At heart, Stiles was a California boy, built for sandy beaches and sunshine. He loved the sea in the heat of midday, when you could laze for hours on a warm towel and then dash into the waves to cool off and body surf. It was okay as a scenic background on cool nights when you could set a bonfire and get a little tipsy with an arm around your crush for warmth. Beyond that, though? He had no use for it. In other words, the frigid, rocky shores of Ireland wouldn't have been his first, second, or fiftieth choice for a vacation destination. What was the point of a beach you couldn’t tan on?
Denying Lydia anything would have been unthinkable, though. There was so little she’d asked for in the last five months that Stiles had jumped at the chance to do something to make her happy. When the Irish library that held her great-aunt’s collection had refused to subject the fragile documents she had requested to scanning, she’d been devastated. She’d pled with him to come with her so she wouldn’t be alone, and it had been the easiest thing in the world to agree. At this stage of his PhD, it wasn’t as if he had classes preventing him from spending a few months abroad. So, here they were in the northern reaches of Ireland, in the tiny sea-side town of Kincora.
It's not what he expected. The two cabins they’ve rented are old and drafty, sure, and the “town” barely qualifies as such, despite the library’s impressively curated historical archives. But with nothing except the noise of the crashing waves to distract him, he's got more work done on his dissertation in the last two weeks than in the previous six months.
When he isn’t working, he goes for hikes - not because he’s suddenly fallen in love with the harsh landscape, of course, but because it helps him think. At least, it starts that way. He does have to admit that the unfamiliar steely grey of the water seems curiously alluring, capturing his imagination in a way the blue-green expanse of San Diego never had. He’d never thought something so unforgiving could be beautiful, but in a way, it is.
That could just be the boredom talking, though. Despite her insistence that she needed his support, Lydia’s been too wrapped up in her research to hang out since the first week. Secretly, he had hoped it would be easier for her to heal away from the constant reminders of what had happened to Allison, but it’s hard to say if her feverish focus here is any healthier than her listless detachment back home.
Even though he thought he was familiar with the trails around his cabin by now, Stiles had gotten thoroughly turned around on this evening’s walk after roaming too far on the little goat paths. It seemed unbelievable that he could get lost when all he had to do was follow the shoreline, but it had happened all the same. He kept running into dead ends that required him to loop up and back around yet another sharp ascent, cursing his flimsy Chucks under his breath. He should have taken Lydia up on the suggestion of hiking boots.
By the time he’s confidently back on the right track, it’s late and getting dark fast. Tromping along with only the fading glow of the dipping sun for light, his full attention is devoted to avoiding tripping over the sharp, loose stones on the path. He’s pretty sure he could twist an ankle and easily die of exposure out here. It’s chilly for February, and the beach is deserted enough this time of year that nobody would find him until morning.
Muttering to himself about Lydia’s new obsession with Irish mythology, Stiles thinks longingly of the flat, paved streets of California with their wonderful cell reception. He’s so focused on putting one foot safely in front of the other that he almost walks right by without noticing anything. It’s only at the very last minute that Stiles glances out seaward, towards the rocky shore, and sees him.
He’s dark-haired and pale in the half-light, laying naked on a low, wet rock that’s barely past the tide line. It’s as if he’s sleeping, an incongruously calm still life against the harsh landscape.
“Oh God,” Stiles whines, foregoing the path to scramble down the rocky slope towards the man as directly as feels safe. The roar of the ocean drowns out the scrabbling of shoes on rocks and even the heavy thump of Stiles’ heart in his ears. There’s no good reason to be out this late in the cold with no clothes, and Stiles’ imagination provides about a million bad reasons. Is the man drowned, did he wash up on the choppy waves from some shipwreck or other shore? Finding a dead body is about on the bottom of Stiles’ list of things he’d like to do tonight, but he’s a cop’s son and he can’t just leave, either. Not when he might be able to help.
