“What if I don’t play your sick game, huh?” he snarled at the faceless warlock, the coward presenting said knife to him. “What are you gonna do?”
He tried to glare past the blurred, pitch-black fumes that hovered around the warlock’s head and concealed it from his sight. He had to see the face behind them. Just once. That was all he needed to lock onto the fucker, to find him no matter where he fled to in this world.
The knife floated and twirled in the cold air between bony, long fingers.
“The kids. I’ll kick things off with the kids.”
The warlock had a voice that grated as though rotten talons were scratching flayed bones. White light glinted off the narrow, nine-inch-long blade and struck Stiles in his stinging eyes. His blood-spattered, empty hands trembled at his sides, but he didn’t care that he was exposing weakness.
There were worse things he and this warlock had witnessed. Far worse things they’d done, to themselves and to others, with their choices. Their magic. Their cruelty and selfishness.
“You’ll kneel on the ground next to me in the town square. You’ll get a front row seat, man. Right up at the stage like the VIP you are. Watch their little bodies rip open from chin to groin. Listen to their parents crying and screaming, while you bathe in the blood of their dying children.”
A muscle jumped in his gritted lower jaw. Fresh pain zigzagged its way to the frail flesh under his ear and balled into a throbbing ache there. His breaths were shallow and stuttered. He ignored the hot bubbling in what remained of his left lung. More blood trickled down his torso, soaking his clothes. The remnants of his magic were stapling the hole in his chest as closed as possible. It was the least of his concerns right now.
“Then I’ll move on to the mothers. The young ones first. The ones who had sons.” The knife dangled blade down and swayed like a pendulum in the air, like it was a mere toy, and not the thing that was going to kill Derek Hale. “How old was your mom when she died, Stiles? We can go from there.”
Stiles pictured himself lunging at this fucker’s—this abomination’sneck, digging his nails into sallow flesh. Tearing through it to the pumping arteries, to the whistling windpipe, and yanking it all out like Derek would with those gunmetal-gray, honed claws.
Why did it always come to this ultimatum? Why did he always have to choose between Derek and the world?
I would always choose you. Always.
“Then, the fathers.” He could tell the fucker was smiling at him. Slash of teeth from ear to ear. “I’ll save dear old Daddy for last. He’s gotta see his whole town go first. That’s what a good sheriff would do. Stay at his station and wallow in the innards and dead dreams of his people.”
“You hurt him—you hurt him, and I’ll hunt you wherever you go. You skip worlds, and I’ll follow you. Universes won’t stop me from finding you and ending you.”
He meant every word. He wasn’t the most powerful warlock in the world, not yet, nowhere close to being as powerful as the one he faced now. He was a fly bumbling in the fiery breath of a dragon, but he’d find a way. He—he always found a way. He had to, if it meant that someone he loved didn’t die. Not again.
“Hm.” The warlock tilted his obscured head in an approximation of curiosity. “There wasone who said something similar to me.” He straightened his head with a sickening creak. “I made his father’s head implode into a bloody mist two hours later. And then he blew himself apart from the inside out because he’d already killed everyone else he ever loved. Loser.”
No, universes wouldn’t stop Stiles from ending this grotesque perversion of a person, one way or another, sooner or later. Not even gods would. Not unless—
“You gonna go the same way, Stiles? Gonna join your werewolf in hell?”
In another time, another world, he would have growled that he was already on its doorstep. But he wasn’t a big-mouthed teenager anymore. He knew better than to lure fate and be hauled kicking and screaming to an even worse hell because he asked for it. Been there, done that, and no, thanks, he never wanted to get on that carnival ride again.
Hell wasn’t where Derek was going to go. Never there, not if he could help it.
That was where he was going to be, after all this was over.
“I’m not playing your game.” He sucked warm, wet iron off his teeth. He was tempted to spit it, see if it would eat away those pitch-black fumes like acid and give him what he needed. “You’re not gonna kill anyone.”
The knife now floated horizontal with its sharpened edge down. A death sentence masquerading as a choice.
One thrust of the blade into Derek’s heart, and the wolfsbane on it would ensure that breathtaking, irreplaceable thing in Derek’s broad chest no longer thundered, no matter how swift his supernatural healing abilities were.
“Yeah, you’re right, I’m not gonna kill anyone. You are.”
Stiles saw his face reflected on the polished blade. Dull, heavy-lidded eyes ringed by dark purple stared back at him. Old blood painted his nostrils and his mouth. His lower lip quivered and he couldn’t stop it. He didn’t look like a powerful warlock at all. He looked like the lost boy he was after he and Dad buried his mom six feet under a slab of granite and a weeping angel. He looked like a loser who’d already given up, already lost all hope and his last resort.
