“Okay, yeah, it’s a—it’s a beautiful rock, anyone can see that.” As far as totally ordinary mostly-buried hills of granite went, anyway, but what did Stiles know?
“Perfect,” the troll corrected. Their actual name sounded like gravel in a blender and meant something like ‘A determined grain of sand may erode the tallest mountain,’ but this one graciously accommodated for human limitations by letting Stiles call them Sandy.
“Perfect,” Stiles agreed. It was perfect for them, so that counted, sure. “But, I mean—there’s nobody that you can buy it from, you get that, right?”
The troll sat quietly. Stiles didn't have a lot of direct experience with trolls, or, um, any, and everything he'd read had not prepared him for this much quiet sitting. There had been much more focus on powerful and mysterious troll magic, powerful and mysterious troll communities, and a lot of emphasis on their many strengths and very few weaknesses if it came to a fight. There had been a few brief mentions of how trolls had this way of going totally still, with a natural semi-glamour that made human eyes slip over their features and mistake them for true stone, but Stiles would have appreciated a little warning as to how disconcerting it was, and how it would complicate his efforts to hold a conversation with one. He wasn't even sure how much stillness was normal troll behavior and how much was just Sandy being Sandy, the way they were deliberate and methodical and sat and turned their thoughts over and around to examine from every angle before acting. It kind of made Stiles want to tear his hair out. “I was told that this was the way of things in human lands,” Sandy said.
“That is not untrue,” Stiles said carefully. “However, there is a special circumstance for spaces like this one, which are communal: everybody agrees that no one person owns it, so anyone can visit and enjoy it when they want to, and nobody has to fight.”
Sandy digested that for a while. “So it is owned by the tribe,” they said. “The human tribe may all come appreciate perfect stone, and none may trade rights without consulting all.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s accurate,” Stiles said. “It’s not just a human tribe, though, it’s everyone who lives in the city—or the borough, maybe, I’m not sure. And the park is open for anyone outside the tribe, too, even tourists. That’s what ‘park’ means.”
Sandy made a noise like grating pavement. “Except Park Place, and Park Avenue, and park cars. Very different.”
“Okay, yes, I can see how that would be frustrating, humans are bad about making the same sound mean different things. It’s one thing that ‘park’ means, ‘open to all.’ During posted hours. Subject to local, state, and federal laws, as well as Human Neutral designated enforcement of the Schwarzwald Convention.” Specificity was important, he’d learned.
“Open to all,” Sandy ruminated. “Owned by some.” They checked to make sure they had it right so far and that Stiles was still following.
“Yes,” he said, and reiterated an earlier point, hoping it would stick now: “So it might not be the best to claim stone-right in the trollish tradition on this particular rock, because park property is open to the public, and defending it against challengers doesn’t really work with—”
“Visiting is okay, if claim is acknowledged,” Sandy interrupted. “Who defends?”
“Um. The cops, maybe? But not really, not in the way that you mean it.” Stiles tried, “If there were something big, like a demon invasion, or aliens falling out of the sky, a bunch of us would get together and defend it along with the rest of the city, but—”
Sandy was pointing at a discreet white sign off the side of the nearest path, over a patch of dirt being re-seeded. ‘Keep Off,’ it said. Stiles squinted at it, and back at Sandy.
“Someone defends,” they repeated.
“Uh.” Stiles recalibrated. “The Parks Department? I guess that….” Sandy waited patiently. “Actually, that could work, I know a guy—” Mike, part-satyr; there had been a thing with a nāgiṇī a few years ago, but he was an okay dude “—And actually, there might be precedent, I know there used to be a dryad copse in Central Park, maybe we could use the same—” He broke off as Sandy stood up and the ground shook a little under their feet. “Yeah, alright, okay. Let’s go.”
An interminable amount of bureaucracy mitigated by negotiation of favors later, Stiles left Sandy and Mike with their heads together earnestly discussing Manhattan’s Greatest Rocks Accessible to the Public, finally caught a fucking Q train back over the East River and down to Prospect Park, through the ever-encroaching line of juice bars that marked the end of prohibitively expensive gentrification, and trooped over a few blocks to the Caribbean place Frankie liked. Sure enough, his mentor was there, halfway through a plate of something meaty and a beer, cackling with laughter along with his granddaughter Emma, who was Stiles’s age, a slightly older woman with wavy brown hair and a wicked grin who Stiles also recognized, and a petite redhead he didn’t know who looked like she could kill him with a shoe without messing up her make-up.
Still, Stiles didn’t hesitate to collapse dramatically into the last empty chair and let his messenger bag thunk heavily to the floorboards. “You are a cruel man,” he accused Frankie.
Frankie threw his head back and laughed again. “It’s good for ya, kid. Shonda had Yankees tickets; what was I gonna do, say no?”
“You could have gone,” Stiles shot back.
“Yeah, maybe, I could have,” Frankie said thoughtfully, and Stiles braced himself. “But I didn’t want to! Ha! That’s the best part of having an apprentice!”
Stiles covered his face and groaned. Central Park was such a thorny mess of interrelated rights and territories vital to so many supernatural people and creatures that it was almost a full-time job by itself, but Shonda and Frankie went way back, so Stiles had worked with her a lot over the years, especially since her last apprentice joined a pack in Canada while Stiles was commuting to Manhattan for classes at CUNY a few days a week anyway and her new apprentice, Margot, was still a kid. It was good experience for him, and the pay wasn’t bad; he had a handful of perfectly spherical gemstone orbs for one day’s work, plus a gift card to Target from Mike, but it was a lot of responsibility to navigate the delicate house of cards built from pre-existing treaties even without the potential need to pacify a troll.
The dark-haired woman next to him leaned closer. “My mom pulls the same shit,” Laura said sympathetically. “I’ve been to more fucking pack meets in the last two years than she has in the last ten.”
“And it’s good for you too, missy,” Frankie said, waggling his finger. “Everybody who’s anybody already knows Talia Hale.”
