Derek finds the Witcher a mile out of town in a glade with his head in a burrow.
He wants to rush forward at first, grab the guy by his straps and pull him the hell out of there, because Derek knows what is in that burrow, and it sure as hell isn’t dangerous – but he notices the Witcher’s swords are still safely sheathed on his back, and as Derek lurks at the tree line, the guy gets to his feet again. He gestures animatedly to the woods, in the direction of town, and Derek shifts a little behind a tree when the Godling comes crawling out of the burrow after him, chewing contemplatively on a mouthful of daisies.
It barely reaches the Witcher’s knees. It has flowers in its hair. Derek eyes the Witcher, bristling with knives, and feels his claws prickle through his fingertips.
Then the Godling grabs the edge of the Witcher’s coat, and tugs. The Witcher acquiesces, bending down, and the Godling threads some chewed up daisies into his short mop of hair.
The Witcher laughs.
Witcher’s don’t laugh, says Laura’s voice in Derek’s head.
Derek heads back to town.
He finds the notice in town, out on the edge near the brewery. It’s clearly been put up by some slighted farmer, complaining of a creature robbing his wares and slaughtering his livestock. The robbing was probably true, but the livestock… Derek hadn’t smelt any blood in the area when he went looking, just spilt wine and honeysuckle, so that part was probably an embellishment to garner attention.
And attention it garnered. The bottom of the notice is ripped away, probably the parchment the Witcher had been clutching in the glade when Derek found him. Derek had trailed the Witcher’s scent through the woods, a mixture of sour chemicals, underlined by cold sweat and new leather. The Witcher had taken the name and directions from the notice, but a nearby townswoman stops by Derek when she notices him. When she looks at the noticeboard.
“Some new family up the hill,” she says, “took over the old Darner’s farmstead. They obviously didn’t know about… don’t be too hard on them, Master Hale? They didn’t know.”
Derek grunts. He tears the rest of the notice off the board, crumples it in his fist. The woman lingers. She’s older, and careworn, and smells gently of soap and butter. Derek thinks he places her fast in the east quarter of town, that one family with the rambunctious set of boys. He thinks it’s her voice he hears sometimes in the evening, with the other washerwomen, whiling the work away with songs.
“A Witcher found it,” says Derek instead, looking up the lane to town as sunset settles over the buildings. The woman gasps, a small inhale, and shifts the washing in her arms.
“Is it…?” She can’t bear to finish the sentence, shifting restlessly on her feet, avoiding his eyes.
“He let it go.”
Derek hears his mother calling, in the distance. A solemn howl, crooning from Hale Manor, at the top of the town hill. He makes to leave, but the washerwoman stops him with a gentle touch to his elbow, her face creased with care.
“We’ll see them off,” she says firmly. “Leave it with us, Master Hale. We won’t have any more notices.”
Derek heads up the hill. The dirt path from the brewery gives way to cobblestones, arching gently up the slope into the town proper, where people are mingling in the streets and on the steps, heading to the tavern after a long day of harvesting and hauling. Some of the children are erecting coloured bunting between the upper storeys, flinging twine and flags to each other to uproarious cheers from below. The Harvest festival is approaching, Derek knows. He can feel it in the warmth of the evening sun, the awning relief on the towns people’s faces. As he makes his way home some of them greet him respectfully, and their smiles are open and honest. Untouched and unblemished.
Laura’s carcass rots in the family mausoleum, enshrouded by Wolfsbane and untouched by time, just a half-severed wolf with an open snarling maw and a Witcher’s blade in her throat.
By the time he reaches the gates of Hale Manor, Derek’s blood is up, a ringing bell in his ears. His mother meets him on the steps, clutching a robe around herself as the sun sets and chill touches the air.
“Derek,” she says, admonishing.
“He didn’t kill it,” Derek snarls, pushing past her and her slack, surprised face.
Months pass. The Harvest festival runs without any problems. Derek’s siblings dance with the other children in the main square while his parents cheer from their seats of honour. There are two barrels of wine – one for the people, one for the Hale family. There is even a short memorial to Laura. Derek takes the chance to refill his goblet. When the moon comes up, his father’s eyes reflect like silver bowls in a river. Derek sleeps that night with his belly full and his mind empty. He listens to his siblings rolling over in their beds, their restless whimpers, their gentle snores. He misses Laura.
