The day before the pack’s sophomore year starts, things in the hunter world suddenly spiral into chaos.
At first, they all think it’s just an isolated incident. A werewolf in upstate New York was working with two or three hunters to track down and get rid of a wendigo, but as soon as that was done, one of the hunters turned on him and killed him. It was the sort of thing that was becoming depressingly commonplace, despite how much some of the hunters tried to discourage it. Most of the werewolves and other supernatural creatures were being increasingly selective in who they agreed to help.
Stiles heard about it the day before he left, but didn’t worry about it too much. It was the sort of thing that they were all getting used to. But then things took a twist when the hunter in question was killed, not by another werewolf, but by his fellow hunters. They issued an apology to the werewolf’s pack, saying that they hadn’t realized what their comrade-in-arms had intended.
It could have ended there, might have ended there, if they had been on a different hunter’s territory. Chris or his cousin Julien, Mikael Aronsson, other hunters who would have accepted the hunters policing each other. But they were on Jim Stoddard’s territory, and he immediately made it known that even if he didn’t approve of the first hunter’s action, there would be no vigilante justice on his territory.
Two days after that, those hunters were dead.
“I’m losing track of what’s happening,” Stiles said, skyping with Chris and trying to keep up. “Who’s winning right now?”
“Nobody,” Chris said grimly. “And it’s going to keep spiraling like that until someone puts a stop to it.”
“The cycle of revenge,” Stiles said, thinking back to Peter. But he doesn’t want to get involved. The hunters are going to have to solve their own problems. All he can do is try to help the other supernatural creatures steer clear of their internal strife. He updates the directory and alerts everyone relevant that New England could become a war zone.
Things settled down for about a week. Then a hunter in Michigan winds up being rescued on a hunt by a werewolf. He’s injured, and stays with the werewolf overnight while recuperating – until his hunter friends storm in to save him, killing the werewolf and her sister despite the hunter’s protests.
One skirmish turns into two, two turns into four, and people start demanding some response from the people in charge. Everyone is laying down their own rules. People who toe the line in one territory move into territories where they can get away with anything they feel like. The supernatural creatures in those territories get violent in response.
Lines which had been nebulous at first start to get set down more firmly. Supernatural creatures start to leave their homes if they can, to seek refuge in the safer territories. But it isn’t so easy for werewolves, who have to fight with other packs for land and are tied to their own territory. Hunters start moving around, too, aligning with people who share their views.
Stiles is two weeks into his semester and really getting the work piled on and trying to figure out what he can do to help, if there’s anything at all. Then something that nobody expected happens.
Throughout all of this, the fighting has been contained to the lower ranks. The family leaders hand down edicts and make it clear what behavior will and will not be tolerated, but haven’t been involved in the infighting. Then someone walks up to Mikael Aronsson in a hardware store and shoots him twice in the chest.
It stuns everyone, werewolf and human, leader and underlings alike. Nobody had dared touch one of the leaders, let alone try to assassinate one in broad daylight in a public place.
Mikael survives, due almost entirely to the fact that he had been planning on going out on a hunt and was already wearing his gear, including a Kevlar vest. He still winds up in the hospital for a week with broken ribs and internal bleeding. Ironically, the worst injury isn’t from one of the bullets, but from the concussion he gets when his six foot three inch frame gets knocked to the ground and his head hits the cold concrete.
The shooter is apprehended immediately, because Mikael was shopping with his wife and daughter, and neither of them are weak or helpless. He’s taken in for questioning, but somehow manages to commit suicide in his holding cell, so if someone put him up to it, there won’t be any way of knowing who. He’s a hunter, they determine that much, and originally from Washington, but Stella Jones denies any connection to him and none can be proven.
“You can’t keep letting it go on like this,” is Peter Hale’s opinion, when Stiles takes a break from the reading for his anatomy class to update him. “You have to take the offensive.”
