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Robert Givonne Hale

December 17th, 1962 -- March 13th, 2009

 

John William Stilinski

October 15th, 1964 -- January 1st, 2015

 

 

.o0O0o. May 30th, 1988.

“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” Peter mutters slowly, as the limo driver pulls them up to the scene of what is supposed to be their newly-demolished forest.

His brother is good at summarizing shit-tastic situations like that. And this is definitely a shit-tastic situation. The tires roll to a stop behind the bulldozers, revealing a tinted view of the line of trees marking acre one of the thirty acres he and Peter bought, which should be a pile of wood pulp by now. But no, there isn’t any wood pulp, because sitting in his trees are hippies. Full on hemp-wearing, weed-smoking, pot-brownie baking, gypsy-clothed, half- naked hippies. Probably. He can’t actually see them in detail from this far away, but probably. 

They unclick their seat belts in unison and step out of the car, when blinding camera flashes immediately snap at them, along with screaming reporters clawing over each other for a chance to talk to the two rich CEO siblings. But he and Peter are prepared for this; they’re both wearing aviator sunglasses to hide their reflective eyes. And to look cool, because aviators are classy. One has to look cool when you’re a millionaire, and he and Peter definitely look the part in their sharp Bill Blass suits and gleaming Armani shoes.

“Mr. Hale!” One streamlined woman yells at them, trying desperately to shove her CBS microphone down their throats.

“Which one,” he and Peter deadpan in unison, as their security guards push the reporters back to clear a path.

“Robert! Robert Hale! What do you and your brother plan on doing about the current situation?”

“We'll have our people get back to you once we actually see the situation,” he responds curtly, because honestly, these people. “Now if you don’t mind,” he snaps his fingers and security starts roping off the construction site so the reporters can’t cross the line and ask them a million questions. He hears the news anchor for channel 2 droning rapid-fire into a camera in the background, 

“—here at the scene where Hale Associates’ CEOs Robert and Peter Hale have just arrived to confront the protestors, who are blocking chippers ready to clear the forest grounds in order to build residential housing for the county—” 

“Goddamn, Pete. Is it so much to ask that our ten-year dream runs smoothly the day we actually make it happen?” He mutters as they walk briskly across the site and up to the trees, where the protestors blur into sharper focus behind the branches.

“Life seldom runs smoothly for those an inch away from winning,” Peter drawls. “That would be too easy."

“Hale houses or nature’s glory? Protect the trees, protect the heart of the county!”

Robert barely resists the urge to growl. There’s about a dozen of them, camped out in the high branches of the line of walnut and pine trees marked for termination— a thin bald man who looks like he rock climbs for a living, a woman who looks like she sunbathes for a living, a younger woman sporting overalls and an atrocious haircut, a burly man with tattoos and a beard, and the rest he stops caring because they are frankly all the most disturbing people he’s ever seen. Most are secured in place on their branches with bungee cords or harnesses, presumably for safety while sleeping. It’s cute, really.

“Really, PR couldn’t handle this?” Peter muses dryly. “Some of them aren’t even wearing shoes.”

Another protestor yells out “Save the trees of our homeland!” and Robert glares at them behind his sunglasses. He strides powerfully over to the bulldozers, radiating authority like the professional that he is, and snaps his fingers at a police officer. “Good morning, officer. Would you mind telling us why these people are still sitting in our trees?”

The man turns around with a jiggle of his gut, revealing a ruddy face and greying handlebar mustache. “Ah. Are you two Robert and Peter Hale?”

He and Peter stand a little straighter, clasping hands behind their backs. “Yes.”

The officer nods. "Sorry gentlemen, but this is a peaceful protest. We can’t actually make them come down in a situation like this, unless your company decides to invent your own methods, within the law of course. But between you and me, I doubt these folks will last more than a few days. I’ve seen a lot of strikes like this during my time with the department, and they always give up eventually. It’s just a matter of waiting."

“Yes, and we’ve been waiting for years,” Peter clucks impatiently. “Here I thought flower children were a thing of the sixties."

“Yep, this is the first big protest we’ve seen from the Kin of Kéyah. Usually they’re more of a bake-sale and picnic luncheon kind of group, but—"

“The kin of what now?” Peter raises an eyebrow behind his sunglasses, and it’s the left eyebrow, which means he’s laughing on the inside.

“Kéyah,” the officer shrugs. “I’m not sure if I’m pronouncing that right, supposedly it’s Native American or something. It’s what they call themselves.”

“The protestors,” Peter deadpans, and this time his eyebrows drop down flat.

“Yep. An organization of Beacon Hills locals who protect the preservation of the county wildlife. They’ve been yellin’ their mission all morning, so I’ve got it memorized at this point. Talia Nata-something is their leader. She says she wants to talk to you.”

Beside him Peter snorts, a dry huff of laughter that means that there is absolutely no chance of this happening. Robert couldn’t agree more.

“Well, she better be ready to hop on down, because I won’t be listening to anyone sitting in a tree,” he voices, adding grimly, “our trees."

“Right, well. I’m Sheriff Sanders,” the officer introduces, and shakes their hands with pudgy fingers. “I’ve assigned the department's three new officers to supervise the protest twenty-four seven until the Kéyah members come down. That over there is officer John Stilinski,” he points out a sandy-blonde head beneath one of the trees, “the one by the patrol car is Terry Grey, and that one is Richard Sullivan. They’ll be rotating shifts. If you have any questions along the line, they should be able to help out."

“Thank you officer,” Robert nods curtly, not mentioning that he has no intention of staying here, nor does his brother. They will sit in their office on the tenth floor of the company building while PR, Montgomery, and the press managers handle the dirty work on site.

“My pleasure, gentlemen,” Sanders tips his hat to them and walks off, leaving him and Peter steely at the edge of the woods.

“Beacon Hills is only one of three California counties left with untouched natural forest, but there is housing almost everywhere you turn!” A thin woman with a long silver braid shouts to the wind, flapping her wrinkled arms like bat wings atop her tree perch.

“Then you must sit in trees on a regular basis, since you clearly have no concept of just how high the mortgage rates are around here,” Robert all but growls, but only loud enough for Peter to hear him. “Not everyone has the funds to buy a living space in this town, which is why we’re building affordable houses on this lot!"

“Don’t let them get to you,” Peter chastises calmly, as he adjusts his Rolex. “They’ll be out of our perfectly styled hair soon enough.”

“Good morning, gentlemen,” A voice like liquid velvet calls down. "Are you the ones who want to cut down our forest?” 

He and Peter turn their attention up to the largest tree, where the human embodiment of Mother Nature herself is smiling down at them. She’s perched about ten feet up, lounging against the trunk of a great oak as if it were a lawn chair. Silky dark hair spills around her tan face in the breeze, and a beige shawl wraps comfortably around her shoulders, frayed edges fluttering delicately over the billowing fabric of a mile-long, midnight blue skirt embroidered with tiny moons. She is undoubtedly Talia Nat’aanii.

“Are you the one responsible for postponing our construction plans?” He huffs behind his aviators, crossing his arms so the sun glints off his ruby cufflinks.

Talia smiles pleasantly as if receiving a compliment. “Well, we like to think of it as ‘improving' your plans, but yes. We climbed these beautiful trees this morning.”

“View must be nice,” he raises an eyebrow. “We invested quite a sum to own this acreage so I hope it’s been worth your while.”

“The view is lovely, yes.” Talia smiles again, still refusing to break her calm, sultry tone. “If you have a moment, Mr. Hale and Mr. Hale, I’d like to represent my group and speak to you about how we feel about your project.”

Beside him Peter actually ducks his head and laughs, but Robert keeps his stance erect and defensive. It surprises him because he’s usually the one with the sense of humor.

“We have no intention of hearing what you have to say,” he dismisses curtly. “My brother and I have our plans set.”

“And we are very busy men, so you understand why we have no time to spare for humans who illegally hold up our multimillion dollar project,” Peter adds.

Talia’s eyebrows twitch at ‘human’ but she nods, as if this is fair. “I understand your schedule must be busy, yes. But I will need no more than ten minutes of your time. My friends and I have been sending you letters for months, but since they didn’t seem to make much of an impact, we decided this was the best way to get your attention.”

Robert struggles to maintain a straight face. He and Peter never received any letters. Social Interactions and Management check all the mail first, with strict orders to toss out anything along the lines of charity projects or non-profit campaigns. Top-grossing CEOs don't have time to sit and read fan mail when company plans need organizing.

“Well I’m afraid your plans have backfired, Ms. Natananny. My brother—“

“Nat’aanii, but please. Call me Talia.”

“—and I have no intention of humoring you. Please come down from our trees in swift fashion and we will consider lessening your charges.”

Talia’s smile wanes to something sad, but Robert doesn’t have time to analyze it because he and Peter are already whirling around on their feet, leaving their hippie-infested forest behind. Their strides are powerful and in sync beneath the bright summer sun, and the reporters start screaming at them again when they reach the limo. Security holds the car door open for them. 

“Robert Hale, what do plan to do about the protestors?”

“Mr. Robert Hale, did you speak with Talia Nat’aanii? What did she—“

“Will Hale Associates follow through with the construction of Hale Housing? How long—“

“Robert, are the rumors true that you—“

“Robert Hale, local reports state that you and Hale Associates are planning—"

Peter slams the limousine door shut before security has a chance to do it for him, lips pursed as if tasting something bitter. The enclosed interior of the car mutes the reporters to a muffled annoyance, quiet aside from the slick zip of their slacks on the seats, the tap of Robert's fingertips against the door handle. 

“What an embarrassment,” his brother broods. “And on such a lovely Sunday morning, too. Shame."

Robert sighs as he reaches for the bottle of orange bubble water in the ice bucket. “Well how the hell do we get them down?” He mutters, glaring grumpily at the singing hippies. 

“We’re millionaires, Rob, we can buy them down,” Peter remarks cooly, shooting a bored glance over the tips of his aviators. “I say we offer them a price and wait three seconds for their grubby green thumbs to snatch up the check and run back to The Shire with it."

Robert half-chuckles, half-sighs as he takes his glasses off and rubs a hand over his face. He reaches into his pocket, pulls out a cigarette and lights up. “And I thought I was the optimistic one."

“You’re a twenty-six year old business owner who’s featured in Forbes every other month,” Peter locks eyes with him seriously. “You could retire tomorrow if you want, but you won’t. Because this is our dream, and I’ll be damned if a handful of granola-scarfing tree huggers are going to make us wait for it."

Robert stares out the window as the limo tires pull away, leaving the tree line and reporters in the dust. He sips his orange bubble water. “They’re going down,” he promises.

 

.o0O0o. June 4th, 1988.

The protestors don’t come down.

It’s day five, and Robert is ready to pull his perfectly coiffed hair out. 

Five days of reading Talia Nat’aanii’s obnoxious mission statements printed in bold across the top of The Beacon Hills Gazette, and five days of skirting by the construction site in the limo to spy on the situation. The police officers are still there, as are the bulldozers and chippers they’ve been shelling out thousands to keep on site, not to mention the damn bodies in his trees. Granted thousands are mere pennies to him and Peter, but it really is unfair. He and Peter want to build the homes for a good cause. So why isn’t Karma on their side? 

“Smoke bombs are cheap,” Peter voices slyly, flicking a piece of lint off the crisp white shirt beneath his Bill Blass suspenders. “Not that money is an issue for us, but I imagine it would clear them out within a satisfactory number of minutes.”

He, Peter, and Hank are sitting in the meeting room on the seventh floor. Hank has been his friend and advisor (and just Peter's advisor) since they signed the contract for the building two years ago, offering wisdom in his rolled-up sleeves because he always gets overheated, and entertaining Robert with the dry humor of his wobbly jowls. He’s a short, stout man with hairy arms and a kind spirit despite how his face looks a little like those fat, sleepy bulldogs. Hank is the calming goat in this bullpen of hippy-dippy bullshit.

“I wouldn’t recommend it,” Hank shakes his head. “If one of them passes out and falls twenty feet on their head, you men will be facing some serious lawsuits. And not just from the Kin of Kéyah. You two might be rich, but it’s surprisingly easy for investors to lose their fortunes like that.”

Peter makes a soft noise of disgust, like the fragility of human bone disinterests him.

“Alright,” Robert rubs a hand over his face, as if the motion might erase years of premature wrinkles. They’ve already tried blasting bullhorns at night to keep the protestors awake, but sleep-deprivation apparently bears no weight on people who probably huff incense for lunch. They’ve ordered more police security, but the protestors are infuriatingly peaceful. “So just hypothetically, let’s say we talk to Nat'aanii. What—“

“We are not talking to her,” Peter snaps again, eyeing him sharply over the tips of his Versace loafers, which are crisscrossed up on the glossy redwood table. “There is no quicker way to get unflattering pictures of the company slapped onto the front page of every paper in the county. Not to mention our interview with The Economist next week, which will be a PR disaster if you decide to spare the hobbits an open ear.”

“Let Rob finish, Peter,” Hank warns. Bless Hank.

“I’m just saying, it might be in better interest to please the masses,” Robert continues wearily. “People are starting to look poorly upon the company. Did you check with Montgomery this morning? Twelve publishers released articles this past week blaming us for not talking to Kin of Kéyah. They’re all siding with the environmentalists, and if we don’t show some manners soon we’re going to look bad. The whole town wants us to hear them out. How are we supposed to call ourselves a company for the county if we don’t listen to the county?”

Peter regards him cooly from the other side of the table, hands folded calmly atop his chest. “Going out there to listen to those people will only make us look weak. It will make us look like we’re second guessing ourselves, as if we actually stand a chance of being persuaded to change the plans we’ve been building for years. I say we keep waiting. Any day now the Kin members will give up and climb down, and the papers will forget about them in less than a week.”

Robert clasps his hands under his nose as he stares at the table. He can the carved patterns in the ceiling reflecting off the wood. Peter has a point. “What do you think, Hank?”

Hank scratches at his brow, regarding his notes behind oversized tortoiseshell glasses. “Both of you bring up good points. My advice? The two of you do down to the site and talk to Nat’aanii. You don’t actually have to listen, but the press will be there and they’ll jot down every word of your opener. Take it as an opportunity to vouch for the company and make yourselves look like decent human beings. Your politeness might actually draw in some new investors.”

For a few moments the only sound in the office is the slight squeak-squeak of Robert’s chair as he swivels nervously, a habit his brother hates. Peter breaks the silence with a sigh and a stretch, thunking his loafers down onto the carpet.

“Well, let's go get this out of the way then,” Peter rolls his eyes, clapping Robert on the back as he stands. “Cheerio, brother. And fix that squeaky chair. Not like we can’t afford a little WD-40.”

Robert quickly throws his jacket over his shoulder and follows, quietly amazed that Peter didn't fight on this. It’s a small miracle, but he doesn’t question it; when life gives you lemons, keep the damn lemons. "Coming, sweet cheeks. Hank, page Montgomery and tell him to whip us up an opening statement. I want it legible and ready inside the limo in five.”

Hank grunts into his coffee mug. “Consider it done.”

“That’s what I like to hear! Wait up, Petey. Let’s take the west elevator down, swing by the intern tour and give ‘em a glimpse of some real-life millionaires, eh?"

“Robert.”

Robert spins around at the sound of Hank’s gruff bulldog voice. “Yes, Hank?”

Hank raises an eyebrow, one chubby finger tucked into the ‘2’ of the table rotary phone. "You’re welcome.”