The family from the Darner homestead aren’t there. The place is empty, now. Home only to the mice in the rafters.
He’s in the market with Cora when he smells fresh leather, blood and sweat, and the slightest touch of chemicals. His mind goes screamingly blank, and before he knows what he’s doing he’s charging down the main street with Cora on his heels, yelling his name.
“Derek!” She yells, and then turns tail, and he knows she’s gone for their parents. People are jumping out of his path, rolling wagons and stalls frantically.
“Master Hale!” Someone says, voice touched with fear, and it’s enough to bring him back to clarity, bring him back to the world where the air is fresh and clean, and there are children about, and he has a family to keep safe.
And there is a Witcher standing by the noticeboard near the brewer’s lane, scratching his head.
That’s a kid, Derek thinks at first, before he registers the broad shoulders, the definition of muscles on the lanky frame. The Witcher’s hair is cropped short, but there’s the hint of stubble on his chin, and his armour is battle-worn. Derek can smell fresh blood, and sees bandages on the Witcher’s palms, a fresh graze on his face.
Then the Witcher turns to face him, and Derek sees yellow eyes, and a plucked notice in his hand.
He’s storming forward before he can stop himself, snatching it from the guy’s hand, and it’s a lucky thing that his snarl is lacking teeth.
“Get out,” he hears himself saying, distantly, like a dream, “we don’t need your kind here.”
The Witcher’s eyes, which had twinged in alertness at Derek’s approach, go flat and cold.
“Then it’s a good thing,” the kid says, “that this notice isn’t for your town.”
Derek falters, glancing down. He sees the word griffin, and devil’s pit, and glances up again to see the Witcher already turning away, heading down the path towards the woods - - away from town. There’s a horse tethered to a tree, grazing in the weeds. It, too, stinks of sweat. Its haunches shiver in the breeze. The Witcher should have stabled it. Derek hears whispers and turns to see some men collected near the tavern, muttering together.
The Witcher couldn’t stable it, says Laura, from her lopsided muzzle, wolfsbane spilling from her teeth.
Derek looks back. The horse is already disappearing into the trees, it’s long tail swishing absently through the grass, its rider gone into the dark.
“Hey, jackass,” says Cora, loping into his room, “you know the point of keeping a low profile is to not actually piss off the first Witcher you meet, right?”
“Don’t you have better things to do,” says Derek, not looking up from his letters. “Like making a boy cry, somewhere?”
Cora gives him a pointed silence. Derek makes a face.
“Mother is angry with you,” she says finally. Something in Derek’s chest twinges.
“She’s always angry with me.”
“Jackass and stupid, and here you are, the family heir,” Cora makes herself comfortable on his bed, her muddy feet skidding on the expensive silks. “Truly, our family will drown in boons. No, idiot, she’s angry with you now. She was sad for you, before. Then you went and ruined it by picking a fight with a Witcher who wasn’t even looking for us.”
“Nothing good will come of having a Witcher in town,” he protests. “They’re bound to notice sooner or later that we run things… differently, here. We need to scare them off while we’re ahead.”
“You’re right,” she says, “because when I think of Witchers, the first word that springs to my mind is timid.”
Derek stares down at his letters, hard. His knuckles are white around his quill.
“We haven’t seen a Witcher in ten years,” he says eventually, quietly, “not since one split Laura in half on her way home from the city. We found her in a creek, Cora. Animals had got to her first. There was barely enough for us to bury.”
“I know that.”
“Do you?” Derek snarls, turning on her. “Because we’ve seen a Witcher now in our territory twice in as many months and I’m apparently the only one who thinks that might be an issue!”
She’s silent for a moment. Her eyes shine yellow in the dim light of his bedroom, the candles on Derek’s desk dripping wanly into the pans. They’re not the yellow eyes of the Witcher, he thinks. Cora’s are warm and golden, the colour of home and hearth, the colour of Family.
