"The Argents are hiring," Scott said, stumbling into the stables. If it were anyone else, the horses would have spooked, but even the animals were used to Scott's sudden appearances and random outbursts by now. Stiles' mottled grey gelding barely nodded his head but his whicker was more of annoyance than surprise.
Stiles glanced over his shoulder at Scott, but before he could ask what Scott was talking about, he caught sight of the strap he'd been looking for. "Hey. Good timing. Can you pass me that?"
"What -- this?" Scott plucked the strap from the hook on the wall and handed it over when Stiles waved his hand impatiently. "So, the Argents are hiring."
"I heard you the first time," Stiles said. The gelding shifted his weight and leaned heavily against Stiles, pinning him against the wall. "I guess it's early for them, but they probably just want to grab the better runners before Hudson Bay does. So?"
"So, they're specifically looking for experienced runners," Scott said, and from the way he was bouncing, Stiles knew he didn't want to hear the next words out of his mouth. "And trackers."
"No," Stiles said, freeing an arm just enough to point at Scott. "We talked about this. We -- as in you and me and nobody else -- we are going out this year. Together. I already plotted the route. I have real paper and pencils and I'm all set to start charting more of the country --"
"See, this is why you should come with me tomorrow when the Argents start hiring people. You don't even need maps," Scott said. He put on his best puppy-dog look, the one that he used to his best advantage, and threw in a bit of a pout. "Please. It's important."
"Oh my God, no, Scott. I'm not waiting until the thaw hits before we leave," Stiles said. Most of the coureurs de bois waited until then; the rivers and the overland routes were less treacherous. Stiles, however, was waving away his own compulsion for caution -- he knew that getting the best pelts from of the native bands involved a lot of getting there first. And since the best furs were those hunted over the winter, thick with double-coats, the earlier he an Scott reached the settlements, the better.
And this year, it was going to be their year. Over the last few seasons, Stiles had planted seeds at every settlement that they'd come across. He'd gotten friendly with the natives -- the Chiefs, the hunters -- and struck up friendships with them, letting them know he would trade if they were willing, and that he wouldn't cheat them . They were expecting him, damn it, because he'd proven that he was fair. Word had gotten out about that, and the tribes who lived deep in the unexplored country had heard about him. They had even come to the outer reaches of Stiles' normal route to meet with him. Stiles wasn't inclined to leave them hanging, not when he'd already promised that he would travel further out, to them, next time.
Stiles was pretty sure that the team that he and Scott had travelled with the last year had memorized the routes so that they could reap the profits for themselves, taking advantage of Stiles' hard work and ruining him in the process. Stiles was not going to let that happen, and he wasn't going to give up that information for Argent Trapping Co., either.
"I heard they're planning on leaving before the week's up," Scott said.
Stiles whirled around. "Fuck. Are you serious?"
"Yeah, there's even a bonus for anyone who joins them," Scott said, shifting uncertainly.
Stiles exhaled heavily. The Argents stuck to routes close to the Great Lakes -- it was more efficient to transport the pelts that way, what with the quick access from the waterways and rivers. Portaging from one river to another to travel deeper into the country wasn't something that the Argents did very often. At the same time, the Argents didn't discourage the traders under contract from using their own contacts and resources to go deeper inland to get the furs that the team needed to meet their quota.
Stiles definitely didn't want to lose any of his contacts in the native settlements.
"Fuck. All the better that we leave now, before they do." Argents or not, they would still have to take the overland route until the thaw.
"Or we could just sign up," Scott hedged.
It was twilight, and the west-facing doors cast just enough of an orange-yellow glow into the barn for Stiles to see the earnest look on his friend's face. "What's with you? Up until yesterday, you were on board with the plan. It's you and me and no one else and no splitting the shares with anyone like we did last year. We did all of the work but only made a sixth of the money, and did you forget this winter? Do I have to remind you how not fun it was --"
"I met a girl," Scott blurted out.
Stiles' shoulders sagged. His eyes drifted heavenward and fixed on a specific rafter in the barn; he watched a rat scurry across while he counted to ten. "A girl. Is this like Maggie?"
"Maggie who?" Scott asked, his brows pinching in a frown. If Scott had met a girl who could make him completely forget the near-wedding to a pretty brunette with bright blue eyes who already had a rounding belly when they'd met and had been desperate for a husband, then Scott was a goner, for sure. "Her name's Allison. She's the boss' daughter --"
"Wait, what? The boss? Did you already go there? Did you sign up? Did they hire you? "
Scott flushed. "Allison put in a good word for me with her dad. I mean, if he's going to be my father-in-law, I should get to know him before I propose so that he can't say no when the time comes, right? Get on his good side, be the first in line when he's looking to hire a team to go up into Rupert's for fresh pelts --"
"Of course you did," Stiles muttered under his breath. He untied the knotted straps and slid the saddlebags from his horse's back. "Didn't just forget about Maggie, forgot about me, too. I shouldn't be surprised." Stiles undid the saddle strap and hefted the saddle from his horse's back. The gelding snorted and sidled away, already stretching out to steal his stablemate's hay. "Never mind all the planning we did over the winter with dad helping, no, drop everything, we're going hunting with another crew who are going to pay us pennies instead of dollars and next winter is going to be even worse, I'll be mucking the stables again and tending bar --"
Stiles shoved at his horse. The gelding gave him a mournful side-glare before plodding into his stall. Stiles turned around and looked at Scott.
Scott was giving him a hopeful look. "So you're coming?"
"What part of no, I'm not working with anyone else ever again didn't you get? We almost died last year when the team we signed up with tried to kill us after we got all the pelts. We were lucky we even got our share in the end. No, hell, no, I'm not joining up with another crew, and I don't care of they're the Argents or the goddamn Hudson Bay Company. If you're ditching me, I'm going with someone else," Stiles snapped, stomping out of the barn.
Danny had already signed up with the Whittemore Trading House, which didn't come as a surprise. There were rumours that Jackson, who had inherited the business after his parents were killed in a tragic transatlantic crossing, was in some sort of indecent relationship that involved his foul-tempered wife and Danny. Lydia, after Stiles had delivered the mint furs that she'd wanted last season, had confirmed the rumours over tea, but Stiles hadn't wanted to know the details.
For one thing, it would have rubbed salt into already gaping-open wounds. He hadn't needed -- still didn't -- need the reminder that he'd missed his chance with Lydia -- if he'd even had one in the first place. Stiles was not going to forget how close Jackson had come to ruining Stiles' reputation after he’d walked in on Stiles and Lydia in what could have been a compromising position, if only Lydia had liked him enough for it to have become a compromising position. Instead of clearing up the shitstorm that came out of that, she'd hedged the situation into a marriage proposal from the otherwise commitment-shy Jackson Whittemore.
For another, Stiles was already painfully aware of how much sex he wasn't getting, but that was a different problem. In any case, Stiles wasn't sure he could trust the judgment of a trading partner who got involved with Jackson, of all people. Stiles kept telling himself it was Danny's loss, but the rejection still stung.
After Danny, there weren't that many options left. Stiles had exacting standards when it came to people that he worked with, particularly after last winter.
Especially after last winter.
Finstock wanted to go south. Harris was a drunk asshole even on the best of days and Stiles didn't want anything to do with him.
That left Greenberg.
Greenberg was… Greenberg was getting his ducks in a row because he was signing up on the Argent's ticket.
"I don't get it," Greenberg said, rolling up his gear. He hadn't been hired yet, but Greenberg was a perennial optimist. "I heard McCall got hand-picked to lead one of the crews --"
Stiles squawked. If Scott was leading a crew and they didn't get their quota of pelts, Scott might be tempted to use some of the contacts that Stiles had made last year just to impress his future bride and father-in-law. Stiles loved Scott, he really did, and he wished Scott well in his future marriage bed, but Stiles had worked hard to secure those routes, damn it.
"-- so why aren't you signing up, too? Even if he wasn't your way in, between your dad's rep and, well, yours, you'd be snapped up in a heartbeat," Greenberg said. "Did you guys have a fight?"
"No, we didn't," Stiles snapped, and he turned around and stomped home.
There was something to be said about an unmarried seventeen-year old son (or, in this case, sons, plural) who still lived at home in this day and age, but given the low return on the number of pelts that they'd gotten the year before, it wasn't as if Scott or Stiles could afford to rent a room in town. They definitely couldn't follow through on their dreams to purchase land in the middle of God's nowhere to build a cabin. Or two. Plus, it wasn't as if either Melissa or his dad minded much, because the winter had been hard this year and his dad was still recovering from the pleurisy that had settled in his lungs last spring. They'd needed every spare coin Scott and Stiles had earned.
Neither of them looked up when Stiles stormed in. Neither one of them did much more than sigh heavily when he ranted about the lack of good traders to work with.
"What about Scott?" his dad asked. Melissa left the table, not even hiding her obvious escape. Stiles rolled his eyes at her and took her seat.
"Really, dad? You're asking me about Scott? After Scott betrayed me and joined the enemy? He's working for the Argents now. He signed up without even talking to me about it. It's like he was humouring me all these years when we made plans to keep going west, to explore and map the country and meet all the natives and --"
"It's not his fault if he fell in love," Melissa cut in, wiping her hands on a piece of cloth before turning to knead the bred. It was pleasantly warm in the kitchen and several loaves were already rising.
"When?" Stiles asked, unable to help his outrage. "When did he have time to meet a girl and fall in love, never mind find the courage to talk to one in the first place?"
"I don't know, he didn't have too much trouble with Maggie," Stiles' dad said.
"That's because Maggie didn't give him a chance, she went right to the kissing and the --" Stiles faltered, side-eyeing Melissa before manfully protecting his best friend-slash-step-brother. "Marriage thing."
He winced when he saw Melissa's face darken. She still hadn't forgiven Maggie for having named Scott of being the father of her baby just to force him into a marriage. Scott was a soft hearted sort. He wouldn't have said no on his own -- Stiles had done it for him. Repeatedly.
"Anyway, when did he even meet her? He's working at the mill all the time. When he's not at the mill, he's bugging me at the stables. When he's not bugging me at the stables, he's helping me out at the bar. Did he trip over her at the general store or something?"
"Something like that," Melissa said, shrugging a shoulder. "He mentioned she needed a pencil --"
Stiles rolled his eyes and groaned. Scott was such a sucker for a pretty face. Of course he'd fall heads over heels after an innocent thing like that.
"Would it be so bad to work for the Argents?" Stiles' dad asked. "I've met Christophe a few times and he seems a decent man. I haven't heard many people say anything other than he's fair and honest."
"And if he doesn't like you, everyone knows it and won't work or buy from you ever again, from now until eternity," Stiles said. That influence even applied to Hudson Bay Co. and some of the closest tribes. Harris was no longer permitted to set foot in Iroquois or Huron territory, and the only thing he'd done to displease the Argents, as far as Stiles could tell, was to stockpile supplies and resell them to the highest bidder. It was no different than what most people did when times got hard.
"Why would that even be an issue?" Stiles' dad asked. "Everyone likes you."
Except Jackson, Stiles didn't say out loud. That was still a sore point ever since the marriage proposal fiasco; Jackson had refused outright to purchase anything brought in by any of the Stilinskis for years, even if their pelts were superior. Jackson had eventually relaxed that edict when he realized that he was getting the short end of the deal, but by then it was too late. Neither John nor Stiles would sell to Whittemore -- it was too much of a headache, anyway.
"Half the trappers and half the coureurs ask if you're going one way or another because they want to work with you for a while. Everyone knows you're one of the best trackers there are," Stiles' dad said.
"That's not why they want to hang out with me and you know it," Stiles grumbled, leaning forward on his elbows and running his hands through his short hair. He'd let it grow out for the winter, but come summer he would probably shave it again. "They just want me to stop the natives from killing them."
"Speaking of," Melissa piped up, not bothering to turn around, "Don't you think Scott might need you on that front?"
"He's a good hunter, he doesn't need me," Stiles grumbled.
"But he doesn't speak the native languages and…" Melissa shrugged. "There's the other thing."
There was a bit of bad blood brewing on the horizon between the coureurs de bois and the natives, never mind with the voyageurs. Ever since the governors of Nouvelle-France decided to regulate the fur trade, under the implied threat of war and other terrible repercussions if they didn't comply, the natives traded their furs directly to the voyageurs hired by the trading company. Any coureurs de bois caught illegally acquiring or selling fur pelts were either conscripted in the army and sent off to distant forts, or jailed and executed.
All the noise about regulation and control and fines and penalties was fairly recent and not quite law, not yet, but there were plenty of fur traders powerful enough who would ignore -- or pay off -- the governors if it meant keeping the coureurs who provided them with the best pelts active in the unexplored regions where the voyageurs didn't go.
It was a matter of time before that changed, but most of the runners were taking out their frustrations on whoever they wanted as long as they could get away with it. Some hunters and traders harassed the native settlements who preferred to work with the voyageurs; others targeted any native who ventured into their line of sight.
Scott, who had dark colouring and a lanky body, had been mistaken for a native more than once, though the colloquial slurs tended toward half-breed. Stiles always felt guilty that Scott got the brunt of it, even though he was Scottish through and through. It was Stiles that the bigots should be going after. He was the half-breed, not Scott.
Stiles always talked their way out of whatever fight was brewing on the horizon, though. There hadn't been a beating in years.
"That's --" Stiles sputtered. "That's low. That's… really low. You had to go there, didn't you?"
Melissa didn't answer, but the sound of her fists hitting dough spoke volumes.
"You know how I feel about you running out alone," Stiles' dad said, distracting Stiles from staring daggers at Melissa's back.
"I wouldn't be alone if Scott hadn't laid eyes on Miss Allison," Stiles snorted, crossing his arms.
"I'll make you a deal," his dad said. "Go with Scott tomorrow. Go with the Argents for the season, get the experience, the contacts, learn their routes, use it to your advantage. And next year, if you end up going alone, I'm not going to say a word."
"Next year and every year for the rest of my life," Stiles hedged.
"Next year and the year after that, and only if you write home as often as you can," his dad said. "We'll renegotiate in our third year."
"Deal," Stiles said, holding out his hand.
The interview was short and sweet.
The man at the desk wrote his name down -- outrageously misspelling his surname, too, but Stiles had long ago learned to pick his battles and this was not one of them -- and pointed with his stylus, "Stand over there."
Over there was along the wall in a line next to forty or fifty other coureurs de bois who were grouped together according to acquaintanceship. When it came to runners and traders and hunters, it wasn't so large a group that they didn't know each other on sight, and Stiles nodded at all of them as he walked past. He spotted Greenberg, who looked happy that he saw someone he knew well enough to talk to, but nearly as soon as Greenberg raised his hand to wave, his expression fell.
