Stiles woke and gagged.
He bit down hard on a greasy cloth fixed between his teeth and swallowed desperately. The taste made him gag again, and he rolled onto his stomach, breathing hard through his nose. When the world stopped spinning, he forced his eyes open. To darkness.
Slowly, his eyes adjusted. He was in the back of some sort of wagon. Covered. Through gaps in the fabric over him, he saw a dark sky. Or what he deduced to be dark sky. The ground under him shifted uneasily, as if rolling over a beaten trail. He allowed himself the luxury of a small whimper, and pressed his forehead to rough wood.
The bundle next to him groaned, suddenly. Stiles whipped his head up in time to see the shadows shifting beside him. A shock of curling, black hair brushed against his shoulder, and only Stiles’ iron-clad avian reserve kept the tears out of his eyes.
Scott was alive.
Stiles’ stomach rolled again and he breathed deeply through his nausea. His body came back to him piecemeal. His arms were lashed together behind his back, from elbow to wrist. If he were to try and shift he would surely break both his arms and dislocate his shoulder. Not conducive to flight.
His breath quickened as he began to remember what exactly had happened. His wings. They had clipped his wings. Grounded him, and poisoned him with his own blade. The poison explained the nausea. It wasn’t fatal to their kind, not like it was to the serpiente, but it still dealt a horrific blow to avian biology. Especially if it wasn’t tempered.
Stiles carefully, very carefully, turned onto his side and nudged Scott with his feet. Both ankles were tied together, and the movement came with a tremendous amount of effort. Stiles panted from exertion, dizzy and sick, and kicked Scott harder.
Scott came awake with a snort, and immediately groaned. He pressed his head to the wagon floor, harsh breaths loud in the oppressive quiet blanketing them. Stiles pushed at the floor with his heels, until he could reach Scott’s face and hair. He fumbled at Scott’s gag with numb fingers, until Scott was able to work himself free. His gasp of freedom soothed Stiles’ shot nerves.
“Are you all right?” Scott asked, his voice a low murmur between them.
Stiles nodded, biting down hard on his gag. He ineffectually shoved and prodded Scott until he finally got the hint and turned over. Scott was bound in the same way, from elbow to wrist, with a thick cord. It felt like hours before Stiles made enough headway for Scott to unwind his arms, and when Scott was finally free, Stiles slumped against the floor, shaking.
Scott made quick work of the rest of his bonds, and once Stiles was free, he sat up and tried to massage feeling back into his arms. His shoulders ached like they’d been wrenched, and his stomach refused to settle now that he was upright.
“Do you remember anything?” Scott asked.
“We were ambushed,” Stiles said.
“Obviously.” A smile quirked Scott’s lips, and for the first time since he’d awakened, Stiles felt his world slide back into focus.
“They cut my flight feathers,” Stiles said. His hands tingled as his blood flow regulated itself. Flexing his fingers against the sharp pain, he hissed softly. “I didn’t see how many there were. Or who.”
“They grounded me, too,” Scott said. He kicked the discarded ropes out of the way and got to his hands and knees. One circuit around the cart yielded nothing of value, just a few bags of grain and reams of cloth. He leaned heavily against the side of the cart and just breathed. “The panthers, it looks.”
“The Argents?” Stiles asked. He cast his eyes to the edge of the wagon.
“I-It can’t be. The Argents are loyal to Allison,” Scott said. “She would never-”
He cut himself off and glanced at Stiles helplessly. Stiles said nothing, keeping his face carefully blank. He had warned Scott, from the very beginning, that Allison and her kind couldn’t be trusted. He wanted an end to the war as much as the next avian, but certain things… There was a reason their nations had been killing each other for centuries. There was too much hatred, it ran too deep in their blood to overcome it so swiftly.
But Scott was his prince. He had no authority to tell him no.
“We should-” Scott inhaled sharply. He closed his eyes. “We should ready ourselves to escape.”
“We have no weapons and we cannot fly,” Stiles said. “What did you have in mind?”
“I think, if we jump, it will take them by surprise,” Scott said under his breath. Stiles’ gaze flitted to the edge of the wagon, where they could hear their captors speaking.