The fucking knife refused to disappear from existence.
“I could hurt you some more. I’m all for that. That’s the whole point, you know?”
Stiles didn’t know that. He didn’t need to know that he was the reason this clusterfuck happened.
Nothing new there, Stilinski. Wouldn’t be the first time a good soul dies because of you.
“Thing is, you’ll be dead in an hour, tops.” The fucking knife floated toward him, crossing that impassable space between them. “That’s how much time you got to kill Derek. Or I’ll kill him and everyone in Beacon Hills anyway. Then maybe I’ll move on to the rest of this world. Billions of souls, man. Talk about a buffet!”
The fucking knife was going to end Derek. End him too.
“So what’s it gonna be, Stiles?”
An hour wasn’t enough time for a miracle. Not enough for him and Derek both.
“Salvation for you, or the world?”
He dragged his head up. Clenched his hands into fists that kept on shaking. Stared at those blurred, pitch-black fumes, and saw eternal darkness.
I would always choose me. Always.
But not this time.
It took Stiles ten years to acknowledge that feeling deep in his chest, much less give it a name. Ten years to the day he met Derek Hale for the first time in the Preserve, when he was a sixteen-year-old boy. An arrogant boy. A shaved-headed smartass of a boy who thought he was going to conquer the world. Conquer the glorious heart of the beautiful, perfect Lydia Martin if he just tried hard enough, long enough.
Ten years was how long he thought he had to transform her into Mrs. Stilinski. Giant diamond on her slender finger, magazine-glossy mansion in the suburbs, luxury goods by the truckloads, a Porsche much more expensive than Jackson’s, all that jazz. Ten years was how long he thought he had to become a real man, a strong man. A feared man, who would never be pushed around again by anyone, never slammed onto walls or threatened to have his throat torn out by fangs or bruised blue black by old, psychotic men.
Ten years was instead the time it took for him to become a twenty-six-year-old warlock under the guidance of Deaton, with numerous scars he had to hide under long-sleeved shirts and jeans from the rest of a world that didn’t understand his world. A boy grown into a man who was only as real as his counting of trembling fingers—one, two, three, four, five, there you go, you didn’t let it in again, good boy—on mornings when he still felt those rot-soaked bandages strangling him into nothing.
A man, who believed he might be real when he was surrounded by Scott—his lifelong best friend, his brother in every way that mattered—and their small, trusted pack: Kira, who married Scott a year ago, whose kitsune tails shone like the moon for her besotted Alpha; Isaac, another boy bruised blue black, grown into a werewolf no longer afraid of basements and freezers; Lydia, banshee and all-around genius, transformed from an unattainable mirage into one of his dearest friends; Jackson, who for all of his past douchebaggery, knew to the bone what it cost to be a demon’s plaything like Stiles did; and Derek.
Derek, who showed him what a survivor looked like and needed to do, to be. Derek, who made him wear every scar earned in battle against their enemies with pride because they were reminders that he survived. That they all did, for another day, another year.
Ten years. A decade. More than a third of his fleeting existence in this godforsaken world. All those years, all that time, for him to finally look at that enduring, terrifying feeling nestled in the guarded cave of his heart, and know what it was. All that time, to know why his pulse spiked and that traitorous thing in his chest hammered and his face heated up whenever a certain bearded, hazel-eyed werewolf gazed at him and saw him.
All that precious time, to know how much of said time he’d wasted, when he could have opened his mouth and used his words to cross that impassable space between him and Derek. When he could have, maybe, listened to Derek use his words too, and know that he wasn’t alone, that he never would be again. Maybe, maybe, he could have woken up on bad mornings and made them good by seeing Derek next to him under the sheets. Feeling Derek’s five-fingered hands on him, holding him in one mended piece.
Why did it always come to this ultimatum, where he had to choose between love and loneliness, between life and death?
Why couldn’t Stiles Stilinski, for once in his goddamn existence, get even the illusion of something he yearned for without it costing him everything else?
“Tick tock, tick tock, Stiles. Time isn’t infinite, man. There’s no going back once it’s gone.”
No, once he named that feeling in him, and brought it into the light, there really was no going back. There was no denying his unspoken fantasies of Derek, be they of the werewolf in that prized leather jacket, or in that cream-colored, v-neck sweater and jeans. Sitting barefoot on a stool at their kitchen counter, nursing a hot mug of coffee and waiting for him so they could eat breakfast together. Waiting for him to sit next to Derek and kiss the handsome asshole on the corner of those quirked lips.
