loved you. I thought you, I mean, why did you even...” Stiles closes his eyes and lets out a sound somewhere between and laugh and a sob as a horrifying thought occurs to him. “It was a test, wasn't it? That’s why you said all those things. You wanted to see how I would react, what I would do if you offered me up my heart’s desire. Well, now you know. I’ll go for it, Hale. That’s what I’ll do if I think that there a chance to get what I most want in life. I’ll reach out and grab at the ring with both hands. Doesn’t mean I’ll come away with the prize, but at least I know that I tried. Which is more than I can say for you.”

Stiles pushes to his feet, pausing to wipe the dust off of his knees. “Thank you for that,” he says when he straightens. “I might have wasted the rest of my life pining over you, if you hadn’t felt the need to,” Stiles's lips pull up in a bitter smile, “force me to confess my, what did you call them? Oh, right, desperate and pathetic affections.”

“Please.” Hale rolls his eyes. “You don’t have any affections for me. I’m not your true love. You proved that, Stiles. Don’t you remember?” He tilts his chin up, eyes narrowed as he stares at something over Stiles’s shoulder.

Stiles twists around, a frown in place as he tries to see what Hale is looking at, but there is no one there except the no longer missing Prince. Stiles turns back towards Hale, face wrinkled with confusion. “I,” he draws out the word, not really knowing where he is going. “The prince? Is this about Prince Danny? Because I don’t understand what he has to do with anything. I mean, don’t get me wrong, very happy to have him back. Now that he’s not, you know, a scarecrow anymore, I’m sure he can just hop on down to the castle and put an end to this war. Which is a great thing. A wonderful thing. Something both of us can agree on, because neither one of us was a big fan of the war. But other than that--”

“Oh for crying out loud,” Erica’s voice cuts Stiles off, “that has got to be the stupidest thing I have ever heard.”

“Exactly,” Hale instantly agrees, nodding once for good measure.

Erica’s face twists up in exasperation as she cuffs the back of her master’s head. “I was talking about you, you emotionally stunted idiot. He brought you back your heart! Did you miss that part? I realize you were unconscious for the actual event, but the moment you opened those big green eyes of yours and saw his tearful, relieved face, you should have clued in to what all of the rest of us already knew.”

Hale gives her a look that clearly communicates that he’s still not clued in to whatever it is the rest of them are supposed to already know.

Erica lets out a growl of frustration. “Stiles is your true love, you blithering idiot! Stiles. That’s why he was able to take your heart from Jackson in the first place. He carried it pressed against his skin. Your heart pressed against his skin without any outward sign of damage. If anyone else had tried to do that, we would have been seared on the spot. So what if he kissed a scarecrow and turned him back into a prince? That’s nothing. Things like that happen all the time and don’t mean anything but that the potential for love exists. But carrying someone’s heart? That’s True Love territory right there. And you would know that, if you weren’t convinced that your life is tragic and doomed for all eternity.”

“Prince Danny?” Stiles practically shouts. “You thought my True Love was Prince Danny?” He lets out a laugh and then winces, realizing a moment too late how that might come off to the prince. “Um.” Stiles turns towards the prince in question. “Not that I wouldn’t have been thrilled and honored to have been your True Love in any other set of circumstances,” he says. “Because you are devastatingly handsome and universally well liked. And those dimples. People have written odes to those dimples and I completely understand why. But, it’s just, Hale.” Stiles gives a helpless shrug, turning away from the prince to stare at his clueless idiot of a True Love.

“You shouldn’t give him so hard a time,” the prince says, his voice raw with emotion. “You did turn me back, Stiles. That is typically a good indicator of True Love. And you did give me this,” he holds out the battered top hat Stiles had reluctantly been forced to let him leave with when he was still in scarecrow form.

“Oh lord, don’t show anyone that monstrosity!” Stiles reaches out to snatch it away and hide it from sight, but Prince Danny is too quick for him, yanking it back and clutching it protectively to his chest.

“This hat is a Token of True Love,” he says, indignation coloring his words. “I will not dispute that you have a greater call on your affections, I knew the state of thing the moment I saw you take hold of Wizard Hale's heart and watched it glow in your hands, but that does not negate the power of the bond your hat holds. I will keep it near me always, Stiles, and treasure it as a Token of True Love ought to be treasured.”

Isaac lets out a little squeak at that, which would have Stiles peering at him on any other occasion, but right now the sound falls on deaf ears, as Stiles's mind is too busily engaged in sorting out what, exactly, Prince Danny is talking about.

“Wait,” Erica asks slowly, “are you saying that the person gave you that hat is your True Love? Or that the person who made it is?”

Prince Danny frowns at her. “I don’t see why that matters, the person who made it and the person who gifted me it are one and the same.”