Emma smiled serenely while Laura rolled her eyes. “Speaking of knowing people, Stiles, this is Lydia Martin.”
“Hey, nice to meet you,” he said, leaning across the table for a handshake.
“Likewise,” she said, with a sharp, professional smile. As he sat back down her head cocked, eyes frankly appraising, like he was a puzzle piece who didn’t quite fit. That seemed unwarranted, to Stiles; he was pretty run-of-the-mill, as Emissaries went, and she was the one with the distinct aura of death curled like a cloak around her shoulders.
A waitress stopped by, and Stiles ordered a burger and one of the bright blue specialty drinks that Emma recommended. “How did it go with the troll?” she asked Stiles when the server had gone.
“The troll?” Lydia asked, “Was there a troll here?”
“Nah, not here,” Stiles said, “Manhattan,” pausing to grin, because the only way to survive Frankie’s sense of humor was to adopt it. “The skyscrapers are built on really solid stone, with some interesting mix-ins and magical properties; always popular with Druegar. They think it’s the schist,” he added earnestly.
Laura smacked him on the back of the head. “Puns are the lowest form of humor,” she said.
“Geology puns are lower than most,” Emma said gravely. “The bedrock, even.”
“Gneiss one,” Stiles approved.
“Faultless,” she agreed. They traded a fist bump while Frankie chuckled.
“If we could get back to the troll,” Lydia said dryly.
“Yeah, no, sorry. It was fine. Good, even,” Stiles said, rubbing the back of one hand on his forehead. “Sandy’s going to sing some repairs at the stone foundations of the Cloisters, and the Parks Department agreed to install a plaque on the rock in Central Park to acknowledge the claim.” Lydia shot an incredulous look at Laura, who just shook her head, smiling.
“A plaque! Ha!” Frankie crowed. “Last time a troll tried to claim stone-right in a city this size, eighty people died. A plaque!”
Stiles shot up in his seat. “Eighty people! You didn’t tell me that.”
Frankie waved off his distress. “And good thing, too, see? It woulda made you worry more, and you did just fine.”
“It makes me worry what else you haven’t warned me about,” Stiles grumbled, but cautious pride sat warm and bright in his chest. “It was mostly Sandy’s idea, I just brought in Mike and remembered what you said about those dryads. Sandy’s technically going to be a Parks Department intern for the next hundred years or so, till the egg hatches.”
“An intern,” Emma murmured. “For jurisdictional clan membership, oh—I’m totally stealing that.”
“I know, right? We should use it all the time,” Stiles said. “The more people we have working for the city, the easier it is to get anything done.”
“You do realize that makes you sound like the mafia, right,” Lydia pointed out. Stiles, Frankie, and Emma shared a look.
“Ninety percent’a this job is listenin to people and makin them listen to each other,” they said together, in Frankie’s exaggerated accent, and broke up laughing.
“Barely any racketeering and murder, these days,” Frankie assured her.
“My dad’s a retired cop,” Stiles said. “We don’t really do anything illegal, if we can help it, it’s just that there’s some things human systems aren’t equipped to handle.”
“Who’s going to sort it out when a garuda gets an apartment because it has roof access, but there’s a hulder keeping the rooftop garden?” Emma said. “If nobody wants a fight, there has to be someone neutral, someone who knows everyone and understands what they all need, and that’s us.”
“They’re dating now, by the way,” Stiles interjected gleefully, “I told you they just bickered so much because they wanted to jump each other.”
Emma rolled her eyes. “Nobody ever disagreed with you, Stiles, it was super obvious.” Laura snorted into the last of her drink – another one of the blue things – but who knew what that was about.
Stiles turned back to Lydia, who was watching them all with guarded interest. “Where are you coming from? Pretty much any big city has some kind of emissary network to keep the peace.”
“Boston, for the last few years,” Lydia said, “Cambridge, to be precise.”
“Cambridge has a council, right? Like Queens?” Stiles checked.
“Yeah,” Emma confirmed, “All the bonded Emissaries meet every few weeks, with the one or two local freelancers like us.”
Lydia shrugged. “I knew there was something at the chicken place in Inman square,” she said. “I avoided it; I wanted to focus on school for a few years.”
Stiles was a little surprised; it seemed like the veil magic was something in her nature, not easily ignored. “What changed your mind?” he asked.
Lydia huffed in remembered annoyance. “My ex’s overprotective alpha,” she said, but her tone was shaded with fondness, and she couldn’t keep from darting a glance at Laura with a faint smile. Stiles raised his eyebrows in question.
Laura grinned back at her. “Derek asked me to check up on her when she got buried in thesis work last spring, so I asked her out to lunch. I’m going to have to do something nice for him.”
“Derek,” Stiles said, casually, so casually, painfully casually. “You don’t mean—"
Laura’s pitying smirk perfectly communicated how fooled she was (not at all) and how impressed she was by his attempt (even less). “Yes, my baby brother, you doofus. Lydia’s from Beacon Hills.”
“Oh,” Stiles said, not at all strangled. Lydia’s eyes narrowed dangerously.
“Jesus, kiddo, keep it together,” Frankie said, laughing into his beer.
Stiles swallowed. “How—um. So, he’s—”
“Nope!” Laura cut him off cheerfully. “You can go to the barbeque at the house tomorrow and talk to my mom, if you want to gossip. Now, Lydia and I are going out with Cora and Rosa tonight; are you joining us?”
The waitress came back around with a receipt for Laura and a plate of food for Stiles, which he was happy to be distracted by. The blue drink was good; the fries were perfect. “I will never turn down your mom’s cookies, but I’m going to pass on tonight,” Stiles decided. “Gotta bring my dad dinner, and—new moon, you know, it’s good for wards.” He didn’t strictly have to get those done, but all the Hale girls clubbed like it was a competitive sport, and anyway, it was going to drive him crazy not interrogating Lydia about—about her home town. Emma rolled her eyes, but didn’t say anything.