We would have been happy. I would have my numerous scars and nightmares, and you would have the ashes of your family, your incinerated past infused in your marrow. But we would have woken up side by side. Your hands would have made me real and strong, and I would have blown away the smoke and ashes until all you smelled was spring and that carrot cake you adored and us. Just us. Just you and me against the world, Big Guy.
It took Stiles ten years to know without a doubt that he loved and was in love with Derek, with every cell of his body, every beat of his darkness-bound heart.
It took him ten seconds to raise a shaking, weak hand and clutch the curved marble handle of that carving knife.
“There you go. You know what you have to do now, don’t you?”
Yeah, he knew what he had to do. He knew what he had to do after that, if it meant more people he loved didn’t die. If it meant the whole world didn’t drown in its own innards and overflowing blood because of him. It wouldn’t take him ten years, that much he was sure.
A wolfsbane-laced knife across his own throat?
Five seconds at most.
Derek had spent all his time in the sealed prison cell clawing and slamming himself against its flat, white walls. Noble attempts, yeah, but futile ones. Stiles could sense the immense power that reinforced those walls, buzzing like legions of flies in a gargantuan god’s carcass. Stiles took in the claw marks and the impact-cracks of Derek’s so very real and strong body, and he didn’t reply.
The thick blood spilling over his hand pressed to the hole in his chest was a response in itself. He knew Derek could smell it, see it smeared across the white floor like a stark banner of surrender. They both knew there was only so much blood in an adult man’s body. Only so much time until it was all outside instead of inside where it should be, magic pinch or not.
He had an hour, tops, when the warlock teleported him into the cell to join Derek. Less than that now.
“There has to be—We—”
Derek was gripping the carving knife. Pacing the length of the cell as the cornered wolf he had no other choice to be. Somewhere along the way of Stiles being gently carried and propped sitting up against a wall, Derek had removed the knife from him. Took one look at it, sniffed it, and knew in a heartbeat who it was meant for.
The asshole—the stupid, self-sacrificing asshole—had stared at it with eyes full of relief after Stiles told him what he had to do with it, what the cost was if he didn’t.
Well, until Stiles looked him in the eye and said, “Knife’s still sharp after one use.”
All the relief had vanished, swamped by naked horror and anger. Stiles had turned his head aside and stayed silent as Derek yelled at him, demanding that he explain what the hell precisely it was he intended to do after—after. The knife must have felt as heavy as a bloated corpse in Derek’s hand then. But Stiles knew how heavy the knife felt in his hand too. How much heavier it was going to be, slathered in Derek’s blood.
He was the one who had to finish the job, not Derek. He was the one with the blood-drenched hands. Derek cleansed his years ago. Did his penance for past failures by saving the good folks of Beacon Hills from fires and monsters and more monsters, adding incalculable credit to his upcoming ticket to heaven, whatever place it might be. It probably looked like his family home before The Fire. His entire family was probably waiting there for him. Missing him, making sure his room was ready, and that he had his seat at the dinner table, surrounded by hugs and laughter as he should be. As he should always be.
But, no—no, if Stiles didn’t finish the job, all those horrific scenarios of massacre would become reality. The earth would become a kingdom of torment and torture with a mere snap of fingers, a thought. One point of a skinny forefinger at his chest was all it took for an invisible spear to skewer him and collapse his lung. A low snicker was all it took for something else inside his torso to rupture like a burst balloon, to make him plow his face into asphalt and flop like a gutted fish.
Derek had howled his name so loud that it overwhelmed his deafening shriek of pain.
He never had a chance. Neither did Derek, or Scott, or Dad. When he shut his eyes, he could see Scott, all Alpha’ed out, roaring, charging on all fours at the crackling dome of bluish energy that enveloped him and Derek and then teleported them away from the street in front of his childhood home. He could still see Dad on the front porch, sprawled on his back and knocked out cold from an invisible blast of force, his loaded gun a melted, metal pretzel by his open hand.
It was a tiny consolation to him that Dad was still alive. Dad lost the love of his life when their son was a child. In less than an hour, Dad was going to lose all he had left of her.
And it would be by their son’s own hand.
“We always find some way out. You—You always do, Stiles.”
