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.
When Stiles was well enough to walk, he was also, unfortunately, well enough to talk. Mostly.
Derek proved a very capable audience, silent, conscientious, and he wouldn’t (couldn’t?) tell Stiles to shut up. Where Scott would have wrestled him to the ground by now, Derek seemed to still be interested in everything Stiles had to say, including Alisdair’s origin story and the war of serpiente aggression.
They slowly, very slowly, made their way south. The snow fell away to more familiar forests of dry leaves and patches of green interspersed with the reds and golds of autumn. As if the world came more alive the further they got from that wretched wasteland.
“Not- That your home is wretched.” Stiles corrected himself. Derek threw him a sidelong glare, by now used to Stiles’ lack of verbal filter. “I didn’t mean that. I mean horrible things happen there. And I cannot wait until I see the Keep’s spires. I’m sorry.”
Derek shrugged, his eyebrows drawn into a complicated dance that was his main means of expression. Stiles stepped on a branch wrong and stumbled, and Derek’s hand was there instantly, righting him. Stiles thanked him and they continued walking.
“The Keep is… You have to fly to the first floor, because it’s built for birds. But it isn’t hostile. The Keep is warmth, and light, and freedom. The balconies touch the sky.” He stole a glance at Derek, pacing beside him. “I’d like to show you.”
Derek stumbled, and this time Stiles kept him on his feet. He snatched his hand back and shook his head. Stiles watched him give a tree trunk a friendly pat, and then he turned to glare pointedly at Stiles. Stiles laughed. “Okay. Both feet on the ground. I get it. Or, four, rather.”
Derek scowled, but there was no heat behind it. Stiles hummed beside him. “I do want you to meet everyone. If… If you don’t want to go home, I’m sure Scott could make a place for you with us. As thanks.”
Stiles risked a glance at him, but Derek gave away nothing on his solemn face. Stiles coughed. “If you want. You don’t have to, obviously. But after a week with you, I’ve kind of gotten attached. You’re like a giant puppy. I can’t just let you go.”
Derek grunted, and shook his head, exasperated. Stiles detected a bit of a smile forming, though, and warmth fluttered in his chest. Nobody ever listened to his ranting. He couldn’t exactly help it. At times it felt like his mind went so fast it would come apart at the seams. If he didn’t speak he would surely go mad, and all the avian calm in the world couldn’t help him.
“I can understand if you don’t want to stay,” Stiles continued. “The war is… It isn’t pleasant. We’ve been fighting for centuries. Since before anyone can remember.”
Derek grunted, and climbed over a large, rotting tree trunk. He extended a hand to Stiles, to help him over. Stiles took it, unthinking, and clambered over the decomposing wood. After the precursory touch was gone, Stiles felt the heat of Derek’s hand linger in his palm. He worried. He was getting used to the small, unthinking touches. His father would be disappointed. Again.
“Scott had a plan. Sort of,” Stiles said, desperate to get out of his own head. “The serpiente- Their leader, Allison Argent- wanted a parlay. Nobody believed her, but the Mistari agreed to host peace talks. They suggested… They suggested Scott and Allison mate.”
The forest gave way to a small stream, and Derek fell in alongside it, with Stiles slightly behind him. With Derek leading, Stiles found the path was easier, as if Derek was intentionally picking the smoothest course. Which was great, because Stiles still hadn’t regained all of his strength. They rested too frequently for Stiles’ liking, and Stiles was unbelievably sore at the end of each day.
“It wasn’t… too outlandish. Allison is not a horrible looking woman, for a serpiente. She isn’t refined, or a controlled avian lady, but she is bright in her own way. I suppose. Scott fell hard, like his wings had been-” Stiles just managed to cut himself off, choking on the words. Derek cast a worried look at him, but Stiles ignored him and took a deep breath. “I was helping him sneak out to see her, to arrange peace talks. Neither of their parents are thrilled with the idea. Papa Argent ordered Allison to stop seeing Scott. They want peace, but they can’t set aside their differences long enough to work for it.”
Derek made them stop again, touching a hand to Stiles’ shoulder to get him to sit on a rock beside the creek. He knelt by the creek and, with Stiles watching, just dunked his entire head under the water. He threw his head back, spraying water everywhere. Stiles jumped out of the way, and Derek shook his head, like a dog shaking water loose after a bath.
