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The Only Tree in the Forest

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ONLY TREE BANNER

1.

September, 2005

Strobe lights paint the trees in flickering red-white, like some kind of unnatural lightning storm. First responders move in flashes of sharp clarity, then dip to muddied darkness in time with the pattern. The clearing is packed, nearly every emergency vehicle in Beacon County scattered across the lawn, but their lights can’t overpower the orange cast of the flames.

Peter leans against a police car and watches his home burn.

The library window gives way with a shower of broken glass. Fire licks across the frame, and he forces himself to bear witness as hundreds of years of history and lore crumble into ash. The pointed leaves on the big pecan tree curl from the heat, embers glowing crimson where living green meets the charred edges. A section of the roof falls in with a spectacular crash, and he grits his teeth. That’s the twin’s bedroom. Or, it was. He breathes, and counts the pack bonds in his head. Eleven. Eleven solid, glowing tethers.

He searches out their soot-stained faces. Talia and Richard, giving their statements to the police. The twins are held tight against their parent’s chests. Cora is next to them, her small hands clinging desperately to Richard’s belt. Dawn and her family in the back of the ambulance, his sister’s human son needing more treatment than the others.

Derek is on his way, being driven by a police officer. Thank God he stayed late at school for some kind of event. Laura is at college and more difficult to feel. Peter's brother Andrew has borrowed someone’s cell phone, and is trying to get their oldest niece booked on a plane home.

Home, or wherever they end up after this. Arrangements will need to be made. Where they’re going to sleep, food, toiletries, clothes for tomorrow, and most importantly, the hunt for whoever did this. Peter needs to start a list, but his concentration is shot, his focus is failing him. He wants to howl in frustration.

The boy who saved them hops up to sit on the police car trunk, then over-balances and nearly slides back off again in an uncoordinated tumble. Peter’s hand flashes out to grab his oversized sweatshirt and haul him upright. It's the only thing that keeps him from going ass over teakettle into the gravel.

Their eyes meet for the second time that night, and Peter finds himself in a suspended moment, locked with the serious, whiskey-bright gaze.

He can still feel the reverberation of the mountain ash circle breaking. The rush of jubilation mixed with despair. His pack was burning, suffocating. He didn’t know if it was a rescue or another trap, if a hail of wolfsbane-infused bullets would be waiting when they stepped outside. Then, a young boy flung open the door, and wide brown eyes met Peter’s blue.

Now, those eyes glance down at the fist gripping his shirt, and the moment is broken. They’re out. They’re safe. He can breathe.

Peter lets go and folds his arms across his chest. He should attempt damage control, like his alpha ordered. They’ll need the boy’s story to match the one Talia’s telling the police. Peter doesn’t expect it will be difficult to manipulate someone so young, who’s probably traumatized from everything that’s happened tonight.

“Clumsy little thing, aren’t you?”

The kid grins. His response is quick, sharp and not at all shaken. “My dad says they’re gonna put ‘it was an accident’ on my tombstone.”

Peter’s lips twitch up, bemused despite himself. “How often do things happen to you by accident?”

“I’ve got interesting luck.” Peter’s not sure why that feels like the understatement of the decade.

“We were the lucky ones tonight. I don’t know what would have happened if your shouting hadn’t woken us up.” He aims for a middle ground between thankful and firm, but isn’t sure he hits it. He needs this kid to agree with him, to believe that sleep was the only thing trapping them in the house.

The smoke is thick in the air, kerosene and wood, noxious plastic and hot metal. The steam from the fire hoses roars against the still raging flames.

The boy’s face is guileless, his natural scent indiscernible under the bitter tang of burnt lumber. He taps his fingers on the metal cruiser trunk in an uneven rhythm. “Don’t gaslight me, Peter.”

Peter almost does a double-take, and wonders where exactly a child heard that term. And how he so quickly saw through what Peter was going to attempt. “I wouldn’t dare,” he murmurs. Time to regroup. “I imagine your father would like to know where you are right now.”

