A win is declared when first blood is
drawn off the body of a game piece
by the opposing game piece.
He heard the footsteps long before anyone appeared at the edge of the kennel. The steady, even beat of a new heart, the clack of well-made shoes against the cement as someone walked down the steps; both sounded as comfortable as if the human creating them were at home, and yet Derek didn’t recognize either. He moved away from the gate, toward the back of his pen, and listened to the shift of the others doing the same; newcomers didn’t come down by themselves unless they were armed, and he had no interest in feeling the zing of the long zap-sticks the Argents kept.
What he did not expect was the burst of white as the human opened the door to the kennel area. The fabric was bright in the darkness, stark and clean and full of sharp creases. Derek raised his nose, caught a trace of aftershave and something else, something familiar but not quite recognizable. He stayed put rather than move to get a better look.
It didn’t make a difference. The human stopped at the gate of his kennel.
For a while, he just stood there, the edge of his tidy white suit bunched up around his wrists, hands in the pockets of his slacks. Derek kept his eyes down, off to one side, but he could see some. He could see the spray of beauty marks over the guy’s cheeks, the way the dots dipped beneath his collar; he was sure they were everywhere. He could see the close-cropped hair, the faint smile on the guy’s lips as he observed Derek. He faintly recognized the man, could remember seeing the shining white spot nestled in the cheering crowd at a few recent matches.
“Not going to say hello?” the guy asked, finally, voice smooth and easy. Instead of responding, Derek scowled at the floor. Questions like that were almost always rhetorical, an excuse to goad his kind into misbehaving. His silence didn’t seem to faze the man, who merely leaned a little closer to the front of the pen.
“I’ve heard your kind can imitate human speech.” He let that sit between them for a moment before withdrawing a hand from his pocket, sliding his long fingers through the caging. It was a dangerous move at best; if Derek really were a beast, he'd have taken those fingers off in a heartbeat. The guy just smirked as if he knew exactly what Derek was thinking and why he wouldn't do it. “I don’t think it’s imitation.”
Forgetting himself, Derek’s eyes snapped up for only a heartbeat before he blinked, gaze slipping sideways. There was no one from the Argent household here to see the transgression, to see that he’d understood the words, but Derek had seen the guy’s eyes light up, the way his smile changed to predatory. He knew.
“I’m not here to give you away,” he assured Derek. “I’m here to make you an offer.”
Derek swallowed the growl starting in his chest, but still did not look. He’d been goaded before, when he was young. He’d snapped and snarled and bitten a few. He wasn’t interested in what followed.
He felt more than saw the eye roll the man gave him, heard the soft whoosh of air as he sighed. “My name’s Stiles,” the guy offered, instead of pushing. “They call you Ashborn, but I don’t think that’s your name. Should I call you it anyway? Or do you have another name?”
Risking another swift glance up, Derek gave him a confused look. No one, not a single human ever, had asked him his name- not even the ones who had plucked him from the ruins of his family’s home. They had caged him, collared him, marked him, named him, but they had never asked him, and that was the only reason he would ever find for why he answered.
“Derek,” he said, voice like sandpaper.
Stiles smiled, a softer, near sympathetic gesture. “Okay, Derek. That’s good.” He took a breath and Derek could hear his heartbeat flutter a little. He wondered what Stiles was thinking, though he could probably guess. He knew what most humans were thinking when they visited his pen; he wasn’t wearing anything but the leather collar around his neck.
But Stiles didn’t smell like them, didn’t reek of arousal, only of curiosity and confidence as he tipped his head and continued. “I’ve been watching your matches, Derek. You’ve won the last forty-three. That’s a nice streak. Almost enough to move you to Division 2.”
Though Derek couldn’t help the way his teeth bared at the suggestion, he quickly pulled his lips shut and shook his head. Stiles didn’t seem surprised by it, didn’t seem angry over the threat display, but he also didn’t seem pleased to have gotten a punishable reaction out of Derek. He just seemed… disappointed.
“The Argents aren’t licensed past Division 3. Something about… losing investments. The public reputation,” Stiles rambled onward, giving a small shrug. He rattled the gate of the pen, quickly and loudly enough that Derek looked up to him, finally, and found himself unable to look away from the man’s amber-brown gaze. “But I am. Licensed. All the way through Division 1. You could-”
“No,” Derek told him coldly.
“Oh, don’t be like that,” Stiles lamented, unshaken. He leaned forward until his forehead rested on the fencing. “It’s not what you think. I could get you out, you know.”
“At what price?” Derek murmured, though he knew the price. The top-division fighters got out on a road paved in death, if they got out at all. Even if he could beat the odds and live through the experience, there would be no escaping what he had done to get there, or what he would have to do after.
Better to stay here, safe and quiet.
“You know the price,” Stiles answered, as though he could hear Derek’s thoughts. He was surprised; Stiles sounded as upset about it as Derek was, eyes going soft and pained. “There’s a price for everything. You’re paying one staying here, too.”
“One I can live with,” Derek spat. “I haven’t killed anyone. I won’t.”
“You will,” Stiles told him. There was no waver in his heart rhythm. He meant it. “Seven more matches in Division 3, a handful in 1 and 2… That’s all I’m asking. I have a friend who can help you at the end. Get you out. Really out, not just to the breeding pens.”