“You are ridiculous,” Stiles said. Derek merely grinned. Pushing his hands through wet hair, he sat back on the cool, green grass, and watched Stiles, waiting for him to keep talking. Stiles blinked at him. Oh. Stiles averted his eyes and stared at a boring tree in an effort to keep a blush from forming. “I think they are actually in love. The thought is terrifying and amazing at the same time. Scott just might end this war, if the kidnapping can be explained. If we really were taken by Kate Argent-”
A splash cut him off, and Stiles looked to see Derek had slipped, one foot in the creek. Face pale as snow, he dragged his leg out of the water and shook away clinging droplets. Stiles frowned. “Derek?”
Stiles stood, forcing aching legs to obey him. Derek shook his head, and tried to wave Stiles away. But Stiles saw the painful tension in Derek’s shoulders, like he held himself in place against an unseen enemy. “Derek, are you all right?”
The quick, sharp nod did not alleviate Stiles’ concern, but if Derek didn’t want to talk about it, Stiles certainly couldn’t force the matter. He swallowed hard, and clenched his hands into fists at his side. “If something were bothering you, you can tell me. I… I feel I can trust you. You’ve saved my life. Twice now. And you’re taking me home. If I can help you in any way, please. You must let me know.”
Lips pressed in a fine line, Derek shook his head again, firmly ending the discussion. Stiles pressed down hard on the hurt welling up in his chest. The man had a right to his privacy. As irritating as that was.
And then Derek was beside him, guiding him back to the rock he had been sitting on. Again.
Stiles fiercely resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Derek held a flask in front of him, and Stiles accepted the drink, water soothing his hot throat. Between gulps, he watched Derek surreptitiously scout their surroundings, put on edge by the mention of Kate Argent.
“Should we carry on, then?” Stiles asked. He handed the water skin back to Derek, who hooked it to his belt with a curt nod. The emotions Derek had been showing previously were gone, replaced with a stoic mask that any avian would be pleased to display. Despite being surrounded by calm, collected avians his whole life, Stiles found himself discomfited when faced with Derek’s withdrawal. He did not like it one bit. Derek’s facade of calm felt more like his father’s when they had lost Stiles’ mother, calm in the face of terrifying loss and a sheer force of will.
They trudged on, Stiles silent behind Derek now, and unease dragged heavy between them. When they made camp that night, Stiles resolutely ignored Derek’s questioning eyebrows, and curled up on the ground, with his back to Derek.
It was two days of horrible silence later when a flight of birds descended on them. Stiles paused, Derek close at hi back, and started when Whittemore shifted to human form in one, smooth motion. “Stilinski. I’m here to retrieve you.” He jerked his finely chiseled jaw at Derek. “Get lost, mutt.”
“I’m still your commanding officer, Whittemore,” Stiles said. His voice sounded scratchy from disuse, and he was well aware how pale and distressed he looked. Derek tensed at his back, and Stiles heard him growl, low in his throat. Stiles wanted to reach out, to touch, to extend comfort, but the faces of his Flight hovered around him, their eyes pinned on him, their lost leader. “Where is Scott?”
“At the Keep, not that you care. I heard you ditched him up north,” Whittemore said.
“You will hold your tongue in the presence of your commander, Whittemore,” Stiles said. He was dangerously close to losing his temper in front of his flock.
“When you are the mission, I am the ranking officer,” Whittemore said. The crow’s black feathers at the back of his neck were up, agitated but more than pleased to deliver verbal barbs to Stiles’ already fragile temperament. “And I was not ordered to also deliver a dog to the Keep. Just a wayward sparrow.”
“Then you will fly back empty handed, because Derek is coming with me.”
The silence of the forest pressed around them, and Stiles almost wished he could swallow his words back. He assumed Derek would want to stay with him, but they hadn’t talked about it since that fateful day by the creek. Whittemore merely smirked, as if some nefarious plot had been revealed to him.
“Oh, you’ve named him. Now you’re attached.”
“Jackson.” A soft plea from one of Stiles’ flight, from Danny Mahealani, rose from Stiles’ right.
Whittemore rolled his shoulders. “I have orders to carry you home as quickly as possible. The mutt is going to slow us down, and we aren’t going to wait for him.”
