The flame of the lighter flickers over the curve of the one crooked nail. Stiles is going to have to beat it into shape in a moment, when he’s done sterilizing. And then maybe he’ll sharpen things up a little. What’s the point of carrying around a file if he isn’t going to use it? Sharper nails won't bend so frequently. Always a pain.
The radio crackles in the next room as Lydia works. At first, he’d been skeptical about the merits of her little project, too concerned with the here and now, the likelihood that they might die this week or next week, but there’s not much else for a brain like hers to do. He knows that the sitting around is the worst part, and maybe he envies her a little because she’s found something to do. He’d glanced at her map yesterday, actually, and it actually looks like she’s getting somewhere. Tracking walker herd migrations is perhaps a little more long-term than their other priorities, but she’d predicted an attack last week, so he’s not going to knock it.
It only takes a few hard taps with a hammer to straighten out that one nail, and when he’s done, he twists the bat in his grip, giving a few experimental swings before inspecting the nail work again. There’s still a little blood, soaked into the wood around where the nails stick out, and that makes him rethink trying to file anything. They don’t have a mask of any sort, and the chances of something going airborne are too high to risk it. Frankly, they just don’t know that much about the contagion.
The baby monitor in the living room barks out a burst of static. “Is anyone there?— I— Please— Don’t shoot— Help—“ Stiles grabs the device, running upstairs to the one surveillance window. A couple hundred yards away, at the front gate, he can make out two figures, no vehicle nearby. One of them looks unable to support themself.
“Place your weapons down next to the gate. I want to see your hands,” he says into the receiver. Can’t be too careful. Two months ago, when they were all on the road, a group had used a child to get them to pull over. They’d taken all of their food and water. Hadn’t been a good week after that. He’s not going to risk anything here, not when they’ve got a stable set-up.
“I don’t think she can stand on her own,” comes a male voice. Not good. Stiles has a bad feeling about this. “Please, we haven’t had any water in two days. She’s been having seizures. Please.” Stiles studies the two figures, fighting himself. It could be a trap. But if it is, he and Lydia are fairly capable of defending themselves, and Danny’s not far, just down at the well trying to fix the water pressure issue they’d noticed this morning. Scott and Allison should be back in an hour anyway. They can handle it. And really, Stiles doesn’t want to turn these two away, just in case they really are just two out-of-luck kids trying to stay alive. There's a fine line between doing anything to survive and retaining some of his humanity, and this is what sets them apart from the walkers. They protect their own. At least once they're certain they're not rapists or cannibals.
“Advance slowly,” he says at last. “Stop before you get to the porch. We’re armed and we’re not fooling around.” One of the figures takes the other into their arms, bridal style, and Stiles watches their first staggering steps before he bolts downstairs, straight to Lydia.
She holds up a finger, one hand pressing her headphones against the side of her head, then dropping to write something down. A second later, she spins in her chair. “What do you want?”
“We’ve got two visitors. Living. Dehydrated, and one of them pretty bad. We’ve only got a minute or two.”
She gets up, grabbing the crossbow leaning against her desk and taking a second to make sure her hunting knife is strapped to her thigh tightly enough. “Let’s go play the welcome committee, then,” she says with the sort of smile that would be a grimace on anyone else. He grins, makes sure his fingerless gloves are on tight before grabbing his bat where it rests next to the front door.
It’s fucking hot outside, to be honest, and he pities these two because his hoodie’s just cotton and he’s burning in the dry heat; these two are both in leather, which must be like being cooked slowly. No wonder she’s having seizures. (But a part of him notes that if they’ve been wandering for two days, the wouldn’t be wearing the jackets still, not if they have two brain cells to rub together.) The boy, because he is a boy, probably not much older than Stiles himself, has curly hair and a lost expression and he looks like he can barely hold the girl up anymore. She’s clinging to him, pale, and Stiles isn’t sure he believes them yet, but she doesn’t look healthy either way.
The boy looks from Stiles’ bat to Stiles face with hesitancy, then says, “Please, just some water and shade. Please.” Stiles glances over at Lydia; her crossbow is trained on the boy’s head, finger on the trigger. They have the upperhand. These two can’t know they don’t have a small army hidden inside. They’ll be fine.
