There wasn’t a single heartbeat in the camp.
Fifteen large tents stretched out on the hill before them. They could see belongings gathered around them, vital supplies no one would leave behind, and there wasn’t a single heartbeat. There should’ve been over fifty in a pack with that many tents.
“Derek, I smell blood,” Erica said quietly, and he knew what they would find.
The scene was hauntingly familiar as they moved through the camp; bodies strewn between tents, arrows jutting out, dark stains of blood covered in a fresh powdering of snow. The only difference was that the hunters who did this hadn’t used fire to clean up after themselves, just left the corpses to freeze through the winter and be picked apart by animals.
“They’re all dead,” Isaac murmured in awe, and it was then that Derek remembered that he had never seen carnage like this. He’d gone through more than his fair share of struggles, but his life held relatively few horrors of this magnitude.
Scott briefly met Derek’s eyes and joined Isaac, guiding him away, already talking. Scott was good at that kind of thing—comforting, easing fragile people into trauma and out again, keeping them focused on easy tasks. Derek was not. He never had been.
“Spread out, find anything useful,” Derek quietly ordered Erica and Boyd. He hated himself for it, but they needed the supplies, and none of this pack would be missing them.
He started at one end of the camp, picking through empty tents for heavier blankets, clothing, food, water—anything. They needed everything at this point, for when hunting was scarce and their blankets wore through from sleeping on rough ground. He didn’t know this region very well, didn’t know when they would have another chance to trade for more.
“Derek.” Scott pushed through the flap of the tent, and Derek looked up from sizing boots for Erica. He didn’t like the dread in his voice, or on his face when he saw it.
Or the arrow he held in his hand.
It was a horribly familiar arrow; black shaft, black feathers, silver tip, fleur de lis carved into it.
“It’s Argent,” Scott said unnecessarily, as if either of them would ever forget those arrows. “They did it again.”
Derek took a deep, shaky breath through the surge of emotions that brought, and looked down at the rest of the boots lined up neatly at the entrance. The smallest pair could fit in his palm.
He and Scott had both been too broken to do anything before, but the Argents couldn’t get away with this. Not again.
“This time we’re going after them,” he decided, turning back to Scott.
Scott nodded, jaw clenched and determined. “Do you think any of them are still in the area?”
Judging by the snowfall on the corpses, it had been a few days since the massacre happened. They hadn’t in the past, but it was possible they left a few hunters nearby, in case any survivors returned, so Derek still closed his eyes and focused his hearing far out in the trees around them just be to sure.
It was silent, unnaturally so, except…
A heartbeat he didn't recognize. Weak, faint, dying.
“Someone’s still alive.”
Scott tilted his head to the side, straining his ears, but his face didn’t show any recognition. Derek stepped around him, out of the tent, following the sluggish heartbeat down the path a ways. Had an Argent been injured bad enough to be left behind? That was uncommon for hunters, leaving their own, but if it meant Derek could find out where they were headed, he’d take it. It was more than they’d had to go on for over six years.
But it became obvious very quickly that the dying man was not a hunter, or a wolf.
He was lying next to the cold, frozen body of a woman, and even before he touched him, Derek could feel the magic radiating from him. The tattoos weaving up the side of his throat labeled him as an emissary, blanketed in spells to hide his presence from anyone looking for survivors. His masking was well done, incredibly so, but Derek's mother at least had time to teach him to see through emissary magic.
Some of it, anyway.
Scott hurried over, dropped to his knees, and pressed his fingers to the man’s throat, just on the edge of the tattoos. He frowned in both surprise and confusion when dark, unfocused eyes opened at his touch. They only stayed open for a second, probably not really seeing anything, before they slid closed, and barely flickered again.
“He’s alive,” Scott breathed, then looked up to ask, “Why can’t I hear his heart?”
“He’s masked himself with magic to protect himself," Derek explained shortly. "It was probably an unconscious survival instinct. He’s an emissary. Or, was,” he added, sweeping his gaze over the lifeless corpses surrounding them.
“They attacked an emissary?”
“They probably thought it was kinder than leaving him alive.”
Scott's face crumpled in sympathy as he looked back down to the dying man; emissaries were indelibly tied to their packs, to their alpha, with some of the oldest and strongest magic known. The loss of his pack would kill this man even if his injuries and the cold somehow didn't.
Derek stood in silent respect for the emissary and his fallen pack, giving them a moment of his thoughts before he would put them behind and move on. But Scott reached out for the man and pressed his palm to his throat over his tattoo, gentle even though he was already unconscious. The black of pain snaked up through his veins and the man exhaled in relief, slipping deeper into sleep. He probably wouldn’t wake up again.
“Let’s keep moving,” Derek decided, watching Isaac cover a small body a few tents away. They’d already been there too long, stirred up too many forgotten memories he wanted to stay gone. “There’s nothing we can do here.”
Scott looked up with a golden flare of anger in his eyes, black still crawling through his veins from the man’s body. "We can't just leave him here to die."
"He's an emissary, Scott.” Derek tried to make his tone empathetic, but Scott’s tendency to fight back on everything always grated on his nerves. “His pack is gone, he won't survive more than a day or two either way."
"Then we should stay with him."
"Will still be there in two days," Scott finished pleadingly. "We can move faster than them, we'll catch up. I won't leave him to die alone here."
Derek sighed as he studied the man for a moment; he was too pale against the fur rim of his hood, almost grey from lying out in the snow, and his cloak was stained with dark dried blood around a protruding arrow shaft. It was unlikely he would even last the night. They would probably be able to carry on in the morning with little time lost, if any.
It wasn’t a horrible idea, Derek decided reluctantly. They hadn't been able to set up a real camp for a few weeks in the open foothills, and they were all on edge from sleeping in exposed areas. A defensible place to sleep would be good for them, even if they were surrounded by death. They would be able to give the pack proper burials, at the very least.
“Fine. One night,” Derek relented, already moving away to check on Isaac. “He’s your responsibility.”
Scott just nodded and got to work.
He carefully moved the man into an empty tent, one that didn't smell like death and decay. He started a small fire in the center pit and meticulously tended to the man's side wound and other injuries he found. It was a lost cause, but there was no harm in letting him try, or letting Isaac join him. It gave them something positive to focus on while surrounded by so much death.
Derek left them to it and took Erica and Boyd with him to patrol and establish a perimeter, check out the area around them, make sure there was no lingering danger from hunters. The scent of them had gone stale, and there was hardly a trace of them in the woods, so there wasn't any great danger of traps set for any escaped pack members returning for their dead.
In fact, the surrounding woods were just as empty and lifeless as the camp, so they moved further out and hunted for dinner to take back. They still didn’t find anymore survivors.
When Derek returned to the tent bringing food, the wounded man was wrapped in furs and blankets Scott and Isaac must have gathered from around the camp. They still smelled like the dead pack, and the scent would be a comfort for their emissary in his final hours, even if it did raise Derek’s hackles to be so thickly surrounded by it.
"He's doing better," Scott announced happily, surprising Derek as he let the door flap close behind him. "He's actually getting stronger."
Derek set down the plate of cooked meat on a stool and leaned over the cot to see for himself. The man looked less death-like, a little less grey, but his dark moles still stood out stark against his too-pale complexion and a flush of fever had taken over his cheeks. Warming him up may have just brought more issues to light.
“His breathing is clearer," Scott continued unprompted, "and I think his magic took over once we removed the arrow. The bleeding’s stopped and it looks like it’s starting to scab already.”
Derek raised an eyebrow; he hadn't known emissaries could heal themselves like that, especially with no pack left to strengthen them. There was a lot he didn't know about emissaries; his mother had died before she could teach him everything.
"He must have finally dropped his defenses," Derek mused. Allowed his magic to focus on healing himself, or they had just fallen because they couldn't keep up while he was so weak.
Warm brown eyes chose that moment to open, staring up at Derek and Scott like their presence barely registered. They roamed around for a moment, then fixed on Scott's face and blinked hazily. He said something quietly, in a language Derek didn’t know, and surprisingly Scott laughed and responded in the same tongue. The young man grinned weakly and let his eyes close again, falling back to unconsciousness.
“What did he say?”
Scott jumped a little, like he’d forgotten his alpha was there. “You can’t understand him?”
“Why would I be able to understand him?” Derek snapped impatiently. “I don’t even know what language he’s speaking.”
“It’s Polish. Remember our emissary?” Derek nodded. How could he forget? She’d been his mother’s best friend in life and died alongside the pack she swore to protect. “It was her native language. She taught me some when I was little.”
“So what did he say?” Derek asked, desperate for a change in topic.
Scott grinned. “He told me my face was crooked.”
At that, Derek hoped the man really did survive. Those would be terrible last words.