“But we can’t,” Stiles says. “If we become the aggressors, all we’ll do is prove the hunters right, and every hunter who hasn’t already chosen a side will choose theirs.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Peter says, shaking his head. “You’re letting them push you around. You need to push back. Don’t you see what they’re doing? They can’t risk an open offensive because you have the superior numbers. So they’re fighting with guerilla tactics. Disclaiming any responsibility. But they’ll chip away at the strength that you have, until suddenly they’ll be the ones on top, and then they’ll take you out. All of us.”
Stiles shakes his head. “It’s not like that.”
“Oh, it is,” Peter says. “I’ve been keeping track of the numbers for you. Your casualties in the past month are nearing the triple digits. Theirs have barely reached a dozen. They are coming for you, Stiles, make no mistake about that. You have to be ready, and as far as I can see, a pre-emptive strike is by far your best option.”
“Well, I can’t exactly do that,” Stiles says. “This isn’t my war.”
“You’re joking,” Peter says. “You started this war.”
Stiles squirms despite himself. “Not really,” he says. “I mean, if anyone started it, Kate Argent did, when she killed an entire family of innocent werewolves. But that’s not the point. This is hunter business. They’re going to have to sort it out. At this point, anything I do will only make things worse.”
“Tell yourself that all you want,” Peter says, “but nothing is going to change if you can’t get the enemies out of power. And as far as I can see, there’s only going to be one way to do that. Whether you like it or not, there is going to be blood shed before the end of this.”
“Yeah,” Stiles says, “probably. But I don’t have to be the one to do it.”
“Never figured you for a coward,” Peter says. “I know full well that you’re capable of murder.”
“It’s not about that,” Stiles says. “It’s not that I don’t want to get involved or that I’m afraid or incapable or anything like that. The point is that if the hunter community is going to have a war over whether or not werewolves are people too, and I’m sort of the catalyst because of the whole human alpha thing, me coming out and committing or even endorsing the assassination of my political opponents is only going to make matters worse. And you’re smart enough to fucking know that, so stop egging me on.”
Peter shrugs one shoulder and murmurs, “I suppose you do have a point there. But you have to admit that I’m right about one thing, Stiles. You’re losing. And if you don’t make a move soon, you’re going to be in real trouble.”
“I’ll take it under advisement,” Stiles says. He doesn’t bother to argue with Peter about the fact that he just, well, doesn’t want to have to kill anyone. It’s not to say that there aren’t days when he longs to just take a shovel and a machete to these people, but those are just moments in time. He’s a soldier, but he’s not a killer.
Peter, for all his improvements, is simply never going to understand that. So it’s better to argue with him about tactics and strategy than bother arguing with him about the fact that Stiles simply doesn’t kill, not unless he’s backed to the wall and really has no other choice.
But Peter’s right about the fact that they’re completely on the defensive, and the more steps backwards they take, the more Stiles feels that wall coming.
~ ~ ~ ~
Stiles has a feeling that he’s going to be spending more weekends at home than usual. Normally they come home every month, but in September he comes home a weekend early because his father sprained his wrist on the job and he wants to fuss. Tom insists it wasn’t a big deal, he just took a wrong step while clearing a house and fell, but Stiles is Stiles, and obviously the situation is unacceptable.
Weekends are family time, rather than pack time. Stiles hardly even sees the den anymore, because he’s always sleeping at his father’s house when he’s home on the weekends. He also decides to spend an afternoon or evening at the Argent house. Part of that is to catch up with Chris, but it’s mostly because of Jake. He had spent most of the summer with them, and he’s bound into the pack now, even if it isn’t a strong bond. He’s antsy with them away at college, as much as he doesn’t want to admit it. It’ll be good for him to have some time with his alpha.
He ends up joining them for dinner, and his father comes over as well. Tom and Chris have become fairly close friends, working together a lot while their children are gone. Tom doesn’t talk about it much, but Stiles knows that being friends with Chris has soothed a lot of his fears for the direction his son’s life has taken.