Frankie, though, eyed him slyly. “That means you’re stopping by Len’s place to touch up the sunlight charms, right,” he said, because he was the worst.
Stiles shuddered. “Yeah, of course,” he agreed, as neutrally as possible.
Frankie laughed, loud and long. “Oh, I’m gonna miss you when you set out on your own, Stiles.”
“You just like having two trained apprentices, so you never have to do anything yourself,” Stiles teased. He tried to avoid thinking about moving away, leaving home; he’d lived in Brooklyn his whole life, born and raised and gone to school there, studied with Frankie since he was eight, afternoons in Prospect Park. He knew the rhythms of the borough and the city, the crackling hum of its magic and its people. If sometimes he took the rattling jeep out of storage and out to Bear Mountain just to feel air and earth that was slightly less tamed; if he went out to the Hale house upstate and felt greedy for the unbroken wind through the trees, the brightness of the stars; if he wanted to know what it was like to stand in the wild ocean, to climb mountains so high the air got thin and the moon felt close enough to touch—so what? Maybe he’d get to travel, someday. There would be, you know, vacations, once his apprenticeship was over and he had a permanent place with a pack, clan, kiss, copse, or territory. He was just restless.
“Sure, that too,” Frankie agreed easily, toasting with his glass. Stiles had lost the thread of what they were talking about, so he ate some fries.
Laura flicked his ear as she stood up to go. “Alright, squirt, we’ll see you tomorrow. Frankie, Emma, always a pleasure; you’re welcome too, of course, if you’re free.” They exchanged polite goodbyes with her and Lydia, and the three Emissaries settled in to finish their meal together.
Stiles walked home under the streetlights, much later, past shuttered shops and crowds of bored smokers, past restaurants and laundromats and leafy brownstone side streets. The local bodega cat had scales, in the right light, if you knew how to look, but she was still happy to see him, chirped and pushed her head up into his hand.
He looked up at the sky, hoping for stars, but the bright lights of the city reflected off the clouds.
Stiles woke up under a tree. The woods were silent, cool and damp, the ground soft with leaves and moss except for the knob of a root digging into his ribs. A thick mist shrouded and muffled everything around him, set the limits of the world at a few spare outlines of supplicant trees respecting the spreading crown of the oak at his back. A flash of motion caught his attention in of the stillness. A black wolf emerged from the grey dawn, cocked a shaggy head in his direction, blinked inhumanly bright eyes.
Stiles woke up under the same stained plaster ceiling he’d fallen asleep underneath, in the little closet of a room off a persistently musty kitchen he shared with three other guys in the middle of Bed-Stuy. “Huh,” he said.
In between stuffing his face with cookies, he asked Alpha Hale whether she knew any alphas with the full shift and a Nemeton who needed an emissary. “Not that I know of, dear,” Talia replied, patting the last of a sizeable hill of hamburger patties into shape. “You should ask Derek; he may know someone on the west coast that I don’t, especially anyone young.”
“If you think he wouldn’t mind me bugging him,” Stiles said doubtfully.
Talia snorted, which wasn’t any kind of answer. “I’m sure he’d be happy to talk. He misses you.” Her hand stilled on the patty, and she set it gently on the mountain of others before turning to give him her full attention. “Stiles,” she said, “Are you asking for you?”
He broke off half a cookie, then a quarter, then a single chocolate chip, not meeting her eyes. “I’m not sure,” he said, which was… true. One ambiguous dream might not mean anything. “I don’t know.”
The big farmhouse sink had taps you could turn on with your elbows; handy for a family who had to deal with blood and claws on a pretty regular basis. Talia washed her hands and came to sit next to him at the battered wood table.
“It’s natural to be nervous, Stiles. This is an important step for you, and you don’t know where it will take you, or whether it will work out. But you’ve trained for this. You’re ready. And no matter where you go, you’ll always have a place here. I want you to know that. We’ll help in any way we can.” She patted his arm as she stood up. “Now, you better put that cookie out of its misery. Clean kills only in this house, you know the drill.”
She took the tray of meat outside, where most of the adult pack members and Stiles’s dad were drinking beer in scattered Adirondack chairs and enjoying the warm summer day.
Stiles cleaned up the crumbs he’d left and ate another cookie, or two or three. His eyes roved around the familiar kitchen, laid out and appointed fit to feed a small army of humans or about fifty werewolves. The Hale pack came close to that, between Talia’s siblings and kids and their families, the dozen or so omegas she’d accepted over the years, and all their associated kids or partners, wolf and human. The whole pack didn’t assemble more than a few times a year, but almost every weekend had people in and out of the alpha’s house. Most of those barbeques included a few guests, either drifting in from the city like Stiles or visiting specifically to consult with the Hale pack and their library.
He’d met Derek for the first time on an afternoon like this, newly adopted into Frankie’s tutelage and literally vibrating with excitement between his new mentor and his mom despite the long hours under Frankie’s tree learning to channel his energy into the ground. Cora was closer his age, but she was glued to Laura’s footsteps, who was unfathomably older and impossibly cool, and Derek—Derek had ridiculous ears and Day-Glo board shorts and just wanted someone to play catch with (“Not fetch, Stiles, though if you want me to throw a stick for you—”) so of course he’d wanted to stay with Derek, of course that had been the best part of the day, even when Cora had gotten bored of pretending to be interested in adult things and joined them; she wasn’t as careful with her strength, so Stiles had ended up peppered with bruises, still grinning madly.
