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+

Chris doesn’t know what to do.

Considering the life he’s lived, it’s certainly not the first time he’s felt that way, but that doesn’t help him one lick right now because he absolutely does not have the first fucking clue what to do.

He shoots a look into the passenger side footwell of his truck and hopes for inspiration.

As Stiles would say, no dice.

Stiles.

Stiles!

Stepping on the gas even harder than before, not trying to keep himself from checking the rearview every ten seconds or so, Chris waits impatiently for the next sign to come up and – yes!

If his math is correct, then he’s only about five hours away from Stiles, which is a surprise, because when he got in the car with his newest problem, his only thought was to get away from there, far and fast. He wasn’t consciously aiming at anything except not here.

Still, considering that he started three stateliness away from Stiles and is now practically at her doorstep….

A few years ago he would have ignored the knowledge and just driven on, unwilling to drag the girl back into things after she finally escaped Beacon Hills. These days, though?

He’s not proud of it, but the truth is that a girl his dead daughter’s age is the closest human contact he has left, anymore.

Also: Stiles has wards. And weapons. And she is considerably closer than the only other safe haven he can think of – Beacon Hills, which, right now, might as well be on the moon.

Alright then. Alright.

+

He calls Stiles two hours out, when it becomes increasingly hard to keep his eyes open and the screaming from the footwell is starting to drive him crazy. He can’t stop though. Not in the state he’s in, bloody, dirty, covered in soot and lugging around –

Stiles answers on the fifth ring, voice bleary.

“Chris?” she mutters. It’s three am. He forgot about that.

“Yes,” he says, tight, and he can practically hear her wake up fully in the space of two heartbeats. She’s always been way too damn perceptive.

“What’s going on? Where are you? What do you need?”

Rustling. Sheets. Clothes. Stiles preparing for battle at a single word from him. Scott was an idiot to ever let that girl slip from his pack.

“I’m coming to you,” he says, quickly, before Stiles can lurch outside and start driving. “About two hours out.”

“Is there someone after you?”

He pauses. “Hunters. Probably. I can-“

“No. Get here. We’ll deal with everything else. You sound wrecked. What happened?”

“I - ,” he has no idea how to – instead he looks down into the footwell, where she lies, wedged between the clothes he had in the trunk, wrapped in a soft, yellow blanket, as safe as he can make her in a car on the run from a murder scene. She’s stopped crying for the moment, too exhausted to carry on. He wants to comfort her, but he’s too tired to risk taking his attention off the road.

“I have a baby,” he finally tells Stiles.

There is silence across the line. Then, “Chris?”

“I think she’s a werewolf,” he adds and Stiles puts it together in five seconds flat, despite just having woken up.

Peter did always call her the clever one.

“Oh fuck,” she blurts. Mutters to herself, hums. Moves, indistinct. “Okay, fuck, okay, okay. How old?”

He squints at the baby, trying to remember Allison, ignores the stab in his heart, the wrenching agony that never fades, not ever, not at all. “Five, maybe six months.”

“Do you have anything for her?”

“Bethany,” he blurts, because he knows that much. It’s embroidered on the edge of the blanket. Then adds, “That’s all I have.”

“Where?”

She’s not asking where he’s now. He hesitates only briefly, then gives her the two nearest cities the cabin lay between. Across the phone, he can hear clattering as Stiles grabs her phone, keys, bag.

“Get here,” she says as she pulls a door shut behind her. “I’ll be ready.” She pauses. “Be safe.”

She hangs up before he can answer.

+

It’s not like he set out to save an infant werewolf from certain death. He was loosely tracking the movements of a former acquaintance of Gerard’s. It’s something he’s fallen into, these past few years, tracking rogue hunters. Cleaning up after the mess his family made of its name. Atoning, maybe, for every innocent monster he ever killed under his father’s rule.

At first, it was just a thing to do. Something to spit on Gerard’s grave.

Later, once he stopped drinking quite so much, he thought of what Ally would think of it. Him. Trying to do better.

Nous protégeons ceux qui ne peuvent pas se protéger leurs-même.

He’s been doing it ever since. Sometimes, now, the monsters actually find him, ask him for help. He’s the hunters’ hunter. It makes living on seem like a little less of a sin.

Packard was tracking a pack of wolves with a few colleagues. It was a small pack, five wolves. Peaceful. Never harmed anyone, never turned anyone. Born, from what Chris could find, a family unit of three siblings and two spouses, just trying to live their lives.

Packard chased them out of their home and hunted them halfway across the country, until he found them in that cabin.

Chris was too slow. Thirty minutes. Maybe even fifteen earlier and he could have –

He shot the hunters in the head. All three of them. Clean and instant. It didn’t make the broken bodies at their feet alive again. The last one alive was the alpha, made to watch her pack die, and even she was too far gone on blood loss, wolfsbane and shredded pack bonds.

Chris apologized to her, held her hand. Tried to give her some sort of comfort. She looked at him with eyes flickering between red and pale brown, at the dead hunters strewn between her dead pack, and made a decision.

“Closet,” she gasped and sobbed and died.

Chris found Bethany between their coats, bundled up. Unaware. The cough syrup they’d used to make her sleep, to keep her quiet and safe, still beside her. He’d wondered, until then, why they hadn’t tried to run. They’d all died in the front room, right by the door, like they’d met them there.

To keep the hunters from searching the cabin.

To keep their sixth pack member safe.

He stayed only long enough to make sure there were no baby paraphernalia in the cabin to point toward the child, found only a single toy, and then set the whole thing ablaze, ignoring Kate’s ghost cackling in his ear as he buried another pack in ashes and lies.

He thinks though, hopes, that this time, the dead might forgive him.

+

He’s never actually visited Stiles since she fled Beacon Hills for college. They skype semi-regularly. At first, it was just when she needed help with some obscure myth for a paper, then so she could nag him about his drinking and eating habits and then just because.

He knows that she lives at the edge of the small college town she’s settled into, in an old cottage, dirt cheap. “The owner can’t rent it out, because it’s supposedly haunted,” she told him. “Also, edge of town, what self-respecting college kid wants to live practically in the woods?”

Her sly smirk implying, loudly, Except for the girl who ran with wolves.

“Is it haunted?”

Her smirk turned broader. “Not anymore.”

Pulling up in the grey pre-dawn, Chris decides, sleep-deprived and giddy with exhaustion, it certainly looks like it’s still haunted.

It’s a small building, free standing, with a low roof and an actual garden surrounding it. It looks wild, but Chris spies at least three kinds of magical herbs in it, so there is probably a method to Stiles’ madness. (There usually is.) The fence looks like it was pieced together from whatever lay around the forest looming just beyond it, broken branches, rocks, a dead tree’s entire root system at one corner. The ancient jeep in the gravel driveway reinforces the fairy tale look of the thing, anachronistic as it is.

All in all, Chris expects a stooped old hag to greet him at the door, black cat on her shoulder and wart on her nose.

Instead he gets Stiles Stilinski, dressed in yoga pants and a flannel shirt five sizes too big for her, hair in a messy ponytail, yawning like her jaw is about to split. She jogs up to his window as he coasts to a halt, still blinking at the place she calls home, and knocks until he rolls it down. She waves along the decrepit road that lead him here, more potholes than actual road. “It stops just around those trees. Park there, it’ll hide your truck from casual observers.”

As if anyone who came all this way out here would be casual about anything. You don’t end up on this road without intent. Chris should know. He drove past it twice before he finally noticed the turn-off. There are only two other houses along it, both of them more than three minutes back.

He nods. He drives. The road ends in a sharp right and suddenly becomes a glorified hiking trail, nothing more. He turns the truck so it’s ready to drive immediately, paranoia too ingrained to give up even a five second advantage. By the time he more or less falls out of the driver’s cabin, Stiles is already there, yanking open the passenger door and lifting out Bethany.

It takes her a moment to get a handle on the screeching, squirming baby, but once she does, it looks practiced. Easy. She presses the little girl’s head against her shoulder, already humming a tune, one hand rubbing over her small back.

Immediately, after hours of almost non-stop crying, Bethany calms. Chris sags with sudden, dizzying relief.

Stiles meets his gaze through the open doors. “Grab your stuff, inside, I want to raise the wards.” She takes a long look at him. “And you need to shower and to burn your clothes.”

He flinches at the word ‘burn’. Can’t help it. Too exhausted to put up a front. The soft expression as Stiles watches him says she already knows why. The cabin wasn’t that far from civilization. Someone probably noticed the smoke eventually. He told her where. Google told her the rest.

She shuffles the baby in her arms around, slams the door shut, comes around the car and gently touches his forearm.

A girl Allison’s age is being gentle with him. Being careful. He should be protecting her, not she him. But that ship sailed… long ago. The first time he fought back to back with her, instead of in front of her, maybe, or the first time he let her order him to pour the rest of his whiskey down the drain and go to bed. Somewhere in between. He’s known her for almost ten years now. It seems less than that. He grabs his dirty clothes from the footwell because they’re all he has, gathers all the weapons he brought, follows Stiles.

Over her shoulder, Bethany watches him with red-rimmed, tear-filled eyes.

If anyone asks, he’ll blame it on being awake for a solid forty-eight hours, but Chris really, really knows how she feels.

+

She was eighteen.

She was eighteen when the roles they played in each other’s lives were irrevocably twisted around.

It was her last year of high school and there was something going around taking children and harvesting their hearts and lungs and Scott wanted to talk, Scott wanted to reason and there were more kids missing every day.

Stiles came to him, late at night, rang his doorbell and took away his Wild Turkey and slapped a stack of perfect, detailed research notes down in front of him. “It’s a witch,” she told him. “I know who it is and I know how to kill her, but I need help. Usually, I’d go to Peter, but he’s skipped town for the moment. After Eichen, who can blame him? Are you in?”

And he looked at her, eighteen, gangly limbs and fading baby fat in her cheeks and said, “Yes.”

Let her direct him toward a perfectly nice seeming middle-aged woman and helped her murder, dismember and burn her. On nothing but her say-so.

He told himself he was protecting her, keeping her from putting herself needlessly in danger, but even then, still a little drunk, he knew perfectly well that Stiles? Never needed anyone in her life.

He never managed to look at her the same, after that night, and when she started asking things of him, information, help, advice, he always gave it.

He’s never been able to protect anyone.

+

He wakes to singing.

Singing in a foreign language. It makes him panic for a split second before he opens his eyes and finds the ceiling of Stiles’ tiny, tiny guest room, sun slanting across the bed.

Stiles. Bethany.

He rolls out of bed, finds a small stack of clothes sitting at the end of it, pulls them on over his boxers. The shirt is Stiles’, her old lacrosse number stamped on the back, but the sweats definitely belong to a man. There’s a new toothbrush at the bottom of the pile, along with a pair of socks. He puts on one and takes the other into the bathroom. It’s tiled in sixties green. Chris is starting to think the ghost and the location aren’t the only reason Stiles gets this place for cheap.

Once he feels human, he goes back to the guest room to grab the gun from under the pillow and stuff it into his waistband. Then, and only then, does he follow the soft crooning of a lullaby into the living room, where Stiles is pacing with Bethany on her arm.

She looks up at he enters, gives him a pointed eyebrow as she focuses on his bedhead. He rolls his eyes at her and opens his arms. She shakes her head and Chris is, momentarily, thrown.

He remembers a time, twenty-five years ago, when Victoria used to dance through their living room with a sulky, teething Allison on her shoulder just like this. She didn’t sing, because even when she was still rounded with post-partum weight, Victoria was never soft. She spoke to Allison, calmly informing their infant daughter that the pain would pass and that sleep would make it go faster.

The second she’d spot Chris, she’d march over and plop the baby into his arms. “Your daughter has your lungs,” she’d say, every time, without fail, and then leave him to do the dancing and the swaying and the singing. Beatles, mostly. He has no head for lyrics.

God, he’s old.

He stands there, watching for a good fifteen minutes, as Stiles keeps moving, even though Bethany is already out. She stops singing at some point and starts talking instead, a steady litany of white noise, “You’re a good girl, aren’t you, sweet and pretty and smart, too, because only praising little girls for their looks and not for their brains is what causes the Lydia Martins of this world and hey, what do you want to bet Lydia is going to yell at me when she finds out about you and then overnight me at least five-hundred dollars’ worth of adorable designer rompers just for you, huh? And look at those fingers, they’re so tiny and adorable, I kind of want to bite them, but not, like in a weird way, just, you know, so cute!”

She catches herself as she gets louder, lowers her voice back down to a whisper and keeps moving until the baby hasn’t made a single peep for at least five minutes. Chris, meanwhile, tries and fails to find a way to mention that he plans to find Bethany a family, a pack. That Lydia and the rest of the old McCall pack will never meet her. That this is only temporary and she needs to remember that.

Eventually, she puts the little girl into a repurposed laundry basket, lined in blankets and t-shirts. Knowing Stiles, they’re worn, so the little wolf will have someone’s scent around her, even if it isn’t pack. Last, she puts the lopsided, handmade little knit turtle toy that was all Chris found at the cabin into the crook of Bethany’s elbow and straightens.