“That is almost the worst plan you have ever come up with,” Stiles said. He crawled on wobbly hands and knees to the edge of the wagon and carefully pricked a finger under the tarp. He lifted it just enough to see outside.
A blast of chill air struck him in the face and he flinched. He blinked back tears and narrowed his eyes. On this side, he could see two of the panther’s hunting party. Just as he thought. He bit down on a sigh and released the tarp.
He crawled to the other side of the wagon and performed the same motions. Two more mercenaries on that side. A glance out the back revealed three trailing the wagon, armed with crossbows and machetes. Stiles glanced back at Scott and shook his head.
“We can’t just sit here,” Scott said. “We are getting further and further away from the Keep, and who knows what Mother is going to think when she finds us missing.”
“I think she will think we were abducted by serpiente,” Stiles said. “Which is probably what they want. Because our captors are the panthers.”
“Scott, I’m sorry. We need to keep our heads.” Stiles gripped his arms over his chest against the slow-creeping chill entering the wagon. “We are moving north. We won’t be any use if it gets too cold. We’ll be no better than lame turkeys.”
“We need to run, now,” Scott said. He leaned close to Stiles. “It’s our best chance.”
“They are armed,” Stiles said. He kept his voice low, frustration bleeding into it. Once Scott had an idea in his mind he sank his talons into it, as if it were the only option. Sometimes, the stubbornness was advantageous.
This was not one of those times.
Stiles paused to swallow back his stomach again, and the wagon ground to a halt. They lurched, surprised, and glanced at each other. They scrambled to the far corner of the wagon and wedged behind a few bags of grain. Stiles pushed Scott as far back as he could manage, and kept his eyes on the wagon edge.
Shouts echoed around them on all sides, and Stiles heard the unmistakable sound of metal singing against metal. Swordplay.
Something slammed against the side of the wagon, rocking them, and Stiles grabbed Scott by the front of his shirt. He hauled Scott after him as he crouch-staggered to the edge of the wagon. He threw the tarp off them and kicked the access panel out. It swung down and Stiles dragged Scott to the ground after him. They landed in something soft, wet, and incredibly cold. Firelight glistened off its surface, like a million tiny crystal had been laid out on the packed earth. Cold seeped into Stiles’ trouser knees as he took in the fight around them.
The panthers had been drawn into an ambush. Swords flashed in the light thrown by two simple torches. Stiles didn’t stop to see who the lucky marauders were. He straightened and drove his fist into the first person he saw. A panther, from his dress, though Stiles didn’t recognise him from the few times they were graced with the serpiente court.
The man went down without a sound, and Stiles relieved him of his machete. He grabbed Scott and shoved him in front of him, making for the forest that lined the road. Scott, to his credit, didn’t open his mouth. Just moved as quickly as he could given their less than gentle treatment.
“You! Fowl! Stop!”
The feathers at Stiles’ nape rose at the slur, and he only just managed not to resist sinking his blade into the offender. He had his prince to care for. There was no use getting recaptured over a word. He shoved at Scott, knowing he’d be forgiven for the rough treatment. “Keep going.”
“I’m going to throw up,” Scott warned.
“Wait just a few more metres,” Stiles said. He heard someone, or multiple someones, crashing through the undergrowth behind them. Their footsteps were muffled by the blanket of white, wet, cold powder, but they also left tracks clear enough that a blind pigeon could see in the dead of night.
Stiles pulled Scott to a halt, spinning him with a hand on his arm. “Change.”
“What? We can’t fly, what purpose is there to-”
“Trust me,” Stiles said. Their pursuers drew closer with each breath they wasted. “Scott, brother of my nest, please-”
Scott set his jaw and nodded sharply, once. Within moments, Stiles held a sparrowhawk carefully, preciously, in both hands. Stiles cradled Scott against his chest with one hand, and swung himself into a thickly grown tree with his other. He stripped off his outer vest and made a quick nest before placing Scott in it.
“I will return,” Stiles said. “Do not move.”
Scott watched balefully as Stiles descended. Climbing had aggravated his headache to migraine levels, but Stiles’ objective was clear and focused. Lead them away from Scott. Backtrack once they had given up. Regroup and move south.