Derek wasn’t wearing his leather jacket, or that cream-colored, v-neck sweater. He was wearing a white t-shirt that was now brown, red and shredded. Polluted with Stiles’s blood. He was wearing those faded jeans with the thin knees, and those black boots that clomped noisily across the lumber floor of his woodworking shop downtown. Stiles bought those boots for Derek five years ago, for no reason other than he’d wanted to. Derek had looked at him with crinkled eyes after opening the gift box. Derek’s eyes had been sun-bright and just as warm.
Derek was going to die in those boots. Derek was going to die in his favorite boots.
“I got nothing, Big Guy. No loopholes. No deus ex machina. Looked inside myself, and I’m all tapped out.”
His voice was a pathetic, wavering thing that made Derek’s sound edged with unbreakable steel in comparison. He wasn’t going to sound any better as the clock counted down the minutes. He wasn’t going to get any better from his wounds, and that was—that was okay. He’d do what he had to, and then maybe his goddamn body would step up to the plate and keel over without him having to bleed it dry.
Maybe the Hales would save him a seat at that dinner table, if they accepted him as one of their own. If Derek wanted him there. If Derek saw a place for him there, at his side.
“Then.” Derek sucked in a shuddering breath. Crushed that large hand around the knife’s handle until his knuckles went bone-white. Raised his head high and squared those broad shoulders, steel down to the toes. Every bit the Alpha in soul that he no longer was in flesh. “Then I’ll do it myself. End result’s the same.”
Searing tears sprung to Stiles’s sore eyes. That traitorous thing in his chest balled up into a mass of slicing shards that lodged itself in his throat.
“Fuck you, no. This is on me. I’ll do it. I have to.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Yes, I do. I—” Stiles sunk his teeth into his lower lip until he tasted more iron, until his lower jaw stopped its tremors. “You think I’m just gonna sit here and watch you? You think I can just sit here and let you go—”
Fresh or stale, the blood in his mouth tasted the same. He hadn’t cried in ages. Not since they buried Allison on that rainy Sunday in Beacon Hills Cemetery a lifetime ago and Scott had embraced him and said in his ear, It wasn’t you, Stiles. It wasn’t you who killed her and there’s nothing to forgive. He hadn’t cried in ages and he wasn’t about to begin now.
Derek went on his knees beside him. The knife dropped onto the floor and bounced away and it still refused to disappear from existence, no matter how much Stiles wished that. Derek was—god, Derek was stripping off that ruined t-shirt, and there wasn’t a single mark on that hirsute chest or on those still so very sculpted abs. The gashes the warlock had inflicted on them were gone, as if they were never there. That was werewolf healing for you.
Maybe Derek was tough enough now to survive wolfsbane straight to the heart.
Stiles made no sound as Derek moved his hand away and pressed the wadded-up t-shirt on his chest wound in its place. He’d lost all sensation in his legs a while ago. His own t-shirt—the black one with that cartoon, lush-haired unicorn that Lydia bought for his twenty-second birthday—was hardened from layers of drying blood. The white skin of the unicorn was now a gory pink.
“Stiles. Maybe if I do it now, he’ll let you go after I—After. And you can go to the hospital, and you’ll be okay.”
It was kind of fitting that he was wearing a t-shirt with a unicorn on it. Unicorns weren’t the friendly defenders of virgins that people assumed they were. They were actually hideous beasts who enjoyed murdering virgins by goring them through the heart with their horns.
Here he was, a murderer with a murderer on his t-shirt. It was fitting.
And how the hell was he going to be okay in any way? If Derek was dead and he would never see Derek again? If they never had those good mornings where they woke up side by side, where they sat together with hot mugs of coffee and a shared plate of carrot cake, kissing each other under sunshine?
How fucking stupid was he, to ever hope that he would have any of that?
“Stiles? Are you listening to me?”
Stiles stared into those sun-bright eyes and his own burned.
“I never had a chance with you, did I,” he whispered, and it wasn’t a question. “Probably used up all the luck I had surviving my teenage years.”
Derek stared back. His face was inches away and it appeared a blank slate, but Stiles knew him now, as an ally, as a friend, such a good one. He saw it for the frail veneer it was. He saw the fissures in it. He stared into those sun-bright eyes that glistened, and he saw how close Derek was to his own share of waterworks.
Derek had cried enough for a dozen lifetimes. The last person he should cry for was Stiles.
“You steal my sweaters. My socks. My coffee and my pop tarts. My Camaro when I’m stuck at the workshop and you think I don’t know. Now you have to steal my words too?”
Stiles gasped. Shoved his hand over Derek’s on his palpitating chest. Derek didn’t pull away. Didn’t vanish into thin air like he would every time Stiles woke up from a possible dream of their impossible future and thought, for those few precious seconds in his bed, that it was reality.