“No,” Stiles tells him, “they aren’t.”

“What?” The Prince’s brow furrows. “But I thought...”

Isaac lets out another squeak, and this time Stiles gives Isaac the attention he rightly deserves. The young man is staring at the prince, eyes as wide as saucers, his expression a mix of hopefulness and fear.

“Isaac made that hat,” Stiles says. “Isaac made it without any outside help at all. And I hid it away because, as much as I love Isaac, a hatter he will never be. You sussed it out, though, when I brought you home to mend your tattered clothing. You sussed it out, put it on your head and refused to let me take it off you, no matter how I begged. So, if you are right and that god forsaken hat is a Token of True Love, then you’re not looking for me. You’re looking for Isaac.”

Isaac licks his lips nervously, his eyes riveted on Prince Danny’s handsome face. “There must be some mistake. I made that hat, I did, but that’s... there’s no way I’m the prince’s True Love. I’m just the son of a poor tailor, who threw me out when it was clear I would never be able to learn his trade. Hale took me in out of pity more than anything, I’ve never been as good as Erica or Boyd at the more advanced spells. I’ll never be anything more than a hedge-wizard, curing boils and soothing fevers. So, you see, you must be mistaken.”

Prince Danny put the hat on his head and even thought it's the world's ugliest hat, it still somehow suits him. He smiles and then crosses the distance between them with a grace that Stiles knows he will never possess, deftly avoiding tripping over all number of hazards. Boyd moves aside, letting the prince take his place. Prince Danny gives him a thankful look, then reaches out to take Isaac’s hands in his. “It’s you,” he says with a dumbstruck look on his face. “It’s your goodness I felt in the hat, calling to me. Your compassion and strength of character were embedded in every fiber. I proudly wore your hat, Isaac the tailor’s son, and I will proudly stand by your side as your husband, should you let me.”

“Isaac Lahey,” Isaac says softly, a look of stunned awe on his face.

“Isaac Lahey,” Prince Danny repeats with a smile, “my one True Love.”

Stiles shifts where he stands, feeling awkward and uncomfortable watching the pair, like he’s intruding on something too private to share. He bites at his lip and tries to ignore the hollow ache filling his chest. They deserved their happy ending and Stiles isn’t going to begrudge them it on account of not getting one of his own. This is what ought to happen when True Love is revealed. A touching, heartwarming scene complete with tender expression and declaration of eternal love. Not some harsh, bitter argument.

He stares down at his fingers, at the knobby knuckles and folds of loose skin, and lets out a laugh full of self-mockery. Of course Hale rejected his affections. Look at him. He’s an old man. And even before that, he was just Stiles Stilinski, gangly hat maker extraordinaire. The first son of a first son with nothing out of the ordinary about him except for his moles. Had he really thought that he was meant for the likes of The Great and Terrible Wizard Hale?

Well, now, he won’t make that mistake again. Stiles tugs at the bottom of vest, straightening his spine. He’s a Stilinski of the Beacon Hills Stilinskis and Beacon Hills Stilinskis are made of some very stern stuff indeed. He’s going to forget all about this wizarding nonsense, set about tidying up the mess that is currently his shop, and when that's done, he'll go back to selling hats.

There’s no shame in being a hatter, his mother use to say, and his mother was right.

“Stiles.” Hale’s voice cuts through Stiles’s thoughts and sends a shiver down his spine.

Stiles takes a deep breath, mentally preparing himself before answering. “Yes?”

“Erica was right. I’m an idiot, a fool and a half. I’d like to try again, if you’ll let me. I’d like to court you properly, the way you deserve. No more lurking about in shadows and watching you from afar. I’ll call on you at your father’s home, if you like, and bring flowers round to you at your shop, once we’ve set it to rights again.” Hale takes a hesitant step towards Stiles, rubble skittering out in his wake. “Would that be acceptable to you?”

Stiles opens his mouth, but nothing comes out. He clears his throat and tries again, to the same poor effect.

“Stiles?”

“Say yes, you idiot,” Erica hisses and Stiles shoots her a dirty look.

“I’ll say yes in my own time, thank you,” he tells her with a sniff.

Erica makes a face. “You’ll dither and dally is what you’ll do. Same as you’ve done with breaking that fool curse. You’re as bad as Hale, you are. The two of you deserve each other.” She crosses her arms over her chest as gives Stiles the most put upon look he’s ever seen.

Stiles narrows his eyes at her. “What do you mean?”

“You want to talk about that curse now?” Hale says, his voice filled with disbelief.

Stiles rounds on him, expression fierce. “Yes! Of course I do! Breaking this, this, you know is fairly fundamental to my future happiness. Haven’t you been paying any attention at all? Being old is not fun. Your bones ache and your joints don’t work right. You get exhausted doing nothing at all. And you have wrinkles. Wrinkles, Hale! You would fall into the depths of despair if you were instantly as old as I am now. You know you would, you vain thing.”