Stiles stomped on a huge branch, and the wood gave with a satisfying crack that shattered the relative quiet. He heard their pursuers start after him, moving away from the road, and away from Scott.
It would have been painfully easy to lose them if he had his wings. Five seconds to shift and he and Scott would have been in the wind. They would be able to make it home. Where it was warm. Where the ground wasn’t covered in this… white, wet fluff.
He slid down an incline, and paused to catch his breath. His lungs felt like iron bands were cinched tight around them, preventing his lungs from expanding. He was out of sight for the moment, and he really had to get his breathing under control or he was going to throw up.
Movement to his left forced him to his feet, grip tight on his stolen weapon.
A lone wolf crept out of the shadows, head low and ears flat against his head. Stiles swallowed hard. He had to unstick his tongue to speak. “My name is Stiles Stilinski. I am the leader of the Royal Flight of the Tuuli Thea. I’ve been taken against my will to your lands. Please give me leave to pass and I will not bother you further.”
The wolf’s low growl did not stop. Stiles took a step forward, both hands held high in front of him. The wolf froze, and went dead silent, stiff with tension. Stiles swallowed hard and tried again. “I am sorry for trespassing on your territory-”
If he didn’t know better, Stiles would have said the wolf was whimpering now. As if in pain. Stiles took another step and the wolf visibly flinched. Stiles paused, confused.
And then, he heard it. A cracking sound, muffled by the white stuff covering every single surface in the forest. The ground, under his foot, gave slightly with a sharp noise. Stiles’ heart ratcheted into his throat. He lifted his foot, intent on getting back up the ravine as quickly as possible, when the ground beneath him opened.
He plunged downward, icy water closing over his head so swiftly he couldn’t take a breath. The water closed like a vice around his chest, sucking what little air he had from him in shock. As he choked, a massive jaw clamped down hard on his arm and dragged him to the surface.
Numb fingers scrabbled for purchase, and he found himself sinking his fingers into the warm, soft fur of the wolf that had saved him. Ice, he realised deliriously. The top of the river must have frozen over from cold. The current tugged at his legs, threatening to drag him back under, even as the wolf kept his jaw locked firmly around Stiles’ upper arm.
Stiles tried to pull himself up, out of the water, but the ice cracked and split under his hand. The wolf kept him above the water, but growled a warning. Belly to the ground, the wolf shifted around the hole Stiles had made in the river surface, and then started to pull at Stiles’ arm.
Avoid points of increased pressure. Right. Distributed weight was less likely to cause a point of weakness.
Stiles wriggled until he could roll his chest onto the edge, and the wolf helped by yanking so hard on his arm it nearly wrenched from his shoulder. As they worked, carefully, Stiles felt more like a worm than a bird, with the way he had to move. But it worked. Stiles dragged himself towards the upward slope of land with his elbows, pushed with his toes, and the wolf kept his incessant pulling.
By the time they were on solid (hopefully) ground, Stiles could not feel anything. He had lost his blade, and his clothes were soaked through and sticking painfully to his skin. His body quivered like a tree in a storm, and he gripped his arms across his chest. The only warmth he could feel was the puncture wounds from the wolf’s teeth where he’d grabbed. Blood streaked down his arm, but it was a small price to pay for his life.
He took two faltering steps before his legs collapsed under him and he sank to his knees. The wolf nudged him in the ribs, his touch a hot brand to Stiles’ skin. Stiles jerked away but got the hint. If he didn’t get up, he would die.
With the wolf bolstering one side, Stiles pushed to his feet. He swayed, one hand gripping the wolf’s scruff, and listened. He couldn’t hear anything but the deathly silence of the forest around them. Perhaps their captors had given up.
He trudged up the incline, which suddenly seemed steeper than any mountain, and leaned against a tree to catch his breath. The wolf hovered anxiously, alternating between growling and whining the longer Stiles refused to move.
Stiles jerked, and saw Scott pushed through the forest towards him. Stiles groaned. “I t-told you n-not to m-m-move.”
“What happened?” Scott stopped in front of him, hands reaching. Stiles watched the moment of indecision flicker across Scott’s expression, and then he was swept into a crushing hug. “You’re freezing! And soaked!”