Their hands were trembling. Maybe it was his hand making Derek’s tremble.
Maybe Derek’s hand was trembling like his for the same reasons that had nothing to do with blood loss and suffering.
“What?” he croaked.
Derek closed those glistening eyes.
“Christ. Seriously.” Derek opened his eyes, and they didn’t glisten any less, didn’t seem any less red. “You think I would let just anyone take my coffee? My car?” Derek’s lips quirked up into that small smirk he knew so well, the one he sometimes dared to believe was for him alone. “And my leather jacket stinks of you way more than it should. I oughta send you the cleaning bill next time.”
It hurt more than Stiles thought it would to let out an astonished, iron-wet laugh. His chin wobbled, and his lower lip was probably doing that silly quiver again.
Derek—of course Derek knew he’d sneak that leather jacket over his shoulders and wrap it around himself when Derek wasn’t looking. Derek was a werewolf, with the sensitive nose of one. But then Derek wore that Stiles’s-scent-laden leather jacket anyway. Derek never sent that leather jacket out for cleaning.
It would have been nice to wear it one more time. Just one more time.
“Figured maybe you got tired of trying to stop me,” Stiles rasped.
“Nobody can stop you,” Derek said, as if Stiles was invincible and everything was going to be all right.
But Stiles was just a dying man. A dying loser. And nothing was going to be all right after Derek was gone, nothing—
That dam inside him that he’d shored up for years and years crumbled like Mom’s homemade chocolate cookies. He remembered their coarse heat in his pudgy fingers. He remembered how sweet they were, how sweet Mom’s kisses were on his forehead, how happy she looked when he hugged her and told her he loved her, and then she was sick and she was dead and he saw Dad cry for the first time and he—he learned that even the toughest men could cry until their knees buckled when they lost the love of their life. Could break, and never quite mend themselves again.
“I gotta do this, Derek. It’s gotta be me because you—your hands are clean now, you’ve earned your ticket and nobody’s gonna take that from you, least of all me.”
It figured, really, that when the time came for him to use his words, the words he’d yearned to say to Derek for ten years—forever—they would instead drown under words he never imagined he had to say. Words he never ought to say, not when he and Derek were supposed to live for a century, to see their hair turn gray then white. To never, ever know what it felt like to murder the love of his life.
“What are you saying?”
Derek’s glistening, red eyes were so wide.
“They’re waiting for you there, don’t you get it?” Stiles blinked, and blinked, and his burning eyes refused to cease their torrent of tears. “They’ve been waiting for you and if you do it instead of me, you’re gonna lose your ticket and go the other way, to hell, and that’s not the happy ending you deserve to have—”
“Goddamnit, Stiles, who—”
“Your family! Your mom and dad. Laura. Your other sisters, your brothers,” he choked out between gut-wrenching sobs that he couldn’t have reined in even if he tried. “Your cousins, your aunts and uncles—they’re all there in heaven, and you’ll be happy and nobody will ever hurt you again—I need you to have that, don’t you get it?!”
Derek had snapped in two before, after Kate Argent reduced his whole family to ashes and scars and a body rent apart, after he had to kill Boyd with his bare hands. But, to Stiles’s shock, it seemed what it took to completely shatter the steel in Derek’s body, soul and voice were mere words. The wrong words that were somehow also the right ones from a dying, lost loser with no miracle left.
Derek hunched forward and let out a gut-wrenching sob of his own, as if it was wrested out of his very soul with claws. Stiles’s face crumpled, and his eyes kept burning and spilling like the hole in his chest. Derek’s face crumpled and his body crumpled, wrapped around Stiles soft and warm like that prized leather jacket and maybe, maybe, Derek prized him even more than that jacket, more than any other material thing he had.
Derek pressed their foreheads together. Pressed their cheeks together, and it didn’t matter where all those searing rivulets of salt were rolling from. They all tasted the same on Stiles’s lips and tongue.
“And what if all the blood on your hands is there because of me?” Derek said an eon later, still holding him in one breakable piece. “Everything started with you stepping onto my land and into my life.”
Stiles knew it couldn’t be an eon, or he would have bitten the big one long ago. An eon was what he wished he had with Derek. But all he had were waning fantasies and passing minutes.
“I think everything started with you,” he rasped into Derek’s bristly, damp cheek. “Everything.” That was the absolute truth. He believed that. Derek was his everything, and it seemed he was also Derek’s everything, if Derek had shattered into a million pieces because he would be with his family but never see Stiles again.