Stiles falls to a crouch beside the body, still in a panic. The man is about Stiles’ height and age, though more solidly built and with generous body hair curling on his chest and limbs. From this close Stiles can see the man breathing, so he's alive at least. Though, no telling in what state. He's probably been mugged or, Stiles thinks as he considers the man's bizarre nakedness, worse. Even if he wasn’t attacked, he might have fallen. There’s no visible bruising or blood, but there could be a head injury covered by his dark hair. No matter how he got here, he’s going to catch pneumonia if he stays exposed in this weather.
Stiles reaches out and grabs his arm.
The man startles awake and instantly curls away from Stiles, eyes wide in shock. He doesn’t cough up any sea water, which Stiles takes as a good sign. In fact, he has to grab tight with both hands to keep the man from jerking away out of his reach.
“Hey, hey, calm down, you’re good,” he says, releasing one hand to make the universal gesture for ‘I am unarmed and mean you no ill will.’
The man’s still coiled muscle and flitting eyes, as if he’s considering making a break for the waves. Like maybe he thinks dashing into the ocean would be less deadly than Stiles. He must really be disoriented. Stiles tries hard to look harmless and trustworthy, because if it came down to it he doesn’t think he could physically restrain this guy.
”I want to help, okay? Do you need help? Are you hurt? It’s super cold out, are you cold? Can you talk?” Stiles shoots out questions as he thinks of them, without really leaving any time for an answer to slip in edgewise, he realizes belatedly.
“Yes,” the man says hesitantly. To the last question, or maybe all of them.
Stiles has to admit that the man actually does looks fine, despite the circumstances. Or - more than fine. It’s at that moment that Stiles notices the man he’s trying to rescue, really notices him. He’s got full, expressive eyebrows, perfectly sculpted cheekbones, flawless skin, a swimmer’s well-muscled shoulders.
He’s fucking hot, in short.
How did Stiles miss that earlier? Jesus, those hazel-green eyes alone could stop traffic.
“Come on,” Stiles encourages, throwing his jacket around the man and pulling him to his feet by the elbow. Luckily, he stands without any problem. Stiles looks up the trail towards his cabin and sees that Lydia’s lights are out. If she’s finally getting some sleep he’s loath to wake her for a ride, and the town center is a good half mile away down the road, past the other, unoccupied summer cabins. Too far a walk, he decides. His place it is.
“My cabin is just over this way, let's get you warmed up.”
Once they're inside, Stiles shoves a pile of blankets at the man, half because they’re warmer than Stiles’ jacket, and half because they’ll keep the exceptionally distracting nudity better covered. He sets a kettle boiling, turns the rickety water heater up to full blast, and a few minutes later he’s pressing a hot cup of tea into the stranger’s hands. He keeps his own fingers wrapped around the cup, in case the man’s going to start shivering and drop it. The man doesn’t shiver. He does look up at Stiles in a way that sends one running down Stiles’ spine, instead.
Their fingers brush and then interlace around the cup, eyes still locked. The man’s gaze is unabashedly searching, intense enough to steal your breath. Stiles releases the cup quickly and turns away. Right - helping.
The man seems perfectly calm, if a bit quiet and confused by Stiles’ panic. God, he's been drugged hasn't he? Or is lethargy a sign of hypothermia? Stiles bites his lip, fretting. The water heater is shit and it's still drafty and cold even though they’re indoors. In his experience, it could be a good thirty minutes before the cabin really heats up. Just use the fireplace, Lydia had told him when he complained, with an epic roll of her eyes. It’s never quite been worth the trouble before, but...
“You're going to be just fine,” Stiles assures the other man, bending over the small and as-of-yet unused hearth. How hard can it be to start a fire, anyways? He tosses some wood in, crumples some old scratch paper on top, and lights it. The paper quickly burns off, leaving the logs unaffected. He curses under his breath and tries again.