A hand on Stiles’ arm nearly made him molt all his feathers in surprise. He turned, and Derek caught his eye. His grip tightened, and he nodded at Whittemore, before releasing Stiles. Shocked, Stiles was struck dumb, unable to wrap his mind around Derek’s insistence. Or the hot brand of his palm against Stiles’ bare skin.
Derek nudged him, knuckles at the small of Stiles’ back, and Stiles was forced to step forward to keep his balance. Before Stiles could say anything, Derek had melted into the forest. It took Stiles a full five minutes to get his breathing under control enough to turn and face Whittemore. “You are very lucky that I am unarmed.”
“Ooh. My pinion feathers are quaking. Now shift. I want to get home before dinner.” Whittemore took a step towards him.
Stiles held up a warning hand. “You do not touch me.”
“I will carry you.” Mahealani moved to his side, composed in the face of Whittemore’s antagonising words. “If you will allow it.”
Stiles had to. He had no other choice. It was that or let Whittemore’s fierce crow sink its talons into his shoulders. Mahealani shifted into his coromant form, sleek, black, and looming. With a deep breath, Stiles closed his eyes and shifted.
He, like all his kind, possessed three forms. His human form, passed down from Maeve and Kiesha’s coven in the time before time. His demi-form, which was a ceremonial fusion- massive wings sprouting from his human shoulders to give him lift. It was useless for anything other than show. And his final form, a slight, quick sparrow, was a gift, passed through his blood and the blood of all his kind.
Legend said Kiesha granted Alisdair, a human child, the form of a beautiful hawk as a sign of her favour. From Alisdair, Stiles’ people formed. It was a tale told to children before bed, but every myth held a fraction of fact. And Stiles never felt it more than when he took his wings.
Normally he could fly himself, though.
Rare were the situations that forced one Flight member to carry another, but it did happen occasionally. Mahealani waited until his shift was complete, and swept off the ground with a powerful push of his ink-dark wings. Stiles spread his clipped wings and let Mahealani grasp his shoulder joints and lift.
The ground disappeared beneath him, and the wind took his feathers. There wasn’t anything like it, flying. And if he was to be grounded for the near future, he had to enjoy it on the back of someone else. This would most likely be his last view from above for many months.
The flight was over too quickly, and Stiles found himself deposited on the landing deck of Hawk’s Keep. He quickly shifted and rolled to his knees before his Queen, Scott’s mother, Melissa McCall. She didn’t quite roll her eyes, but tilted her head and waved at him. “Stand up Stiles, please.”
Behind him, Mahealani and Whittemore shifted and stood at soldier’s ready, and McCall gently took both of Stiles’ hands in hers. “Are you hurt?”
“No more than usual, ma’am,” Stiles said. A hint of a smile quirked the corner of her lip up, the most she would ever show anyone besides Scott and Stiles’ father, and gave a soft tug at his fingers.
“Come, let’s get you looked at.” She looked over Stiles’ shoulder. “You are dismissed.”
Whittemore’s flight grunted their acknowledgement and took to the air, dispersing towards the bunkers. McCall led him into the Keep, and called a doctor to follow them. Once they were safely ensconced in one of Scott’s chambers, McCall sat Stiles on a low couch and let the doctor look him over.
“Where’s Scott?” Stiles asked. The doctor prodded at a bruise and Stiles flinched.
“He’s fine. He’s with your father. Let the doctor look at you.”
“I’m fine,” Stiles said. “What’s the situation with the serpiente? Have they attacked? Have there been battles since we were taken?”
“When you and Scott went missing, the first thing I thought was that the serpiente had killed you,” McCall admitted. “Your father and I were certain it was the precursor to a massive push into our land, but there was only silence for the few days after. When nothing further happened, I sent Whittemore to speak with the Argent heir. She knew nothing of your abduction. There has been no fighting.”
Stiles exhaled, tension finally draining from his shoulders. The fear and worry that sat like a knot in his stomach loosened, and he felt like he could take a full breath again. Everything they had done was not in vain. Scott, even abducted and taken far from his lands, had managed to maintain the tentative peace between their lands. When Stiles caught McCall’s eyes, he saw affirmation there.