“Why do you keep saving me?” Derek whispered into his ear. “How many more times are you gonna be my savior?”
Stiles melted in Derek’s solid, sturdy arms. He slid shivering arms around Derek’s bare torso, clung onto Derek’s heaving back. He turned his head, nudged his forehead to Derek’s, rubbed his nose against Derek’s. Brushed his lips on the corner of Derek’s downturned lips.
“You’re worth suffering for,” he whispered back. “Always.”
That was the absolute truth too.
Stiles could feel his heart slowing down. Grinding itself into a congealed lump of bloody molasses with a plain expiration date. His magic was drained dry fighting that faceless fucker, most of it on the street he grew up on and then the rest in that dim, featureless place where he was offered that fucking knife. The hole in his chest gaped and continued to weep in solidarity with his eyes, turning the lush-haired murderer on his t-shirt red. He’d lost all feeling from the sternum down some time after Derek slipped down to lay that head of dark, profuse hair and sticking-out ears on his shoulder.
He slumped against the wall and kept his arms secure around Derek. He combed the trembling fingers of his right hand through the short hair at Derek’s nape. He rubbed circles into the unblemished skin of Derek’s flank with his other hand. He memorized the sun-warmth of Derek’s body, the comforting weight of it against his.
He didn’t have much time left. Neither of them did. He needed an eon, an eternity to memorize everything about Derek Hale and infuse it all into the marrow of his bones so he’d never forget, even in hell.
“Tell me what our day would be like,” Derek murmured.
Tell me what our life would be like, if we had that chance.
The hole in Stiles’s chest went on weeping. It couldn’t hurt more than it already did.
He bowed his head and settled his lips on Derek’s hairline. He could see strands of gray and white along the temple, and he ached so badly to know what Derek would look like with a head of salt-and-pepper hair, or pure white hair like jolly, old Kris Kringle in those quaint Christmas oil paintings. It would be just like Derek to have hair worthy of a high-definition shampoo commercial at the age of eighty.
“We’ll have a king-sized bed in the master bedroom. On the second floor of our new house in the Preserve,” he said, his voice as devout as it would ever be to giving what Derek implored him. “You’ll sleep on the left, me on the right. But we’ll just end up in the middle, your chest to my back, your arm around me, especially on winter nights because you’re hot as an oven at full temp.”
“I think this is the first time you called me hot.”
“Not in my head, no.”
“When was the first time you thought that about me?”
“That long ago, huh?”
“Never thought somebody saying, ‘This is private property,’ could sound so scary and sexy at the same time.”
He could tell Derek was smiling without gazing upon that perfectly imperfect face.
“Never thought a shaved head could look so jaw-dropping, but you always did know how to up the ante on awful haircuts.”
Derek’s cheek bunched against his shoulder as he tugged at the hair on Derek’s nape in retaliation.
“Excuse you, Mr. I Have More Gel On My Head Than Hair! I grew it out eventually! Now my hair makes boyband lead singers weep at its coiffed and incomparable beauty.”
He felt Derek’s chest expand with a tremulous breath. He felt those slicing shards in his throat again, devouring his scant mirth.
“Beautiful. Yeah. That’s what you are. That’s what you’ve always been. Beautiful mind: fast and sharp. Beautiful heart: constant, vast. Beautiful face: your whisky eyes, your nose that’s just right for you, that bow of your upper lip. Beautiful, every face of you, in light and shadow.”
Derek was using his words, and each one pummeled Stiles in an already wounded chest like fired arrows. He squeezed his eyes shut, squeezed out more searing rivulets from them. They trailed down his cheeks into Derek’s hair. Derek didn’t complain.
Blood, pain and tears were trivial now when all they had were precious moments and a wolfsbane-laced carving knife to end everything.
“We’ll wake up in our king-sized bed at dawn,” he rasped, “because you’re a dumbass who’s gotta run and work out for hours.”
He was grateful Derek didn’t point out his use of future tense. It was too much agony for them both.
“Are you a dumbass too for running with me every morning?”
“Yeah, but that’s beside the point.” He concealed a watery smile in Derek’s smooth forehead. “Then, breakfast. We gotta have waffles. Scrambled eggs and bacon. A pop tart or two. Coffee. The good shit you always buy online from that island that’s who knows where.”
“St. Helena, Stiles. You know exactly where it is. Point it out on the world map like the nerd you are.”
“Only you would fall in love with a magical nerd instead of a werewolf supermodel like yourself.”
