Eventually even Winter, too, passes. Cora receives three new propositions from the young men in town. The twins hide in the hallway and eavesdrop as she screams down at them from her balcony. There is a burst of surprise births at the goat farm, and he takes them down to watch the lambs stagger drunkenly in the sodden grass. The sun comes out. Uncle Peter tries to fight off a troll that wanders accidentally into their territory and instead teaches it how to make Moonshine so potent they don’t find him for three days.
Derek grows a bit of a beard.
“He thinks it makes him look manly,” Cora whispers over-loud to their mother, across the breakfast table.
“Shut up, Cora,” says Derek.
“Are you still trying to grow some chest hair,” she asks.
“Shut up, Cora,” says Derek, lunging across the table after her wild glee.
A few days into Spring, a notice appears on the board down by the brewer’s lane. It’s not for their town, but for one some miles South, where a ghost of some kind is lingering about the abandoned miller. Derek grimaces when he sees it, because he knows that abandoned miller, and knows it was Elves who were squatting there, but he waits and watches all the same for days on end to see if someone comes to collect it. Instead, it sits and wilts and sogs in the intermittent Spring rain, until eventually Derek overhears gossip in the town market that the neighbouring village had managed to waylay an Elderman, of all things, and banished the ghost themselves.
And then one day, out of the blue, someone tries to kill him.
He’s a bit ashamed, really, how quickly logic and reason and forethought fly out of his head as soon as his eyes move from the twins in the glade chasing crickets to the glint of metal at the tree-line, at how brief the moment of panic is before the crossbolt whistles through the air and lodges itself in his throat.
It’s not silver, he thinks, and then, I’ve never been shot before.
Ellie screams. The sound is ear splitting, and turns howling at the end, the whistling tinny of a cub wolf as she transforms, her sister right behind her. Derek is too slow to stop them, staggering on his feet. He clutches at the arrow, at the spurting blood, vision swimming.
Two small shapes dart towards the tree line, snarling, as a long-legged figure steps out, already drawing its sword. The silver glimmers in the sun, sparkling like a diamond.
Derek bites down the next wave of blood, grabs the arrow shaft and wrenches it from his throat, spraying the grass red. It’s a Witcher, he realises, as his vision reddens and the shift takes his body. His arms and legs snap back into place, his hackles raise, his snout stretches the skin of his mouth. It’s a Witcher, flinging Ellie across the grass with a backhand, grabbing Lisbeth by her muzzle and lifting her trembling up in front of him.
It’s a Witcher, says Laura’s voice in his head, her flat white eyes ice-cold in the family crypt as the flies swarm about her.
Derek howls. The Witcher turns to face him, yellow eyes flat and cold.
It’s not Stiles, realises Derek, just as the man charges towards him and Derek lands on all fours.
It’s a strange feeling, dying.
“You’re not dying,” Cora heaves, “you piece of shit,” tears spilling down her red cheeks, mouth smeared with gore.
I thought it would be more dirty balls than this.
“What does that even mean,” she sobs. There’s movement all around them. Derek can smell the pack. Derek can smell everything.
“Lisbeth,” screams his mother in the distance.
I’m a failure.
“Derek,” Cora says, cradling his head in her lap. His arms and legs feel funny, like they’re not really attached to him properly. “Derek, no,”
I miss Laura.
Uncle Peter stands over him, painted in red. He looks like a wraith. Not that Derek has ever met a wraith. Maybe Stiles has. He should ask Stiles if he’s ever seen a wraith.
“Put this in your mouth,” says Peter.
It’s a stick.
Derek bites down.
“And breathe,” his uncle warns, as he begins to reset Derek’s bones, and Derek begins to scream.