At that, Derek drew back. There was no out, not really. There was no place for werewolves like him to go, no place where any supernatural creatures were safe, much less accepted into society. Yet this guy, this warden, stood before him with a steady heart and told him otherwise.
“Impossible,” Derek breathed, shaking his head. “How?”
Stiles sighed, fingers tightening on the caging. “I’m sorry. I have to ask you to leave this place behind and come with me on faith for now. Derek,” he commanded when Derek’s gaze dropped again. “I am asking. If you tell me no, I’ll leave. I won’t force you.”
“No one asks us anything,” Derek sneered, lips curling back from blunt teeth. As lenient as this guy seemed to be, he was sure baring fangs would cross a line. “We’re not people to you.”
Stiles took a deep breath, withdrew his hand from the fencing and returned it to his pocket as he settled back away from the gate. “I think you are,” he said quietly. “You’re not human, but that doesn’t mean you’re not a person. It doesn’t make you feral.”
“The games do,” Derek finished for him. Stiles just nodded.
“So?” Stiles prompted, ignoring the jab. “Will you come with me?”
For one tense moment, Derek just stared. It had been a long time since he had been anywhere but the Argent estate or the game arenas. He supposed it didn’t matter which cage he was in; here or there. They would put him into matches where-ever he was.
“Tell me why,” he whispered at last. “I’ll go, if you tell me. Why are you here? Why me? There are plenty of other supers for you to buy. Plenty of stronger fighters, especially in the top tiers.”
Whatever Derek had said, it was extremely funny to Stiles, his raucous laughter pinging off the walls and causing the others in the kennel to start up howling and shouting. When the noise died down, Derek was just as confused as before, staring openly at Stiles, who gave him an already-fond grin and leaned forward as though to reveal a conspiracy.
“I am here because I have got a terrible taste in friends,” he informed Derek with a wink. “And this one in particular has got me wrapped around her adorable little finger. It’s a shame, really.”
“Who?” Derek asked, inching a little closer, senses finally catching up to the moment, screaming at him about the familiar scent clinging to the guy. He knew who it was, even before Stiles’ lips curved into another smile.
“Lydia Martin, of course,” he replied. He gave a dismissive roll of his eyes. “She’s apparently rather taken with my most recent… purchase. And said purchase has been giving me a headache ever since Lydia showed her a picture of- well, you. Now they’re both insisting I bring you home for her.”
Derek swallowed, moving back again, alarm churning at his insides, the spark of hope that he hadn’t wanted suddenly winking out. He’d known there was a catch; there was always a catch with humans, especially when Lydia Martin was involved. She worked for the Argents, dealt with all of their purchasing and selling. Of course Stiles would have interacted with her at some point if he was down here, and of course he was trusted by her if he was here alone.
Panic welled up inside of him, just a flash, before he remembered what Stiles had said. I won’t force you. That was unusual, but the guy’s heart had remained steady enough that Derek knew he’d meant it when he said he wouldn’t take Derek anywhere against his will, not even to a mate-ready female wolf. He was having a difficult time wrapping his head around it; walking away empty handed would be a heavy denial to the other wolf. Even without that factor, Derek had never heard of a game warden giving up a chance at a breeding they wanted.
Something of his worry must have shown on his face, or perhaps he realized how it had sounded, because Stiles flashed him another smile, this one reassuring. “Derek,” he said, drawing Derek’s attention to him once more. “She’s not interested in being your mate. She’s your sister.”
All game pieces must have
proper barcode identification.
Being on the other end of the leash in Stiles’ hand was not at all what Derek was used to. For one, Stiles didn’t once yank on it, or even draw it taut. If he turned or began to move away while Derek was standing still, he hesitated, waiting for Derek to catch up and shuffle forward. Even when he appeared to not be paying attention, the line was slack- as was his grip. Derek didn’t have to wonder if he could pull it from Stiles’ grasp; it practically dripped from the ends of his fingers, ready to just fall on its own.
If Derek hadn’t known better, he would have said Stiles hated touching the leash as much as Derek hated being on it.
He wasn’t sure what he expected upon reaching topside of the Argent estate. He’d only been to the surface a couple of times since they had purchased him, as he was usually corralled or moved into the windowless transport trailers at the dock that made up most of the back end of the kennels. The only exit from the trailers was at the dock of whatever arena they had chosen for his match.
The sunlight was bright, washing out color and warming his skin as they paused at the exit to talk to Lydia. He couldn’t help but think he would have behaved perfectly for a chance to stay out in this for a short time once in a while. His eyes slid closed as he turned his face up toward the sun, soaking it in as he waited.
Despite that they were talking about him, Derek tried not to listen very closely. He hated when humans spoke of him or of others as if they were possessions. Less than living creatures, there only to be bargained for, traded, or purchased. What he did catch of their conversation, however, surprised him again. Stiles didn’t once use the pronoun ‘it,’ only ‘he.’ When he spoke of transacting money to purchase him, it was only to say that it was already done and he’s right here, Lydia.
She’d rolled her eyes and asked if he needed a handler since he never brought his own, like you have a death wish, Stiles. They bickered like they had known each other since childhood.
“He’s not going to kill me,” Stiles told her, completely exasperated by the attitude she was taking. “I’m an excellent judge of character, you know.”