Derek doesn’t attend, because no matter how much time passes, there’s always going to be an edge of awkwardness between him and Chris, and that’s not what Jake needs. So it’s just Argents and Stilinskis. They talk about school and how things have been in Beacon Hills. Victoria has made a roast chicken and mashed potatoes.
“I always love your mashed potatoes,” Stiles comments, taking a second serving. “Mine are never as good as yours. How do you get them so fluffy?”
“Trade secret,” Victoria says, with an icy stare.
Stiles is not at all fazed by her icy stare anymore – at least, not while they’re talking about recipes – and is accustomed to the high-stakes negotiations that will follow. “I could give you the recipe for my deviled eggs. I know that you really like those. Impossible to duplicate without the secret ingredient.”
“Please, I know your secret ingredient is dill, don’t insult me,” Victoria says. The others are watching as if at a tennis match. Allison hides a smile behind her hand. “Offer me something worth my time.”
Stiles takes a swig of his iced tea and says, “Vegan recipe for banana bread. I know that there’s that one hoity-toity woman at your book group who always complains that nobody brings good vegan snacks.”
“That’s true, although I have no particular desire to impress her,” Victoria says. She’s about to say something else when the doorbell rings. Chris glances at her, and she shrugs. “Ignore it. Probably Jehovah’s Witnesses. I’m not expecting any deliveries.”
Chris nods, reaching out to rub his thumb over her knuckles, barely hiding his mirth at their discussion. “You did mention wanting his recipe for Irish soda bread.”
“True,” Victoria says. “I do appreciate breads that don’t need time to rise. We could – ”
The doorbell rings again. A faint frown crosses over Chris’ face. “I’ll go see who it is,” he says, standing up, hand brushing over where his holster would normally be. He’s not armed – he doesn’t wear guns to dinner – but Stiles knows that he will be by the time he gets to the door. Paranoia is a way of life for all of them.
Victoria points her fork at Stiles. “Soda bread.”
“I’ll e-mail it to you,” Stiles says. “Potatoes?”
“Use a potato ricer.”
“What the heck is a potato ricer?” Stiles asks.
“It’s like a garlic press, but for potatoes,” Allison says. “It would take you a lot longer than using your mixer, I bet.”
Stiles wrinkles his nose and is about to make a comment when Chris walks back in, with someone else behind him. Everyone looks up with a questioning expression. The boy standing behind Chris is young, a pre-teen probably, with short dark hair and a smattering of freckles across his nose. He looks extremely nervous. Victoria opens her mouth, presumably to ask who their guest is, but then Jake says, “Phil!” and rockets out of his seat. He’s around the table and giving the boy a bear hug before anyone can say anything else.
Victoria looks at Chris. “I assume you would have told me if we were expecting a guest,” she says, and he nods.
Stiles knows who Phil is. Even without the family resemblance – Phil strongly favors his mother, Rose Argent, who’s someone Stiles won’t forget any time soon – he’s heard Jake talk about the letters that he exchanges with his younger brother. It seems pretty obvious what’s happened, but he keeps his mouth shut.
“What are you doing here?” Jake asks, pulling away and giving his younger brother a quick, assessing look.
“I, uh . . .” Phil looks around nervously. “Kind of ran away from home?”
“Oh, geez,” Jake says. “What happened?”
“It’s not my fault!” Phil says. “I was doing this stuff with the community theater and I really liked it, you know I told you how much I liked it, and then I got cast as Peter Pan in the town play and I was super excited but then mom said I couldn’t do it because I wouldn’t have time, and when I tried to argue with her she said she wasn’t going to let me do any of that stuff anymore, that I had to concentrate on the hunting stuff and I don’t mind doing that stuff, some of it’s kind of fun, but it’s not all I want to do, I want to be an actor and she told me she wouldn’t ever let me do that stuff again so I kind of – ” His voice drops to an ashamed sniffle. “Kind of ran away.”