The boy blinks at Peter, suddenly the picture of confusion. It a complete one-eighty from seconds before. “I’m obviously at a sleepover.” He tilts his head and the expression melts into a lopsided smirk.

Peter stares. What a weird kid. He wishes he could read his scent, but the smoke is overpowering. He focuses his hearing instead, listening intently to the rabbit-quick heartbeat.

There’s a bang, like a gunshot. Then another. Peter jerks, scanning the woods for movement against the darkness. For hunters. He can’t see, can’t focus past the flashing lights. He feels a snarl building in his throat, pulling his upper lip back. They can’t possibly mean to kill them now, surrounded by helpless humans.

“Pecans. It’s just the pecans.”

It takes several painful heartbeats for the words to register. Not gunshots. There are no hunters.

The fire has kicked up a notch, despite the department’s best efforts. Flames are pouring from what was the kitchen window. Some of the branches on the pecan tree have caught, and the ripe clusters of nuts are popping.

The side of his face is uncomfortably hot. He wants to move away. His wolf wants to whine. He fights to ignore both instincts, to focus on something, anything else.

Cold hands suddenly cup his cheeks, blocking the heat. "The pecan meat releases steam when it cooks. Builds up pressure against the shell. You have to score them if you wanna keep them from exploding.”

Peter tries to breathe and calm his pounding heart. This kid can’t be older than ten or eleven. Cora’s eleven and she has a few inches on him. He doesn’t know if he’ll ever get the image of her bone-white face and horror-filled eyes out of his mind. She was on the other side of the barrier, and he roared at her, begged her to run. He was choking on smoke, and the terror that any moment the hunters who trapped them would find her. That his last sight would be her tear-streaked face as she was slaughtered.

He needs to hold it together.

Small thumbs are rubbing soothing circles under his eyes. Somehow, he’s braced protectively in front of the fragile human boy. He can pick his scent out from the smoke now, it’s earthy and pleasant. Like the first drops of rain after a long dry spell.

“Did you know pistachios can spontaneously combust if they’re shipped wrong?”

Peter’s thoughts stall, because what? “Why do you know that?”

“I have access to the internet, too much unsupervised time, and a best friend that doesn’t say no.” He moves his hands to Peter’s chest and pushes him back gently.

Peter shakes his head and drops the protective stance, sagging against the car again. He refuses to acknowledge his shaky legs as the adrenaline ebbs. There are more important things going on. Their stories need to match before too many questions are asked.

“Mieczysław!”

Peter glances towards the shout, but is distracted by Derek, who’s climbing out of a newly arrived police cruiser, one with “Beacon Hills Sheriff” emblazoned on the side—safe, thank God—and stumbling toward his parents. The driver, however, is striding in Peter’s direction, his face pinched with a combination of fear and frustration. It’s an expression Peter recognizes, having seen it directed at himself often enough over the years.

Peter glances at the boy. “Mitchy—?”

“Stiles.” He cuts Peter off with a glare at the butchered pronunciation. “Just Stiles.”

“You’re supposed to be at the McCall’s.” The sheriff reaches them and nearly drags the boy off the trunk with his hug. “What the hell are you doing out here?” The boy—Stiles Stilinski apparently—shudders hard before he wraps his arms around the sheriff and hides in his neck. Peter barely makes out the muffled, “Sorry, Dad.”

The sheriff lets him go after a moment, eyes searching his face, hands tight on his shoulders. “You scared the crap out of me. When Tara said the nine-one-one call came from you—” His voice goes thick and he stops to take a steadying breath.

Stiles’ hands are fisted, white-knuckled in his father’s uniform shirt. “I’m sorry. I had a nightmare, and everyone says exercise helps you sleep.”

The sheriff examines him, eyebrows raised skeptically. “So you rode your bike to the preserve?” The “what the fuck?” is clear in his tone. He’s right to question—it’s not as if their house is close to town.