“I w-went for a swim,” Stiles said. He had to bite into the words, because his jaw chattered so violently.
Scott threw Stiles’ vest over his shoulders, but the thin leather did little against the chill that seemed to settle in Stiles’ bones. Stiles clutched at it gratefully.
“Who is this?”
Stiles followed Scott’s gaze to the wolf, now silent beside him. “I don’t know. He saved me.”
The wolf nudged the back of Stiles’ legs, reminding him they had to move. Scott hooked one of Stiles’ arms around his shoulder, and took most of his weight as they stumbled through the eerily silent forest. The wolf nudged the back of Stiles’ legs, guiding them in an unknown direction. Away from the road, deeper into the forest.
Stiles lost time, drifting in and out of consciousness as the cold worsened. He slid out of Scott’s grip and dropped to the frozen ground, struggling for breath. The wolf immediately covered him, planting himself over Stiles. Lifting his snout skyward, he loosed a mournful howl as Scott dropped to his knees by Stiles’ head. When he cupped Stiles’ head with shaking hands, his touch burned.
“Stay with me,” Scott said. “Stiles. Stay. With me.”
Stiles choked on a response, he was shaking too hard. The cold stabbed at him like a million needles pressing into every inch of skin he possessed. He could only groan, and even that stuck in his throat.
“Help! Please-” Scott yelled, leaning over him. “He is dying-”
After that, Stiles felt nothing.
A thick cry tore out of his throat, and he pushed at the suffocating heat. His fingers dug into plush fur, scrambling at layers and layers of blankets smothering him. They were immediately shoved back down over him.
“Shh, shh. Calm. Safe. You are safe.” A low, female voice spoke, beside him.
Stiles pried his eyes open and forced himself up on his elbows. The room spun, and he dropped back against a sublimely soft pillow with a groan. A young woman sat beside him, and touched a hand to his forehead. “You have fever. Be calm. You are safe.”
“Scott…” Stiles managed. His throat felt raw, as if he had been screaming for days. He started to push an arm out from under the blankets again, and the woman stopped him with a firm grip to his shoulder.
“Scott fine,” she said. An accent tilted her words, and Stiles couldn’t quite place it. He had to see Scott, though. Had to know he was safe- “Be still!”
Stiles gasped in relief when Scott entered his line of sight, whole and safe. Scott dropped to his knees beside Stiles’ pallet. “Stiles, be still.”
He, of all people should know, that was like asking the river to flow upstream. He let himself smile and shook his head. “I hate you.”
“It was bad, Stiles,” Scott said. A small fire illuminated the room they were in, and the shadows cast a darkness over Scott’s face that Stiles did not like. He appeared older. More exhausted. “If we had been out there longer… You could have died. You almost did.”
The woman glanced between them, her mouth set in an unimpressed line. “I will fetch my brother’s clothes. He was- how you say- larger than you. But they will fit.”
She stood, muttering something about bird brains, and stalked to the other side of the small cabin, where a trunk rested against the wall. She rummaged through it, and returned to the bedside with several sets of clothing in hand. She dumped them on top of the fur blankets before returning to the fire to tend a bubbling pot.
Scott helped him sit up and together they wrestled Stiles into a fresh shirt. Someone had gotten rid of his thin avian clothing, but the borrowed shirt he wore was sticky with sweat. He gratefully peeled it over his head and handed it to Scott.
The fresh shirt was indeed, large in the shoulders and chest. It almost pooled around Stiles, but it was warm, and clean, and nothing had ever felt softer against his skin. With Scott’s help, he slumped back into the nest of blankets.
“This is the Hale pack,” Scott said. He gestured to the hut. “The one who have stayed for the winter. Do you remember the wolves at the borders of our lands?”
Stiles racked his brain. “Yes. Deucalion’s pack, I think. The Blind Alpha.”
Scott nodded. “A majority of the Hale pack is sent south for the winter. We were lucky they did not all leave.”
The woman returned to Stiles’ bedside and sat, holding a steaming bowl in her hands. She helped Stiles cup it. “You may call me Cora. My sister is Laura. When you are well, we take you to Hale.”