"Damn it, Stiles. If you're here, that means one less spot for one of us."
"You give me too much credit," Stiles said, giving the room a long, slow look. He wasn't checking out his competition -- not exactly. It was easy to pick out the novices -- they were young, fresh-faced, had new equipment that wouldn't hold up to the elements. They didn't know the first thing about running the woods outside of whatever romanticized stories they'd heard, and they wouldn't last three weeks in the wilderness during the regular season, never mind when winter was still hanging on with its cold, arctic claws.
Those with experience and no small measure of desperation were here, too, what little gear they'd brought out beaten and worn but more durable than the thin leathers that the greener men were wearing. They were dirty and scruffy and Stiles could smell the lingering alcohol from clear across the room. Among those, one or two were decent men who had just fallen on hard times.
The rest -- no more than a handful, including Greenberg and Stiles himself -- were young, but not that young, good, hard workers, competent at their jobs, but not necessarily trustworthy.
"How many men are they picking up?"
"Don't know," Greenberg said. "Could be a dozen, could be half that. We're not sure. It was an open call, but we've been hearing that Argent's going to be hiring his usual men for this, and whoever doesn't step up, it comes to the rest of us."
"Oh. What about Scott?"
"Scott is... right there," Greenberg said, pointing at the two men who had just walked in.
Scott was next to Christophe Argent, chatting animatedly; he looked around the room with a quiet anxiety that didn't settle until he spotted Stiles in the crowd. His uncertainty faded when he saw Stiles and his lopsided grin broadened.
They hadn't spoken the night before. Scott had come home, climbed the ladder to their shared bed, and woken Stiles up to profess his undying love for Allison. He spent a few minutes trying to convince Stiles to change his mind and sign on with the Argents, and rolled over in mumbled frustration when Stiles didn't answer him.
The surprise that flashed across Scott's expression was short-lived, quickly replaced with relief and gratefulness. Stiles returned his smile with a nod and tried to hide how big of an ass he felt right now. Scott wasn't like him -- he was never completely comfortable in the forest, hardly ever got a wink of sleep some nights. For all that he was the better hunter of the two by virtue of being a better aim with his musket, Scott got lost more often than not. Where Stiles was equally comfortable in a group of people or alone in the woods, Scott… Scott needed people around him, a place where he felt like he was an equal.
And for him, with his looks and the undeserved stigma that was tied to how much he resembled a native, the places where he felt like an equal were far and few between.
Damn it. For all that she could drive the dagger in deep and give it a good twist, Melissa was right. Stiles couldn't expect Scott to want the same things he did. He couldn't leave Scott to his fate, either. They'd been friends first, but they'd grown up as brothers. They'd sworn a blood oath to have each others' backs no matter what, and Stiles had forgotten that like the heel he was.
Chris Argent asked Scott a question and his attention was immediately drawn away, his expression serious, his hand flying in the air now and again as if to compound a point. He was in his element here, his self-assurance bolstered by both his experience with Stiles and Stiles' dad and his own competent know-how.
Stiles sighed inwardly.
One season. Just one. He'd let Scott have this chance, but if he had to Stiles would go off on his own next year. It was probably better that way. Also, if Scott decided to stay with the Argents and the French governors used force to support their plans to regulate the fur trade, Stiles supposed that he could still operate under the radar as an adjunct to the Argents.
The fur trade was a living, but his passion? It was exploring the woods, being out in the wilderness, mapping and learning the land. He spent as much time sketching landmarks and formations as he did seeking out the native settlements to negotiate for their furs.
Argent and Scott went to the sign-up table, where the scribe was putting down the name of the last man in the line. Argent took the book and the man's stylus, dipping it in ink and systematically crossing out names as he went down the list. Now and then, he would pause and ask a question; Scott would answer, and more names would be crossed out.
Besides Stiles, Greenberg held his breath, mouthing numbers as Argent tapped the paper with his finger. After some thought, he crossed several more names before he was satisfied.
"Here it comes," Greenberg said.
Stiles glanced at him, but couldn't muster up the same level of nerves; it wasn't the end of the world for him if he didn't get picked. He'd find a way to go out alone, even if it was with one of the Hudson Bay teams, though that would mean waiting until the ice melted enough to go.
"I'd like to thank everyone for coming," Argent said, walking into the middle of the room and pausing to make eye contact with everyone. He offered a pleasant, but reserved, smile before continuing. "Unfortunately, we only have a few spots on our teams. If I don't call out your name, you haven't been selected for the excursion, but I invite you to reapply at the icebreak. If you hear your name, please stay behind."
Argent went down the list and called out a few people. Greenberg released a sigh of relief when he was called, and Stiles felt a noose tighten around his throat when Argent said, "Stiles Stilinski."
The departure time frame was immediately. Scott hadn't been kidding.
They were three days up the road and nowhere as far as they would have liked to be, but they could only blame it on horses that had been stabled for the winter and not conditioned for long travel. Argent didn't express his displeasure, but his men sure did.
"We'd be another forty up the road if we didn't have the gawking fresh-off-the-boat tourists dragging their arses," an Englishman said with a snort.
Scott started to say something, but Stiles kicked his leg, which made both their horses shy away from each other. Scott shot Stiles a wounded look while Stiles raised both brows meaningfully -- pick your battles, he tried to convey, but Scott, being Scott, spoke up anyway.
"It's not their fault that the roads are slippery."
"Maybe it's yours," the man said, twisting in his saddle to give Scott a mean look. "Why are you even here, kid? Aren't you the one sniffing around the boss' daughter like a hungry dog? A smarter man would've stayed behind, humped that fine piece while no one's around -- I have half a mind to turn back and do the deed myself, get her belly nice and round --"
Scott's spine stiffened, and Stiles could see Argent at the head of the line, turning his head to hear better.
"You do that, and I'll hunt you down and shoot you, if Mr. Argent doesn't beat me to it," Scott said hotly.
The Englishman -- Stiles struggled to remember his name. Thomas or Thurman or Theodoric or something that started with T -- gave Scott a long look up and down and made a derisive snort. "Miz Allison's Nana is probably a better shot than you, you damn injun."
A few men nearby chortled. "I'll take that bet," someone said. Other men quickly chimed in, but Greenberg stared up at the thick cloud cover overhead, trying not to get involved.
"Hey, Tommy?" Stiles said before it got out of hand. He took a big bite of jerky, chewing it slow, taking his time. "It's Tommy, right?"
"I prefer Thomas," he said, reaching up to brush his curling moustache with the back of his glove, prim and imperious. For all his cool manner, Thomas was dressed the same as they were, frayed leathers covered by a waxed slick to keep the worst of the icy drizzle from their gear, and Stiles knew for certain that for all his bustle, he was one of the most cruel and calculating hunters he'd ever met.
"Tommy, then," Stiles said with a grin and a nod. "Scott's got more claim to being English than you do, what with his mom still carrying him when she took the boat over and you being some sort of Confed mutt from down South, born and bred --"
"But I'll have you know something important."
"What," Thomas snapped.
"It's really important. I'm doing you a favour here. Couldn't hurt you to be a bit nicer, could it?"
"What is it, you little --"
Stiles swallowed his jerky. He pointed. "Branch."
"There's a branch --"
Thomas turned around just in time to catch the low-hanging branch in the chest. He was swept off the saddle a few seconds later, sputtering pine needles.
Stiles and Scott rode on by. "Those damn fresh-off-the-boat tourists," Stiles said amiably. "Always getting off their horses to gawk at everything…"
Isaac was one of the novices who had made the cut, though he had more experience than all the other greenies who had shown up for the interview. The difference between Isaac and the rest could be seen in the way that he handled himself -- quiet, assured. He was as hard-working as any of them, didn't talk back and didn't shirk work, but whenever someone looked at him wrong, he shied away, ducking his head, and rounding his shoulders as if bracing for a blow.
Isaac's behaviour came as no surprise. Lahey Sr. was a mean son-of-a-bitch when he wasn't drinking, and he was the devil's own when he was. He was sweet as pie toward anyone who could do him a favour, but plenty of people had seen his wife the morning after a bad night, and there was no doubt that he did the same to his son, though he was just a tad more careful in hitting where the blows didn't show.
That was one reason why Stiles' dad refused to work with him, and probably the reason why Argent had signed Isaac -- either at his own whim or at Scott's fervent suggestion. Stiles couldn't be angry about it, even if it meant that he barely got a chance to talk to Scott anymore. The two of them were as thick as thieves whenever Scott had a moment free, and Stiles...
Stiles was torn between cursing Scott's soft heart and missing him.
It was one month into the journey before they stopped at the first settlement; two weeks more before the next. The pack horses' burdens were lightened as they exchanged one load of trading wares for furs, and it wasn't long before Argent started sending his men home with the pelts. Greenberg went first, paired with the fake Englishman; two of the newer people went with some of Argent's men after that.
Every time a team was sent back, Stiles updated his mental tally of the number, origin, and type of furs to make sure that he wasn't cheated at the end of the trip. So far, though, it was looking as if he would have a good haul, no matter what.
Two settlements became four, four became six. February skirted into March and finally it was just the six of them left -- Argent and Scott, Isaac and Stiles, St. Clair -- a big, barrel-chested man who didn't say two words when one would do -- and Leroux -- a bulky, ruddy fellow who rarely smiled because it made the scar across his face pull painfully.
They left their horses with the last team to haul the newest set of pelts down south for processing and went the rest of the way on foot. In deep snow.
Stiles swore a blue streak when his showshoe broke for the sixth time. Isaac flashed him a small smile as he bowlegged his way past, avoiding the fallen tree branch that had cut into the leather of Stiles' snowshoe. St. Clair smacked him hard in the shoulder, nearly sending him toppling over into the snow.
"Thanks for waiting for me," Stiles shouted at their retreating backsides, and Scott, the asshole, paused long enough to turn around and wave before they continued on, cutting through the frozen swamp because it was easier than fighting their way through the bramble of birch trees.
"Catch up," Argent said, and Stiles decided that his permanently-bemused tone of voice hid his perpetual irritation.
"Yeah, yeah, I bet you anything I'll beat you to the other side of this," Stiles said, waving his arm around. Argent raised a disbelieving brow, but he kept walking.
Stiles shrugged out of his pack and sat down on it, unraveling the ties of his snowshoe to see if he could fix it.
He could, but not without sacrificing yet another leather cord to the cause.
It was a good half hour before Stiles looked up and realized that he couldn't hear his team's voice on the wind. He couldn't hear anything. It was almost as if the world had taken a breath and was holding it -- the air was so still, ice crystals hung in the air, and the low sun, already setting over the horizon, made them scintillate brilliantly, like stars in the sky. The tallest reeds stuck through the snow layering the swamp, the birch trees around the rim of the bog clacked lightly, and…
The hackles rose on the back of Stiles' neck. He looked around slowly, scanning every spot twice, the first time for a quick look, the second for shifting shadows.
He thought he saw something in the reeds. An animal, maybe. It was large, but not big enough to be a bear. It didn't move; it didn't advance, and...
Two blue lights flashed in the gloom. At first, Stiles thought of will-o'-wisps, but it was the wrong colour, and he didn't see the flash again.
Stiles breathed shallowly, his fingers tight around his musket.
The wind blew. The reeds tinkled like wind chimes. Stiles thought he heard a faint, annoyed huff, and, still, he couldn't shake the feeling of being watched.
When nothing moved, Stiles hurriedly finished twining his snowshoe. The hasty repairs would have to do for now. He blew hot breath into his frozen fingers to warm them up and tied the snowshoe it to his mukluk. He picked up his gear, tugged his fur-lined hat further down on his head, and got going at a quick pace, heading into the forest, brambles and trees and all.
He worked his way back to where he thought he'd seen the blue lights. Reeds and wood stuck through the snow and the wind whipped branches into his face, but he found a dip in the snow where it looked as if an animal had been sitting.
The tracks were a little muddled, and it was hard to see clearly, but those were wolf tracks. A single paw was larger than Stiles' hand. He couldn't imagine how big the wolf was, too.
"Shit," Stiles whispered. He swallowed hard and scanned his surroundings before slowly backing out of the tangle. He kept his head up and his eyes open, slowly increasing his speed.
Stiles meant to beat Scott to the other side.
He didn't make it, but that was all right, because there was a hot meal waiting for him at the camp. No sooner had he located his wood-carved bowl from his pack that Argent started speaking.
"We're not going to the Nipissing. They won't have the furs we want.," he said. St. Clair wasn't surprised and Leroux didn't stop sharpening his knife with that strange smirk on his mouth, but Isaac and Scott exchanged glances with Stiles.
"Who will, then?" Scott asked. "Where are we going?"
"West," Argent said, pointing in a quick, insouciant gesture. Stiles, who was sitting on that side, reached out and adjusted Argent's arm so that it was aimed in the right direction. Argent gave him a strange look, but he dropped his hand.
"We're trading there?" Isaac asked.
"No," Argent said, and Stiles couldn't ignore the bad feeling in his stomach anymore. He exchanged glances with Scott. Scott was green around the edges. "We're hunting."
And there it was. That bad feeling made manifest.
"You know what's west?" Stiles asked, wrapping his hands around a metal cup of rapidly-cooling tea to keep his hands from shaking. "Disputed territory. The Burned Lands. Why would you even want to go there? Everyone, including the Ottawa who are too far away to give a damn about it, know that it's a bad idea to travel west from here. Better to take a boat around the bay to dodge the arrows, or head as far north as we can if you want to go to the other side --"
"We're going west. Straight through. No stopping, and you're guiding us there," Argent said, his eyes sharp. His mouth was a thin line that he forced into something of a smile, though it wasn't any more genuine than the jade piece that Scott had given his mother for her birthday years ago -- none of them had had the heart to tell Scott that it was plain old greenstone.
"I'm not keen on wandering right into an Iroquois war band with their bows nocked and tomahawks ready for a clubbing," Stiles said.
"Then go home to mommy, if you're that scared," Leroux said, smirking.
"I'd go home to your mother, except she's as ugly as you are," Stiles retorted. Leroux scowled at him. "And besides, you can't tell me that any of you want to head up there without an army at your back. They catch us, they'll slaughter us."
No one disputed him. Facts were facts, plain and simple. They wouldn't be the first ones to have gone through that territory, and those who had barely managed to escape had returned with white hair and wide eyes. Stiles saw some of them, sometimes, at the bar, drinking themselves stupid just to dull the nightmares.
"West. Fuck that. What is that, even? West?" Stiles shook his head. "You want me to take you? I can't guide through."
"I have a map," Argent said. "Paid a pretty penny for it. Supposedly, there's a dead zone. I have it on good authority that the Iroquois avoid this area like the plague. The area should be safe enough."