He doesn’t leave bed for a week. As his bones rebuild, his muscles reconnect, he lays in the darkness and listens to the town heave with grief, the endless parade of gentle knocks at the door, of the repeating chorus of apologies and well wishes. So many flowers are left at Hale Manor that they begin to rot. The sickly sweet stench wafts up through the hallways, under the doors. Over Derek. His eyes burn. On the third day Cora creeps into his room in the middle of the night, under the shroud of darkness. She slips under his bedcovers and rests a small hand on his chest, right over his heart.
“You can’t take the pain,” he chides her, rough. His jaw isn’t sitting right.
Cora doesn’t answer.
“You were everywhere,” she says after a long time, when Derek is on the cusp of sleep.
“You were all everywhere.”
The next day she is gone. Derek can hear her low tones in the courtyard, along with his father and one of the boys. There is the sound of movement, rustling and muttering, and after a few hours, the smell of flowers is gone altogether.
Derek heals. Derek stands. Derek walks. He does not go down to the goat farm and check on the lambing. He does not go to the glade to gather crickets for the Manor. He lingers around the home, finds some handiwork that they could definitely ask the staff to do, and does it himself. He sets himself up a little shed in the courtyard where he works with wood, carving bannisters, woodworking tools, hatchets.
He makes his way to market one day to collect some timber, and stops, because there’s a shrouded figure standing at the market-board near the brewer’s lane. This time it turns to face him before he can say anything, and Stiles is grim and damp, frame wracked with fatigue and a new scar splitting an eyebrow in two.
He stops when he spots Derek – a motionless figure in a churning crowd. He looks over his shoulder, to where Roscoe is once more tethered to a tree, his haunches shivering in the morning light.
Derek, after a moment, realises Stiles is nervous.
“I can go,” he says, although they are some distance away from each other. Stiles knows he doesn’t have to raise his voice. “But, there’s a Kikimore nest up East that’s growing closer and closer to your town, and I’d like to take care of that before I leave. You ever see a Kikimore?”
His hands are shaking, grasping at the strap of his scabbard. Derek doesn’t speak.
“Ugly fuckers,” Stiles continues, restless. A passing townsman gives him a fowl look, spits at his feet. Stiles doesn’t even flinch. “They have these… pincers? Claws? Kind of like a crab, if it was fucked by a vampire. Don’t imagine that. Anyway, it shouldn’t take me too long, and I struck White Honey gold at Oxenfurt, so I won’t even have to bother your healer—”
Did you tell them, thinks Derek, and suddenly the guilt is back, gnawing at his belly, tearing at his insides, as he remembers the Godling, and how it sleeps under Derek’s bed now, and weaves him flower crowns while he dreams. How Stiles had stooped to receive a crown, his dimpling face spreading to childlike glee, laughing in the sun.
Stiles is pale and damp. He looks like he has been dunked three or four times in a bog and then left out to rot.
“—all these eyes? So many eyes? With these, like, feelers?” Stiles’ fingers wriggle in the air, some foul pantomime.
“Stiles,” says Derek. “Stop.”
Stiles stops. He looks down at the road. Looks up at Derek.
“I’m sorry,” he says, quiet and low. “I’m sorry about your sisters.”
A cloud passes over the sun, drenching them in a chill. In the distance, Roscoe discovers a patch of dandelions which a victorious rumble.
“Do you want a bath?” Derek asks.
“How old are you?” Derek asks, sitting backwards on the chair, feet bare against the cool stone of the bathroom.
“Please, Derek,” Stiles jokes, “let me take my trousers off before you ask these sorts of questions.”
Derek’s parents were out, travelling to meet with a pack of a neighbouring region for a ceremony to bid his sisters farewell. Derek did not join. Derek could not join. It was just him left behind, and Uncle Peter, who was off in the woods slaughtering anything with four legs and looked at him wrong.
The house staff prepared the bath for Stiles without question but left them alone with more than a few wary glances.
Stiles takes off his trousers. He’s somehow more slender and yet stronger than Derek envisioned him, with wide shoulders and a tapering torso. Derek’s father would have said the Witcher had the legs of a runner, not a warrior. His freckles continue on down his neck. So does his scars. Especially on his torso – big starbursts of tissue networking down his spine and over his arms, spiralling his hairy calves like jewellery. He leaves his necklace on, the cat snarling back at Derek, teeth bared.