“I know you think you are,” she replied dryly, then waved him off. “Go on, then. You’ll call me when you get home to tell me you’re safe.” It wasn’t a question. Derek found himself wondering, not for the first time, just how much power Lydia had that she could order a Division 1 warden around. Derek had never seen anyone order wardens to do anything, especially those as obviously successful as Stiles was, no matter how long they’d known one another.
At Lydia’s dismissal, they made themselves scarce quickly. Derek kept pace, giving a last glance behind him to the grounds of the estate where he had practically grown up. There were tall, black fences surrounding the entire grounds, made of wrought iron, placed for defense rather than decoration. The manor was not as big as he had thought it would be, though it looked just as old, sprawling over the rolling green of the grounds. He wondered how far the catacombs underneath really spread; at least double what was topside, judging by what Derek had seen. He was glad to be leaving it.
The transport vehicle was yet another surprise. There was no trailer waiting for him, not even a specialized car with caging in the back. Not even child-locked doors.
What awaited them in the drive - according to what Stiles proudly proclaimed as they approached - was a chunky blue Jeep Wrangler, rust edging up along the wheel wells, a soft cloth top folded up in the back where the extra seats should have gone. Stiles pulled up short just before the leash would have gone taut and turned to stare at him in question.
“Is this going to be a problem?” Stiles asked, low and soft, like he wasn’t asking if Derek was going to cause a problem. Like he was concerned Derek didn’t want to ride in an actual car.
Derek couldn’t help how wide-eyed he was. This was insane. There was a catch, somewhere. “Where should I sit?”
Stiles looked over his shoulder at the Jeep and then back to Derek like he couldn’t determine which was more ridiculous. “Well, there’s only one other seat, because I’m certainly not letting you drive my baby. Oh,” he said, realization dawning in his eyes. “There’s no locks. You just… sit. Well, and wear a seatbelt because I’m not getting a ticket.”
“No trailer?” Derek breathed, chest tight. There had to be a catch.
Face softening, Stiles crossed the distance between them, a mere few feet allowed by the leash. “Look at me,” he demanded, gentle and quiet. When Derek did, he smiled like all the sympathy Derek hadn’t seen since he was a child. “I don’t need to lock you up, Derek. You’ve got bad choices here. You can stay with me on this leash and I’ll take you to your sister, or you can make a break for it and they’ll find you eventually. They’ll bring you back to me, if they don’t carve the barcode off your back and rebrand you. So, how about you get in the car, and we’ll enjoy a nice summer ride back to my place for a reunion.”
Derek took a short step forward, putting himself into Stiles’ personal space, but the human simply nodded once and turned his back to the werewolf.
Throat tight at the completely blatant show of fearlessness, of trust, Derek followed him to the vehicle, accepting the soft, new clothes Stiles handed over when they arrived. They were much too big, the shirt hanging down almost to his knees and the stretchy pants falling low on his hips, ready to slide off if he moved wrong. Stiles made an offhand comment about not knowing his sizes and then began walking to the other side of the car, oblivious to what he’d done.
The clothes were new.
Only the faint scent of passing humans and car seats clung to the fabric and Derek found himself once again baffled; the human climbing into the driver seat could easily, even unconsciously, have taken the opportunity to lay a subtle claim to Derek, mark him, own him by scent... but he hadn’t.
He wondered if Stiles even understood the significance of the gesture.
He didn’t have the words to express how much it meant, so he just clambered into the vehicle over the car door and settled into the seat.
The ride itself was like nothing Derek remembered experiencing before. Without a top, the wind just blew past him, full of myriad scents, only some of which he could place but all of which left him reeling. The air was fresh and clear and even if gasoline and motor oil and baking asphalt mixed in, Derek could smell the trees they passed, and the water and the sunshine. He had nearly forgotten the smell of sunshine before it had been filtered through muddy glass and dust and grime. He was thankful for the whip of the wind on his face, stealing the tears that welled before they could fall.
Through it all, Stiles just smiled and wordlessly let him enjoy it.
He wasn’t sure what he'd thought Stiles’ home would be like. He wasn’t sure if he expected to be taken to a home at all, or if it would be another kennel like the ones the Argents kept, long lines of pens on either side of a cement hall. With the rusty little Jeep they were in, Derek half expected to be taken to a neighborhood full of small-town houses. Stiles’ well-manicured suit suggested it could have been a sprawling mansion a bit like the Argent estate. With the sort of money made on Division 1 fights, it could have been a small island.
As it was, Stiles’ estate was both alike and different from the Argent estate; a rolling green lawn surrounded both houses, but there were no fences here beyond the ones Derek could see way in the back, low and white to pen in the cattle ranging the open field. A huge red barn huddled contentedly to the north of them, against the tree line of a thick, old forest.
The house itself was low and sprawling, simple white and black paint humbling its size. Derek couldn’t help the way he gawked as they rumbled up the drive. He wondered if all he could see on the topside was dwelling space for humans and if so, just how many people lived here. There had to be a lot; Division 1 fights took place with at least one non-humanoid combatant. There was no way Stiles played with only humanoids, which meant that somewhere on these grounds-
The faint sound of a dragon’s scream drifted to him on the breeze and his breath caught in his throat. He looked over at Stiles, but either he hadn’t been able to hear it or he hadn’t noticed it.