Stiles' jaw dropped. He'd headed out west with his dad, years ago, to the very fringes of the Iroquois lands before the unrest between native Tribes escalated. He knew his way around the territory, and he was pretty sure that the Iroquois didn't avoid the very land they claimed as their own. Unless, of course, the area in question was sacred, and if the Iroquois didn't want to go there, then Stiles sure as hell didn't want to go there, either.
Everything his mom ever taught him about restless spirits came rushing back. No, definitely not. He wasn't going there. No, sir.
"Good authority. Right," Stiles scoffed, shooting Scott a hard look. They were going to talk about this absolutely horrendous mistake that his passionate love for Allison Argent had gotten them into. "What authority is that?"
"My father," Argent said, raising a challenging brow. He leaned back slightly, kicked out at his foot, and let a log fall into the fire; the embers burst up and scattered in the air, blinding Stiles for a second. Argent had done it on purpose -- more of this ridiculous I am the leader, you will follow me posturing bullshit that Stiles was, quite frankly, tired of. "My father's been there and back, and if he says that there's furs to be had out there, then there's furs to be had, and we're going to get them."
Stiles stilled. Everyone knew the patriarch of the Argent family -- if they hadn't been chilled to the bone to meet the hard man in person and learned the hard way to steer clear, they had been warned to start running if they caught wind of him coming their way. A once-renowned hunter and tracker, Gerard Argent was known for bringing down grizzlies with his bare hands and breaking the necks of every wolf in a large pack, selling their rich, lush pelts to the highest bidder. Stiles had seen one of those wolf pelts on display on the wall of the Whittemore trading house, and it had been huge -- nearly as big as a black bear, if not bigger.
Then about six years ago, when a fire nearly burned down most of York, Gerard came back from his hunt and went insane when he learned that his daughter, Kathérine, had died.
Except the story was that she hadn't died in one of the burning houses, but in the woods where she must have taken refuge against the spreading flames and the blistering heat. A pair of farmers had stumbled onto her body -- her throat and belly torn out with teeth and claw. Wolves, everyone had whispered, but no one, no one except for Stiles' dad, who had been hired to help track them down, ever mentioned how Kate's clothing had reeked of whale oil, or how she had had flint and tinder tucked in the waist of her dress.
They'd never found the wolf or wolves that had attacked her, but the word was that Gerard was obsessed with finding them.
That obsession had come to a heel a few months ago when Gerard Argent returned to York, hitching a ride on the back of someone's sled, a wraith of a man about fifty pounds lighter than he'd gone out, weak, febrile, coughing blood and vomiting black bile.
The Argents had whisked him away, calling for a doctor, but not before half the inhabitants of York heard a madman's ravings about wolves and men. Gerard wasn`t expected to live long enough to see the Spring.
"Oh. Right. Reliable source," Stiles said, trying and failing to keep the sarcasm out of his tone, if the sharp look Argent gave him was anything to go by. A muscle jumped in Argent's jaw and his gloves looked about ready to split because he was clenching his fists as if he meant to pummel Stiles with them. Hastily, Stiles said, "So what is it, then? We're hunting wolves? Is that it? Never mind that none of us have any experience against wolves, never mind wolf packs --"
Stiles glanced at Isaac, remembering too late that his dad had brought down a wolf or two in his time. Stiles wondered if Isaac had been there with him.
"That's why you've got a rifle," St. Clair said, pointing to the gun that Stiles had set down near his cot, more out of habit than anything. "You see a wolf, you shoot them. You can shoot, can't you? Haven't seen you use that. Hell, I haven't heard of anyone who's ever seen you use it."
"I can shoot," Stiles said, drawing back, crossing his arms. He glanced at Scott. Scott, bless him, was staring at his feet and pointedly refusing to make eye contact. "But that's not the point. The point is, why are we here? You could've sent us back a long time ago. Probably should have, too. One of your men probably has far more experience with wolf hunts than the three of us combined --"
Stiles' mouth dropped.
"Oh my God," he said. "We're bait. You're using us as bait. You're going to sacrifice us on some crazy man's wolf hunt?"
"Stiles," Scott hissed.
"You're going to tie us up to a tree and gut us and let the smell of blood attract the wolves --"
"Holy shit," Isaac whispered, chuckling uncertainty.
"And you!" Stiles pointed a finger at Scott. "He hired you to get rid of you because you're spending all your time kissing Allison --"
Argent exhaled with a strangled, questioning sound.
Stiles saw the round-eyed panic on Scott's face and hastily backtracked. "I mean, he wishes that he was kissing Allison, but that's not what I'm getting at. He's going to murder us in our sleep and use our entrails to lure the wolves out into the open where he can slaughter them."
"Is he always like this?" St. Clair asked Isaac. Isaac spread his hands in answer and shrugged.
"I'm sure it's not like that," Scott protested weakly. He glanced at Argent, unsure. "Is it?"
"Isn't it?" Stiles looked hard at Argent. "Full disclosure was totally lacking when I signed my name on the contract. You hired me to talk to the natives, assist your head scout in finding routes -- a head scout I notice isn't here anymore, so that means the task is falling to me --"
Stiles paused, giving Argent a chance to prove him wrong. He didn't.
"And absolutely nothing's stopping me from disappearing in the middle of the night and leaving you to walk around in circles until you run out of supplies and are chewing birch bark just to keep your stomach from hollowing out -- quit giving me those puppy dog eyes, Scott, they're not working on me, not now," Stiles said, pointing an accusing finger at Scott. He turned that finger to Argent. "So come on. Have at it. Details. Full disclosure. What's the plan?"
There was a long silence. St. Clair scratched at his impressive beard. Leroux rubbed an absentminded finger along the scar on his face, following it all the way to his jaw before dropping his hand to toss another stick into the fire.
Stiles would bet his left testicle that those two knew exactly what was going on.
Isaac was fidgeting with increasing distress as the seconds trickled by. Scott, bless his thick, trusting self, was looking at Argent as if he really wanted to believe that nothing strange was going on.
"Très bien," Argent said, capitulating with an overt wave of his hands. "You were not deceived, rest assured of that. You were hired for this expedition, to guide us where I asked, to carry what furs we acquired along the way, and to guide us back."
"That was my understanding of the contract, yeah," Stiles said slowly, feeling as if he were walking into a trap. Unlike most of the coureurs de bois, Stiles didn't just scratch a big X on the dotted line. He'd read the contract carefully, making sure there weren't any loopholes, because when he signed his loopy scribble of a name on the parchment, he damn well was going to make sure it wouldn't be his entire life that he was signing away.
"To carry what furs we acquired along the way," Argent repeated, his thin smile stretching until it was a wolverine's grin, full of sharp teeth and nothing but malice. "Did the contract specify how we were to acquire them?"
Stiles opened and closed his mouth. He silently mouthed his way through the parts of the contract that he memorized -- the important ones that detailed his duties and the other ones that outlined where and when and how he was being paid -- and his jaw clicked shut.
"Not in so many words, no," Stiles said finally, shoulders slumping.
"Exactement," Argent said, and when he smiled that wolverine smile of his, it was genuine. And completely evil.
Stiles felt sick.
Sure, he'd been feeling sick ever since he found out that their new route was some sort of revenge trip for Argent. The knots winding in his stomach had as much to do with how Argent, St. Clair and Leroux colluded in quiet conversation on the other side of the fire as it did with not knowing what the fuck they were in for. Sometimes, Stiles would spot Argent walking with Scott, a hand on his shoulder, both their heads bowed. Other times, he would see Leroux with Isaac, and he caught Leroux smiling more than once, the scar on his face twisting and disfiguring while Isaac huddled over himself, trying to make himself small.
Stiles would hear snatches of conversation -- how they were going to set traps around the area, how they would lure and secure the sites, how they were going to skin the bodies and tan the hides. It wasn't just that he was traveling with a group of people or that half of them were hell-bent on the slaughter of animals following their instincts. It wasn't that they had elaborate plans for tricking the wolves or that they went in long, excruciating detail on how to skin the wolf quickly before their pelts went bad.
It wasn't even that Scott would look all the more uncertain the further west they travelled, but that he looked at Stiles each and every time, as if he didn't understand why Stiles wasn't going along with it. It wasn't that St. Clair's companionable attempts to put a too-friendly arm around Stiles' shoulders set Stiles on edge. It wasn't that Isaac, who had started to come out of his shell, was sinking back into it because he'd realized that if he refused to work with Argent, to help with this hunt, he was screwing himself for life.
That wasn't it at all. It contributed, but that wasn't what left a sour taste in his belly and an unrecognizable rage in his bones.
The weather was warming up into spring, finally, and the heat reached even this far north. The skies were a bright, blazing blue, the sun was too warm and the wind too cool to be comfortable even under fringed leather layers. The snow was melting and turning the ground into bare patches of slushy grass and muddy ground where the sun shone through the tree branches, and into icy patches where the shadows stretched.
And where the snow had melted, they saw how the winter had hidden Gerard Argent's insanity.
The map that Chris Argent gave Stiles wasn't particularly good -- smudged ink with a few landmarks that weren't represented on paper in the same way that they were in reality, terrain lines drawn with jerky scratches, crosses and stars that were probably meant to indicate hunting sites -- but it was good enough for someone with Stiles' skill to lead them right to Gerard's cabin.
The cabin wasn't more than a hole in the wall -- a lean-to against basalt rock scraped raw by winter and weather, barely big enough for one person. There was an ugly smear of black in the middle of the clearing where Gerard must have had fires roaring, night after night. There were bloody patches in what little snow that remained, brown and lumpy from age and time. Furs in various stages of tanning hung from wood spikes and lines, though none of them were very large or very remarkable.
There were mounds of bodies.
Wolves, one and all. Sun-bleached bones and rotted, mottled flesh.
The air was rank with death, buzzing with flies despite the early season, the cold.
Stiles gagged. He made it to the forest line, where he fell to his knees and retched.
They didn't stay long. Argent tasked Stiles with finding their next camp, away from the stink, where the animals wouldn't come upon them during the night. Argent would stay behind with St. Clair to pick and salvage at whatever they could find, taking pelts and traps and other things.
Stiles didn't miss how Argent watched his men work while Stiles led the rest of the team away.
He didn't miss the purple flowers growing through the patches of snow.
He didn't miss how some of the bones had been stacked. And those bones? They were human.
"I can't do this," Stiles hissed, pacing back and forth between two large pine trees. He paused now and then to listen, but he didn't hear anything, which meant that Isaac was keeping St. Clair busy. Argent and Leroux had gone out to check the traps and look for tracks. With the steady trickle of rain that had been coming down over the last few days and the perpetually-melting snow, the ground was a combination of muddy, sticky and sloppy -- just enough to keep tracks visible while the few warm spurts of sunshine baked them in.
"Goddamn it, Scott. Why are we doing this again? It's not worth it. The stupid love of your life isn't worth it," Stiles muttered. He threw an arm up in the air and covered his hand with his mouth.
The traps weren't small. Not by far. They'd snared a groggy bear coming out of hibernation and had had to shoot it out of mercy. They'd gotten two wolves already, one with a dark red coat, the other closer to grey, but Argent had grimaced in dissatisfaction because they'd been "Trop petit."
Stiles didn't know what he was talking about. The wolves were plenty big to him.
He'd never liked hunting for sport. He hadn't been raised that way. His mom had always taught him that nature was in balance, that there was a reason for the predators and the prey, and that they should respect that balance, and live in harmony with it. But it had been the shaman of his mom's Tribe who had taught him that in everything lived a spirit, from the rock to the air to the animals around them. He had learned that when one destroyed the body of a creature for no other reason than personal pleasure, it took away the importance of the spirit and broke the bond to the land.
It was why Stiles preferred to trade with the Tribes. He knew that the animals the furs had belonged to were blessed by the proper rituals. He knew no part of the animal's body had gone to waste. There was purpose in their deaths -- to keep the Tribe strong and the land at peace.
Wanton killing like this, for no other purpose than vengeance? It was wrong. It was wrong.
"You got to snap out of it," Scott said, grabbing Stiles' shoulders and forcing him to stop pacing. "You signed a contract. If you leave, if you break the contract, do you know what Mr. Argent is going to do to you? Do you know --"
"I know. I know," Stiles snapped. "I can't. I just can't. This is insane. Did you see Argent after that wolf? That glint in his eye? What about back at Gerard's camp? You didn't notice the bones --"
"Of course I did --"
"The human bones?"
Scott frowned. "I don't know what you're talking about. Stiles. Stiles? Are you all right? Can you stop pacing for a second?"
"I know you've got, like, weird ideas about the wilderness because of your mom, and it's what makes you so good out here, but you're freaking me out. Can you stop it? I'm not really interested anymore. I mean, I don't share the same beliefs, but I've always respected yours, and I've taken the heat for it because everyone thinks I'm the half-breed, not you. But I'm not going to let you ruin this for me. Please don't ruin it for me."
Scott gave Stiles a pleading look. Stiles could only stare at him, disbelieving. Scott's entire world revolved around Allison -- there wasn't one morning when he didn't wake up talking about her on this entire trip, though he was careful to keep the majority of his sap out of Argent's earshot. At any other time, Stiles knew, Scott would be with him on this, he would say fuck this shit in echo with Stiles, and they would leave.
But making a good impression with his future father-in-law was important to Scott. He loved Allison; he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her.
Stiles couldn't find it in him to be an asshole and tell Scott that the woman of his dreams was a direct descendant to a raving lunatic who was also a murderer.
"Yeah, all right," Stiles said finally, nodding.
"Okay," Scott said, beaming. "You coming back to camp?"
"Yeah. In a minute. Let me get my head together," Stiles said. He waited until Scott left and paced some more, finally sinking down at the base of a birch tree. He pulled at his hair, trying to distract himself with the pain, but he couldn't stop seeing the skulls and the bones sticking out of the snow.
They'd split up and were following tracks -- Argent had gone north with Scott, St. Clair was with Isaac, and Stiles was paired with Leroux -- when Stiles decided that he was well and truly done with Argent's games. He made a few silent apologies to Scott, waited until Leroux noticed the divergent set of tracks, and suggested, "Why don't you go that way?"
If there was anything that he'd learned during this already too-long contract, it was that while his current colleagues were decent trackers, none of them except for Chris Argent, could tell the difference between tracks that were a few hours old and those that were a day old. Stiles felt absolutely no shame whatsoever in taking advantage of their lack of skill, and crept back to camp.
Stiles wasn't a coureur de bois for nothing. There were wood runners and there were wood runners, a distinct difference between the men who went out into the wilderness to suss out sources for trading furs and those who went out into the wilderness because they belonged there. Stiles made it back to camp in good time, without so much as leaving a trail to follow, and made a beeline for Chris Argent's pack. He dug through it until he found a small leather-bound book. He'd seen Argent reading it by firelight every night. He put it aside, and continued to rummage through the pack.