It’s not until she steps back that Chris notices the baby is changed. He looks around, finds a changing mat on the dining table, diapers and a few toys strewn around. Pacifiers, still in their packaging. Wipes, clothes, a second swaddle blanket. Bottles and formula. A car seat. Something in his gut clenches at seeing the baby things all over the place, obviously chosen with care.

Stiles follows his gaze. “The lady at the store thought I was pregnant and hoarding, or something. If anyone asks, you’re visiting me and your luggage was lost en route. I also called into work, one of the TAs is taking over my classes for the week. Not that there’s a lot of those, this year, what with my thesis writing and all, but, well, it’s covered. Good thing I finished grading midterms last week, huh?” She winks, despite the bags under her eyes, looking cheerful. There is a dark hickey on one side of her neck and he feels even worse for interrupting her life. There’s probably a partner somewhere out there, who has suddenly had all visiting privileges revoked and doesn’t know why.

“I’m sorry,” is the first thing Chris can think to say. “I shouldn’t have brought trouble here. You have a life.”

He’ll take the baby and go, he wants to say. Doesn’t manage.

It’s her turn to roll her eyes. “I live alone, teach undergrads twice a week, and write my thesis the rest of the time. If you think that constitutes a life, you’re even more pathetic than I am.”

“You have a life without monsters in it,” he corrects. He remembers what she looked like at graduation, running from her hometown with ghosts in her eyes and a tremor in her hands. He never wanted to drag her back into it.

She shrugs lightly, “Depends on your definition of monster. Breakfast?”

He nods, follows her over to the far corner of the room, where an open plan kitchen looks out over her garden. In the daylight, it looks even more like something out of a fairy tale. There’s an herb garden on carefully arranged rock terraces right by the house, a trellis with crawling ivy to one side, something seasonal and bright red scattered through it, more flowers blooming along the makeshift fence. Something moves in a pink and purple bunch of petunias.

“Don’t shoot the gnomes, please,” Stiles says, deadpan, from where she’s pulling stuff out of the fridge.

Chris has to turn to face her fully in order to try and gauge her sincerity. Stiles snorts. “What? You thought I keep up that monstrosity of a yard on my own? Hell no. Milk and bread and the gnomes do the grunt work. They stay out of the house, though, so don’t worry.”

Chris’ eyebrows hit his hairline. “Stiles?”

“Yes, Chris, my man?” She grins brightly, distractingly, miming the spastic idiot she never was.

“Who, exactly, are you renting this place from?” Ghosts? Gnomes?

She giggles. She never did that back in California. Back home, she only ever managed hysterical cackling. “Don’t you mean ‘what’?”

He drops one eyebrow, keeps the other raised.

“Mrs. Bukowski is a lovely little old lady who sadly broke her hip two years ago and had to move into an assisted living facility.”

The eyebrow doesn’t lower. Stiles looks delighted.

“She might also be a hedge witch and half-dryad and very grateful I managed to send the spirit of her dearly departed husband on. She didn’t have the heart, but old Marv was starting to lose himself and turn poltergeist. Kept smashing the crockery, apparently. That shit was heirloom.”

“Only you,” he drawls, because really. Who else?

She sticks her tongue out at him, plops a skillet on the stove and orders, “Eggs, bacon, I’ll try to make room,” she points toward the table. The side that isn’t covered in baby paraphernalia is piled high with the debris of her thesis; laptop, books, and about three binders worth of loose sheet notes. She told Chris what the thesis is about, but he stopped listening after ‘myth’ and ‘comparative’ and ‘cross cultural parallels’ and just nodded along, thinking to himself that, with a specialty like that, she’ll have no career option except academia.

But then, nothing would suit this girl better than getting to spend her days researching and arguing.

The clever one.

They get all the way to sitting down before Bethany wakes screaming. Chris is the one who shuffles over and picks her up, an old instinct no parent ever really gets over, only to find she suddenly has a mouth full of tiny, pointy teeth and golden eyes. She smacks her little head into his shoulder and starts gnawing on the skin of his neck, leaving behind little pinpricks of pain.

He automatically hauls her away from him, which makes her scream louder. As she cries, the shift fades away, leaving her human for a few beats, before she shudders all over and turns again.

Stiles sighs close behind him and Chris jumps, surprised. She never used to be able to move this quietly. Before he can do more than turn to her, she plucks the baby out of his grip and presses her into her chest and shoulder, shushing her, firm and sure. Stiles Stilinski, she of the tripping over thin air, sarcasm and baseball bats wrapped in barbed wire, should not be this good with babies.

“She’s been doing that all morning,” she comments, wincing as the teeth make a reappearance. Suddenly, the hickey on her neck makes an entirely new kind of sense. “Think it’s because of the severed pack bonds? She did have a pack, right?”

This time, he manages not to flinch. “Yes. All born wolves. They… I go there too late and then I had to…,” he used to be able to finish his sentences. “I was forced to burn the whole place down to erase the evidence.”

Stiles, being Stiles, takes several intuitive leaps and lands exactly where it hurts. “They were already dead. This does not make you a bad person, Chris.”

Kate hangs between them, a ghost twice over, and Chris marvels how he can have so much history with a girl of all of twenty-four.

He manages a huff. “No. That’s not what makes me a bad person.” They agree on that, at least.

Stiles smacks his arm and then busies herself with the baby, who is actively biting her now. She flails and there are claws, too. Chris hauls her out of Stiles’ grip before she does serious damage, holding her gingerly, her back to his chest, so she can’t do much harm.

“She didn’t do that in the car.”

“Shock?” Stiles suggests, chewing on the side of her thumb as she studies the baby. “Exhaustion? I know exactly zero point nothing about were babies.”

“Finish breakfast,” Chris suggests, because he can see she’s about to go on a research binge. College has not cured her of her ADHD tendency to get lost in anything that catches her fancy. If anything, it’s made it worse.

She frowns at him, then orders, “Afterwards, we trade.”

Because neither of them is even considering putting a helplessly crying, shifting, grieving baby back into a makeshift crib and forget her. Even if she bites.

He nods. “We’ll trade,” he agrees, and sits back down, rocking Bethany on his lap and watching Stiles shovel up her food at record speed. He catches himself muttering nonsense to her, just like Stiles, naming the things she randomly points at, telling her what they are for. Babies learn language by hearing it spoken. It’s important for development. Those old habits again. (Allison spoke in short sentences before she was eighteen months old.) When she shifts again, he bounces and tickles and soothes her until she calms down. Then he goes back to describing the use of the butter box to her.

Once Stiles is done, she shoves her plate out of easy reach and wrangles the baby onto her side of the table, turning her to face outwards on her lap, keeping one hand on the small chest to keep Bethany stable, and pretty much seamlessly takes over the babbling. Milk, apparently, is good for growing bones, but not with coffee. Coffee is only for people over thirty.

“How come you’re drinking it then?”

She sticks her tongue out at him and rubs Bethany’s back until she leans into her.

Chris goes back to his congealing eggs and observes, “You’re good with kids.”

A shrug. “Before hell came a-calling I actually babysat a lot for the neighbors. Had to keep Roscoe in gas and duct tape somehow, right?”´

Just thinking of that deathtrap makes him twitch. He’ll never understand how John can let his only child ride around in it. He’s a cop, for god’s sake! He should know better!

+

Breakfast sets the tune for the next few hours. Bethany screams, shifts, bites, falls asleep with exhaustion, starts over. Occasionally, she’ll take the bottle they try to feed her with. Most of the time, she refuses, which is worrying. They talk to her, carry her around, rub her belly and back, play with her hands and feet, change her, bounce her, sing to her. Whenever Chris notices Stiles’ arms getting tired, he takes the little girl from her and she’ll swoop in a little while later, to steal her back, trading off the baby as seamlessly as they used to trade barbs and later, weapons.

In the few quiet moments in between, Stiles coaxes the story out of Chris like he’s a victim, something to be treated gently, and somehow, in between that, they share household chores and banter with each other like this is just another one of their late night skype chats, both unable to sleep and unwilling to be alone.

Except that there is a werewolf baby Chris technically kidnapped, a bunch of hunters on Chris’ trail and disaster waiting to come down on them.

By the time the sun sinks, Stiles’ bags have turned into entire sets of luggage, she looks so tired. She heaves Bethany out of the basket as another screaming fit hits the little girl and Chris can see her arms are shaking now. They’ve been trading the baby for the past eight hours, worrying over mad hunters and the legality of Sudden Baby Acquisition (Stiles’ words) the whole time.

Bethany won’t stop shifting and they’re both bloody by now. It might be the exhaustion speaking, but that little girl is breaking what’s left of his heart. (That, and Allison around every corner, in the muscle memory of handling a baby, of warming a bottle and changing a diaper, in the little mewl before a tantrum and the feeling of tiny fingers wrapped around his thumb.)

“We’re getting nowhere,” he decides, breathing slowly, carefully. In and out. In. And out. It’s Stiles’ breathing technique for panic attacks. She traded him for his stash of cheap whiskey one night.

Stiles sighs and lets him have the baby. “I’m calling Peter.”

She says it so naturally, so easily, that Chris has a sudden, sneaking suspicion whose sweats he’s wearing. “Do you talk to Peter a lot?”

Stiles gives him a look that says he is not subtle. He finds himself hefting the baby higher as a shield, which is patently ridiculous.

Everything about this is ridiculous. Five hours of sleep didn’t change that.

“About as often as I talk to you,” she offers, glibly. “Only unlike you, he comes to visit.”

Which explains the guest room, because Chris knows John hasn’t taken time off in years. He talks to Jordan occasionally when he hears of something heading for Beacon Hills, and the man won’t stop complaining about his workaholic boss. Visiting Stiles out here would require at least four days off, on account of the driving alone. The Sheriff doesn’t fly any more than his daughter does.

So Peter… Peter essentially has a room in Stiles’ home. It curls something low and old in Chris’ gut, some half-forgotten daydream he stomped out almost thirty years ago. He nods, to himself, to Stiles, to his memories, and focuses on running his fingers up and down Bethany’ spine to lull her.

Stiles doesn’t grab for her phone, like he expects her to, but pulls her laptop off a book shelf and sets it on her lap, turned to keep him out of the frame. Barely.

She skypes Peter with her feet up on her scuffed coffee table and her hair in absolute disarray and it strikes Chris that Stiles is comfortable. Next to him, death and doom at the door, Peter on the line, she’s comfortable.

What a strange creature she is.

Or rather, what terrible things Chris and Peter’s families’ feud has done to her.

Peter doesn’t pick up the call, but returns it after a minute. Chris can’t see him properly because of the angle, but the werewolf looks good. Put together. But then, the last time Chris saw him, he’d just gotten out of Eichen House after Stiles finally convinced Scott and Derek of how very much not okay it was to stick anyone in there.

Seeing what the place turned proud, arrogant, clever Peter into, Chris agreed. He has never held with torture.

He dropped by the Stilinski house to offer the recovering werewolf his help, apologies, something, but nothing came. He doesn’t know how to talk to Peter anymore and ten years haven’t helped at all in figuring it out. Peter is just as bad, though, can’t offer anything but vicious barbs and cutting insults, these days.
Too much history. He expects that, if he doesn’t die from a bullet to the head, it’ll be all his history, burying him alive. Old age is out of the question, in any case.

Chris hopes Peter is willing to help. Two humans do not good caretakers for a semi-feral wolf baby make and they can’t fight and take care of Bethany at the same time. Much as he rather they didn’t, they need Peter.

“Sweetheart,” the man grins as he settles in, “it’s a little early for you to call. I was just about to go out for dinner.”

“Yeah, well,” Stiles hedges. Peter straightens.

“What’s wrong?”

In lieu of an answer, Stiles tilts the laptop so the camera catches Chris, in his tired, badly dressed glory, with a constantly shifting, exhausted to the point of whimpering, infant on his lap.

Peter stares for a long moment. Then he says, “I’ll be there by morning.”

Stiles bites her lip. “Are you still in contact with Jesus guy?”

“What?” Chris asks, because he is used to Stiles’ tendency to give everyone a weird nickname, but he’s never heard that one before.

She looks at him defensively, “He has the power to make legally dead werewolves come back to life. He’s obviously Jesus.”

“I think Jesus actually only resurrected himself,” Peter points out, with the air of an old argument.

Stiles shoots him a narrow-eyed glare. “Well?”

He sighs, rubs at his chin. He hasn’t shaved in a while, his villain goatee is almost lost in the scruff. Not that Chris has room to talk. He already dreads the moment Bethany realizes his beard can be pulled. (Lie. He’ll have found her a pack and dropped her off long before then.) “Yes. For the little one, I suppose?”

Stiles nods. “I want her as safe as we can make her. There might be hunters after her.”

