Chris shouldn’t. He knows that. Shouldn’t feed the strays, or they’ll never get rid of them. But somehow he finds himself standing outside the empty hospital, repurposed now as HQ, holding up a vacuum sealed ration pack to lure the boy closer.
Grit crunches under the thin soles of the boy’s shoes as he steps toward him.
It’s a transaction.
He’s seen this kid before. The first time was staring out the back of a truck as it rumbled through the remains of the town, and the kid was standing like a wraith on the corner of what was once Main Street. The kid was silent and still. The only thing moving was his gaze, tracking the trucks as they rumbled past.
Chris wants to think there’s something different about this boy, something special enough to make him break his own rules, but maybe he’s just tired, worn down by years of war, and what the hell does it matter what he does?
It’s a transaction.
The boy is quiet throughout, wary and watchful as Chris puts him on his knees.
When it’s done, the boy slinks back into the darkness with the ration pack clutched to his chest, and Chris returns to his room and pours himself a drink. From his window, he looks out onto the remains of the town once known as Beacon Hills.
Stiles only truly relaxes when he’s stepped over the line of mountain ash at the entrance to the high school basement. He and Lydia spent hours sealing those lines in place with an epoxy glue they made from resin. There are certainly benefits to holing up in a place with chemistry textbooks. The boundary hasn’t been tested yet. Stiles hopes it won’t be. He likes the high school basement.
“It’s me!” he calls, voice rasping, as he heads down the stairs. It’s dark, but Stiles knows his way.
Lydia’s sitting on the pile of gym mats and fire blankets that make up their bed. The high school basement is way better than most of the places they’ve sheltered in over the past few years. Lydia is reading a textbook by candlelight, and sets it aside when Stiles appears.
He crosses over to her and drops the ration pack down on her lap.
She blinks at it. “What is this?”
Stiles sits down beside her and tugs a blanket around his shoulders. “It’s a ration pack.”
She purses her lips. “And how did you get a ration pack?”
“Duh.” He tries for a smile, but it more or less misses.
“Stiles.” Tears shine in Lydia’s eyes, but they’re short-lived. She shoves him roughly. “What the hell? Why would you do something so stupid?”
Stiles doesn’t answer that, because she knows exactly why.
“Just open it up and eat something,” he mutters, heat rising in his face. He’s not ashamed. Not exactly. He knows he did the right thing. It’s just that Stiles has always been sensitive to Lydia’s disapproval, even when they were both five years old and making macaroni craft in Mrs. Jansen’s kindergarten class. Well, Lydia had been making macaroni craft. Stiles had been crouching under the table furtively eating as much dry macaroni as he could. Lydia’s been judging him harshly ever since then.
Stiles holds the blanket closed around his neck, doubling the edge over so that his fingers don’t get cold, and watches as Lydia inspects the ration pack. She opens it like she’s opening a Christmas present, breathless with anticipation, and if Stiles lets his eyes slowly close he can almost see the soft glow of colored lights and smell the gingerbread.
“It’s been dark for hours,” Lydia says. “I thought you weren’t coming back.”
“Sorry.” He’d set out in the afternoon with the aim of checking out some of the ruined houses over on the north side. They’d been shelled pretty badly during the early days of the bombardment, and Stiles figured there might still be untouched basements, if he could find a way in. Except all that had happened was he’d got chased off by a bunch of people who’d apparently been living there for months, and he’d had to backtrack so far to avoid them that he’d ended up over at the old hospital, staring at the soldiers patrolling the perimeter and wondering if he had the courage to approach them.
And then one of them had spotted him, had held up the ration pack, and…
And Stiles had understood.
“Gonna lie down,” he says through a yawn, and shuffles further back onto the mattress so he can draw his legs up and curl up like a pill bug.
“You want to eat first?” Lydia asks him softly.
“I already ate,” Stiles lies. It comes as easy as breathing. “The guy. He gave me something.”
The guy. Like he doesn’t know exactly who it was.
Stiles tugs the blanket up past his ears, and blinks at the familiar slope of Lydia’s back as she eats.