“It’s because of you and Scott. You did this.” She finally let a full smile crease her lips. Dark brown curls cascaded over her shoulder as she leaned forward and clasped his hands. “The war is finally coming to an end.”
The door slammed open, making everyone in the room jump, and Scott crossed the room in three quick strides. He unceremoniously shouldered past the doctor and swept Stiles up in a fierce embrace. The doctor averted her eyes, blushing, and Stiles found he could not care less who saw them. He wrapped his arms around his nest brother and squeezed.
“I was so scared.” Scott breathed the words against Stiles’ shoulder, quiet and broken. He cupped the back of Stiles’ head with one hand. “I thought you were lost.”
“Hale was not as hospitable as he first appeared,” Stiles said, swallowing down his own emotion. “He wished to keep me as a scout for his pack. By force if necessary.”
They parted, though Scott seemed reluctant to completely release Stiles. “Did he hurt you?”
“No more than I hurt him,” Stiles said. “But I ran. Derek saved my life. He took me out of the cold, and nursed me through a very bad fever. Whittemore sent him off when he found me. I don’t know where he is now.”
“Hey.” Scott nudged a finger under Stiles’ jaw and lifted his head. “We’ll find him. As soon as I can gather a search party. We’ll find him. He is more than welcome here.”
Stiles nodded. Scott turned and gestured to the doctor. “Now let this extremely patient finch care for your wounds.”
Stiles winced. “You are worse than your mother.”
“Excuse me?” McCall and Scott said at the same time. Stiles winced again, and his father, standing at the door, grimaced.
“Ah, in the best possible way,” Stiles said, quickly. He sat down and ducked his head. He hadn’t done too much damage, because Scott was laughing at him, and his father drew close to rest a hand at the base of his neck, warm and dry against his feathers. It was the closest he was going to get to comfort around so many other people, and Stiles would take it.
“You’re excused for the evening, Stiles. Get some rest. We want to see you back to your rotation as soon as possible,” McCall said. She made no mention of his clipped wings. How he wouldn’t be able to slide back into formation until he grew them back. He was grounded. He couldn’t fight.
He had to brave the baths to clean weeks of forest filth from his skin, and his flight greeted him with varying degrees of relief and enthusiasm. Word had already spread about his condition, nobody once mentioned flying or how the battles were going.
Exhaustion wrapped around him like climbing vines, and by the time he reached his bunk he was shaking with it. He collapsed onto his pallet, heedless of his protesting stomach. He’d eat later. Sleep now.
Scott shook him awake some time later, under cover of darkness. Stiles opened his eyes, and Scott pressed a quieting finger to his lips. Stiles nodded.
It was how all their adventures started. Fun or ill-conceived, and Stiles had a feeling he knew where they were going. No other guards in the dead of night meant a journey into snake territory, and without their wings they would be even more vulnerable than usual.
They shimmied down a length of rope to reach the ground from the lower-most floor of the Keep, and once they were on their feet, Stiles leaned close. “This is a bad idea.”
“All of our ideas are bad ones,” Scott said back, his voice low as they snuck under the views of the guards. They ducked into the forest and the trees covered their shadows. “Allison wants to hear what happened. I haven’t seen her since we left.”
Stiles was grateful for the wolf’s boot knife at that moment, because he should have strapped on more weapons if this was going to be their adventure. It wouldn’t really do much good against a cobra’s venom, but it was better than nothing.
Their trek through the forest was quiet and unnerving, and Stiles could sense instantly when they crossed over into serpiente lands. The feathers at the back of his neck lifted, and he wished he was in better health.
“I told you to come alone!”
Allison Argent’s voice hissed out from behind a tree, issuing from the darkness. Scott and Stiles froze instantly.
“I am alone,” Scott said.
“Scott.” Stiles wasn’t positive, but he thought he heard Allison say the same thing at the exact same time.
“It’s just Stiles,” Scott said. Stiles resisted the urge to clap his hand over his head.
Allison Argent, heir to the serpiente throne, slunk out of the shadows and into view. Her dark hair tumbled in well-formed curls over her shoulders and framed her pale face. The moonlight across her face cast an eerie glow to her garnet red eyes, and Stiles had to force himself not to take a step backwards. And drag Scott with him.