Stiles vaguely recalled the leader of a wolf pack was called by the pack name. He sipped the broth Cora gave him, even though it felt too hot. He rested the bowl in his lap between sips. “What of the wolf that led us here?”
Cora narrowed her eyes. “What wolf?”
“He…” Stiles glanced at Scott. “He saved us. Pulled me from a frozen river, and led us here. Is he part of your pack?”
“That must be Derek,” she said. Her movements became stiff. She gave no acknowledgement when another woman entered the small hut, arms full of wood for the fire. “He is…” Cora hesitated, and called to the woman in her native tongue.
“Feral,” the woman said, in the same accent. Cora nodded.
“Feral. He cannot take human shape. He is lost to us,” Cora said. She nodded at Stiles’ shirt. “It is your shirt now.”
Stiles grasped the cloth over his chest. “Derek is your brother? And you left him alone?”
Cora pressed her lips together and said nothing, and the other woman, Laura, had nothing to add to the conversation. Cora moved across the hut to help her sister, and Scott stayed by Stiles’ side.
“There must be something we can do,” Stiles said. “He saved us. He isn’t lost.”
“It is their way,” Scott said in a low voice. Stiles watched a tic in his jaw muscle flutter, and he knew Scott was just as frustrated. “We cannot interfere.”
“We owe him our lives,” Stiles said. “It is the least we can do to speak on his behalf.”
“We are far from home, and on the brink of violence our generation has not seen,” Scott said. “Our priority is to return home as quickly as possible. You are not well enough to travel on foot in this weather. Recover your strength. That’s an order.”
He tempered it with a smirk, but Stiles heard the warning. They could not afford to interfere in the political dealings of another, sovereign peoples. Their rules were not avian rules, but they were not avian. They had their own war to be concerned with, and precious little time to think about anything else.
Stiles drifted in and out of sleep the rest of the evening, unable to completely squash the worry he felt for Derek. He dreamed of cold and ice, clinging to every inch in his skin.
Scott’s hand on his shoulder woke him the next morning, and he sat up under his own power. Cora and Laura ate breakfast, silently, with he and Scott. Scott was the one to break the heady silence. “We’ve been summoned to the leader of the pack. If you think you are strong enough, we will see him after we eat.”
“I will manage,” Stiles said. The wolves had never been a threat to the avians. They passed through avian land freely, trading in their markets. While they were not as safe as Stiles would prefer, they were as safe as they could be, this far north without their wings.
Hale saw visitors in the common hut in the centre of the modest village. It was large, open, with a hole in the roof for smoke to pour out of from a healthy, warm fire set into the floor. Cora walked them to the hut, tight-lipped, and held aside a cloth panel that served as a door for them to pass through. She did not follow.
Hale lounged on a low, fur-covered chair on the far end of the hut, forcing Scott and Stiles to cross the distance to meet him. He smiled, slick and rakish. “Boys. Welcome.”
“Thank you for your hospitality, Hale,” Scott said. “We would not have survived without it.”
“Come. We’ve never had trouble with the birds. The only creature we refuse to deal with are the panthers, trailing their blood-wares through our lands. Disgusting.” Hale spat on the ground and stood, his arms out to his sides, palms up in welcome. “We are friends.”
“Was it your pack that attacked the panther caravan?” Stiles asked.
“They were crossing our land without permission. I was well within my rights.” He stalked towards them, and Stiles pushed down the urge to put himself between Hale and Scott. “Will you accept my offer of an escort, to the border of your lands? As a gesture of good faith between our peoples. I understand there is a war on.”
“You understand very well there is a war on,” Stiles said, unable to bite back his comments any longer. “We purchase leather from you.”
Hale’s smile was thin and entirely unpleasant. He ignored Stiles, as many tended to do, and spoke directly to Scott. “I will send my finest hunters with you. It is a two week journey to the-”
“Two weeks!?” Stiles burst. He stiffened instantly, clenching his jaw so hard his entire head ached. Scott glared at him, embarrassed for him, and Stiles struggled to get himself under a semblance of control. “We’ve been taken two weeks from our border?”
“It is quite a long way south,” Hale confirmed. His expression hardened. “I understand you were drugged, yes?”
“It was not an easy journey,” Scott said. “We would be very grateful for an escort.”