Stiles sinks into the tub, groans, and disappears under the water.
Derek waits. When the Witcher surfaces again, he throws a bottle of soap at him, which Stiles catches seamlessly.
“Older than you think,” he says eventually. Somewhat clean and drenched. His hair turns dark from the bathwater, slicks down his face and over his upturned nose. “How old are you? Sometimes with lycanthropes – I can’t tell.”
“Probably younger than you think,” Derek says.
“You have a beard now,” Stiles comments. He tilts his head. Under the candlelight, his eyes glow. “It suits you.”
“Cora thinks it’s stupid.”
“Cora reaches up the skirts of the tavern girl when she thinks you’re not looking,” says Stiles. When Derek stares at him, he grins, impish. “People don’t talk to Witchers, doesn’t mean they don’t talk around them, Derek. Your sister is the regular village Casanova, I’m sorry to break this to you.”
“I’m sorry about them,” Derek says, awkward.
“Are you?” Stiles asks, and its genuine, the surprise and confusion on his face. “I wouldn’t blame you if you weren’t.”
“Why not? We killed him.” His mother killed him, to be specific. Tore him apart with her jaws and her hands and her talons, after she had dragged Peter and Cora and Derek’s father off him – landed the killing blow, through her hoarse screams and tears, until the Witcher’s gasping breaths were nothing but a nightmare for Derek to revisit again and again.
“No, you didn’t.” said Stiles, serious. “He ran afoul of a nest of Kikimora, is what I heard. Wasn’t prepared enough. Made stupid mistakes. It happens more often than you think, you know -- us Witchers are a stupid breed.”
For a long time, Derek listens to the breathing of the house, the bleating of the livestock, the laughter of the kitchen girls over some thing or another.
“Why,” he says, finally, “he was one of you—”
“There’s nothing to be one of, anymore,” says Stiles, and he finally looks away, away from Derek, to resume scrubbing his hands. The water runs red. “Nothing left of the Schools and especially not of the Cats, not after that shithole fell apart. The few of us left are the ones are survived, that’s all, and when Cats are concerned, survival isn’t generally won by the noble.”
He scrubs hard. The blisters on his knuckles re-open, and Derek thinks, absently, that Stiles has too nice hands, to be wounded so.
“You’re noble,” says Derek.
“I’m sorry,” says Stiles, seriously, “that you’re suffering under that delusion.”
Derek buries his head in his arms and pretends Stiles can’t see his shoulders shake.
He walks Stiles to the guest wing, with soft tunic and trousers to wear while the staff clean his gear.
“I’ll stay awake,” he says, “in case Uncle Peter comes back early. But I doubt he will. He spends a lot of time in the woods these days.”
Stiles tilts his head at him. Clean and up close, he smells like iron and lavender.
“I’ll stay awake,” says Derek, “and warn him in advance. So… you shouldn’t – he shouldn’t bother you.”
“Alright,” says Stiles. He glances at Derek, at his hands, at the door. “You could do that. Or,” he reaches out, curves his long fingers over the collar of Derek’s shirt, “You could join me, instead.”
Derek’s breath catches. He catches Stiles’ gaze. It’s solemn and quiet, but Derek remembers, distantly, the sound of his laughter, ringing like a bell.
“I could do that,” he says, quietly.
Later, Stiles yelps, suddenly, and Derek releases him like he’s been shot.
“What,” he gasps, floundering, trying to untangle their limbs, “did I hurt you, did I hurt you—”
“Bloody fuck,” says Stiles, trembling with sweat, as they both crane their head over the side of the bed, where the Godling has grabbed his ankle, its marble eyes rolling with panic, “He’s not attacking me you little—”
Derek barks a laugh. It surprises him, a little.
In a way it almost hurts.