The sky boils, the colour of a fading bruise, and at the edge of the woods Stiles falls into step beside Derek.
"So. The apocalypse starts in Beacon Hills?" he asks, glancing at Derek before he looks up at the sky, and pretends he can't see the glow like a raging wildfire behind his eyes.
"Looks like," Derek says, and Stiles laughs, the hollows of his cheeks oddly shadowed by the unsettling light.
Derek would never start a fight, but he kept finding himself in the middle of one.
Home was always a little volatile; a house full of growing werewolves and the hormones and the full moon always looming - fights were common, and expected, and as a family they knew how to deal with it. Everyone healed (eventually), and when Laura had nearly clawed her cousin's face off because he wouldn't stop teasing Derek about the way he howled - an old argument that didn't even make sense anymore, since he hit puberty, but Jake just wouldn't let it go - she would slam her door and blast Fall Out Boy through the wall because she knew how much he hated them, and Derek would stare at his hands and watch his claws until his dad knocked on his door and told him to come down to dinner.
He knew their pack didn't work like everybody else, but they were special, and that was worth sitting through every stupid argument that would suddenly erupt between his cousins when he was trying to concentrate on his homework.
But - outside the house, at school and between classes and in the middle of the lunch hall, fights would bloom like bruises around him and he had no idea why. He had a reputation for being at the wrong place at the wrong time, always standing at the sidelines as a half-assed joke about someone's buckteeth would end with their molars on the floor, and the girls who sat in front of him in chemistry were forcibly separated as one tried to pour acid over her partner's hand. He thought this was just how humans were; as animalistic as werewolves without the focus of the full moon, but there was something about the way his teachers watched him when he sat down and waited for the class to start, and the air so often smelt like salt and copper and anger that he only noticed the lack of it when he was alone.
In eighth grade he broke up a fight between his two closest friends, over something ridiculous like Troy not sharing his snack box, and he pulled them apart so roughly that David ended up with whiplash. His teacher, who always smelled earthy and anxious but never frightened, squeezed his shoulder and told him he was very brave for stepping in. When he got home his dad sat him down and gave him the very long, very humiliating talk about showing off, and how it put their entire family in danger, and what, exactly, did Derek think he was doing?
He didn't get involved anymore. As soon as he felt the shift in the air, the sharp tang as someone wouldn’t stop talking and the kid who sat in front of him hunched his shoulders and clenched his right hand into a fist, his fingernails scratching against the desk, Derek grabbed his bag and slipped out the classroom before he had to watch another person getting punched in the jaw. He heard the sickening crunch of it instead, as the door was just clicking shut, and he rested his head against the wood for a moment and sighed.
He started to eat lunch alone out on the playing field, once he'd figured out enough to realise no one was quite so on edge when he wasn't around. Sometimes Laura would sit with him, and tease him for his brooding superhero outlook on life when he haltingly tried to explain why he avoids his friends, because of course she just thought he was being ridiculous. And, maybe, he could convince himself it was all in his head when Laura was still there and she grinned a little wider whenever she managed to make him laugh.
"We have to get Scott-" Derek says, and Stiles cuts him off with a wave of his hand. Derek raises an eyebrow.
"He's got it covered," Stiles says. Shrugs when Derek just stares at him. "He wants the world to end just as much as we do, dude. Which is not at all."
"And you think he can handle it? This?"
"Yeah!" Stiles insists, with the loyalty of a best friend and the rolling gut of an ancient creature being called to battle. He knows Derek can feel it too, in the way he suddenly knows a lot of things about the end of the world - the relentless ache of a duty ignored, and very soon it's going to start hurting. Derek glares at him, silent.
"Yeah, we should probably go help him," Stiles says, and takes off running towards the Jeep.
There are people who wear their skeletons a little too close to the surface; their skin pale and stretched, the hard lines of their skull and the sharp length of their fingers that in the wrong (pale) light look like they've already broken through the skin. There's something curled around their bones, something that calls to that whispering primal instinct, a death rattle in fragile wrists. The thing that's lurking in the back of Stiles's mind feels as endless and barren as the depths of winter, but it's familiar, and has been for longer than he can remember, before his mom and before he could put it into words. It's almost reassuring in a way he can't quite grasp.
Stiles is, undeniably, human, but he knows death more intimately than any teenage boy should.
"You have a flaming sword, I have a scythe, we can totally handle this," Stiles says, and can't help glancing in his rearview mirror to see their weapons lying casually in the backseat on his Jeep. The first time he'd summoned hi- the scythe it had been completely by accident; stretching out his arms behind him as he took a moment's break from staring at his laptop screen, trying to figure out what the hell it meant when the sky was rolling and bloody, and suddenly there was a crack like thunder and he was gripping something huge and heavy and ancient. It felt right in his hands, and he took one look and immediately dropped it on the floor. Somehow, it was still following him around.