“Thanks, Hank!” Robert calls cheerfully over his shoulder as he and Peter stride into the hall, chests puffed and shoes clacking expensively on the marble floor. “How’s my hair look, Pete? Wanna look good if we’re gonna show up in the paper tomorrow morning.”

“Debonair as always. But I do wish you’d listen to me about your suit choices,” Peter side-eyes Robert’s grey slacks. “Pink and grey? Honestly, Rob. You might as well just dress up as Stay Puft the marshmallow man."

Robert can't double-over in a gleeful belly-laugh in front of the company employees, so he giggles heartily into his fist. “You’re kidding me! You finally watched Ghostbusters? Hot damn, I wish I could have gotten that on film! It only took you four years, huh? Did you snort the wrong kind of wolfsbane or did someone just tie you down and hold open your eyelids à la Clockwork Orange?"

Peter rolls his eyes and hauls Robert up straight again, swiftly leading them to the elevator. "It was for business, don't let it go to your head. I was tired of missing references at company parties. It's our job to look smart and educated in front of potential investors, and for the record it was the most excruciating one-hundred-seven minutes of my life, including that time that son of a bitch Rodney Escobar snuck wolfsbane into my sandwich in middle school."

Robert is still giggling as the silver doors part, and the sleek office workers inside duck their heads respectfully and step out to give them privacy. His brother elbows him sharply and tells him to stop laughing like a idiot in front of the employees. "Pete, you're such a wet rag," Robert remarks. "And shut up about my fashion choices. You’re just jealous because they always photograph your bad side.”

“Yes, well at least my chin doesn’t look like an ass.”

“Hey, just a wait a couple years until you’re twenty-six. There’s no escaping the Hale butt chin. Besides, women love it!"

“Women love your money."

“That too. Now let's go make some more,” he straightens his tie as the elevator dings at them. 

They step out onto the polished marble of the first floor. Peter holds out a hand and Robert high-fives it, followed by an intricate twisting of thumbs and a fist-bump to end. It’s the ’secret' handshake they created when they were in middle school, and the only silly gesture Peter allows while in their classy company building.

 

.o0O0o. May 30th, 1988.

For his first day on the job, it’s not quite what John expects.

“You boys are going to the edge of the woods today, by the end of Walnut Street,” Sheriff Sanders tells them, laugh lines crinkling beneath his greying handle-bar mustache. “The Hale Associates firm was supposed to start cutting down some forest today, but there’s a group of environmentalists parked up in the trees.”

John exchanges a glance with Terry, who looks just as surprised. Then John tries looking at Richard, but Richard ignores him in favor of standing erect and meeting Sanders’s gaze attentively in perfect robot-like fashion. The three of them make Beacon Hills’s newest police officers. 

“Pardon, sir?” Terry asks. 

“You newbies are going to stand in solidarity with the tree-huggers,” Sheriff Sanders’s belly jiggles amusedly as he exchanges a smirk with Deputy Coffman, like it’s some kind of inside joke. Like they’ve ’stood in solidarity’ with protestors before and are delighted that they don’t have to do it again. “For as long as those hippies hang out in those trees, you three men are on duty underneath them. You’ll rotate, two on duty at a time for six hours, one twelve hour overlap, to keep the protest peaceful twenty-four seven.”

For three months of vigorous physical training, week-long tests on gun usage, and getting tasered and pepper-sprayed for educational purposes, it’s a little more low-key than John had in mind. Not that he’s complaining.

“When do we start, sir?” Richard asks.

Sheriff Sanders grins. “Right now, officers. Hope you packed lunch.”

 

.o0O0o.

The tree-huggers are loud.

John’s been standing beneath them for six hours now, and so far he’s memorized their mission, developed a mild headache, and learned the full lyrics to a handful of pop songs they’ve been singing since noon. One protestor in particular clearly has an affinity for Abba, because she’s been belting Dancing Queen for the past hour.

"You are the dancing queeeeen, young and sweet, only seventeen… Dancing queen, feel the beat from the tambourine!”

John is a patient man. But John’s opinion on disco music is somewhere down with eating cold soup and skinning puppies for coats. Her voice isn’t bad, but he and Terry both have working ears by the police tape line ten feet away, and they would definitely prefer pop groups that don’t include the first two letters of the alphabet.

“Well, hey,” Terry shrugs. “At least Rich isn’t here, otherwise we’d have to listen to him bitch about the noise, too.”

Terry is the oldest and tallest of their group at age twenty-eight, with dark chocolate skin and a radiant smile that makes the white of his teeth glow like neon squares. He also keeps a bit of stubble on his chin because his partner thinks it’s cute, and he only eats the powdered doughnuts from the box in the morning. John likes Terry.

“Actually, he’s due to show up here in about five minutes,” John drawls with a glance at his watch. “But I’ll get to go home when he gets here, so good luck with him."

Richard is one month older than John but acts like he’s fifty years wiser. He stands attentive and erect in front of Sheriff Sanders but slouches and swaggers when he’s milling the station. He’s also the thinnest with a head of straw-colored hair he typically combs to the side like a German war soldier. His thin lips are always pursed like he’s tasting something sour, and when he smiles it reminds John of the way the Grinch smiles. John doesn’t like Richard.

“Damn, is it three already?” Terry squints at the clear blue sky. “Time flies when you’re babysitting free spirits, I guess."

"Having the time of your life…! Oo-ooh, see that girl, watch that scene, dig in the dancing queen!"

“More like choir singers,” John muses.

Terry pinches the bridge of his nose. “Man, it’s bringing me back to my high school days, and those are years I’d rather not revisit, ever. I dunno if I can stand another six hours of that teeny-bopper disco crap,” he groans quietly, and looks pointedly at John. “Hey, you think she’d stop for a while if we ask nicely?” 

“Only one way to find out,” John pulls a wan smile and leaves Terry to track down the source of the voice, which leads him to the large walnut tree a few yards into the forest. He cranes his head up to find a face, but only catches the soles of a pair of sneakers, and colorful clothing above that.

"You can daaaaaance, you can jiiiiiive, having the time of your liiiiiife… Ooooohhh…"

“Ma’am, I’m afraid us officers are growing a little weary of the noise. Do you think you could try to keep it down?”

“But how can anyone sing Dancing Queen quietly?” The girl calls down. He can’t see her face behind the leaves, but her swinging sneakers wiggle a few walnuts loose from the tree. She’s been snacking on them all day long, letting the shells flutter down around him and Terry like rice confetti for weddings.

“A lot of people, I imagine,” He returns dryly, because it’s been a long day and his eardrums are throbbing. “Especially since Abba is a pretty dull rock amongst the diamonds of 70s music.”

Above him he hears an offended gasp, but he’s too distracted by the sleek black limo pulling into the lot to respond. The reporters immediately start shouting and run over to swarm the windows for a glimpse inside; it must be the Hales. John doesn’t know too much about them, but apparently they are very rich and very scary, and they’re just about John’s age.

Two men step out in sleek fitted suits with crisp collars and shiny shoes, both with large aviators perched on their large noses. The taller one is tanned with perfectly sculpted, glossy black hair and a navy suit complimented by broad shoulders and a strong jawline. His brother is a couple inches shorter with a slimmer build, pale skin and lighter hair, and lips pressed together sourly. 

Large security men in dark suits push the reporters back to clear a path for the millionaires, who are walking briskly towards the tree line. John takes a subconscious step back, but is interrupted by the sharp knock of something small and hard bouncing off the back of his scull. He hears a musical giggle several branches above him, and oh, oh that was— 

“Ma’am, did you just throw a walnut at me?” He tries to keep his voice deep and authoritative (new officer and all), but he’s honestly so surprised that she just threw a walnut at him that his words curve up in a less-than-manly squeak.

“Abba is a giant shiny ruby amongst the diamonds of 70s music, you heathen!” The girl’s voice declares proudly. John’s eyes widen as he cranes his neck up to (civilly, professionally) give this girl a piece of his mind.

“Ma’am, that is no way to speak to a police officer,” he harrumphs, because really, he didn’t spend a year at the academy and three months as a trainee staring at Sanders’s mustache to have his (accurate) musical opinion dissed. Dissed by a hippie sitting seven feet up.

A raspberry noise above him, and then a small mop of brown hair flops over the branch to peek down at him. “Hey, I have a name, you know."

The first thing he notices are her moles. A spattering of dark little dots decorating her pale skin like tizzied constellations, around her upturned nose and elfish smirk. Messy chestnut hair cropped short to her jawline sticks out in not-quite-curly, not-quite-straight tufts around her face, which still has a bit of baby fat. A beat-up pair of pink converse with rainbow shoelaces wiggle loosely over drooping ankle-socks, which he can see beneath the hems of her long overalls. Beneath the overalls is a pink striped turtleneck, but instead of a proper jacket she has a red plaid flannel tied in a knot around her waist. He’s never seen so many colors and patterns on one person, but somehow it kind of suits her.

“Ma’am makes me sound like my mother, and she’s a cranky old Polish woman with a grudge against the arts, so call me Claudia.”

John stares at her as she continues to grin down at him, swinging her legs off the branch in an off-beat rhythm above. She has a little gap between her two front teeth. He clears his throat. “I’m uh, I’m not sure if I’m allowed to call you by your first name,” he admits. “This is my first day as an officer, so I think—”

“Oh!” Claudia exclaims excitedly. “Congratulations, that’s mad rad!"

“Uh, very… rad, yeah,” he echoes, and the words sound ridiculous on his tongue. He wonders how old she is to have such an intimate relationship with modern slang.

“Stilinski! You’re off shift for the day.” 

A sharp whistle calls his attention to the squad car that just pulled up to the lot, where Richard's bean-pole form lounges on one gangly arm against the driver’s door. John glances up to the girl in the tree and tips two fingers in awkward salute after he remembers he’s not actually wearing a hat to tip, muttering “that’s my cue,” before turning to leave.

“Hey wait! Don't go!"

He halts to regard her again, who’s flopped on her stomach over her branch staring intensely at him. Her pale fingers scratch at her cheek, amusing the moles there. “What’s your name?”

John’s mouth falls open a little. He’s been shadowing Sanders on the streets for months as an officer in training, and no one’s ever bothered to ask for his first name before. He has a little shiny tag on his uniform with an engraved ‘Stilinski’ in all-caps, but ‘John’ never seemed important enough to ask for. He wonders if it will be a regular thing.

“Uh… John,” he offers, and the girl— Claudia, smiles wide and bright, a dazzling display of scrunched nose and that little tooth gap.

“John,” she repeats, like tasting a particularly yummy caramel from a box of assorted chocolates. “Your name suits you! Nice to meet you, John.”

He swallows, distracted by the simple joy in Claudia's smile, the dotted dimples in her cheeks. “Yeah, uh… Nice to meet you, too."

“Just a reminder, we're here to ordain the law, not make friends.” Richard announces with forceful clap on John's shoulder, making him jump in surprise. He eyes his coworker wearily, watching the man swing his squad car keys around his finger and snatch them in his palm for show, snapping his gum with a loud crack as they walk by each other. John doesn’t dare look back over his shoulder as he makes his way to the parking lot.

He should really go by Dick instead of Richard, he communicates with his dashboard. It suits him better.

 

.o0O0o.

He goes back to take over for Terry at nine o'clock. The early summer month renders the sky a dark purple with a splatter paint of early stars, unwittingly in a way that reminds him of the moles on Claudia's face. Which is odd, he thinks, since he only saw her face for a total of two minutes that afternoon, and she threw a walnut at him. Yet he catches his thumb absently rubbing circles over the sore spot on his scull twice during the drive to the construction plot.

"Brought you a coffee," John offers when he arrives. It was only a buck extra at Kim's Kettle and he figures he might as well try to make peace if they're going to be working the trees together indefinitely. Not that anything ever happened that killed the peace in the first place, aside from the man’s blinding ego.

"Thanks," Richard smiles his Grinch smile and takes it, sniffing wearily. "Caffeinated?"

John nods. "You'll be here until three a.m., right? Figured you might appreciate the extra energy boost."

"Think I'll fall asleep on the job, Stilinski?" Richard's suggestion sounds threatening, but a second later he laughs and claps John on the shoulder. “Seriously, thanks."

John clears his throat and takes a sip of his caramel dark roast. "So I miss anything this evening?"

"Nah, just babysitting a bunch of nuts. And I don’t just mean the walnuts,” Richard exchanges a look with John, as if letting him in on some inside joke. “These folks are pretty screwy, like real sixties greenies. Some of the girls are pretty cute though, if you can get over the weird clothes and the singing."

John is temped to ask which protestors Richard thinks are cute, but doesn't. Richard studies him and smirks.

"You got a girl, Stilinski?"

"Not since high school, no," John sips at his coffee. Luane Peterson. The pretty face with firey red hair and an affinity for baby animals. Cheating too, apparently.

"That's rough," Richard dismisses. “Good thing you and I are officers now, eh? Chicks dig a man in a uniform, we’ll have no trouble getting all the game.”

If you can find a girl who can’t hear the crap that comes out of your mouth, John thinks dryly. He frowns at his coffee cup. He’s never thought as girls as “game,” which has a connotation he doesn’t appreciate. His mother had raised him with all the grace of a loose screw with a Bible, but at least basic respect came with it.

Richard apparently loves to hear himself talk, or maybe he just wants to intimidate John. But for the next twenty minutes the man goes on and on about his opinion on Ronald Regan and The Soviet Union, and spews such vulgar language and insensitive jokes that John has to grit his teeth and try not to crush the paper cup in his hands. John excuses himself after an hour to stand somewhere else.

The plot of trees occupied by the protestors is relatively large, covering about twenty-five yards across and four yards into the forest. It's dull work, for the most part, especially now that the protestors have quieted down with the mission statements since the speculators fled for their homes after sundown. John tips his head back to observe them, tickled by the broad diversity of colors and faces and how they laugh like they're clueless to how different they are— a thin bald man who looks like he rock climbs for a living, a woman who looks like she sunbathes for a living, a burly man with tattoos and a coarse beard, a wrinkled woman with a long silver braid, and the rainbow Claudia chattering happily amongst them all, adorned in bouncy brown locks and a radiant smile. They are the most interesting people he’s ever seen, a far cry from the uptight people on the streets of New York and an even further cry from the brash people in his old Manhattan house. 

They also seem to be friends, chattering from close branches on their stomachs as they snack from lunch boxes. He watches Claudia stretch high to gather walnuts from her tree and throw them over to other protestors, who catch them and thank her. Later on someone says something so funny that she hunches over in a snorting belly-laugh, and cries out in anguish as mushed Twinkie falls from her open mouth to the grass ten feet below. John chuckles, drawing her attention.

"Hey, John!" Claudia grins down at him. "You're back already!"

He can't help but smile. She remembered his name. "Yeah, we're rotating shifts. I'll be here quite a bit as long as you guys are up there."

Claudia beams in excitement as she pulls another Twinkie out of nowhere and starts unwrapping it. “Oh, this is so exciting! I wasn’t sure if I would see you again after you left since I don’t really know how many police people work here, in the county you know, there could be a hundred I thought, but I saw that tall dark man come twice so I thought maybe you’d come back too, and here you are!” 

Claudia finishes by taking a huge bite of her Twinkie and grinning down at him as she chews, and John’s brain needs a minute to process how fast the girl talks. Like a speeding train of thought that barrels into his chest with all the intensity of a real train and the fuzzy warmth of baking chocolate chip cookies. It’s a wonder she didn’t run out of breath halfway through. 