* * *
Amazingly, against Derek’s every expectation, the man didn't die during the night, and it seemed like he got stronger with every hour that crawled past. He wasn't healing anywhere near as fast as a wolf, but every time Scott pulled back the blankets to check on his side, it had visibly healed a little more. It seemed now that he’d lowered his guards his magic really was speeding up the process, in addition to whatever Scott was doing.
The pack spent the night in that tent, where their scent was already seeping into the corners to cover those before. They huddled on the floor together, using each other’s bodies as pillows as they usually did, lulled by Scott’s soft voice speaking to the emissary. He stayed up with him through the night, whispering to him in Polish whenever he woke and drawing his pain away. The man didn’t seem entirely lucid, but the sound of his own language put him at ease, even while surrounded by unknown werewolves.
At least until the early hours of daylight, when he suddenly shot up with wide and panicked eyes, grabbed Scott’s arm next to him, and frantically let out a stream of Polish Derek couldn’t understand. It took a few minutes to get him calm and lying down again, and even then he still didn’t let go of Scott’s forearm as he fell back into a fitful sleep.
“What did he say?” Derek asked quietly, not wanting to wake him again.
Scott turned to him, expression grave. “He said that the Argents are on their way to wipe out his tribe.”
Derek’s chest tightened. “As in—”
“A tribe of humans and unbound emissaries in training, yeah. They’re going to cripple a hundred packs in one blow.”
The man’s tribe wouldn’t be the only gathering of emissaries; there were communities in almost every region where emissaries raised their families and trained their children until they left home to join their destined packs. Some tribes were larger and more well known than others, but their exact locations were always kept secret for their own protection, to prevent exactly this type of thing. Protecting themselves against the supernatural wasn’t an issue, their ash barriers took care of that easily, but against human hunters looking to damage wolf packs, all bets were off.
An emissary tribe had never been attacked like this; there was no telling what chaos it would cause.
“Get him fixed up and moving. We’re leaving today,” Derek ordered, and for once Scott didn’t argue. He just nodded, already pulling back the blankets to check the emissary’s side after his sudden movements.
They left a few hours later, following the barely visible trail the hunters left towards the mountains, and though the man was indeed up and moving, he wasn’t for long. After two hours of slow walking, he collapsed, and Scott carried him on his back until they made camp for the night. Derek could hear them at the back of the group, chatting quietly in Polish the entire way, even though the emissary’s voice was weak and scratchy.
* * *
“Stiles says the fastest path to his tribe is to cut through the northern mountain pass, but it’s still going to take us at least two weeks to get there.”
Derek looked up from his food to stare at Scott settling down next to him by the fire. Isaac had first watch in the dark woods around them and Erica and Boyd were already asleep, half on top of each other under their blankets.
“It’s the name he gives to packs who don’t speak Polish.”
Derek glanced across the fire to Stiles, who was deep asleep and curled up under a warm blanket he brought from his pack’s camp. It hardly smelled like them anymore after being in Scott’s bag all day, but the memory alone must’ve been some kind of comfort.
Derek was amazed at how well he’d handled the loss so far; there were stories of emissaries going mad from the silence and loss of connection, killing themselves, or simply losing the will to live after losing their packs. Stiles smelled sad, almost constantly, but it was nowhere near what Derek had been preparing himself for. He was still half expecting the madness and grief to hit at any moment, a delayed reaction.
“He also said he’ll be moving faster tomorrow,” Scott continued. “All of his energy is going into healing himself.”
Derek nodded. He’d figured as much; he wasn’t judging Stiles for slowing them down after being shot with an arrow and left to die in the snow for at least a couple days. It was frustrating how slow their progress was and he wanted to be mad at the emissary, but he couldn’t blame him without just feeling guilty. Derek could tell he was moving as fast as he could. Probably faster than he should’ve been considering he’d been at death’s door the day before.
“Will he be able to make it through the northern pass? It’s not an easy path, even for us.” It was rocky and frigid and covered in deep snowdrifts all year round, with frequent snowstorms through the winter. Even werewolves died up there if they weren’t prepared, and all humans stuck to the long way around the mountain range at lower altitudes. They didn’t even try.
“He says he can.” Scott didn’t look all that confident. “He said the Argents would never risk it, so it’s the only way to get ahead of them.”
Derek let his eyes drift back to the emissary. Even curled up under all the blankets he had, he looked cold already, and they were still in the foothills.
“We’ll have to find him warmer blankets. A heavier cloak. Boots.”
Scott nodded. “There should be a human settlement to the east. It might add a day, but I’m sure they’ll have warmer things than his pack did.”
If they were taking the northern pass, they could afford an extra day, even with how much the snow would slow them down. They needed Stiles alive; he was the only one who knew where they were going.
“We’ll leave at first light. Get some sleep.”
Derek went back to his food, watching from the corner of his eye as Scott stood and moved towards Erica and Boyd, before detouring to lie next to Stiles instead.
* * *
Even after he recovered and they were moving at a faster pace, Stiles still really only talked to Scott, but he talked a lot. The two brought up the rear as they headed north, walking together through the days, and sitting together by the fire at night, speaking quickly and quietly with hushing syllables that seemed to run together while still abruptly cutting off. Occasionally Derek overheard Stiles trying out English words and phrases, sprinkled throughout their conversations, but never directed towards anyone but Scott.
For the most part he would sit quietly around the fire at night, listening to the conversations going on around him, paying close attention and watching whoever spoke intently, like he could absorb the language through proximity. And maybe he could, because it didn’t take long for Stiles to learn English at all; after just two days of listening, he was joining in on conversations, tripping over his sentences a little, and two days after that he was bickering with Erica like he’d been speaking the language for years. He still had an accent, just tinging his words, but any trouble he’d had in conversations was gone.
Derek knew that emissaries had the ability to pick up languages quickly, and it was said that they had a natural affinity towards the language of their rightful pack from birth. Derek didn’t know how it worked exactly, but if Stiles could pick up English that fast, it must have been amazing how quickly he’d picked up the language of his pack—probably French, given that they were the Chevelle pack.
Though as impressive as his language skills were, there was a definite downside: now that he could speak with them, he made his opinions known frequently, loudly, and often while mocking Derek’s decisions. Erica loved it. She went out of her way to ask him about everything Derek did, solely to laugh at him, and he would be angry, but he couldn’t remember the last time he heard her laugh.
Scott and Stiles had become inseparable from the start, Isaac pretended to be disinterested in him but seemed to carefully study everything he did, and even Boyd would smirk silently by the fire.
It wasn’t a massive change, but the energy had shifted, and for the first time in years, it seemed as though Derek’s pack was starting to live instead of just surviving. Maybe it was Stiles, maybe it was finally having a clear destination instead of aimless wandering, but it was something, and it made Derek feel like he wasn’t as terrible at being an alpha as he’d thought.
That lasted until they climbed the mountains high enough to hit deeper snow—then Derek regretted every decision he’d made that had led them there. He was an awful alpha, inept, and his mother would never have put her pack through something like this.
The wolves were mostly alright in the cold. It was hard progress but there were plenty of caves in the mountain to hide from the winds and rest at night, so it was bearable, even if they were all too exhausted to do anything but collapse when they stopped—but it was taking a toll on Stiles. He didn't ever say anything about it, in English or Polish, because Scott would’ve said something if he had, but he was moving slower, sleeping harder and longer, lying closer and closer to the fire every night. They weren't moving at a wolf's fastest pace, but they were still making faster time than humans ever could, even with the snow. It was impressive that Stiles could even keep up.
Not to say that he was small or weak, he definitely wasn’t. He was slim and lithe under his heavy cloak and layers, but he had broad shoulders and large, strong hands that suggested a deeper power and strength. If anyone so much as suggested making camp earlier than usual for his benefit, Stiles would roll his eyes and stomp ahead until they got the picture and kept moving.
In fact, now that he was healed and his magic had recuperated from working to repair his body, Stiles was starting to show just what he could do as an emissary. Every night when they made camp in whatever cave they could find, Stiles would journey right back out into the snow with Scott to place wards in a perimeter to warn them of anyone coming with enough time to prepare or escape. Normally Derek would rely on his own hearing for this, but the howling wind and constant snowstorms drowned out everything, leaving them no choice but to rely on Stiles.
(Derek didn’t know how it worked, but it was truly eerie when Stiles would perk up from his food around the fire, eyes distant and ringed in a glowing blue for a long moment, before he announced “deer” and returned to his meal like nothing happened. He never explained how he could tell, said it would be like explaining how to feel warmth or wind.)
It bothered him how much it didn’t bother him, letting Stiles handle that, but they all started sleeping better with the extra layer of security.
On colder nights, as they climbed higher and higher into the mountains, Stiles would throw some kind of plant onto the fire that made it burn a little hotter, winking if anyone asked what it was. None of them could identify it by smell.