The Witcher’s eyes had been the yellow of freshly struck gold, or of the medicine he sees the apothecary sell sometimes, in their small glass bottles, sickly and sweet. He had the pupils of a cat. His necklace had a cat, too, Derek realises, a snarling little beast. But the rest of him… Derek wondered if there was a School of Deer, with the kids pointed little noise and freckles. That would probably suit him better.
“I know what you said to him,” Cora says, after a moment. Her tone is quiet. Admonishing. “Mother heard it too.”
Shame hits Derek hard in the gut, like a knife.
“We don’t owe his kind anything,” is what he says instead.
He hears a growl, deeper into the manner. It’s his father, in his study. The shame in Derek’s gut turns cold.
“Then what,” she says through her teeth, “shall we all band together? Go roaming through the countryside? Hunt each and every one of the Witchers down until they’re all dead? All extinct?”
“Cora,” he says.
“You’re pathetic,” she spits, and then freezes, before yelling, “no I won’t say sorry! Mother!” and then she’s up and off, storming out of his bedroom, letting the door slam behind her, yelling further into the house.
Derek fumes, turning to stare back out the window. The twins are in the courtyard, play wrestling. Their little snarls bounce off the stone wall separating the Manor from the town proper, but any passing stranger would think two dogs were fighting instead. A Witcher might even think more.
“I’m not saying sorry either,” he says, petty, pretending he can’t hear his father’s disappointed sigh.
Their world isn’t ideal. Derek knows this, his family knows this. This pocket of safety that they have was built through sweat and tears and blood, through sacrifices and turmoil, through treaties and secrets. The Hales protect the town, and the town protects the Hales. Washerwomen and children don’t have to worry about lingering at the river’s edge when playing or doing their duties, because Drowners don’t last long if they ever chance to drift by. There was a Bruxa nesting in the grainmill briefly, before Derek and his uncle Peter took care of that too. Anything that could or would go bump in the night – the Hale’s bump back. Few creatures of the realm could survive against a pack of fully-grown wolves. Short of a dragon or foreign invasion, the Hales could protect their town against any malevolence that decided to come their way. And the town did what they could to protect the Hales, too.
“You didn’t hear it from me,” says Erica at the tavern, when Derek joins his younger brothers there to listen to some music and play a few rounds of cards, “but the kids rounded up some old vegetables meant for the pigs and threw them at that Witcher when he passed by the smithy the other day. You should have seen the state of him!”
Derek pauses. He looks hard into his drink, and then up at Erika. Her eyes are sparkling, mouth open and laughing. She’s proud, Derek thinks. He looks around. A nearby group of men playing Gwent notice him and greet him warmly, faces pink and shiny with ale and firelight.
“Don’t worry,” she says quickly, noting his consternation, “they didn’t hit the horse.”
“Good,” says Derek.
He looks back into his drink.
“That’s good.” He says, the shame in his gut chewing at his insides, like a wolf.
The next time he finds the Witcher, he doesn’t even mean to. He’s out in the woods, keeping an eye on his sisters as they look for crickets in the long reeds. One minute he’s scanning the tree line idly, and the next all he can register is the smell of bursting rot, blood, and tearing sinew. He’s running, hard, loping on all fours, weaving violently through the trees until he comes upon the scene. The Witcher is alive, at least, although he is using his sword to keep him upright, where it is embedded deep into the throat of the Mourntart he was battling. Her guts are spilling out into the fresh green grass, the smell of decomposition churning Derek’s insides.
The Witcher is breathing hard, but not sweating. His side is blooming red. A puncture. Derek tastes meat on his tongue and closes his jaws hard against the swell of his fangs. The Witcher coughs wetly, rubs a hand over his face.
When he looks at Derek his eyes are black, his face white with purpling veins. It’s him who snarls first, instead of Derek. Answering snarls echo behind him. Derek’s sisters emerge from the trees, half-turned, defensive. They circle him like they were taught to circle a wounded hunt, heads half-cocked towards Derek, waiting on his move.
Ten minutes ago they were capturing crickets, bouncing harmlessly between the reeds, their laughter bell-like in the twilight.
“I don’t suppose I have time for a breather,” the kid bites. His teeth are tiny. Smaller than a pup’s. Derek could rip him apart in seconds.
Then the Witcher pulls his sword free from the Mourntart with a sickening gasp, and the silver glows hot and white before them.