Stiles’ lower lip quivers and big, crocodile tears well in his eyes. “It—” he drops his voice to a whisper, “It was about mom.”

A devastated, exhausted expression flickers over the sheriff’s face and he pulls Stiles close again, one weathered hand cupping the back of his head. “Okay. It’s okay. I’m not angry.”

“I smelled smoke so I—” Stiles lets out a noisy sob, then he peeks over at Peter, eyes narrowed in challenge.

Manipulative little shit. Peter might be impressed.

“Sheriff Stilinski, I’m Peter Hale.”

The sheriff turns, looking slightly startled to see how close Peter is, now that his whole attention isn’t on his son. He lets Stiles go and steps back, straightening his shoulders and letting a mask of professional sympathy take over his expression. “Mr. Hale. I’m sorry about your house.”

Peter nods, dismissing the condolences. “Thank you, sheriff. We’re grateful it was just the house. Without your son it could have been so much worse.”

“I thought I was crazy, giving him a cell phone so young, but damn am I glad I did.” The sheriff offers a rueful half-smile.

Peter hums in agreement. It hadn't occurred to him to wonder how the boy called for help. “His shouting was what woke my sister and myself. We were able to get everyone out in time, thanks to his quick thinking.”

The sheriff wraps an arm back around Stiles’ shoulders, the anxiety in his expression fading to be replaced by pride. “He’s a good kid.”

Stiles turns clever brown eyes up to his dad and smirks. “Does this mean people will stop complaining I’m too loud?” He’s swinging his legs, feet thumping rhythmically against the bumper. It draws Peter’s attention down to his red Converse. The white rubber toes are scuffed with dirt and soot, the dingy laces tied in big uneven loops.

The sheriff snorts. “Good luck with that, kid.”

After a round of questioning where, bafflingly, the boy supports Peter’s version of events, the sheriff gives Stiles another long hug, then heads over to check in with his deputies.

Stiles remains sitting on the car next to Peter, shoulders relaxed, legs dangling. He’s more subdued now, watching the fire. It reflects in his eyes, lighting them up in glints of orange and amber. There’s another crackle of burning branches, the crash of a wall coming down. Neither of them flinch. The shouts of the firefighters feel far away.

“Uncle Peter?” Cora appears next to him and presses up against his hip, strong fingers digging into his side.

He wraps an arm around her. “Hey, Squirrel Girl.” It’s a silly nickname that he hasn’t used in years, but it makes her posture soften a little.

Stiles looks over with a curious half-smile. “You like the Avengers?”

Peter smirks. Given the opportunity, Cora’s wolf would much rather hunt squirrels than use them as her superhero minions. But she does like the comics, even if they started as a joke. Peter will have to find replacements.

Cora eyes Stiles distrustfully, still on edge and defensive. “Shut up, Stiles. Why are you even here?”

Stiles' smile grows in response. “Should I shut up, or answer? I can’t do both.”

“God, you’re such a jerk. Why are you here?” Peter can hear Cora rolling her eyes, but there’s a hint of something else too. It seems he’s not the only one who thinks Stiles Stilinski is intriguing.

He shrugs. “I haven’t got anywhere else to be.”

Cora huffs and rests her head on Peter’s chest. He cards a hand through her messy hair, tugging gently at the tangles. He’s always been close to Talia’s children, but his relationship with Cora is special. Talia frets sometimes over how alike her daughter and youngest brother are. He shuts his eyes for a moment, breathing in her scent and thanking anyone who’s listening that she’s safe.

“Whatever. Squirrel Girl isn’t even an Avenger.”

“No, but she could be!”

The sheriff reappears then, and herds Stiles back to one of the patrol cars so he can be driven home. The noise is starting to die down and Peter is able to track their conversation over the distance.

“What were you and the Hales talking about?” the sheriff asks, sounding distracted and only mildly curious.

“Trees mostly. And squirrels.” Stiles scuffs his feet against the gravel as he walks, sending pebbles skittering.