Fake paperwork. Of course. Chris blearily considered the option of being accused of kidnapping while he was legging it to safety, but more than that, hunters might accuse him of kidnapping just to get at the last living member of the pack Packard slaughtered like animals.

He’s amazed Stiles thought of it, but he shouldn’t be.

Peter nods, like he expected nothing else. “What’s her name?”

“Bethany,” Chris offers. Stiles washed and dried her yellow blanket, had to, with all the blood, and it’s bunched under the baby’s diapered bum. He tugs up the embroidered corner and shows Peter, knowing the wolf will be able to read it even across the shoddy connection. Will understand. He lost everything he had to fire once. If nothing else, Peter knows the importance of holding on when you can.

“Last name?”

He hesitates. He has no idea and even if he did, they need to make this girl as distinct from her former life as they possibly can. Even keeping her first name is a risk, but Chris can’t bear to take the only things she has left from her. A name, a blanket, a toy turtle.

He could call her Argent, but that’d only put a bigger target on her and the thought… the idea of a little girl with his last name… it would feel too much like he’s trying to replace the child he lost, and he never could. He never would.

“Stilinski,” Stiles says, before he can spiral too far. “Hale and Argent are both too risky, too big. Beth Stilinski. Sounds nice, right?” She looks between the two of them, then blushes, head ducking. “I mean, it’s just for now of course, until she’s out of danger. After that, we can find her a stable pack and everything, with a new family, and they can name her whatever they want. Last names, I mean. Not given names, it’s all she has left, that would be cruel and – “

“Stiles,” Peter says, very softly. Chris hasn’t heard Peter sound like this since they were in their late teens, still thinking they could overcome a dozen generations of hate and prejudice. Back when they still knew how to talk to each other. “Breathe.”

Stiles breathes. “Sorry, she’s just,” she flings her hands up and promptly grabs the baby to hug her close. “I think I’m getting attached already.” She looks miserable. During the later afternoon, when she was getting really exhausted, she kept jokingly planning out how she’d introduce her father to his newly acquired grandchild.

For a moment, Chris tries to imagine it. Stiles and Bethany – Beth, if Stiles has her way – in this cottage, playing in the garden, laughing. Eating dinner together and drawing in finger paint together and falling asleep on the couch together. With Beth’s downy, dark fuzz and the same light brown eyes as her alpha, she could pass as Stiles’ daughter.

And somehow, he imagines himself, watching them.

It’s ridiculous, of course. He’s a broken old man and Stiles has too much life still ahead of her to care for a child that isn’t even hers. She’ll see that, in time.

When he resurfaces from his brief trance, Chris finds a two-dimensional Hale staring at him like he knows exactly what Chris was just thinking.

Instead of calling him on it, Peter says, “Getting the paperwork will take me a day. I’ll try to make it by tomorrow night. Keep scenting her and for fuck’s sake, don’t go anywhere alone. If I get there to find you’re dead, I’ll be very disappointed.”

“We’ll try not to put you out by dying,” Stiles agrees, wryly, and then promptly hangs up. It’s the only way to keep Peter from getting in the last word.

Once she’s closed her laptop and nudged it off her legs onto the coffee table, she turns to Chris with a very fake, bright smile. “You heard the man. No splitting up. Which means, unless we want to starve, you and me and Miss Grumpy are going to need to go grocery shopping. Together!”

+

They wait until it’s almost midnight, tuck Beth into the sling Stiles bought ‘just in case’ and hope that no-one will notice the baby growling. Chris makes a mental note to pay Stiles back for all the stuff she bought. It can’t have been cheap and he knows she lives on slim wages and the last of her college fund.

He gets to put on his own clothes again for the outing, because Stiles washed his dirty laundry from the truck, too. For a kid who used to run around in the same shirt three days in a row, she’s turned into quite the housewife. He says so as he tucks his wallet, keys and phone into his pockets and switches his gun into its actual holster, hidden under a leather jacket.

“I was busy not dying,” she informs him, huffily, as she climbs into the passenger side of her jeep, baby strapped to her chest. The car seat would be safer, and also probably more legal, but Beth screams less when she’s got skin contact.

Which also explains why Stiles changed into a strappy, deeply cut sundress before she strapped on the baby. It doesn’t explain the way Chris can’t stop staring at Stiles in a yellow sundress, hair undone, black and white flannel over top, Converse on her feet and a baby on her chest. She looks like she needs a shower and eight hours of sleep and Chris is spellbound by her anyway. Mad Madonna with Monstrous Child.

“She still sticks in second,” she informs him, blissfully oblivious to his helpless staring. “Be gentle or I’ll fuck you up.”

“We could take my truck.”

“You mean the one that the bad guys probably know you’re driving?”

He sighs. “I killed the three that were at the cabin. There were no others close by. Anyone coming after me is going to have a hard time tracking me.”

“Yeah. But we’re not risking it anyway because we don’t want our gravestones to read ‘sucker’, do we? No, we don’t. Drive, Chris.”

She used to call him Mr. Argent, or at least Mr. A all the time.

He drives.

To Walmart.

“Drop the ‘tude, we need a place that doesn’t care about weird and it doesn’t get weirder than Walmart after midnight.” She scolds him as she climbs out of her beloved car, murmuring apologies to it for letting the bad man drive. He locks the car, although he has no idea why, it has a soft top and is thirty years old. Then he lets himself be directed toward the carts and propelled inside.

Beth is asleep for the moment, so they stroll leisurely down the long, empty aisles. Stiles throws random articles of food into the cart, heavy on the vegetables and fruit, easy on the meat. Chris doesn’t miss the fact that she also stocks up on beer she doesn’t drink and a whole lot of protein bars and snacks, which could be brain food for research, or easy to pack for a quick getaway.

He makes a mental note to check how much cash he still has stashed away and, if necessary, go for a long drive to withdraw more a few towns over. After Peter gets here.

Whenever Beth starts shifting like she’s waking up, Stiles starts swaying softly, murmuring in that foreign tongue again, running her hands up and down her little back with more care and patience than Chris has ever seen her show anyone, including Scott and her father.

“What is that?” he finally asks, after saving a bunch of grapes from getting squashed hopelessly by the jumbo sized chocolate bar Stiles just flung on top of it.

“Mhm?”

“The language.”

“Polish,” answers, easily. “My mom was Polish by birth. I only know enough to introduce myself, pretty much, and a few of the songs she used to sing me, but, you know, I try not to forget what I do know.”

Chris and Kate’s mother was French. To this day, a French accent reminds him of crepes on Sunday and warm hugs. He wonders if Beth will remember anything about her birth parents when she’s older.

He doesn’t even know their names.

“We should get more clothes for her. She’ll go through them at lightning speed and I only bought, like, four sets last night.”

The children’s section is clear across the store and Chris follows Stiles meekly, inspecting every other late night shopper they come across for concealed weapons and murderous intent. What he finds instead is, “Stiles?!”

Chris’ hand is under his jacket and on his gun before he registers that the voice came from a petite girl with a nose ring and lurid blue hair, marching up to Stiles in short shorts, torn tights, and combat boots, grinning widely.

In his defense, Stiles’ hand came up automatically to cover Beth, too. She blinks out of the sudden surge of adrenaline to return a startled, “Shelly?”

The girl stops too close to Stiles for comfort, trying to look into the sling despite Stiles subtly maneuvering away. Christ finally catches up and uses the cart to not so subtly push the other girl a step back. “What the hell, Stilinski, I drop out of college for a year to see the world and you land yourself a DILF and a baby?!”

Stiles cringes. “Could you not wake the baby, Shells? She only went to sleep five minutes ago.”

Lie. It’s impossible to tell from her face, though. Shelly, to her credit, speaks a little more quietly when she demands, “Tell me everything.”

Stiles rolls her eyes. “Look, maybe midnight at Walmart isn’t the best place, yeah? The baby’s not mine, Chris is an old friend, and we’re kind of in the middle of a crisis, okay? I’ll call you up when it’s over, we can do coffee. Deal?”

Shelly takes a very close look at Chris when Stiles calls him a friend, obviously trying to figure out how that works. He’s more salt than pepper, these days, and he knows he looks intimidating with his leather jacket and unhappy glower. He’s spent a lifetime perfecting the look, after all.

Stiles, on the other hand, is wearing that fucking sundress, and carrying a baby. Even with the tattoo climbing up the outside of her left leg and the goddamn sneakers, she looks like innocence personified.

But this girl seems to be a friend, so she has to know Stiles at least a little, because she eventually shrugs, apparently deciding that yeah, it’s possible, although she has no idea how. Which is fair. Chris has buried literal bodies with Stiles and he’s still not sure how they ended up friends.

“You better not be fucking me, Stilinski,” Shelly threatens, then fluffs her hair over one shoulder. “You don’t call me by the end of the month, I’m sieging your creepy ass place.”

“Besieging,” Stiles corrects, but Shelly has already flounced off.

“Friend?” Chris asks, dryly, as he finally manages to pry his hand completely away from the vicinity of his gun.

Stiles runs a hand over Beth’s head, gives him a long look, like she knows he seriously considered shooting her friend just now. “We were roomies in freshman year. She grows on you. Dropped out to go touring with her boyfriend’s band about a year ago, though. I didn’t even know she was back in town.”

She shrugs. “For what it’s worth, she won’t blab. She knows the value of information.” Stiles cocks her head. “Also, I know her dealer and she knows I can make life hell for her.”

There she is, the girl who drove him insane when she was still in high school. For a moment there, he thought she’d really grown up into a functioning member of society.

“How much formula did you get?”

“Not that much. Five minutes on google told me she could start eating solids at about her age? I figured we could throw in some baby mush, too? Maybe she’ll like that better. It’s not like I know shit about wolfy baby development. For all I know, she needs meats? Although, probably not, because no teeth, but, you know.” She flails a little, makes a face and then leads the way again.

They get some of both, formula and mush (not meat, Jesus, Stiles), enough for about two weeks, and Chris doesn’t even let Stiles try to pay. The cashier gives him the stink-eye for it, overbearing older guy with younger woman and baby, but he’s just about done with people for the day, so he doesn’t give a fuck.

Back at Stiles’ place, he stores the perishables and leaves everything else where it lands, too tired to bother. Stiles won’t care, she’s already mostly sacked out on the couch. Beth woke up briefly on the drive back, screamed, bit her twice, and then wore herself out again. She’s behaving like no baby Chris has ever seen, but then she’s a werewolf. They are very resilient and run on instincts he can’t even imagine.

Apparently that means the usual feed-poop-sleep routine can be disrupted in extreme circumstances. Still. If it goes on much longer, he’ll start worrying. They can’t exactly take her to a regular doctor and she is definitely not getting enough nutrition and screaming too much.

Maybe Peter will be able to help.

He drops down next to Stiles and before he knows it, her head is sinking onto his shoulder as her breathing deepens into sleep.

He manages to tip all three of them sideways and haul Beth to a safer place between them before he finally gives up, too.

Sleep.

Death and mayhem will still be there in the morning.

+

Chris wakes to footsteps and quiet breathing and has his gun out and aimed at the intruder (Stiles has wards, what happened to the wards) before he even opens his eyes.

Once he does, it’s to find Peter Hale, sardonic expression on his face, on the far end of the barrel. He’s got his hands raised in some parody of innocence that has never been true and Chris can’t help the gummy, “What?” that leaves his mouth.

In lieu of an answer, Peter dangles a single key on a rubber duck keychain in front of him. Chris blinks. Blinks again.

Peter Hale has a key to Stiles Stilinski’s home.

Okay, then.

Maybe it’s the movement, maybe it’s the tension, but Stiles, who is wedged between him and the back rest, one arm thrown over Beth on Chris’ belly to keep her still, wakes. She looks up blearily, mutters, “The fuck, Peter, I’m sleeping,” and puts her head back down.

Then her brain catches up to the rest of her and she knees Chris in the thigh in her haste to get over him and to her feet. She misses a step somewhere in there, goes tumbling right off the couch and Peter swoops in like the suave asshole he is and catches her neatly.

They hug. There is scenting. Peter’s not even trying to be subtle about it. Chris thumbs the safety back on and puts up his gun, then sits up, baby pressed to his chest. He never takes his eyes off Stiles and Peter because they both seem unwilling to let go. Peter has buried his face in her neck and Chris can see his chest rise and fall with deep, even inhales. Stiles, on the other hand, has raised her head enough to quietly mutter into his ear, close and comfortable and intimate.

Chris wondered, more than once in the past few years, what could possibly drive Peter Hale all the way out here into a state that is only nominally not a ‘flyover’. Stiles told him the pack whose territory Peter lives in is a former ally of the Hales, with family ties a few generations back. She also told him the fact that Peter lives less than a two hour drive from her is pure coincidence. Luck. Chris is pretty sure she believes it, too, but this?

This is pack.