When Erica slipped on an icy rock and snapped her ankle, Stiles was there, fingertips glowing the same calming blue as his eyes, speeding up the healing process however he could, and making jokes to keep her laughing.
But when they crossed over the crest of the mountain range, they no longer had the mountain itself blocking the worst of the wind, and their journey became ten times harder. Even the wolves had trouble keeping their footing in the near-constant snowstorms, and Scott kept huddled next to Stiles the entire way through, blocking what wind he could and keeping him upright when he stumbled.
It was frigid and Stiles couldn’t even set up wards by the time he collapsed at night; his magic drained throughout the day trying to keep his limbs from succumbing to frostbite that left his fingers stiff and grey. The shadows under his eyes were getting darker, his skin was losing its color—humans weren’t made to survive up here, no matter how much magic they had.
Derek was worried about him, they all were. They were still at least a week’s travel from warmer temperatures and it felt like he was slipping away and they couldn’t do anything to help him. He wasn’t their emissary, he didn’t belong to them, but they’d all grown attached so quickly—no matter how reluctantly. Watching him struggle was bad enough, but watching him die this time would be unbearable.
Still, he refused to admit anything was really wrong and kept talking, making jokes, making fun of them whenever possible, when even the wolves were too exhausted to do anything but eat in silence and collapse into sleep.
“You’re supposed to be better at this than me,” Stiles admonished through chattering teeth from his blankets right next to the fire, and Boyd tried to kick him without exposing his leg to the frigid air.
Everyone else dropped off to sleep quickly, Scott had first watch with Stiles’ wards no longer an option, bundled up at the mouth of the cave, but Derek couldn’t relax, refused to. Even blocked from the wind with a fire going, Stiles was likely to freeze to death. The blankets he had weren’t warm enough for the snowy weather this far into the mountains and even the heavier cloak and furs they’d traded for in the foothills weren’t helping much.
Derek only held out for another minute before worry and guilt crept up on him and he broke, slipping under the blankets with him without a word. He looped his arm around Stiles’ tense stomach and pulled him back against his chest, holding him there until his violent shivering finally eased and he could relax, practically going limp in Derek's arms.
He murmured a sleepily thanks, before finally giving in to his exhaustion and drifting off.
Derek stayed awake for a while after, long enough to see Scott return to wake him for the second watch, and instead take one look at Stiles and move to wake Isaac instead.
* * *
Somehow (Derek honestly wasn’t sure how or when this conversation took place) it was decided that as alpha, Derek was the warmest and therefore the one who would be sleeping with Stiles every night. The pack wouldn’t even let him take watch anymore, saying that someone had to keep the lone human who knew where they were going from freezing to death in his sleep, and Derek was the most efficient.
(This conversation of course happened in hushed whispers over Stiles’ deeply sleeping form, because had he been aware they were scheduling these things around him, he would’ve been furious and probably frozen to death while personally taking a watch shift purely out of spite.)
So that was the routine; struggling through snow and howling wind until they found a suitable cave, starting a fire, and Derek seating Stiles right next to it to thaw. They all ate together quietly, exhausted from the day, Scott took any aches and pains from Stiles' shiver-sore muscles while Derek set up their bed, and then he curled around the emissary for the night.
Stiles usually dropped off immediately, worn out from keeping with the fast pace of the wolves and the cold, but without fail he snapped back awake after a few hours. He always woke with a jolt, waking Derek as well, and it was during the dark and quiet hours of early morning that they started to whisper.
It started simple; Stiles muttering apologies when he couldn’t keep still, when he accidentally kneed Derek in the thigh, when an icy gust of winter wind made it back to them through the cave and he burrowed into Derek’s throat under his beard to escape it. Derek would shush him, gather his long and frigid fingers into his warm palms, and Stiles would begin to talk. A lot.
He talked about his people, the time he burned off his eyebrows while preparing to join his pack, his father who was captain of his tribe’s defenses, his mother dying when he was young—he covered every possible topic. Derek was quickly becoming accustomed to sleepily humming along while Stiles lectured him on plants until he finally drifted off again. He usually slept through the night until morning after that, but occasionally he would jolt awake again a second or even third time, catching Derek in the chin or elbowing him in the stomach.
“You alright?” Derek murmured sleepily, exhausted, side hurting, but wanting to make sure nothing was wrong.
Stiles shifted restlessly before whispering, “Nightmare. Sorry I woke you.”
Derek stared at the dying embers of the fire as he fully woke up, absently thinking he should get up and add another log before it died completely to distract himself from how stupid he’d been to not realize Stiles had been having nightmares this entire time. Of course he was, his pack had been slaughtered right in front of him and he’d been left to die with their bodies. No wonder he talked so much about home and innocuous topics after waking up from one.
As horrible as it sounded, Derek had almost...forgotten about the Chevelle pack, with how Stiles had carried on after. He didn’t smell like them at all anymore, their furs and blankets had been traded away for heartier supplies, Stiles never mentioned them; had he even gotten a chance to mourn them? Cry for his lost pack?
Derek knew personally how important it was to have that chance. He and Scott had suffered for too long on their own trying to be strong for the other, denying they were anything but fine, until the rage and grief and resentment bubbled over and almost tore them apart for good. They were still dealing with the remnants from it today, the underlying tension that had never been there growing up.
Derek cleared his throat quietly. “You know, it’s okay to cry…” he trailed off at Stiles frowning up at him.
Right. It wasn’t his place to tell someone how to grieve. Stiles had been amazingly strong even just surviving that kind of trauma, he could clearly handle the grieving process himself.
“It’s not that cold,” Stiles muttered, lying, but burrowed in closer all the same.
“I meant—” Derek huffed. Of course this would be difficult; everything was difficult for him. “I’m sorry about your pack.”
Stiles was quiet for a moment, then murmured quietly, “They weren’t my pack.” Derek frowned over his head at the dark cave wall, and Stiles continued, “It was temporary. Their emissary wasn’t ready and they needed protection, and an unbound emissary is better than none.”
Derek had never heard of that before, but it explained why Stiles recovered instead of being completely destroyed by the massacre.
He blinked down at him, processing, and Stiles craned his neck to look up at the awkward silence until Derek asked, “Then where’s your pack?”
Stiles smiled sadly, like he was expecting the question. “I don’t have one. They were all killed when I was a child, so I’m a...temporary emissary, I guess. I work with packs until their true emissary finishes their training and can take over," he explained at Derek’s confusion.
That...was a horribly lonely way to live, with nowhere to really belong and no one to rely on, no connection. It went against everything an emissary was supposed to be.
Derek could relate, on some level, but at least he still had his pack—if they could even be called that. Scott fought him on every decision, they’d found Isaac as an omega on the run, Erica and Boyd terrified and trying to survive after their own pack was attacked—they were all just cobbled together, lonely survivors. They didn't even have their own territory, he and Scott had been unable to keep living where their own pack and family had been slaughtered.
Stiles fit right in, in that respect. He didn't have a place to belong either, didn't fit into the norm. Not even in appearance.
Every emissary Derek had seen was covered in tattoos; the more they had, the more bound to their pack. As far as he could tell, Stiles only had the two on either side of his throat, intertwined lines tracing an animal up to the bottoms of his ears.
Derek didn’t know all that much about the process of how an emissary found their pack or how the magic in the tattoos bound them to it. There were rumors, and his mother vaguely explained what she knew about it once when he was little, but it was unclear and a tightly kept secret in the tribes of emissaries. He only knew there was a trance involved, that as a child an emissary would have to unconsciously seek out the symbol of their pack: their first tattoo.
Stiles also had this tattoo, across his scalp just behind his right ear but hidden in his hair. Derek had seen hints of it when he lay behind him by the fire, but he’d never been able to make out the faded pattern. Most emissaries kept the side of their head shaved and the tattoo fresh and clear, proudly showing their pack allegiance, and it was heartbreaking that Stiles had just let his hair grow over it. There was no point in associating with a long dead pack, and seeing another crest would only rankle the instincts of whatever pack he was working with temporarily.
He had to forfeit his own identity for the sake of others. He'd had his identity stripped from him when his own pack was killed. He never even had the chance to be himself the way he was meant to be, and never would.
Derek couldn’t believe the universe was that cruel, not to someone as selfless as Stiles. That wasn’t the life he was supposed to lead.
"Maybe some of them are still out there somewhere," he whispered, trying to be uncharacteristically optimistic.
Stiles shook his head a little against his bent arm he was using as a pillow. "I felt it when it happened. I’d never met them, but I felt it."
“What about these?" Derek traced his thumb down one of the woven lines on Stiles’ throat that created some kind of animal, following the lines with his eyes before meeting his amber gaze again. "What do these mean?”