“Here I am,” John murmurs, more to himself than her.

“Do you get tired having to stand so long? How many policemen are there for this county? Oh! Do you own the police dogs as pets?”

John blinks up at her. She has a faint accent of some sort he can’t pinpoint, a kind of lisp around the ’th’ sounds and extra emphasis on the harsh consonants.

“Well, the standing isn’t too bad. I figured you guys are probably more sore than us having to sit on all that bark. For the county I think there’s about three hundred officers, but there’s twenty-four of us for the town of Beacon Hills. As for police dogs, they have to stay in the station kennel as much as I’d like to take one home.”

Claudia stares down at him utterly captivated, slowly licking the cream from her Twinkie. A small smear of white sticks to her upper lip. “Wow,” she breathes. “You speak so calmly.”

John blinks at that. He’s been reprimanded by his family for being too shy, told in school that he was too quiet, yelled at in the academy for being too hesitant, and overall deemed boring as a rock for his pushover tendencies. But ‘calm’ is something new, and she says it like it’s something to be revered.

“Uh… Thank you,” is what he comes up with. He stares up at her. She giggles and taps her ankles together, scratches at her ear, licks another dollop of white from her Twinkie.

“Hey, have you seen a yellow butterfly around here? It landed on my branch but it flew away before I could name it.”

“I… No, can’t say I have. But if I do I’ll let you know?”

“Wicked, thanks! What’s in your pocket?”

“My pocket? Oh, uh,” John looks down and takes out the wooden rosary from his breast pocket, holding it up by the beads. “It’s a rosary my mother insisted I keep on me during the job… I think she was worried I’d be doing more dangerous police work… New officer and all.”

“Your mom sounds nice,” Claudia sighs.

“That’s one way of putting it, sure.”

“Do you pray, John?”

“Not since middle school, no.”

“What about movies? Oh, oh! Have you seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit? It came out this weekend and I’m totally bummed that I’m stuck up here for it,” Claudia pouts. “Sometimes I wish I had a television up here, wouldn’t that be rad? Or like, a whole popcorn machine! The kind that makes the extra buttery kind. Oh, or kettle corn! Funny how they call that kettle corn and not ‘pot corn’ isn’t it? Since ‘pot corn’ sounds almost like regular popcorn!”

“I…” John is still catching up from the revolving door of topics. “I like popcorn, too.”

Claudia laughs and claps her hands together, squeaking a tiny “whoa!” when she nearly loses her balance off her branch. “Well I should hope so, popcorn is just about the tastiest kind of corn there is!”

“Careful!” He warns as she teeters again. “You’re pretty high up, it wouldn’t be a fun fall.”

She blows a raspberry and swings her legs. “Don’t worry, I’ve got my safety rope, see?” She holds up a rope which slips through her fingers, unattached to the harness around her waist. She bites her lip as it falls to the ground and lands in a coil. “Whoopsies. Guess I forgot to attach it. That would have been bad, ha!”

John considers throwing his mother’s rosary up to her, since she clearly needs the insurance more. Instead he takes the fallen rope and lassos it to her branch within reach. “I’m serious. Make sure you’re clipped in every few hours. If you need help I’m sure the department would let one of us up to make sure you’re safe.”

“Aw, don’t worry John, I’ve been practicing so I know how to do it! And Rowan rock climbs for a living, so he would totally help me in a pickle. Not a literal pickle, like a problem pickle. Why do we say that? Pickles are food, not problems. We should call it ‘in a wet sock’ because those are problems."

John finds himself gaping again. His lips twitch to say words but he can’t find any.

“You’re quiet, huh John? I like you. You’re a good listener.”

“I… Thank you. Do—?"

“Hey Stilinski, would you give me a hand with this?” 

He’s interrupted by Richard calling for him on the other side of the lot. The man is snaking a new line of yellow police tape around the forest perimeter so John glances back to Claudia, shrugging apologetically. “Guess I’d better go help out.” 

“Okay,” Claudia wiggles her fingers at him. "Come back later.”

As he trudges across the forest floor he watches Richard unroll the police tape in the purple light of the evening. At some point it must have ripped, so he takes one end and starts unwinding it in a double-line. Richard snaps his gum extra loud, which is usually a bad sign.

"Did I hear her calling you by your first name?"

An air of unease settles on John’s shoulders. "She asked for it. Why?"

"She should regard you as officer Stilinski, don't you think? You are a professional on the job."

He shrugs. "I figure it's alright. I don’t remember Sanders making it a point that we couldn’t, so…"

Richard makes a vague sound in his throat that signifies exactly what he thinks about that logic, but John doesn’t stick around for him to voice it. He flees to the cluster of Douglas firs on the other side of the clearing and doodles popcorn buckets in his notebook.

At 11:00pm he discards his empty coffee cup in a nearby trash can. Terry promised to bring him an egg McMuffin at 3:00am when he comes to relieve Richard, but John has a couple power bars in his jacket pocket for the next morning. He surveys the trees, pivoting himself East so he can watch the sun rise when the time comes. At midnight he catches Richard yawning.

"If you wanted to catch a few winks, I’d be happy to take first watch,” he offers.

"Are you shitting me?" Richard snorts, startling John.

“Uh… No, I just thought since you look tired you might—"

"I take my job seriously," Richard cuts in. “I won’t risk slacking off. Ol' Sanders won't be Sheriff forever, and when that day comes I'm gonna be there to take over for him."

John gapes for a minute, taken aback at his colleague's harsh tone. His dream is also to become the Sheriff someday, but he usually uses much different wording. “Alright, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you. I just thought thought you might like a break, that’s all."

“Well, if you wanna conk out be my guest. Less competition in the long run,” Richard shrugs. The man made it clear that that he’s "here to become an officer, not make friends” since day one of training, so John isn’t really surprised. He goes back to the other side of the clearing and watches the night in solitude from the base of an elm tree.

In the wee hours of the morning the protestors start growing quieter as they settle against their branches for sleep. John imagines it must be terribly uncomfortable to doze off strapped to a bark bed, but the situation does nothing to dampen their good spirits. They shout goodnights across to each other, lines of “good night Rhonda!” “Night, Jean.” “Help me Rhonda, help help me Rhonda,” “Cut it out George, or I’ll start calling you Georgie boy!” “Goodnight Talia, you too Patti!” “Goodnight, Claudia.” “Sweet dreams, everyone!"

John leans against his elm, watching Claudia rearrange her safety harness. She takes off her sneakers and ties the laces in a knot, draping them over the branch to her left. The shoes spin as she lays down and runs her hands over her plaid flannel, softly humming a couple rounds of 'The Winner Takes it All' before switching to a sleepy verse of 'Dancing Queen' again. She stares up at the stars for a long time before letting her eyes fall closed, dewy eyelashes fluttering to rest on her round cheeks, soft brown curls ghosting over her lips in the warm nighttime breeze.

John looks up at the stars too, but doesn’t think they’re quite as interesting.

 

.o0O0o.

The next day Claudia says hello to him again. John asks how her day is going. She says she’s “great, just hangin’ out,” and doubles over in a fit of giggles.

On day three John watches Claudia chat with the other protestors and toss more walnuts to them. Terry has a pulled pork sandwich for lunch.

On day four Claudia asks John if he plays any instruments. John says he doesn’t, but in middle school his mother made him join the church choir. Claudia finds this information delightful.

They start talking more frequently during John’s shifts when Terry is on guard with him. She usually initiates the conversations since he has the courage of a garden snail, but her enthusiasm and bright smiles have a magical way of tapping on his shell until it cracks and breaks. She tells him wild stories of princes and animal kingdoms, and terrible knock-knock jokes that John laughs at regardless. He tries telling the same jokes to Terry but his friend simply shakes his head and walks away, muttering “uh-uh, your puns are sending me to an early grave, man."

In the mornings Claudia applies sunscreen liberally to her cheeks and nose, and her arms when it gets hot enough to roll her sleeves up. John watches in fascination every time, especially the time she isn’t wearing shoes and she holds the bottle between her feet as she smears white goop across the back of her neck. She catches him staring and he immediately ducks his head to hide the scarlet stain of his ears, but she just breaks into a shameless grin and waves eagerly at him from her perch. He waves back— the slightest twitch of a raised hand in return. 

She starts dropping down to lower branches when John comes over, slowly, shyly, like a wild animal cautiously edging closer to a stranger. When John leaves she wraps her limbs around the trunk and swings back up to the higher branches with all the grace of a monkey bred for the sole purpose, which fascinates him because she’s so clumsy otherwise. She scares the crap out of him when she scales to the top of the tree for fun, sometimes swinging from her arms and laughing, safety harness an unnoticed guardian angel.

She has the face of a cupid, a body lithe as an artist’s freehand, and the heart of a child, and it makes John feel like crying and laughing all at once. 

On day seven the protestors start losing their voices.

But this inconvenience does nothing to dampen their spirited song and cry. John watches from afar as Claudia stubbornly continues to shout down information by day and sing Abba at night when the spectators go home. Her voice crackles and grows hoarse with the other members, drawing pitying winces from spectators who start tossing up throat lozenges. The odd part is that she smiles and thanks the people who throw her cough drops, but she pockets them and doesn’t eat them.

“Your voice is sounding rough,” he tells her one day, as he leans against her tree and cranes his neck up. “Why aren’t you eating any of the cough drops?”

“Oh, you noticed that?” The corners of Claudia's lips quirk into her cheeks, which flush bubblegum-pink. Her bare feet swing lazily above John’s head. “This town seems to have an endless supply of honey-lemon flavor… I only like cherry.”

John thinks it's both the most absurd and endearing reason he's ever heard. "You're pretty stubborn, aren't you?"

Claudia pops another walnut in her mouth and grins, revealing teeth caked over with brown mush. "Damn skippy.” He watches the blackened arches of her pale feet curl in delight as she giggles. It’s another thing he’s noticed— she seems incredibly vulnerable to the contagion of laughter, erupting into giggles at the slightest chuckle from another mouth. Her lips love to smile, even when chapped.

“Do you like my nail polish?” She asks, and points her toes down for John to see. Each one alternates sparkly blue and wild pink, all of them chipped. “I couldn’t decide, so I just did both! My mother doesn’t like nail polish though, so I hide the bottles in my sock drawer. Blue in my blue sock, pink in my pink one, red in my red one and so on!”

“That’s a smart system.”

“I thought so too!”

“You mentioned the first day that your mom has a grudge against the arts,” John ventures. “Does that mean you’re an art major?”

“Totally!” Claudia grins. “Watercolors are my favorite. And colored pencils! Although nothing beats marshmallow peeps. I discovered it on accident one Easter when I tried microwaving them— they got all gigantic and gooey so I smeared them all over a canvas! Super pretty colors.”

“I tried that once in middle school with my dad’s wallet,” John remembers. “It exploded in our microwave and I got grounded for a week.”

Claudia throws her head back and laughs, the most obnoxious hee-haw he’s heard since middle school. “No way! He must have gone totally house on you.”

“House?”

“You know, like—“ She mimics claws with her fingers and “grrr”s at him. “—gone totally livid.”

“Wasn’t anything out of the ordinary,” he shrugs.

 

.o0O0o. June 9th, 1988.

One night while everyone is asleep, he’s standing awake at two in the morning beneath Claudia’s tree, which he always seems to gravitate towards when he’s on duty.

“Psst, hey John!” 

He startles and looks skywards, where Claudia’s crooked smile shines down on him. Her eyebrows stretch high as she waves enthusiastically from her branch. If anyone has so much energy at two in the morning, it’s her.

“Claudia,” He questions on a whoosh of breath. “What are you doing awake?”

“I couldn’t sleep!” Claudia whisper-shouts down to him. “This is just all just so exciting, you know? I mean I’m in a tree, being guarded by a real-life police officer. That’s like being a princess in a tower guarded by a dragon!”

John doesn’t quite see it that way, but Claudia seems to have her own way of thinking. “Last time I checked I couldn’t breathe fire, but thank you. I’ll take that as a compliment."

She chortles, pressing a hand over her lips to keep the noise down like he just told the funniest joke on the planet. “Aren’t the stars beautiful tonight?” She prompts, gazing up at the treetops above her. “Who can sleep anyway with all that up there?"

“I uh, actually can’t see the stars from down here,” he admits. “There’s quite a bit of canopy in the way.”

“Oh,” Claudia looks put out for a second, like it genuinely saddens her that he can’t see the same stars that have been in the sky all twenty-four years of his life. Then she brightens, face lighting up like a garden catching the first rays of sun. “Then why don’t you come up here? You can see a whole bunch of sky from where I’m sitting!”

John licks his lips. He glances to Terry, who's nodding off against a Douglas fir on the other side of the lot. Then he glances down to the shiny BHPD tag over his breast, and feels his heart beat like a bass drum underneath. “I don’t think I can,” slips past his lips and he immediately wants to grab the words and shove them back down his throat.

Even in the dark he can see Claudia's eyes roll in a loop-de-loop. “Oh, don’t be such a scaredy-cat. Everyone’s asleep! Just come on up!”

But John is a scaredy-cat. When he was a kid he hid in the bathroom stalls at school so Joe Baumgard wouldn’t take his lunch money. In high school he waited an extra hour to take the L subway home so he wouldn’t run into the group of druggies that hung out in the alleyway down the block. He’s never smoked a cigarette in his life and he hasn’t had the guts to ask a girl out since Luane. He’s a chicken who essentially ran away from home and moved to California to become a police officer, because he’s hoping that having a scary job will make the rest of the world less scary. But it would be so easy to climb up, to see Claudia’s face up close and see the same stars he can see if he just walks a few yards forward into the open. Climbing up could cost him his shiny new title of Beacon Hills police officer, or it could cost him a hefty hospital bill if he falls and breaks his legs, or breaks his neck. He weighs the possible outcomes carefully, and decides it’s a terrible, terrible idea.

He climbs up the tree.

He's lean and strong from training, but his shoes are slippery against the bark and noisier than he would like. He can feel Claudia’s gaze on the top of his head and tries not to think about how much of an idiot he probably looks like as he scrabbles up the branches, following her whispered encouragement of “that’s it, you can do it!” and “yay John!” And that’s it, he's really doing this, he’s really really actually doing—

He swings a leg up over Claudia's branch and sits down on the bark, and immediately forgets his own name.

Claudia is not conventionally pretty. Her teeth are slightly crooked and her jawline is undefined, and she smells like eight days without a shower. Up close she has even more moles, tiny smatterings of chocolatey freckles amid creamy skin so white it almost glows in the wane moonlight, and feathery eyelashes that flutter like taupe fans with her rapid blinking. And her eyes— the warmest, biggest brown irises that put the mouthwatering color of Amaretto and caramel to shame, curious and bright even in the velvety dark. He can hardly breathe when she smiles, revealing two dimples beneath the rounded apples of her cheeks. John thinks she might be the most beautiful person he’s ever seen. 

"Wow," she breathes, eyes flicking over his face. “Your eyes are so pale up close! I’ve been picturing you with brown eyes this whole time."

John clears his throat, unsure what to do with that. Honestly if he opens his mouth right now he might puke or do something equally mortifying, but luckily Claudia fills the silence for him. 