Scott snorts out a laugh, off to the side, and Stiles spares him a quick smile before turning his attention back to Hale, whose eyebrows are doing some sort of interpretive dance on the plane of his face.

“Stiles,” he growls and Stiles lets out an amused huff in reply.

“Fine. Yes. Yes to the courting. Yes to the flowers and to Sundays sitting on my father’s front porch. Yes to all of it. Now, tell me about how I go about--” the words stick in his throat, same as they always have, though Stiles does gets some pretty impressive guttural sounds in there. He might be flailing about again. And he might, maybe, accidentally topple a large pile of bricks over. Right onto Hale’s foot.

Hale lets out a hiss of pain and waves a hand, cleaning a wide swath of the surround ground of rubble. “You just have to believe,” he says, gesturing again and sending even more debris flying off into orderly piles. “That’s all you’ve ever had to do. Picture yourself as you were, hold that image tight in your mind, and will it into being. You have the spark, Stiles. You’ve had it all along.”

Stiles feels his jaw drop. “That can’t possibly be all it takes.”

“It is. Just close your eyes and believe. Same as you did during the battle.”

“You noticed that?” Stiles asks, incredulous.

“I notice everything,” Hale replies. “I’ve made it my life’s ambition, to notice everything you ever do.”

Stiles flushes, his insides going all warm and gooey. “Right,” he says, just to be saying something. “Of course.” He clears his throat and tugs at the bottom of his vest again. “Just close my eyes and picture myself as me, I can do that.”

And he does.

He closes his eyes, draws up as detailed an image of himself as he can, and forces all of his power of belief into it. “You’re tall and slender,” he says, “but not willowy. More of the lanky, lean body type. You have cropped brown hair and deep brown eyes-- though some have called them amber-- and more moles than anyone really has a right to. Your teeth are straight and even, your mouth is a bit too wide, and you have a ridiculous, upturned nose. Your lashes are too long for a boy, so Lydia has always said, your legs are nicely muscled, and your back is straight. You stand tall, Stiles Stilinski, every part of you perfectly proportioned, strong and confident, in the prime of your life.”

Stiles feels a rush of power on the last word, a tingle that shoots across his skin and leaves goosebumps in its wake.

“Open your eyes,” Hale says, his voice soft. “Open your eyes and see what you’ve done.”

Stiles opens his eyes, but he doesn’t look down, doesn’t both to confirm what he already knows. Instead he throws himself at Hale, laughing as he wraps his arms around the other man. They are of a height, now that his spine isn’t bent with age, and Stiles smiles as he realizes that he’s actually the taller to the two.

“You’re incredible,” Hale says, his eyes filled with wonder and delight. “Absolutely incredible.” He raises a hand and tenderly cups the side of Stiles's face, his thumb rubbing gently across Stiles’s lips. “And that mouth.”

“What about my mouth?” Stiles asks, feeling saucy and carefree. Hale lets out a growl, quite different in tenor from all the growls he’s let out before, and Stiles can’t help but angle his head down just the barest of fraction, lining their lips up perfectly for a kiss.

Hale’s mouth is soft, his lips warm against Stiles's own and Stiles can't help but lick at them, wanting a taste. Hale lets out a low noise in response, his hands tightening on Stiles’s body, pulling him closer. Stiles gasps, his mouth falling slightly open and Hale takes advantage of that to change the tenor of the kiss. He sucks Stiles lower lip into his mouth, nipping at it in a way that sends shivers down Stiles's spine. Stiles moans, opening his mouth further, wanting Hale to explore him more, only to be jerked back by a stinging pinch to the ear.

“Enough of that, boys,” Erica says, her voice as smug as can be. “You’re doing things proper thing time ‘round, remember? With courting and flowers and front porch swings.”

Stiles mutters something unsavory about what proper can do with itself while beside him Hale wholehearted agrees.

*

All of this is Lydia's fault. All of it. If she hadn't forced Stiles to leave his hat shop and then just up and abandoned him, leaving him helpless and in the path of random wizards, none of this would have happened. He wouldn’t be here now, all dressed up in a three piece suit, standing on some hideous float, overly festooned with ribbons that the wind just insists on blowing into his mouth.

Then again, he’s standing beside his husband, The Great and Terrible Wizard Hale, war hero extraordinaire, who just happens to look even more darkly handsome than ever in a three piece suit of his own, with a stylish top hat of Stiles's design perched on his head at a rakish angle. But that’s not what Stiles is focusing on right now. Right now it’s all about the blame. And the blame? It totally belongs to Lydia.