Chris doesn’t understand pack bonds, has never felt them himself, but he has watched the effect they have on people, the way they work, all his life. The McCall pack never really had stable bonds. Individual connections, but no network of bonds the way a wolf pack should. It’s why those kids had such an easy time coming and going and betraying each other time and again. And Peter? Chris is pretty sure, if he could somehow reach into Peter’s chest right at this moment, he’d find very few bonds there. Cora and Derek, certainly, as the only family the man has left, even if they are thousands of miles away, but beyond that? Stiles is the most stable pack bond Peter has, of that Chris is sure, now.

Peter opens his eyes, too blue, too bright, in time to catch that thought flitting across Chris’ exhausted face and there is something like a warning there, in the blue. Don’t let her know.

Finally, Stiles extracts herself and asks, “I thought you said tonight? What happened?”

A shrug. “When money speaks, even Jesus listens.” Which is as unhelpful as it is succinct.

Stiles shrugs it off, unconcerned and gums on her morning breath. “Barf. I’m hitting the shower. Don’t kill each other.”

With a wave, she flounces off, leaving the two men alone.

Chris waits until he’s sure that Stiles is out of earshot before asking, “A twenty-four-year-old girl, Peter? Really?”

The wolf flashes teeth and then sweetly counters, “I could be asking the same thing, Christopher. You looked rather comfortable.”

Beth, bless her tiny heart, wakes in time to stop Chris from making an idiot out of himself in front of the other man. Peter takes one look at her, randomly changing, red-faced and miserable and already screaming, before he swoops into to grab her and bury her little face in his neck.

She sniffles, hiccups and then buries tiny fists in his shirt. The shifting stops in front of Chris’ eyes, her features settling on wolf. After only a minute, she’s quiet and Peter pulls her away from his chest long enough to meet her golden gaze and flash beta blue at her. She makes a shocked little crooning noise and then abruptly goes back to human.

Her eyelids drop. Within moments, she’s fast asleep.

“What the hell did you just do?” Chris asks, more incredulous than accusing.

Peter takes his time answering, settling in a sagging armchair instead, arranging the sleeping baby on his chest, scenting her. Eventually, he deigns to answer. “Werewolf children can’t form pack bonds on their own, but they are receptive to them.”

He pauses, and Chris knows he wants him to ask. He doesn’t. Just waits out the put-upon eyeroll.

“They are wide open to connect with anyone who can form a bond. Her parents and pack were definitely bonded to her and with their death,” of course he’s already drawn that conclusion, “she was wide open.”

“Is that what caused the shifting?”

The expression on Peter’s face says he’s an idiot. “Babies cannot control their shifting. Their parents or caretakers do, through the bonds forged between them. Do you really think we’d send our young to school if we couldn’t be one hundred percent sure they wouldn’t give away our secret through a sneeze or a tantrum?”

A centuries long history of hunting werewolves, and still, they know basically nothing about them. Or rather, they know only what reinforces the concept of the wolf being a monster to be put down. Family ties, love, control, those don’t make very good propaganda, Chris guesses and curses his father’s grave for the hundredth time over.

“So you’re controlling her shift now?”

“For the moment. Neither you nor Stiles are shifters. You can’t initiate bonds. In a year’s time, maybe, she’ll be learning to initiate on her own and bond to you, but not yet.”

“She’ll be safe with a new family then,” Chris counters. It sounds hollow even to his own ears.

Peter cocks his head, eyebrow raised. It’s that expression that means Chris is completely hopeless, but nice try lying to him. Chris hates both it, and the fact that he can still read it so plainly.

“Did you know Stiles thinks you living so close to her is coincidence?” he asks instead, because offense is the only defense he has left anymore. Especially when it comes to anyone from Beacon Hills.

“Is that what she told you?” Peter chuckles. His hand keeps rhythmically smoothing along Beth’s tummy and legs. “And you believed her?”

Chis rubs at his forehead, scratches his beard. “If what you’re implying were true, you wouldn’t live two hours away.”

Beth makes a little whining noise in her sleep, shifts, hands pumping. They both watch her, transfixed. Does it feel like sacrilege to Peter, too, being this close to something pure? Something truly innocent?

“She’s far too clever for that,” Peter offers into the ensuing silence. He sounds incredibly fond. Too fond for him, or rather them. He isn’t talking about the white lie about his living arrangement, either.

At least, Chris decides, Peter is self-aware. He’s all rabid, yawning hunger where Stiles is cold, precise rage and together.… Chris is honestly terrified of what they might become together.

Of what they might do.

At least they know. At least they are aware of their damages. Chris didn’t recognize his own in the mirror for far too long and look what it got him. They’re already better than he ever was.

“Probably a good idea,” he agrees, too late.

Peter’s smirk is razor-bladed. “Is that why you’ve never come to visit her before?”

Chris refuses to even acknowledge the jibe. The mere concept of him and Stiles is – ridiculous. Absurd. He’s fully aware of that, thank you.

Peter laughs. “Look at us. Two bitter old men, losing our heads over the same little girl.”

Chris is saved from figuring out how to punch the wolf in the face without waking Beth by Stiles returning, freshly showered and back in her more customary outfit of jeans, t-shirt and open hoodie.

She takes a single look at Beth’s peacefully sleeping face and demands, “How the fuck did you do that?”

Chris flees over the sounds of Peter repeating his earlier explanation.

+

Two hours later finds all four of them fed and mostly alert, sitting around the kitchen table, trying to make a plan. Beth is still with Peter, having latched on to him like a barnacle. Stiles has scooted her chair as close as she can so she can play finger games with the little girl. Peter’s arm is around the back of her chair, bracketing her shoulders. Chris has stayed rooted to the far side of the table, fighting against the urge to just… look. Sit there and watch the three of them for the rest of the day.

The little glances Peter throws him every other minute tell him he’s not as subtle as he would like to be. Damn him. Damn both of them. Damn everything.

“As entertaining as this little slice of Norman Rockwell family life is,” Peter eventually announces dryly, “we need a plan.”

“I sent messages to a few people yesterday, asking them to keep an ear out. I should check back with them.” At Peter’s skeptic expression, Chris rolls his eyes. “There are actually hunters out there who value the code above bloodshed, Peter.”

It’s just that only the bad seeds ever seem to make it to Beacon Hills. That, and not all the people Chris has reached out to are hunters. Some are the monsters he helped save from other hunters. Some are just civilians with good ears. If anyone is looking for him, they should know.

Stiles bites her thumb. “I want to look into the police investigation. See if there is anything there that links you to the scene, or points toward Beth. Best case, the fire ruined the evidence enough to make everyone think the dead killed each other and we’re off the hook.”

“Except,” Chris starts, only to have Peter finish, “the world doesn’t work that way.”

“Not ours at least,” Stiles agrees with a sigh and stands to fetch her laptop. No-one asks how she plans to gain access to police records three states over. Chris moves, too, grabbing his phone and heading for the backdoor. Might as well get a (very belated) look at what they have to work with while he talks.

“Wards extend to the fence, not beyond. Still not allowed to shoot the gnomes,” Stiles calls after him, settling back in next to Peter, already booting up her computer.

Alright.

+

Considering that Chris was after Packard for weeks and didn’t make a secret of it, it doesn’t come as a surprise that several hunters who held with Gerard’s way of things are fully aware of who killed Packard and his friends with three single, precise headshots.

Whether or not they know about Bethany depends on what Packard knew and told them, but at this point, it’s safer to assume they do.

What they don’t know yet, at least according to Chris’ sources, is where Chris went.

Which brings them to Stiles, who scoots back in her chair, legs up, knees pressing against the edge of the table and says, “As far as murder places go, you picked a good one. The nearest traffic cam is almost five miles out. The first that caught you is twenty miles out. Not enough for the cops, especially since the fire happened in daytime and there was moderate traffic, even in bumfuck, but it’s sure as fuck enough for a bunch of fanatics with guns.”

She shrugs. “They’ll definitely find you. If we’re lucky, they’ll think you’re heading for Beacon Hills and that’ll throw them off, but I give us a week max, before we have Assholes Anonymous at our door. So? Suggestions?”

She looks at them in turns.

“McCall would shelter us, if we went back,” Peter finally offers.

Stiles mimes a finger gun at him. “Thank you for playing devil’s advocate, zombiewolf. Scott would also refuse to kill the hunters and that would get us exactly nowhere. Next?"

“We have two options,” Chris interrupts before the two of them can get going. Experience says their bickering will be impossible to stop in a minute. They used to hold up war councils at Derek’s loft for hours on end. “We can run and hide, or we can stay and fight.”

If it were just him, he’d take off on his own, draw them away from Stiles and her life here, but there is Beth to think about. Running with her would be suicide. Leaving her with Stiles might turn out to be murder. He has enough children’s blood on his hands.

“Wards,” Stiles points out. “Known ground.” She chews on her thumb again until Peter tugs it from her reach.

“Share with the class, darling,” he prompts.

“Known ground,” she mutters, blushes. “It’s just a thought, but…hunters coming into a strange town. What would they do?”

Chris leans back in his chair. “Try to gather intel. Research, ask around.”

“Try to find out where you are and who you’re with,” she summarizes.

He nods.

“Nobody knows Peter is here. Will they wonder why you came to me?”

“Definitely.”

“It’ll make them assume I have something up my sleeve. You’re an experienced hunter. You’d run for safe ground. You did.”

“Yes.”

“So making them think I’m harmless might be enough to have them get cocky? Make them think you came here for the rural hideaway and childcare, not the firepower? Make them think I’m useless, they’ll come armed for one hunter and a civilian. If they think you came here for Beth and not safety, that might make them sloppy. That gives us a spark and a werewolf in the wings.” She looks pleased with herself.

Peter, grimaces. “You want to spread a rumor in town about what you and Christopher are to each other.”

For him, that’s downright delicate. Of course, Stiles can’t let that stand.

She shrugs, unimpressed. “Well, yeah. If they think I’m his hotpocket and emergency babysitter, they’re not going to wonder why he chose my place to lay low. They won’t look for a deeper connection. Just needed someone to take care of the baby and dip his dick, right? Give them something obvious to latch on, something juicy, and they might not dig up Beacon Hills. The average hunter isn’t, in my experience, very clever.”

Oh. Oh. Chris swallows. Hard. Peter, of course, hears it. “That’s a bit far-fetched, Stiles.”

“You said it yourself. They’re going to ask around. Try to get the lay of the land.” She chews her lip in lieu of the hand Peter is still keeping trapped. “Kate,” she finally says, fully aware of the weight of the name, “Kate fell for it. When she came back, she believed that I was Scott’s spastic human friend and nothing more and it got her dead, in the end. I could only get close to her in Mexico because she didn’t think I was a threat.” She pauses, shakes her head. “We need any advantage we can get, Chris, because it’s three against unknown numbers and Beth means we’re fighting with a handicap. If we can make them sloppy, we have to try.”

It wouldn’t be the most absurd and far-fetched thing Chris has ever done to throw an opponent off his scent, damn it. It might be the most uncomfortable, though. Especially factoring in the sly, dark grin on Peter’s face.

“Come on, Christopher. It wouldn’t be the first time you’ve dated a student of some description to throw a hunter off the scent.”

Bastard. He’s just shit stirring now, trying to wind up Chris and embarrass him in front of Stiles. Trying to hit where it hurts and damn him, for still knowing where to aim. He’s not even subtle or smooth about it, just throwing a cryptic, badly timed comment out there. Knowing full well Stiles’ rampant curiosity will do the rest.

Chris rolls his eyes. “Stop instigating, Peter, you’re not six. The situation was completely different back then and if you care to remember, both of us were students, too and no-one’s life was at stake.”

“Whoa! Wait. You two knew each other in, like school? Before the fire? How did I not know this?” Stiles’ eyes narrow. “And what scent were you trying to throw who off of?”

She pauses for a moment, parsing her own words, then nods to herself when she realizes the sentence made sense. Then she turns an expectant gaze on them both.

Peter is enjoying this. “We actually went to high school together for a year. And it was the sordid scent of a hunter being friends with a wolf, of course. Chris dated the loveliest girl in school to cover it up.” He turns to Chris. “And you cannot honestly still be so naïve as to think Gerard wouldn’t have used the excuse of a mangy mutt like me corrupting his only son to kill me and everyone who got in his way.”

Chris squeezes his eyes shut because of course he knows. Knew, even then. It’s why he can’t talk to Peter, can’t get out the right words, ever.

“It’s why I left without a word of complaint,” he says, more than twenty years too late. Why he let Gerard bundle him off in the middle of the night to get married to a girl he’d never met before and never even tried to tell Peter goodbye. Why he dated some random cheerleader just to have an excuse to be out of the house, for all the good it did. Why he pretended the trajectory they were on, back then, was never going anywhere. Why he tried, so hard, to forget, to love Victoria, to be a good son, a good soldier.

It would have ended in disaster if he hadn’t.

And either way, losing Peter and all the potential between them (nothing ever happened, not really, Peter was only sixteen to Chris’ eighteen and the fear in them both was too strong) is what gave him Allison in the end and Chris will never, can never, regret her. Even knowing all the hurt that followed, all the death and pain, he wouldn’t undo a single second if it cost him getting to know Allison for those brief, amazing eighteen years.