The veins in his face throb black and purple in equal turns. In the kid’s free hand, a light begins to glow.
Then his knees go out from under him, his weight pulling him down hard, and he goes gasping, wheezing, unconscious into the damp and gruesome grass.
Peter is waiting for them by the time they reach the gates of Hale Manor.
It’s no surprise – even if the Witcher didn’t stink to the high heavens of rot and blood, the family would have heard the swelling chorus of confusion and curiosity of the townspeople as they watched Derek and his sisters trek through the streets with their bounty. Derek has the Witcher on his back, and his sisters have wrapped the silver sword in their coats, carrying the weight of it between themselves proudly.
“Uncle Peter!” Ellie shrieks as they crest the hill, “Uncle Peter, we killed a Witcher!”
There’s a loud gasping from the assembled people, and Derek hastens to cut her off with a “he’s fine!” – which, admittedly, is uncertain at this point. The Witcher’s pulse is barely audible to Derek, and it’s slow, sluggish. But based on what he’s heard from his parents, that might be normal for this guy.
Peter seems to think it’s funny, congratulating Ellie on her victory even as he shies away from the sword she hefts, the same look on his face that he wears whenever he finds an unexpected olive in his meal.
“Your mother wanted you to apologize,” he says as Derek passes, “not beat him over the head and carry him off to your cave.”
“Shut up,” says Derek, which is when Cora leans out of a window from the upstairs gallery and yells – “Derek! Mother said to apologize, not to--”
“Shut up!” Derek yells, louder, anxiously counting the small puffs of breath at his nape as his sisters struggle to navigate the silver longsword through the entryway. Derek tries not to wince when he hears it bang against the doorframe loudly, his sisters’ cheers echoing into the entry hall and its vaulted pillars.
He feels Peter follow him closer, eyes him carefully as his uncle pokes at the Witcher’s side, almost fascinated by the oozing red.
“Huh,” Peter says, “I always wondered what colour they bled.”
“Well congratulations, now you know.”
Peter takes a long, contemplative sniff. Makes a face.
“He smells like hag,” is all he says, and disappears into the parlour as Derek’s parents come thundering down the stairs, Cora hot on their heels.
Derek sees his mother’s ominous shock, his father’s building anger. He decides to head the accusations off before they start.
“It wasn’t me,” he bites out, defensive, hefting the guys weight on his shoulders, “we just found him this way.”
“And you brought him here?” His mother asks.
Derek hesitates, confused.
“I thought,” he flounders.
“We wanted you to be polite to the man,” says his father, white-faced, “not bring him home.”
Over their shoulder, Cora looks conflicted, almost apologetic.
“But,” says Derek. He doesn’t say, the Greenbrier kids threw old lettuce at him, although it sits at the forefront of his mind, like a guilty, leaden paperweight. He doesn’t say, he’s wearing the same outfit I saw him in last time, and I don’t think it’s been washed, while Derek is wearing finery, and silks, and cottons befitting his class. Instead he stands there, and shifts his weight, and avoids his father’s gaze.
“What,” says Cora eventually, breaking the tension, “should Derek have left him there to die?”
His mother opens her mouth. Shuts it. Breaths hard through her nose.
“Mama,” yells Ellie, unwrapping the silver sword, “you should have seen the beast he killed! She had - -“Ellie counts on her hands, “these many arms!”
“No, she didn’t,” says Derek sourly. To his parents he adds contritely, “it was a Mourntart.”
“Near here?” his mother hesitates, concerned, before she eyes the gore painting the Witcher’s clothes and relaxes, fractionally.
“Well,” says Cora, “not anymore it isn’t.”
At Derek’s neck a hot breath suddenly gusts, sharp, and he feels muscles tense, the thighs under his hands go taught, long fingers wrapped in gauze grip tight around him, nails sharp.
“What,” says the Witcher.
And vomits all over Derek.
The Witcher is unconscious again, once Derek has bathed and dressed and eaten his supper. He creeps up the stairs towards the guest quarters, to the room at the farthest end of the hall with only a few candles lit beside the large four-poster bed. The windows are all dressed but for the barest sliver of moonlight, and it glances across the brocade sheets and the still, silent figure beneath.