“My people walk, you know. It will be a hard trip.” Hale stared unabashedly at Stiles. “And I was under the impression you were needed back as soon as possible.”
Stiles did not like the way Hale looked at him, but he knew where he was going. He leaned closer to Scott and lowered his voice. “He means to separate me from you.”
And Scott, because he had no mind, nor stomach, for intrigue, said, “He promised an escort.”
Stiles pinched the bridge of his nose. Another headache was slowly winding around the base of his skull, and his legs were protesting so much movement after (apparent) weeks of disuse. He was torn. His highest priority was to return Scott safely and swiftly to the Keep, where he could resume command of their forces and hopefully stall whatever the serpiente wanted to accomplish with Scott’s abduction. But he was also responsible for Scott’s safety. And Hale didn’t appear to be the most honest of fellows.
“I need to return home as quickly as possible,” Scott said. He took in Stiles’ pallor, and wet breathing. “You are not up to the journey yet.”
“Let it be known, that I think this is a very bad idea,” Stiles said.
“They weren’t involved in our abduction. Wolves hate panthers. Everyone knows that. And Hale has ties with the Alpha pack that trades in our markets,” Scott pointed out. “He would be mad to harm me.”
“Gentlemen, if I may?” Hale drew their attention. He smiled. “I will send my fastest runner ahead, and alert your people of your progress. They will be waiting for you.”
Stiles relaxed fractionally at the offer. He locked eyes with Scott and nodded once, quick and sharp. Scott said, “We would appreciate that.”
To their surprise, Hale waved a petite young wolf to his side. “Malia. Go as quickly as you can into hawk territory. Tell them their heir is on his way with an armed escort.”
The young woman nodded. She turned, and changed into her animal form mid-stride. She burst between Scott and Stiles on her way out the tent door, a flash of fur against white snow.
“We can be ready to leave at once, before midday, if you wish,” Hale said.
“You have my thanks,” Scott said. “Your generosity will not go unnoticed.”
Scott and Stiles returned to Laura’s hut, and Scott gathered his avian clothing into a bundle to take with him. Stiles found he was too weak to continue standing, and collapsed onto the fur-padded cot. “I still do not support this course of action.”
“Your concerns are noted, Stiles,” Scott said. A small smile quirked his lip, the most he would ever allow in the company of others. “It will be all right. You have performed admirably, and when we meet again you will resume your duties.”
“I’m sorry.” Stiles twisted his fingers in the plush furs.
Scott paused what he was doing and knelt by the cot before Stiles could stop him. “Stop. You are the only one I trust to protect me through everything. And you have. Even when Allison-” He cut himself off. “-Argent arranged the peace talks. You went with me, even though you thought it was a trap. And a waste of time. You went with me and protected me. It’ll be all right.”
“Please, Scott-” Stiles was acutely aware that his prince was on his knees in front of him, something that should never be allowed to happen.
“It was close, Stiles,” Scott said. His voice went dark, broken. “You stopped breathing. I’ve been on the battlefield, but I’ve never been that scared. You stay here. You heal. And you return to me. That’s an order.”
“Yessir,” Stiles said, barely able to get his mouth around the word under the weight of Scott’s emotion. Scott clapped him on the shoulder, squeezed, and then stood. He slung his small pack over his shoulder and followed Cora out of the hut. Stiles watched until the flap closed behind him.
Stiles jumped when Laura crouched beside him, footfalls silent. “Cora and Boyd go with them. Your friend will be safe.”
Stiles couldn’t tear his eyes away from the door flap. “He’s my prince.”
“He will be safe.” Laura grasped his hand briefly, and returned to her own space before Stiles could flinch away. Wolves were more free with their touch than avians, and Stiles forced his heart to settle. She meant only comfort. She hesitated in front of him. “Derek trusted Boyd with his life. He is a good man.”
Stiles lifted his gaze to meet hers. “Thank you. For everything.”
She smiled, tightly. “You are welcome. Can you eat? I have soup.”
Stiles nodded. “Thank you.”
They crouched around a low table, sipping the thin broth. Stiles finished the entire bowl before his curiosity got the better of him. “Please, tell me about Derek. What happened? He… seems to remember being human.”