But after all their afternoons and evenings in the woods or the backyard or the kitchen or the library, Derek went clear across the country to Berkeley for college as soon as Stiles was old enough to be driving himself upstate to the Hale pack land (“Derek’s flapping his little baby bird wings,” Laura had liked to coo; “escaping us,” Cora hissed, and maybe there was something to that, the stifling, oppressive love of a huge family, even before the painful sadness that brought them all up short once Derek was old enough that it mattered when he went too long without shaving, even if people meant well when they told him he looked just like his dad). They saw each other over the summers, at least, sometimes holidays, for a while… but then. Stiles followed the gossip – it was impossible to avoid it, not that he tried very hard – so he knew how the last few years had been for Derek, that he’d joined a hunt with his host pack for a feral alpha who was attacking humans, that he’d defended some kids, that he’d ripped the guy’s throat out, that he was carving out a territory of his own in the sticks of northern California and even though by all accounts it was going pretty well, it took time, he was busy, new territories were delicate, he wouldn’t be home this summer, maybe for the winter solstice but maybe not, oh, he had to leave unexpectedly yesterday, he was sorry he missed you—
Stiles sighed. They hadn’t even talked on the phone for more than a year.
As a Hale alpha with the support of the more established alphas in the area, Derek had picked up an experienced, well-regarded emissary with no trouble at all. Which was great. For him. Really. It was especially important to have a strong, trustworthy emissary with a new pack. His betas were his first priority, as they should be. Maybe he’d even start dating one of them, or—or someone. Derek had his whole life laid ahead of him, was the point, all figured out, and it had nothing to do with Stiles; there was no room for him. Stiles never daydreamed about suavely swanning in on a smooth tide of magic and knowledge and diplomacy and sweeping Derek off his feet with all his super cool supernatural power and lore. That would be—that would be ridiculous.
With a pang in his heart, Stiles realized he would have to let those dreams go for real, now. A different destiny awaited him. He’d been Called.
You know. Probably.
He grabbed a soda from the fridge and wandered out the back door, set out for a slow meander around the house and the border where the lawn met the trees. The Hale pack had their own emissary, of course, but it wouldn’t hurt to double-check the wards, and he’d been setting his own for years: hiding the house and occupants from those who mean harm, against hexes, against scrying, against termites, against fire.
Stiles dreamed again that night, but it was, um. Unrelated. Soft black hair and a half-quirked smile; tan skin pressed close, slick with sweat; lips and stubble against his neck, dragging against his racing pulse; long, blunt fingers splayed possessively against the dark trail of hair on Stiles’s stomach, sliding down—
He woke up with his mouth open, panting, eyes screwed shut. “Hng,” he said.
Sunday morning brunch was an event in Brooklyn, like it was for the rest of the city, but like for almost everything else that millions of New Yorkers decided to do simultaneously on a regular schedule, the systems and services adapted to meet demand. Since particular demands varied almost person to person, the experiences available differed just as much: familiar to exotic, boozy or kid-friendly, easy or greasy or complicated. If you didn’t want to stand for hours outside the hottest new Ethiopian-Scandinavian pop-up that only seated twelve, you either went with Laura, who would find a way to be invited to skip the line and be thanked for it, or you went before nine. If you were hungover, there was always a corner market egg sandwich, or a place with outside seating that was marginally quieter.
If it was just Stiles and his dad, they went to Ollie’s, the same little corner diner they’d gone to for the last twenty years with the red and white striped awning, where Stiles could get waffles and curly fries and John’s mess of eggs and sausage came with spinach. The two of them had had a lot of conversations across the scuffed wooden tables: about staying in the city for college and dating girls and the theoretical possibility of dating boys, and maybe one boy in particular (“No, not Derek! Garrett. Why would—how—Derek? Derek. I don’t see how—” “Okay, Stiles, okay. Calm down. My mistake. Is Derek still joining us for brunch next week?” “Yeah, of course, him and Cora. Why?”) The thing with Garrett hadn’t really gone very far, like any of his relationships with girls; even if he could imagine telling someone who didn’t know that magic was real that he, personally, had some pretty cool extranormal abilities, and he couldn’t go to that dance because he had stuff to do for his extracurricular magic job on the equinox, he never got to the point where he felt comfortable with anyone he dated at brunch with his dad.
So there had been a lot of brunches with Stiles and his dad. Occasionally they were joined by friends from high school, or a friend from college classes, or Frankie and Emma, or stray supernaturally-inclined people like sundry Hales floating around the city, but more often that not, it was just the two of them.
That meant that when his dad cleared his throat and Stiles looked up from where he had been sort of stabbing the brown crust of his waffle – gone soggy with syrup – more vindictively than was probably warranted, he saw his dad making a face that Stiles was very used to seeing, across exactly the same table or one nearby.
“You have something to tell me,” his dad said.
Stiles grimaced. “Maybe not,” he said. “If I were sure that something was something for sure, then—then I would have something. But I probably don’t.”
“Stiles,” his dad said.
“Okay. Uh. Hypothetically,” he started. His dad groaned and put his head in his hands. “Hey!”
“How bad is it? Should I start guessing? Are you pregnant?”
“Hey, it happened to Frankie.”
Stiles gave him his bitchiest face. “He had a uterus! Nothing about that was supernatural.” He reconsidered. “Mostly.”
“So reassuring,” his dad said dryly. “Just tell me if it happens, okay?”
“Moving on,” Stiles declared, but he stalled out in the face of his actual… it wasn't a problem, exactly. Concern. “Do you remember when we talked about what I would do when my training was over?”
John put down his coffee. “Really? Already? Frankie’s kicking you out of the nest?”
“No, Dad. I mean—probably not. He’s not. I just.” Stiles’s fingers twisted together, knuckles tense and knobby.
“You want to leave,” John guessed, expression much more complicated than surprise.
“I don’t know if it’s right to say… want to. Even if I did have a dream, which I may or may not have, it might not mean anything, and I might not have to go anywhere. So it’s not worth worrying about.”
John sat back in his chair. “You’ve been Called.”
“Yeah,” Stiles admitted. “I think so.”
It was his dad’s turn to avoid eye contact, and Stiles poked at the remains of his waffle some more while John cleared his throat, drank some more coffee, surreptitiously wiped his eyes.