He found things.
He found silver bullets -- perfectly round and heavy enough to feel as if they'd been cored with something else, large enough to be a tad larger than the average bullet -- in a leather satchel. He found a larger bag with powder in it -- it smelled like scorched coals, ground-up tree ash. He also found purple flowers, the petals dried, in another.
He didn't know what the ash had to do with anything, but his dad had told Stiles plenty of stories from the Old Country, and he'd memorized every single one. The lore from his father's homeland. The stories told by every hunter he'd ever traveled with.
Fucking crazy Gerard Argent and all the fucking Argents. Werewolves.
The leather book was a journal. The ink in it was old, getting progressively fresher toward the middle. The dozens of pages at the end were blank. And all the way through, the text was in French. The handwriting was big and looping in the beginning, narrowing down to a frantic scribble at the end.
It was hard to make out, even with the clear light of day, but Stiles made do, skimming through the most recent entries. He flipping through the earlier pages. But he hadn't been wrong. The wolsfbane, the ash, the book --
"Shitfuckshit," Stiles said, barely keeping himself from shouting. It wasn't just Gerard Argent.
The entire family was crazy. The entire family had been crazy for centuries. Still, Stiles couldn't ignore the nagging feeling that was eating at him under his skin. Were werewolves real?
Could they even be real? His mother had told him stories about men who changed into animals. So had the shaman of her Tribe. They both had plenty of things to say about the wendigo, but what he was seeing in the book didn't fit the monsters who fed on tainted souls. If Stiles dug deep, deep down into his memory, he could remember more than one tale of wolf spirits who took the shape of a man.
Stiles had never believed those stories. He'd always demanded proof. And here was the proof -- the notes of a hunter who had been studying them his entire life. The realization made Stiles giddy with excitement and left him with a sinking sensation of dread. If there were wolf spirits capable of taking human form, they shouldn't be hunted and killed. They should be revered.
It made Stiles sick to think that Gerard Argent had killed any of them. The sight of the skull and bones, animal and human, was still burned into his mind.
He packed up everything, made it look as if the contents had never been touched, and ran back the entire way, doing his best to make it look like he'd been tracking wolf prints the whole time.
Bones hung from the trees -- someone's femur, a few humerus, a braided effigy that was made of finger bones. There was a pile of skulls in a pyramidal shape, each one carefully placed, big empty eye sockets fixed outward in warning to travellers. Three of the skulls were a pale beige-red shade -- fresh and recent, because the sun hadn't bleached the bone quite yet.
They were definitely in Iroquois territory now, not just the land that they'd claimed after having driven off the Algonquin. This was theirs, where their ancestors had been born, going back as long as memory could go, where rite and ritual was as sacred as this marker was, warning that nothing but doom waited for them beyond.
"I'll just wait here," Stiles said. He shrugged his shoulders at Argent's hard look and pointed to the skull shrine. "I don't think my head would be a good addition. It would destroy the artisanal value --"
"Move it," St. Clair snarled, poking at Stiles with the business end of his rifle.
"Moving, but under protest," Stiles said, taking extra care to keep his tracks from marking the ground. If he had to run, he was grabbing Scott, and to hell with Argent's contract and future, ruined reputations. Scott couldn't marry Allison if he were dead, and Stiles definitely had plans that involved living a little longer. One of them included being kissed -- just once, at least.
They were following tracks. The tracks were old and faint, but unmistakeable; large paw prints that were big enough to be a large bear's, if only they didn't belong to a wolf.
He knew those tracks.
It made something hiccup in Stiles' chest to see them, and something heavy and full of misgivings twist in his belly when Argent announced, "We're close."
They weren't close to the wolf, not by far, Stiles knew. But they were at the outer reaches of Gerard Argent's map, close to the cluster of traps that was their current destination.
"Don't talk unless you have to," Stiles said.
"That'll be hard for you," Isaac said. Scott snorted.
"If you haven't noticed, this is Iroquois territory, and while I may occasionally run at the mouth, I tend to do it when I'm not at risk of getting gutted, disemboweled, and turned into wind chimes," Stiles said, rolling his eyes. Leroux wasn't paying attention to them, St. Clair appeared to be contemplating the decisions he'd made in life thus far, and Argent was already moving away.
Stiles caught up, but he was scanning the forest for all that he was worth.
All of Gerard's traps had been sprung, deliberately. Someone had not only speared a stick on the trigger point to close the jaws, but they had pulled the spikes clean out of the ground and looped all of the traps up high, out of reach.
It was conceivable that the Natives had come by, seen the traps, and disarmed them. It was equally conceivable that a werewolf had come across the traps, disarmed them, and hung them up to mock Gerard Argent. Stiles didn't want to think about it too much.
And for a while, Stiles didn't, not until he noticed that as they repaired the traps and moved to the next site, Argent would insist that they retreat the same way they’d come. Argent would bring up the rear, carrying a small bundle of herbs behind him.
"What's that for?" Scott asked.
Argent gave Scott a long, contemplative look before he answered. "It masks our scent. If the wolf is still in the area, we don't want it to scent us and avoid the traps."
"Oh," Scott said, shrugging his shoulders.
"What's it made out of?" Stiles asked, because he was so close to calling bullshit. He didn't know of anything that could completely hide someone's scent, and he'd spent a lot of time with his mother's family and the Tribes. They knew how to hide their presence like nobody's business. A bit of herb wouldn't do it.
"Trade secret," Argent said without hesitation.
"I'm in the trade," Stiles said, pushing. "And I work for you --"
"Score your first wolf kill, and we'll talk, kid," Argent said. He pointed ahead of them. "Where's the next site?"
Stiles eyed him while he shook out the crude map, even though he didn't have to look at the map to know where they were going. Argent wasn't making eye contact, but neither were St. Clair or Leroux.
"I can't begin to tell you how much of a bad idea it is to be sitting here, right in the middle of Iroquois territory, in front of a freaking fire that might as well signal come and get us," Stiles said, checking his equipment for the umpteenth time. He wanted to have a clear grab-and-go if he heard a sound that was even a little bit wrong.
There was a damp-cold in the air, a lingering trace of winter chill. The snow hadn't quite melted all the way where the sun didn't reach the deepest shadows of the forest. Here, where the trees were the thickest and the firs and pines knitting branches into an impenetrable canopy, it was nearly night even during the clear of day. The lack of sunlight made it colder still.
Everyone had taken their cues from Stiles and kept their packs close by and their guns even closer. The looming threat of being hunted down by the natives for trespassing in their territory hadn't stopped St. Clair from bitching and moaning about his bad knees, or lighting up a very inadvisable fire.
There weren't enough words to describe just how inadvisable, but Stiles did try to get his point across, anyway.
"Shut up, Stiles," Leroux said quietly.
Stiles fidgeted for a few more minutes. He huffed in frustration and picked up his bag. He headed closer to the forestline, ignoring the strange looks cast his way. Sure, the fire was nice and warm, but nice and warm didn't mean much when someone was cold and dead.
"I'll take first watch," Argent said, and no sooner had he spoken that a black blur flashed across the fire and blew it out.
"Oh shit," Isaac shouted.
"Oh, fucketyfuck," Stiles said, because he couldn't help but to one-up people when it came to panic. Stiles was a master when it came to panic.
"What was that?" Scott yelled, and there was a tumult of movement -- people grabbing their equipment, getting up, scrambling for the woods.
"Don't ask, run," Stiles said, grabbing Scott's shoulder -- at least, he thought it was Scott -- and giving him a shove.
There was a cry of pain in the distance, a shout. St. Clair yelled, "Shoot it."
"I can't see!" Leroux said.
There was a scuffle, the sound of burbling liquid, a silent rustle. The bright orange-white and the accompanying crack of musket firing filled the campsite.
Something moved in the darkness. Tree branches rustled. Everything fell quiet.
"Did you see it?" Argent asked. There was no answer. "St. Clair?"
"He's dead," Leroux said.
Stiles blinked several times, wishing that his eyes would get used to the darkness faster. There just wasn't enough moonlight or starlight to see by, even if the sky wasn't already obscured by the trees.
In the distance, wolves howled. The sound was deep and sonorous, and it sent chills down his spine.
There was a shift of movement, branches rustling together, a whisper.
"Vous venez finir ce que votre père a commencé," someone said, the voice a low, rough growl. "Ce que votre sœur a continuée. Qu'est-ce que ça va prendre? Est-ce que nous devons éteindre vôtre ligne afin d'avoir notre paix?"
You came to finish what your father began. That which your sister continued. What will it take? Will we have to end your bloodline if we ever want our peace?
Stiles felt a hand grasp his arm. "Stiles --"
Stiles tugged himself free of Scott's fingers and pushed him out into the forest, but the woman who had spoken was speaking again.
"Nous chassons ceux qui nous chassent," the woman said, her tone full of mockery. Stiles only could track her by her voice alone; she was moving through the forest, smooth as silk, and he couldn't hear her footsteps at all. "Ce n'est qu'une promesse cassée. Un honneur terni. Quelle pitié. Les Argents étaient respectés, une fois, même par nous, mais pas ces jours. Pas après…"
We hunt those who hunt us. That's nothing but a broken promise. An honour tainted. What a pity. The Argents were respected, once, even by us, but not these days. Not after…
"Assez!" Argent roared. Scott grabbed Stiles; Stiles grabbed him. He wasn't sure who he should be more afraid of -- Argent, or the woman in the woods, but his self-preservation instincts were leaning toward get the fuck out either way.
"We should go," Scott whispered. Stiles had adjusted to the darkness and could see Leroux crouched down over what looked to be St. Clair. After a few seconds, Leroux shifted slowly, hiding his movements with his body, turning his head now and again as if tracking the woman's position. Argent was holding his rifle; it was horizontal to the ground, ready to be hefted up to the shoulder and fired.
Stiles had a bad feeling.
"Vous nous chassez," the woman said, her tone bitter. "Pour quoi? Pour rien! Pour n'autre raison que nous sommes ce que nous sommes! Quel droit avez-vous de juger quand vous êtres ceux qui tire premier? Qui a brûlé notre famille, qui leur a tués?"
You hunt us. For what? For nothing! For no other reason that we are what we are! What right have you to judge us when you are the ones who fired the first shot? Who burned our family, who killed them?
Isaac was crouched by a nearby tree, torn between fleeing and staying, unsure which was the safer option.
To Stiles, it seemed as if they were dead either way.
"J'en ai entendu assez! Je ne peux vous croire, pas maintenant, pas depuis -- pas depuis Kathérine," Argent said. I've heard enough. I can't believe anything you say, not now, not since -- not since Katherine. The rifle was at his shoulder now, but he was lose and relaxed, ready to shoot. "Vous êtes les derniers. C'est avec votre sang que --"
You're the last. It's with your blood that --
"Que vous mettez une fin à la vedette qui n'existe que dans votre tête?" A male voice asked, low and rumbling. Stiles would say that it sounded almost amused, if it weren't so sad.
That you put an end to a vendetta that only exists in your head?
"Stiles," Scott hissed. "I'll get Isaac --"
Stiles nodded. He nodded again. His head bobbed as he thought out a plan. It wasn't a great plan. It was a plan made all the worse when he saw Leroux hide something behind his back. Stiles wasn't sure what it was, but he knew it had to be bad when Argent barked, "Maintenant," and Leroux lobbed it high in the air.
"Now," Stiles shouted, shoving Scott toward Isaac. There was a scramble as Scott tripped, fell half on top of Isaac, and rolled off, dragging Isaac with him through the trees. Stiles surged forward, running in the other direction.
He made it deep enough into the woods that when a bright white flash lit up the night as sure as if it were day, it didn't blind him, not completely. He tripped and stumbled and risked a glance over his shoulder as the light began to fade, but when pinpoints of red and white and the cannon-loud roar of muskets firing resonated, he turned and kept on running.
There were howls of pain, roars of outrage. There were mangled shouts and crisp orders to "Retirer!" There was more gunfire, more howling, more shouting. Stiles kept going. He didn't dare stop.
He ran until it was silent. He ran until the only sounds he could hear were those of his own footfalls, his heavy, frantic breath, and the soft, soft growl of someone -- something -- nipping at his heels. A flash of movement out of the corner of his eye was a body running through the forest, keeping easy pace with him.
A flash of movement on the other side was another wolf. It turned glowing red eyes on him, and conscious thought overruled enough of Stiles' fear for him to recognize that he was being herded. That they would pin him down somewhere where there was no escape, and they would rip him apart.
He ran faster.
He ran until his heart threatened to burst, until his lungs burned for breath, until the night around him wasn't dark anymore because the sun was rising and he was in danger of passing out from sheer exhaustion.
Something hard and sharp swatted at his heels. Stiles stumbled, lost his footing, fell. He skidded face-first through the rotting leaves and wet moss until he came to a bruising stop against a fallen log.
He didn't move. His breath hitched and he tried to hold it. Maybe if the wolves thought that he was dead, they wouldn't bother with him.
He risked a glance up to the side. He saw one wolf, large and majestic, pacing nearby; bright red eyes stared at him unblinking. Another wolf, its eyes an iridescent blue, stalked closer and closer, its teeth barred into a snarl.
Stiles tried to wriggle under the log. He didn't think the log would protect him from wolves that were big enough to plow a house down.
Teeth cut through the soft leather of his overshirt, scratched through skin. Stiles twisted his body away and over, landing on his back, his clothing tearing free of the wolf`s maw. He scrambled, but froze at the wolf's deep, menacing growl.
The wolf lunged at him.
Stiles closed his eyes and held his breath. His life flashed behind his eyelids. Goodbye, dad, I love you --
The wolf's growl was answered by a warning snarl. A rush of air, the soft swipe of fur against his face -- that's what made Stiles open his eyes.
Another wolf stood over him, its head down, hackles raised. It was a big black blotch in the fading night where the other wolves at least had lighter fur to outline them, and it was as large and as majestic as the others.
And for some reason that Stiles couldn't fathom, the wolf was protecting him.
The first wolf -- a dark brown with a mottled pattern and light fur over its face and body -- snarled back, teeth glinting a frightening white despite the dark. It stalked in an arc toward them, shifting from the left to its right, searching, scanning for any way to get past the black wolf and to its prey.
Its' prey being Stiles.
Stiles gulped. He reached out instinctively and touched the black wolf's flank, and though the wolf tensed under his hand, it didn't move, it didn't so much as shift its' attention away from the mottled wolf.
Stiles was momentarily distracted by the softness of the wolf's fur. He startled at the sound of a rumbling growl coming from the large grey-black wolf with red eyes. It came toward them, standing between the mottled wolf and the black wolf -- and, finally, finally, the mottled wolf backed off, but not without first flashing its teeth at Stiles.