“Oh, goodie! Look! Now you can see the stars!” She gently taps his shoulder —the sleeves of her plaid shirt are too long and drown her wrists, revealing just the tips of her three longest fingers— and he follows her gesture as she points eagerly to the sky.

Which looks exactly the same as it always has in California. But from his seat in the walnut tree as his sixth official day as an officer, the stars seem to twinkle twice as bright against the sky, a dark indigo backdrop dusted with hues of purple and onyx. An airplane miles and miles above them skates by as a tiny red blink in slow motion, leaving no ripples behind in the placid nighttime canvas.

“Talia’s been teaching us about the constellations the past week,” Claudia whispers excitedly, and he steals the opportunity to look at her as she talks. “What a perfect opportunity, isn’t it? When we’re all up here with all of them within reach,” she reaches up and closes an open hand around a cluster of tiny twinkles. “Not literally, of course. Stars would prickle, don’t you think? But right, the constellations! Talia— she’s our group leader, but I’m sure you know that by now, she’s like a library book. A whole library! She knows so much about so many things, especially nature. That up there is the Northern Male, and the Northern Female, and… Oh, those three twinkly ones are the top of Squatting Man! He’s my favorite."

“Huh,” John says. “I’d point out some too, but I’m afraid I don’t know much beyond the Big Dipper."

“That’s okay, we can make up our own,” Claudia proposes easily. “Let’s see… Yesterday I saw some stars that looked like an elephant… Oh! There, see? A big ol’ elephant, wearing either a hat or just with really big ears.”

“Like Dumbo?”

“What’s a Dumbo?”

“Oh. He’s a cartoon elephant with really big ears. From a Disney movie."

“Oh. Mad rad,” Claudia grins at him, and she’s close enough that he can smell her breath. It’s sweet and warm and less-than-pleasant because she hasn’t brushed her teeth in a week, but he doesn’t mind it. She runs her hands up and down her plaid sleeves.

“Why don’t you have a proper jacket?” he points out.

She shrugs amicably. “Didn’t think about it. My deep dark secret? I totally thought we were supposed to meet here at eight, not seven. Turns out eight was the time the contractors were supposed to get here. So that morning I got a page from Renior— he’s that guy over there with the big nose, his nostrils whistle in his sleep— saying everyone was already down here! And I was totally buggin’, but really excited because this is my first big protest, right? And my brain goes all over the place when I’m excited, so I just grabbed a couple Hostess Cupcakes and high-tailed it down here!”

“You haven’t been living on Hostess Cupcakes this whole time, have you?” He asks her slowly, because sugar was the last thing this girl needed. Although it would explain a lot.

She wiggles her shoulders, reminding John of how a bird might puff up their feathers. “Well, I’ve been eating the walnuts, too. The ones I haven’t been throwing at you, at least.”

John hums. “Mm, well. I’d rather the nutritional content be spent on you, not my receding hairline.”

Claudia makes a raspberry sound. He watches her nose crinkle. “Psssshh. Naw, what are you, anyway? No, wait, ‘lemme guess!” She adjusts her position, bringing up a freckled hand to stroke her chin as she studies him, scrunching her lips back and forth. “You’re not a day over thirty-five!”

He sputters a little, because Christ, he knew his hairline was going early but he doesn’t look that old, does he? “I’m twenty-four,” he tells her, trying and failing not to sound wounded.

She grins, shoulders twitching with silent laughter. “Of course you are, you dope! I’m just kiddin’ ya. You don’t think I’d invite some old geezer up into my tree, would you?”

"No, I guess not,” John concurs, thankful for the dark cover to hide his heating cheeks. “How old are you?” He ventures.

She licks her lips, an absent curl of pink across her skin. “I turned twenty last April. Which is so old, isn’t it? Twen-tee. Hey, have you ever climbed a tree, John?"

“Not before today,” he admits. 

Claudia gasps. “You haven’t! Why not? You ought to arrest yourself.”

“Kinda hard to climb trees when you grow up in the heart of New York,” John replies. “Whole lotta buildings, not a lot of nature. Unless you count all the ivy on the side of apartments."

“Oh wow,” she blinks at him, lips falling open in wonder. “I’ve never been to New York. I’ve only ever been to California, and not even any of the fun cities.”

“But you’re not from California, are you?” John asks. “Your… It sounds like you might have had an accent of some kind.”

Claudia smiles shyly. “You noticed? I’m from Poland, but my parents and me moved here when I was eight.”

“Wow,” John muses. “You’ve come pretty far, then. I’ve never been to Poland."

“Olsztyn,” Claudia smiles, eyes bunching up soft and lighted. “Oh John, it’s the most beautiful little city in Poland by a great big river. There are so many lovely people there, and the desserts!” She throws her head back and closes her eyes, as if tasting the sweetness on her tongue. “American food is delicious, don’t get me wrong. There’s pizza here and sushi and all kinds of cakes and ice creams, but nothing compares to makoweic or paczki. Ohhh, paczki. When I was a little girl my tata used to take me to the street corner store on Sunday mornings, and we’d split a rosewater cream and a chocolate."

John stares in wonder at the girl in front of him, trying to figure out how he can get lost in his own world, too. But her lips droop soft in a sad way, jarringly different from the cheery grin he’s memorized over the past week. “Why did you come to the United States?” He asks.

Tata— my father got a job here,” Claudia smiles softly, and studies the sleeves of her plaid shirt as she picks at them. She holds out her hand for John to see. “This used to be his shirt, see? So we came to live here, my mother and me and him, but then he found another woman. I’ve seen things like that on television, but not so much in Poland. I was eleven when ‘poof!’” Claudia wiggles her fingers for effect. “He disappeared with her. Funny how things work like that, isn’t it John?"

“My father disappeared, too.” He shrugs. “That’s why I don’t drink."

“Where’d your father go?”

He points to the sky. “Up there somewhere, supposedly. He died a few years ago.”

“Oh. I’m sorry,” Claudia whispers.

“That’s okay. I don’t miss him.”

“Was he an officer too?” She has a way of speaking that plucks the taboo away from any topic. It’s very comfortable.

“Nope, that’s just me. Officer Stilinski, at your service.”

“But you’re so shy,” Claudia marvels, not unkindly. She smiles at him as if she can see right through his uniform, the baton and handgun on his hip, somehow right into his personality. He squirms a little, suddenly self-conscious.

“I prefer the term cautious. A lot of officers tend to jump into things, but I’m more of a 'dip my toes in the water first' kinda guy."

Claudia giggles. “Toes,” she snorts gleefully. Then looks at him wide-eyed. “Say, then why are you with the police? Your job can be pretty dangerous, right?”

John nods. “It can be. But we undergo a lot of training so we know what to do in situations like shootouts or robberies. Truth be told I’d love to be the Sheriff someday, so I can work closer with the folks around here… Help make things better."

“I think you’ll be a great Sheriff one day,” Claudia tells him seriously, the most serious he’s seen her. Her eyes are round and doe-like, staring into his own like little pools of golden brown framed by soft brown lashes. They’re so different from his own pair of pale greys. 

He swallows and looks away. “Thank you. Although there are a few others on the team that seem to be after the title much more vigilantly than I am.”

Claudia muses at the stars. “Your friend Terry?”

“No, Richard Sullivan,” he offers half-heartedly. “You’ve probably seen him. Tall, blonde. He was here for the noon shift today."

“You mean Praying Mantis?” Claudia gasps and hunches like a spooked cat, eyes stretching wide. She grips his sleeve with a pale hand, making his heart squeeze and gallop. “But John, have you seen him? He was eating salad on his lunch break! Salad,” she whisper-emphasizes in horror. "Who in their right mind willingly eats leaves?”

He chuckles, running fingers over his chin. “Can’t say I care much for the stuff either. But yeah, that’s the guy. I gotta ask though, why ‘Praying Mantis’?”

“Because he’s long and skinny and stands with his hands curled over his belt like this,” Claudia demonstrates, shifting up onto her knees to bend her wrists on either side of her slim waist. She bares her teeth and bugs out her eyes for effect, and she is the picture of Richard’s stance, which John never realized looks strikingly similar to a carnivorous bug.

“I shouldn’t be laughing,” he chuckles.

“Why? Laughing is fun!” Claudia grins at him and plops back down on the branch, making the surrounding leaves quiver with the movement.

“So, these protestors,” John glances around the trees, surveying the sleeping bodies. “They’re all… It seems like you’re all pretty good friends.”

“Oh, yes,” Claudia whispers, gazing around reverently. “That over there is Patti, with the silver braid. She knows everything about brewing tea you can imagine. And that’s Renoir snoring— I mentioned him before, with the nose— Oh and Rowan, he’s the bald man with the beard and tattoos. Did you know that he’s been married two times? To a pair of identical twins! He has the most radical stories, but he’s leaving with his biker gang to see the country after this.”

John watches her talk, utterly captivated with her energy and hand movement and the sparkling life in her eyes.

“—and in the tree your friend is sleeping against, that’s George, he quit his day job to rock climb around the world! After we save these trees, of course. He’s been to Peru, and the tropics, and one day he wants to visit Kazakhstan. Oh, and in the big Elm, that’s Talia!"

“Ah, right. Your group leader?”

Claudia nods. “She’s beautiful. And so kind, John, I’ve never once seen her lose her temper. Although I’ve only known her for about a month, but still!"

The night floats by on a cloud of side-glances and Claudia’s hushed giggles. She talks with wild arm gestures and animated expressions, and he stares and listens like the quiet man he is. Carnival rides, childhood stuffed animals, favorite television shows and family horror stories are discussed, as well as the temperament of cats and why oranges are called oranges but lemons aren’t called yellows. With just her simple enthusiasm she tickles laughs out of him that he hasn’t heard since middle school, and her presence is a steady warmth in the cool of the wee hours of the morning.

Around 4:30am Terry stirs against his tree across the lot, drawing their attention. His heart sinks sadly. “I should probably go,” he voices quietly. Claudia’s eyes droop in disappointment. 

“Oh. That’s okay, I’m glad you came up! I’ll see you again tomorrow, won’t I?”

“Three o’clock sharp in the afternoon. Although I’m not off this shift until nine this morning. Do you… You don’t have a watch, do you?”

Claudia shakes her head. “My mother says it isn’t ladylike to wear a watch. But I went out and bought two of them just to spite her!” She whispers deviously, then sighs. “But I forgot to bring them. Oops.”

“That’s okay, I’ll be around tomorrow anyways. But for now you might want to take this—” 

He shimmies off his Force jacket. Claudia’s hands flutter in protest. “Oh, no, I can’t take your jacket!"

“We’ve got a whole closet full of them down at the station, it’s fine. If you’re not freezing tonight, you will tomorrow. A cold front is on the way.”

“Oh, really? Wow,” She gazes at the jacket in wonder, holding it like a precious gem. “Oh my gosh, this is outrageous! One of the maddest, raddest presents ever! Thank you.” 

John ducks his head shyly as he climbs down. “Check the pocket, too.”

Claudia cocks her head quizzically and disappears a moment behind her branch. By the time John jumps down to the forest floor, he hears her elated squeal. “Psst, John!” He glances up, smiling when he sees her grinning and waving down at him, revealing a cherry cough drop between her front teeth. “Thank you!”

“You’re welcome,” He murmurs.

Last night he went to Walgreens and then another Walgreens before he found a pack of cherry (“No sir, I’m looking for cherry. Yes, I know honey-lemon is most popular but—") cough drops. He had stood in line for ten minutes behind an old lady counting out $6.37 in change to buy stool softener, which made him late to his shift that day, earning a snide smirk from Richard when Sanders cracked down on him. The grin on Claudia’s face is more than enough to make it worth it.

 

.o0O0o. June 10th, 1988.

On day nine Hale Associates come back at midnight and blast foghorns.

The protestors flail awake, a couple toppling off their branches but thankfully they're all strapped in with safety harnesses. John immediately looks to Claudia's tree, but thankfully she's still on her branch, if not a little startled.

The foghorns keep blasting every hour. No one gets any sleep that night.

The following morning he's interviewed briefly for the paper, along with some protestors and Talia Nata-something, who has a very unpronounceable last name. The tension grows as more townspeople get wind of the drama and come to speculate. The Hale's are reportedly getting impatient, although John’s only seen them come to the lot once.

Until the tenth day.

He's eating a BLT without the L and extra B beneath Claudia's tree. She's eating walnuts and a Fruit Roll-up another protestor thew her for lunch, and John listens as she babbles on about her best friend Wendy and the pollination process of bumblebees and how she’s going to paint American flags on all her mother’s blouses one day.

“—earth to John, yo, you in there?” Terry snaps his fingers in front of his face. “Yo mister sandman, listen to your cool friend Terry and look!”

John follows Terry’s finger to the other side of the tree lot, where the Hale brothers are standing and whispering at the foot of Talia’s tree, a crowd of reporters behind them. 

“The Hales? What are they doing over here?” He muses.

“Well gee, John, nice of you to finally acknowledge me,” Terry rolls his eyes and lounges against the tree beside him. “I dunno, looks like they might be tryin’ to talk to that leader woman or somethin’.”

“Sorry, Terry. I’ve been distracted.”

“Uh-huh,” Terry hums. “But not with a certain pretty hippie chick, no. You’re just preoccupied with my fly new haircut."

“Yeah.”

“You’re hopeless.”

“Shh. Can you hear what they’re saying?”

“Man, do I look like I have supernatural hearing to you?”

“What the… Is he—?”

“Looks like it. Can’t imagine they’ll actually listen to her, though. The papers say Hale Associates have been planning this demolition for years."

“Psst, hey John!”

A walnut bounces off the back of his skull. He glances up to find Claudia’s excited face hanging above his, awake from her nap. “Oh. How’s it hanging, Claudia?” She erupts in bubbly laughter, making him smile. He’s getting better at puns, too.

“Oh man, that never gets old! But hey, did you see the Hale people are here? Do you think they’re gonna let the trees live?” She asks hopefully, eyes shining. John is supposed to remain unbiased about the protest, but he wishes for her sake that Hale Associates decide not to follow through with the construction.

“I don’t know,” he replies, offering a stick of beef jerky up to her. Terry swats his arm away.

“Dude, we’re not supposed to give them food. Unbiased, remember?"

“I won’t tell if you won’t,” John says, and subtly holds the jerky up to Claudia again. 

“Oh, yay! Breakfast! Thanks.” She reaches down a pale hand and snatches the entire bag. She’s still wearing his Force jacket despite how it’s three sizes too big and the air is eighty degrees. Terry elbows him in the ribs.

The day passes like the weather; lazy, warm, and bright. He and Terry tug at their collars and sweat in the shade as summer beats down on them. At this point the protestors have gone almost two full weeks without showers, which means the smell is akin to a neglected petting zoo. The vulture-like reporters grow bored and fan themselves with their clipboards so Claudia entertains them with the plots of all her favorite movies (The Little Mermaid, An American Werewolf in London, Sixteen Candles, Dirty Dancing), managing to lull Terry to sleep in the process, and John keeps glancing up worriedly at her dwindling supply of water.

In the late afternoon one of the older protestors suffers heat exhaustion and is whisked away in an ambulance.

She is the first of the thirteen Kin of Keyàh members to leave their tree; she didn’t want to, but Talia and the other protestors insisted her health was more important. The flashing lights of the paramedic team scare the crap out of everybody and the reporters lap it up eagerly for their news channels and journals. Sheriff Sanders arrives with Richard and a few other officers to buffer the legalities and discuss protocol if it happens again. John listens but keeps glancing to the canopies, where he locks worried eyes with Claudia.