“Well,” John said. “Find a town where they’re hiring retired police captains. I’m bored as hell at this new corporate job.” His voice was scratchy. “Preferably somewhere warm, that would be good. I don’t want to spend six months out of the year shoveling snow.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Stiles promised. They both knew it didn’t work like that, that the mysterious Batsignal from the spark that gave Stiles his magic had already decided where he belonged, but Stiles would have promised anything, in that moment, in return for his dad telling him that Stiles wouldn’t have to be alone, that he wasn’t leaving everyone behind.
After another round of manly throat-clearing, Stiles found himself rubbing his thumb across a perfectly smooth stone in his pocket, the size of a marble. “Hey, check out this trollgem,” he said, holding it out in the palm of his hand. It was green and bright, shot through with flecks of gold, and Stiles had found that he just liked looking at it. “Frankie said they can be good focuses for a spark. Focuses? Foci? It’s a focus.”
John whistled, low. “This is pretty different from your usual sticks and powder. What is it, emerald?” Stiles shrugged. It was beautiful, and it resonated comfortably with his magic, and anything more than that was hard to say. “It seems kind of, I don’t know. Familiar?”
“Really?” Stiles tilted his head and squinted. “I don’t see it.”
Stiles woke up in the grey mist, so thick he could barely see the outline of shivering branches above his head. The air thickened around him, smothering, suffocating—
He woke up in a cold sweat, coughing in heaving breaths, choking, curled around his aching lungs.
As soon as he could stand, he started throwing clothes in a duffel bag, stopping only to send texts as they occurred to him. Had another dream, I have to go today, he told his dad, and to Emma, Can you introduce Tiriaq to the Red Hook pack and emissary this afternoon? It’s just lunch at their place.
Stiles wtf it’s 3am, she sent back, then a minute later, the Ijiraat, right? I can be there. Are you okay?
He sat heavily on his bed, phone in his hand, and felt the fog of the last few days fall away around him, leaving behind a disconnection from the familiar walls and mess around him, a bubbling, churning feeling of displacement, a sharp urgency. I’ve been Called, he told her.
Stop by for breakfast, she demanded. We’ll miss you.
It was almost a reasonable hour of the day when Stiles finally made it to the lot where the jeep was kept in storage. He was expecting to meet his dad there, but there was another man with him, with much more expensive tailoring.
“Hey, Dad,” Stiles said, “And Peter. For some reason. Not that it’s not always a joy, you understand; I’m just curious.”
“I hope you’re not under the impression that your farewell text was satisfactory,” Peter said.
“Be nice,” John said mildly, though it wasn’t clear which of them he was directing it to.
Peter cleared his throat and dramatically posed with his phone. “To: the Hale Family Group Chat, New York Branch; From: Emissary-Journeyman Mieczyslaw ‘Stiles’ Stilinski.” He paused, with an expectant look at Stiles.
“God, Peter, fuck off,” Stiles groaned.
“That’s not what this says at all,” Peter corrected facetiously. “No, it says, ‘Setting out today to answer a Call. I will miss you all. Much love.’” Peter’s disappointed pout was aimed at the phone, then at Stiles, then shared with John, who rolled his eyes.
“Oh no,” he said, “Keep me out of this.”
“I didn’t know what to say!” Stiles protested.
Peter sighed with regret that might have been genuine and sympathy that definitely wasn’t. “Yes, I suppose you could have been more blithe. ‘Ta-ta forever,’ perhaps.”
“Peter’s offered to go with you, since I can’t,” John said, blessedly getting to the point in a way that could have easily taken Peter another hour.
“Consider me a diplomatic escort,” Peter said. “And, additionally: a second driver would increase both speed and safety, since the call seems to be urgent.” He eyed the jeep warily. “Or I could requisition you a replacement vehicle.”
“It would be no trouble at all.”
“Honestly. I swear.”
Peter raised his eyebrows, the picture of innocent attention.
“You can come with me, okay, if you lay off my jeep. Roscoe is non-negotiable.”
“Excellent.” Peter clapped his hands together, radiating smugness. “My bags are already in the back.” He hopped up into the passenger side and started running his hands over things, like werewolves did to be comfortable or obnoxious. Peter was a multi-tasker.
Stiles rubbed his temple and sighed.
After helping him load bags, his dad clapped him on the shoulder and hauled him in for a long hug. “You’ll do great, kid. I know it,” he said. “Keep me updated, okay? Let me know where you are, how it’s going.”
“I’ll check in with you every night and turn on Find My Friends,” Stiles promised, “And if I kill Peter, I won’t leave evidence.”
John smiled, misty-eyed. “That’s my boy.”
The jeep ground ominously as it went over the bump at the entrance to the lot, and Stiles pet the dashboard soothingly as Peter grimaced.
Stiles shot him a look out of the corner of his eye. “Not too late to bail,” he said. “I can drop you off at the house.”
“Perish the thought,” Peter said. “I am capable of sacrificing my personal comfort for the good of the—on the orders of my alpha.”
“You mean, Talia would eviscerate you if you ditched me.” Stiles was oddly cheered at the thought.
Peter’s shrug was unconcerned at the accusation. “You know my sister.”
“What are you going to do when we get there? There’s no guarantee that there’s anyone you’ve met before.”
“Well, in that case, first I would threaten everyone in your new pack with the full wrath of the Hales and our allies should they in any way insufficiently appreciate you. Then, once they are adequately cowed, I’ll ensure that you find someplace to live that isn’t entirely abysmal. Eventually, I suppose, I’ll buy a car or a plane ticket and leave.”
Stiles snuck another look at him as a smile crept onto his face. “Wow, you might want to be careful, Peter, or I might get the impression you actually care.”
“Lies and slander,” Peter said easily, settling back in the passenger seat and closing his eyes. “You’d better not repeat it; no one will ever believe you.”