Stiles nods, stepping aside to let them in the door.
As soon as the air conditioning hits them, he can see the pair relax a little.
“You can set her down on the couch,” Stiles says. He waits for Lydia to get inside before setting the barriers back up on the door. The boy looks relieved to have her out of his arms, but he crouches by her, touching her face.
“Do you have any water?” he asks. “She had a seizure about half a mile from here, and she’s been like this since. I think she’s dehydrated.” Stiles and Lydia trade looks, then he heads into the kitchen. There’s a small tank of water in the fridge that Allison boiled last night, and he pours two cups before finding a rag to soak.
The boy’s grateful when he returns. Stiles watches him lay the rag across her forehead and try to get her to drink for a moment. They look hard, but most people these days do. That doesn’t mean anything. But he doesn’t trust them. Not a bit. Trust doesn’t exactly get you far anymore.
“What are your names?” he asks. Really, he doesn’t care, but it’s a gateway to learning more about them. If they’ve been traveling alone. If they have anything of value on them. If they’re going to try to stay and take advantage of the situation.
“I’m Isaac. She’s Erica. You?” He glances up, and maybe it’s because he’s on his knees, but he looks oddly innocent. Some people just have innocent eyes. He met a guy with innocent eyes once; he'd tried to make Stiles his next meal. Innocent eyes don't mean much these days.
“Are you alone?” There’s no reason to tell them anything. Not until they’ve proven they can be trusted.
Isaac nods. “Our car broke down just out of Greenville. We’ve been on foot since.”
“What do you have on you?” His tone is pretty clear, and Isaac looks almost betrayed. “What, you didn’t think this was a charity, did you? You’re going to find a way to pay us back. Everyone has something of value.” He’s hoping for antibiotics or a bottle of pills, something they can use, but they don’t look like that’s what they’ll be carrying. Drugs, on the other hand…always good for bartering, if that’s the best they’ve got.
“We don’t have anything,” Isaac says indignantly. “We got raided on the roads yesterday. They took everything we had.”
“You were on the roads? On foot?” Lydia asks, incredulous. “Do you have a death wish?” It isn’t safe to travel the roads anymore unless you’ve got a car, and a hefty one at that. Parasites are drawn to the roads, willing to take down anyone for a little food, if they’re nice. If not, you’re either dead or you wish you were. Traveling on foot, especially good-looking as these two? That’s suicide.
“We didn’t have any other choice,” he grinds out, patting Erica’s face with the wet rag. The thing is, this story of theirs only makes Stiles more suspicious. No one’s that dumb. No one. “Can I use your restroom?”
“Don’t shit and don’t use our toilet paper. Down the hall there,” Lydia says, pointing him in the right direction. She looks at Stiles, and he nods just barely.
“I’m going to get you some more water,” he tells Erica, loud enough for Isaac to hear, then slips into Lydia’s work room. It shares a wall with the bathroom and no, he’s not a creep, but he’s not taking chances. They don’t know these two well enough not to monitor them.
He presses his ear against the wall, listening as the door shuts. Footsteps. Rustling. Then a strange sound, and Isaac is whispering.
“No, there’s only two of them. They’ve got water and air-conditioning….No, no guns that we’ve seen….Of course they don’t trust us. Would you?….Yeah, yeah. Just hurry up. The kid with the bat looks a little twitchy.” Stiles backs away from the wall silently. Reinforcements. Not good. Not good at all. There’s no way of knowing how many there could be or what kind of weaponry they might have. Shit. This is going to get ugly.
In the kitchen he grabs a piece of charcoal from the bag by the stove. The back door isn’t locked or barricaded because there’s a three-foot drop where there’d been wooden stairs and Danny’s should be back soon, so he opens the door as quietly as he can, jotting down on the cracked white paint:
Raid. Living. >2. Tell S+A
Danny has one of the sat phones on him. He’ll be able to stop Scott and Allison from walking into a trap when they get back. The three of them are tough. They should be alright.