“The goal here is to not let anyone die,” Sanders grunts beneath his mustache. “The paperwork is a nightmare and it makes everyone look bad, including the department and Hale Associates. This was too much of a close call for my comfort."

“But if we can’t make them come down…?” Terry trails off.

“We just have to wait it out,” Sanders sighs. “Honestly I didn’t expect this group to last so long, but as long as they remain peaceful, there’s nothing we can do about it."

“Can’t we send them up food and water at least?” John tries again. “Most of them are low on supplies, especially with this heat they should stay hydrated.”

“Weren’t you listening?” Richard cuts in. “It’s a legal issue. By law police aren’t permitted to interfere as a third party in a protest, otherwise it shows bias.”

“Sullivan is right, I’m afraid,” Sanders nods. “As much as I’d love to help these poor folks, our job is to stay neutral and make sure the crowds don’t get out of hand.”

“But that doesn’t seem right,” slips angrily out of John’s mouth before he remembers that he doesn’t usually speak unless spoken to. “As officers it’s our duty to keep people safe and provide for the county, so what use is it if we don't help the people who need it most?”

“The law is the law, Stilinski,” Sanders pins him with a beady eye. “Perhaps you can change it if you stick around long enough to become Sheriff of this town."

“Or maybe the law should stay as it is,” Richard quips. “It seems like it won’t be much longer anyway, with this protest. That woman was just the first to drop, but once the Hales get wind of this they’ll know they won’t have to wait much longer for the others to start giving up, too. People can only last so long without basic necessities, you know? No matter how stubborn they are."

John turns to the tree line with a sinking stomach; as much as he hates to admit it, Richard is right. The protestors are the toughest bunch of people he’s encountered in this town, but they can’t last forever. He guesses maybe a few more days if they stretch their remaining water, but the Hales are just hawks waiting to swoop in and cut down the trees as originally planned. It’s childish, but all he can think is how unfair it is.

“John, John! Did you talk to the paramedics? Is Patti okay?” Claudia calls out from her tree as he returns. He’s off duty now, but he needs to settle her worries.

“She’s alright,” he relays. “Mild heatstroke, she got some IVs and cold water in the ambulance. She was even joking with the EMTs before they drove off. She said she’s sorry she couldn’t hang on longer with you guys.”

The information is quickly relayed amongst the other protestors via branch telephone. Worried looks soften but still remain. “I’m afraid the department just had a meeting,” he adds seriously. “We can’t provide you with any supplies, so you need to be careful with your rations if you want to keep doing this.”

“Of course!” Claudia blurts. “I’m not giving up due to a little lack of water, and neither is anyone else! We’re going to save these trees!"

He smiles wistfully up at her. “I know. And that’s very rad, but I still worry. Be careful, okay?”

His use of her favorite word earns him a smile in return. “Okay.”

“Alright. I gotta head home now, but I’ll see you in nine hours.”

“M’kay. Bye John. Eat a popsicle for me. A nice cold grape one.”

“You got it."

The sunset paints the sky pink and purple as he trudges back to the parking lot. He gets all the way to his crappy car before the bliss shatters.

“Hey. Stilinski.”

He freezes, deflating because he generally doesn’t like the conversations that happen between him and that voice. He turns around, where Richard is regarding him cooly, hands tucked leisurely in his pockets, crooked teeth snapping his gum.

“Hey Richard,” he returns casually.

His colleague cracks his Juicy Fruit loudly. He doesn’t look particularly impressed. “Let’s keep it professional, shall we? Sullivan.”

“Alright, Sullivan. What brings you round my neck of the woods?” He voices, internally chuckling at his pun.

“I noticed that a certain protestor was wearing a Force jacket yesterday,” Richard suggests casually, and John’s stomach sinks. “I didn’t give it to her, and I know Grey didn’t because he was wearing his when we swapped shifts. But you,” Richard reaches out a hand to straighten John’s collar, eyes narrowing. “Are wearing a jacket that looks a size bigger than it did yesterday."

“She was cold at night,” John returns simply. “I wasn’t going to let her freeze.”

“How chivalrous of you. They say chivalry is dead, which means you had something else in mind.”

“Look, Rich— Sullivan. I don’t know what you think is—"

“What I think,” Richard interrupts, taking a cold step forward. “Is that you’re getting a little too close to her, Stilinski. There are a lot of protestors here, but a fresh little ass like that? Tempting, believe me, I’ve noticed. And I plan on asking her out once this whole thing blows over."

John whirls around, eyes narrowing. “You— Have you even talked to her?”

Richard shrugs. “What does that matter? I’ve seen her enough, and she broadcasts ‘ditz’ with a neon sign. And you know what they say about those, Stilinski. It’s been a while since I got some action, and I imagine those overalls are pretty easy to pop open."

John is not a man of violence. John is a man of caution and tact, which is why he is 100% aware of just how tight his grip is around Richard’s wrist. It’s enough pressure to hurt like a bitch, but a few G’s short of breaking bone.

“Damn, you’ve got it bad,” Richard chuckles, but his voice is tight with pain. “Better get over that, quick. Violence is the kind of thing that gets you kicked off the force faster than you can say, ‘I haven’t gotten laid since high school.’”

John reluctantly rips his grip away, because Richard is right. “I don’t like you, Richard.”

Richard shrugs. “Sullivan. And I don’t like you either, so at least we’re on the same page. See you next shift, Stilinski.”

The man walks away and John watches him go, trying his best to burn two holes in the back of the man's Praying Mantis head.

 

.o0O0o. June 11th, 1988.

The number of reporters and spectators has tripled since day one. The roar of voices smacks them like a semi truck as they step out of the limo and smooth down their jackets against the breeze. Robert is… Reluctantly impressed. 

But then one member breaks out into song —and it’s Dancing Queen, dear god— and the others join in happily, swaying and smiling on their branches like they’re having a grand old time annoying two top-grossing CEOs. Robert wants to grab an axe and start hacking at the trees himself, but that would be a terrible move that PR might actually kill him for. He glances at Peter, whose eyes flash gold behind his aviators. 

The plan is to arrest Nat’aanii as soon as she climbs down. Montgomery, who’s already on site somewhere in the crowd, has relayed the orders to the police officers. Robert just wants it to be over. He wants his houses built so he cross “achieve decade long dream” off his checklist. And make the profit. 

”And we arrest her as soon as she comes down,” he reminds Peter.

“Yes, I remember. We can celebrate with cocktails later."

The other protestors straighten up and look at them as they draw near. Talia is lounging gracefully on her tree branch again, whittling down a piece of branch with a sharp blade. 

“Ms. Nat’aanii,” he calls up. “My brother and I here to listen what you have to say.”

Talia smiles wide, and it’s far more dazzling and warm than it has any right to be. “Wonderful. Thank you, gentlemen. Come on up.”

Silence. Nothing but the click of reporter cameras behind them. Distantly, he hears the faint pop of his and Peter’s mouths falling ajar. Eventually he remembers his importance— “Excuse me?”

“Oh, I’m afraid I can’t come down,” Talia smiles, followed by a chorus of chuckles from the surrounding protestors. “That would be rather foolish considering the situation, don’t you think? So you two are welcome to join me up here to talk. Unless of course you prefer I call down to you.”

But Talia’s voice sounds worn with use. And no, they don't need the reporters to hear every word and spin it to make Kin of Kéyah look like well-meaning victims against the big bad Hales. He and Peter turn shoulder-to-shoulder to plot quietly, noses nearly bumping.

“Are you sure it’s not too late for the smoke bombs?” Peter mutters.

“I understand your urge, but no, we’re not doing smoke bombs.” 

“Really, because I already have Swarvowski under orders to place the shipment with Army&Shoss over the phone. All I have to do is tell Montgomery to call him and two dozen will come, same-day delivery. The limo will drop us back here tonight to watch. We can have Hank pop popcorn! It’ll be fun.”

“Pete,” Robert deadpans, not sure weather to laugh or be concerned. “No. Maybe we should just humor her."

“Nat’aanii?” Peter’s eyes widen incredulously. “You honestly mean climb up her tree to talk with her? The only element of ‘humor’ will be us, the two fools in thousand-dollar suits trying to ascend her organic may pole. The press will make us look like a couple of idiots.”

“We’re werewolves, remember? We’ll scale that tree in two seconds flat."

“We’ll be bending to her rules,” Peter’s eyes narrow in warning. "It is essential that we keep the company looking strong. Besides, it’s not like we’re changing our minds, so why give them hope?”

“Mom used to say hope could make people sway their decisions,” Robert points out.

“Mom is off the table when we’re discussing business,” Peter interjects sharply. “But if you want to play that card, why should we fuel their stubbornness? They could decide to sit up there for two more weeks, a whole month even if we give any indication that they might have sway over us."

“I understand. But you gotta admit they’re pretty damn—“ admirable, spirited, strange, driven “—stubborn. Maybe they’ve earned our ears, yeah?"

Peter’s eyes narrow in warning. “No, Robert. This is where I draw the line.”

“Sorry, but I’m going up. Despite how tiresome they are I think they deserve something for their efforts."

But as he turns towards the tree— “Robert,” Peter warns, eyes flashing gold.

“Let go, Pete,” he orders calmly, eyes flashing red back in response. “You can mope all you want in the limo, but I’m going to try and hold up our end of the deal. Now I’d let go before they get a chance to snap more pictures,” he warns, eyes flicking to where the reporters are eagerly clicking away to capture the moment of tension.

Peter lifts his chin and let's go. He walks calmly over to the reporters and starts answering the questions they throw at him.

Meanwhile Robert takes a deep breath, purposefully avoids Nat’aanii’s eyes, and hoists himself up onto the first branch. As he climbs up the protestors start whooping and shouting in delight and he can hear the reporters laughing, and the CBS anchor— oh god, are they getting this live? and it’s all Robert can do but bite down on his cheek and try not to turn red. 

He swings a leg up over Talia's branch and sits down on the bark, and immediately forgets his own name.

He takes a moment to assess her. She’s— Okay, she’s beautiful, in a predatory, bohemian kind of way. Which doesn’t even make any sense, but her cheekbones could cut through steel and she isn’t wearing a speck of makeup, allowing the estimated fifty-million freckles spattered across her olive skin to stand out like constellations in a dark sky. Long, silky black hair tumbles down her shoulders like some sort of ridiculous waterfall that coils neatly atop her wool sweater, which is decorated with a migraine-inducing pattern of green, blue, and taupe triangles. The same ruffled, midnight-blue skirt hides her legs with miles of gathered fabric, draping down over her bare ankles. Christ, the woman isn’t even wearing shoes. This is exactly the kind of thing Peter warned him about.

He clears his throat. “Good afternoon, Ms. Nat’aanii."

“Please, you can call me Talia,” Ms. Nata-whatever cuts in warmly, like her sharp jawline and dark glittering eyes aren’t scary at all. It’s also kind of disappointing, because he had practiced pronouncing her name for a solid five minutes in the limo, and now that was all for nothing. He doesn’t know what to do with the offered use of first names, honestly. 

“You can call me Mr. Hale,” he returns curtly, because he’s a businessman. He’s a millionaire, dammit, which seems to impress everyone except her.

“You seem rather young for a Mr. Hale,” she muses calmly, gaze flickering from his buffed Salvatore Ferragamo shoes to his Burberry slacks to his crisp white handkerchief, only lingering for mere moments as if it all bores her. And really, how dare she.

“Yes, well, my age is not the matter at hand here today. But rather the issue of you and your… Members—” he decides disapprovingly, eyeing a ditzy girl in the tree to his right tossing walnuts down onto a police officer. “—who are holding up my company by refusing to climb down. Hale Associates has staked a claim on this land, as well as invested ample time and money into this project so that we can provide affordable housing for the—"

“Mr. Hale,” Talia interrupts calmly, raising an eyebrow. “You came up here to hear me speak, yes?”

His mouth opens and closes silently for a moment before he composes himself. You are a millionaire, he reminds himself. A powerful, composed, unruffled millionaire. 

“Of course,” he dips his head in reluctant apology. “Go ahead, Ms. Nat’aanii.”

Talia smiles, dark eyes flicking analytically between his own— right, left, right, left, and it’s terrifying. It’s like she’s looking into his very soul and dissecting him piece by piece until she figures out he’s secretly out of his element and that he tossed a cigarette out of his car window last Thursday without getting fined. Her gaze pinches with interest, lips twitching thoughtfully.

“Tell me, Mr. Hale. Do you smell anything… Unusual?”

Well he’s certainly seeing a lot of unusual things, unusual putting it nicely. He sniffs the air. “Nothing out of the ordinary for a forest atmosphere.”

She blinks in surprise before cocking her head, offering that warm hint of a smile again. “Go on, start listing everything you smell,” she prompts patiently.

“I… Trees?” He answers, about two seconds from climbing back down because this is ridiculous. 

“Nothing else?” She presses, eyebrows sky high.

“No,” Robert snaps, testy and uneasy. “We’re in a tree in the woods, so I’m not sure what else I’m supposed to be smelling here. I beg your pardon Ms. Nat’aanii, but what is the purpose of this?” 

Talia gazes at him, pensively and almost sad, which plants a very unsettling stone in Robert's stomach. She speaks quietly next. “I don’t think you even realize, Mr. Hale, just how blinding your life of business is.”

He blinks rapidly, officially offended. “Excuse me?”

“What I mean," Talia continues, settling back comfortably against the tree trunk. “Is that you cannot smell the motor oil from the bulldozers across the lot, the chai tea on my breath, the body odor on me and my friends, the strong cologne Renoir is wearing in the tree to our left, the cigarette smoke clinging to your clothes and tongue, the buttery walnuts around us, the sweet-sourness of the tree sap, the damp earth fifteen feet below us, the scent of freshly-baked bagels on the breeze from the bakery on Whipple Street, or the fact that I am one of you.”

With the last line Talia’s eyes glow a brilliant crimson, and Robert’s automatically flash back red in response. His mouth falls open in shock. Talia Nat’aanii is an alpha.

You’re a werewolf,” he states dumbly, and it is seriously one of the dumbest remarks he’s ever uttered.

Talia nods. “That I am. And so are you, but you’ve lost touch with your wolf… Haven’t you?”

Robert gapes soundlessly. It’s like a slap in the face, because she’s right. She’s right and he hasn’t even noticed the quiet retreat of his wolf over the years— He sniffs the air again, horrified to find that he can’t smell anything beyond the faint spunk of nature, can’t smell anything more than what a plain human would smell. When had that happened? He could smell just fine a few years ago when he was in Stanford, right? He had been focusing a lot of time and effort into the company the past couple years— hell, all of his time and effort, but—

He clears his throat. “Are your protestors…?” 

Talia smiles. “My friends are not werewolves, no. Humans, and lovely ones, aren’t they?”

He glances to the side, where Atrocious Haircut Girl is gleefully shoving handfuls of walnuts into her mouth, making obscene little happy noises as she chews.

“Very… Interesting, yes.”

“Take a look below you, Mr. Hale. What do you see?”

Dirt. Grass. Frenzied reporters and townspeople. Robert is tiring quickly of her question game. But when he glances down he spies the huge, red spray-painted “X” on the trunk of the tree they’re sitting on. It drips down the bark, looking like blood. Incredibly, his stomach gives a little uncomfortable flip.