The transition from dilapidated blocks with check-cashers to sleek postmodern condos on the way to Manhattan was a familiar one. Flatbush Avenue was still dotted with some of the low stone buildings that defined Brooklyn fifty or a hundred years ago, but the city was always consuming itself, digesting its own tail for new real estate, old parks and squat bricks and falafel carts facing off with gleaming glass and steel. As much as he’d thought about going somewhere new, even though he’d spent the morning packing and saying goodbye, it wasn’t until he was in the jeep with his bags in the back that it really sunk in for Stiles that he was leaving, that he wouldn’t get weird Greek cookies from the pizza place any more, that the taco truck would make the rounds without him; he’d miss the holiday markets, and the stubborn city trees and cheerful pot gardens curling up to sleep for the winter, and there was a library book in his messenger back he’d have to mail back, and brunch with his dad, he’d had his last brunch at Ollie’s with his dad. His chest felt tight with all the memories he had of all these streets overlaid, and Stiles took in every detail with suddenly greedy eyes, committing it all to memory, the turbulent, raucous mix of people and places he didn’t know when he would ever see again. By the time they hit the Manhattan Bridge, Stiles was almost hyperventilating under the weight of the life he was leaving behind.
Peter’s hand on his arm pulled him back from the edge of being overwhelmed. “Don’t be dramatic,” he chastised, which was rich, coming from him. “You’ll be back. No matter how desolate your destination, I’m sure they’ll have an airport.”
“You couldn’t just let me have a moment, could you,” Stiles said, wry, once his breathing was under control.
“A moment, sure, but not a panic attack,” Peter said. “Be considerate, Stiles. It’s much too early for me to drive.”
Stiles evaluated his own level of tiredness vs. caffeination. “I’m good for a few hours,” he decided. “Then we can stop for coffee and switch.”
“I will put mountain ash around the stereo, Peter, so help me gods,” Stiles threatened, halfway through Pennsylvania.
“Not if you don’t want me to show your new pack a folder of your most embarrassing baby pictures,” Peter shot back.
“You devious bastard! How did you even—” Stiles stopped. It took him a second before he realized what had caught his attention. “You know I’m not abandoning you guys, right? It isn’t about me leaving the Hale pack.”
Peter didn’t immediately blow off his concern, which meant it was a good thing Stiles had said something. “Obviously,” Peter said. “You were never bound. I suppose we all just… hoped. Emma will probably stay in the city and someday take over Prospect Park from your mentor, but you—you always liked coming out to the woods. It felt right.”
Stiles swallowed around the lump in his throat. “Yeah,” he said, admitted. Agreed. “Yeah.”
After a few minutes of quiet, Peter turned up the radio, which was hooked up to his phone with an FM transmitter, since the jeep was too old for even a CD player. Stiles faced forward and drove.
They switched off every few hours, past dairy farms and state forests and Amish buggies. They made it all the way through Pennsylvania and most of Ohio before they stopped to find a hotel in a little town disconcertingly identical to dozens of the other little towns they’d passed through that day. Stiles was the furthest from home he’d ever been, besides one trip to Disney World when he was a kid.
“So, it seems we’re headed west,” Peter said that night, over Indian.
Stiles blinked at him. He hadn’t even thought about it; it had just felt right. “Yeah,” he said. “I guess that’s… easy.” Interstate 80, which they’d picked up in New Jersey, was laid out east-west all the way across the country. If the Call kept tugging him west, they could stay on the same road until it stopped, though there was no telling how far that would be: Chicago, Iowa, Nebraska—presumably there were forests in Wyoming? Stiles didn’t know. Maybe he would get the chance to find out.
“Perhaps I’ll visit my nephew, if we get close to California,” Peter mused.
Stiles felt a stab of longing, and ruthlessly crushed it. Derek already had an emissary. Stiles had to move on.
The next three days were exhausting. Long, slogging hours in the car spent hurtling through bleak expanses of green and brown whose novelty quickly faded and diners and motels and countless identical strip malls all blending together—and quirky roadside attractions Stiles posted to Instagram; a piece of peanut butter pie in Iowa after a brutal crawl through a construction zone that was so perfect he actually cried; the abrupt profusion of cowboy hats almost overnight, which Peter continued to deride even after he bought one; and vistas so spectacular Stiles had to press against the windows, pull over just to take it all in, beautiful enough to make his throat ache. The string around his heart pulled inevitably, inexorably, to the point where Stiles could barely stop at night, despite his weariness, if it weren’t for the promise of dreams. Bright eyes and whispering branches called to him, sang to him when his eyes closed, and he dreamt with the searching feeling of running so fast it was almost flying, up canyons and sloping fields, and lonely howls sent up under the moon, echoing I’m here, I’m here, I need you. Then the golden twilights cut off in suffocating darkness, and Stiles clawed his way back to consciousness to find tear tracks on his cheeks, and it was time to find someplace open for coffee in the predawn grey and get back on the road.
Stiles stepped out of a hotel room in Salt Lake City, the flat valley cradled by snow-capped peaks, and the urgency of the Call made his hands shake. Hurry, it said. Today.
As the interstate started to swing north in the middle of Nevada, Stiles sat uneasy, heart beating faster with trepidation. He was finally close enough to wherever he was going that for the first time, he could feel the pull deviating from the highway, which meant they might have to switch to slower, winding back roads. Looking at a map and attempting a rough triangulation, he thought he might be headed somewhere in Plumas National Forest, the northern Sierras, but it could be Mendocino, closer to the coast, which they would never be able to make before dark. When windswept desert scrub sailed up into dry pines and sharp, rocky slopes scarred by old fires, the road diverged again from the direct line of the pull. The interstate pointed too far south, this time, so they skidded onto a smaller road that went straight west instead, and the tall pines crowded close around the dusty, bug-splattered jeep. They broke through the mountains into the flat valley dense with farms and took the first main road that ran straight north, and Stiles gave up on driving, too distracted, foot on the accelerator inching toward the floorboard. Peter took over, speeding with werewolf reflexes between concerned looks at Stiles, mouth set in a grim line, and Stiles stared out the window, or closed his eyes and breathed deep and focused on the taut string around his heart, his fist clenched around the trollgem.