"You don't even know what we're meant to be doing!" Derek says, low and tense and his sword flares brightly. He'd barely reacted when it appeared in his hand, because the world was going to hell and of course it was in fire and ash. The blade rests against the handle of the scythe, and somehow nothing in the Jeep is catching fire. Stiles's knuckles are white.
"Sure we do! This can't be the first apocalypse we've averted, right?" Stiles says, glancing at Derek as he shifts his grip on the steering wheel. This feels right, too - Derek next to him as they race towards something terrifying, and he doesn't want to think about that.
"Not like this? Not- not mortal. I don't even remember what I'm supposed to be!" Derek hits the door with the flat of his hand, and Stiles is barking out a 'hey!' before Derek catches his eye, and:
Stiles looks at him - actually looks, like he's been avoiding doing since the sky cracked and something as old as humanity woke up inside him, and looked around wearily - and sees something very old and very familiar looking back at him.
"You're the personification of War, right? I'm... Death," he says, for the first time in millennia, and pulls a face like he's trying not to taste the words. "Together we stop the world from ending?" and, that wasn't meant to end on a question mark. Derek looks unconvinced.
On Thursday evenings there was no one using the swimming pool, and Derek would do laps as fast as he could; no water fights escalating into attempted drownings around him and no one around to lecture him about showing off, no one staring at him as he walked out of the changing rooms and making him feel even more awkward in his own skin. He dove in and tapped the bottom of the pool with his fingertips, twisted so his feet were touching the floor and he was ready to push off when there was a splash down at the other end, and there was a girl swimming towards him, all long legs and a sleek black swimsuit.
He opened his mouth and came up spluttering, gasping for air. She was there, suddenly, next to him and laughing, and when he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand she introduced herself as Kate, and challenged him to a race. That was familiar: at stop lights anyone who pulled up beside him would try to race him off the line, even high school girls driving Volvos and refusing to make eye contact, but when Kate grinned at him the challenge in her eyes was light and teasing in a way he had never seen before. There was something under the smell of chlorine, too faint and unfamiliar for him to pick out, but she had kicked off the side of the pool and was calling back, "come on!" before he could think about it, and the water splashed against his too-wide smile as he gave chase.
He was still grinning when he reached the other end, a body length behind her and she spun around smirk at him as he reached out to grab onto the edge of pool. When she caught his wrist to pull him closer, her thumb smoothing over his pulse point, her heartbeat was strong and unflinching even as his started to race, and he was too young to think of anything but how she's so beautiful, and unlike anyone he's ever met.
When it ended at the ashes of his house, the sweetsick smell of damp charcoal as it rained, heavy and constant, he realised the steady beat of her pulse was because Kate was at war before she even met him.
They got the hell out of Beacon Hills as soon as they could and he had hoped, with a kind of foolish naivety that Derek still hates himself for because he didn't know anything, that maybe the problem was Beacon Hills, maybe it wasn't anything to do with him at all, and once they're gone everything will be - not fine, but, okay. They'll stick together, because that's what pack does, and they'll be okay.
He didn't notice how much it felt like home until he was two thousand miles away and hunched up in the passenger seat of their dad's SUV, Laura driving with her mouth set in a hard line and her tired eyes fixed on the road. There was an ache in his chest that grew stronger the farther they got, like something was trying to tug him back, and he thought he knew what that meant because he was sixteen and he had just lost everything.
They managed for a year; moving around constantly, because there was nowhere they could feel settled and they couldn’t stay on another pack’s territory - not for long, and not without a fight that neither of them were ready for. After two weeks living in an apartment block in Missouri the couple below them had split up when the ninety-pound girl threw her boyfriend out of the third-storey window. Laura had nodded with a smile that didn't reach her eyes when Derek threw the few clothes they'd unpacked into their backpacks, and they left.
"That wasn't your fault," she said, when they were two hundred miles away and still driving. She reached over to hold his hand, and smiled when he finally, slowly, looked at her, and said everything would be okay. (she didn't tease him about it anymore, because of course it was him. seventeen years old and he knew everything he touched died.) When they were driving out of Colorado several months later he looked at Laura, her knuckles white as she gripped the steering wheel too hard and her jaw tight as she carefully watched the guy in front of them who kept breaking for no reason, and knew he had to get as far away from her as possible.
"Why did you open the Hellmouth?" Stiles says, when they find Scott standing in the middle of a field and the dust is starting to swirl around him.