Stiles’ throat jumped under Derek’s hand as he swallowed before answering quietly. “It means my pack was a wolf pack. Every emissary has a tattoo representing their alpha, it’s the second one we get.”
Derek reached his fingers around to the wolf's brother on the other side, brushing across those lines and cradling his throat lightly. Stiles' heart stayed steady, unafraid.
“You have two.”
Stiles shrugged his shoulder. “I like symmetry."
"Maybe it means you have another pack waiting for you, another alpha." A purpose in life that wouldn't leave him alone, no matter how much Derek selfishly didn't want to let go of him. Maybe even one that kept them together, that gave some kind of legitimacy to the connection he felt.
The corner of Stiles' mouth quirked up into a morose smile. "You can't have two packs. I’m just...the extra. Unnecessary. Someone has to be."
Derek frowned at his deprecating answer—what he did sounded incredibly necessary—and moved his hand to run his fingers through the hair over the hidden sign of Stiles' lost pack.
"No, not you. You're so important, Stiles," he corrected softly, brushing his thumb over it and deciding not to think about the buzz of energy he felt from it. It wasn't his to take, it was another alpha's, another pack's. He wouldn't steal from the dead this time.
Stiles' smile changed, it was subtle but the other corner turned up and his eyes softened, flicking down to Derek's lips briefly before he shifted closer. He hesitated for a moment, and Derek didn't dare move a muscle should he shatter the careful and fragile moment.
He felt it all through his body when their lips touched, a low level electricity shooting through his nerves and calling his instincts to attention, to claim. And though he was happy he had this in the moment, he couldn't stave off the extreme sadness he felt that he couldn't keep it, and for whatever pack was missing this; the ones who had been killed before they were able to know the streak of vibrant lightning that was Stiles in their lives, but also the aching vulnerability he hid except in the quietest hours of night, and the softness of his touch, the overly bright smiles during the day...
It wasn't fair that Derek should get to taste this only to have it ripped away to move onto another pack that would never truly know their temporary emissary. He hated that phrase, the way it cheapened what was supposed to be a deep and irreplaceable bond between two people and made it something that could be tossed away at will when the real thing came along. That Stiles could be tossed away for the real thing. He hated that Stiles would never be able to feel what Derek’s mother had described, the unspeakable closeness she had felt with her emissary to their dying breaths.
Stiles pulled back and Derek opened his eyes, unaware that they'd slipped closed. His chest ached at the broken edge Stiles' smile had taken on, the way his eyes looked a little glassy for the brief second he allowed his weakness to show before he tucked his face into Derek's throat as he did every night.
Derek just breathed for a moment, breathed in the scent of Stiles and them together with their pack, and let himself believe that they could have it. He wrapped his arm around Stiles' broad shoulders and pulled him closer, holding tight until he drifted off to sleep to the steady breathing against his chest.
* * *
It wasn’t long before their relationship escalated, from quiet kisses when they were wrapped around each other against the cold, to hushed and desperate sex hidden away in the back corners of caves, tucked away from the rest of the group. They all knew exactly what was going on, but like Derek and Stiles, they didn’t talk about it. No one wanted to acknowledge what would happen when they encountered the Argents, or reached Stiles' tribe, or how it would feel if they all survived and had to part for good.
Packs didn't stay near emissary tribes, it wasn’t safe, and even if they could stay in the region with him, Stiles had his duties. He would be leaving again for another pack who needed him. It was important, what he did, for both packs and their future rightful emissary, who wouldn't be rushed into their place before they were ready, and it said a lot about his skill that he could do that. But Derek couldn't deny the overwhelming urge to fill Stiles' empty skin with marks of his own, bind him to their pack for good and keep him from others. He wanted his own crest marking Stiles' scalp, hair shaved back proudly for the world to see.
It was impossible, he knew that, no one could force an emissary bond that wasn’t meant to be there, but that didn’t stop him from sucking bruises into his pale skin, a temporary and fleeting shadow of what he truly wanted.
He realized that this need wasn't right or fair to Stiles who just wanted to save his people, who had never asked for a broken pack and an even further broken alpha to grow so attached. He knew all of this and still couldn't help it.
But even as they descended down the eastern side of the mountain, reaching slightly warmer weather that didn't cut through Stiles' clothing in the same way, they still wrapped around each other at night, clung to each other in a different, desperate way that made Derek hope that maybe this wasn't as one sided as he thought. That maybe Stiles wanted to stay just as badly as the pack wanted to keep him.
It wasn't fair, wishing this broken and insecure future on him, a nomadic pack without a territory, but something about Stiles made everything seem a little less fractured, a little more hopeful for the future. And he wasn’t the only one thinking that.
“He feels right,” Scott said, coming to stand next to Derek on the rocky outcropping he’d chosen to scout ahead. Stiles was back with the others, and when Derek left them, he’d been giving an indifferent Boyd a lecture on the properties of a certain plant he’d found growing along their path.
Derek didn’t look at him, didn’t want to engage. He kept his eyes on the horizon, glaring out for signs of life, that they were getting closer. That didn’t stop Scott.
“He could be ours.”
“Scott—” Derek had been trying really hard to suppress those kinds of thoughts, he didn’t need anyone else validating them or giving him hope.
“We don’t know his crest and he doesn’t know ours,” Scott pushed. “He could be—”
“We should talk to him about it. I know he wants to stay.”
“Stop it,” Derek growled, and Scott swallowed down his reflexive growl back. “His pack is dead.”
“Our pack is dead.”
“Our pack is right here,” Derek snapped, finally turning to meet Scott’s confrontational glare.
“Then where’s our emissary?”
Derek clenched his jaw and repeated the lie he’d been telling himself and the others for years now. “They’ll come when they’re ready.”
Scott rolled his eyes and walked away, leaving Derek with the constant crippling fear that his pack was too broken, too weak for an emissary. That he was so insignificant, so terrible an alpha, never supposed to be alpha in the first place, that the universe hadn’t seen fit to waste a person even half as wonderful as Stiles on the likes of him.
* * *
Despite his best efforts to forget them, Scott’s words stuck with him throughout the day, night, and following afternoon.
Stiles did feel right, like he belonged. He fit seamlessly into the pack with a smirk and a wink, and Scott was right, they didn’t know his crest or what pack the universe deemed he belonged to. He spoke the language of the last Hale emissary, who had died, and Stiles’ mother had died, and he’d never said when he felt his pack die—maybe he felt the very same deaths that tore Derek’s life apart.
Packs could be passed through family lines of emissaries, Derek knew that much, just like the alpha position.
It was possible.
He just couldn’t bring himself to ask. Having no answer, there was at least the possibility of Stiles staying, but if their marks didn’t match...Stiles would have no reason to stay with them, not when he had other packs to guide, and Derek didn’t know what he would do when he left.
But not knowing was eating away at him, and Stiles was noticing. Probably. It could’ve been Derek’s own paranoia about it, but it certainly felt like Stiles was giving him looks as they traveled. Meaningful looks. Watching him closely in conversations, like he was looking for answers to why Derek was acting the way he was.
Even Scott was noticing, but his looks weren’t so much curious as annoyingly loaded. Talk to him, they said, ask about his mark—as if it were that simple. A pack mark was a statement of identity, and covering it up a statement to let it go and move on. Derek couldn’t just drag it all back to the surface and ask about it.
So like the brave alpha he was, he tried to catch indirect glimpses of it. Glanced over while Stiles was walking in the light, where the sun pierced through his hair, tried to surreptitiously brush hair away from his face at night. He was somewhat desperate to know while still fully in denial that he wanted to know, and it was interfering with his life and the packs’.
So with one final judging look from Scott, he made up his mind and decided to stop caring.
Mostly, he allowed, bundled up with Stiles next to the fire again, and unable to keep his eye from drifting to where he knew that crest was inked in.
It was right there, Stiles was dead asleep after their long day—now traveling further and faster without the heavier snow to slow them down as much. Everyone else was asleep as well since Stiles was able to put up one of his wards again and no one was on watch anymore... This was Derek’s chance to see.
And yet he couldn’t quite bring himself to do it.
It felt like a violation, a betrayal, because for all that Stiles had shared with Derek about his life, he’d never once pried into Derek’s. Maybe he just wasn’t interested, maybe he had grander things to focus on, but it still felt like a courtesy that few allowed an alpha. Even Erica had asked and exhausting number of questions at the beginning, wanting to know all about her new alpha and why he was wandering with one beta across the region.
Stiles respected his privacy, so he would respect Stiles’.
And yet, he still found his hand drifting back towards it, brushing gently at the hair covering it.
He wasn’t going to look, he was just going to...pet Stiles’ head. He hadn’t said it aloud, but Derek knew he secretly enjoyed it, so after a brief hesitation, he gently raked his fingers through the emissary’s hair. Stiles didn’t so much as twitch.