He stands abruptly, intending to go – anywhere that doesn’t have Peter, really, when something tall and wiry suddenly slaps into his chest and then there are arms around him and Stiles. That’s Stiles.

She doesn’t say anything, just holds onto him and after a long moment, he folds himself around her, face buried in her hair, inhales. He can’t remember the last time anyone touched him voluntarily, before her. The last time he had a hug.

“Sorry,” she mutters, “I forget that Beacon Hills was full of shitty history long before Scotty and I stumbled into it.”

He chokes on a badly mangled laugh. “We haven’t ever talked about it until right now and Peter only brought it up to stir up shit,” he decrees, throwing the wolf a glare.

Peter doesn’t glare back, just sits very still, watching with a thoughtful expression on his face instead of the hateful one Chris has come to expect.

“What, like, all this time? Not ever? You just pretended not to know each other?”

“The next time we saw each other, Christopher helped burn me to death a second time, sweetheart.”

How do you talk after that? How do you apologize for leaving without a word to keep a friend safe when, little more than a decade later, he burned by your family’s hand anyway, and years after that, you helped kill him to protect a bunch of children repeating your history.

There comes a point where things have festered too long, have been buried under too many other hurts, to be brought to light again. Except of course Peter would choose the middle of a crisis almost thirty years later to roll it all out in some misguided attempt to hurt Chris and ingratiate himself to Stiles.

Contrary bastard.

After a long moment, Stiles finally lets him go, blushing brightly. “Sorry.”

He manages something approaching a smile. “It’s alright. It’s been a long time.”

She hugs Peter, too, then. For once, he doesn’t look smug.

+

Stiles spends the rest of the day apparently endlessly fascinated by the nugget of knowledge gleaned. She bugs whoever is holding Beth and thus defenseless to flee about how they met, how old they were, what they talked about, what they got up to and who might have photographic evidence, “Oh my god, are there yearbook pictures!? Because I will threaten Scott into stealing a yearbook and overnighting it to me if I have to, don’t think I won’t!”

Peter gives small answers, parceled out to make her more curious and more hyper, while Chris just tries to fend her off with the baby and excuses of having to make more phone calls.

Neither of them mention that she keeps safely away from the most interesting part of Chris’ and Peter’s acquaintance: how it ended.

Somehow, after years and years of silence and sharp barbs, she manages to make them talk about it. In the span of a few hours, she tickles most of their history out of them. How they met playing basketball, how they became friends before learning each other’s last names, how they decided to fuck history and stay friends anyway. How Peter had the worst crush on Chris and Chris was terrified of it, for so many reasons, how he dated Cheryl Sanders just to hide from what Peter demanded.

+

And then: three AM, eighteen-year-old Chris climbing in his bedroom window after a late night movie with Peter, to find his father sitting on his bed, all his things packed up, announcing, “We’re moving. Load the car.”

How he went because he knew that glimmer in the old man’s eye, the one that promised pain and blood and death, how he went and made sure to burn Peter’s phone number and address at the first gas stop, out of fear.

How he swore, holding his daughter for the first time, that she would never be afraid of him, because he would never give her reason to and how she looked, shoving herself between her werewolf boyfriend and her father’s gun and how he hated himself for that, but mostly for the fact that, for a moment, he almost, almost thought he understood his father’s reasoning.

How Peter looked, all grown-up and red-eyed and insane with grief, burned and screaming and dead and still staring at him in silent challenge. Say you know me. At least fucking acknowledge that you knew me.

They don’t tell her any of that.

+

Sometime around three, Stiles plops Beth onto Peter’s chest, drops onto the sofa next to Chris and pins him in place with her legs. Which are long. And bare. And in his lap.

Peter is laughing at him from the safety of the armchair.

“Okay. So. Did you two ever make out? A little bicuriosity? Bispecies curiosity? Tongue action? Anything?”

She’s relentless.

Chris answers, “No,” the exact same moment Peter drawls, “Maybe,” and Stiles gives a screech of sheer frustration.

“What??!!”

Out of her direct line of sight, Peter throws Chris a raised eyebrow and wickedly sparking eyes. Challenge. The bloodless kind. Chris forgot they used to do this. Before. When things were easy. He remembers now. They drove the rest of the basketball team mad with their tall tales, backing each other effortlessly as they built one house of lies after another. No-one ever managed to tangle them up in a mistake.

Christ. They used to actually have fun together, didn’t they?

Then Peter leans back in his seat, one thigh rocking Beth gently to and fro and corrects, “No, you’re right. There wasn’t.”

Stiles is already settling in for a disappointed sulk, when Chris squeezes her ankle and adds, “Or maybe there was? I’m not sure. It’s been over twenty years.”

She’s looking from one to the other now, Peter, Chris, Peter, Chris, but both of them perfected their poker faces before she was born, so she gets nothing from them. In the end, that is its own answer, and she throws up her arms to declare, “You’re fucking with me!”

Well. Yes.

It’s a novel concept. Having fun. Teasing.

Frustrated, she swings her legs back onto solid ground, but not before delivering a stinging, heeled kick to the inside of Chris’ thigh. “Asshole,” she grumps, sits up.

“So. On spreading rumors. Two biggest gossips in town. Louise Thompson, runs the best bakery in town, works the morning shift on weekdays, five to noon. Mike Henriks, works at the post office, takes his lunch religiously between twelve and one, in the park across the street. I’m thinking you get to take your side piece through Lou’s for provisions before having a disgustingly wholesome picnic at the park with baby. Show off that I’m childcare and harmless and how you know me, all in one. What do you think?”

Before Chris can address any part of that (side piece), Peter drawls, “Are you spying on the townsfolk, sweetheart?” He has offered Beth his hand and she’s happily gnawing on his middle finger, getting it spitty all over. He doesn’t even appear to notice the way it dampens the cuff of his shirt.

She makes a derisive noise. “Please. I’m bubbly and adorable. They tell me all kinds of shit, I don’t even have to ask. Much. And anyway, shut up, you’re the secret weapon. Secret weapon doesn’t get to plan dates.”

He flashes wolf eyes at her and then actually salutes, turning to Beth to let her know, “You could leave the child with me. Plenty of time to corrupt her.”

“I doubt even you can corrupt a six-month-old,” Chris says.

“You have no faith in me, Christopher.”

“None,” Chris confirms, dryly. “And proving Stiles’ purpose as a childminder would be hard without a child. She’s with us.”

Stiles grabs his hand to regain his attention. “So? What do you say, Mr. Silverfox? Go on a highly suggestive date with me tomorrow? Where we pretend I have no idea why you’re suddenly visiting, but utterly delighted by it anyway, despite you lugging along your – telling pause – niece?”

He’ll blame Peter for bringing out the worst in him later, but he winks at her. “Nothing I’d rather be doing.”

+

The levity lasts until Stiles bundles up Beth and her makeshift crib to retreat to her bedroom for the night. She drops a pillow and two blankets on the sofa and tells them to sort themselves out, guest room, couch, wherever.

The second she isn’t there to buffer for them anymore, Chris averts his gaze. Peter, on the other hand, zeroes in on him with a laser focus.

“I’ll take the couch,” Chris offers, for something to say.

“Nonsense, you got here first.”

“And you’re the one who practically lives in the guest room,” he counters.

Peter grins. His teeth are too pointy to pass for human. “Jealous?”

Chris rubs at his eyes and finally turns to meet Peter’s gaze head on. “Stop it, Peter. Stop teasing, stop playing. I’m not going to sleep with Stiles.”

“Why not?”

As if there aren’t a million obvious reasons. “Because she’s my daughter’s age, for one.”

Peter’s expression turns to something regretful, although Chris can’t tell if it’s real or not.

“You don’t have a daughter anymore,” the werewolf points out, helpfully, “so technically….” He trails off in time to avoid Chris lunging for his throat.

Instead he sits, teeth clenched, hands working into fists, opening, closing, opening, closing, as he lets the riptide of grief and rage and kill, kill, kill roll over him.

To his surprise, Peter’s next words are almost apologetic. “Still?” he asks, softly.

Chris stares at him. “Are you still afraid of fire?”

The other man’s instinctive recoil is answer enough. Down the short hallway, Beth squawks unhappily and Stiles picks up her singing again, foreign syllables rolling smoothly off her tongue. It reminds him, again, of Allison (oh god, oh god), of being young and with Victoria. Makes him wonder if, in a perfect world, where being a werewolf and a hunter, young and gay and hopeless didn’t matter, if, in that world, Peter would have sung lullabies to their children.

“Do you ever wonder what would have happened if we’d stayed together?”

Given time, their friendship would have turned into something different and they both know it, were on the verge of it, when Gerard intervened and dragged Chris off to be married to Victoria.

Chances are good they would both have died in the resulting conflict. If they’d lived… maybe things would have been better. Maybe Kate would have hesitated over setting fire to the family her brother claimed. More likely than not, she would have done it with more fervor. More glee. More hatred.

Maybe Chris would have died in the fire, too. Maybe Peter would have. Maybe that would have put an end to it all and Stiles and Scott and all the others would have grown up normal. Safe.

Maybe.

“We were children, Christopher. Naïve children.”

“Allison and Scott made it work.”

Peter makes a noise, like he’s biting back a bark of laughter. “No, they didn’t. Not really. Once the secret was out, they were over.”

“Not really.”

“Leftovers,” Peter points out. “Remnants of emotion.” He shakes his head. “Take the bed. I’ll be fine out here. I plan to do a perimeter sweep or two, anyway.”

“Or,” Chris offers, before he can check himself, before he can think better of it (of wantingwantingwanting), “we can share the bed. It’s big enough.”

Peter’s expression is unreadable. He nods.

He follows Chris into the room that’s his anyway and they both strip, avoiding each other’s gazes and climbing under the sheets in the dark. They lie back to back and hold themselves like a bomb’s about to go off between them. Stupid one-upmanship. Chris should have just stayed on the couch.

Too late now. (Too late; for decades.)

Half an hour later, slowly relaxing with some remnant of trust he didn’t know he still had for the werewolf lying next to him, (or maybe just exhaustion) Chris offers, “I didn’t want to leave. But I’m sorry I did.”

Behind him, Peter exhales, long and slow and shaky, and says nothing at all.

+

He almost told Allison once. Just once. About the Hale he could have been in love with but didn’t dare, how he let fear shape his entire life and he was glad for it, because at least they both got to live.

They both got to make something out of their lives, separately, yes, but alive.

He didn’t, in the end, because he didn’t want his own daughter to pity him. And she would have. Alive was never enough for Allison. She wanted louder, brighter more. She wanted to be strong and brave and good. She wanted to fight, not give up, and she had so much faith. So much.

And in the end, she got to die in the arms of the boy she loved and he knows, even though he wasn’t there, even though he never asked how – he knows she would have been alright with that, because it meant that her life was worth something.

More than just survival.

She was so much better than him.

+

Chris wakes fast, because he hasn’t woken any other way in decades, but the weight of an arm around his waist stops him from sitting up immediately. Instead, he tenses, hand going for the gun under his pillow, even as he takes in his surroundings and –

“Oh my god, this is adorable,” Stiles chirps from the doorway. She’s standing there in jeans shorts and a graphic t-shirt, Beth on her hip, happily mangling a strand of Stiles’ hair. Both of them are wearing suspicious stains that might or might not be applesauce.

Chris blinks, then scooches around to look at Peter, who is definitely awake and pretending not to be, flat on his stomach, one arm thrown over Chris. He’s still wearing yesterday’s jeans. The last time he went to check the perimeter was around three AM and he didn’t bother changing out of them when he came back.

Chris pokes him in the ribs hard enough to make him lift his arm and sits up, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. Stiles coos and bounces the baby.

“Look at that, button, look at it. You’re too young to need a spank bank, but let me tell you, this is fantastic material. All the daddy fantasy you can handle, yes it is, yes it is!” She says all of it in a high-pitched baby voice, making Chris slightly nauseous, even as his brain tries to compute ‘daddy’.

Peter cracks an eye. “I thought we were leaving her corruption to me?”

Stiles cackles. “Then don’t look like soft core porn first thing in the morning. Now move it, gentlemen, I have a date to get to.”

She leaves them to get dressed. After a very long, hard look at Peter’s bare torso and Chris in nothing but boxers.

“I feel objectified.”

With a snort, Peter finally rolls over. “You sound pleased about it.”

“Fuck you.”

“Not before I had my coffee.”

Somehow, this is easy. He doesn’t know how or why, but suddenly, it almost doesn’t hurt anymore. Maybe just acknowledging it, after so many years, was actually enough to mitigate some of the hurt. And maybe, someday soon, pigs will actually fly. Chris huffs. “Get your coffee. I have shower dibs.”