“I see you’ve found what I told you to look for,” Talia nods approvingly, and fuck— was his expression really that obvious?

He clears his throat. “Yes, well that’s the construction worker’s doing, not—"

“As werewolves, we are predators, not murderers, don’t you agree?”

Robert stares at her. “…Yes,” he admits.

“And these trees are alive as much as you and me. Even more so these are the trees that provide shelter for our inner spirits; they are the home of your wolf, and the home of mine. Part of what makes Beacon Hills so special is the expanse of preserve here, and the accompanying beasts that are drawn here. Without the forest, we have no place to connect to our animal half.”

Robert feels pinned beneath her gaze, feeling a strange tug from the depth of his chest.

“If you want to reconnect with your wolf, you need to start reacquainting yourself with the forests from which we came,” Talia tells him seriously. “And cutting down thirty acres of our lineage is the same as running away from it.”

Robert swallows heavily, feeling the click of his throat in his ears. He nods curtly at the barefoot woman in front of him. 

“Thank you for your time, Ms. Nat’aanii. Hale Associates expects you and your group to come down in a swift fashion for minimum charges.”

He climbs back down the tree.

 

.o0O0o. June 12th, 1988.

The next morning he’s sitting in the office, haunted by Talia’s meeting. He’s staring out the window, watching the cars drive ten stories below as he runs his thumb over the pen in his fist. It’s a cheery day, a stretch of pale blue sky as far as he can see. Much too cheery for the storm of inner turmoil swirling in his head.

“Hey Pete,” he starts, trying for nonchalance. “Can you… You can smell things, right?”

Peter spins around slowly to face him in his spiny chair, in sync with the slow ascension of his eyebrow. “What kind of question is that.”

It’s probably a good idea to stop while he’s ahead, but he plows on anyway. “Well… I mean you can smell all the stuff at the construction site? Like the bulldozer motor oil, and the… The protestor’s body odor?"

Peter snorts. “Unfortunately.”

Robert frowns. “Even on the ground?”

“Practically from the limo,” Peter mutters distastefully. “Those people reeked on day one, but now it’s like they all took baths in pickle juice.”

“What about hearing? Can you hear them from the parking lot?”

“Yes. I can also touch my tongue to my nose and I have a black belt in Taekwondo. What’s your point?”

“Just wondering,” Robert says quickly. Too quickly. Peter swings around in his chair again, chewing leisurely on his pen tip.

“Come now, brother. You’re much too young to need hearing aids and Rogaine."

“My hairline is fine, I just…”

“Suddenly can’t smell this morning? I told you not to snort too much of Jack’s good stuff,” Peter snickers.

“I’m not a cocaine addict, Peter,” Robert sighs. Really, a few times in college is nothing.

“Well then what is it? I don’t have time to entertain your guessing game and neither do you, so wrap it up in ten seconds.”

“It’s not something that… Well…”

“Six, five…”

“Hey, could you cut it out for just—“

“Three, two—"

“I can’t smell anything, Peter!” He shouts, with a flare of anger and wild fear. Peter stares at him. “Up in that tree Nat’aanii made me look like an idiot! She asked me if I sensed anything unusual and I couldn’t smell a fraction of everything she could! I didn’t even recognize that she was a werewolf! I can’t…” he pauses to sniff the air, eyes widening. “I can’t even smell your coffee from over here."

“Well of course you can’t,” Peter tells him, completely unfazed, as if informing him of today’s weather.

Robert blinks, forehead scrunching. “What?”

“You’ve been losing touch with your wolf since we signed the company papers,” Peter says calmly, spinning back around in his chair to continue marking drafts. “I thought you’d noticed.”

Robert sputters soundlessly, taken aback. “Well, no, not exactly. What—? I’ve just been so invested with the firm—“

“—That you haven’t spent any time running through the forest, shifting, or sniffing dog asses,” the back of Peter’s head finishes for him. “Of course you can’t smell things anymore."

Robert gapes. “Have… Have you been running through the forest? Transforming?”

He can’t see his brother’s face, but he can practically hear the sly smirk creeping across Peter’s lips. “I’m up at five am every morning to jog through the woods by my estate. Meditate too, at the top of the hill. The acoustics are really quite charming that hour of the morning. Keeps the super-senses fresh.”

Robert stares at the back of his brother’s head, dumbfounded. “Why didn’t you tell me?” Warn me. 

Peter sighs, as if Robert is a butthurt child who just got his crayons taken away. “I thought you knew, Robert. Why should you care about maintaining strong alpha status while running the most successful firm in the state? It’s not like you can’t pop fangs anymore, so what’s the big deal if your nose can’t pick up the scent of dirty hippy protestors? That’s really a blessing. I’m almost jealous.”

“But you’ve been keeping your powers in shape,” he counters, bordering on accusation. 

Peter regards him with a sly smirk over his shoulder. “That’s because I value power enough to pay a little extra for it, whether that means bribing our competitor’s employees or rising bleary-eyed with the sun every morning to bark at a few trees. Being a human millionaire isn’t enough for me, Rob. I want strength on the werewolf front, too."

Robert takes a moment to silently study the back of Peter’s head. He’s nervous, dumbfounded, and childishly hurt. He needs a cigarette, or three. For a minute it almost feels like Peter was letting him fall behind on purpose the past couple years.

Rap rap rap. Stephanie pokes her head in the door, sleek black ponytail swishing over her shoulder. “Mr. Hales? Sorry to interrupt, Mr. Montgomery is requesting to see you. He says he has some good news.”

“It’s about time,” Peter sighs, waving a lazy hand towards the table. “Send him in."

Arnold waddles into the room with his pinstripe tie and trusty, all-powerful clipboard. “Good news, gentlemen. I’ve found a way out of this.”

“Forgive us if we’re skeptical,” Robert sighs, sinking into a chair at the table to join them. “It’s been a long week."

“I spoke with B&C Landshares today. It took a bit of bargaining, but I managed to squeeze a quote out of them for the plot of land on the northern border of the county, for the woods alongside the railroad. Forty acres of Beacon Hills Watermire Woods for twice the sum you bought the walnut-spruce plot for, but you’ll be able to begin construction as soon as tomorrow. Profit wise, the ten extra acres will earn you an increased profit of 4.6 mil annually once over the seven year mark. In addition, The California Wildlife Preservation Committee will buy the original plot from you for the sum you bought for.“

Robert shoots a quick glance to his brother, whose eyes gleam as Arnold continues.

"Since the agreement is still fresh under wraps, your Kéyah protestors are clueless. You two could move the bulldozers to the new plot tomorrow morning— the protestors will tap dance for joy thinking they’ve won, while your people start chopping down hippy-free trees across town.”

“What’s the catch,” Peter narrows his eyes cautiously.

“No catch. B&C just needs the two of you to sign the buyer’s contract by tomorrow at noon. I’ve got a transcript of the papers here so you can look over the technicalities,” Arnold slides a small stack of translucent golden papers across the table. “I can call the lawyers down here as soon as you like.”

“Splendid work, Arnold,” Peter praises, offering a rare toothy smile. “I love a good excuse to use my fancy signing pen.”

“I don’t know.”

It pops out of Robert’s mouth before he even realizes. The board room grows eerily quiet as Arnold blinks at him in surprise. Peter turns to face him slowly, eyes narrowing.

“You don’t know,” Peter parrots softly. “I hope you mean that in the context of ‘I don’t know how Alfred managed to pull this off for us,’ because otherwise you’re questioning a miracle of a contract that can simultaneously earn the firm more money and spit in the protestor’s faces.”

“The latter,” Robert returns, meeting his brother's eyes. “I don’t know, Pete.”

“You don’t know what Robert,” Peter challenges darkly, like he knows exactly what Robert is about to say.

“I don’t know if it’s the right choice for the company.” The right choice for me. 

“The company,” Peter rolls the word off his tongue slowly. “You mean the company we busted our asses in college to raise together so we could make a generous profit in our hometown? What the hell has gotten into your head, Robert? There is absolutely no reason we shouldn’t take this! Did you not hear the part about all the extra profit we’ll earn? What’s the problem?"

“I need some time to think.” 

He leaves the office with a dull “thud” of the mahogany double-doors.

 

.o0O0o.

He finds his running gear in the back of his closet. He has to throw dozens of suits and silk ties and polished shoes out of the way to reach them, piling expensive clothes in rumpled mountains on his carpet, easily tens of thousands of dollars that suddenly make him sick. Thousands are pennies to him, always have been.

But his feet feel wrong and trapped beneath the mesh lacing of his shoes, and his college tracksuit pulls too tight and short at his thighs. It takes two nervous cigarettes that don’t work before he ditches his clothes with a frustrated shout halfway into the woods, breathing hard through his stupid nostrils that can’t smell a damn thing.

“C’mmon, Robbie,” he pants as he regards his fingertips. “You did it all the time as a kid, nothing stoppin’ you from doing it now…”

The claws come with difficulty. After a quick glance around he goes further, pulling into that rooted source of power beneath his sternum and coaxing it forward. It hurts, slow and painful as the bones pop and his fur ripples thick from his spine— but he does it. When he finishes he’s panting, tongue lolling out over his jaws.

He runs.

He runs as a wolf for the first time in years, and he feels alive. The cold earth beneath his paws, the ripple of wind through his fur, and the exhilaration of the woodland smells hitting his tongue.

After a while he slows to a trot and sniffs at a few berry bushes. He follows the scent of a squirrel to a knotted elm and finds a collection of nuts, nibbles at a beetle, and pisses at the base of the biggest tree he can find. He tracks where the rabbits have pooped and where hikers have gone by with their dogs, and when the setting sun touches the horizon he finds himself in front of a huge house in the middle of the woods.

The mansion is tall and gleaming. The lights inside are warm, gold, and cozy, with a crystal chandelier visible through one of the many victorian windows. He can see a woman inside cooking dinner at a stove, a cat cleaning it’s paws on the windowsill, and a baby drooling in a highchair. Curious, he trots around to the side, belly brushing the ground as he peeks out behind the brush.

The garage door is open; inside what looks like a father and son waxing their car. Robert perks his ears forward to pick up what they’re saying.

“You really thinking of selling this place dad?”

“Yeah, your mother and I were thinking about it. Maybe when you and David go off to college in a couple years. No use in staying in a huge house if there’s only a couple people to fill it.”

Robert feels his ears flatten against his head. He lives in a huge penthouse, and he’s only one person. Sure, it’s spacey, and quiet, but he’s never really thought about that until now.

“Where are you and mom thinking of moving? Hey, maybe the new Hale houses will be finished by then.”

Robert’s ears perk up.

“I dunno, son. The Hale brothers say they want to provide affordable housing to support the county, but they have millions and they haven’t used a penny of it to do some real work.”

He stops breathing, heart pounding. What?

“What do you mean, dad?”

“Well, they’re building these houses once the protestors give up, sure. But they’ll be making a lot of profit on those houses, which is good in business, but they have a great deal of money and they haven’t used any of it for the true greater good. There are a lot of smaller organizations that donate to charity, fund the soup kitchen, the library, even built the homeless shelter downtown, and those folk can’t even afford a decent meal let alone rent for a house, no matter how low the mortgage rate. The Hales are powerful men, James, but men who don’t do anything with their power are powerless.”

Robert doesn’t stay to hear the rest. He’s already running back to his penthouse, tail tucked low and wind streaking cold fingers through his fur.

 

.o0O0o.

He can hear his Rolex ticking loudly as he stares up at his penthouse ceiling, limbs stretched out long and cold atop his king-size bed.

He doesn’t mean to, but he compares it to the tiny mattress he had in his cramped dorm at Stanford, and the tinier mattress he had to share with Peter in middle school for that one dumb overnight field trip to the observatory. But Robert has a lot of money now, so he doesn’t have a tiny mattress anymore. He has so much money he doesn’t really know what to do with it, so he spends it on fancy suits and brand names and big beds that don’t really feel any different from the regularly-priced things he had experience with at college. They feel a lot different from the tree bark the Kin of Kéyah have been sitting on— hell, lounging on for two weeks.

Right. That. He needs to make a decision about that, and voice it aloud to Peter and the board in a few hours. 

His Rolex keeps ticking. It hits the wall with a loud crack as Robert grabs it and hurtles it across the room. It stops ticking. He can buy a new one.

Before he really knows what he’s doing, his feet are slipping into his loafers and he’s running out his front door into the street. They make clumsy flap-smack sounds against the pavement as a few drunken cars swerve by him on the way home from late night parties. He’s gone through an entire pack of cigarettes today. Robert Hale is an idiot, he decides, as he keeps running past the end of the block and the cross-street that leads to the preserve on the other end of the county. He is the biggest, dumbest, richest idiot in the—

“Talia,” he whisper-shouts up into the tree fifteen minutes later. This is fucking stupid, he thinks wildly. He is a fucking idiot for doing this, he’s in his fucking pajamas. Any minute now reporters are going to spring from the bushes and blind him with lightbulb flashes, documenting his man-slippers and choice of sleepwear for Forbes or The Reporter or whatever magazine of the week it is. Any minute one or all of the other protestors will wake up and see him, God. Fuck this. He should turn around right now and run back to his penthouse before—

“Mr. Hale?”

A movement of silky black hair above him as Talia peeks her head over the side of her branch. Drat.

“Yes, it’s me,” he grits out quietly, because there’s no going back now. “Can I come up?”

“Are you…” Even in the dark he can see her eyes narrowing on him, her eyebrow arching. “Mr. Hale, are you in your pajamas?"

Fucking, fuck, fuckity-fuck his fucking life— 

“Yes,” he whisper-snaps, and flinches when one of the Kin members in the tree to the right mumbles in their sleep. “Now can I come up?”

Talia smiles at him, revealing an amused flash of canine. “Of course. Make yourself at home.”

He climbs up, thankful that he’ll heal from the scratches the bark leaves on his bare feet. He sits carefully on the branch.

“Good evening, Mr. Hale,” Talia greets politely, as if their current situation isn’t weird as hell. She’s wearing the same ruffled skirt she’s been wearing for fourteen days now, and the same triangle-patterned sweater. Her long hair is tangled and frankly she smells pretty ripe, but she looks unfairly beautiful for someone who hasn’t showered in two weeks.

“Yes… Good evening, isn’t it,” he grumbles as he glances down at his pajamas. So much for professional image. He sighs. “And you can go ahead and call me Robert, I suppose. You’ve seen me in my pajamas now, so that probably warrants a first-name basis.”

Talia raises an eyebrow at his long-sleeved set, eyes trailing over the pinstripes unabashedly. He squirms, uncomfortable under her gaze. “Well, Robert. It’s refreshing to see a— what did you say? Twenty-six year old? Wearing old-man pajamas,” she comments amusedly, in that soft-calm voice that annoys him to no end. “Odd, but refreshing."

“These are Bill Blass, and they are comfortable,” he sniffs, slightly put out. They cost him more than most television sets and they are very youthful pajamas, thank you very much.

Talia smiles like she’s humoring him and leans back against the tree. Her hair sways in the nighttime breeze, a few strands brushing over the stretch of her collarbone as she regards him. “Very well. So, Robert. Not that I don’t enjoy spontaneous midnight chats, but what brings you here?”

He licks his lips, adjusting his stance on the frankly very uncomfortable tree bark. “I—“ he starts, but doesn’t really know where to start. Why did he come here? “I… I need your help,” he sighs, running a hand down his face. He's been doing that a lot the past couple weeks. “The associates at the company want to let you have the trees.”