Laura’s warm brown eyes cooled, and she looked away from Stiles.
“I’m sorry. I know our cultures are different, but he doesn’t seem ill or dangerous. I don’t understand.”
“When we were young, a fire took my entire family,” Laura said. “Peter, Derek, Cora, and I survived. I was too young to challenge Peter, and too concerned for my brother and sister to care. My mother had been alpha, and so Peter became leader. He is now Hale. And Derek is gone.”
That… answered exactly nothing. Stiles bit his lip in frustration, trying to push it down beneath firm avian calm. “Did Peter chase him out?”
Laura shook her head and lifted her shoulders. “I do not know. Only that he left, two weeks ago. And he has not returned.”
“Aren’t you… worried?” Stiles pressed, trying to understand. If Scott had lost himself, Stiles could not fathom returning home without him, in human or hawk form.
“I worry,” Laura said. “But he is a man. And a wolf. I cannot protect him forever. I have faith in his strength.”
They finished their meal in silence. Stiles worried he had pushed too hard on the subject, as he tended to do. It had been an endless source of trouble for him when he was a chick. He could press even an avian to lose their calm. Yet Laura gave no sign of being bothered by the conversation. She helped him to bed after the meal, and he sank into the furs, falling asleep within moments.
A hand on his shoulder roused him a short time later, and Laura frowned at him. “Hale would like to speak with you.”
“Now?” Stiles ground out before he could stop himself. She nodded, her hand still hot against his arm. He sat up and tugged on a warm overshirt.
“He wished to dine with you and discuss your culture,” Laura said. She crouched by Stiles’ cot and rummaged underneath it. She sat back on her heels with a boot knife in hand. Slipping it free of the sheath, she glanced over it before handing it to Stiles, hilt first. “Take it. I know you are a warrior. You feel more at peace armed.”
Stiles couldn’t argue with that. He accepted the knife with a nod of thanks and tucked it comfortably in place. It was short, with a solid grip and sharp blade. It would work well should he need it. Hopefully he wouldn’t have to use it.
Laura led him through the encroaching darkness to the main hut. Stiles had long since lost track of the flow of time, but his healing body demanded food. His legs still felt wobbly but he made it without Laura’s support. She left him at the door, again, and disappeared as soon as he had been delivered. Stiles stared at the door flap, confused.
“Welcome again, little bird. I trust you rested well?”
Stiles took a deep breath to settle the crawling sensation that licked up his spine. He set his face into the perfect mask of avian calm and turned to greet Peter Hale. “I did, thank you.”
“You must be hungry again. Come, the healing body needs nutrients. You will dine with me this night.” Hale waved at a low table, and Stiles reluctantly followed him to a place of honour at the main table.
Their meal was served to them by a docile young girl, who joined another table once her task was complete. It appeared that most of the clan was present for the meal, as if it were a communal affair. Stiles didn’t see Laura enter at all, though. Strange, considering she was Hale’s niece.
“Did you know, that in the wild, birds and wolves work together to survive?” Hale leaned back in his chair easily, one arm thrown over the back. “The wolves take down the kill, and the birds scavenge the corpse. And in return, wolves follow flight patterns. The birds lead them to their meal.”
“How fortunate that I am not a wild crow,” Stiles said tightly. He ripped a chunk of hard bread off and jammed it in his mouth. It was good, just days short of going stale, tough but still tasty.
“A scout would greatly assist our efforts,” Hale said. He lifted a hewn goblet to his lips and smirked. “Especially during the winter months, when food is scarce.”
“I will point any interested avians north,” Stiles said. He carefully shifted in his seat, trying to maintain a respectable distance between his body and Hale’s. The wolf seemed intent on making the space between them vanish until Stiles could almost feel heat radiating off the man.
“You are clever. I like that in a boy.” When Hale grinned, it was all teeth. Stiles suppressed the shudder that tripped down his spine.
“I beg your pardon, sir, I have twenty years and over fifty battles under my belt,” Stiles said. His father would be proud, he kept his voice perfectly level.
“Even more desirable. You have combat experience,” Hale said. “That comes in handy when neighbouring packs get too... ambitious.”