“Supermodels are seriously overrated. I prefer a clumsy, lanky guy with boyband hair and tons of moles, who thinks curly fries is manna, uses his magic to heal a puppy’s fractured leg, and makes babies laugh with his silly faces.”
Somehow Stiles’s failing body found the strength to let out an amused chuckle. Human bodies were crazy like that sometimes. Human hearts were even crazier, with their tendencies to make somebody fall madly in love with someone who had, against all the odds, fallen madly in love with them too.
“I thought my faces were beautiful, you asshole.”
“Silly and beautiful can be synonymous,” Derek murmured, and once more, that jagged mass was in Stiles’s throat, choking him.
“Yeah. That’s you. Silly-beautiful. Crazy, stupid beautiful with a heaping dose of funny asshole and brooding artist and badass firefighter on the side.”
“Tell me what we do after breakfast.”
Stiles breathed in as deep as he could. He was beginning to go numb in the chest as well, and that was probably for the best. Derek curled up against his dying body. Derek fitted in his embrace as if his arms were made to hold Derek and no one else.
“We’ll go somewhere quiet, far away from town. We’ll bicker over who gets behind the wheel of the Camaro—”
“Me, of course—”
“But I do, of course, and I’ll take us for a drive and—” Stiles leaned his cheek on Derek’s head. “There’s this small lake about ten miles northwest of Beacon Hills. It’s in this really secluded forest area that you gotta hike to for about twenty minutes. Mom—” His breath this time was hitched. “It was Mom’s favorite place for picnics and a swim in the bluest waters I’d ever seen. When we were there, it was like the rest of the world didn’t exist. Like all our problems went away.”
“I’m there,” Derek murmured, and Stiles could see Derek there, in a pair of swim shorts—with Spongebob Squarepants print because Stiles had good taste—lounging on a blanket under the sun. Watching him stomp across pale sand from the cool water to the blanket with a contented quirk of lips.
“We’ll go for a swim. Have a picnic. Then we’ll go back home. Back into our bedroom and we’ll—”
“Watch movies on your laptop? Gorge on curly fries and soda until we puke?”
Stiles snorted. “I dunno, I was thinking a marathon of fantastic sex all night long, but hey, I’m not gonna stop you if you prefer movies and junk food.”
“We’d be good together. Amazing. I know it.” Derek rubbed a bristly cheek against the skin between his neck and shoulder. “The number of times I imagined kissing you. Feeling your body under or over mine, your arms around me, your legs sliding with mine. Me in you. You in me. You don’t even know.”
Stiles’s chest was numb, but that maimed, wailing thing in it was anything but. He didn’t point out Derek’s use of past tense. It would have been beyond agony to do that.
I could hurt you some more. I’m all for that. That’s the whole point, you know?
“I know,” he whispered into Derek’s creased forehead. “I do know.”
He was the reason Derek was going to die. He was the reason Derek was going to die never knowing what he’d look like with salt-and-pepper hair, or how clear the water of that lake was, or what it’d feel like to push inside Stiles and fill all those empty places in them until they were one.
Derek was going to die, but so was he, and he had to die. When he died, that faceless fucker of a warlock would move on from the pack, from Beacon Hills. When he died, there was no more reason for this clusterfuck to go on.
“That was an awesome day,” Derek said. “That was our day today.”
Derek’s cheek was damp again on his shoulder. He closed his eyes as Derek nuzzled his neck and lower jaw, sniffed his skin and breathed him in, as if Derek wanted to memorize his scent. As if Derek hadn’t already done that years and years ago.
“Yeah. It was a perfect day,” Stiles choked out.
He could feel his maimed, wailing heart slowing down. Derek could hear it.
Ice deluged his veins when Derek peeled himself away and sat up. Derek crawled over to that fucking knife on the floor and picked it up, like it was a mere toy, as if it wasn’t going to kill him soon, him and Stiles both. Stiles’s eyes widened and his breath snagged deep in his lung. Then it surged out his nose and mouth, and his lung wouldn’t draw in any air again as Derek crawled back with the knife.
He had no idea what his face was showing right now. It had to be appalling. Derek’s face was pallid, like it was when he was dying from wolfsbane poisoning and asked Stiles to cut his goddamn arm off in Deaton’s clinic. Derek’s expression was one he last saw on Dad’s face while Mom’s coffin was lowered into its freshly dug grave.
He squeezed his eyes shut. His upper body convulsed in a desperate attempt to suck in oxygen he didn’t want.
“Stiles. Look at me.”