The sheriff sighs, long-suffering. “I thought we were done with the tree fixation.”

“But trees are the coolest, Dad!” Stiles is earnest, excited and more child-like than Peter expected. “Did you know aspens grow in aggregate? They send up clones along the root structure. Clones! Like in Star Wars!” He’s bouncing in place, like there’s too much energy for his little body to contain without movement. Peter is exhausted just watching him.

The sheriff sighs again and steers him into a cruiser, manned by one of the deputies. “You need sleep, kid.” The muttered, “And your meds,” comes after the door is shut.

Cora stares after him, a contemplative frown on her soot-stained face. “That was weird.”

Peter glances down at her. “How so?” And he’s not arguing, because Stiles is a strange kid, but Cora isn’t usually bothered by strange.

“He wasn’t moving. He’s always moving.”

Peter raises an eyebrow, because the boy was literally bouncing in place a minute ago, but he realizes she’s right. When he was with Peter and Cora, when his father wasn’t watching, Stiles was almost unnaturally still.




After three weeks of living on top of his family in a hotel suite, Peter will never complain again that their house is too crowded.

The first few days are fine while the pack bonds demand they stay close, but once the immediacy wears off, he feels like his nieces and nephews are living in his pocket. He’s ready to go completely feral.

The rental property Andrew finds for them only has five bedrooms, and an office that will suffice as a sixth, but it’s heaven compared to six adults, two teenagers—Laura has decided to take the rest of the semester off from college—and four kids under twelve packed into a two-bedroom hotel suite.

He doesn’t say a word in protest when he’s relegated to the office space, relieved to not be sharing a room with his older brother. He loves Andrew, but his already low tolerance for other pack members in his private space is currently in the negative.

They’ve only been in the house a few days when Cora comes home from school with the Stilinski boy in tow. It’s something of an event, since Cora isn’t known for her friendly overtures. Her last official playdate was in first grade, and ended with blood—Derek’s, because that’s just how that boy’s life is—and all associated parties in tears.

The kids dump their backpacks by the door and go flying into the barren rental-property backyard. Stiles is gleefully recalling an incident involving a bully, cafeteria food, and untied shoelaces. He calls it poetic justice. Cora responds in her typical dismissive fashion, but it at least sounds like she’s taking Stiles’ side. She doesn’t suffer fools, something the adults all agree should be blamed on Peter—he’s so very proud.

Peter heads up to his room-slash-office to get some work done before dinner. He’s been reaching out to contacts across the country, in both law enforcement and in the supernatural community. And while he’s heard back from some, there are others that need an additional nudge.

He’s worried about the amount of time that’s already passed, nearly a month since the fire, with no leads on who tried to burn a peaceful pack, or why. The danger is eating at him and he’s definitely losing sleep over it, but doesn’t feel like he’s any closer to answers.

Talia can’t think of anyone they might have offended recently. Peter can name a few that would like him out of the way, but none with the balls to burn the whole pack to get to him. He questioned Stiles briefly, under the guise of thanking him once everything calmed down. Peter hoped he could explain what made him bike out to the preserve that night, but Stiles could only offer that he “had a bad feeling,” and nothing more.

Looking for nearby hunters in the time leading up to the fire is another dead end. Even codeless hunters steer clear of Beacon Hills. Talia’s a strong and well-respected alpha, Richard’s formidable as her second, and Peter—if he permits himself a humble-brag—has built a very dangerous reputation as a fixer. Not that their reputations protected them this time.

There was mountain ash around their house. It isn’t exactly something you can pick up at the local hardware store. Deaton—the cryptic bastard—was at least able to give him the names of the west coast suppliers, not that it went anywhere. Most of their sales have migrated online over the last few years, so they’re next to impossible to track.

Frustrated with his lack of progress, he spends the time before dinner planning visits to a few reluctant allies. When he finally comes up for air his stomach is threatening to eat his spine and the aroma of cooking tells him dinner's nearly ready. Before he hits the bottom of the stairs Talia has him go out to the backyard to collect the kids. Cora could hear him from inside of course, but the optics are always important with guests over.