“I don’t follow,” Stiles said finally. He set his food on the plate in front of him and tugged his knee to his chest. He looped a casual arm around his knee, fingers itching for the security of his hidden blade.
“I want you to stay in the pack, Stiles,” Hale said. “You are clever, fast, and quite amusing. You would make a strong addition.”
“I must decline,” Stiles said. “I have sworn myself to my prince. I have duties to fulfill at home. And I will return home.”
Hale hummed in contemplation, his fingers tapping an irregular beat against his goblet. “I think not. I think your dear prince will listen to an agreement between our peoples.”
“Please excuse me.” Stiles started to stand.
Hale’s hand closed over his wrist like a vice, locking him in place. Stiles’ skin crawled at the contact. Hale only clamped down harder when he tugged on his wrist. Stiles gritted his teeth. “Unhand me.”
“I think we can help each other, Stiles. You want me on your side,” Hale said. He yanked on Stiles’ arm, almost overbalancing him. Stiles held himself very still, as far away from Hale as he could manage.
“You will want to release me before I separate your wrist from your arm,” Stiles said in a low voice.
Hale smirked at him, released his hand, and sank back into his chair as if nothing had happened. Stiles huddled in on himself, and managed to finish the rest of his dinner without speaking much. He made his excuses to the others at the table and escaped with as much dignity as he could muster.
The cool winter air chased away the last of Hale’s lingering touch. He grasped his arms over his chest and hunched against the bracing wind, making his way back to Laura’s warm, comfortable hut. He’d barely left the common hut when a hand closed around his upper arm and forced him around. He slammed against the outside of another building and winced.
“Hale,” he said through gritted teeth. “Let go. I will not ask again.”
“You’re making a grave mistake, little bird,” Hale said. He leaned in close, a sneer peeling his lips back from white teeth. “I am offering you a place of honour in our pack. Where you will be respected. No one will order your around like a common sparrow-”
“I am a sparrow.” Stiles bit back. Hale held him in place, fingers digging bruises into his arm.
“What can your prince offer you that I cannot trump?” Hale asked. “We are not at war. We are a simple peoples, eating, breathing, sleeping. You will be loved here.”
A hand slid along hot skin under his shirt and Stiles reacted before the touch even processed. He grabbed Hale’s wrist and yanked on it, hard, driving him to his knees in the snow. He drove his fist into Hale’s jaw, turned, and ran.
It wasn’t his best plan ever.
It wasn’t even a plan.
He hit the tree line and kept running. Never had he wished for his wings more than that moment, with frigid air burning his lungs and his muscles cramping with fever. He could have flown. Escaped. He could have put safe distance between himself and Hale.
Instead, he plunged waist deep into a drift, halting his motion abruptly. He gasped as a chill reached into his bones and squeezed, and he pushed himself out of the snow. Panting, he leaned against a thick tree and tried to catch his breath. The sounds of men running through the forest reached his ears.
He glanced up and locked eyes with a large wolf standing a few metres ahead of him. The wolf tossed his head and turned. And then looked back at him.
Stiles staggered after the wolf, kicking snow in his wake. The wolf led him around fallen trees and hidden ditches, and the sounds of pursuit faded into the distance. When it was safe enough, Stiles let his legs collapse from under him. He hit the snow, shivering so hard he could barely breathe.
The wolf was on him instantly, whining and nudging at his shoulders, arms, and face. Stiles couldn’t move. He just… couldn’t move. He clutched his hands tight to his chest, trying to keep his fingers from freezing. He choked on his words. “I-I’m sorry- D-Derek-”
Derek whined, nosing at Stiles’ face. Stiles tried to pat him, but he was shaking too hard. His vision went grey, fuzzing in and out as he trembled. He was vaguely aware of hands at his shoulders, lifting him from his freezing nest, holding him against a warm body.
His memories after that were disjointed. His body felt too hot and too cold at once, and he cried out when burning hands held him down. At times he was home, soaring freely through the air with Scott, and at others the frozen river swallowed him until he could not breathe. When he saw visions of his dead pair bond, he finally realised he was hallucinating. He could not help crying out for her, reaching for her as she turned and disappeared into the shadows. Tears fell freely here, alone, and he did not have the energy to stay them.