“I'll get this fire going in a second, just- damn it to hell," he breaks off with a curse as the little curl of flame dies out for the third time. Is he going to have to pull up a wikihow? “Just drink that tea and tell me if you can feel your fingers.”
“I can feel my fingers,” the man says right in Stiles’ ear, a smile coloring his light brogue. “You're doing that all wrong, you know.”
Broad hands reach past his hip, taking the wood from him with reassuring confidence. Stiles watches in awe as the logs are placed into a neat little stack around the kindling. The fire takes, this time, and in a moment warmth unfurls from it like a breath of summer.
Stiles turns to stare, and finds that the man sitting on the floor next to him looks the opposite of hypothermic. The blankets are pooled around his lap as if he's not cold at all, or embarrassed. Though frankly nobody built like that really needs to be, do they?
“Are you really alright?” Stiles asks, accepting at last that there’s at least no imminent danger of the man dying, but not entirely satisfied that things are fine. “What were you doing out there?”
The man shrugs casually, though his eyes dart away towards the fire in a notably suspicious manner.
“Uh huh,” Stiles replies flatly, narrowing his own eyes. Definitely drugged, though maybe not by anyone but himself.
“Why are you so worried for me?” the man says, like getting high and dying of hypothermia is a cute joke. His whole face crinkles up when he grins at Stiles. “We’re only strangers, but you gave me your jacket. You made me tea .”
“Well, sure,” Stiles mutters, blushing. “I mean, most folks would be a little concerned about someone taking a nude nap in the negative-a-million degree weather out there. Like, fine, it’s probably not actually freezing. But you were so close to the tide line you could have ended up washed out to sea.”
“I wasn’t in any danger,” the man assures him.
Stiles snorts before he can help himself. “Oh, so you’re an olympic swimmer or something? I promise, it wouldn’t matter. Forget the undertow, you have any idea how cold that water is this time of year?”
Shifty eyes again. “I'm a local.” Stiles is almost sure that doesn’t count as an explanation, but the man seems sure it does. “You're not from around here, though,” he continues over Stiles’ forthcoming protest. “Not with that accent. What are you doing in Kincora?”
“Me? Um,” Stiles stutters, flustered under the man’s suddenly intense gaze. “Writing, mostly. Oh, not a novel or anything interesting, just my dissertation. Theoretical physics. Sounds fancy, but it’s basically just math. I’ve been thinking of this trip like a sabbatical, but it’s not really since I'm only a grad student. I have all my credits, though, so once I finish writing, all that’s left is the defense, and since Lydia wanted to come here for the library’s archives…”
“She’s your wife?” The man glances around, looking for entirely absent feminine touches.
“No,” Stiles protests quickly. “Just a friend who happens to be a girl. We used to have classes together when she was in my major, that’s how we met, but she switched into the anthro program a few months ago, even though she was on track to get her PhD like, last month. Everyone thinks she’s crazy, now. Even I think she’s barely holding it together after… well, that's not your trauma, sorry. Honestly, I don't want to talk about it, either. But there are primary sources she can use here, and I just need some peace and quiet to write my damn dissertation. So, I came with her for the semester, and... here I am.”
Ugh, he's babbling. But mystery man’s intense stare has softened into something downright fond, a small smile playing on his lips that’s just as sweet as the grin from before.
Stiles swallows, mouth suddenly dry. He pulls his knees up to his chest with an apologetic wince. “Sorry, it's boring.”
“Oh no, I don't think you're ever boring,” the stranger says with a searching, interested look.
“Other people say so.” Stiles can't help the little smile pulling at the side of his mouth.
The man leans in to whisper conspiratorially, “Other people are daft.”
Stiles turns his face away with an embarrassed huff of laughter, pressing his cheek to his knees, but he cuts his eyes over at the other man a second later. He hasn’t felt this much like a teenage girl with a crush since, well, ever .