Derek’s warm hand grasped the back of his neck. He grabbed Derek’s hunched shoulders and he opened his mouth and tried to breathe, but then that fucking knife touched his arm. That fucking knife that Derek was gripping and pointing its razor-sharp tip at his bare chest, his beating heart.
Stiles’s eyes popped open.
He couldn’t see a damn thing past the hot, stinging film over them. He grabbed for the knife instead. Forced it down and away from Derek’s chest. Derek was letting him do it, he knew that. It was nothing more than a slight reprieve.
“It’s gotta be me who does it, give it to me, give it—”
“Hey. Hey, it’s okay, Stiles. It’s okay.”
Derek pressed their foreheads together. Held his head in place when he tried to bang it into the wall behind him, bang it again and again until something broke and released salvation for them both. It was hilarious how Derek thought he was the savior between the two of them. Derek was always the one saving him from himself. Didn’t Derek know that?
“Everything’s gonna be okay, babe. And you know why?”
Stiles tasted wet salt on his lips again. Derek’s hazel, red-rimmed eyes filled his entire universe.
“Why?” he whimpered.
“Because you’ll swear to me that you’ll avenge my death. No matter how long it takes you.”
Derek’s almighty hand refused to let him go. He had both hands around Derek’s other hand around the carving knife’s handle. He had to hold onto it, but he was also this close to slamming his fist into Derek’s cheek.
“You goddamn piece of shit, you bastard—you fucking—”
“Swear to me, Stiles!”
“I’m gonna die too, you stupid asshole—”
“No, you won’t. You’ll make it. Do you hear me? You’ll get outta here and you’ll live, Stiles.” Derek glowered at him. Shook him by his nape. “Swear to me you’ll live and avenge my death! Swear it!”
Stiles felt something in him break anyway. Shatter like Derek did, into a billion, irretrievable pieces that no one could glue together again. His streaked face crumpled and his spilling eyes scrunched shut and his blood-wet mouth gaped open in an anguished, resonant howl. It cracked the walls around them. Scattered the billions of pieces of him into eternal darkness.
Derek refused to let him go. Derek refused to let him die.
“How am—how am I gonna go on after this?” he choked out between quavering breaths. “Derek, tell me how.”
“You’ll find a way,” Derek said, wet eyes more red than hazel but no less beautiful. “You always do. You’re the smartest, strongest man I’ve ever known.”
Derek raised the tip of the carving knife again. Pointed it at his breathtaking, irreplaceable, vulnerable heart. Derek’s hands didn’t shake like Stiles’s.
“Took me a long time to figure out what I felt for you, after I saw you for the first time. Walking onto my private property like it was already yours. You looked me in the eye, and it was like I knew you. Like I already, really knew you.”
Stiles gulped in a scratchy breath that ended on a whine. Derek gave his nape a tender squeeze. Rubbed their foreheads harder.
“By the fifth time, it felt like I already, really knew you my whole life. By the tenth time, I knew we were fated to be thrown together, no matter how far apart the world moved us. By the hundredth time, I knew you were a place I could call home.”
“Derek,” Stiles sobbed.
He had to move Derek’s hand away from the knife. He had to be the only one holding the knife to finish the job. But he was so weak, too weak. All his remaining strength was flowing from his eyes, down his face and Derek’s.
“By the thousandth time I saw you, looked at you smile, listened to you laugh, smelled your perfect scent on my clothes and my skin,” Derek rasped, “I knew there was no one else for me but you. You’re it, babe. You’re my mate. I’ve never loved anyone like I love you, and I will never love anyone else like I will always love you. Don’t you get it? You’re the reason I’m happy, Stiles. You’re the only happy ending I need.”
Derek pressed soft lips to Stiles’s quivering ones. It was far from Stiles’s first kiss, far from the nicest kiss. It was stained with tears and blood that should never have defiled his first kiss with Derek. But it was his first kiss with Derek. The only one. The one that counted more than any other. The one he’d dreamed of for a decade, for an eon, and finally got in reality. The one he was going to remember for an infinity, even in the bowels of hell.
“I’ll never die, Stiles,” Derek whispered. “You think of me, you remember me, and I’m alive. You look inside your heart for me, and I’ll be there, always. Do you believe me?”
“Yes,” Stiles whispered back.
There was no other answer he could give. He was completely numb. He shivered and pictured himself pulling the carving knife out of Derek, slitting his own throat. Slash of a grisly smile from ear to ear.
He knew Derek didn’t hear his heart skip.
“Good boy,” Derek said, smiling at him for the last time.
Derek yanked the carving knife out of Stiles’s grip. It pierced Derek’s chest without a sound.