"It wasn't me!" Scott says, looking panicked, and Stiles closes his eyes for a moment when Derek just sighs. He opens them, and the dust is still gathering, and Derek is pursing his lips like he's considering who to eviscerate first. The wind picks up suddenly and he digs his hands deep into his pockets, and when he glances down the scythe is waiting on the ground by his feet. Lydia and Jackson are somewhere nearby, he knows with a clarity that feels both instinctual and unused, and idly wonders what happens if everyone just goes home.
Scott suddenly crouches down, scrabbling at the ground like he's looking for something. "Then stop it?" Stiles shouts over the wind, and Scott shakes his head.
"I don't know how!" he calls back, but when he stands up he's got Allison's pendant clutched in one hand.
Stiles has dreams sometimes, of plagues and fires and wars, of fields of dying men and villages of dying children and he can see every person who is about to die, the shimmer around the edges. The ones he really remembers are the times it's just a single person; an old woman in a bed who smiles when he steps into the room, a boy who won't stop crying, a creature he doesn't even know the name for that hauls itself out of the sea and stares at him ruefully until he offers it a hand up. Its touch was warmer than he expected, and dry, and there was something sickening beating in its chest, and when Stiles drew his hand back the creature sighed softly, and melted.
The worst part (beyond the visceral horror and the smell and the way he can feel everything, the way it feels more like a memory than a dream) is that it doesn't feel like a nightmare: because when he touches them he knows their suffering ends. It almost feels like he's done something right - a sense of dull inevitability in it that doesn't even give him the satisfaction of feeling horrified, because he knows, in the omniscient way anyone knows things in their dreams, things about their time and the natural order of things and how this is what is supposed to happen, regardless of if you love them, or if you know their name. In the dreams, it feels like a reassuring end to the terrible things the he sees, even when Stiles wakes up and wants to know where the fuck those thoughts are coming from because that's not the point.
When consciousness lingers behind his eyelids he remembers that death is something that happens to the people who are left behind, and he wakes up choking because there's nothing he can do for them.
(Death is constant, in a way that War, Famine and Pestilence can only linger, waiting. It's a little more permanent, and its memories are a little more solid, and even when he's human Stiles can see the shimmer around some people, and even though it scares the fuck out of him he stills watches out for it because he’s not convinced it means what his brain is trying to tell him. He avoids hospitals, and knows that death isn't dramatic, or sweet, or honourable. It just is.)
"I think I'm meant to kill you!" Scott yells, almost lost in the roar of the wind, and Stiles gapes at him.
"You are the worst at making plans," he shouts back, and Scott pulls a face.
"Then come up with something better!" Derek yells at the both of them, and swings his sword through a pillar of approaching darkness that is somehow reaching for him. It bursts into flame, and disappears.
By the time he had convinced Laura to stay put in New York while he headed for California (she had sighed, and told him not to be idiot, and hugged him so fiercely his ribs hurt for two days straight), he knew there was something truly wrong with him, but he didn't understand why. The way he seemed to dredge up the worst of humanity just by standing in one place for too long, the way men with arms like tree trunks would watch him warily and clench their fists, and perfectly ordinary businessmen in their best suits would raise their chin at him and try to stare him down - it didn't make sense, but he still saw it every single time and it was starting to feel like the rage inside him had been boiling for centuries.
When Stiles visits relatives out of state sometimes, or holiday camps with Scott, he feels lighter in a way he can't account for; like a storm is no longer hanging over him. And maybe he knows it's not forever - because nothing is, of course, and he'll always end up in Beacon Hills again eventually. For Derek, it felt like he had a constant headache for as long as he was away from Beacon Hills, like a warning bell, but he only really noticed it when he pulled up outside his old house and his head was full of ringing silence.
"We choose," Stiles says, because what was the point of making them human if the ultimate answer wasn't in favour of humanity? And he remembers now, about prophecy and the necessity of doing things the right way, and maybe Death is just a soldier following orders, but Stiles has other plans.
"How?" Derek asks, sword drawn up in front of him and he's looking to the side, fixed on something approaching through the howling dust storm.
Stiles lowers the scythe so he's holding it like a spear at his side, ready to swipe it anything that comes any nearer, and grabs Derek's attention by grabbing the front of his shirt. Derek stares at him, eyebrows raised.
"I choose you, pikachu," Stiles says, hauling himself closer because Derek feels like the only solid thing still existing for miles, and Scott rolls his eyes because not the time, dude.
Stiles kisses Derek like he's wanted to since he rode back into town in his red Camaro, like he's wanted to since he was human, and in the distance it sounds like Allison is shouting something. The wind drops.