The black wolf's ears went back, the hackles went down, but it suffered the grey-black wolf's steady, burning gaze in silence, before the grey-black wolf huffed indulgently and turned its gaze to Stiles.
Stiles stared back.
All at once, the four of them startled, wolf and human all, at the faintest squish of a weight upon wet moss, at the fwap of a tree branch shifting with movement.
"Go," Stiles hissed. The mottled wolf and the grey-black wolf disappeared in the forest, but the black wolf turned its head toward the sound, pointed ears pricking up. Stiles shoved at its rump, and shoved again when the first attempt had no effect. "Go, you dumb wolf. Go."
The black wolf turned to look at him, its eyes a shade that Stiles had only ever seen when lightning arced across the darkening sky as the sun was setting, bright and shining like a jewel. It took a step closer to Stiles, its head down, its muzzle snuffling up his chest --
Stiles froze again, his heart pounding, but he wasn't sure if it was out of fear or because --
A cold nose found the open ties of his shirt and buried itself in the crook between his shoulder and his neck. The wolf inhaled deeply before exhaling in a warm, heavy breath. It sent chills down Stiles' spine.
When the cold air replaced the wolf's heat, Stiles nearly whined from the loss, even as his heart pounded to realize how close he'd been to getting his throat ripped out.
The wolf was gone.
No, I didn't see them. What do you mean, they came after me? That's ridiculous. After that flash -- what was it, anyway? White phosphorous? I'll have to get myself some -- you scared off all the wildlife for miles and miles, and those wolves? They were probably leading the charge --
Argent didn't ask more questions after that, not after they brought Stiles back to where he'd stumbled and fallen, and not even a blind man could miss the wolf tracks all around that spot.
I'd fallen, you would've, too, look at that fucking root. I don't know what you're talking about, though. I fell, got up, climbed over the log, and just kept running until I almost fell in the river.
Which was exactly what Stiles had done after he'd recovered from the shock of having been nuzzled by a wolf. By a potential werewolf. All right, fine. By a werewolf, because there was nothing else that explained Argent's sudden fervour, pushing them to hunt harder and smarter.
They built fires every night now, even though it was a genuinely bad idea. They were deeper in Iroquois territory now, and although they hadn't encountered any war bands so far, their luck wouldn't hold.
The way they were going, it was now looking to be even odds whether they would die at the wrong end of an Iroquois knife or a wolf’s -- a werewolf's -- fangs.
Just what was his life?
The werewolf tracks were distinct from wolf tracks. Larger, wider, deeper in the ground. There were three of them; they were a small pack, and the other wolves, the real ones, steered clear. Stiles couldn't pretend he didn't see these prints well enough to track, not when they were so obvious that even Scott could follow them.
"We're getting closer," Argent said. He was eager, almost frothing at the mouth with anticipation. "Move faster, Stiles."
"No," Stiles said, because he was trying very hard to ignore how those paw prints became foot prints to traverse a particularly narrow and perilous rock escarpment, becoming paw prints again on the other side. "I can't and I won't go faster. I don't know the land, I don't know where the Tribes are settled, and I sure as shit don't want to run into that war band again."
They'd crossed paths with them, the natives' presence barely obvious to anyone but him, and had probably missed each other by minutes, and that was far too close for comfort.
"My father set a line of traps out that way," Argent said, ignoring Stiles' ardent no, we're not, no, stop it, no, we need to turn back, no, we've gone too far, oh my fucking God, what did you hire me for, entertainment? to push at Stiles' shoulder and to urge him onward. "You saw the lines on his map. He was planning on herding them toward a natural enclosure, use the rocks to keep them from escaping, traps to slow them down."
"It'll be like fish in a barrel," Leroux said, grinning. He was carrying St. Clair's rifle and as much of St. Clair's gear as he could manage. They'd buried the man in a shallow grave, making Isaac do most of the digging.
"Right," Stiles said, casting a glance over his shoulder at Scott. His normally placid expression was marred with conflict, and Isaac, beside Scott, looked stricken.
They'd all been shaken by the attack, but more than that, it had been what they'd heard the woman say in the night. The accusation, the implication -- it was all damning, and made all the more so by Argent's continued silence. It seemed as if by not speaking of it, Argent was hoping that it had been forgotten.
It was a little harder to un-hear how their boss' kin had killed an entire family, and harder still to forget how Argent hadn't denied that it had happened.
It was when they reached the mouth of an escarpment rising out of the ground like a monolith that Argent barked directions. "Leroux, I want you to take the middle. I'll be on your left. Scott, you'll be on mine. Isaac, flank Leroux, and Stiles, you're on Isaac's other side. We'll fan in; shoot anything that moves. We're close, I can smell them --"
Stiles sniffed the air, but all he could smell were pine trees and damp ground and rotting leaves and bear musk, because a bear had rubbed itself against a nearby tree.
"-- so let's push them in," Argent said.
"What if the traps were triggered?" Isaac asked, flushing for having had the temerity to even bring it up. "What if -- I mean, like the other ones? We don't know, do we? What if they're leading us into an ambush?"
"They're wolves," Scott said with a huff. "They're not that smart."
Leroux and Argent exchanged glances. Stiles slapped his face, not believing what had just come out of Scott's mouth.
Stiles hoped that they wouldn't die.
Stiles had lost sight of Isaac a long time ago.
Gerard Argent's map was a piece of shit. Stiles had known that from the beginning, but it was even more evident now. On paper, this valley looked as if it was a narrow bottleneck that opened up into a stony canyon, but actually, it was wide open ground until they hit a distant rock face, which meant that they needed to cover more ground to herd the wolves -- the werewolves -- toward traps that might or might not already have been triggered, rendering them useless.
Stiles had nearly stepped in one of those bearclaw traps.
Gerard Argent was a bastard. A mean, conniving bastard.
This area was thick with forest, and it took all of Stiles' skills to bushwhack his way through without sounding like a stampeding herd. He broke through a tangle of branches, the pine needles scratching at his face, and stopped dead.
A black wolf growled at him.
A large black wolf.
Grizzly bear-big, but that might be the panic talking.
The growl was low and soft, warning and threatening at the same time, laced with an undertone of pain. The soft strangled whine snapped Stiles out of his initial stupor. Suddenly, the wolf wasn't huge. He wasn't monstrous. He...
The wolf didn't advance; he stayed where he was, near the far end of the narrow break in the woods, hackles raised, head down, muscles bunched so tightly that the wolf almost looked small.
"Almost" being used loosely.
The wind blew through the forest, and the branches shifted. Sunlight pierced through and --
Stiles saw the trap. It had caught the wolf -- the werewolf, Stiles was sure, because no wolf was this big -- in the leg, the metal teeth digging into its haunch. Blood slicked the black fur liberally and seeped into the ground; the wolf was keeping immobile and calm despite the obvious pain it must be in.
"Holy shit," Stiles said. He took a step closer. The wolf growled. Stiles raised his free hand and slowly put his rifle on the ground. He held out both arms in a gesture he hoped would be understood as I mean no harm. "Are you -- holy shit."
He walked around the wolf in a circle, keeping his distance; the low growl was perpetual background noise now. The wolf watched him warily, but didn't lunge at him, and didn't do much more than bare its teeth in a silent snarl.
"That looks bad. That looks really bad. Shit. Those fuckers," Stiles said, running his hands through his hair. He looked around and spotted a tree branch; it would do. "I can't -- I really can't. Fuck. This is Scott's fault. I never wanted to work for Argent. Never. I wanted to be a free agent, an explorer. I mean, there's so much of this --
"Holy God," Stiles blurted out. "Did you try to chew off your own leg? Did you -- no. Just, no. You did not do that. You are not losing your leg. Did you -- wait, hold on --"
He hadn't come closer, but he spotted the chain on the trap and followed it to where it was wrapped tightly around a tree trunk. He unwound the chain just to give himself some slack -- slack that was immediately lost when the wolf limped away a few steps.
"No, no, stop, what are you, suicidal? Just, no. Stop, lay down or something --" The wolf snapped at Stiles, but even though it looked as if it had lunged forward, it hadn't moved. Stiles clammed up for a moment, licking his lips, frozen to the spot. The wolf's growling seemed louder, suddenly, a warning to get away. Stiles swallowed hard. "No, see, I found Argent's book. He's a nice enough guy, that Christophe, but he's got his priorities all wrong. Like, he's way off. It's one thing to hunt wolves -- which, on principle, I don't agree with because, you know, food chain and the balance of nature and all that -- but it's something else when it's hunting people who happen to turn into wolves. That's just wrong."
The growling stopped. The wolf seemed to draw back into something that might even be surprise. Stiles took advantage of it to move forward slowly, testing the waters. The wolf watched him warily, but didn't make a sound.
"Yeah, that's right. I'm one hundred percent Team Wolf here, buddy," Stiles said. "Well, as long as there's no tearing my throat out, or ripping my face off, or going for my belly, or anything that might make me very dead against my will. Okay? So you see this stick? I'm not going to club you with it, I'm going to wedge the trap --"
Stiles continued a running commentary as he crept closer and closer to the wolf. The wolf didn't react except to watch Stiles with a steady gaze as he put the stick in the trap, held the trap down with one foot, and cranked it open.
It took some doing. The trap was larger and had a tighter coil than any trap Stiles had ever seen before. He wasn't a slouch in the muscle department, but this almost seemed more than he could manage. The wolf made a sound halfway between a whine and a yelp when the stick slipped out of the notch and the trap closed up tight again.
"Sorry, sorry," Stiles said, starting over. He paused to glance around, and this time he was more careful, working slowly, putting his back into it. His arms burned, his leg was trembling where he was doing his best to keep the trap immobile, but finally, finally, the trap opened enough that the wolf jerked its leg out, and --
Just like that.
"You're welcome," Stiles groused, letting the trap snap shut.
The stick exploded in splinters when the jaws clanged together.
Stiles wasn't sure if it was Scott's puppy eyes or his misleading innocent adorableness, but something had convinced Argent to tell them what was going on, starting with who the woman and the man had been and what Argent had meant when he swore to kill off their bloodline.
"Is it true? There's a blood feud? Are we after them? I don't want to have anything to do with that. You said --"
"You said wolves," Isaac put in, cowering almost immediately under Argent's steely glare.
"Yeah, you said wolves," Scott said. "And we haven't seen those people anywhere. If we're -- I mean, what are we after, really?"
"Wolves," Argent snarled.
No one said anything. Leroux mumbled under his breath and rolled over onto his side, pulling his blankets up. Obviously, he wanted no part of this conversation. Stiles didn't blame him. If it didn't mean leaving Scott and Isaac alone with Argent, he'd be on his way home right now.
"And those people?" Scott pressed.
Werewolves, Stiles' head supplied helpfully, but he managed to bite down hard on his tongue before he said it out loud. He stared at his hands and scratched at a callus as if it was the only thing that could save his life.
"My family has had a blood feud with theirs for… generations," Argent said carefully. It was plausible enough to be true, enough truth not to be a lie, and revealing enough that not even Stiles, with his insatiable curiosity, would press for more out of consideration for Argent's feelings. Except Stiles was pretty sure that the entire family was batshit crazy if they would go around burning people's families alive, in which case, consideration went out the window.
"They mentioned a name. Kathérine," Stiles said.
"My sister," Argent said, looking into his hands.
"Did they kill her?"
Stiles could feel eyes on him. Scott and Isaac. They must remember the hunt that had followed finding Kathérine Argent's body. They must remember the fire. Stiles glanced at them and saw that Isaac had made the connection, but Scott was scrambling to catch up.
"Yes," Argent said, a hint of anger in his tone. He stretched out on the ground, pulling a blanket over his legs. "Take the first watch, Stiles."
But I'm not done asking questions, Stiles thought. What came out of his mouth was, "Yeah, sure. By the way, did she die before or after the fire that killed that family? I mean, the family you have a blood feud with?"
Scott's eyebrows shot up to his hairline. Isaac dragged his blankets away. Argent didn't answer him.
And after everyone had gone to bed, their breathing evening out in the darkness, Stiles leaned back against a tree and stared at the stars.
He tried very hard to pretend that he didn't notice the bright blue eyes glowing in the darkness, watching them.
He waited until he was sure the others were sound asleep and hissed, "Don't be an idiot. Run."
He wasn't sure if he was talking to the wolf or to himself, but the wolf answered with a snort.
Stiles didn't know how Argent missed seeing the wolf tracks, but Stiles wasn't about to point them out, either. He led the group past the river, heading the other way.
Every time they stopped, Stiles would go on ahead under the pretence of scouting ahead, and he'd wipe every track he found.
It seemed strange that no matter how hard he worked to lead everyone away from the wolves, they were right on their heels anyway. Then he realized that the wolves were following them.
He didn't understand, but he sure hoped it didn't mean that they were prey.
"We're turning back," Argent said, and that was the first smart thing that Stiles had heard him say since they walked past the warning shrine and into Iroquois territory.
"Finally," Stiles huffed. He didn't care why Argent had changed his mind, but he suspected that it had more to do with a principle he held dear: live to fight another day.
The native hunters had nearly stumbled on them twice. A war band or two had been spotted but it was probably the same one. Stiles was pretty sure that the natives were hunting for the White Men who had wandered onto their land more than they were searching for their evening meal.
Stiles had been operating on adrenaline, not enough sleep, and a perpetual state of alertness since he spotted his first Iroquois a few days ago -- five days after freeing the black wolf from the trap. It was three days later, and his normally easy glide through the forest had been reduced to a fumbling stumble. If he didn't get some sleep soon, he would start thrashing about, at which point he might as well start carrying a sign with an arrow pointed at him that said, I'm right here, c'mon, shoot me.
No one seemed to notice that he'd stopped looking for wolf tracks and was keeping an eye out for the subtle, nearly-invisible signs that they were being hunted. If they did notice, they didn't care, as long as they got out of the area alive.
Stiles half-startled out of his own thoughts when he heard a rustle of leaves where there shouldn't be. He turned --
An arrow whizzed past and got Leroux in the shoulder. Leroux's torso twisted around at the impact and his grunt of pain was almost a physical blow.
They all stared at the feathers sticking out of Leroux' arm, at the blood seeping through his tawny-coloured shirt.
"Run," Isaac shouted.
Stiles grabbed Scott's arm to get him going. Stiles' mind was already buzzing with possible hiding sites and defensible locations. In the heat of the hunt they might be able to lose the natives, but from the way the arrows flew past their heads or struck tree trunks as they raced past?
Losing the natives was doubtful.
Stiles lost his grip on Scott at some point, but he saw Scott running in parallel some distance away. He heard Argent and Isaac somewhere behind them, their breaths heavy.