“Oh?” Talia voices calmly, watching Robert for more.

“But they want to buy a new plot of trees in the county and cut them down instead,” Robert finishes, averting his gaze to the ground.

“Oh,” Talia says again, still frustratingly passive. “I see.”

“Well I don’t,” Robert snaps. “I don’t see what I’m supposed to do about it, and I’m supposed to have an answer to tell the board in four hours. Do you know what it’s like to be the head of a successful company and be expected to lead seven-hundred employees to a better future? Did you know that even though you’re the co-CEO, you get pulled in fifty different directions from everyone you know— the press, your PR team, your executives, business managers and number-crunchers and an obnoxious little brother who all want you to do the right thing, but how do I know what the ‘right’ thing is? Our company needs these trees, but…”

Silence. Talia watches him carefully.

“I don’t know whether I want to take them anymore,” Robert finishes. 

“You don’t know whether to follow your intuition or stay loyal to your brother,” Talia finishes calmly for him, like the freakishly intuitive person she is. How does she even—?

“Yes!” He blurts, because that is exactly it. Then he flinches at his volume, remembering their current under-the-radar position. “Yes,” he whispers. “Peter will never understand why I don’t want to cut down the trees for our housing. He’ll take my side if I ask him to— he won’t like it, but he always supports me when I need him to.”

“Sounds like a good brother.”

“He is. Pete… Peter is my best friend,” he sighs. “We’ve gone through everything together. Our father left my mother when I was two, after she got pregnant with him. When we were in high school she got sick, and had to move into a care home— Early-onset Alzheimer’s. She’s still there, we go to see her about once a month. So I had to really take care of him starting when I was eighteen. He’s really smart. Smarter than me, and more focused.”

“Your mother is lucky to have the two of you.”

“But… This…” He looks at his hands, remembering how they were paws a few hours ago. “This company is the most important thing in my life. It is my life. Pete and I worked so hard to get here, and we have it all now. But the… The schmoozing, the board meetings, sitting in that office every day, but… It used to be so easy,” he murmurs.

“Connecting to your wolf, or leading your company?” Talia asks.

“Both. It’s… It’s both,” he admits.

“But you don’t like your job.”

He blinks at how easily Talia says it. He thinks about his job a lot, but he hasn’t been able to admit it out loud, so—

“Of course I like my job,” he blurts automatically. “I’m a millionaire, who wouldn’t like my job?”

“How long have you been smoking?” Talia asks calmly.

“Just because you say I smell like cigarettes doesn’t mean I smoke,” Robert dodges.

“Whenever your heartbeat speeds up you subconsciously reach for your breast pocket,” Talia voices calmly, still staring at the trees. “Your response to anxiety is to seek a tangible substance chemically designed to repress that part of your brain. And yes, you smell like cigarettes. How long have you been smoking?”

“I… About two years,” Robert admits. Since we started the company. 

“Hm.” Talia hums. Not even condescending, just musing. He swallows thickly as he stares at her, trying to figure out how she got him to spill so much. 

“I saw a house today,” he mentions quietly, as he looks into the forest. “It had people inside.”

“Most of them do.”

He huffs a small laugh. “I know. But this house was big, and it had… A family inside.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah… There was this woman inside cooking, and a baby, and all this cozy furniture, and it just looked… Nice, I guess.”

“I take it you haven’t tasted any of that in quite some time,” Talia tells the wind quietly, giving him an opportunity to study his ringless fingers.

“No. But then there was this… Father. And his son. And they were talking in the garage,” he licks his lips. “And I overheard him say— he said that Hale Associates— that my brother and I are selfish because we have millions and we don’t spend it on anything charitable. Do you… Is he right?”

“Judging by how anxiously your heart sped up when you asked the question, you already know the answer.”

“D’you always have be so goddamn cryptic?” He snaps. “You’re making me rethink everything and it’s threatening to turn my whole life upside down, so kindly stop.”

“I’m just sitting in a tree. You’re the one who chooses to let yourself rethink everything."

He sighs, laboriously and desperately, and scrubs his hands over his face again. He needs to shave. “What do you and your group do, anyway?”

Talia smiles and crosses her legs over the branch. “We have a picnic in the woods the first Sunday of every month. We clean up trails where we can. We discuss ways to better the environment, but nothing unusual from what friends usually do.”

Friends. Robert doesn’t hear that word too often. He has Hank, his other trusted advisors at the company, and his employees and assistants. He has Peter, who is his best friend, but no real friends outside of that. At Stanford he was too busy studying and developing the irrigation system with his brother to really make any. “We’re here to get ahead,” they used to say during high-fives. “Not to make friends.”

“Really it’s just an excuse to get together and see one another,” Talia continues. 

“That sounds… Nice,” he admits, and immediately purses his lips at how childish it sounds. But her only smiles deeper.

“It is.”

“Do you…” He licks his lips again. “Do you have a family, Nat’aanii?”

Talia stares a long time into the woods. “I consider myself married to the land.”

He doesn’t expect the small sting of disappointment. He nods, and watches her hand rest atop the bark, just a few inches from his own hand.

“I guess I’m married to my job.” 

“You don’t have to be.” 

“But I’ve never considered anything else.” 

“Not too late. You may be living like an old man, Robert, but you’re only twenty-six.”

The dawn creeps slowly into the horizon. His Rolex is at home on his floor, but he guesses it’s almost 5am. The reporters will start arriving any minute to grab the good spots in the front.

“I should probably go,” he mumbles. “Thank you… For… Letting me hang out. No pun intended.”

Talia chuckles, a soft musical sound. “Well then make like a tree and leaf.”

Laughter bursts out of him, and he has to clap a hand over his mouth to keep it quiet. God, he’s missed jokesHe’s missed the sound of his own laughter and it takes a minute before it subsides to giggles, and then a soft smile, until it slowly falls to a frown at the horizon. “I still don’t know what to do,” he admits.

Talia turns to him, a million unreadable messages in her eyes, and raises two fingers to his chest. “Maybe you should try listening to your heart instead of your head.”

He lands softly on the ground as he jumps from the tree, and runs off towards the rising sun in his Bill Blass pajamas. He listens to Talia’s chuckles follow him for the first mile.

They really are old-man pajamas, he thinks.

 

.o0O0o.

Peter is staring at him with pale blue eyes perfectly round, lips a thin line. It’s that overtly calm I’m-so-pissed-at-you-I-could-kill-you-right-now look that Robert hates so much. It’s not a good shape for his brother’s jawline, they’ve been over this.

“I’m sorry, I think my hyper-sensitive ears might have missed that,” Peter grits out quietly, and Robert internally squirms. “Would you mind repeating yourself, Mr. Hale?”

He sighs. He’s operating on zero sleep, since he spent the wee hours of the morning talking with a barefoot woman in a tree, and then ran home and took a thirty-minute shower before throwing on his suit from the day before. He might have forgotten to put on cologne or brush his teeth, he isn’t sure which. But now it’s 7:05am in the white-walled meeting room in the west wing, and the clock ticks loudly above the long mahogany table, which is imported from China. 

“I said, my answer is no. I still think we should call off the project. We can find another area to build the houses."

“I don’t even know who you are right now,” Peter breathes incredulously. “We’ve dedicated our lives to this, Robert! Hell, the past year we’ve— and within a week you’ve changed your mind because of some tree-hugging hippy with a pretty face?”

“I—“ he takes a deep breath. “No, it’s more than that, it’s… It’s about our heritage.”

“We’re whiter than bleached snowballs.”

“No, I mean our heritage,” Robert flashes his eyes crimson. “Talia is one of us, Peter, she’s a werewolf, she—“

Peter cuts him off with a hysterical laugh. “A werewolf! Steve Conwald of Conwald’s mechanics on Tullane Avenue is a werewolf too. So is the fat woman who runs the bakery by the train tracks. Maybe we should consult them for advice on our multi-million dollar firm we established, hmm?”

“Aren’t you listening to me? We need a space to be wolves, it’s what makes the county so special! Chopping down those trees is the same thing as running away from that part of ourselves."

“Oh my god,” Peter breathes softly, eyes narrowing. "You like her.”

Roberts heart leaps into his throat. “What—? I do not,” he blurts immediately. “I— you’ve got to be kidding, she’s—“ Amazing, patient, smart, intimidating, beautiful, wise, tactful, kind, poignant, down to earth, smells like chamomile and maybe cinnamon—

Peter comes dangerously close, pushing his face within inches of Robert’s nose. “You listen to me, Rob. We’ve busted our asses to get this company off the ground, and it made us the youngest millionaires in the state.” His eyes gleam with the word, the same way they always do when money is mentioned. "I will not let you ruin our dream for the sake. Of. Some. Girl.”

Robert grits his teeth in frustration. “She’s not just some girl, Pete. I’m talking about the ideas she has, and the valid points she brings up! Did we even look into other locations in Beacon Hills to build housing?”

“No, we didn’t,” Peter snaps at him, eyes narrowing angrily. “Because there are no other locations. That’s part of why the mortgage rates are so damn high here, remember? And why so many local evictees are sitting on the streets, because this county is already packed to full-capacity! Except for the hundreds of acres of damn forest surrounding us.”

“Okay, you’re right, you’re right,” he admits, setting his head down between his arms. Maybe he could make it all go away if he just hung out there for a while. “But what if… What if we started looking into other towns? I’m talking Medina, Chesterton, the neighbor-cities surrounding Beacon Hills,” he tries.

“I’m well aware of what cities surround us,” Peter counters cooly. “But hasn’t it always been our mission to improve the economy here, in the town we were born and raised in?”

“Yes,” Robert admits. “But we could build the housing out of county and use the profit to improve other situations in Beacon Hills. The parks, schools, museums. Whatever you want. It’s a compromise.”

Peter studies him. “Do you have any idea how much profit we’ll lose if we pass up this contract?”

“Yes.”

“And you’re okay with that?”

“We’re already millionaires.”

“We could be bigger millionaires."

“Look, Pete. You’re my brother. You’re my best friend. I value your opinion just as much as my own, you know that, but I can’t just…” He looks at his fingers, remembering how they were paws yesterday. "I don’t think we should cut into the forest. And I know that isn’t what we had in mind, but I’m trusting my heart here. Bulldozing those trees goes against our blood, and I want to respect that. Just like I respect you, and I respect this company. Will you stand by me?”

A long stream of minutes pass by in silence. Peter turns his back and walks to the window, staring out over the town for a long time. His silhouette looks young and lanky. Sometimes Robert forgets his brother is only twenty-four and immediately feels guilty for it. Eventually, Peter speaks up softly without turning around. 

“I’m not happy about this, Rob. I don’t know what’s gotten into your head, but I trust you enough to take your word for it. When we open those doors at six you will tell the board about the decision to call off the project. We’ll send the bulldozers and contractors home. Your new hippy friends can resume their lives taking mud-baths and cooking vegan instead of sitting in trees.”

Robert sighs as a huge weight lifts off his back. “Thank you, Pete. We’ll find a new solution, I know we can—“

“But,” Peter cuts him off darkly, and strides over to pin him down with his eyes. “You will get Talia Nat’adilli-whatever out of your head, got it?”

Robert deflates, caught off guard. He automatically goes for innocence. “I told you, I don’t li—“

“I can hear your heartbeat, you dumbass,” Peter scoffs. “The best way to ruin a company is to get distracted. Mrs. Morrison’s Business and Economics class 201 freshman year, remember?” 

He sighs. “I remember. I remember her horrible brown loafers, too.”

Peter rolls his eyes. “Good. We’re on the same page then. Power stems from the diligence we inspire in others, Rob.”

Robert sighs and spins his chair around to face the window, resting his chin on his knuckles. He can see the tip of the forest line from here, where the bulldozers are still parked. If he looks hard enough, he can imagine a freckle-faced woman lounging back against the bark, long midnight-blue skirt draped in an elegant sweep across the branches.

“I know, Pete."

 

.o0O0o. June 13th, 1988.

“Hey, John?”

John smiles up at her. “Claudia. You doin’ okay up there?”

“Good as I can be,” she chirps. She’s laying on her stomach across the branch, his jacket still around her shoulders. “You wanna come up for a bit?”

He glances over at Terry, who’s sleeping against his Fir tree again. The stars twinkle gently above. “For a little bit, sure."

Once he’s settled by her side on the branch she voices, “You wanna know a secret?” 

“As long as I don’t have to arrest you for it, shoot.”

She chuckles, musical soft laughter. Then she leans in close to whisper like they’re the only two people in the world. “I saw Talia with a man last night."

“You mean… You mean she left her tree?” John asks, confused.

“No,” Claudia whispers gleefully. “A man climbed up to sit with her! I think he was trying to keep it a secret, but I was awake because I was looking at the stars. Such pretty stars,” She adds as an afterthought, shooting a grin skywards. “I didn’t stay awake much long after that, but they were just sitting there talking, like we do!"

“Huh,” John muses. “Do you know who it was?"

“That’s the best part!” She whispers gleefully. “Are you ready?” John nods. Claudia glances around, as if they aren’t twenty feet up in a private tree. She leans in close to his ear, breath tickling the fine hairs there. "Robert Hale.”

John’s eyebrows fly up. “As in the co-CEO of Hale Associates?”

“I know, right?” Claudia exclaims gleefully. “At first I thought, noooo, it couldn’t be him, but then he turned his face so I could see better and it was! With his dark hair and butt-chin and everything!”

“Huh,” John says again. "Terry and Richard were on duty last night. I wonder why they didn’t see him."

“Richard left after your friend fell asleep,” Claudia says. “I don’t know where he went, but he came back kinda wobbly. It looked like he was…”

“Tipsy?” John ventures. Claudia nods fervently. It’s odd that Richard would leave post to go to a bar after vowing not to slack off, but John wouldn’t put it past him. “Well that’s not good.”

“Are you going to tell on him?”

“No,” he shakes his head. “I don’t have any proof, and it wouldn’t be fair anyway. He deserves a shot at being Sheriff just as much as I do.”

Claudia turns to him, smile blooming until she’s full on beaming at him, starlight twinkling in her eyes. “I like you, John.” She declares with every ounce of certainty. “You are kind. And you have little baby wrinkles on your forehead."

John thinks it’s the strangest compliment anyone’s paid him. “I, uh…” He clears his throat. “Thank you. You’re… A lot like sunshine.”

Her lips part in a surprised smile. “Really? Wow, no one’s ever called me that before. Hey, have you ever had the mini cherry pies from the bakery on Walnut street? Those taste like sunshine.”

“Can’t say I have. Although when I was younger my mother used to bake cherry almond cookies. She still makes them for holidays but I think she might be switching salt for sugar."

Claudia pinches her lips together. “The only thing I can make is macaroni and cheese. Not exactly the classic Polish dish my mother would approve of, but it’s pretty tasty if I do say so myself! I always cut up little pieces of sausage and stir them in, because sausage makes everything better. American food is so much tastier than what he had in Poland."

John hums as he pictures it. “Sounds delicious. A lot better than the ramen and canned soup I’ve been living off of. A single officer living in a tiny apartment with a tinier kitchen doesn’t provide much opportunity for a home-cooked meal.”

“Oh,” Claudia breathes. Then she startles, looking at him excitedly. “Hey, what if I make you macaroni sometime once I’m no longer in this tree? I live with my mom in Berkeley, but I take the train down here to go to classes— I could drop off a pan for you at the station!"