The mountains loomed to their right, blanketed with evergreens. As they hurtled north, the foothills crept closer and closer. Stiles didn’t want to risk going off-road too soon and ending up in the wrong canyon, so he waited as long as he could, knuckles white, eyes locked on the encroaching tree line over acres and acres of fields, until he thought he recognized the shape of the mountains from a dream. “Take the next road,” he told Peter, “The next canyon, it has to be; we’re so close.”
“Stiles, I don’t think that’s a—”
Peter didn’t ask again. The jeep rattled and shook on the dusty path that ran along an irrigation ditch, but despite the years of city living, Roscoe had been built for a life beyond pavement, and the magic and belief that Stiles and his mother had both poured into didn’t hurt, either. With his hand on the dashboard, Stiles willed a little more speed, and strength, and luck. On the far side of the fields, an access road skirted a dry riverbed, straight up into the hills.
Under the cover of the trees, Stiles sucked in a deep breath. He felt like he was going to vibrate out of his skin. The air tasted right, the way the light filtered through the branches felt right, he was so close. I’m here, he thought desperately, I’m here, I’m here, Where are you? I’m here. All he felt back was hurry, hurry, help, and panic, and pain, in the center of his chest, the suffocating darkness.
“Faster,” he gasped at Peter, “That way, through the trees, go, go, they’re in trouble.” He focused, and slim trunks bent out of the way for them, branches lifted, brambles went flat. Massive roots heaved up from the earth just in time to catch Roscoe’s tires as Peter almost clipped a chasm. Stiles pointed wordlessly as they got closer, at a poisonous gray cloud visible barely hanging over the trees, and Peter headed toward it. They broke through a line of trees into a sudden clearing, and Stiles grabbed the steering wheel from Peter’s grasp, yanking it to the side, just in time to make them slam like an avenging metal angel into a slight, dark-haired woman in printed flower dress.
Stiles bailed out of the jeep as she went flying, the wicked dagger in her hand tumbling harmlessly off Roscoe’s hood. “I really hope you meant to do that,” Peter said, calmly disembarking from the driver’s seat to stand beside him.
“I did,” Stiles said. It wasn’t just the dagger. He could see the roiling weaves of magic, the acrid, toxic thunderstorm, woven around her and through the pack bonds she had access to, the channels of magic that tied an alpha to their betas. She picked herself up, brushing off her knees and hands after an impact that would have shattered normal human bones. “Be careful. She’s a darach.”
“Hmm,” Peter said. He stepped back, looking around the clearing with interest.
“Greetings, Emissary,” the dark druid called, sweet and mocking. She looked to be in her mid-thirties, in a cardigan and sensible shoes.
“Hi,” Stiles said. He cleared his throat. “As guardian of this territory and agent of the Schwarzwald Convention, I hereby accuse you of using forbidden magic with intent to cause harm to people or persons under my protection. I am well within my rights to respond with deadly force.”
“You might as well add ‘interfering with a developing emissary bond,’ ‘corrupting a Nemeton,’ and ‘necromancy’ to the list of charges,” she said. “I was really hoping to be done before you got here.”
His hands spasmed into fists. Bright, hot anger flared, so strong he was shaking with it. This complete stranger was the reason he was just now finding his home? She must have been working for years to destroy half his soul, and he didn’t even know who she was? “What did we ever do to you,” he demanded. “What could ever be worth this?”
“Nothing personal,” she said with a shrug. “You have something I need, that’s all. Two things.” Her hands spread at her sides and her magic hissed and flexed at her fingertips. “Just so you know: after I kill you, I’m going to take them anyway. Then I’ll bring my Kali back to life, and we’ll murder every Argent on the planet.”
Stiles shook his head in disbelief, in denial. “You think you’re the only one who lost someone to those monsters? My mom died; Derek’s dad! We all lost people, but they were stopped. Gerard was brought to justice. The only Argents left swore to the Convention!” He had no real hope of convincing her; there was no reasoning with that kind of madness for vengeance. Her pain was more important to her than anybody else’s, than anybody else. Stiles risked a glance toward the center of the clearing. The awareness of what he would find there was pressing at his mind and heart, but he had to see, to know. There was a tree, a huge tree, his tree, tall and broad and leafy, black bark and crooked limbs and throbbing, aching power. There was a strange vine crawling over the bark, roots digging in, each point a spidering pit of ashy grey infection. And at the base of the tree, there was a man, black hair and broad shoulders, chained in rope of wolfsbane and rowan. His head hung low, probably unconscious, definitely poisoned, but Stiles knew if he could look up, his eyes would be green and gold and beautiful. Peter had picked up the dagger and crept over to his nephew’s side, where he was working at cutting him free.
“Derek,” Stiles said. “Derek Samuel Hale, you open your eyes right now.”
The darach snarled out a spell and flung her arm out to toss a ball of acid green energy in Derek’s direction; Stiles deflected it with a flick of his hand, so that it fizzled out in a circle of blackened grass.
“No,” Stiles said. “Never again.” As he said it, he willed it to be true.
The air crackled and went still. The hair on the back of Stiles’s arms stood on end. “You first, then,” she spat. “Die.”
Stiles dug his feet into the dirt and grass, and reached for the power there reaching for him. It flowed up his legs, pooled in his stomach, stretched out to the tips of his fingers, igniting every nerve along the way, and he felt entirely, wildly alive, filled beyond capacity with living fire, until it must be leaking out of his pores. He dodged her first attack, pivoting on the ball of one foot, and turned the motion into a strike of his own as he swung around. Even with as much of the freely given power of the tree as he could handle, she was strong, maybe stronger than him; it was only his first day in his territory, and she’d stolen the connection to his Alpha, his pack, in addition to the other atrocities she’d committed, the other strength and souls she’d ripped from where they belonged.