Fewer arrows came at them. The forest was too thick to get a good shot, and they had managed to put distance between them and their pursuers.
Stiles stumbled forward, falling to his knees, the bloom of pain in his back blinding and dizzying. He looked down to see the arrowhead just sticking through his shirt, a bull's-eye of blood encircling the sharp point. He struggled to his feet, only to fall again when another arrow went through his thigh.
"Stiles!" Scott shouted.
Go!, Stiles wanted to scream. Get away!
He didn't have the voice. He managed to get to his good leg, to drag himself to the closest tree, the trunk barely wide enough to shield him. It was a sapling, barely rooted deep enough to act as a brace, but it would have to do. Stiles managed to drag his rifle around -- it was so heavy, suddenly, as if someone had chained great weights to the muzzle -- but his vision blurred. When he pulled the trigger, he missed by a country mile.
The loud crack of a gunshot was enough to silence and slow their pursuers.
"Stiles! Let me go, damn it! I have to get him --"
"Don't be stupid," Argent said. "Don't waste his sacrifice --"
Stiles' hands moved mechanically; he packed more black powder into his rifle, added a cloth ballast, dropped in the round lead bullet, tapped it all back in.
"Stiles!" Scott shouted, but his voice was distant, muffled by the trees. Stiles couldn't tell if Scott really was leaving or if he was losing consciousness, but he couldn't bring himself to care for anything more than making sure Scott had a chance to get away.
Melissa and his dad would kill him if he didn't take care of Scott.
Stiles felt his body slip; he struggled to keep his eyes open. He fought against the grey that was tinting the edges of his vision. The blood from his shoulder wound had dripped all the way down his arm and his hand was slick; it was difficult to keep the rifle steady, never mind to shoot.
He saw movement. He aimed in that general direction and fired again.
He twisted and loaded another bullet. His fingers were numb.
His vision went black. The lead shot rolled out of his hand and into the leaf litter on the ground. His head lolled down and he passed out, but not before he heard an angry roar.
Stiles woke up to deep, growling vibrations passing through his body, a warm, heavy weight on his chest and legs, and a woman exasperatingly begging, "For the love of God, Derek. If you don't want him to die, you'll move out of the way so that I can take care of him."
The growl deepened.
"Peter!" the woman said. "Help me with Derek. He's being impossible."
"Not going near the two of them with a ten-foot pole, my dear. He's still mad about the last time. I only threatened the boy. I wasn't going to hurt him, just scare him a bit, and look where that got me."
"Fine," the woman said, exhaling heavily. Her voice changed, a strange, deep quality reverberating down to Stiles' bones, and she said, "Derek. Go sit outside. Now."
The growl became a whine.
"I said now."
The weight on Stiles' chest eased, shifted, moved away, and the warmth did, too. Something cold and wet nuzzled his cheek; he swore he felt fur tickling his throat before it was gone.
He cracked his eyes open just enough to see a wolf's shape retreating. He decided that he was dreaming.
"Good. You're awake," the woman said, pleased. "Now go back to sleep. Derek will be mad that he wasn't here when you woke up."
Stiles moved -- wincing when he moved his injured arm -- and rubbed his face. He managed to prop himself up on his good elbow before blinking repeatedly and focusing on a pretty brunette with a stern expression. There was kindness in her eyes, but hidden behind great strain, as if she was using all of her strength not only to survive, but to keep going.
She wore a light-coloured tunic and knee-cut breeches in a native style that Stiles had seen before, among the Algonquin. Even the beadwork at the collar was familiar. Her hair was long and straight and loose; she wore no jewellery and her feet were bare.
"Wait. What -- Who are you?" Stiles asked.
"Laura," she said, a small smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. She gestured toward a man sitting on the other side of the den. He leaned back against the wall, his arm resting on a raised leg. He wore long trousers that looked a little large on him and nothing else. "That's Peter."
"Okay," Stiles said, a little worried about the stretch of Peter's lips and the way he raised his hand and gestured hello in a short, aborted wave. He seemed… menacing.
Stiles tried to process what had happened. Argent had brought them out here to hunt wolves who were actually werewolves with whom the family had a blood feud. They'd been running from an Iroquois war band --
Movement out of the corner of his eye drew his attention to the sheltered mouth of the den, low branches and green leaves casting it in shadow. A black wolf crept inside, pausing to look at him.
"And that's Derek," Laura said.
Werewolves were real. Stiles knew that. He believed in it. He'd learned about them from his mother's stories; he'd heard about animal spirits who lived in the soul of a man. A more sane man would call him crazy the same way that he thought the Argents were a little strange. But that wasn't why a laugh bubbled out of Stiles' chest.
He laughed because he was at the mercy of three werewolves, and he didn't feel afraid. He felt safe.
He felt safe for the first time in ages.
The three werewolves froze, exchanging glances that Stiles couldn't read.
"How's your leg?" Stiles asked Derek, trying for casual in an attempt to break the sudden tension. He could tell that the wolf was fine; he moved at an even gait. All the blood had been washed out of his fur. He could also tell that Derek was large and broad, his fur a pitch black that was as rich as any that Stiles had ever seen, his eyes a shade between green and blue and gray and every colour in-between.
No one said anything. Derek tilted his head in a gesture that might mean, you're an idiot, or it could be obviously, I'm fine. Stiles wasn't sure.
Off to the side, Laura shifted, moving away. Peter crawled forward until he was standing on his knees, and there was an air of warning to their body language, almost as if they were ready to guard, to protect --
But protect whom? Stiles or Derek?
Stiles wasn't sure. If he were being honest, he didn't really care. He couldn't take his eyes from the wolf in front of him.
"You're beautiful," Stiles blurted out.
It was the right thing to say. Laura and Peter both deflated with relief and sank back against the cave walls. Stiles was delighted when Derek closed the distance between them. He laid down next to Stiles, resting his head on Stiles' shoulder and burying his cold nose into Stiles' neck.
It was perfect.
Stiles must have said so out loud, because Derek's body rumbled in what might be agreement. Or maybe he was just laughing at Stiles. It was hard to tell.
"They're out of the natives' territory, but that won't stop the war parties," Peter said as soon as he'd shifted into his human form. He caught the trousers that Laura tossed him one-handed, but he wasn't in a hurry to put them on. "They've gone north and are heading steadily east, but I can't decide if they're lost or not."
"North? North's the Bay, and if they're going east, that means they're going for one of the trapper outposts," Stiles said, hopeful. "So they're all right?
"Three of them are," Peter said, his mouth pulled in the grinning line of a man who enjoyed carnage for no other reason than it was carnage. Stiles stilled, and the sudden lack of momentum would have made him collapse if Derek wasn't besides him, as usual, supporting him with his big, solid body.
His hand dug in Derek's fur, and Derek growled -- at Peter.
"Your friends are fine. Unfortunately, so is Argent," Peter said, shrugging. He put on his pants with the uncaring grace of someone who didn't mind being naked, but it embarrassed Stiles anyway. Stiles looked away. "The other one -- Leroux? He deserved a slower death."
Stiles flinched. The Iroquois weren't known for being merciful. If Leroux had been alive when the Iroquois got their hands on him, they would have skinned him and made him watch while they disembowelled him and removed body parts that could be used for food and other, practical day-to-day purposes. At least, that's what Stiles thought would happen. He had heard stories, but all of those had been second hand, and he didn't know how many were true and how many were just yarns told by old trappers trying to scare the greenies.
No one spoke. Laura squeezed Stiles' shoulder and started walking again. Peter fell in step next to her; Derek looked up at Stiles, patient and waiting for Stiles to get his legs under him.
His thigh throbbed, but at least he hadn't re-opened his wound when he stumbled.
With a nod, Stiles started moving, Derek staying next to him as a makeshift crutch even though he could easily range ahead.
They were heading west.
"How come he doesn't change? He can, right?" Stiles asked, keeping his voice down. He'd figured out that the werewolves had exceptionally good hearing after Peter returned to the camp one night. Stiles had been asking questions; Laura hadn't known the answers, and the way Peter had started talking before Stiles could even ask him --
It made Stiles regret having said that Peter was creepy when Peter was out of earshot. Or what Stiles had thought was out of earshot. The sidelong smirk Peter had thrown his way hadn't made any sense until much later, and it didn't make Peter any less creepy, anyway.
Derek was out hunting, and Stiles was relying on Laura to tell him if Derek was close enough to hear. He wasn't entirely sure that she would warn him, or even that she could. More often than not, she seemed entirely too surprised when Derek would suddenly appear through the trees.
"He does," Laura hedged. "Sometimes."
"But not now," Stiles said. He could venture a guess why. "Is it because I'm here?"
The look that Laura gave him was simultaneously startled, angry, and fond. She shook her head and offered him a hand up over the fallen tree. He could walk better these days, but his leg tended to give out when he overexerted himself, and Derek would force him to slow, even stop, by getting firmly in his way.
"No, that's not why," Laura said, helping him down. Stiles leaned against the log, reflexively suppressing a wince even though he'd learned that werewolves could smell emotions, too. Laura steadied him when he threatened to slip, and she studied his expression for a long time. "He just... feels safer as a wolf."
"Is it because I'm here?" Stiles asked again, offering up a small grin to take away from the sting he felt. Derek hadn't left him alone since saving Stiles from the Iroquois, and Stiles had never gotten a clear answer why he'd been saved in the first place. Peter had seemed happy enough to try for Stiles' throat that first time they'd met, and Stiles couldn't blame any of them if they hated him. He'd been travelling with an Argent, for God's sake. And from what little that he'd pieced together, the Argents had been behind the fire that had hit lower York all those years ago, starting with one specific house.
There had been people inside. Never mind that they were werewolves. They were people.
Maybe someday, he would be brave enough to ask what happened. Maybe someday, Stiles would get the full story. Maybe someday, he would be able to wrap his arms around Derek's shoulders and hold him, offering comfort.
"No, that's not why," Laura said, giving him a wry smile. "If anything, Peter and I are seeing him around more because you're here. I'm hoping... I'm hoping that he'll take his human form again, too."
I don't understand, Stiles wanted to say, because he really didn't get it. He didn't know what he had to do with anything. It must have showed in his expression, or maybe in his scent, because Laura reached out and patted his knee.
"He likes you, Stiles," Laura said.
"I like him, too," Stiles said, confused.
"He really likes you, Stiles," Laura emphasized, and sighed when Stiles' confusion only grew. "We should keep moving."
"Yeah, we should," Stiles said, because by now Argent and Scott and Isaac had probably reached that outpost and were wrangling all of the men that they could to come out on the hunt again. At least, that was what Peter seemed to think, and why he'd taken to changing their route.
The only thing was, Stiles didn't know where they were going.
North, it seemed like. At least for a while. They walked around a great body of water and started heading south. The weather was nice, and they settled down for a few days.
Laura and Peter had gone hunting, leaving Stiles to guard their clothes -- Peter had finally gotten rid of the rough wool trousers and had traded with a friendly native tribe in exchange for soft leather deerskin breeches, while Laura had gotten a new tunic that fell down to her thighs.
Stiles hadn't missed how there was another pair of breeches for -- presumably -- Derek. He hadn't missed how Laura had taken Derek aside afterward, a hand tangled tight in his scruff as she dragged him away. He definitely hadn't mean to overhear how Laura had growled, "Don't make me force you to turn. Stop being a coward."
Stiles sat, his back against a tree, and looked out onto the calm lake, the wind blowing the faintest ripple over the surface. He'd cleared enough space for them to sleep that night -- just enough room for a pile, with none of them out of arm's reach, Stiles in the middle and Derek permanently plastered against his side, and it should be strange to Stiles that they had a routine, but it wasn't. There was enough wood for a fire to cook whatever Laura and Peter brought back, and he'd taken out his tools, some of them new, to skin the carcass properly.
He was teaching Peter how to do it, too, but Peter showed a little too much interest in the act. Still, Stiles couldn't complain -- the furs and meat were excellent currency with the local tribes. Where the furs were of no interest, they used whatever they could fashion out of bones and sinew -- Laura was awfully good at carving bows. Sometimes, the tribes asked for specific herbs -- and Stiles found those, too, with Derek leading the way.
Their journey west was less urgent. It had been for weeks, now. Peter couldn't find any trace of Argent, even after being gone for weeks to hunt and prowl the trail they'd left behind. Hopefully, that meant Argent was no longer after them. The Iroquois weren't, either, not this far out of their territory, though there was always a danger from the tribes they encountered along the way. Stiles' wounds had healed and he was growing stronger every day -- it wasn't as if he had a choice, not when he was running with wolves.
One of them sat next to him, fur brushing his bare arm. He didn't need to turn his eyes to look -- he knew it was Derek.
"I used to sit with my mother at the lake, back in York," Stiles said, his words faltering almost right away. Derek shifted and leaned against him, and Stiles smiled involuntarily. "We'd watch the geese fly south in the winter. We'd wave them good-bye and... It was weird, I guess. Seeing them go was always something to celebrate, even if it meant that the winter was coming, because it meant my dad was going to be home, soon."
Birds fluttered in the forest around them. In the long shade of the sun setting behind the trees, a loon drifted out, its wings fluttering as it preened.
"I was ten when she died," Stiles said. "She had some sort of wasting disease -- the doctors didn't know what to call it. She... She hung on until my dad made it home from running the trails. Almost until Christmas."
Stiles' voice hitched. He didn't hate the winter because it was cold, so fucking cold sometimes that his limbs went numb and he chattered himself to sleep, but because they'd had to wait until the thaw before they could bury her properly. It had been a long winter of grief that had driven his father to drink and had left Stiles convinced that his mother wasn't really dead until months later, when they lowered her down into the ground.
Derek's weight against him lessened only momentarily. Stiles reached out without thinking and ran his hand down Derek's back before he realized what he was doing.
"Oh, shit. Shit. I'm sorry. Is this weird? I mean, this is you. You're not a dog, or... And I don't think anyone's supposed to pet a wolf. I mean, you've never minded -- you always stuck your head under my --"
Derek snorted and bullied his way into Stiles' lap.
"Oof. You're heavy." Stiles' hands hovered in the air hesitantly, falling onto Derek's back, letting his fingers bury deep in the soft fur, scratching along Derek's spine and the nape of his neck.
The sky was a smear of an artist's palette, with dark blues along one side lightening into the pale before drifting into yellow and oranges and fiery reds.
"I wonder what you look like, sometimes," Stiles said. He half-laughed. "More like all the time, actually. I guess you have dark hair. Maybe black? I wonder if it'll still be soft when you're human? I mean, whenever you feel like changing forms. Totally no pressure. I'm just curious. Really curious. Like, I hope your eyes stay the same. I've never seen that colour. I can't even give it a name."
The sun set.