“Oh, geez,” Jake says again. “Well, um, okay. I mean, it’s okay that you’re here. Isn’t it?” He looks uncertainly at Victoria and Chris. “I mean, at least for a little bit?”
Chris sighs. “Yeah, we’ll work it out somehow.”
Tom pushes back from the table. “Well, on that note, I’d better get going,” he says.
“Why?” Chris asks, frowning at him.
“Because sheltering a runaway is a crime,” Tom says. “And therefore I was never here, never saw this child, and nobody told me about him being here. The fewer details I have, the happier I’ll be.”
“Fair enough,” Chris says.
Tom looks at Stiles and says, “You coming?”
“I’d rather stay,” Stiles says. “Derek can pick me up later.”
“Okay.” Tom squeezes his son’s shoulder and then heads for the door.
Once he’s gone, Victoria gives Phil a smile and says, “When was the last time you ate?”
“Oh, uh . . .” Phil rubs his hand over the back of his eyes and tries to look tough. “I’m okay. Thanks.”
Now he gets the laser stare. “That’s not the question I asked, young man.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Phil responds automatically. “I had a sandwich this afternoon. When the bus stopped. There was a Burger King.”
“You took the bus here?” Chris asks, getting Phil into the seat that Tom had vacated while Victoria goes to get another plate. “That must have taken forever. Did you leave a note for your parents, tell them you were leaving, anything like that?”
“Nuh uh.” Phil shakes his head. “They leave me alone in the house a lot of the time. I just left. I took a taxi to the bus station. I had to save up for a few months. I help out some of my neighbors, mow lawns and rake leaves and stuff. Mr. McCreary pays me to walk his dog because he had to have knee surgery. So, you know, I saved up. I had Jake’s letters so I knew . . . if I could make it here, I’d be all right.” He gives Chris an earnest, hopeful look.
Chris rubs a hand over his hair and says, “Well, your dad’s going to figure out where you went. I’m honestly kind of surprised they didn’t get on a plane and beat you here. It takes a lot less time to fly from Chicago than to take the bus.”
“I don’t think they know?” Phil gives them an unsure smile. “Because I stole my mom’s credit card and used it to buy a plane ticket to Atlanta, you know, where Uncle Julien lives? And then I paid for the bus ticket with cash.”
Stiles breaks into a grin. “I like this kid!” he proclaims.
“God help us,” Chris mutters. “I’d better go call Julien.”
He leaves the room, shaking his head. Victoria puts a plate of food in front of Phil, and he digs in, occasionally glancing at Jake for reassurance. “You grew out your hair,” he says.
“Yeah, I like it better long,” Jake says. “Oh, uh – this is Allison, you know, our cousin? And this is Stiles.”
“Hi,” Phil says, looking a little shy.
“Hi, Phil,” Allison says, giving him a warm smile. “So, Peter Pan, huh? Have you acted in anything else?”
“Yeah!” Phil brightens with this invitation to talk about what he loves. “I was in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court last year and the year before that I was in a play one of my teachers wrote. I auditioned to play Oliver in Oliver Twist, but I didn’t get it. I got to be one of the other kids in the play, though.” He looks down and swallows. “This – Peter Pan was the first really big role I got and I really, really wanted to do it!”
“Don’t worry, Phil,” Jake says. “We’ll get it sorted out.”
“I’m afraid you won’t be able to do any acting for a while, though,” Victoria says. “Not if your parents are looking for you. If they report you missing and the police get involved, things could get awkward. And your school will certainly notice that you’ve stopped attending.”
Phil droops. “I wasn’t in school,” he says. “Well, I was ‘home schooled’,” he says, making air quotations with his fingers. “But mostly they just wanted me to stay home so I could go out on hunts with my dad without having to make lots of excuses. They didn’t do much actual schooling.”
Victoria’s jaw tightens up like she’s thinking about getting on a plane and flying to Chicago to beat Henry and Rose herself. “I see,” she says. “Well, I’m sure we can find you some educational materials, if nothing else.”