Though the path was getting easier as they descended the mountain, the wind softer, less snow, Stiles still slept deeply around his nightmares. He was always tired, said he was using more magic than he was used to, which just filled Derek with more guilt. An emissary was supposed to be able to feed off their pack for their magic, but Stiles only had himself and still used everything he had protecting a pack that could give him nothing in return. Unless…
Derek raked his fingers through again, deeper, watching Stiles’ face carefully for any movement. When he saw none, he did it again, slower this time, trying to make out the path of the faded tattoo underneath. It was hard to tell by only dim firelight, but he could just see the edge...
His heart sank.
Whatever was inked there had thin, fine lines—nothing like the thick, black triskele of the Hales.
Derek brushed the hair back as it was, covering the little he’d seen, refusing to see more. He didn’t need to see more, it just confirmed what he already knew and had been reminding himself of since they met.
Stiles would be leaving them.
He sighed sadly, blinking back the burn in his eyes, and carefully pressed his lips to Stiles’ temple, while the emissary slept on, unaware.
* * *
As if the universe knew what he’d done and disapproved, it threw hunters into their path just a day later. They were so close to Stiles’ people, a few days away from the camp, but the universe knew and they would all suffer for it.
This was probably why he couldn’t have an emissary, Derek realized as they were surrounded by silent figures, all with nocked arrows pointed directly at their eyes, no doubt. Alphas who led their packs directly into ambushes weren’t worthy of emissaries, no matter how good the hunters had become at hiding their presence—and dressed as they were in all black, they could only be hunters. But with the fleur de lis pressed into the clasp on their cloaks, they could only be:
“Argents,” Derek snarled, and he gave in to the rage and grief always simmering under the surface of his skin, gave into the change and let his face shift, nails extend into claws.
Next to him, Scott did the same, and snarled for good measure. The closest hunter drew back his bow a little further and shifted his aim away from Isaac.
“Whoa, wait, no!” Stiles’ voice called out from behind them. “Wait, wait, wait,” he staggered out between the two groups, arms out, fingertips glowing a faint blue, and Derek couldn’t help lurching forward to drag him right back. Stiles saw him move, and used a pulse of magic to keep him back. “Alpha, wait.”
Derek couldn’t remember the last time he’d been addressed formally as an alpha. Maybe never, his pack hadn’t had much interaction with the world, too busy moving from place to place and surviving for diplomacy.
Stiles turned back to the hunters and with his other hand still raised, pulled his scarf and cloak away from his throat to show the tattoos that labeled him an emissary. Emissaries were supposed to be neutral, protected, no hunter would dare strike one. But these were Argents. They’d tried to kill Stiles before.
“Émissaire!” A man’s voice yelled in French, but with their faces covered Derek couldn’t tell which one it was. “Identifiez votre meute de loups!”
“Nous sommes la meute Hale,” Stiles responded calmly but firmly. Derek recognized his own name, but couldn’t understand anything else. He’d never given a second thought to learning French; it was the language of the hunters who murdered his family and he wanted nothing to do with it, but now he wished he had.
It had become such a dirty, twisted language in his mind over the last six years, a language of murderers and psychopaths, but when Stiles spoke it, it sounded beautiful. It sounded like the romantic language everyone else proclaimed it to be.
“La meute Hale est morte,” the man continued, and judging by his tone, the conversation wasn’t going well.
Stiles didn’t give an inch. "Nous sommes juste ici."
Someone from the back of the hunters pushed forward through the group, lowering their bow and arrow, but still moving quickly. It was almost threatening how quick and silent they were, and while Stiles didn’t seem worried, Derek certainly was. He took a step forward, preparing, until an awed woman’s voice called out,
Then Derek’s senses went on full alert, possessive over his emissary and knowing full well it was the Argents who had injured him in the first place. Any of them knowing his name was a bad sign, what if they were hunting him down as the last survivor of the Chevelle pack? It was illegal for hunters to slaughter a pack like that, they would be trying to cover their tracks.
But Stiles just took a confused step forward. “Allison? What the hell are you doing here?”
Derek assumed his switch back to English was for the pack’s benefit.
The woman lowered the scarf from over her mouth, revealing her to be much younger than Derek had thought. Too young to have been a part of his pack’s massacre.
“How are you alive?” She spoke English with a French accent, but didn’t seem to have any trouble with the switch. “We heard there were no survivors, I thought—” She took a step towards him, but stopped at the five warning growls.
“Pack found me.” Stiles jerked his head back towards the pack. “Do you know what your aunt is doing?”
Allison’s face fell, suddenly serious. “That’s why we’re here. We’re trying to intercept her before she reaches the camp.” She paused, eyes wandering over the pack, considering. “We could use all the help we can get. Her men outnumber us three-to-one.”
Stiles nodded once. “I’ll be in touch.”
Allison nodded in return, hesitated a brief moment, like she had more to say, and then turned to guide her hunters away. Stiles didn’t turn his back on them until they were well out of sight.
As soon as the tension broke, Derek stalked forward, and whipped Stiles around to face him by the shoulder. The rest of the pack quickly found other things to attend to.
“What the hell are you doing?”
Stiles frowned at him like he was an idiot. “I’m an emissary. I’m emissaring.”
“So am I,” he shot back, now looking offended at the implication that he couldn’t ruthlessly slaughter an entire pack of innocent wolves. As if Derek should’ve known that from just the wards he’d put down at night and his knowledge of obscure mountain herbs.
“I don’t trust them,” Derek practically pleaded.
“I trust Allison.”
Derek really hated that Stiles had an answer for everything, always did. “They slaughtered the Chevelle pack. They tried to kill you.”
“That was a different faction. Allison tried to warn me, but it came too late. They were already in the camp.” And now he was trying to waltz into a hunter’s camp alone.
Wolves and hunters didn’t enter each other’s camps, and the thought of letting Stiles do just that was going against every instinct Derek had. He didn’t care that it was an emissary’s job to serve as a go-between for packs and hunters, he just wanted Stiles safe.
He’d lost so many people already, he couldn’t lose Stiles too.
There was a rumble of frustration building in Derek’s chest, bubbling up to fear and grief threatening to explode out of him. “They killed my family.”
Stiles’ eyes turned sad as his hand came up to his shoulder to cover Derek’s, still gripping him desperately, and he said as if it were simple, “I’ll protect you.”
Derek tried to smile, because Stiles was clearly looking for one, but all he could think was, our emissary died saying the exact same thing.
* * *
As Derek expected, Stiles went to the Argent camp alone, through the dense forest, and the pack was a mess of anxiety the entire time he was gone. He wasn’t too far, if there were any commotion Derek would be able to hear it, but his heartbeat was out of even his earshot, and Derek couldn’t shake the image of Stiles’ throat silently sliced open before he could even scream.
The Argents had used that tactic before.
“He’ll be fine,” Scott assured them all, but even he wasn’t eating.
They all kept watch and didn’t relax until a lone pair of familiar footsteps crunched through the snow back towards them, Stiles’ heartbeat calm and even, not a hint of fear.
“You’re all ridiculous,” he informed them fondly, then grabbed Derek’s arm and tugged him back towards their camp for the night. “I’m cold, hunters make weak campfires.”
* * *
The two groups traveled separately but together all through the next day, and for the first time in two weeks, Stiles didn’t walk with the pack. He hung back with Allison, the two of them hovering between their people, speaking French in low voices that couldn’t be heard over the crunching of the snow—not that Derek would be able to understand it anyway. It shouldn’t have been loud enough to cover their conversation, but he had a feeling Stiles had done some of his magic to give them privacy.
Derek hated it.
Stiles was his, he belonged to their pack, and now the enemy was—
No, no he wasn’t theirs, Derek reminded himself sharply. Stiles wasn’t the Hale emissary, no matter how much they wished he was, or acted like he was, or talked like he was, and they needed to remember that before they got too attached.
Well, even more attached. Giving up Stiles was already going to ruin them.
Erica was finally smiling and laughing again, Isaac was talking more, even Boyd’s silence seemed less heavy than it was before, less laden down with grief from his own pack’s demise. Scott was almost...brotherly to Derek again, and he was finally beginning to feel like he could breathe. And now that they were in warmer weather, on a less treacherous road, they were all lighter, the exhausted tension was gone.
They moved faster, chatted happily, passed the distance with jokes and stories, and before Derek knew it, they were less than a day’s travel from the emissary camp. It was sooner than he’d prepared for, and he wasn’t ready for it to be his last night with Stiles. He wanted their journey to continue indefinitely, as long as they would have each other—in each other’s arms at night, trading kisses under their shared blanket, the hushed sex in back corners that had turned slow and sweet...anything.
But instead Stiles had spent the day with Allison, and by the time he crawled under the blankets with Derek, he stank of hunter. He must’ve been aware of it though, because he didn’t comment when Derek gave in and began gently rubbing him down under the pretense of warming him up, trying to wipe her scent away with his own.