Or he had, and it didn’t matter to him.
There was something - something dangerous - to be said about not being fazed to hear the scream of a dragon. He had never met a fully-grown dragon, only the adolescents allowed to fight in Division 4, but even the young ones were large enough, powerful enough, vicious enough to send a chill down Derek’s spine. Perhaps a little better he began to understand why Stiles didn’t need locks to keep a werewolf right where he wanted him.
“So, this is home,” Stiles told him as they turned the final curve of the road and headed for the garage at one end. The engine shut off and Derek looked at him, watched him unbuckle his seatbelt and open his door. He began heading for the house without checking to see if Derek was even following. “Come on!” he called over his shoulder.
“Aren’t you going to-” lead me, take me, control me, make me, drag me, do something “-make sure I follow?”
At that, Stiles turned around and stared at him. “I’m sorry, I thought I brought home a werewolf, not a little kid. Do I need to babysit you?”
Derek glared at him for a minute, completely out of his element. He touched lightly upon the leash still clipped to the collar around his neck- leather soaked in wolfsbane. Then he unbuckled his belt and clambered out of the Jeep, closing the door with a little more force than necessary; he wasn’t used to closing car doors.
They were nearly to the screen door of the garage when it burst open and a small, dark-haired flurry of limbs flung itself at him, forcing him to catch or dodge. Luckily her scent nearly bowled him over as she reached him and he caught his sister as she leaped upon him, screeching his name happily. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, couldn’t do anything but stare at Stiles with wide eyes and wrap his sister up in a crushing hug.
“Cora?” he asked, pressing his nose into her hair and breathing deeply, the heady scent of family coursing through him like a balm. It had been years.
“Yeah,” she murmured, nuzzling into his shoulder and giving him a final squeeze.
Stiles was next, the moment she unwound herself. “You did it!” she shouted at him, and there was that laughter again, rich and easy. Derek shoved aside the thought that he could get used to it.
“Hey, I said I would,” Stiles countered, scrunching his face.
“You said you’d try,” she sniped.
Rolling his eyes, Stiles opened the door to the house and motioned for them to precede him inside. “Just go,” he told her, exasperated. “You too, big guy. We’ll get you cleaned, take the grand tour, and then get some food, because I am starving.”
“I don’t understand,” Derek said helplessly when Cora reached the doorway. He couldn’t bring himself to move any closer. His heart felt like it was going to break out of his ribcage and his head was spinning dizzier and dizzier.
Stiles and Cora exchanged a look, and then Cora turned around fully, and put one hand on the door frame, giving it a solid pat. When she smiled, it was everything he had been missing since he was twelve. “You’re home,” she said.
Division 3 Matches may take place
at any time of the year.
If anything, the manor was larger on the inside than it had seemed from the outside. Their first stop was to a bathroom where he was left alone to shower after Stiles explained to him the knobs and where to find soaps and why there were six different kinds and no he did not have to use all of them; and there was that laughter again, uncoiling the knot of worry lodging itself in Derek's belly.
Although he had never used a real shower, only the spray pens, Stiles and Cora both assured him he would survive the experience and don't come out until you stop reeking of the pit, Cora added. He wondered when she'd gotten so snippy. He wondered how long she'd been out of the arenas that he couldn't smell any trace of them on her.
He wondered how long it would take the scent to leech from his skin if he stayed here, too.
When he finally emerged, skin pink and raw from scrubbing, nails and hair and teeth clean, Stiles had brought him more clothing. Another soft t-shirt, loose blue jeans, and clean, white briefs. All of it smelled slightly of oak and darkness, but not of people, not of cleaners. They were new.
He mumbled a quiet thank you and another smile touched Stiles’ lips. Derek's head felt light with it; he'd seem more genuine smiles from this kid in a few hours than he'd seen from anyone in the past few years combined.
After dressing, Stiles promptly took them through the entire house, talking about everything they saw. Derek lost count of how many rooms they poked their heads in, or the number of bathrooms, or where the exits were in relation to where they were. Cora didn’t seem to have a similar problem, tagging along behind Stiles by a pace, her hands clasped at the wrist behind her back.
She looked amazing. Healthy. Everything from her smooth skin to the way her hair shone just slightly when she moved told him that she had been well cared for. Her easy stance told him no one had hurt her here, that she thought Stiles posed no threat to her at all. Of any of it, though, Derek couldn’t seem to drag his gaze away from her unadorned neck.
She caught him at it halfway through the tour, and held up her wrist. A silvery bracelet clung delicately around the joint, twisted to fold double. “If someone comes by, I can put it back on,” she told him. “You’ll get one too.”
He swallowed. Silver wasn’t going to inhibit any of his abilities. It wouldn’t keep him from shifting or from healing. It wouldn’t even weaken him.
“It has my information printed on it,” Stiles informed him from ahead of them. “I’ll re-do the barcode registration, of course, but they won’t ever have to put you through the scan if you wear one of those.”
“Plus, they look nicer than that ugly thing you’re wearing.” She blanched and held out her hand. “Here, give it here.”