“Too bad Lydia’s so busy,” Allison says. “I’m sure she’d enjoy the challenge.”
“Never tell Lydia she’s too busy to do something.” Stiles glances up and says, “Excuse me, I’ll be back in a minute.” He gets up and goes into the other room, where Chris is on the phone. The Argent’s family affairs are none of his business, but if Henry Argent is going to be showing up in town, he wants to know.
Chris arches his eyebrows, but doesn’t argue with Stiles’ questioning look. “Henry and Rose showed up on Julien’s doorstep yesterday madder than wet cats. They’re convinced that Julien’s lying to them and hiding Phil, because he’s ‘gone soft’, et cetera. Apparently, it hasn’t yet occurred to them that their son might have misled them with the plane ticket.”
Stiles gives a snort. “That kid is smarter than both of them put together.”
“Truth,” Chris agrees, and shakes his head. “Julien says he won’t say anything, and he won’t. But they’ll figure it out eventually, or they’ll at least decide they want to ask Jake about it.”
“Cross that bridge when we get to it,” Stiles says.
Chris gives him a sour look. “I feel like a little planning ahead might not be a terrible idea. We’ll have warning, I suppose, in that Julien will call me when they leave Atlanta, but they’ll get here sooner than we’d like.”
“I envy you guys with your private hangers and your own airplanes and everything,” Stiles says wistfully. “I should look into getting my pilot’s license. You know, in my copious free time,” he adds, and Chris gives a snort of amusement. “Okay, fine. Presuming that Henry and Rose insist on barging in here to make sure that Phil isn’t here, we can just hide him at one of the den’s houses for a while. Hell, I can bring him to San Francisco. He’d probably get a kick out of that.”
“Probably,” Chris says. He looks back into the dining room and shakes his head with a sigh.
“Sorry,” Stiles adds. “I mean, not in an ‘apology’ sort of way, just in a ‘sympathy’ sort of way, like, my condolences that your family is batshit crazy and you probably only had one kid because you only wanted one and now you’ve somehow adopted two more.”
“Actually,” Chris says, “Victoria had a very bad case of endometriosis after Allison was born and that’s the reason we never had more children. We talked about adoption but . . . it didn’t feel right, given the hunting lifestyle. So I don’t have a problem with this, I just wish I had been a little more prepared.”
“Hey, he seems like a good kid,” Stiles says. “God, he’d have to be, to have come out of that household intact. Let’s go finish dinner. I need to finish my second helping of the mashed potatoes that I’ll never have the time or patience to make.”
Chris gives another snort and they head back into the dining room. Jake is telling Phil about the classes he’s taking at Beacon Hills High. Chris reassures them that they’re not in any immediate danger of parents storming the house, so they sit down to finish eating.
“They might not come here,” Phil says hopefully. “They don’t know I knew the address. They never found out about your letters,” he adds to Jake. “I hid them all. And then I brought them with me so they wouldn’t find them after I was gone.”
“Nice,” Stiles says. “You’re pretty clever.”
Phil gives him a hesitant smile. Then he lowers his voice and says awkwardly, “So . . . are you him?”
“Him who?” Stiles says, though he knows what Phil means.
“The . . . the boy in red. The alpha.”
“At your service,” Stiles says, letting the red flare up in his eyes for a brief moment.
Phil swallows hard and it seems to take him effort not to scoot his chair away. Jake reaches over and squeezes his shoulder. “Don’t be scared of Stiles,” he says. “He’s really nice.”
“That, uh . . . that’s not what Mom and Dad said,” Phil mutters.
“They’re just sore because I outsmarted them a little,” Stiles says, but he decides to leave immediately after dinner instead of hanging out with Jake. He obviously wants to spend time with his little brother, and Stiles doesn’t want to make it awkward for them. “I’ll be home for most of tomorrow,” he says to Jake and Allison as he’s leaving, “but give me a call if you want me to swing by.”
“Will do,” Allison says, leaning over to kiss him on the cheek.
~ ~ ~ ~