Stiles checks the knife strapped to his calf under his jeans before heading back into the living room with more water. Isaac comes back at the same time, thanks him for the water. When he kneels down again, Stiles moves forward a little so that Lydia’s behind him and makes a thumbs-down behind his back.
The problem is, they can’t kill these two. Not yet. Because the rest of their little group might be bigger, might feel like revenge, and then they’re screwed. Great. This is why a little compassion is a terrible thing. Stiles is going to remember that in the future. If anyone gets hurt, he’s not going to forgive himself. Not again. Not after Ja— Not after last time.
It takes all of three minutes for Isaac and Erica to pull handguns on them.
Lydia sets her crossbow down gently. They've been waiting for it.
“Hands out in front of you,” Erica says as she hands her gun over to Isaac. She pulls a coil of plastic-sheathed electrical wire from the small of her back. Stiles curses himself for not having frisked them. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
She wraps their wrists tight, too tight to wiggle out of, and leaves them there. They're a bit more prepared than he'd anticipated. Stiles feels like a real chump even if he’d never trusted them because he shouldn’t have let them in in the first place. So stupid.
Erica comes back with two dining chairs and forces them down next to each other. Apparently, they’re actually kind of smart because the way she ties their hands to their chairs, forcing their arms back behind their heads, makes it nearly impossible to really move their arms at all, let alone access any potential weapons stuck in the waists of their pants.
“How many of you are there?” Stiles asks, staring hard at Isaac as Erica finishes Lydia up.
“You’ll find out soon enough,” he says. His face has sharpened a little, hardened more. Everyone’s a killer these days, so it’s hard to tell those that’ll kill the living. Stiles can’t get enough of a read on either of them to know if he’ll shoot.
There’s a sharp knock at the door, and Erica slides back the planks barricading the door, undoes the locks. When she pulls the door open, she’s grinning, and there’s something mildly terrifying about it.
In walk two men, both carrying shotguns. Hard expressions. More leather. Classy.
“Which one is in charge?” asks the older of the two men. By the way the other three look at him, he’s got to be their leader. Which, Jesus, is not fair because his shoulders take up half the room and his jaw could probably cut glass. Fucking hell. He's ten times more intimidating than Stiles will ever be.
“Him,” Erica says, tossing a head of blonde curls in Stiles’ direction.
“Just you two?” the leader asks him in a gruff voice.
Stiles slaps on a confident smirk and tries to shrug. “Why? Planning a party later?” The man nods at Isaac, who backhands him. Pain bursts across his jaw, lances through his tongue where the impact forces him to bite it. The bitter, salty taste of blood fills his mouth, and he winces as he spits on the floor in front of him. “I take it you’re pissed you didn’t get an invite. Sorry, man, look—“
“Deal with her,” the man says to Erica, who slips out a knife and throws herself across Lydia’s lap.
“She’s so pretty, though,” Erica mocks, grinning, and yanks Lydia’s head back by her ponytail. The knife flashes up to her throat. Lydia glances at him with just the smallest trace of fear, which means she must be freaking out. Looking at Erica's face, he can't take the chance that she's not willing to kill Lydia.
“Three more,” Stiles says quickly. “They’re on a supply run two towns over. Left a couple of hours ago. Shouldn’t be back for at least another three.” Really, he expects Scott and Allison to show up in the next forty-five minutes, but Danny should be back far sooner, and he’ll coordinate something with them. It’s going to work out okay. It will. It has to. If they hurt Lydia, he’s going to—
“See, now that wasn’t so hard.” Fearless Leader crosses his arms, which makes his biceps stand out kind of obscenely. Shit, he could probably crush Stiles’ head with his bare hands. “Tell me about food, water, and electricity...” He gestures all-inclusively.
“House has its own generator and well. Food is running low, hence, supply run.”
The man nods and rubs at the stubble on his jaw with one hand. “Bullets and bandages?”
“We don’t use guns,” Stiles says, forcing himself to keep still as he thinks about his father’s handgun in the bedside table upstairs, the four rounds in it. And where the other two went: one for his mom when the bite had finally turned her, one for his dad when the guilt had made him turn the gun on himself. “And like I said: supply run.”