It’s good that she’s eating. They’ve had a rough few months, but Stiles feels like maybe they’re finally getting on top of things again, even though it’s just the two of them now. They’d had a good place over on Maple—a house that looked as ruined as most of the others form the outside, but with a basement that at one time had been converted into a bedroom. Jesus fuck, that had been a comfortable bed!—but they had to ditch it when it all went to hell there at the end.
And now Stiles and Lydia are the only ones left.
No way in hell was it supposed to turn out like this.
Beacon Hills is a misnomer. The town itself is in a shallow valley that holds the mist for hours on cold mornings like this one. Stiles feels like a ghost as he slips through the mist, his hands jammed in the pockets of the faded red hoodie he found in one of the high school lockers. He hates the feeling of the mist on his skin, cold and damp. Even more, he hates the feeling that he can’t see if there’s anything coming at him. It might be daytime, but the hair prickles on the back of Stiles’s neck like it’s night. Like he can hear the scratch of monstrous claws on the cracked asphalt behind him.
He needs to stockpile as much food as he can.
With winter coming and the days getting shorter, there won’t be as much time to find supplies. And Stiles figures that whatever unofficial claim they had on the neighbourhood around Maple, well, that’s gone now. Vanished on the wind. There are other scavengers in town that Stiles knows by sight. He also knows they won’t be above attacking him to drive him off if he’s foraging alone.
So the hospital it is, at least until Lydia can act as lookout for him again.
God, but it was so much easier when there were more of them. Strength in numbers, or whatever. They watched each other’s backs.
Now there’s nobody.
A few weeks ago, Jackson didn’t come back.
When Stiles and Lydia cleared out of the house on Maple, it had been in the middle of the night. Maybe they should have waited until morning, but how could they? Stiles had scoped out the high school a few weeks earlier, and shut his mouth about it. That was the rule they’d made early on. They always had a backup plan, and they always kept it secret.
“Hurry up!” he snapped at Lydia, because she was taking too long.
The moment the words were out, he knew they were the final straw.
She didn’t collapse into some teary heap on the floor—that was so not Lydia’s style. Instead, she only nodded, clamped her mouth tightly shut, and made silence her armor.
She didn’t break until they made it safely to the high school basement, and Stiles held her until she fell asleep. The next morning he woke up with his arms still around her from behind, one hand splayed protectively over her pregnant belly.
Stiles remembered a time when heartbreak meant wishing someone would come back. Heartbreak was a different sort of thing now. Jackson was gone, and Stiles and Lydia hoped desperately that he would never come back.
Yesterday Jackson was Stiles’s friend, and he was Lydia’s boyfriend.
Today he was either already dead, or a wolf.
Stiles remembers the hospital parking lot from when he was a little kid. He remembers the sinking sensation he felt whenever his dad pulled in here, because Stiles wanted to see his mom, but also, he didn’t. It made him feel wrong in a way he was still too young to properly articulate. Like waking up and finding the sky was red instead of blue, and knowing he’d never again be able to trust anything he thought he knew about the world.
Turns out he was right not to trust it.
Stiles approaches the entrance to the old hospital, his hands balled into fists in the pockets of his hoodie. He’s not stupid enough to get too close to the sentries at the checkpoint, but he stands where they can see him, and hopes that some of them recognize him from last night, when the major held up the ration pack and Stiles walked toward him.
He stands and waits now, while the sun slowly burns the mist away.
He doesn’t know if it’s an hour, or if it’s even longer, but eventually one of the sentries beckons him forward.
Chris half-expected to never see the kid again, but here he is again, turning up like a bad penny. When word reaches him that the kid is lingering outside, Chris is tempted for a moment to ignore him. He knows what the kid’s here for, and then it occurs to him that if he isn’t the one taking advantage of the kid’s willingness—or at least his hunger—that someone else will. And Chris isn’t sure if he really wants that. He’s not even sure if it’s guilt that stirs him, or a twisted sense of benevolence. He only knows that if he puts the word out that the boy is his exclusively, then it will be as good as law. And surely there will be a certain prestige attached to that? Something the boy can use as currency amongst the other scavengers and strays. There’s an element of selfishness in it as well though, because Chris doesn’t want something used and dirtied by others.
He has the boy checked for weapons, checked that he’s safe, and then sent to his room.
Chris is either a good man in a terrible world, or he is an evil man who has inherited the world he deserves.
It seems like the sort of question he might go to his grave wondering about.