He should have grabbed Scott, because Scott left his side to sweep Allison into his arms. Stiles bit down on a strangled warning cry, unsure exactly how much of a threat she posed. If she had arranged the kidnapping- If she had done anything to set the panthers on them. A cobra’s poison would kill Scott in seconds. Stiles wouldn’t even be able to catch him as he fell.
“What happened? Where were you?” Allison grabbed Scott’s face between both hands and pressed their foreheads together.
“The panthers-” Scott started. Allison yanked away from him, hissing.
“No! Kate would never hurt you. She knows how much this means to me!” She raked her hands through her hair. She paced, never making a move to draw nearer to them, but displaying her irritation in plain sight. Stiles was getting dizzy watching her. “The peace must carry on. She wouldn’t want to stop it!”
“She sells weapons, Argent,” Stiles said. His voice cut through the silence in the forest. Allison stared at him, her eyes glinting. Scott shot him a warning look. “I’m only pointing out that she might have a stake in the war continuing. Those who create weapons rarely wish the fighting to end.”
“It’s not possible,” she said. She shook her head. She opened her mouth to defend her point, and a rustling drew their attention. Too large to be a forest creature, and too loud to be a serpiente. Stiles fell back into a defensive position between Scott and the noise, which unfortunately put Allison at his back. It would have to do for now.
A figured stepped out of the foliage, with a familiar weight to his shoulders. Stiles’ breath stopped in his throat. The moonlight played across eyes of an indiscernible colour, one Stiles had not managed to put a name to in their time together.
“Derek.” The word punched out of him. He straightened out of his fighting stance and stepped forward. Behind him, Allison sucked in a breath.
Allison moved, quicker than Stiles’ eye could follow in the darkness, but he felt her path. And he was closer. He twisted between them, one hand bracing against Derek’s shirt as his other closed around Allison’s wrist as she sank a knife between his ribs.
“Stiles!” Scott’s shout fizzled through the pain in his chest.
Stiles squeezed Allison’s wrist, hard, forcing the knife deeper. He ground out his words between clenched teeth. “You will not touch him.”
Allison released the grip on her knife, horrified, and Stiles had to steady himself before he could uncurl his fingers from her wrist. He threw her hand away from him and she stumbled back, furiously scrubbing at the blood on her hand.
Stiles yanked the knife out, and his knees gave way. Derek’s arms around him guided his fall, and he knelt, breath coming in shuddering gasps that ached. Scott appeared on his other side, face pale in the moonlight. He pressed a hand to the wound, and Stiles groaned as pain flared along his side.
“Wolves can’t be trusted,” Allison said over them. “They- They’re horrible creatures.”
“Did the panthers tell you that?” Stiles asked through gritted teeth. Allison blinked, surprised, and then nodded slowly. “What has this man ever done to you?”
“N-Nothing.” Allison’s chest heaved. “Oh gods. I don’t understand. I don’t-”
Stiles flinched hard, recoiling against Derek, as Lydia and Isaac, Allison’s guards, stepped out of the forest with their weapons drawn. Derek’s hands closed around him tighter, ready to protect him if necessary. Allison stepped between her guards and Scott, her hands out in a plea for peace.
“Hold, hold. There’s been a misunderstanding,” Allison said. She lifted her chin and shook her hair back from her face. “Help McCall and his guards to the palace. One is wounded by my hand.”
“Milady, that is a wolf,” Lydia said, barely concealed scorn in her voice. “I was unaware we allowed dogs in the palace.”
“I’m beginning to think there is more at work behind this war than just our peoples,” Allison said. “Take them in. Give them medical attention. That is an order.”
Isaac dipped his head, and Lydia pursed her lips. She stalked to Stiles, and stopped when she stood in front of him. Derek growled at her, a low rumble deep in his chest that warmed Stiles’ back despite the encroaching chill of blood loss. Lydia glared at him, unimpressed. “Can you stand?”
Stiles shook his head. If he opened his mouth in front of Lydia he would surely say something irrevocably stupid. So Derek hauled him to his feet, and took most of his weight as they started through the forest.
Scott had been inside the serpiente palace, but it was new to Stiles. Candles and torchlight illuminated their path as Allison and Lydia led them into the winding corridors of the palace. Stiles’ vision blinked, and he lost time and orientation as they moved through the building. He hoped someone was keeping track of their route, in case they had to escape.