Derek just stared. He couldn’t take off the collar. He hadn’t ever taken off the collar, not in the last 15 years; Lydia had taken it off for him twice since he arrived at the Argent estate, once when he outgrew his first collar and once when he’d been injured and needed treatment beneath the collar. The second time she had clasped cuffs around his wrists instead. The punishment for removing one’s own collar was severe; enough that Derek had only heard stories while he waited in the pits before matches.
Seeming to sense the hesitation, Stiles waved Cora off and approached Derek, palms out to show he meant no harm. “It’s okay,” he murmured, raising his hands toward Derek’s neck.
Without prompting, Derek lifted his chin, baring his throat to the human to allow him access. Stiles’ fingers were warm on his skin as he undid the intricate clasp, the smooth leather sliding free and into his hands. Derek swallowed, feeling exposed now, vulnerable; the collar was a prison, but it was also a guard, thick and tough, preventing anything from tearing out his jugular too easily. Fidgeting, he met Stiles’ gaze.
“Your room’s this way,” Stiles told him softly, wrapping the leather around his own wrist and fastening it there, coiling the leash still attached to it to hold. “It’s just down the hall from mine, and next to Cora’s. There aren’t a lot of people here, and they all… know about Cora. And you.”
Derek gave a little nod, to show he understood, and glanced uncertainly to Cora. This was illegal. This was really, really illegal and if inspectors ever walked into Stiles’ home and found them here, collarless like this, Stiles could lose a lot of money at the very least. A lot of accusations could come his way, a lot of investigations. He didn’t know what to say in the face of all of that, so he just clamped his mouth shut and followed Stiles down the hall.
All game pieces must wear species
appropriate identification at all times.
“There are fifteen pens in all,” Stiles told him, leading him down the center alley of the barn. Up close it was even larger than it had seemed, large enough - apparently - to hold fifteen pens for non-human supernaturals. The walls were not made of wood; most of them looked to be iron or steel of some kind, the bars thick and solid and cross-hatched. This was expensive housing, the sort that there was no way Stiles just fell into; this was the sort of housing that took years of winning and investment to create. “The one on the end is the biggest.”
Derek looked to the end of the hall, burning with curiosity about what it could possibly contain, but he still felt uncomfortable asking questions without prompting. Whatever else Stiles was, he was still human, and that had never meant anything but fear and pain and hate for Derek.
At lunch, however, Cora had spoken animatedly about how okay it was, how he could say what he wanted, ask whatever questions he had. Stiles wasn’t out to hurt them, she’d said. He had found her at the auction and bought her on Lydia’s insistence. When they arrived at the estate, he had locked her in her room for three hours until she quit throwing things at him long enough for him to explain that he wasn’t going to make her do anything, will she please calm down. Since then, Cora told him, she’d been convinced that Stiles wasn’t going to hurt her.
Years of maltreatment told Derek otherwise. They always wanted something, no matter how sweetly humans spoke or how kindly they acted at first. But Stiles had seemed sincere when he suggested Derek could ask questions, and that was enough for Derek to unclench his jaw.
“What’s in it?” Derek asked quietly.
“My dragon,” Stiles told him, a sly grin on his face. Derek didn’t want to like that smile, but it was rapidly getting under his skin. He looked so pleased with himself. “I raised her from a baby. She’s how I started all of this. Come on, I’ll show you.”
Together they tromped down to the end of the lane, past other supernatural things in their cages - which Derek very pointedly did not look at without permission - until they reached the end. The last enclosure was huge, easily taking up half the barn, and Derek immediately saw why. Coiled in a ball atop a man-made rocky outcrop, lay a sleek black dragon, soaking up the warmth from the heated coils overhanging the perch. When Stiles whistled, she raised her head, blinking sleepy red eyes at him before uncoiling and stretching like a cat. She practically dripped from the rocks, slithering over to the fencing.
Stiles stuck his hand through the grate and Derek only had time for a strangled noise of warning before the dragon was pressing her snout into Stiles’ palm. A low, rumbling noise filled the air and Derek felt his heartbeat rise; he had never actually fought a dragon before, but something instinctive within him reacted, prepared to defend himself.
“It’s okay,” Stiles told him, fingertips coming to rest on Derek’s forearm. The shift threatening to overtake him, so easily brought to the surface without the collar, retreated instantly at the contact and Derek met his gaze with wide eyes. There was that smile again. “She’s purring. It’s okay. I mean, for me. She’d probably try to kill you.” He scrunched his face a little. “She’d probably win.”
“She’s a Division 1 piece,” Derek breathed, the realization of exactly what they were standing before catching up with him. This was a creature who had killed, who felt no remorse about destroying anyone who appeared across the arena from her. He couldn’t help but wonder how many other wolves had lost their lives to her.
Nodding, Stiles turned his attention back to her, scratching along her lower jaw as she leaned into the attention. “Her name is Nightshade. Well,” he corrected. “Her name is Negira, but, you know… arena names.”
“You’re not afraid of her,” Derek commented, shifting uneasily. No wonder Stiles hadn’t seemed perturbed when they had heard her shriek earlier.
“No,” Stiles agreed, smiling fondly at the creature. It could tear him apart in twenty different ways without having to think about it. Three bites from her maw and he’d be gone, devoured. She pressed into his palm, begging for more petting. “My dad brought her egg home when I was little, and he helped me hatch her in our bathroom. He showered at work for half a year just so we could fill the tub with sand and heat the room. She won her first Division 5 match when I was nine and… well.” He shrugged, as if it would be so easy for anyone.