He’s pretty sure Peter flips him off as he goes, but he doesn’t turn back to look. Instead he brushes his teeth while he waits for the shower to heat up, skins out of his boxers and climbs in to enjoy the hot water while it lasts. This cottage really isn’t made for more than one person to live in it. The boiler is barely enough for a ten minute shower and that’s before it takes two minutes to run to a decent temperature.

He considers jerking off for the first time in a while, but knows Peter would never let him live it down.

While toweling off he gives his beard a critical tug and decides it can wait until this is all over for a trim, then wanders back to the guest room with the towel slung around his waist. Peter, surprisingly, simply trades him places without comment.

In the kitchen, Stiles is flitting around, cleaning and making coffee one-handed, Beth still on her hip. It’s stupid, maybe, but by silent agreement, they carry the little girl around as much as possible. Leaving her alone in her crib when there are hands that could be holding her seems cruel, after everything else she’s already lost.

The radio is crooning eighties ballads and every now and then, Stiles adds a few dance steps to her routine, twirling Beth around, both of them grinning wildly.

Even armed with a baseball bat and splattered with blood, Stiles has never been as terrifying as she is now, dancing through her sun-drenched kitchen with a baby on her hip.

Chris makes a valiant attempt at drowning himself in his coffee mug.

“Sooo. You two had a good talk last night?” Subtle as aforementioned baseball bat.

“Your couch is tiny and uncomfortable.”

“You’re the one who decided to make this your Mexico.” She sounds more amused than insulted.

He doesn’t really get the reference, except that he can tell by her tone that it is some kind of reference, but he understands the gist of it well enough. Shrugs. “Breakfast at Lou’s, right?”

She nods. “And put on a jacket, I can see the back holster you’re sporting.”

Peter enters the room then and promptly gets handed the baby as Stiles brushes past him, hollering, “Fresh pot of coffee’s on, I made muffins, they’re in the oven, the gnomes are pissy because you woke them up with your patrols last night, just avoid the belladonna patch, please?”

She returns before she’s finished rattling off instructions, diaper bag slung over one shoulder, a light jacket tucked into the straps. She grabs back Beth, presses a peck to Peter’s scruffy cheek, executes a tight U-turn and marches toward the front door.

Chris and Peter exchange amused and resigned looks for a moment before she screeches, “Chris!” and he promptly hands off his mug and jogs after her. He does remember to grab his jacket, which means she only glares at him a little when he finally climbs into her jeep.

+

The drive into town is quiet, Beth blowing spit bubbles in her seat while Stiles points out a few useful features (“This road is a dead end, but this one leads up to a trailhead. Follow it on foot for about two hundred feet and then take a left off the path, there’s a little cave there, next to a giant elm. Rocky ground, too.”) between humming along to the radio.

She parks halfway between Lou’s and the park, a paranoid habit Chris approves off, then grabs both baby and bag and lugs them into the bakery like she has been doing it all her life and not just a bit over two days. That must have been a lot of babysitting.

By the time Chris makes it inside, she’s already in line. He forces himself to play his part, stepping up close behind her, until her back is to his front, offering Beth a finger to gum at over her shoulder.

It takes about thirty seconds for them to become the center of attention. An elderly woman behind the counter notices Stiles, recognizes her, and then zeroes in on Beth like a heat seeking missile.

“Stiles,” the woman – has to be the eponymous Louise – calls, “what do you have there?”

A dozen heads inside the bakery swivel around and Chris feels the urge to find a wall to put his back against and pull his gun. Small town gossip. Not all that different from warfare.

“Hey, Lou,” Stiles beams at her, jostling Beth gently, “this is Beth. Isn’t she adorable?”

The woman ahead of them in line turns around and coos agreeably, trying to offer the baby her finger, tickling at her socked feet when she doesn’t take it. Chris forgot about that, about the way people just assume the right to touch babies.

“Your friend’s?” Lou asks, serving a man who looks a little peeved at being ignored in favor of a baby, but Lou has obviously scented news. Her eyes glitter with greed.

Chris is, honestly, a little terrified.

“She’s Chris’ niece,” Stiles provides, artfully stumbling over the last word just a little. “He has to take care of her unexpectedly for a while and you know how men are with babies.”

“Look but don’t touch, right?” The woman attacking Beth’s feet provides with a knowing smirk. “And god save them from diaper duty?”

Chris would like to defend that, as a matter of fact, his wife was the one who practically threw their baby across the room when she smelled an oopsie, but that’s not the point. God, it’s not the point. So he just shrugs, what can you do, and lets the women natter on.

Stiles effortlessly invents a backstory, Chris’ distant cousin and his wife in an unspecified accident, both of them badly off (she keeps it vague), baby with the sitter, it’ll be months before custody is settled, he needed help, so here they are. Beth is six months, has one tooth, likes tummy time and can sit on her own if provided with a pillow or two and look at all that hair. Stiles doesn’t give a reason for why he came to her and not she to him, leaves enough holes for people to wonder, but not enough to run to the nearest cop and cry kidnapping. It’s artfully done, really. So well, in fact, that this romcom movie ploy might actually work out in their favor.

By the time they’ve made the front of the queue, three housewives have already taken the heartwarming tale out of the bakery and Chris can almost see it spread across town like a disease, person to person to person.

Any hunter asking around for them is going to get a fifteen-minute monologue on Stiles’ kindness, Chris’ bravery and Beth’s adorableness. He realizes, somewhat too late, that they’re practically giving up Beth’s identity this way, but they could never be sure the hunters don’t know about her anyway.

Stiles orders them macaroons and eclairs and donuts in a box for their picnic, gets an extra pretzel thrown in for Beth to gum on and then lets Chris add on their coffee orders before making him pay.

She makes sure to buss a kiss of thanks across the corner of his mouth as she turns toward the door, leaving him to lug their provisions.

They fetch a blanket from the jeep on their way past and find a cozy but visible place in the park to spread it out, sitting down and having a lazy breakfast with Beth playing between them, chasing bugs as they buzz around her.

She gets to gum on her pretzel for a while, scraping at it with her single tooth and then spits it up all over Stiles, who laughs and makes gagging noises. The sun filters through the trees just so, still low enough to leave them with dancing shade, and birds sing. Joggers and dog-walkers meander past, many calling out greetings to Stiles, some letting Beth pet their dogs clumsily.

Stiles eats her weight in pastries, washes it down with coffee and rucks up her shirt to tan a little, while Beth climbs all over Chris with a daisy stuck behind one ear, squealing in delight.

It hurts.

It’s ridiculously fucking perfect and unreal and good and it hurts the way pictures of Allison and the smell of fire do. Hurts the way the knife hurt when it went into Victoria and the way the sight of Kate did when she stood, unrepentant, admitting to killing the Hales.

It hurts the way leaving Beacon Hills for the first time did, in a gut-wrenching, bone deep way that he knows from experience can be neither numbed nor routed. It’s just there, always, like the twinge of old scars in bad weather, and it never goes away.

Because it’s perfect and he wants and he can never have.

He’s a greedy old bastard, in the end.

Stiles laughs as she helps him lie down and arrange Beth on his stomach for a nap and he closes his eyes even though he can’t afford to let down his guard, just so he won’t have to look at her joy-filled, freckled face anymore.

By the time she says, “Well, Mike most certainly saw his fill, so I guess we can go now,” all he feels is relief.

+

“Can I borrow the jeep for a few hours?” he asks as soon as they roll up to the cottage.

“What for?” Stiles’ forehead is scrunched up.

“Petty cash.” And some provisions. Necessities for a quick getaway. A just-in-case measure.

An excuse to get away for a couple of hours. Since they’ve switched from hiding to luring, he doesn’t have to go out of his way for any of it anymore, but going a town over will give him space and not make him look too incompetent to believe to the hunters after him. (Weak. He shouldn’t have gone along with Stiles if he wanted to seem at all competent, he knows. But, but, but. What the fuck is he doing anymore?)

She gives him an unreadable look, then sighs and shrugs. “Sure. Don’t get dead.” With that, she grabs Beth’s things and the few donuts she graciously saved for Peter and exits the car, dumping them by the front door before coming back for baby.

He waves a quick goodbye, uses the dead-end where his truck is still parked to turn and is gone.

If the hunters don’t kill him, Stiles and Peter will at this rate.

+

He comes home back to a Mexican standoff by the backdoor. Stiles is one her knees in front of a tiny, ugly, misshapen thing that looks like chestnut-colored potatoes crazy-glued together to form a three-foot high humanoid being.

Peter is crouched by the couch, eyes still a human blue, but carefully between creature and baby, distracting her with one hand over her face, fingers waggling.

Chris takes his cue from Peter rather than Stiles, because Stiles’ danger-meter is, by her own admission, broken. He drops the three emergency bags he built for them and makes sure he has a clear sightline and then stays still. Waiting.

The little thing – it has to be one of the gnomes Stiles keeps mentioning – shoots him a single look and then goes back to staring at Stiles intently. “It’s the best way, and we don’t mind it!”

“You’re putting yourself in danger unnecessarily and I can’t let you do that. Stay in your den. The hunters won’t even notice you’re there.”

The gnome stomps its left foot, slightly bigger than the right. “No!” it shrills. “You’re good to us, feeding us magic and cookies and milk, letting us have WiFi and your Netflix password!”

Peter’s and Chris’ gazes briefly meet because of course Stiles is providing the wild fae squatting in her yard with WiFi and Netflix. In her defense, it seems to be paying off.

“And if the hunters kill you and your skulk dead, then who’s going to feed us, eh? You think the next person in here is going to let us have their WiFi? You think we want some humie in here? Don’t be dumb, Ms. Stiles. We’re good at hiding and sneaking. We’ll take the babe and we’ll make her unseeable and we’ll be as safe as houses and so will she. And then you won’t die and we’ll get to finish watching that show with the orange ladies.” It snaps its fingers, obviously reaching for the name.

Peter snorts, burying the sound in Beth’s belly.

Orange is the New Black?” Stiles helpfully suggests.

“That’s the one! Don’t spoiler us, we haven’t gotten to watch the new episodes, yet. Lavender’s visiting family and won’t let us watch without him, the rat bastard. So, do we have a deal?”

It holds out its hand and Chris reflexively wants to stop Stiles because as modern, tiny and harmless as this gnome might seem, it’s still fae.

But Stiles, clever girl, carefully recites, “You take Beth to keep her safe for the duration of the fight only, protecting her and yourself with your glamors. Easiest would be to hide up in the attic with her. Once the fight is over, you give her back to me and we part ways without anyone incurring any debts. All previous agreements remain untouched.”

The gnome nods, apparently satisfied with her wording. They shake on it and there is a brief flash of light from their joined hands.

A fae pact.

The most benevolent one Chris has ever heard of. But then, he thinks, looking at the two wolves by the couch, Stiles has always drawn dangerous creatures like moths to a flame.

The gnome nods, taking a step back from the threshold. Then it pauses. “Oh, and tell your wolf to stop stomping on our den, will you? It’s rude. Last night, the TV fell over.”

And it’s gone.

Peter finally gives in and starts snickering. “WiFi and Netflix, Stiles, really?”

“What? Gnomes like to Netflix and chill, too,” she counters, not even trying to justify her choices, instead rounding out her defense with a rude gesture that clearly illustrates just what she means by that.

Despite himself, Chris rolls his eyes. Stiles is… so very much herself, sometimes.

“How did you fit a TV in their den?”

“Didn’t. I wired my old tablet to a solar charger and let them have it. They don’t even let mosquitos into the yard since then.” She gives a satisfied smile, then claps her hands as she straightens. “So now we’re rid of our handicap - wanna talk strategy?”

+

The actual strategy talk takes barely half an hour. The gnomes are going to set up shop in the bathtub with Beth. Chris and Stiles will cover the house while Peter ranges farther out, faster than either of the humans. They can’t afford to shelter anyone because they don’t have enough firepower and their fighting styles are too different to allow for anything more complex.

Basically, the plan is to wait until the bad guys show up and then kill them, by any means necessary.

Peter prowls off, after, to familiarize himself with the area, even though Chris suspects he’s more than familiar with it, already. He doesn’t need a wolf’s senses to be aware that Stiles’ little cottage in the woods is saturated by the wolf’s presence.

It makes something hungry bubble up in him. He smacks it down and empties his entire arsenal onto the kitchen table, cleaning, loading and checking everything twice.

Stiles, meanwhile, is playing with Beth on the living room floor, delighting in flipping the little girl back on her belly every time she manages to roll over and occasionally sitting her up straight and carefully buffering her with pillows until Beth inevitably somehow flops over again.

A few more weeks and the baby is going to sit, easily. After that, it’ll be a short distance to crawling and then she’ll be all over the place and – Chris stops that thought, right there.

She’ll be long gone by then.

“Come on, Elmer Fudd, those guns are all primed enough to hunt the wascally wabbit. Come down here and play with us.”

Stiles grins.