At one point he stumbled, and Derek picked him up by knocking an arm under Stiles’ knees. The next thing he knew, he was on his back on a hard, wooden pallet. Derek leaned over him, pale and anxious, and had one hand cupped around Stiles’ cheek. Stiles breathed evenly through the pain in his side, trying to focus on Derek’s warmth instead of Lydia sewing up the wound in his side.
“Be quiet. They’re in the palace.” Allison’s voice drifted over him, hushed over the pounding of his heart in his ears. “They can’t know you’re here.”
“What do you mean they’re here?” Scott’s voice followed right after Allison’s. Stiles twisted, trying to get eyes on Scott, to see that he was still safe. Derek held him still so that Lydia could work.
“We don’t have any evidence. We can’t exactly turn away our biggest suppliers. They’ve been close to our family for generations! I can’t accuse my aunt of kidnapping the heir to the avian throne. She’s like family. And we don’t sell our family out.”
“She tried to kill us, Allison. She doesn’t want the war to end. Why would she?”
“Because she wants me to be happy and safe. She wouldn’t jeopardise the peace talks.”
“What peace talks?”
A woman’s voice dragged Stiles’ eyes towards the doorway, where he recognised Kate Argent, the panther responsible for Scott’s abduction and mistreatment. He didn’t miss how Derek went unmoving as a statue beside him, barely taking in breath when his eyes lit on the blond woman. Stiles reached for Derek’s wrist, and found his muscles corded with tension.
Kate smiled, lips a fine line that did nothing to ease Stiles’ fears. “I wasn’t aware that the Nest was becoming bird-friendly.”
Allison planted herself in front of Scott, and Stiles had to acknowledge his gratitude for the motion. Her eyes were burning as she glared at her aunt. “We’re ending this war. The bloodshed stops now. Right here.”
“Is your father aware that you are consorting with…” Kate’s eyes dragged over Derek and her sneer grew. “Dogs?”
Stiles tightened his grip on Derek’s wrist. He sucked in a breath. “Better than consorting with demon spawn.”
Kate’s eyes cut towards him, flashing gold in the candlelight. “Hold your tongue, sparrow, or I’ll clip more than just your flight wings.”
“Are you saying that you had something to do with their disappearance?” Allison asked, her voice cold.
Kate entered the room, heedless that Isaac and Lydia were armed and ready to defend their princess. She sashayed towards the table where Stiles lay, and Stiles did his best to hold still. Derek was still frozen at his shoulder, and Stiles kept his fingers clamped around his wrist like an anchor.
“Of course. We were trying to help you,” Kate said. She trailed her nails over the wooden slats of the table, and Stiles pulled his feet up, away from her. “Remove the heir, remove the conflict. The McCall line would end, and the Argent queen would end the war. You will be the most powerful ruler of your people. And the avians and wolves will be dead.”
“We are trying to end the war, not end our species,” Allison said. “No more blood will be shed under my watch. The killing is over.”
“The killing is almost over,” Kate corrected.
She moved in a flash, almost too quickly for Stiles to track, and Derek lurched in his hold. The blade of a knife froze a hair’s width away from his sternum, with Derek’s hand staying the strike. Over him, Kate’s eyes widened in surprise, her wrist clamped tight in Derek’s fist. Derek threw her back, and before she could recover, he drew a blade from his belt and slashed her throat.
She fell to the floor, guided by Isaac and Lydia’s staves, and bled out before their eyes. Allison’s hands covered her mouth, and Scott stared in horror. Derek stepped back, away from the pooling blood, and Stiles pushed himself up despite the pain in his chest. He reached for Derek’s arm, drawing him close. He trembled, and his knuckles were white around the knife hilt.
“What have you done?” Allison gasped. She stared at the body of her aunt.
“She was going to kill Stiles,” Scott said.
“She butchered my family,” Derek said. Stiles tightened his grip and consciously fought down his surprise at hearing Derek’s voice. It was scratchy, low, and hoarse from disuse. Stiles wanted to keep him close, to protect him from having to kill again. “She burned them alive. Even the pups.”
Allison took deep, steadying breaths, her face frighteningly pale. She looked at Lydia and Isaac. “Clean this up. Escort Stilinski and the wolf to my conference room. Wake my father.”