He shuffled a little closer and a low growl rose from her until he stopped. He could see her wings through the grate, the edges of the webbing frayed a little. Pink and white scars marred her hide where he could see. She had been in many fights, which spoke of how long Stiles had been doing this with her. Division 1 fights were only allowed to take place quarterly.
“Do you want to meet the others?” Stiles asked. “They’re not as nice, but you’ll come up against creatures like them if you’re going to do this.”
A quick nod from Derek had them backtracking away from Negira’s enclosure. Derek couldn’t help but think as they walked away that it was nicer than any he had seen other non-humanoids kept in. There was space enough for her to stretch her wings, even to glide between perches briefly. Real foliage covered the ground and hung from the ceiling rafters and grew up the sides. He wondered who maintained all of it.
Then they were standing before the closest of the pens, and Derek had to squint to see what was inside the darkness. Stiles banged once on the front and then stepped back as something came snarling and snapping to the forefront. It couldn’t get its teeth through the grating, but that didn’t stop it from trying, sickle claws hooked through the holes.
“Chimera,” Stiles supplied at Derek’s wide-eyed expression. “Rare only because they’d rather die than be caught. This one’s a rescue from the south; we had to truck him up a couple hundred miles. Did you know they spit acid? It was ridiculous.”
“This one doesn’t?” Derek asked. They were obviously not covered in acid spit.
“Oh, he does,” Stiles confirmed. “Just, not at me anymore. That was a hard-won lesson.”
Derek didn’t ask. He didn’t want to know.
There were other creatures, four of them, and they visited all of them briefly. Stiles knew each of their personalities, had names for all of them. Toward the main entrance of the barn, there were six pens that looked less like natural wildlife enclosures and more like human living quarters. There were walls made to look like house fronts a few yards into the enclosure with doors leading beyond. Only one of the pens was visibly occupied. A young woman sat in a comfortable looking recliner, reading a book.
“Good afternoon, Kali,” Stiles greeted, leaning against the grate.
She flicked her gaze to him, and then back to her book, obviously ignoring him.
“She doesn’t like me much,” Stiles confided to Derek with a wry smile.
“She can hear you, human,” Kali told him smoothly. Then she caught sight of Derek, and straightened up a little. “Who’s this?”
“Ashborn,” Stiles introduced before Derek could say anything.
A smile lit her face at that. “You found him, then. You should tell Deucalion. He’s been looking forward to meeting Talia’s son for quite some time.”
Stepping forward, Derek slammed a hand into the grate, ignoring the flash of red in the other werewolf’s eyes. “How do you know her name?” He hadn’t seen his mother since the fire. He hadn’t even heard her name in over a decade.
“Hey,” Stiles said sharply, grabbing his wrist and tugging him away from the pen. “They knew your family. Cora’s been out here talking to them. They had nothing to do with the fire.”
“They?” Derek asked, trying to calm his racing heart.
“The others,” Stiles explained, pointing to the enclosures around them. “Kali, Deucalion, Ennis. Ethan and Aiden, the twins. My alphas, my Division 2 pieces. I looked into it when Cora arrived, and they had nothing to do with it, okay? But Deucalion knew your family.”
Derek took a moment to just breathe, swallowing his anger, swallowing his grief and regret, until he had calmed down enough to ask: “You’re keeping them in pens?” It was safer than pressing further into his past.
“As adorable as they are,” Stiles said, and Kali snarled at him before turning back to her book. “I don’t trust them not to slit my throat. I trust them to fight. And win.”
“Not Division 1.” Whatever deal Stiles wanted to cut for his freedom, it could have been them. It would take a lot to make it out alive, but they were already alphas, he could smell it all around him. Five alpha werewolves, all kept under one roof, all proven killers. They had a much better chance at giving Stiles what he wanted.
“I’ve offered them Division 1 matches.” Stiles shrugged. “They enjoy being big fish in a little pond.”
Though he didn’t believe it, he nodded. No wolf he knew, no wolf he’d ever met, enjoyed being caged, especially not through the full moon. There was no way any of them were here in accordance to their wishes, no matter how well they appeared to tolerate it.
But it wasn’t his place to argue for them, so again he just kept his mouth shut and followed Stiles out of the barn.
Failure to provide game piece registration
upon request may result in penalties.
The sun was setting as they headed back to the house, Derek following a pace behind Stiles as he had seen Cora doing earlier. They ended up in a dining area with a plain, long table made of some sort of light-colored wood, populated by a dozen chairs and two people Derek hadn’t seen yet. They were seated side by side, sharing a couple of plates of food. Both of them nodded to Stiles when they arrived and shot Derek curious looks.
“This is Derek,” Stiles introduced, scooting around the side of the table to get to the far side. Derek remained standing by the doorway, unsure of what exactly was expected of him here. The only times he’d ever been removed from the kennels had been when Kate came calling, and that was never for dinner.
“Nice to meet you,” said the blonde, giving him a little wave. She nudged at the dark man beside her, and he looked up with a roll of his eyes.
“Hey,” he greeted as well, spearing a long green vegetable on the end of his fork.
Stiles smiled. “This is Erica,” he said, indicating the still-smiling woman. “And that ball of sunshine beside her is Boyd. They’re two of my handlers.”