She’s sitting with her legs stretched and spread, Beth on her tummy between them, trying to pull herself forward using the edges of Stiles’ shorts as handholds. It’s adorable. Stiles’ tattoo twists and shivers every time she shifts her muscles to compensate for Beth. The greyscale leaves and blossoms seem to dance on her skin. There is no way magic isn’t involved in that tattoo.

It starts at her ankle in delicate, twisting vines and climbs. The first flower covers most of Stiles’ calf, fragile leaves cradle her knee joint, and then it all explodes into full bloom on her thigh before disappearing under her clothes.

It makes Chris’ fingers itch.

He blinks away the impulse and dryly replies, “You know, one might take offense to that comparison.”

She laughs. “Oh, please. I’ve always found Elmer Fudd adorable. Plus, he never gives up and he never stays down. That’s some prime character traits right there.”

She winks. He snorts. But he does put down the last gun and crawl over to join the girls, propping Beth up against his stomach, arms hovering around her for when she topples over again.

By the time he has the baby situated and looks back up at Stiles, her expression has turned frustrated. She huffs, then shakes her head, looking suddenly tired.

“What?” he asks.

He expects her to play it off, because she always does, never wanting anyone to help her with anything, but all she does is shrug and rub a hand over her face.

Before she can say anything, Peter steps through the backdoor and immediately snorts. “Isn’t this domestic,” he teases.

Chris throws him a glare and, surprisingly, Stiles does, too. It’s enough to stop the wolf in his tracks and turn questioning eyes on Chris, who can only shrug in reply. Stiles, watching the byplay, exhales heavily through her nose and then stands, grabbing Beth.

“I’m putting her down for a nap,” she announces. “And when I get back, all three of us need to talk. I’m tired of this shit.”

With that, she’s gone.

+

Allison hated it when Chris told her they needed to have a talk. Even before death and monsters it was never a good talk. Usually, it was about moving again, about leaving their whole lives behind again.

Victoria was rarely present for those talks. She was never good with tears and she never tolerated whining well. The moves were inevitable, so Allison shouldn’t complain.

After the first few ‘talks’ ended with the two of them having drawn out fights about just telling Allison the truth so she could stop sulking and hoping, Chris made a point to not include her anymore.

If Allison minded her mother being absent for those talks, she never indicated. Instead, she started heading for the kitchen every time the dreaded sentence came, and making them tea.

Hers with lemon and honey and ginger, if she found it. His plain. He didn’t ever like tea, not even when she made it, but he drank it during those talks, because that was her condition for letting him uproot her life time and again.

(Somewhere, in the very bottom of one of the boxes he never plans to retrieve from storage, there is still a tin of expensive, disgusting black tea. Half used.)

+

He puts three steaming mugs on the table, places the sugar bowl next to Stiles’ and then sits down, ignoring Peter’s curious gaze on him, a question there the other man won’t ask.

He knows Chris hates tea. Hated it, at least. He has to wonder what changed. But he doesn’t ask. Just another broken thing, except it’s not, and Chris would tell him, if only Allison could ever cross his lips without first coring out his heart.

A few hours (and a picnic date) ago, he thought this was easy.

Now it’s all he can do to meet Peter’s gaze and god, he’s a pathetic, broken ruin of a man and he has no idea what he’s even doing anymore. Never should have gotten Stiles involved, or allowed her to drag in Peter, or let Peter goad him, or let Stiles drag him out to play bait or – or –

The ‘wolf cocks his head. “Beth’s down,” he announces, and sure enough, a few minutes later, Stiles comes marching in, hands on hips.

She takes in the tea on the coffee table and maybe Allison told her, one day, long ago, because her expression softens briefly, before hardening again.

“We might die sometime in the next few days.”

Peter immediately opens his mouth to argue, but Stiles shuts him down with a swat of one hand. Literally. His mouth snaps shut and from the looks of it, stays that way by magic. He glares.

Chris purses his lips and stays silent.

“We might. We’re not planning on it and I’ll fight like hell to avoid it, but we all know that death isn’t exactly the kind of thing that waits for a handwritten invitation. We might croak.”

She pauses, inhales, exhales heavily through her nose. “And because we might die, I’m gonna say a few things and you two will listen. Clear?”

She waits for them both to nod before removing the spell from Peter, who pointedly massages his jaw but stays silent.

“I love you two dickheads. I do. Both of you. You’re my pack, or skulk, or family, of what the fuck ever you want to call it, but it’s not only that, okay? I joke a lot about porn and you two making out, but I love you. And wasn’t that a fun realization to have at goddamn nineteen. I had a crisis, okay? It wasn’t fun. It took a hell of a lot of research to calm down from that panic attack and then I was patient. I was so fucking patient with the both of you, with the way you moved close, Peter, and pretended it was for other reasons, with the way you orbit this town within a three-hundred-mile radius but never come to visit, with the way you both answer your phone the second I call but rarely, if ever, call yourselves. I was patient and I let you because I didn’t want to pick and I thought – I waited. For one of you to make a move, to let me close, to stop being noble fucking idiots who thought they were too monstrous or too broken or too old or whatever’s going on in your heads and it’s been almost ten years now and we might die tomorrow.”

She breathes and it sounds a little panicked. Peter’s eyes have gone electric.

“I love you and now that I’ve figured out you two idiots at least used to love each other, too, and we might all die, I’m not going to wait anymore. So here it is, plainly as I can possibly make it: I don’t care that you’re both older than me because we’ve been through way too much shit together for that to matter.

“I don’t care that you’re screwed in the head and have nightmares and think you’re broken, because everyone here has bloody hands and dry eyes and if that makes us monsters then fuck it, because it also makes us survivors.

“All I care about is that I’m tired of living in this little house by myself, waiting for one of you to finally come home. So I’ll be in my bedroom, waiting for you to make up your minds.”

She nods decisively, but Chris can see the way she quivers, horseflesh nervous, the way her eyes are too wide and her heart races too fast, the way her face is red and her hands are curled into fists. She waits, for a very long moment, for one of them to act, to swoop in and kiss her maybe, to make this drama movie worthy.

Neither of them move.

She spins on her heel and marches out, head held high, because she always has been the bravest of them, and the strongest.

As soon as she hears the bedroom door slam, Chris sucks in air through his teeth, hard and explosive.

She knows. She’s always known. Known and wanted – waited, while he strung her along like an idiot, getting close and shying away, living by her word and faith, putting down the bottles when she told him, picking the hunts she told him, eating, sleeping, breathing with her voice in his ear and never returning the favor, never –

She’s always known.

And he just –

“Well,” Peter drawls, unwelcome and so, so welcome. Chris’ gaze snaps up to meet the werewolf’s, still electric blue. “I guess we’ve been told,” he drawls, self-deprecating and Chris may be close to having a panic attack, but he’s fully aware that Stiles grouped them together, spoke of guilt and monsters and broken things and meant them both.

Not really a shock. Chris knew Peter when he was whole, after all. He might be the last person alive who remembers what the man looked like without all the cracks. He can see the light shining through, the places where what’s left of Peter has been stitched back up a little wrong.

Stiles’ handiwork, no doubt. Her stitches all over his soul, just like they’re all over Chris’.

And the way they thanked her was by staying away, both of them.

Unbidden, Chris’ mouth opens, asks, “Would you have ever – “

Peter chuckles. “No. Never. Not her.”

Not the one precious thing they have left between them. Not the one who shines so brightly. It feels like sin, even thinking of putting their big, dirty hands on her.

But – she’s right, isn’t she? Stiles has killed and murdered, lied and stolen and wrecked as much as any of them. There’s nothing pure in this house except the baby.

And for the past few days, Chris has watched Stiles with that baby, has watched Peter orbit them like they’re gravity and he knows why he always stayed away. Knows why he never came here before.

Because he’s always known that once he fell into this gravity well, there’d be no escaping.

He’s not strong enough and that has always felt like sin, but maybe, maybe –

“Do you think things would have gone differently,” he asks the other man, the oldest friend (enemy) he has left. The one who knew him longest and, maybe, once, could have known him best. “If I’d found a way to stay?”

Peter doesn’t shrug, because shrugs are beneath him. “Yes. But it doesn’t matter. You didn’t.”

Somehow, it doesn’t sound like a curse, like condemnation. Just fact.

He didn’t. Couldn’t, maybe, and it set them all on a path that ended in fire and blood and death. In Allison. In Stiles.

Regret, Stiles once informed him, in a terrible British accent, is unprofessional.

“Regret is for cowards,” Gerard told Chris, more than once, when he shook after a hunt, hands bloody and mind stuck on another werewolf, another monster who wasn’t.

Either way, it’s useless. All it’s done for the past decade is left him cold and broken.

When he looks up from his scarred, ugly hands again, Peter’s standing, holding out one of his own. The skin is eternally smooth and unscarred. Eternally hiding the burns that lay underneath.

He’s still so beautiful and Chris wants.

He takes Peter’s hand.

And he follows him into Stiles’ bedroom.

+

Stiles is curled up at the headboard, her knees drawn up to her chin, arms wrapped around, staring at the door with blind anxiety. So much so that it takes her a second to even register their entry.

She blinks, slow and surprised and then slumps like all her strings are cut. “Oh thank fuck,” she breathes, “I was sure I’d sent you skedaddling.”

Chris blinks back, surprised at the sudden turn in attitude, but then, this is Stiles in a nutshell, isn’t it? Brave when nobody else is, and anxious and self-doubting the rest of the time.

“We’re not that noble, sweetheart,” Peter croons, because he always knows what to say. “And we’re not that dumb. I told you, Stiles. I like you.”

She snorts, uncurling a little. She stripped off her shorts and changed her shirt leaving her in underwear and a tank top. The tattoo curls up under both and reemerges above her heart.

Chris has never seen this part before. It draws his eye like a beacon.

“Almost ten years ago,” she counters, pulling Chris’ focus back onto her face. “And then you never did anything about it.”

“You were sixteen, Stiles.”

There is mulish set to her jaw as she opens her mouth again and Chris expects them to slip into their usual arguments, but instead, she pauses, says, “I’m not sixteen anymore.”

No, she’s not. She’s older now, older than Allison ever got to be. And maybe that’s Chris’ saving grace. Maybe that’s his salvation. His daughter will be eternally seventeen. Stiles is twenty-four, almost twenty-five. Almost a decade older. Stiles is an adult. Allison never will be.

It hurts. But it also feels like a blessing in a way he doesn’t deserve.

“No,” Peter rasps. “You’re not.”

Somehow, that concludes something, because he steps forward, sitting on the edge of the bed beside her, and drawing her into a hug. “I’m sorry I took so long, sweetheart,” he murmurs.

It might be the gentlest thing Chris has ever heard him say. The kindest.

She nods into his chest, then turns her head to stare at Chris. “And you?”

“I,” god. Has he always been this bad at words?

Has he always –

He moves, instead of stuttering through all the things he’s too used to keeping trapped behind his teeth. Moves to her other side, offering his hand to pull her close. She smells of baby and shampoo and sweat and home and he just –

He stops fighting.

“I love you, too,” he says, his arms around Stiles and his eyes on Peter, and he means it. He didn’t mean to end up here, to make her the center of his world, but he has, a long time ago. It’s time to finally admit it. Time to stop running away.

Her smile is pure sunshine. On her chest, right above her heart, a fantastical grey scale blossom blooms suddenly, like a time lapse photograph.

Carefully, Chris places a finger on the outermost petal and traces it, just below her collarbone. It shivers.

His finger moves lower, unbidden, and finds leaves, finds tiny runes and symbols woven into them.

Magic.

Movement out of the corner of his eye, Peter tracing the ink in much the same way, high on the outside of her thigh. Stiles watches them both.

“This must have taken months to make,” Peter offers, quietly, tracing upwards, to the hem of her panties, back down. He taps a rune, bigger than most, hidden in one of the few buds yet to bloom.

“Almost a year,” she agrees, something breathy in her voice.

The men’s eyes meet. They keep moving.

“I – it reacts to my energy and moods. Gets more active the further up you get. It’s why I don’t mind shorts, but keep the top mostly hidden. It changes too quickly.”

It changes, in fact, like a real life plant would, reacting to movement and, Chris feels as he reaches the edge of her tits, her elevated heartrate. He can almost see the petals pulse in time.

He looks up to meet her whiskey gaze. “It’s beautiful.”

She kisses him. He expected it to be sloppy and wild, somehow, and it is, but it’s also far more practiced, far more experienced than he thought it would be. It’s the kiss of a woman, not a girl, and his hands meet Peter’s over her hips as he shifts her closer, somehow managing to pull in the ‘wolf as he goes, until the three of them are mostly lying down, head next to head next to head.

Stiles turns hers, cutting Chris off to kiss Peter instead and the look of it –

Then Peter finds him, and their beards bristle and rub against each other and there is none of the urgency, none of the bitter grief Chris expected after twenty years.

It’s a kiss.

Just a kiss.

He shifts closer and aims for more.

+

They don’t fuck.

There’s still hunters coming for them and none of them want to be caught in the middle of something.