“Allison thinks her aunt is close,” he said instead, as Derek ran his palm under his shirt, over his side. Over the scar from the Argent arrow. “Her scouts found signs of hunters nearby.”
Derek paused, brushing his thumb over the raised and puckered skin, still new and delicate despite Stiles’ magic. “How close are we?”
“A few more miles east, in the valley.”
They’d been steadily moving down the sloping mountains, overlooking the massive, ancient forest that filled the valley along the river. It made sense to hide there; the mountains on either side were treacherous, as they’d learned firsthand, the forest too dense for a human army to get through, and anyone attacking along the river would be funneled into narrow lines, easy to pick off in small numbers.
Hunters, on the other hand, were masters of guerrilla warfare. They could disappear into trees, spread out over miles, move silently and hide themselves from even a wolf’s hearing. An emissary camp had never had to worry about that kind of attack before, their neutrality and large part in maintaining balance had always protected them.
Stiles shivered and inched closer, and Derek could smell his anxiety and worry.
“We’ll get there first,” he whispered, though he wanted nothing more than to take Stiles and run in the opposite direction. “We’ll get you home.”
Stiles blinked as if he’d forgotten and then sighed in a surprisingly unenthused tone, “Great.”
That wasn’t the tone of someone looking forward to seeing his people, his father. After hearing Isaac’s story, that pinged a warning at the back of Derek’s mind. “You don’t want to go back?”
“I’d rather be out with packs.” At Derek’s genuinely baffled expression, because who wouldn’t want a place to call home, he reluctantly continued. “I’m not...normal. There isn’t anyone else like me there.”
Of course there isn’t, I’ve never met anyone like you, Derek thought, but Stiles didn’t mean it in a positive way, so he stayed quiet and let him finish.
“They think I’m odd. Not natural because I don’t have an alpha.”
Derek frowned. “Because your pack was killed?”
“Because I’ve become a temporary emissary. Because what I do violates the sacred bond.” He was clearly imitating something he’d heard many times in his life and didn’t agree with in the least. “My pack was killed because I wasn’t ready and they didn’t have an emissary.” He swallowed thickly. “I was trying to, uh, make sure that didn’t happen to anyone else.”
He sniffed and wiped at his face like he was tired, muttering, “Great job, Stiles.”
Derek rubbed his side comfortingly, dragged his arm up around him and pulled him a little closer. “I know you did everything you could to save them.”
He was the emissary who selflessly used every last bit of his magic to help keep a tattered and broken pack safe and warm, there was no way he hadn’t worked to help the Chevelle pack until his last moment of consciousness.
Stiles looked at him sadly, blinked quickly a few times, and angled his face into his arm, then squeezed his eyes shut when that didn’t seem to work.
Derek pulled him to his chest while he finally cried and shook himself to an exhausted sleep.
* * *
It was easy to tell when they were close to Stiles’ tribe. They crossed through an old, ruined wall snaking through the towering, ancient forest, and like that was the edge of a bubble, the air changed immediately. It grew thicker, almost weighed down with emissary magic, and the birds were quiet as they swooped from tree to tree. As if they knew they had a secret to keep, and any noise would alert enemies to its presence.
“What is that?” Isaac asked quietly, crossing his arms over his chest and looking around with concern at the few remaining ruins of a settlement long gone. It felt like they were being watched from all sides.
“It’s magic,” Derek answered, his own nose twitching against the atmosphere. “This place reeks of it.” It was sharp and electric, buzzing around them, and it made his hair stand up on end like a lightning storm.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Stiles surreptitiously try to sniff himself, but he needn’t have worried. This was nothing like his magic. Stiles’ magic smelled like rain and felt like the comforting warmth from a fire on a cold night. This was cold and defensive, meant to make anyone turn back to escape it.
“It’s only the first line of defense,” Allison added, coming up beside them. “Emissaries cloak their camps in many spells to keep them hidden. If you didn’t know what it was, you would be turning back here.”
“You know a lot about emissary camps,” Derek remarked casually. He still didn’t trust her, expected her to turn on them and attack at any second.
She didn’t rise to the obvious bait, and instead said mildly, “I know a lot of emissaries.”
“And how many of them have you killed?” He returned in the same mild tone.
Her head snapped around to fix him with a hard stare, while Stiles sighed tiredly on her other side. “I am not my aunt, Alpha Hale, and I would never hurt your emissary.”
Derek blinked in surprise, his next scathing retort gone. “He’s not my—”
Someone in their party yelled and a hunter fell to the ground. There was a beat of shocked silence, during which no one breathed, and then they were surrounded by the unmistakable whistle of arrows whizzing through the air.
The Argents were already here.
“To the south! Cover!” Allison yelled, and everyone scattered behind large tree trunks and boulders, pressed to the ground behind the old ruined walls. The hunters had their bows out, ready to fire at anything that moved, but wherever their enemy was, they were well hidden between the trees.
Derek peeked out around the thick tree he’d chosen, searching for his pack. He could just make out the blonde of Erica’s hair behind her own tree, Boyd was behind a large boulder with a hunter, but he couldn’t find Isaac or Scott.
He looked the other direction and saw Stiles crouched behind a section of the ruined wall, hand on the ground, eyes glowing blue, staring into nothing again. An arrow thudded into the ground just a foot away from him, but he didn’t seem to notice. His mind was enveloped in magic, and the idiot was going to get himself killed with whatever he was doing.
Derek cursed, both the universe and Stiles, and darted out towards him, skidding a little in the bit of icy snow that had made it to the ground through the thick canopy of trees.
“Stiles, what the hell are you doing?” he snapped, pulling the emissary further behind the wall and against his chest, keeping low.
“Trying to see where they are,” he murmured, and the blue in his eyes extinguished when he lifted his hand from the earth. “There’s about thirty, all to the south, ten in the trees. Scott and Isaac made it down to the bank of the river, they’re fine.”
Derek blinked at him. “How can you know that?” Even he couldn’t distinguish heartbeats so clearly, or know that hunters were firing from the trees.
Stiles tapped the ground almost fondly. “The wards. Any emissary can tap into them, they blanket the entire forest.”
Yet another aspect of emissary magic Derek didn’t know; he thought they only notified him of an animal crossing the border of it, not specific locations inside.
“What else can the wards do?”
“Plenty if I can get to the right places,” Stiles responded vaguely, focused on everything else going on around them, eyes darting around. He wasn’t giving Derek the information he needed to help and it was as frustrating as their situation was terrifying.
“And where’s the right place?” Derek demanded, grabbing Stiles’ arm to get him to focus on their conversation.
“About twenty feet that way.” He pointed directly south, where the enemy hunters were firing from. “There’s a convergence, and if I can get there, I can tap into more magic from the camp.”
Of course. Of course this couldn’t be easy.
“Alright,” Derek took a deep breath, making up his mind. “I’ll cause a distraction, get them looking the other way, you get—”
The twang of an arrow hitting a solid tree interrupted them, and they both turned behind them to look at it. It was still vibrating with the force of the blow, but the fleur de lis carved into its shaft was clear.
Stiles swore even before he wrenched the arrow out to examine it.
“No, new plan,” he announced, studying the arrowhead carefully. “You do not get hit with these.”
Derek could smell the wolfsbane on it. He’d survived it before, the important part was getting Stiles and his pack to safety. He tried to explain this, but Stiles cut him off.
“These aren’t just wolfsbane arrows,” he explained quickly. “This strain is how they killed the Chevelle pack so quickly. I couldn’t heal them before it reached their heart, and you will die in minutes.” He tossed the arrow far away, as if it could kill Derek from proximity alone.
“Then what do we do?” Derek asked impatiently—not at Stiles, but at their situation. They couldn’t cower behind ruins forever, the hunters would come for them long before they ran out of arrows. “We can’t move, they’ll pick us off in five seconds.”
“I know.” Stiles was distracted again, eyes wandering over the forest floor. “We need a cover, something to hide us—ah!” His eyes widened excitedly and Derek felt his heart jump into his throat as Stiles darted out from behind the wall briefly to grab—
Was that a plant?
Derek grabbed his cloak and yanked him back behind their wall, just as three arrows thudded into the ground where his head had been, kicking up dirt from the impact. He clutched Stiles to him for a second, calming down, before angrily hissing,
“Are you insane?”
Stiles pulled away and turned with an excited glint in his eye and a lopsided smile. “Probably, but I just got us our cover.” He held up the entire plant he’d grabbed, roots and all. “You’re going to want to cover your nose.”
Derek was going to kill him himself.
* * *
Despite Stiles’ warning, Derek wasn’t even close to prepared for the assault on his senses that was the emissary's smoke screen. Even with his cloak pulled over his face, it wormed its way up into his nostrils and it burned, it stank, it was actually painful to breathe in.