All of Derek’s muscles tightened slightly at the mention, his shoulders hunching and his eyes dropping down to the ground non-threateningly. They all looked up at his silence, Erica and Boyd exchanging looks full of trepidation. The only handlers Derek was likely to have been exposed to served under the Argents or the arenas, and neither would have been prone to being gentle. The scars left on werewolves and other fast-healing fighters ran much deeper than the physical ever could.
“We’re not going to hurt you,” Erica said softly, already picking up her silverware and putting it on the edge of her plate. Boyd was following suit.
“Guys,” Stiles pleaded with a little exasperated noise. “You don’t have to leave. Derek-”
“It’s okay,” Boyd interrupted, pushing his chair back. “It’s a nice evening. I haven’t eaten on the veranda in a while.”
Erica flashed Stiles a sympathetic smile. “It took Cora a couple of days, too. We’ll be fine.”
Stiles could do nothing but nod, watching as they cleared their plates and disappeared out the doorway opposite of where Derek still stood. Derek shifted nervously once they had gone, misery burrowing under his skin at the idea that he might have done something wrong, something to make them leave. It was their job to do anything necessary to make him do whatever was required of him. Under no circumstances had handlers ever relinquished space to him or left him alone outside of a kennel or arena.
Taking a deep breath, Stiles lifted his hands from the table and walked slowly to stand in front of him. Derek couldn’t help the slight flinch when Stiles tilted his head to try and catch Derek’s downcast gaze without touching him.
“Derek,” he said softly.
Breath stuck in his chest, heart hammering hard, Derek nodded just enough to acknowledge he’d heard. When Stiles didn’t continue, he risked a glance up. Stiles offered him a sad smile.
“No one here is going to hurt you,” Stiles stated firmly. “Not me, not the handlers, not the vet, not the other fighters. Okay?”
Derek swallowed, mouth dry. “Okay,” he repeated, trying to force himself to relax. The handlers were gone. Stiles hadn’t hurt him yet.
“Are you hungry?” Stiles asked.
“Yes,” Derek responded. He could still smell whatever the handlers had been eating, and it smelled delicious, making his stomach clench in want. The Argents had never starved their fighters - a hungry fighter was a weak fighter, after all - but the nutrient paste all of their fighters were fed was a far cry from appetizing.
“Then pick a seat, I don’t care which one, and I’ll get us something to eat.” Stiles swept an arm back, indicating the entire table they now had to themselves.
Derek looked between him and the seats, realizing after a moment that Stiles was waiting for him to move. Hesitantly, Derek chose a seat near where Stiles had been about to sit before, and slid into the chair. He wasn’t really sure where to put his hands - on the table? under it? at his sides? - so he just put them in his lap and watched Stiles give an approving nod before disappearing through the same door as the handlers had earlier.
A few moment later, Stiles returned with bowls full of something stringy and off-white, covered in some kind of bloody-looking sauce. The scent of the spices covered everything but a sharp tang Derek couldn’t place. Derek wasn’t sure how he felt about it, except that it smelled amazing.
“Okay, no complaining,” Stiles said as he placed one of the bowls in front of Derek and flourished a piece of silverware at him. Derek thought it was a fork. “It’s just leftovers, since we missed dinner. They didn’t save us any asparagus either, so I’m going to hand someone’s ass to them tomorrow morning.”
Since he didn’t know what an asparagus was or why it was worth murdering someone over, Derek merely accepted the fork with a nod of acknowledgement. He watched Stiles move back to the head of the table with his own bowl, take a seat, and start digging in. As they hadn’t eaten since that morning when he’d picked up Derek, it was understandable. Derek shifted uncomfortably, trying to judge how Stiles was holding the utensil in his hand so that he could copy.
Stiles, of course, caught him at it before he had awkwardly managed to take a bite, the stringy food sliding ridiculously off the tines of the fork and back into the bowl. “Ohh riiight…” Stiles breathed, looking embarrassed. “Try twirling it,” he instructed, mimicking the action with his own fork, showing Derek how to twist the fork the get the noodles to wrap around it.
After a few more tries and a noise of frustration, Stiles began to laugh. Derek looked up sharply, ready to just use his hands, but Stiles was already pushing his chair back from the table and motioning for him to follow. A cold feeling settled in Derek’s gut; he was hungry, and he didn’t want to leave the food behind.
“I’m sorry,” he blurted, getting to his feet. “I can eat it.”
“It’s okay,” Stiles told him, grinning. “We’ll deal with silverware later. I forgot it took Cora a few tries to get pasta. We’ll just grab hotdogs or something, no silverware required!”
Derek tried to tamp down on the horror that washed through him. “I don’t want to eat dogs,” he said, before he could think about it.
At that, Stiles burst into the same sort of raucous laughter as he had when Derek had first suggested he find a different fighter. It startled Derek, set his heart racing. “Oh my gosh,” Stiles managed, breath heaving as he laughed. “No, oh geeze, there’s no dogs in hotdogs.” He sobered, looking suddenly concerned. “I think. Probably. We can read the label.”
He didn’t bother pointing out that he couldn’t read, just followed silently as Stiles exited the dining room, back into a kitchen. The floors were cool, stone tile, the walls stainless steel. Derek couldn’t help but stare as they skirted a couple of counters and came out near what appeared to be some sort of cooler. Next to it was a wooden door and Derek could smell dry goods beyond it.