Cora and Stiles are crouched in the dusty back corner of the yard next to the shed, heads together, whispering excitedly. Stiles is sketching something in the dirt with a stick, his free hand gesturing in frantic animation.

“Cora, Stiles, dinner.” Peter didn’t exactly sneak up on them, but Stiles yelps and flails so hard that he tips over and lands on his butt in the dirt. Cora rolls her eyes and shoots Peter a dirty look that makes him press his lips together to keep from laughing in her new friend’s face.

He makes his way closer, curious to see what has them so engrossed. He catches a glimpse of a map, dramatic x-marks-the-spot included, before Stiles staggers to his feet, dragging a ratty sneaker across the sketch in the process.

They’re the same red Converse from the night of the fire, and in the light Peter can see more of the wear on them, the spot the sole is cracked and starting to separate, where the ends are warped from his toes pressing up against them. Peter spends too much of his time listening to his sisters complain to miss the fact that they’re probably half a size too small. His jeans look a little short too, past the point where Talia would be dragging her reluctant children shopping, and Peter wonders if he’s in the middle of a growth spurt.

Peter’s done his research on the Stilinski family, and he knows that Stiles’ mother passed away recently after a lengthy illness and months in long term care. Peter adds the ill-fitting clothing to his mental fact-gathering, along with a child who can sneak away during the night unnoticed, Cora’s reports of attention-hungry behavior in class, and the off-handed comments about having too much unsupervised time.

He smells healthy, just the same dust after rain scent that Peter noticed before, and he seems to have a good relationship with his father. Rather than neglect, it’s likely that the sheriff is struggling as a newly single parent.

“Holy hell, you scared the crap outta me, Peter—um, sorry.” Stiles scrubs a hand against his buzzed hair. “Mr. Hale.”

Peter raises an eyebrow. That’s the part of the sentence the kid is apologizing for? “Peter’s fine. If you call me Mr. Hale, what will you call Cora’s dad?”

Stiles looks dumbfounded. “You’re both Mr. Hale? But Talia—Mrs. Hale’s your sister, right?”

“That’s right.” Peter’s familiar with where this is going, but he decides it will be amusing to let Stiles stumble along anyway.

“But—” Stiles trails off and gestures at Peter, then the house, then the world in general, his face twisting cartoonishly. “That’s not how that works!”

“Richard changed his name to Hale when they got married.” Peter shrugs. It’s common among matriarchal packs, but he can’t exactly explain that to Stiles.

“Why?” He tilts his head, blinking like a curious pup. Peter carefully doesn’t smile at the mental image.

“I don’t know, Mieczysław, why would someone want to change their name?” He knows he nailed the pronunciation by the way Stiles’ eyes go wide, then narrow, a blush flooding his cheeks.

“I told you. It’s Stiles.” He puffs up in righteous indignation, then deflates and ducks his head, grumbling at the ground. “I can’t believe you said it right.” Peter can see the corner of his lips turn up.

“Go wash up for dinner, Stiles.” Peter gets a glimpse of his pink cheeks and pleased smile before Stiles darts past him into the house.

“Yes sir, Mr. Hale!” He calls over his shoulder.

Cora steps up next to him and pinches his arm hard enough to make him wince. “Don’t be an asshole, Uncle Peter.” She jogs after Stiles, calling over her shoulder as her boots thump up the back steps. “I’ll claw your favorite pillow if you make him sad.”

“Language, Cora," Peter mocks as he trails after them. "What would your mother say?”

“It’s not my fault, I’m only repeating the grown-ups!” She ducks into the house, cackling. He hears Stiles laugh as well. Snarky brats, the pair of them.

He decides to bring his concerns about Stiles’ care up with his alpha. One more kid hanging around in the afternoons won’t make much difference to Talia. It’s really the least they can do.