Fearless Leader’s eyes flick up to him, grey-green and oddly pretty, and a chill runs through him. Yeah, he’s lying, but he’s good at lying. He doesn’t look at Lydia, though, because he can’t, not if he’s going to be wholly honest here. If he has to. Maybe he won’t.
"We have half a vial of penicillin in the bathroom cabinet, no needles. Neosporin, maybe a bandaid or two, but that’s it.”
“If you don’t stop lying to me, your friend is going to get hurt. Do you want that?”
Stiles sighs. “There’s a bag upstairs, blue. In the second bedroom. There’s a bottle stuffed in a brown sock. Adderall and Xanax. That’s all I have.” Lydia doesn’t know about his stash; he’s been keeping it a secret since Beacon Hills. (Not “home”. That’s not a word in anyone’s vocabulary anymore.) Not even Scott knows, and that’s the way it should be. He’s been rationing, too. Saves the Adderall for when they know they’re going to fight and his ADD could get them killed, saves the Xanax for after, when his body won’t stop shaking with adrenaline and panic and the corrosive ache of his humanity draining out of him slowly.
That bottle a fucking gold mine to people like this. A tab of Xanax can buy a person’s body for a night, and Stiles has at least twenty left. Maybe they’ll leave after this. Maybe that’ll be enough for them.
Fearless Leader jerks his head at Isaac, who clunks upstairs.
“Look, I’ve given you everything of value we have! Just leave us alone. We’re harmless!”
The man takes his bat from where it rests beside the door, inspecting the barbed end. “Really? Because this doesn’t look harmless to me. I don’t trust you, so we’re going to wait until the rest of your little crew come back, and then we’re going to take everything you have.” He sets the bat back down as Stiles grits his teeth. The taste of blood is still thick in his mouth, so he spits again, right at the man’s feet.
“Is that what you do? You take your little harem of teenagers and you bleed people dry? We’re just trying to survive.” Suddenly, the man is all up in his space and his chair is on two legs. The only thing stopping him from falling back against the floor is the man’s fist clenched around a handful of Stiles’ shirt. Alright, he’s a little scary. He has the kind of face that does scary well, and he's practically growling, snarling, feral.
“We’re all just trying to survive,” he hisses, then takes an angry step back, righting Stiles’ chair again.
Great. So this guy may or may not be a bit of a psycho. (Or he’s not. Really, really not, just stressed and under pressure, things being demanded of him, people who rely on him not to crack. Or Stiles should stop seeing himself in other people.)
Footsteps clomp down the stairs, and Isaac is back. He tosses the orange bottle to Fearless Leader, who catches it easily and shakes it, then tucks it in his jacket pocket.
The other man Stiles doesn’t have a name for says, “There’s maybe a week of food, two if we ration carefully.” Stiles hadn’t even noticed him disappear. Sneaky. And accurate.
“All the more reason to wait for the others.”
“Like I said, it’s going to be a couple hours, so you all better get comfortable,” Stiles says with an air of nonchalance. He makes a show of extending his legs in front of him, crossing them at the ankles like he’s settling in. It pisses Fearless Leader off, he can tell.
“Are you serious? I’m not going to sit here in silence for three or four hours. Sorry, buddy, not gonna happen. You do realize how boring this is going to be, right?”
“What do you suggest, then? A game of checkers?” he asks dryly. “No? So why don’t you shut up before I make you.”
He’s not sure how he knows, but he’s certain the guy is bluffing. “I mean, we could do that. Or you could stop being such an asshole and we can act like real human beings. I know it must be hard for you, so I’ll start: my name’s Stiles. What’s yours?” The thing is, he knows exactly what he’s doing: he’s humanizing himself. He’s making himself someone who can be empathized with because the best way to not be killed by someone is to make them not want to kill you. That’s how they’re going to get out of this. They’ll get these people to relax so that when Scott, Allison, and Danny come in to the rescue, they’ll have the upperhand, even if they have rather less firepower.
Fearless Leader doesn’t answer, though, and that’s not how this is going to work. He needs to take an interest.