One of the maids has taken the Witcher’s clothes for washing, and he’s been redressed in a nightshirt far too big for him. His slender wrists lie atop the bedding, sticking out from the pooling sleeves, and they are deceptively delicate but for the network of scars crossing his knuckles and calloused palms. He’s been washed, too. Though a sour scent still lingers. Derek creeps across the darkened room and looks around the bed curtains to see him better. He is safe here, after all – surrounded by his pack and in the comfort of his den – and the Witcher’s swords are on the other side of the room with his pack, leaning against a chest.
“He had a horse before,” Derek had muttered to Cora, while she laughed and dunked his head in the soapy water, and now some of their house wandered the woods looking for it – their crooning howls echoing through the trees.
Derek looks down at the Witcher’s face. Under the grime and muck of before, he sees a man of few years, with a laughing mouth and many freckles, although the former lies flat in sleep. Hesitating, Derek tugs the top of the blankets down, sees beneath the thin nightshirt that the Witcher’s abdomen has been bound and dressed, the smell of blood now overpowered by the smell of ointment and soap. The children have all been put to bed – Derek had overheard their curious shout-whispers as they racketed up and down the halls, until they had been wrangled into baths of their own and tucked into the children’s wing of the manor.
The guest wing sits silent and dark, but for the low groaning of the wind outside.
Derek looks to the windows, wondering if he should close the curtains completely. Looks back.
Yellow eyes are watching him.
The kid is squinting at him, less disoriented as Derek would expect. He then rapidly glances about as much as he can without moving his head, his long fingers twitching against the silk threads of his bedding, before settling once more on Derek.
Derek, who just now realises the moon is full, and his eyes in the dark room are a brilliant, glowing blue.
“I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt,” says the Witcher raspily, after a moment, “considering I am very much intact, and also, I think someone washed my balls.”
“My balls,” says the guy, “they’re clean. You kind of notice that after a long time of them… not being clean. You know how it is.”
Derek did not.
The Witcher stared blankly back at him a moment more, and then sighed feelingly, shifting under the blankets.
“How long do I have?” he asks, and panic must colour Derek’s expression, because he lifts an eyebrow and adds, “before I have to leave. Relax, man. I know what dying feels like, and it feels a whole lot more dirty balls than this.”
“Please stop talking about your balls,” says Derek.
In the depths of the house, he hears Cora’s sudden, barking laughter.
“It’s a compelling subject.” The Witcher tilts his head a little, his eyes dilating sharply to adjust to the low-light. “The Hales, right?”
Derek swallows hard. The Witcher’s look is calculating.
“I’m Derek,” he says. “Derek Hale.”
“Right.” Says the Witcher, and then, “Stilinski. Stiles is fine. So, Derek, how long do I have before you lot kick me out? Because not for nothing, but this is a nice bed, and I’m pretty sure I have internal bleeding.”
Derek gives the air a long, pointed sniff.
“No, you don’t.”
Stiles scowls at him. “Werewolves,” he mutters. “It was worth a shot. I wasn’t lying about the bed, at least. Can I at least keep a pillow? Two pillows? I could strap them to Roscoe, set myself up a little throne.”
“Mother says,” Derek starts, and when the Witcher’s mouth purses with amusement, hastily amends, “Lady Hale says you can stay ‘til morning. She says you should be fully healed by then, and we won’t turn you out in the night like this. So,” he hesitates. “So… you can rest up here, until then.”
“Right,” says Stiles, tilting his head.
Derek glimpses a pale stretch of skin, a faded scar running around the length of the guy’s throat. Someone tried to garotte Stiles once, maybe, a long time ago.
“I’m sorry,” he says suddenly, painfully. His stomach turns over, and he feels his cheeks flush.
Stiles blinks at him.
“Uh,” he says, and then, “morning is fine, Derek. Morning is great, even. You don’t know what a good night’s rest in a bed like this does for a man, really—”
“About what I said,” Derek interrupts, clenching his fists. He feels his claws flex and dig into his palms, sees the Witcher’s nostrils flare at the sudden perfume of blood. “About what I said, last time we met – I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.”
It takes a long moment for Derek to realise what expression is colouring Stiles’ face, his sickly yellow eyes – it’s incomprehension.
