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Bittersweet Creek

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Stiles ends up burying his father and last remaining pack member somewhere in the middle of the Cascades. Even with werewolf strength, it’s hard to dig a hole deep enough: the soil goes only a few inches deep before turning into a nail-breaking slurry of pebbles and rock fragments, mixed in with the odd boulder. He spends a whole day on it, and when night falls, he still is only knee-deep, bones aching, fingertips so clotted with blood that he’s not sure if his healing is failing or not.

He sits on the edge of the hole and stares into it as the dark draws around him, his father’s body, and the handcart holding all their possessions. He’s not even grieving anymore, he’s just…he’s tired.

He sits there till instinct sends him leaping over his father, crouching across the legs and snarling at the—the coyote turns tail and flees immediately, but the sight of it brings Stiles back to himself. There’ll be more coming after that one, and eventually they’ll get at the body, if Stiles doesn’t take care of it. And Stiles isn’t going to let that happen.

So he gives up on the grave. He stops digging and levers his father into the hole as it is, and then collects brush and sticks from the surrounding area to heap in after him. The cover is scanty here and twice he comes back with an armful, only to have to drop it and chase off more scavengers.

By the time he has enough, the moon’s cleared the mountain-tops. It gives him plenty of light—air’s so thin this high, nothing to get in the way—and he doesn’t even have to use his werewolf sight to find the flint. Just pulls it out of the cart and strikes it against the barrel of their hunting rifle till enough sparks gather on the top of the brush mound. They glow red, then yellow. Melt together and turn into ribbons that lace through the twigs and turn it, for just the smallest moment, to cloth of gold.

Then they burn. Stiles circles the fire all night and well into the next day, and doesn’t stop till the flames have died of their own accord. He throws dirt onto the few smoldering remains, and when they’ve gone out, he climbs back into the hole.

Nothing is left of his father except a few blackened, misshapen metal buttons, a small penknife that Stiles missed when he was checking over the body, and a handful of claws. Stiles scoops them all up together and then idly jiggles his hands, watching the dirt that’d come up with them sift away. The gritty, steel-grey specks seem to run together, so smooth they ripple like water, and then Stiles blinks hard. Gives his handful a last shake and then turns away. He puts them in the cart, rubbing first one eye, then the other against his shoulder.

When he looks up, he finds himself facing the California side of the mountains. It’s a clear view all the way down into the valleys, great thick untouched woods like he’s only heard about in stories from his mother and grandfather. Back when they’d been alive, when they’d all crowded into the house and the older pack members, the ones who could remember Poland, would talk about forests so old that the ancient, pre-Christ gods still roamed in them. Green-skinned men with leaves growing out of their hair, elk so huge that a swing of their antlers could knock down a full-grown oak tree, and the first werewolves, ageless and immortal and forever on the hunt.

Stiles takes a deep breath, and then he wraps his hands around the cart’s handles. California. He’s made it, out of all his pack, and now that he has, he doesn’t want to look at it. What he wants, he thinks, is to get off this mountain as quickly as he can, and get so deep in there that he can’t see it for all the trees.

He starts down the mountain.