“I know, I’m sorry,” Stiles was murmuring, continuing to nudge his small fire to produce even more smoke.
Whatever plant he’d found and added to the tiny, weak flame he managed to create on dampened wood, it turned that tiny wisp of delicately curling smoke into giant, billowing clouds that filled the forest around them. Derek could hear people coughing from both sides, trying to find each other and regroup, and his own betas were whispering for each other, sounding scared. They had no way of knowing this was Stiles’ work.
Derek didn’t understand how a few leaves could produce this much smoke, but anytime it started to taper off, Stiles’ fingers would glow the soft blue of his magic, and another cloud would billow forth.
“Can you hear them?” Stiles asked, nodding his head towards the enemy hunters.
Derek closed his eyes against the sting of the smoke and strained his hearing past his pack and Allison’s hunters. They were moving around, a woman was issuing short and angry orders in French, and when he tried to repeat her words, Stiles translated.
“They’re about to advance with blades.”
Derek could work with that. “We can go out and meet them. My pack will have the advantage with our hearing and strength.”
Stiles nodded, and gave the fire one last pulse of magic before unwrapping his scarf from around his throat. “You’ll have to find Allison, tell her to prepare. How’s the smell?”
“Not great.” Derek frowned as the emissary started to rip his scarf into thick strips. “What are you—”
“The hunters all have scarves for this very reason, we’re at a disadvantage.“ Stiles shoved the strips of fabric at him, and then tied another over his nose and mouth. Masks for Derek and his pack, now saturated in Stiles’ scent to help block out the smoke. “Sorry, it’s the best I can do right now.”
Derek hurried to tie one on, watching silently as Stiles pressed his palm to the earth again. His eyes glowed blue over his mask as he stared off into nothing.
“They’re starting to move, but they’re leaving archers in the trees,” he announced, and blinked away the magic, his clear, bright eyes on Derek now. “I’ll take care of the archers, you get your pack.”
“How are you going to do that?” It wasn’t that Derek didn’t have complete faith in his abilities, but everything he’d seen from Stiles’ magic so far was offensive, and he didn’t exactly have a bow and arrow on his person.
Stiles just winked. “Trust me.”
He pressed a firm kiss to Derek’s lips through their masks that felt like a goodbye, and then darted off towards the south, his fingertips already glowing his magic’s soft blue as he disappeared into the smoke.
Derek swore, but turned towards where he knew Erica and Boyd were. Stiles had given them a way to fight back, and they couldn’t waste it.
He cocked his head around, letting his neck crack as he felt the shift coming over him, then he tipped his head back, and roared for his pack.
* * *
They made quick work of the hunters on the ground. Derek’s pack led the way forward through the smoke, carefully following the footsteps and quick heartbeats of their enemies. They moved quickly, incapacitating them with one blow before moving onto the next while Allison and her hunters moved more slowly behind them, finishing them off.
By the time the smoke was starting to clear away and lessen their advantage, they’d almost plowed through the lot of them, with only a few heartbeats on the ground remaining.
Derek lashed out, catching a man across the chest at the same Boyd snapped another’s neck. A hunter’s training was no match for the natural stealth and strength of a born wolf when they fought in close quarters. They just couldn't let them gain any distance.
He wondered how Stiles was doing with the remaining archers; amid the chaos in the smoke, it was difficult for him to let his hearing wander anywhere else. He couldn’t afford to, he had to keep his focus on the hunters before and around him, on his pack. He heard Erica snarl somewhere off to his right, but it was triumphant rather than from pain or fear, and he caught occasional glimpses of Scott fighting through the smoke.
They were actually winning, he realized somewhat distantly. These were the hunters who had killed Derek’s pack, slaughtered the Chevelles and left Stiles to die—and their ragged and fractured pack with their hunter allies were winning.
Even as he had nodded along with the plan, followed Stiles into the forest, Derek had expected to die here. He had accepted it on some level, how could he not when he was facing the demons who defeated even Talia Hale? Derek had never been a strong fighter, but he was willing to give it all for the chance to avenge his family and save Stiles’ people, and yet, they were winning.
They were still winning right up to the end, when the last clouds of smoke drifted into the trees and only three hunters remained standing through the haze in opposition. There were no arrows shooting down from the trees, and Derek couldn’t hear any heartbeats up there, but he was completely focused on those in front of him.
He heard footsteps behind him as Allison moved to the front to stand even with him, an arrow already drawn and ready to fly.
“Kate, you have to stop,” she ordered, and an older woman with dark blonde hair coming loose from a braid raised her sword almost casually. She didn’t look concerned with suddenly being so outnumbered, surrounded by wolves, with her own niece holding a nocked arrow aimed directly at her eye.
“Ma petite Allison,” she sighed, and even Derek understood that much. “I don’t have to do anything. Marcus!” She called back over her shoulder, smirking as her voice echoed through the trees.
Derek braced himself, ready to dive for cover, and felt everyone around him do the same for whatever terrible attack was coming. But seconds crept by and nothing happened.
Kate’s smirk fell slightly, her heart started to beat just a little bit faster; she was concerned and trying to hide it.
“Durant!” She yelled again.
This was clearly not going to plan for her, because the only thing that happened was that the massive trees started to sway in the wind. Actually, only one of the was swaying, Derek realized once he turned his attention to it. Unnaturally.
He focused his gaze up towards the middle, where the thicker branches were high enough for an archer to have a vantage point, and saw who he assumed was Durant, clinging to the almost violently swaying tree with wide eyes.
Because there at the base was Stiles, eyes glowing blue through the weak remaining haze of smoke and his glowing palm pressed against the trunk of the tree. His eyes glowed brighter for a moment, and Durant yelled as he finally dropped from his perch.
Kate whipped around at the thud of his body, and she snarled like the very wolves she hunted.
“Émissaire,” she growled, though Stiles wouldn’t be able to hear her as far away as he was. He just dusted the bark from his hands and glanced over the body of the archer.
“It’s over, Kate,” Allison called to her, voice cracking a little at the end though her arrow never wavered. “Drop your sword.”
Kate paused, not turning back around while everyone else seemed to hold their breath, waiting for what she would do next. She seemed to be thinking over her options, staring down Stiles in the distance, whose eyes had faded back to brown. The last time she saw him, he was bleeding out among the bodies of a slaughtered pack.
Then she slowly raised the sword out next to her, her other hand spread in surrender.
“Ne tire pas, Allison, je me rends,” she practically crooned as she turned slowly and started to kneel to place the sword on the ground. “Je ne vais plus me battre.”
Allison huffed in angry disbelief. “I’ve known you my entire life. I know better than to believe that.”
Kate just smiled innocently. It was a smile that put Derek on edge even more, that showed no remorse for what she’d done.
Allison finally lowered her bow to step forward and officially take Kate into custody, but despite the archers still ready and waiting, the wolves spread out around her, it gave her the opening she needed.
In a split second she grabbed a forgotten bow from the ground, slid an arrow out of her thigh holster, and whipped back around. Derek moved, faster than he ever had, but just before his claws ripped through her back, she fired, and Stiles dropped to the ground.
* * *
They followed Stiles’ bleary directions the rest of the way to the camp, Derek holding him close in his arms as he ran, siphoning off the pain of a fresh, new arrow wound.
“I’ll be fine,” Stiles kept insisting weakly. “The wolfsbane won’t kill me, I’m good.”
“But the arrow will,” Derek hissed back, pushing himself to run faster.
Stiles managed to hold onto consciousness long enough to get them to his people, to point out the entrance to their camp, then his eyes closed and didn’t open again.
The camp’s entrance was a large, half-ruined archway of a once ornate stone building. From outside, it looked like an empty clearing beyond it, but once they passed through, a sea of tents and chaos materialized through the wards. People immediately swarmed them, first speaking frantic Polish until they realized Derek couldn’t understand, then switching to English to demand answers for what was happening in their forest, who they were, how they found the camp, what happened to Stiles.
One man was particularly distraught, trying to pull Stiles from Derek’s arms, speaking angry and demanding Polish as if Derek himself were responsible for what happened. He didn’t stop until Scott stepped into to speak with him in his own language.
“This is Stiles’ father, John,” Scott explained. “He thought Stiles was killed with the Chevelles.”
No wonder he was upset.
“Tell him Stiles needs a healer and that he’s been shot with a wolfsbane arrow.” Derek refused to believe Stiles would be anything but alright. He’d survived this type of wound before on his own, he could do it again.
Scott relayed the message, and immediately, John was pulling them further into the camp.
Derek was allowed to carry Stiles into one of many tents, lay him out carefully on a cot, and then he was immediately banished to wander the streets of the camp, unsure of what to do or if he should even stay in the area. Scott was still with Stiles, translating what had happened and telling them about the Argents, but Derek had nothing to do.