Stiles perched on his chair, hand pressed against the bandages on his ribs. Derek refused to stand more than five inches away from him, and Stiles found himself pressing into Derek’s warmth. It was not unseemly to be seen touching another person around the serpiente, and for once in his life, Stiles found relief in that.
The door slammed open behind them, and Stiles jumped, twisting in his chair to see Chris Argent, the terrifying father of Allison Argent, and current ruler of serpiente people, storm into the room. The red eyes that defined the Argent bloodline fixed on Stiles, and Chris stormed forward. Derek intercepted him, throwing him back with an arm across the chest.
“You killed her!” Chris shouted, colour dashing across his cheeks. “How dare you come into my palace and kill my sister like a rabid beast-”
“Father, please.” Allison entered the room, followed closely by Scott. She hurried to her father’s side and grabbed his arm to prevent him from jumping at Stiles again. “She tried to kill McCall’s security officer. Without provocation. He had done nothing to her.”
Chris breathed hard through his nose, but his daughter’s words calmed him. He set his jaw and threw himself into the chair in front of Stiles, one sitting slightly higher than Stiles’ and Derek’s unused one. “What is going on here? Why was I dragged out of my bed to find two birds and a dog in my palace?”
“I’ve spent the last few weeks discussing peace with McCall, after the meeting with the Mistari.” Allison moved to stand behind Stiles, and while he did not want her at his back, he couldn’t say anything. Things were too delicate in this room as it was. “We have agreed to a cease fire on both sides.”
“That’s fantastic,” Chris said. He glanced between Scott and Allison. “How do you know you can trust him?”
Allison squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. “Because I love him.”
Chris was on his feet so quickly Stiles didn’t see him move. His eyes flashed, that terrifying red that could stop an avian’s breath on the battlefield. “Outrageous.”
“Outrageous as it seems, it is true. We are going to join the royal houses. McCall is to be announced as my mate at the Namir-Da. And he will announce me as his pair bond at the equivalent avian festival.” Allison walked across the room and grasped Scott’s hand in hers. Stiles flinched, but couldn’t help but notice the soft look in Scott’s eyes at the contact. “The war is ending, father. And Kate wanted to prolong it. She ordered the abduction and detention of McCall and his head of guard.”
“I don’t believe it,” Chris said. “Why would she want us- you to continue fighting? To risk death?”
“She’s an arms dealer,” Stiles said, unable to keep silent any longer. Chris nailed him with a heated glare, and Stiles swallowed hard. “She doesn’t exactly have a stake in the war ending. Her livelihood is built on chaos and pain.”
“You’re saying she did this to keep selling weapons?” Chris asked. “She would not put Allison’s life ahead of her profession.”
“She murdered my family because she could,” Derek said. Again, Stiles felt a slight thrill roll up his spine upon hearing Derek speak. “We were no threat to her.”
“Wolves will always be a threat to us.”
Stiles and Derek turned, and another panther entered the room, older than Chris. This must be Gerard Argent, Kate’s father and the owner of their weapon making business. Stiles stood, gripping the chair for support. Derek stepped in front of him, a warm barrier between him and the man who orchestrated their kidnapping.
“A threat to you. You had no right to bring the avians into your conflict with the wolves,” Allison said. “I am wiser, grandfather. I see what you attempted, and I will not stand for it. You are trying to turn the avians and wolves against each other, and you want to keep the war between the avians and serpiente alive. Admit that you and Kate abducted the heir to the Tuuli Thea.”
“Yes,” Gerard said. The room fell completely silent. Allison stared at him, heart broken. “It isn’t natural, for snakes to lie with birds. It will cause destruction of both your peoples. I couldn’t, in good conscience, let this happen. I still cannot. Chris, you must help me impress the need for reason upon these children.”
Allison’s face clouded in rage. She stepped forward, stayed only by Scott’s hand on her arm. “I am twenty years old. I have fought in countless battles. I have held dying children in my arms. Felt their blood on my hands and heard their breath still in their lungs. I am not a child. I have fought more battles than you, and I am responsible for bringing an end to this conflict. And I will. With your help or without it. Seize him.”