Peter and Laura hadn't returned yet, but Stiles wasn't worried. He knew they ran for a long time, always hunting far away from their campsite. He wouldn't starve. He could hunt, but he didn't need to -- Derek always brought him small game, or led him to where he'd taken down an elk or a deer. Every time he did that, Peter and Laura would roll their eyes at Derek, but Derek always ignored them.
Stiles ran his hand down Derek's back, bringing his fingers up again to dig behind Derek's ear. Derek twitched his ear and, impossibly, grew heavier.
"Give him time," Laura said, elbowing Stiles gently when she caught him staring. Derek had disappeared into the woods yet again, but it was hard for Stiles, particularly lately. He'd grown used to walking with Derek every day. Their little quiet time when Stiles would talk and Derek would listen, not that he had any choice. His warmth at night, the way he curled around Stiles when the wind was sharp.
"Maybe I'm hoping for too much," Stiles said, staring down at the mess of torn grass in his hands. "Maybe I'm hoping for something that was never there."
Laura started to say something, but hesitated. Instead, she put her hand on his shoulder and repeated, "Give him time. He'll come around."
Stiles closed his eyes, wondering if Laura had meant what he'd thought she'd meant, and figured that he'd never know if he didn't try.
"I wake up from a dream sometimes," Stiles said softly. He wasn't sure if it was knowing that the other wolves weren't going to be back for a while that made him brave, or if it was just that he'd never seen Derek in person in all these months of traveling together and probably never would. "I dream that I wake up in a bed in a cabin and there's someone next to me. I don't recognize where I am but it's comfortable, familiar. I try to roll out of bed to stoke the fire because it's been raining and I know my bedmate hates the chill, but I get pulled back in and --"
Stiles bit his lower lip.
"-- I kiss you." He laughed nervously and fixed his gaze firmly on the lake, the setting sun casting slivers of light through the forest to pierce the surface.
The weight across his legs eased. Derek sat up, but Stiles didn't have to look to know that Derek was moving away. He looked anyway.
Derek's tail was down, his body tight, his head low. He didn't look back at Stiles like he always did before he disappeared in the woods.
Stiles' heart sank. Maybe Laura was wrong. Maybe Derek liked him just fine. He just didn't like Stiles like that. Of course he wouldn't have. Relations between men were denounced by the Church as depraved, immoral, foul. Stiles had never dared, not until Derek, but...
Humiliation washed over him.
Stiles should have kept his mouth shut.
Things were awkward -- as awkward as it got when one of them was a non-verbal wolf -- before things returned to normal, which they never did. Derek avoided him.
It was strange for Stiles not to have Derek's steady presence next to him on their travels. It was even stranger to roll over at night and reach out for Derek, only to find him gone. Instead of Derek, there were things -- the once-alive sort of regurgitated things -- like rodents and rabbits and fish.
It was disgusting. Stiles said as much.
"I'm not a helpless cub," Stiles complained, flicking the newest offering away with two fingers. Instead of laughing silently at his latest prank -- fine, next time, Stiles would keep his dreams to himself -- Derek's ears flattened, as if hurt.
Even Laura and Peter gave him odd looks, sometimes, though Stiles only saw them when he wasn't staring at the ground, following after them with dragging feet. They didn't speak to him as much lately, but that was all right. Maybe it was time to leave.
They could travel faster without him, and, well, Stiles knew when he'd overstayed his welcome.
Before they'd set out that morning, Derek had whined at Laura and dogged her heels until she finally snapped at him, her eyes flashing red. Laura had capitulated to whatever it was that Derek wanted -- probably away from Stiles, because she'd changed forms then and there and bounded off through the woods ahead of them, leaving Stiles with Peter.
Stiles didn't like Peter -- there was an edge to the man, a canny knowing that made Stiles uneasy to be with him alone for long -- but he had one redeeming trait. He was brilliant, a scholar of some note overseas, a man of letters.
Sometimes he recited from philosophy texts verbatim. Sometimes it was poetry. Other times, he taught Stiles a bit of history.
This time, though, they didn't speak a word between them.
It was even more unnerving than reaching out for Derek and not finding him there anymore. Far more unnerving than waking up one morning to a badger staring at him with its dead, glassy eyes.
Stiles tried not to let the silence bother him, but it did, so he did something about it. He filled it in as much as he could until, well, it hurt too much to keep talking, because usually Derek was the one who listened to him. Well, most of the time. Stiles could tell when Derek was paying attention, though, because his ears would always flick in his direction.
Well, not so much anymore.
The heartache was unexpected, and Stiles couldn't take it anymore.
"So that's it, then," Stiles said, dropping his pack to the ground, leaving his rifle against a birch tree. He pulled off his long shirt and wiped at the sweat along his brow -- the high summer sun was blistering -- before shoving the light fabric into his pack.
He collected everything, settled the weight on his shoulders, and picked up his rifle.
"Safe travels," he told Peter's retreating back.
They'd left the enormous lake behind more than a week ago, but Stiles could find his way back there easily. He would travel East along the shoreline, maybe trade for or build a canoe, take the quickest way home. He wanted to get to York before Scott did -- no sense in giving his dad the bad news that Stiles had died when he wasn't actually dead -- and it was bad enough that he'd taken as long as he had to make the decision to go home.
"Pardon?" Peter stopped and turned around.
"See ya?" Stiles said. He waved a hand in the air in farewell. "Happy trails and all that. Hope you get to where you're going --"
"You're not coming with us?" Peter frowned.
"I'm just slowing you down," Stiles said, putting on a wry smile. "You're better off without me."
Peter eyed Stiles up and down. He sniffed the air. "Is this about Derek?"
"Derek? Derek who?" Stiles tried for confused but probably only managed constipated. "Doesn't matter. Anyway, tell Laura I'm sorry I didn't say good-bye. I'm just not good at those."
"Stiles," Peter said, moving to block his path. He canted his head, glanced sideways once, and all the shrewdness went out of his eyes. "You're smarter than this."
"You're in my way," Stiles said instead.
"I think you're in your own way," Peter said, raising a brow. "You're treating Derek like he's human --"
"That's not all that he is," Peter said. "We are as much wolf as we are human, Stiles. Our instincts govern us no matter which form we take. And sometimes, sometimes, it's easier to act like a wolf. It's simpler. And when you're Derek… it's the only way he has to deal with things."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Stiles said, hot and angry. He clenched his fists together, his heels grinding into the soft ground.
"You do, Stiles. You do. I know Laura told you how Derek felt about you. As much as Derek will let her, anyway --"
"She was wrong," Stiles snapped. "He tolerates me. He plays guard dog for the weak human. That's what he thinks about me --"
"She wasn't wrong," Peter said, but Stiles wouldn't let him finish.
"Yeah? Then why does he leave me half-digested, puked-up remains of whatever he's snacked on? He doesn't have to spell it out for me. I disgust him. If he liked me… If he liked me at all, why did he run away from me when I tried to tell him how I felt about him?"
Peter's brow pinched and his mouth dropped as if to answer, but Stiles didn't want to hear his excuses or explanations. He pushed past Peter before Peter could see the tears burning in his eyes, choking back a strangled sob.
The medicine man of the Cree village at the edge of the great lake was fascinated with Stiles, convincing him to stay for a few days before he took the birch bark canoe he'd traded for and paddled east. The days were easy. There was conversation and story-sharing and teaching. Stiles taught the women new patterns for beadwork and showed the hunters some of the bow styles that Laura had carved for trade. He learned how to properly grind up the herbs that would help heal his dad while telling the chief how he'd walked around the north side of the lakes and had escaped the Iroquois.
The nights weren't easy.
He stayed awake on his cot, staring up into the sky, and listened to the wolves howling in the distance. He tried not to think too much about how one of the wolves sang to the moon with a mournful, broken tone, long and loud, well until the dawn.
He wasn't the only one who was kept awake, either. The medicine man was so shaken that he counselled all of the young braves to keep their wives and daughters close.
Stiles didn't understand why, not at first. And, then, the medicine man took Stiles aside and said, "The spirits are weeping. They're very sad, because they don't know what to do. The wolf they've been guarding has lost his mate, and his mate won't answer his call."
Stiles didn't know why that hurt so much or why his eyes watered. Instead, he nodded as if he understood and pushed the canoe into the water, careful not to get any of his wares and supplies wet. "I hope he finds his mate, then."
"I hope he does as well," the medicine man said, his expression inscrutable. He held up a hand in good-bye.
Stiles climbed into the canoe with one last push-off, and paddled twice before twisting around to return the farewell. "Ki'htwa'm ka-wa'paamitin."
Lonely days turned to weeks. Weeks turned to months. The leaves lost their vibrant greens and slowly changed colours. Stiles encountered other Tribes, traded more, made new friends. He portaged to avoid rough waters and found rivers to paddle when the ground was too rough to walk. The canoe was patched four times, the bow rebuilt twice, and he carved a spare paddle to keep with him inside the boat for the next time he lost the one in his hands to a tangle of weeds or to currents that were too fast.
There were a few trading posts along the southern edge of the lakes before he reached York, and he unloaded most of his goods there for a fairer price than he would have gotten anywhere else. Summer pelts didn't sell quite as well in the north, but the people in the south weren't as picky. When Stiles pushed off one last time, not intending to step out of his boat until he'd gotten home, it was with the last of his belongings and a heartache heavier than anything he'd ever carried before.
He wondered how the pack was. If they'd ever reached their destination. Laura had said something about finding a safe place as far away from Hunters as possible to try to start afresh. They still had family overseas -- human family, even other wolves, but family and pack all the same who would come once the Hales had settled in their new home.
He wondered how Derek was.
He wondered if...
Stiles didn't make it home first.
It was all over the lower town. Argent Trapping Co. had come out on top after the trading season, even though it wasn't quite closed, not as long as winter hadn't fallen yet. Hudson Bay had bought out all of their furs at a high price, and Whittemore's company was chawing at the bit for the next year, already planning to move out earlier than Argent's team just to get a foothold. No one said anything about the hunters who had gone with the first team but who hadn't returned -- Leroux and St-Clair barely received an acknowledgement, never mind a moment of mourning.
"Sad about the Stilinski boy," someone said, and Stiles kept his head down as he sold the horse he'd bought for the last leg of his journey. "Just about killed his pa to hear his son didn't make it."
"At least he didn't lose both of his boys. Heard that Argent offered Stilinski a place in the company since the McCall boy is marrying Argent's daughter."
"I heard he turned it down, too," a third person said. "Don't blame him. Don't blame him one bit. Would you want to work for someone who left his son to die?"
"Wish I'd been there to see Argent laid out on his ass. Never seen a man do that -- put that man down with one blow," the first man said.
Stiles waited until he couldn't hear them anymore before leaving the barn. Argent had a lot to answer for, and Stiles wasn't going to make it easy by letting Argent find out that he was alive. More than anything, Stiles couldn't help but be ridiculously proud that his dad had punched that son of a bitch.
He knocked on the door to his own house and shuffled on his feet, anxious and uncertain. He could hear the voices inside, the clatter of dishes being put on the table in preparation for a dinner.
"I'll get it," Melissa said. "No, you sit down --"
The door pulled open.
Melissa hadn't changed in the ten months that Stiles was gone. Maybe there were a few more white strands in her black hair. She definitely didn't have that wrinkle in her forehead when he'd left. But that was the heavy wool dress she always pulled out to wear when there was a damp chill in the air, with that same tear in the hip that she always patched up again and again from where she bumped her hip on the stove.
And when she turned around, her eyes went wide. A voiceless gasp parted her lips. She mouthed his name.
"You're letting all the heat out," Stiles' dad complained, coming up behind her. He slid a hand across her back and onto his shoulder, looking out the door even as he asked, "Who is --"
Stiles' dad stuttered in mid-sentence. His mouth fell open. He was a little thinner, maybe a little greyer. There were more lines around his eyes, and his shoulders, which had always been straight and set back, were stooped a little, even bowed.
Stiles ran a hand behind his head, feeling awkward. He wavered a little before spreading his arms. "Hi. Um. Not actually dead?"
"Stiles. Oh my God. Stiles --"
The bone-crushing hug felt even better than he'd remembered.
"I'm going to kill him," Stiles' dad said, pounding his fist on the table. Melissa was thin-lipped and furious, stewing in her seat with barely-restrained rage.
Stiles had told them everything. Well. Nearly everything. He left out the part about werewolves and the Hales, playing up on the whole crazy family aspect instead. He didn't get nearly the scolding frown that he would have normally gotten, and it didn't take long to find out why -- Melissa cut in to tell him how Gerard Argent's last few days had been a laudanum-induced rant about the "goddamned wolves who had killed his family". She hadn't only heard about it from the women who were taking care of him, but from everyone who lived down the street, because the senior Argent had escaped from his home and raced down the street half-naked, waving his gun around.
"I can't believe he didn't even give you the money for my cut," Stiles said, shaking his head. "It was in my contract. I added it in and he countersigned and you should've gotten my share --"
"Scott tried, sweetie," Melissa said. She started to say something else, but she deflated.
The house was down to its bare minimum. The little bronze vase that Melissa loved so much was gone. They were down to one cooking pot. The stool that Stiles was sitting on had been borrowed from the next-door neighbor, and the curtain over the window was so threadbare it might as well not be there. There hadn't been much for dinner. Melissa was saving every coin she made for the winter, and his dad was finding work where he could. Before Stiles had left, his dad and Melissa had talked about moving in the spring, to go south where it would be better for John's health, but now it looked as if it wouldn't even be possible.
Scott was marrying Allison on the Winter Solstice and hadn't spent a great deal of time at home. He was always busy at the Trading company, or spending time with Allison, or he had dinner at the Argent house. He helped when he could, but he was saving most of his money for a house.
Stiles couldn't believe that Melissa wasn't angry that Scott had virtually abandoned them. It hurt to see that Scott's whole world had become Allison and the Argents. Stiles knew damn well how many furs they'd traded and brought down. He knew their worth. He had calculated, right down to the penny, how much he'd been due. At an equal split, Scott would have gotten the same, and there would have been enough for him to give their parents a comfortable winter and still save for a house.
"You know what?" Stiles said, getting up. He picked up his gear and put it down in the same spot where he always left it and walked to the door. "He didn't try hard enough."
No-one paid him any mind when he walked through the gated entrance of Argent Trading Co. A few men looked at him oddly, as if they recognized him, but they shook their heads and went back to work sorting through the furs for shipment.
He was nearly to the main building when he heard his name. "Stiles? Stiles, is that you?"
He turned around and saw Greenberg.
Greenberg looked him over, half in disbelief, half in incredulity. His expression was washed away a second later by frustrated resignation. "Great. Now that you're still alive, I guess I'm out of a job. Again."
As far as welcome-homes went, that was the least expected reaction. "Sorry?" Stiles offered.