But he didn’t need to meet her spell for spell, blow for blow. He twisted under another barrage, ducking low, spinning away, throwing up a shield, a counter-curse, a deflection. Maybe the most important thing he’d learned in New York was to stay aware of all parties with vested interest in a conflict, even though the disagreements there were usually over a negotiating table. The darach was completely alone, here, cut off from the earth, and no matter what she’d done to the pack bonds, she didn’t have enough control over them to make any of the wolves fight with her. But the Nemeton was more than a passive source of power.
There—the darach over-extended in another assault, left herself exposed. Stiles snapped a foot out, caught her in the knee, and she fell to the ground. The Nemeton saw his intent before he had the chance to call, and roots burst from the ground, whipping up to wrap around her wrist and ankle. She managed to keep one hand free, grasped and rotted the one that wrapped around her neck with a command, but she was trapped in place long enough for Stiles to concentrate all his power and channel one command through the trollgem. “Give it back.”
Her agonized scream echoed through the clearing as the stolen fire inside her burned its way out. Not to Stiles—the pack bonds weren’t his yet, even if they weren’t rightly hers, and he couldn’t have handled any more than he’d been given. The Nemeton, though. The Nemeton could take all of it and more. The roots dug into her skin, glowing black, and everything the darach had lied and cursed and murdered for was torn out of her, drained back into the earth. The tree would use it to fix what damage it could.
She was left kneeling on the ground, panting, hollow, with barely enough energy left to sneer. “You can't tell me you wouldn't do the same, if it were him. I could only bring her back with a bond just as strong as ours was. Who are you, to pass judgement on me? We're the same.”
Stiles looked down at her, face unreadable. A little bit of witchlight danced between his fingers, bleeding off the excess power. “If she was worth bringing back, she wouldn't want it like this,” he said. “We've all thought about it. Everybody who's—we've all thought about it. Alphas are easier than most, even. If you had asked—but you didn't. You caused more suffering. You broke your oath.”
“And that's why you're going to kill me,” she scoffed. “Justice, right? Neutrality?”
He smiled back. It wasn’t a nice smile. “I would. I could. You hurt me, and mine, and maybe it is just icing on the cake that the law is on my side too,” he said. He watched her struggle to her feet with the last burning embers of her defiance. “Vengeance over justice isn't the way I want to operate. Magic is all about intent, and I'm already going to have enough work cleaning up what you did here without mucking it up any more. So, I’m going to defer to my Alpha.” He stepped aside. Derek stepped into his place. Her eyes widened in fear.
“Derek,” she said, “Derek, don't—”
His clawed hand shot out and stabbed into her chest in a snapping crunch of bones and muscle. The darach coughed once, bloody foam at her lips, face blank with shock. Derek twisted, yanked. There was a sucking, awful sound, her body fell to the grass, and Derek was left standing with her heart in his claws, staring down at it, face impassive and spattered in blood.
“Gross,” Stiles said. “Hey, Derek, what’s the plural of focus? Is it focuses, or foci?”
“Either is correct, though ‘foci’ is generally preferred for clarity,” Derek said absently, and blinked. He turned his head, letting the heart fall forgotten to the ground, where it was soon covered over by cheerfully greedy roots. “Hey, Stiles. What are you doing here?”
God, Stiles had missed him. “I stepped out for Pop-Tarts, overshot the bodega, and it's a total coincidence I was here to save your life, obviously," Stiles said, rolling his eyes. "Pretty sure you can figure it out, big guy,” he said. He gently placed his hand on Derek’s chest, palm flat above his heart, watching him closely for any sign it was unwelcome. “You Called. You and your Nemeton, and you had better believe we’re going to talk about how nobody knows you have a Nemeton.”
“What—” Derek was adorable when he was confused, but he leaned into Stiles's touch, just a little, automatically, as his concerned gaze drifted to the great black tree, which was practically humming in satisfaction. “Everybody thought it was dead, that it exhausted itself dismantling a relocation center during World War II. I didn't—I never felt it before today. But—” his eyes snapped back to Stiles's, dawning realization mirroring the soft sun breaking through the gathered clouds above them. “Me? Are you sure? I always hoped, but you—”
“Me too,” Stiles said. “Me too.” They stood and smiled at each other, kind of idiotically, but Stiles couldn't even be embarrassed; he'd happily stand there and grin stupidly at Derek smiling back at him all day, any day. And maybe he could. “I’d really like to kiss you, but, uh.” Stiles waved a hand to encompass his general face area, with the minor biohazard.
A handkerchief appeared between them. Derek took it. “Thanks, Peter,” he said, wiping his face, then his hands. “Nice to see you too.”
“Don’t mind me,” Peter said. “I’ll just wait in the car, shall I? I presume we’ll return to what passes for civilization around here soon.” He had his phone out before he even got to his car, undoubtedly texting the rest of the Hales.
Derek and Stiles ignored him. Derek tucked the hankie in his back pocket and glanced out into the trees. “My betas will be here in a few minutes. She blocked the pack sense, but they can find us now. I think you'll like them,” he said, with a tiny, hopeful smile, cautiously proud. “I think you'll like it here. If you stay.” Derek must be able to hear the way Stiles's heart sped up at his look, but he still opened his arms almost hesitantly.
In two steps Stiles had his arms around Derek’s neck, hands in his hair, their bodies pressed together. Derek’s arms went tight around him, and they held each other close.
“Hey,” Stiles said, muffled against his shoulder. He turned his lips into Derek’s neck, pressed a kiss there as Derek's hand slid slowly up and down his back. “Hi.” He pulled back just far enough to bump their noses together and smile, and Derek caught his lips in a kiss, kissed him slow and deep and perfect.
Derek’s voice was warm and rough when they finally came up for air. “Hi, Stiles,” he said. “Welcome home.”