Lydia and Isaac leapt from their places in the shadows and gripped Gerard by the arms. He laughed, but did not resist as he was yanked out of the room. Chris dragged his daughter close and embraced her. Stiles looked away, embarrassed for them, and returned to his chair as his legs grew weak.
With the treaty in place, Stiles was able to rest as much as he needed to. The wound on his side closed quickly enough, and he recovered from his near-freezing in the north. Derek didn’t leave his side the entire time, going so far as to sleep on the floor of his room until Stiles dragged him onto the bed. Wolves were different than avians, okay. It wasn’t completely unseemly. It took almost a week until his father stopped lifting an eyebrow at every move Derek made.
Just in time to be present for Scott’s reveal that his pair bond was to be the Allison Argent of the serpiente. That yes, he actually did love her, and no it wasn’t a plot to overthrow the avian court. Stiles stood behind Scott on the dias, watching the various suppressed reactions of the court as Allison presented herself. They weren’t pleased, but they were all aware of the lack of fighting in the last few weeks, and they were too polite to shout and yell at their monarch.
Once the ceremony was complete, Derek inserted himself at Stiles’ elbow, his usual place these days. Stiles said nothing, and moved through the crowd of the festival, sharing in the glad tidings. The war was over. The McCall line would carry on. There would be peace.
Stiles turned in tandem with Derek, and saw Laura weaving through the crowd towards them. Laura threw herself on her brother, grasping him close, and Stiles was elbowed out of the way by Cora seconds later. Derek buried his face in Laura’s hair, gripping his sisters like they were his only mooring in a storm. Laura grasped Derek’s head and pressed her forehead to his, murmuring in their language. He closed his eyes and spoke back, eliciting a laugh from Cora.
They turned to Stiles, and he shied, wary of their full attention. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “I’ll just leave you to your reunion then. Sorry. I’ll be- Over there-”
Derek’s hand snatched his out of the air, and he said, “Don’t go.”
Laura tipped her head, her brown hair spilling over her shoulders. “I challenged Peter for the right to leadership of the Hale Pack. I won. We’ve made an alliance with the Blind Alpha, and will be your allies from now on. The title should have been mine.”
“We weren’t strong enough after our family was killed,” Derek said. “Peter took strength in the madness grief afforded him. He was not a kind ruler, and he did not react well to challenges. He attacked me. That’s why I had to run. He didn’t see Laura or Cora as a threat to him. But I was the last surviving male from our family.”
“Maybe he should have run me off as well,” Laura said, baring her teeth. “It would have been the smart thing to do. Derek, will you come home with us?”
Derek’s eyes flitted to Stiles. Stiles took a step back, unsure what to say, and uncertain to why his heart suddenly clenched tight in his chest. Derek’s hand on Laura’s back fell slightly. “Stiles needs me.”
Laura and Cora glanced at Stiles, who took another step back. “No, no. Derek, if you want to go home, please. Go. I don’t want to keep you here against your will. I have to- I just remembered a thing-”
Stammering was unbecoming of the head of Scott’s Royal Flight, but Stiles ducked out of the conversation without finishing his sentence. He made his way through the festival stalls, ignoring attempts to catch his attention. He made it all the way to the edge of the forest when someone grasped his wrist.
Stiles drew to a halt, stopped by Derek, who had followed him alone. Stiles looked around. “Where are your sisters?”
“Do you want me to stay?” Derek asked, cutting through Stiles’ attempts to ignore the situation.
“I don’t want you to stay because you think you have to,” Stiles said. “I want you to be happy. You’re safe now. You can go home.”
“I want you to be happy with me,” Derek said, so earnestly Stiles felt it like a tap against his sternum. Derek pushed a hand through Stiles’ hair, and cupped the back of his neck. Stiles was getting used to his casual touches, and would miss them dearly if Derek left. “You saved me.”
Stiles brushed his fingers over the scar from Allison’s knife. “Well, you saved me first.”
Derek captured his other hand and tugged on it gently. His eyes took on that pinched look he got when he couldn't figure out the proper words in Stiles’ language. He exhaled sharply and shook his head. He dragged their joined hands up to his chest and pressed Stiles’ palm to the skin over his beating heart. “No. You saved me here.”
Stiles twisted his fingers in Derek’s shirt. “Well… You kind of saved me there, too, big guy. I didn’t know it was okay to be myself until I met you.”