Once the room warms up enough that Stiles doesn’t resent leaving the circle of heat around the fire, he gets up and fishes some clothes out of his bags; a green sweater Lydia gifted him the Christmas before, plus a pair of boxers and the sweats that are a bit loose on him.
“Here,” he offers only a little reluctantly, then flushes and turns quickly away when the stranger stands up to dress like it’s no big deal to show off his perfectly tight ass. Which, you know, Stiles would love to enjoy in all it’s glory except for the part where that would make him a giant creeper.
When they curl up near the fire again, the man ask about Stiles’ classes, and from there it’s only too easy to chatter away, leaping from one topic to the next until somehow they’re discussing baseball stars from the ‘90s. Stiles cherishes the broad laughs he’s able to coax out of the stranger, and finally lets himself stop worrying if he’s hogging the conversation or being a bore.
Before he knows it the fire is dying down to embers, though it’s still hot on Stiles’ face. The man looks pleased with the glowing remains of his efforts, and the flickering red hued light dancing over his features is doing him some serious favors. As if he needs them, honestly. It’s clear he’s not in danger anymore - if he ever was - but all the same, Stiles isn’t sure he wants to see the man leave.
“Do you have a place to go nearby? Somewhere warm? I can call someone for you.”
“No-o,” the man answers pensively. Not such a local after all, then. Obviously. Stiles would remember seeing someone who looks like this if he was one of the couple hundred people who actually live in or around Kincora.
“It’s gotten pretty late,” Stiles starts, hesitantly. “I mean, you’re probably still cold and… I don’t mind if you stay the night, figure things out in the morning. There’s only the one bed and it’s small, but, um, we could share?” Stiles can feel himself flush with embarrassment, and he’s almost ready to start back-tracking when the man graces him with another of his brilliant smiles.
“That sounds lovely,” he says.
They need few words after that, which is lucky because Stiles’ tongue feels thick and clumsy with nerves. He changes quickly into pajama bottoms and a worn t-shirt, slightly embarrassed at his lanky 18-hours-a-day-in-the-library scrawniness, while the man divests himself of Lydia’s sweater and Stiles’ sweats with his characteristic nonchalance about nudity.
“Well,” Stiles huffs, sweeping a hand towards his bed. The man hangs back, shifting unsurely on his feet, so Stiles scootches in under the covers first and presses tight against the wall to make room. The man follows his lead a second later, hesitantly shuffling in close to keep from falling off the edge of the mattress.
It should be strange, lying so near and almost naked, but the man doesn’t seem to mind their knees knocking together, their foreheads resting on the same pillow. They’re close enough their breath is mingling, and the man’s eyes keep searching Stiles’ face like he’s trying to memorize it. The air seems charged with potential that has Stiles’ breath catching and his lips tingling. It would take so little to close the distance between them.
So Stiles does. It’s impulsive, a reflex more than a decision. An inevitability. He’d be panicking at his own forwardness, except that his head is too full with the feeling of soft, dry lips pressing against his. Such a chaste thing, a quick little peck, shouldn’t feel so electric.
They break apart, a few inches apart on Stiles’ pillow again. Nothing visible has changed, except maybe the quickened tempo of his breath. The man's still just staring; it was too much, too soon.
“I - sorry, we should sleep,” Stiles huffs, half rolling onto his back. He’s half expecting rejection, but the man eases an arm over Stiles’ side, turning him on his side so they’re spooning. Their bodies slot against each other like they were built for it. Warm fingers skate across Stiles hip, under his shirt, and then come tentatively to rest just grazing the hair on his belly. The touch feels like a brand, setting Stiles heart pounding even though he’s exhausted enough from the hike and fear.
Still, he finds himself dozing almost instantly in the cozy nest they’ve made of his bed. For once he feels no need to rush into things headlong; unlike the guys he usually chases, this stranger seems equally interested in exploring the pull between them.
Falling asleep twined together feels like the beginning of something great.