“Uh,” says the Witcher, frowning.
“Oh,” says Derek.
“No, it’s just, hey,” Stiles tries, “I travel around a lot, and there’s always a lot of people saying things to me like hey Freak and hail Witcher! And hey you what are you doing in my barn, you know, so it’s just that, maybe I don’t really—”
“It’s fine,” says Derek. He realises he’s been backpedalling, retreating hastily to the bedroom door.
“No,” says Stiles, leaning forward a little in his bedding, “hey, I’m sorry,”
“Really,” Derek stumbles out the door, “it’s fine.”
“I just don’t really remember you?” Says Stiles, apologetically, and then Derek slams the bedroom door shut, and flees rapidly down the hall.
Cora’s laughter has gone on for so long she can barely breathe – she’s hanging over the edge of Derek’s bed, shaking violently, tears spilling from her cheeks. She’s making painful gasping noises, and if it weren’t for the gaping mirth of her mouth Derek would be frantically calling for a healer.
“Do not speak of this to anyone,” he snarls instead, kicking at the pile of vomit-stained clothing on his floor, discarded next to the empty tub.
“Your face,” she gasps, and Derek has to bodily fight her to force her out of his room, slamming the door so hard the frame shakes.
His hands smell like ointment and blood. He scrubs them furiously in the basin, until all he can smell is flowers.
He misses Laura.
In the depths of the house, a heartbeat thuds, discordant against the rapid dancing of his family’s pulse. Derek tries to tune it out, thinks instead of the horses outside, of joining the household members chasing down the Witcher’s wayward horse.
Roscoe, says Stiles’ voice in his head, and he scrubs his hands harder, until they’re raw.
In the morning he doesn’t leave his room. He stubbornly lies in bed as he hears the house wake around him, hears the children fetched for breakfast and their classes. He draws the blankets over his head when he hears a new voice, strained and clipped, polite to a fault. The smell of leather wafts down the hall, under his bedroom doorway, and Derek restrains himself until he hears the front doors open, and his parents’ voices fill the courtyard.
Derek rushes to his bedroom window, peeks behind the curtain.
Stiles is being reunited with his horse, which also seems well-rested and fed. It’s been brushed down and re-dressed, and Derek would wager the stable hands gave it new shoes, as well. The Witcher is dressed too, in his armour and travelling cloak, his swords strapped to his travel bag instead of his back as he reloads the horse, his back pointedly to Derek’s parents as they linger on the steps. He seems larger than he did the night before – although his armour is not bulky. And when he turns to face the house again his expression is flat and cold, the face of a travelworn man, then of an injured boy half-cut by moonlight.
Derek wonders, suddenly, how old Stiles is.
Their voices are muffled as they exchange clipped farewells. The manor gates are drawn open, and Stiles leads Roscoe about on his reigns, walks him out the yard and down the hill towards the town, and Derek watches him until he can’t see him anymore, disappearing into the grey drizzle of the morning, a dark smudge on the distant path.
Frost comes into town, low and insidious. It creeps over the cobblestones and under the doorways, until the windows are filled with fog and smoke billows out of every chimney. The streets smell of woodsmoke and cider, and wives rush up and down the streets with arms full of blankets to share, knocking on wooden doors with mittened hands and cheery smiles.
Derek spends the winter warm and in good company. He curls up in front of the manor fireplace with the children and Cora, enveloped in each other’s arms and legs. They snore amidst each other while his father paints and his mother reads her letters. Uncle Peter patrols the woods, and comes up with a stag for them to split and share. There’s a bundle under his arms with two small chubby feet that Derek pretends not to see when Peter stows it hastily under the table, and when the Godling comes creeping over to Derek’s chair at supper he slips it some venison, and his parents pretend not to see that, too.
Winter is good, for family, for pack, for the town. There are not as many sicknesses this year, and no storms to ravage the rafters or scare the livestock. Cora’s hands smell like wool, from helping with the weaving, and one of the housemaids plucks absently at a lute in the corner, a tune that Derek likes.
He misses Laura.
And suddenly, he realises, he misses the Witcher, too.
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.
'Dear Fellow Traveller' - Sea Wolf