Instead they strip off their shirts and jeans, they touch and taste and hold, learn and find and whisper into each other’s skin all the things daylight can’t bear.

Eventually, skin to skin to skin, they fall into a doze.

+

He dreams, fittingly, of Allison.

Not as she died, dressed in black, armed and hard and full of determination, but as she was before he brought the monsters into her life.

She’s wearing a sundress with a big floral print, a fuzzy cardigan, her hair in soft curls. His sweet girl.

“Hey dad,” she says, beams. Those dimples. They never quite figured out where she got them from.

“Alli,” he says, half aware he’s dreaming, half aware of the reality outside of this place.

“I’m glad,” she tells him.

+

Chris wakes to the feeling of thorns prickling his palm where it rests on Stiles’ hip. They’re spiking up from the foliage of her tattoo, angry and bold.

“Wards are going off,” she explains, already sitting up, grabbing for her shirt, her eyes glowing too bright to be human.

Peter snarls once, presses his face into her neck for a split second and then dives for his jeans, loping out of the room half dressed, shift already rolling over him.

Chris finds his own clothes, skinning into them quickly, then follows Stiles, gun in hand.

She leads him across the hall into the guest room, where she set up Beth in her makeshift crib, door ajar so they can keep an ear on her. She carefully lifts the baby, trying not to wake her and turns toward the doorway, only to find three gnomes already stoppering it up, their big anxious eyes glowing from their misshapen faces. They extend their arms, but Stiles shakes her head.

“I’ll show you,” she tells them, then cringes. “I count seven on the perimeter. Four from the woods, three from the front. I think there might me a few more hanging back. Attic has the best view.”

With that she leads her merry little band of fae toward the bathroom.

Chris wants to follow. Every single atom of him wants to follow. To make sure they’re okay.

Stiles wouldn’t thank him for it.

So he jogs up the rickety stairs to the single attic room and cracks the window. He only has his regular gun, not a rifle, and the sight lines are hampered by the small window and the steep incline of the roof, but it’s still better than being on even ground.

One of the hunters, little more than a shadow with a gun, seems to be trapped in the belladonna patch, caught up in vines and thorns.

Chris aims, breathes, fires and watches him go down with a shout.

A shadow flits across the garden, the outline jagged, crouched, inhuman. A moment later, there is a gurgling sound by the begonias.

Something like lightning cracks at the front of the house, the sound and flash enough to stall all movement below for a second. Chris takes out a third.

Then he hears Stiles’ voice, chanting, angry, and sees another flash, this one soundless. It smells like a forest fire.

Peter leaps again, then takes off into the darkness outside the fence. Outside the wards.

Four dead in the back and no sightlines toward the front, Chris jogs right back down the stairs and hurtles toward the front door. He finds Stiles jammed into it, legs spread so her feet wedge into either of the two bottom corners, arms extended, chest heaving. Beyond her are three smoldering heaps of ash and bone.

Movement.

Chris fires.

In Peter’s direction, more screams.

“That’s nine by my count,” Chris supplies.

Stiles hums and shifts sideways as she closes her eyes. He moves past her and crouches at her feet, aiming into the darkness.

“Eleven,” she tells him after a moment, some sense beyond the obvious extended into the night. “The gnomes got one and – “

Another scream.

“Peter’s kind of terrifying with something to protect,” she drawls as she relaxes instantly.

“Peter is always terrifying,” Chris corrects and doesn’t hesitate to straighten up, too. He trusts Stiles implicitly and has for longer than he cares to remember. If she says it’s done, it’s done.

“Aw, thank you, Christopher, you’re too kind,” the ‘wolf in question drawls, stepping around the house. He’s covered in blood up to his elbows and his face is smeared with it. He grins and there are too many fangs in his mouth.

“Asshole,” Chris counters, reflexively. Then he surveys the carnage and snorts. “That was too easy.”

“Excuse me,” Stiles counters, “That was a badass hunter, a badass werewolf and a badass Spark fighting on home turf without a handicap and some friendly fae support. Also, forewarned. Also, one of those,” she points at a pile of ashes, “actually called me ‘the hotpocket’ before I fried him, so our ruse worked. That wasn’t easy, we’re just fucking awesome. Also, magical exhaustion is a thing and I think I need to sit down.”

Immediately, they both lunge for her and try to ease her to the ground. She slaps at them. “Not here. First I’m checking on my baby.”

Chris has no idea if Stiles even notices her own slip, but he and Peter certainly do, their hands going slack at her declaration. She uses the chance to slip past them and into the house, bee-lining for the bathroom.

A moment later, she emerges with Beth in her arms. The gnomes follow, looking around.
“Not much of a fight, huh?” one comments.

Another elbows him. “Shut up, Sage. Ms. Stiles is just better than some filthy humies.”

“Racist,” the third points out before grabbing the other two. “Come on, there’s cleanup. If we don’t hurry, Lotus is going to keep all the shinies.”

The other two get wide-eyed and then all three scamper off, obviously in a hurry. Stiles pays them no mind, her face buried in Beth’s downy curls, inhaling her scent deeply. She leans against the wall, slides down and sits there, on the floor, miraculously (magically?) still sleeping baby in her arms.

Peter hesitates only a moment before joining her.

Chris follows.

It’s over.

Days of tension, of fear and guilt and terror and now, after a fight that lasted less than ten minutes, it’s over.

It does feel too easy.

But then, they’re used to Beacon Hills levels of horror and violence and after that – well. Their basis of comparison might be off by now. Just a little.

It’s over.

+

Peter carries Stiles to bed eventually, while she still clings to Beth. As he disappears inside, Chris rounds the house on weary bones to brave the fae and finds a dozen of the small things dancing gleefully around a pile of human bodies, already half sunk into the vegetation.

“They’ll fertilize our babies!” One of them crows, waving stubby arms in the air, a large caliber bullet in each hand. She (he?) is wearing a bloody flannel shirt as a cape, trailing in the dirt by more than half.

“Fertilize,” the others echo in a chant. Between them, young, green vines sneak up and wrap around an arm protruding from the body pile. They cover it completely and then yank it below the soft top layer of soil with a crunch of bone and soft tissue.

Shuddering, Chris decides that the gnomes are just fine.

As he steps into the bedroom, Peter just finished unwrapping Beth carefully from the thick blanket she was wrapped in to stave off cold porcelain. He looks up. “That was fast.”

“I think Stiles might have a cult of tiny, murderous fae living in her yard.”

Peter snorts. “Bodies?”

“The ground is eating them.”

That gives even Peter a moment’s pause, and Chris can’t quite resist adding, “While the gnomes are doing something that might be a fertility dance and a victory party rolled into one.”

Peter frowns.

“They took trophies.”

Peter hesitates, then opens his mouth, but before he can say anything, Stiles blindly slaps upward at his face, attempting to cover his mouth and smacking the side of his jaw instead. “Shhhh, baby’s sleeping. Stay outta the yard till noon, gnome parties end in orgies.”

With that little conversational gem, she drops her hand, curls further around the baby and drifts off again, this time seemingly for good. Her breathing slows to something deep and calm. Beth snuffles into her and then stills, too.

Over their still forms, Chris meets Peter’s eyes and mouths, orgies?

Peter wiggles his eyebrows and then, unceremoniously takes off his jeans and makes to slip into bed, too. Chris halts him with a hiss, pointing at the bloody… everything of the other man. Stiles will kill them both if they ruin her heirloom quilt.

With a sigh, Peter kicks at the pile of his jeans and turns to head to the bathroom instead. On a string, Chris follows.

Chris leans against the sink, watching the ‘wolf climb into the shower, turning it on full blast without caring around the temperature and scrubbing vigorously.

Letting his gaze blur and trail, Chris asks, before he can think better of it, “Are you staying?”

Even through the pebbled glass of the half-closed shower door, Peter’s glare screams volumes about Chris’ apparent intelligence.

Still, the other man answers in words, too. “Obviously. It’d take fire to get me away from her again, now.”

Coming from Peter, that means – too many things to unpack. Fire. It’s the only thing that ever could stop Peter Hale. Apart from a single word from Stiles, that is.

And now that he has her, now that he finally has what his wolf must have wanted for years –

Yes. Fire.

Chris will give his life to make sure that never happens.

“Are you?”

There is an excuse about a hunt further North, about a possible wendigo already halfway out his mouth, when he stops. “I want to,” he confesses, instead.

“But?”

Peter turns off the water, roughly wipes his limbs off and steps out of the shower, reaching for a towel. Chris offhandedly passes him one before turning to study the tiles by the sink. They’re very… green. The entire bathroom screams seventies décor.

“But it’s too easy.”

“I thought Stiles already informed you about all the ways it wasn’t?” the other man drawls, scrubbing his hair dry. “Is dementia setting in, old man?”

“Not the fight,” he corrects, not bothering to rise to the bait. It’s a taunt made to distract, to confuse, an invitation to play. He’s too tired to bother. “Everything else. You, me, Stiles and a baby, in a cottage in the woods, living happily every after? Come on, Peter, you know better.”

“Why would I?”

“People like us don’t get endings like that.”

They end bloody, always, swords through their guts or knives along their throats, fire or water or a hail of bullets and claws. They end ugly, because they are ugly. He tries to make it worth it, these days, to use his ugly life so good people can have good lives, to protect instead of stain but Beth’s status as an orphan is proof enough that he’s bad at it.

Peter’s on him in a second, bending him back over the sink in a way that presses his hip into porcelain, painfully, while putting him on the back foot. He has no leverage like this, tries anyway, gets slammed back down, bruises shooting down to his bones. He hisses and Peter snarls in his face.

“And why the fuck not? Because we haven’t bled enough? Haven’t fought enough? Haven’t lost enough? Because we’re not worth it? Because we’re monsters?”

With one last snarl, Peter abruptly releases him, shoving backwards. “For someone who claims to despise his father, you sure spew a lot of his rhetoric, Christopher.”

Cheap blow, hitting hard. Chris licks his lips, bites down hard. Tastes blood. He wants to argue. But –

“Because I don’t deserve it.”

Between one heartbeat and the next, the fight drains out of Peter, replaced instead by an old weariness. He chuckles, quiet and bone dry. “You poor fucker. What was it Stiles said? Dirty hands and dry eyes? All we do deserve is each other. And even if we don’t, I’m still taking it. Because I want it. And so do you. Stop agonizing, Chris, and accept that we’re all selfish here. We want to be happy more than we care about the rest of the world. So let it burn.”

Fire again.

He says that like it’s easy.

Like Chris has ever known anything but the slow-seeping despair inside his own head. He doesn’t get what he wants. Not ever. He’s known that since he left Peter behind the first time.

And yet –

And yet, here Peter is, isn’t he?

He shakes his head.

“Let’s just go to bed. We can deal with everything else tomorrow.”

Peter nods and, still naked, leads the way.

Chris looks.

+

By morning, the yard is strewn with naked gnomes sleeping in piles. The bodies are gone. Chris packs his bag with decades worth of efficiency, puts all his guns back in their places in the truck, grabs his keys and gently pulls the front door closed behind himself.

He skirts the ash piles and climbs into the driver’s seat.

Puts his hands on the wheel, the key in the ignition.

Seatbelt on.

Hands back on the wheel.

The jeans aren’t his, stolen from Peter, too short, too wide in the waist.

He shifts his hips.

Hands back on the wheel.

Dawn creeps over the small clearing like a sickness, bleeding everything orange and red. The chimney stack is crooked. All the flowers inside the wards have grown half a foot overnight.

Stiles climbs into the passenger seat in a ratty robe, gaping at the neck, and pulls the door shut behind her with a bang and a hiss at the cold.

Automatically, Chris turns over the engine and cranks the heat.

She sighs, sticking her hands in front of a vent and keeping them there until she stops shaking. He watches the light creep across the ground, bit by bit.

“I’m keeping Beth,” she tells him, after a long time.

“I know.”

“Jesus Guy came through and the papers are too good to waste on a one-shot, you know. Plus, my dad’s face when I show up with his already-sitting-up grandkid will be fucking hilarious.”

John will probably sigh, shrug and wait until Stiles is gone to get absolutely shitfaced.

“I’ll be done with my doctorate in a bit more than a year and they’ll definitely offer me a teaching position right away. Might put an extension on the house. Add a few rooms. Second bathroom.”

She draws a box shape in the air with both hands. “My rent contract has this clause about how I get to keep the land, as long as I maintain it. I think she mostly wants someone to take care of the gnomes and the leyline once she’s gone. So I can just do, whatever, you know.”

If he looks closely enough, he can still see some of the newly grown twigs and blooms move, shifting with rapid growth. Alive and well fed.

“Peter in a tool belt, can you imagine?”

She drops her hands, pulls the robe closed. On her leg, all the blossoms are closed.

“He’s making coffee. And waffles, if we’re lucky. Peter makes divine waffles.”

She’s not looking at him, hasn’t even once. Just staring out the windshield next to him.

“Come inside?”

Fire, Chris thinks.

“Yeah. Okay.”

+

+