Greenberg pointed at him and said, "You damn well should be," before stalking off without another word.
"Okay," Stiles said, shaking his head. He reached the front office, reached for the latch, but the door opened before he could grab it. Someone came out --
Scott came out --
And he wasn't looking where he was going, talking to someone behind him. Stiles turned away, not sure if he wanted Scott to see him, but the choice was taken out of Stiles' hands when they collided.
"Sorry, man, didn't see you there --"
And from behind Scott, there was a shocked, "Stiles?"
Scott dropped Stiles as if he'd been holding a hot coal and stared. "Holy shit. Holy shit! You're alive!"
Most of Stiles' anger melted away at the sight of Scott's pure, absolute joy at seeing him alive. The rest of it vanished when Scott threw himself at Stiles and hugged him with all of his strength. It was a hug that went on for forever, and just when Stiles thought he wouldn't be able to breathe ever again, Scott eased up a little.
And that was when Isaac joined in.
It wasn't much longer after that Stiles heard the soft, questioning murmurs in conversation all around them. Stiles didn't want to lose the advantage of shock value, so he hurriedly tapped at Scott and Isaac to let him go.
"Are you all right? How did you --"
Stiles held up his hands. "I missed you too, bro, and I'll tell you the whole story --"
Most of the story, anyway, he didn't say out loud.
"-- as soon as I can, but I've got some business I want to settle with Argent. Is he in?"
"Yeah," Scott said, frowning. "In his office. I'll take you there --"
"No, that's all right. I need to talk to him in private." Stiles tried to ignore the flash of hurt that crossed Scott's features and tried to soften it with a smile. "Hey. I heard you're getting married soon. Congratulations. I'm really happy for you."
Stiles wished there was some way of capturing an image for posterity, but he'd have to settle for his memory. Chris Argent looked at Stiles as if he were a grizzly bear who had just walked through his front door and asked for some tea and pastries.
It wasn't far from the truth. He had asked for tea and pastries, but he wasn't a grizzly bear. He could use a haircut, and maybe a straight razor to do something about the scruff that had grown along his jaw over the last few months, but he'd washed up before coming into town, and he couldn't possibly smell that bad.
The longer Stiles stood in front of his desk, the more Stiles realized that Argent was trying to figure out if Stiles was a werewolf. He didn't miss the way Argent's hand snuck toward the drawer of his desk.
"I'm not, by the way," Stiles said easily, taking a step closer to the desk. "You can calm down. But I'm not here to talk about that. Not unless I have to, that is."
"What are you doing here?" Argent asked. He slid away from the desk and stood up. He walked over to Stiles -- and Stiles was glad to see that he was approaching without a gun in his hand. The knife on his hip, however...
"Someone owes me my cut," Stiles said without preamble.
"I don't think so," Argent said, putting himself between Stiles and his desk. He crossed his arms. "You didn't come back with us."
In that moment, Stiles realized that he must have changed in the last ten months, because he was on even grounds with Argent. They were of a like height, and, somehow, Argent seemed smaller.
"The contract stipulates that I have to come back before the end of the year for my pay. It doesn't say how I'm supposed to come back," Stiles said, using the same words that Argent had used on him a long time ago. "I fulfilled my job description. I went above and beyond. I'll take my pay now."
"I don't have to pay you," Argent said. His mouth twisted into a sneer. "You were working with them all along. I don't know why I didn't see it, why I took Scott's word when it came to you --"
"I don't care what you think about me, but you owe me money and I mean to get it," Stiles said. "We have a contract."
Argent smirked. "Do we? Funny thing about those contracts. They have a habit of disappearing. It would be a shame if other things disappeared, too. Like your reputation. How far do you think you'll go if people hear what a coward you were, running away at the slightest noise?"
Stiles pressed his mouth into a thin line. He looked away for a brief moment before turning back. "So it's threats, then? Well, two can play at that game. Do you know what I heard? I heard people are still talking about that little show your father put on a while back. Sorry about your loss, by the way. I mean, I sympathize, just like everyone else."
He took a step closer into Argent's space.
"But I wonder how far that sympathy will stretch when people hear that you left me behind to die in Iroquois territory. That the only reason we were out there is because you were hunting werewolves. That you lost Leroux and St-Clair and nearly lost me because this was all some sort of blood feud against an innocent family. A family who had done nothing to anyone except defend themselves against your sister after she burned their kin to the ground?"
Argent grit his teeth and stood up straighter, trying to make himself look more menacing. "How can you defend those monsters --"
"They're not the monsters here," Stiles said, his eyes narrowed. "That's you. That's all you. But if you want to go ahead and take the chance that no one's going to believe anything I say, I'll do you one better. Guess how far I went after I got away from the Iroquois. I went pretty far. Spoke with a lot of the natives I came across. Became their friends. I wonder how long it'll take me to spread the word about you? About what you've done? How many Tribes do you think will continue to trade with you when they find out that you make a habit of hunting and killing the spirits that they hold sacred?"
"They're not --" Argent was a little pale.
"Aren't they?" Stiles inclined his head. "Maybe I should ask them anyway. I bet you that they'll go pretty far in protecting them, too. So far, that maybe none of the runners will get any wolf pelts from them ever again, and who do you think everyone's going to blame?"
Stiles waited, but Argent didn't speak.
He waited some more, and when there wasn't anything but silence, Stiles said, "I'll take my pay now."
The next few months passed in a strange sort of awkward tension, a sort of an unsteady truce where everyone in the business knew that something was wrong but didn't know what. It was almost a battleground with no defined lines, no defined sides, and no one knowing who the combatants were.
That was just fine with Stiles.
He never told Scott the full story, the real story, but from the looks Isaac gave him, Stiles thought maybe Isaac knew something, or had figured out a lot more, than what Stiles was telling them.
But when word got out that Stiles had returned alive, that he was expressly never working for Argent Trappers Co. ever again, and that Argent, mysteriously, wasn't trying to ruin Stiles' reputation, people started asking questions. Stiles might be young, but he was good at what he did, and the next generation of hunters and trappers wondered what had happened that Stiles refused to work for Argent again. Some of them were even thinking of going out as independents in the Spring, maybe selling what they could to Whittemore and Hudson Bay instead.
Stiles didn't think it would have much of an impact on the Argents. They were a solid company with good runners working for them.
And, sure enough, the whispers and the rumours died down.
Until the Spring, at least, when people remembered that Stiles wasn't working for the Argents, and the Argents had nothing to say about it.
But before then, Stiles met Allison and decided that he liked her, even if he wasn't sure if he could trust her. She loved Scott, that much was obvious, and Scott's devotion to her was nothing short of fanatical. On their wedding day, Stiles gave them a pair of pelts he'd been saving just for them -- rich mink and beaver so thick and lush that no one believed him when he said they were summer furs. Argent glared at him from across the hall, because he knew just where Stiles had gotten them from. Lydia glared at him too, from the other end, pouting because he hadn't given them to her.
"We can't accept this," Stiles' father said, staring down in incredulity at the papers that Stiles had given him.
"It's done," Stiles said with a small smile and a half-shrug. He glanced over at Scott, who was smiling from behind Allison. Allison was sitting in his lap -- there just weren't enough chairs to go around in the house, and she was positively glowing; Stiles wondered how long it would be before she was showing. Isaac was leaning against the wall, close to the fire; he was discreetly rubbing his hands. Stiles didn't blame him; it was cold in the drafty house, no matter what Stiles did to fix the leaks.
Stiles had used up his earnings from Argent for the tickets but in a way, it was a gift from all of them. Allison had helped make the arrangements, Scott had spoken to traders heading south and secured passage, and Isaac had telegraphed his friends at the next port of call to make sure Stiles' dad and Melissa had a safe trip the rest of the way. "Happy Christmas, dad."
Melissa was crying and trying very hard to hide it. The winter wasn't even at its worst, but Stiles' father could barely breathe some nights, and he spent the days alternating between coughing fits that left him doubled over in pain and febrile weakness that made it difficult to get out of bed. The herbs that the medicine men had given him had helped for a little while, until they stopped helping at all.
"I just want... I just want you to live," Stiles said, his voice cracking a bit. He stared down at his hands. "I heard about people who go South to take the train to the West, where it's warm and dry. The weather's good for... for people who are sick like you. There's lots of land for the taking. You could be a farmer, maybe, or you could work as a tracker. I bet there won't be anyone better."
"You taught us everything you know," Scott said.
"What about you? Stiles, this is your money. I can't take it from you."
"You're not taking it, dad. I'm giving it. And don't worry about me. I'll work at the bar and the stables until the spring," Stiles said. He'd sworn that he wouldn't do that again, but this once, this last time, he would.
"And then what?" Melissa asked, reaching across the table to take Stiles' hand. Stiles squeezed it tightly.
"And then, I'm going to go running," Stiles said, grinning as wide as he could in the hopes that it would hide the heartache he was carrying each and every day. He was going to run as far and as fast as he could to get to the other end of the country, and he was going to explore this wild land until he found the wolf he had left behind.
He'd been so stupid to leave.
Stiles swallowed hard and continued as if his heart weren't breaking every day that he stayed in York instead of hunting his wolf and begging for forgiveness.
"I'm going to go running. Just like I planned to do last winter. And who knows. Maybe I'll beat you to the other side."
"Maybe you won't," Scott said, laughing. Allison was all smiles and dimples, but she looked a little lost. Stiles couldn't help but feel a little happy to know that there were still a few things that were Stiles' and Scott's alone.
"Yeah, maybe I won't," Stiles said with a shrug. "But I'll come and visit you."
Everything changed when spring loomed over the horizon. All of the runners, the trackers and hunters who were about to leave earlier than usual were suddenly hamstrung.
The letter of the law had passed, and the governors made certain that all of the independent hunters, trackers, and trappers were aware of it, too. There was now a penalty applied to anyone who brought in more than their share of pelts. They could bring in the maximum, and no more. Stockpiling was strictly forbidden, and anyone caught with them would be arrested and jailed until the magistrate was ready for their trial.
The new rules were obviously slanted in the favour of the large companies running the show, and despite the number of complaints, no one was surprised. The impact on the companies was almost laughable. Their maximum allotment depended on a sliding scale of generous bribery, and the companies could choose to hire any number of people to meet their quota.
Argent was forced to lay off a number of his most experienced hunters if he hoped to make a profit to keep the company afloat, much to Scott's confusion. It had taken a great deal of explaining before he caught on -- there wasn't much money to be had if the company was limited to a minimum number of pelts and they still had to pay their hunters on top of it. The pay structure was completely changed, and there was suddenly a large number of hunters and trappers who were out of work and who couldn't work as independents and still hope to keep their families clothed, fed, and housed.
This wasn't new to Stiles, who'd worked out what was coming on the horizon a long time ago. Becoming the best coureur de bois was no longer on the agenda, not for him.
He had other plans.
It gave Stiles great satisfaction to turn down Jackson Whittemore when Jackson had come to his door with an offer. When the recruiter from Hudson Bay accosted him on the street, Stiles patted his arm and said he wasn't interested. Scott knew better than to ask Stiles to join Argent again, and besides, he and Isaac formed a pretty good team.
It wasn't long before the other coureurs heard the unfounded rumour that Stiles was going to work as an independent. It took even less time before he had a line of people knocking on his door, wanting to partner up with him. They knew he'd gone the furthest west of any of them, that he had the most connections, that he knew where and how to get the best furs...
But what they didn't know was...
Stiles had other plans.
Quitting his job at the stables was easy -- there were a bunch of kids eager to replace him. The bar could do without him since most people would be leaving town soon, either to go south to greener pastures, or to try their hand at something new at fortifications being built further north. The house went quick when word got out that he'd sell, and all that was left to pack up his gear and go.
He had his maps spread over the table, his route already firm in mind. He wasn't going to take the northern route, not this time. He wanted to go west, so it was south first. He would avoid the Iroquois -- no way in hell that he was going to go out that way again if he could help it -- and once he was past the lakes, he'd head north for a while before continuing on north and west.
Stiles was sure that he'd pick up the Hales' trail at some point.
At least, he certainly hoped so.
There was a knock on the door. Stiles barely glanced up, too preoccupied with tracing the exact spot where he'd left Peter and Laura and... and Derek behind. "Come in."
The door creaked open. The cold air rushed in before the door shut again.
"Can I help you?" Stiles asked, rolling up the maps. They were his maps. He didn't want anyone to see or steal them.
"I... um. I heard that you were going out. I was... I was wondering if you were looking for a partner."
Stiles didn't recognize the voice. It was light, so soft that it was a whisper, but rough with the scratch of disuse and uncertainty. He finished rolling up the last map. "Sorry, man. I'm going out west and I'm not coming back. I'm not looking for --"
He turned around.
He forgot what else he was going to say.
The man was his height, but broader of shoulder and heavy with the sort of lean muscle that came only with hard work and constant movement. He wore deerskin breeches, soft leather boots that tied up all the way to the knees and a frayed coat that was half leather and half fur over a linen tunic that was open at the throat.
His belt was weighed down with knives. There was a strap along the diagonal of his chest, feathered arrows peeking over his shoulder. He carried an unstrung bow, the curve narrow and delicate, the elaborate carvings in the wood precise and familiar.
His black hair was lightly dusted with snow. His jaw was covered in scruff and set in a tight, anxious line. But his eyes...
His eyes were wolf eyes. Pale like polished turquoise, dotted with miner's panned gold, as blue as the clear sky on a hot summer's day, as bright as the sun reflecting off the water as it twinkled down beyond the horizon.
The maps fell out of Stiles' hand.
"Derek," he croaked. He would know those eyes anywhere.
There was a blink of surprise that he'd been recognized, but it was Derek's soft whine of yearning that broke Stiles in a million pieces and made him whole for the first time in months.
Stiles didn't know how he crossed the few steps to reach Derek. If they'd met halfway. Or even how he'd ended up twisted around with his back against the door and a comforting, welcome weight pressing him down.
He knew how it was that they kissed, because he was the one to place his hands on Derek's cheeks and to pull him forward. He was the one to clumsily slot his mouth against Derek's lips and to press kiss after kiss in elation and desperation. Derek grumbled softly and pulled back only to huff fondly before leaning in slowly, sinking against Stiles again. Chaste kisses became deep kisses full of promise and passion that left Stiles gasping for breath.
Stiles' fingers trailed down Derek's chest and clutched the fringes of his jacket. He leaned forward, his forehead touching Derek's temple. Derek buried his nose in the crook of Stiles' neck, and something settled in Stiles' soul, his heart finally beat again.
"Yes, absolutely. I am looking for a partner," Stiles gasped. "You're hired."
Derek's soft huff of laughter was the most beautiful sound Stiles had ever heard.