The thought makes him smile, swathing him in something desperately warm. “That would… Yeah, if you— I’d like that."

She peers at him thoughtfully, eyes flickering back and forth between his own. “Tell me, John. Are police officers allowed to kiss on the job?”

He nearly falls backwards off his branch. He stares at her brown twinkling doe eyes, her upturned nose and pink bow mouth. He’s wanted to taste them for longer than he’d like to admit. He licks his lips nervously, quickly turning away and shoving down the disappointed flutter inside. “I… No. They’re not allowed.”

“Mm,” Claudia hums. She gazes up at the stars. “What about holding hands? Can I hold your hand, John?”

Technically, no. No intimate acts are allowed on the job. Intimate acts are punishable by suspension or even getting fired. But he’s already sitting next to her in a tree for the third night in a row, so— 

He nods. “Yeah, that… Yeah. You can.”

Slowly, gently, she takes his hand. Hers is smooth, slender, soft and cold, spotted with freckles. His is larger, warmer, calloused. A shiver runs through him, taking his breath away. She sets his hand on her knee and plays idly with it.

“Your hands are so… Manly,” she murmurs, amused.

“Yours are cold,” John mutters back. 

They sit in the quiet for a little like that, staring at the bruising horizon. Claudia finishes examining and opts for just kind of holding his hand, thumb resting over his knuckles. He tells her about the best hot dog he’s ever eaten from the street stand near his Manhattan house. She tells him about the little white dog her cousin owned in Poland and how it would shed all over the couch. The sun slowly rises.

 

.o0O0o.

Next shift he arrives at noon to take over for Richard. When he sees him leaning against Claudia's tree, John moves faster.

"Hey, Stilinski," Richard grins his Grinch-grin. "I was just talking to your friend Clauds, here."

Up above Claudia mutters something in a foreign language. She looks obstinate, but her tight body language and the way her knees are tucked protectively up to her chest betray her unease. John glares at Richard and strides over on a wave of sudden protectiveness.

"Well I'm here to take your spot, so you're free to go,” he states.

Richard smirks at him before snapping his gum. He winks up at Claudia. "See you tomorrow, sweet cheeks."

Claudia says something in the foreign language again, but this time she falters a little, cheeks staining rose.

As soon as Richard is a few paces away, "Claudia, are you alright?” John stares up at her. She tucks her legs in tighter and twiddles with the hem of her sleeve.

"I take it back," she sniffs angrily. "He's not a praying mantis, he’s a pojeb!"

“Is that Polish?"

“Yes," Claudia grumbles. "I just called him a very bad word. Well not a very bad word… I’m too scared to say the ones my mother uses."

"What did he say to you?” John demands gently.

"He opened nice enough. Chatted about the weather, asked me how I was doing. But then he said he liked my peaches, and I was confused because I don’t have any peaches with me, ‘I’m in a walnut tree’ I told him! And then he offered to..." Claudia grows scarlet, lips pursing in embarrassment. "Nevermind." She says in a tiny voice.

John gapes, at a loss for words. He clamps his lips and curls his fists in wild anger, but reels it back for her. "Claudia, I'm so sorry. That guy is a real jerk, I'm sorry you had to meet him like that. Are you… Claudia?"

He trails off, because Claudia is crying. It’s quiet and half-hidden behind her hands, but he can see the tiny shudders of her shoulders. It’s shocking to see her anything but jubilant. She smiles down at him sadly. 

“Ohhh, what a beska I am. I’m sorry, John. I just get embarrassed easily. I'm okay, really.”

“But you’re not okay,” John counters, frustrated at how he’s stuck on the ground. “No one deserves to be talked to like that, you have nothing to apologize for."

Claudia sniffles, then smiles down at him with sparkly eyes. “Jesteś tak piękna, John.” There’s something sad to it, and something warm there, too.

But she still picks at her overalls, body skewed slightly away. She looks so deflated, and John stares up at her overalls until he can’t stand it.

“I… Hold on."

He abruptly turns on his heel to jog over to Terry. The man is leaning against his usual tree doodling on his ticket book. “Hey, Ter? I forgot something important. Mind if I leave you for fifteen minutes? I'll be right back."

Terry chews his quarter-pounder and raises an eyebrow. “Just for you, John. Although we’re not supposed to leave post, I can't imagine what you forgot that’s so—"

But John is already jogging to the squad car. Through the window he can see Claudia's puzzled face flipping upside-down to watch him. He backs out of the lot and squeals down the road.

The first stop is his apartment, where he runs up four flights of stairs and spends ten minutes throwing around couch cushions trying to find his cassette player. He finds it on the stack of crime books beside his bed and runs back down the four flights of stairs to the car again. The second stop is Divinity Records on the corner of Renwald Street, where he makes a beeline to the aisle marked with the first letter of the alphabet. He grabs the first tape in the lineup and hopes Terry and Richard don’t kill him for it.

Seven minutes later he’s back at the tree lot stepping back under the police tape. Terry watches him quizzically from his tree, hands shoved casually in his pockets. He lifts a dark eyebrow as if to say, “what was that all about?” and John nods as he strides across to Claudia’s tree as if to reply, “thanks."

“You're back," Claudia cocks her head once he’s standing beneath her walnut tree. "Where did you go?"

"How good a catch are you?" John asks, with a glance to Terry, who's staring over with interest.

"I... I played tennis in high school?" Claudia supplies in question. John allows himself one second to picture Claudia in a cute little tennis outfit and then says, “alright, I'm going to toss something up to you. Ready?"

"Ready!" Claudia nods, bracing her hands.

He tosses it up. She catches it. There’s a three second pause where she flips it over. "You brought me a cassette player?” She exclaims in equal parts elation and confusion.

"Play it," John prompts.

A click of the button and the sound of Abba’s ’Super Trouper’ erupts loudly from the small machine. Claudia’s squeal that follows is twice as loud, drawing the attention of the other protestors as she flails on her branch, legs swinging wildly. It’s enough to tickle a breathless laugh from John’s throat, even as she starts belting the lyrics with newfound passion, sparking loud harmonies from the surrounding Kin of Kéyah members. Within five seconds the whole tree lot is whooping and singing along with the music, and in ten seconds the crowd of county spectators is shouting along too. Terry looks at him like he's lost his mind, which is probably accurate.

“This is absolutely, positively, the the maddest, RADDEST thing anyone’s every done for me!” Claudia hollers down to him, grinning breathlessly. Her cheeks are flushed with excitement and all traces of former sadness are wiped away. She’s glowing. “I love you, John Stilinski!”

He smiles up at her, bashfully cramming his hands in his pockets. He feels pink heat flood his face and ears. “Enjoy your shiny ruby of 70s music, miss Górksi."

"Tonight the super trouper lights are gonna find me, shining like the suuuuuun! Sup-p-per group-p-per… Smiling, having fuuuun…!"

He walks slowly across the grass back to Terry’s tree, ducking his head happily as the choir washes over him. Terry crosses his dark arms and shakes his head slowly at him. “Rich is gonna kill you, man. If I don’t kill you first, that is.”

John grins giddily. “It’ll be worth it."

 

.o0O0o. June 14, 1988.

Peter is standing stiffly behind him, scorching two holes into the back of Robert’s head. Robert faces the crowd. It’s a sea of people with flashing cameras in the parking lot next to the grove of trees marking the start of forest. The construction workers lean forward in their vehicles and squint beneath their hard hats. Montgomery, Hank, and the PR team stand stoically behind him. The protestors sit antsy in their trees, quiet for the first time in fifteen days. He can make out Talia’s purple skirt in the elm by the front.

“On behalf of Hale Associates, my brother and I have decided—“

He meets Talia’s eyes in her tree.

“—we will withdraw our plans to cut down the thirty acres of forest we purchased of the Beacon Hills Newman Norton preserve.“

He barely manages to get it all out before the crowd goes wild, cheering and clapping with the protestors the loudest. Behind him Peter turns around and walks swiftly back to the limo. Cameras flash, reporters immediately swarm him, cutting off the view of the protestors. 

“Mr. Hale, what made you come to this decision?”

“Robert, Robert! Is that the new—"

Mr. Hale, does your company have plans to—"

He pushes past them, throwing “Montgomery, handle this!” over his shoulder as he brushes forward into the swarm of protestors. They’re all hugging and dancing and cheering and laughing, and their collective body odor is overwhelming but it’s a strangely beautiful sight. He makes a beeline for Talia, and the protestors stop and grin at him as he draws near, as if they have no malice for how he tried to make their lives a living hell for the past two weeks.

“Robert,” Talia nods at him, lips quirked in gratitude. Happiness. Pride for him?

“I—“ he starts, but gapes speechless as he figures out what he wants to say. To thank her for the advice, to wish her a good day, to shake her hand? Then he remembers—

Maybe you should try listening to your heart instead of your head. 

“I’d like to come to one of your meetings,” he blurts, and the protestors within earshot stare in surprise at him. “I mean— For the Kin of Kéyah,” he continues, stammering. “I know— I understand if you won’t want me there, but I’d like to… I’d like to come and learn from you. If that’s alright with you… Talia.”

Her smile, already so elegant just as a simple curve, blooms into a dazzling display of white teeth, and he hardly has time to admire it before she steps forward to wrap him in a hug.

His entire world stops. She smells like cinnamon and pine and more than a little ripe, but it’s the best smell in the world, and her sweater is soft as feathers. He can’t remember the last time anyone hugged him; it’s all been professional handshakes for the past six years. 

“We have meetings at my house the last Sunday of every month. Seven to nine in the evening, food and drink provided. I’m sure your people can find you the address.”

He smiles. “Yes, I… Thank you.”

“Thank you, Robert Hale.” And she turns away when a friend calls her.

He walks back to where Peter is leaning against the limo. He has his shades on, but Robert can feel his eyes piercing him. “Why were you talking to Nat’aanii?”

He focuses on keeping his heartbeat steady, since he knows Peter is listening. “Just wishing her well. Looks good for the press. What do you say we grab some drinks tonight?”

Peter eyes him carefully. “Sure.”

 

.o0O0o. June 14th, 1988.

John is in an undershirt eating Frosted Flakes when he sees it on the news.

“—here at Beacon Hill’s tree line of the Norman Newton preserve, where Hale Associate’s co-CEO Robert Hale just announced the company will not be cutting down the trees for housing, meaning that the thirteen Kin of Kéyah members are free to—"

His spoon hits the bowl with a loud clank as he jumps from his chair and grabs his jacket. He sprints out the door without bothering to lock it behind him, runs down all four flights of apartment stairs because the elevator is still broken, and drives down to the construction site in record time. When his tires squeak to a halt in front of the tree line he leaps from the car, leaving the keys in the ignition.

He’s terrified she already left, but then she spots her, jumping around and cheering with the other Kin members in the middle of the lot. It’s chaos— news reporters are shouting and cameras are flashing over where the Hales are standing, and the town spectators are cheering amid the environmentalists. John plows through the crowd— A second later she spots him, her eyes wide, and she fights her way free and runs towards him, rainbow shoelaces flapping in the wind.

“Claudia!”

“John!"

She squeals and tackles him in a hug, nearly knocking him over. He catches her without thought and laughs, twirling her around with the momentum. She smells terrible, and she's a package of joy in his arms. 

“John, we did it!” Her smile so wide it’s blinding, infectious. “We did it, we really did it! We saved the trees!”

“I saw,” he grins. “And you pulled it off before eating all the walnuts from your tree, I’m impressed.” 

She throws her head back and laughs, pressing her body flush against his. Her eyes jump from his shirt to his jeans and tennis shoes, and his utter lack of uniform. “John,” she says breathlessly, tightening her fingers around the back of his shirt. “You’re not on duty, are you?”

“No,” he responds just as breathlessly.

She beams. “Good.”

And she throws her lips forward to meet his. 

For a moment the cheers and chatter of the surrounding crowd fades away, replaced by the warm sensation of her bubblegum mouth, and her arms pressed soft around his shoulders. It’s clumsy and their teeth clack, but it’s the best kiss in the world, he’d bet money on it. They break apart panting and he watches her eyes flutter open, heart pounding impossibly loud. Her cheeks are flush and he’s pretty sure he’s beet-red as well, but their arms are still wrapped tightly around each other. Distantly he knows people are most definitely staring. He grins back at the spectators and locks eyes with Richard in passing, who’s glaring at him from across the lot.

“I’ve never kissed anyone before,” Claudia exclaims breathlessly, gazing up at him with her huge doe eyes. “Does it always make you dizzy?"

“I…” he swallows, feeling faint himself. She probably wants to go home and shower and see her family, but he asks anyway. “Can I take you out for lunch? You must be starving.”

“Oh, yes!” Claudia exclaims immediately. “I could probably eat an entire pizza right now! Two pizzas, even!"

“How about Tozatino’s on Main Street?”

“I would love to!” Claudia gasps, all smiles and joy. "But I’d really love to go home and shower first.”

“Of course, Can I pick you up in half an hour? An hour?” John grins.

“Yes, I would—!” Claudia beams but then her smile drops. “You’re not Polish, are you?”

John blinks, wondering if they’re having the same conversation. “Uh… No.”

“Not even a little bit?”

“I don’t think so. Swiss, mostly. With some Irish, French I think…?”

Claudia shakes her head and pets the back of his hair, bites her lip. “Oh, phooey. Okay, then I’ll have to meet you at the restaurant.”

“Oh,” John stammers. “Sure, although it’s really no trouble.”

“No, it’s not you, it’s—“ Claudia wrinkles her nose. “My mother. Whom you are never allowed to meet, mostly for your own safety. Do you have any paper on you?”

John fumbles in his pocket and finds the receipt for the Abba cassette he bought two days ago. He sheepishly tears it in half and hands it over. “Terry, you got a pen on you?” He calls. Terry saunters over and provides one from his belt, shaking his head at John.

“Man, you two are the cutest love story since Sandy and Danny. It’s disgusting.”

“Oh, and John’s best friend! Thank you, Terry.” Claudia pecks Terry quickly on the cheek, turning his dark cheeks raspberry. “So nice to see you up close for once!” She provides brightly, and uses a stunned Terry’s back to scribble down her address and phone number. She gives it to a breathless John.

“This is my phone number, but since it’s my house, just… Hang up really fast if a deep raspy voice answers the phone in Polish,” she tells him seriously. “I’ll try to get to the phone first, but it’s very important that she doesn’t hear your manly voice. Because you’re a man, and she does’t like me to interact with those. At least ones that aren’t Polish."

John chuckles and hands her his scribbled receipt. “Great. This is my phone and my apartment number.”

“Yay! Mad rad!”

“Tozatino’s in half an hour, then?

“Yes! I’ll see you soon, John!”

They pull in for another quick kiss and Claudia runs off towards the parking lot, rainbow shoelaces flapping behind her. “Wait, how are you getting home?” John calls after her. She spins around, cupping her hands around her mouth.

“I have a car, you dope!” And she dances over to an obnoxiously bright candy-blue jeep that must be a decade old, with a black door and a little yellow Christmas tree hanging from the mirror. John never thought he’d see a car uglier than his 300,000 mile Volkswagen, but he learns new things every day.

“That’s a hell of a car,” Terry raises an eyebrow.

John grins, watching Claudia dance across the parking lot and wave from the driver’s seat, nearly running over a pair of reporters in the process.

“That’s a hell of a woman, Terry."