“This is Lydia, by the way. We’re both from California. Scott, one of our friends, and I are from Beacon Hills. Little town, you’ve probably never heard of it. Anyway, we hit the road when things went bad at the beginning, ran into Lydia and Danny—“ and Jackson “—as they were getting out of L.A.” They all look at her with interest because it’s an accomplishment. The big cities had been hit the worst, population density and all of that, and it’s impressive that she’s survived. “We picked up our fifth in Arizona. Would’ve stayed in the desert but, well, summer and all of that. Didn’t make it here until about six weeks ago. The family had been turned or evacuated, no telling which. It’s a nice place, though. And the bedroom walls are thick, thank God, or Scott and Allison would still be driving everyone crazy. You know how it is. Young love or hormones or whatever.” He says it because he has a feeling that Erica and Isaac are a thing, and it looks like he might be right.
“Tell me about it. Jesus.” But Fearless Leader doesn’t look at Isaac; his eyes turn towards the quiet one, who Stiles thinks might be his lieutenant, and Erica, who smirks a little. Curious.
“It’s the worst, isn’t it? I’m pretty sure the car is going to come back half-full of condoms.” That’s an exaggeration, but he thinks maybe this guy might have a thorn in his side labelled “horny bastards”, and he’s going to run with it. And it kind of works. His face does this kind of weird spasm that might be a little bit of a smile. “So what’s your story?”
Fearless Leader doesn’t answer, but Erica does. “He’s from New York.” Jesus.
Hopefully, he asks, “State?”
The man shakes his head sharply. “City. Brooklyn.” Well, fuck. That explains the aura of sociopathy. New York had been the worst, every knows that. The government had tried to quarantine the city, but it had cannibalized itself in the end. You didn’t meet people from the city; you heard ghost stories about them.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he says, and he is, but showing sympathy gains sympathy.
“He picked me up first,” Isaac says. “Up in Pennsylvania. Saved my life. And then we found Erica a couple days later, in Virginia. Boyd, in Tennessee.”
“So you’re headed West, then.” Stiles watches the way he scolds Isaac with a look for saying so much. “There’s not much there, let me tell you.”
Erica scoffs and says, “No, Derek’s taking u—“
“Shut. Up.” Derek stares her down hard. “Can we please act like professionals for a moment here?” He pinches the bridge of his nose, frowning deeply. “Let’s try not talking, shall we?”
It doesn’t last long.
“So, Derek, eh? Really goes with the whole Blue Steel thing you have going on.” The glare he gets for that could melt the ice caps. “What? I like it. I think it works for you.” Erica snorts at that.
He’s about to keep going when the front door flies open and Scott, Allison, and Danny throw themselves in.
“Walkers,” Danny blurts. “At least forty, probably more.” Allison barricades the door as he talks.
The whole room freezes.
“Erica, untie us. We can deal with this drama if we’re alive later,” Stiles barks, relaxing when she does as he says, even though most of what he’s saying is directed at Derek. “Okay, Derek, how much ammo do you have on you? And Danny, how far are they?”
“Not much,” Derek says at the same time Danny answers, “Two or three minutes, tops.”
“Well, fuck me. Okay,” he says, rubbing some life back into his wrists, “guys, you know what to do. Positions.” Allison, Lydia, and Danny head upstairs, up to the attic, where they’ve cut slots for the bows and a peephole for Danny so he can know when to trigger the small explosive charges he’s buried around the perimeter. Scott heads to the closet to grab his weapon, a lacrosse stick they’d broken then net off of and replaced with a long, ugly blade. (It actually makes Stiles nervous sometimes to see his occasionally-clumsy friend handle something that could decapitate someone.) Stiles reaches around Derek for his bat, then fixes his eye on each of the four intruders in turn.
“If you can aim worth a damn, head upstairs,” he says to Erica and Isaac, then turns to Derek and Boyd. “We are heading out there into the thick of things, so put on your big boy pants.”
His pre-battle mantra echoes in his head.
Empathy will get someone killed.
These are not people.
They do not have families.
They do not have feelings.
They are mindless.
They are killers.
They must be killed.
Stiles is good at killing.
He stretches his neck from side to side, rolls his head around, and grins at them. “Let’s go say hello.”