The others in the tribe certainly weren’t very welcoming, understandably—wolves weren’t supposed to even know their location, and now an alpha was walking down the main road. Everywhere he went he was surrounded by stares and frantically whispered Polish he still couldn’t understand, but he could tell it wasn’t positive.
He was a threat to their safety and he’d come to them with Stiles, who they apparently considered odd and unnatural, simply for doing whatever he could to help the most people. It filled Derek with rage, knowing these people who didn’t appreciate him got to have Stiles, while Derek’s pack would have to leave him behind.
He turned to see Isaac waving him over to a tent on the edge of the camp.
“They gave us this tent for the night,” he explained as Derek approached. “They expect to hear about Stiles before morning so at least we’ll know...either way.”
Derek just nodded tightly and pushed through the front flap. Erica and Boyd were already inside, gathered around the small fire at the center, but it still smelled nothing like their pack. Nothing like Stiles. Just foreign scents that set him on edge.
* * *
His arms felt empty that night, lying under furs and blankets that were too hot for him, but just perfect for Stiles. He couldn’t bring himself to throw them off though; he’d grown used to the weight of them and the excess heat of Stiles' body. To the feeling of him pressed up against him. To the scent of him surrounding him completely.
Now he could only smell the smoke screen lingering over all of them, clinging to their clothing. It had seeped into Derek’s beard right beneath his nose, and no matter how many times he brushed his hands through it, the stench wouldn’t fade. It was everywhere, even on the blankets he and Stiles had been using, and it felt like Stiles had been erased by it.
It wasn't just Derek either, the whole pack slept ill at ease with Stiles out of sight, which he realized wasn’t good. Stiles wasn’t their emissary, he was only with them temporarily, and he had countless other packs to aid after them. They couldn’t get so attached.
Besides, they were crippled and piecemeal, had no emissary, the deteriorating remnants of a great and powerful pack. What could they possibly offer an emissary of Stiles' skill? Nothing as they were, that was for sure, they didn’t even have a territory to call home.
Well, they did, Derek could at least admit that much to himself. His family’s land lay empty and forgotten to the west, but the thought of returning to their improvised burial ground… He shuddered at the dark memories stirred up in his mind, and was horrified at the instinct to reach for Stiles for comfort. They’d all come to rely on him too much.
They needed to move on, forget about him, learn to live and be strong without him. It wasn’t fair to his pack to keep them wandering forever, chasing a dream Derek didn’t want to let go. They deserved a home, security, somewhere to build a life. He may never have Stiles, may never be able to give them an emissary, but he could at least give them a home.
They would head west at dawn, he decided, no matter what Stiles’ condition. It was time to stop running.
* * *
There was no word on Stiles at dawn. His father was nowhere to be found, nor was the healer Deaton, and no one else seemed to want to associate with the wolves in their midst to answer their questions. Emissaries weren’t even supposed to associate with other packs before they were bonded, and it seemed as though the whole tribe followed that as law. Children would approach curiously, their heads shaved, foreign crests on display, but an adult would always come pull them away quickly.
The pack was left alone to gather their things for their trip west, pack the supplies given to them in thanks. Derek hadn’t told them where they were headed yet; he wanted to discuss it with Scott in private instead of surprising him with an audience and they hadn’t gotten a chance to talk yet.
None of them said anything as they closed their borrowed tent and headed out, through the camp towards the entrance, past the covered bodies of Allison’s hunters lost against Kate’s. Each blanket had a bundle of flowers on it, what looked like a family symbol etched into a metal medallion. Derek didn’t know Stiles’ family symbol, didn’t want to know if they were walking past his body. He would much rather believe that Stiles was out there in the world, helping packs and saving lives.
Scott caught his eye, and though he looked understanding, Derek could tell he wanted to stay longer. Say goodbye like they hadn’t been able to with their own pack, even if it was at a grave.
But Derek couldn’t do it again. He didn’t want to know.
He hiked up his bag further on his back, and kept moving. If he stopped, he would break, and he couldn’t break when his pack was relying on him to get them home.
He closed his eyes at whoever was calling them back. Of course they couldn’t let this be easy.
Boyd nudged him, and he turned reluctantly to see a man jogging up behind him, a little unevenly, and Derek had to look again to confirm that it really was Stiles he was looking at—still injured. But now he wore the hairstyle Derek had always seen on emissaries; the sides of his head shorn away but the top still kept long, showing the symbol of his pack tucked partially behind his ear. Derek froze, his chest tightened.
The mark in Stiles’ hair mirrored that on Derek’s back, three interconnecting spirals: Hale.
"Derek..." Scott started, having seen the same thing, but Derek didn't wait for whatever he was about to say. He crossed the distance in three strides, and heard Stiles' heart tick up in anticipation as he reverently brushed his palm over the fresh tattoo and cupped the back of his head, pulling him in for a bruising kiss.
Stiles could stay with them, he was meant to stay with them.
No, Derek pulled back, trying to rein in his happiness. He’d seen Stiles’ tattoo before, and it was nothing like the triskele; he could still see the faint, fading remnants of it underneath his buzzed hair.
“No, you can’t do this.” It hurt to say the words, but he had to stop this.
Stiles’ face fell, and he was still breathing heavily. Still injured, holding his side. “I thought you wanted—Did I do something wrong?”
Derek’s chest clenched. “Yes, Stiles, you can’t—” He put his hands on Stiles’ shoulders, holding him at arm’s length so he could think. “You can’t force this. I won’t let you.”
One of the few things his mother had managed to teach him was that the alpha-emissary bond could never be forced. Both parties would suffer, the pack would slowly die as the magic tried to correct itself, but the emissary would suffer the brunt of the consequences. Emissaries were the conduit pack magic flowed through, and a forced, cancerous bond would eat them away inside. He couldn’t do that to Stiles, no matter how selfishly he wanted to keep him.
Stiles narrowed his eyes. “Derek, I’m not forcing it, this is supposed to happen.”
“No, it's not.” He sighed, finally admitting, “I saw your mark, before. I know you’re not mine.”
“Yes, I am,” Stiles argued, getting defensive. “Look, I don’t know how or why it happened, but this is meant to be, because I’m your emissary.” His voice was hard and determined, and Derek took a deep, frustrated breath, willing himself to stay strong. No matter how much he wanted Stiles to be with them, be with him, he wasn’t going to let them destroy themselves for it.
“You’re not." Derek's voice was rough as he shook his head. "You just want to be.”
Now Stiles looked outright offended. “Do you really think I would risk ruining a pack, possibly killing them, just because I want to be in one?”
Derek hated himself a little as he honestly answered, “Maybe not consciously.”
Stiles opened his mouth to argue, closed it, frowned, squinted at him, then asked curiously, “Do you even know how we find our packs?”
Derek blinked at the sudden change in topic, still geared up to argue and scraped raw by everything happening. “My mother told me you go into a trance and the crest comes to you.”
“We don’t. Our mentor seeks it out for us, I can’t force myself to choose anyone. Deaton saw it while he was healing me last night, and he would kill himself before letting anyone here force a bond.”
“But your—” Derek’s mind was a whirlwind, trying to force himself to think clearly somewhere between the stark refusal to believe this was true and the sheer joy and relief at the news. “Your pack died,” he finally managed, and congratulated himself on staying somewhat focused while faced with Stiles wearing his family’s crest like he belonged.
“And I have another.” He tugged down his scarf to reveal the two wolves on his throat. “You were right; two alphas.”
Derek tightened his grip on Stiles’ shoulders, trying to strengthen his resolve and not shove his face right up against those wolves, cover the stench of foreign magic and this place with pack. This was too good to be true. Derek didn’t get what he wanted, he didn’t get happiness. He didn’t get someone like Stiles.
“You said you liked the symmetry,” he protested weakly.
“I was already enough of a freak growing up, I wasn’t going to tell anyone that not even Deaton knew what it meant that I had two.”
There wasn’t a hint of a lie as Stiles smiled at him softly, and Derek gave in. He moved his hands up Stiles’ shoulders to cover the wolves with his palms and let the comforting, warm hum of magic sing through his veins as if it were a full moon. Stiles—his emissary—stood there with an alpha’s claws so close to his throat and his heart didn’t so much as stutter, with nothing but trust and, if Derek allowed himself to hope, maybe love in his eyes.
He pulled his emissary in for another kiss and let his hand creep up to cover the triskele, let the magic crackle through them and out through the pack bonds into his betas. He could feel them, he could feel all of them as an alpha should, feel that they were happy and healthy and ready to find a home.
With their emissary.
"You're mine." That was all he managed to get out, breathless and a little strangled with shock that he got to have this.
Stiles smiled against his lips. "And you're mine."