Without a word, Stiles disappeared into the cooler. Derek caught the door handle so that it didn’t close and trap him, surprised at the instinct. He stared at his hand on the silvery handle until Stiles pushed back out, holding a package of cylindrical meats. His attention was focused intently on the tiny black words printed on the surface of the wrapper, brow furrowed. When he looked up, he pursed his lips.
“Maybe we’ll try something else.”
Registration must be current and
kept on the warden’s person at all times.
By mid-morning, Stiles had filled out and handed off the appropriate paperwork to register his newest acquisition with the Arena Regulatory Committee, barcode services, and Division registrars. They would still need medical registration and clearance before he could enter Derek into any match, but that wouldn’t take long. Lydia had sent electronic copies from the Argent records before he’d even gotten home the day previous. The ARC re-registration would take the longest, up to two weeks before they recognized that the game piece had transferred owners and was registered and cleared for play. All of the rest of the registrations would make their way to ARC headquarters and be filed together.
The only thing Stiles hated more than filling out paperwork was waiting for someone else to fill out paperwork.
With a sigh, he shoved away from his writing desk and ran his fingers through his hair. He hadn’t seen or heard from Derek or any of the handlers all day. It wasn’t unusual for his staff to avoid him on paperwork days - they knew it made him cranky - but there was a new fighter on the grounds. Isaac had sent a text saying Cora was in the library with him, but no word on Derek. Someone should have reported something to him by now.
Slipping on house shoes, Stiles padded out of his room and headed down the hall toward Derek and Cora’s rooms.
Wardens may not participate in wagering
upon the outcome of a fight in which
any of their game pieces are entered.
Derek heard him approaching long before Stiles poked his head around the open door. He looked up and back down quickly, hands folded in his lap where he sat on the edge of the soft bed. Too soft; after an hour of trying to find some comfortable way to sleep, Derek had slid off of it, curling up on the floor underneath it, where it was dark and firm. He very vaguely remembered a den, remembered the feel of the walls, of warm, furry bodies around his- but not enough to miss it.
Throwing a glance around the room, Stiles knocked lightly on the door, like maybe Derek hadn’t seen or heard him enter. “May I come in?”
Eyes closing, Derek took a breath, trying to stop the thump of his heartbeat in his ears. This was Stiles’ space and he didn’t need to ask Derek for permission. “Yes,” he said quietly. There was no other answer to give.
The door clicked as Stiles shut it behind him, moving just enough into the room to do so, but not enough to be intruding. He threw another glance around the room as if something were missing and he needed to find it. “I haven’t seen you all morning,” he said quietly. “I thought I’d come see if you were alive.”
It was clear that Derek was alive, so he didn’t bother saying so, just stared at his hands in his lap. He didn’t want to be nervous around Stiles, but the human was here looking for him, wanting something. What he wanted could be nearly anything, but Derek knew enough to know that wardens didn’t visit game pieces without a reason, without an objective. He’d known what his last warden wanted when she visited, but there was no indication what-so-ever that Stiles was here for the same- he smelled clean and frustrated.
Stiles sighed. “What are you doing?”
Derek looked up, unaware that he’d been doing anything. “Waiting,” he responded, as truthfully as he was able.
“Oh,” Stiles said. He gave another look around, as if there might be some clue as to what Derek was waiting for, exactly. When nothing was forthcoming, he just asked. “For?”
Shrugging, Derek looked back down, a little wince flinching his features. “Just… waiting.” He’d done a lot of waiting in the past. The Argents hadn’t seen much point in extravagance. The pen where he’d been kept was a clean, smooth-cement enclosure, ten by ten feet, with a straw pad for sleeping, a water dispenser, a tray unit for food, and a ridged drain in the back. Waiting had been a lot of Derek’s life there.
Stiles stared for a moment, and then slowly crossed the room. Derek tensed when he took a seat on the edge of the bed as well, a few feet between them. Neither of them said anything and Stiles made no move to get closer, but also gave no indication that he meant to leave. Taking whatever he was doing at face value, Derek turned his attention back to his hands and they sat like that for a while. It might even have been peaceful if Derek hadn’t been so worried something worse was coming.
“I registered you today,” Stiles eventually said. He kicked one leg out a little, letting his calf bounce on the bed frame. “Though it’ll probably be three weeks before I can get you into a match again.”
“Okay.” Derek wasn’t used to responding verbally, but it seemed to be what Stiles was looking for.
“Is it?” Stiles asked, glancing over. Derek looked up at the same moment, but Stiles’ face held nothing but earnest curiosity. “Is it okay? Do you still want to fight?”
“No,” Derek replied. When Stiles began to nod, when the beat of his heart picked up, Derek went on. “I never wanted to fight.”
“Will you?” Stiles asked then. There was no demand in it, no form of order, so different than the confident you will that Stiles had assaulted him with the day previous. He wondered if he would have said yes to this sort of uncertainty.
“Yes,” Derek told him, without hesitation. “You said you could get me out.” He let the question hang unspoken between them. He wanted to know how. No one got out of the arena pit, not really. Supernatural creatures like him either died in the pits, fought until they were too old for anything but euthanasia, or - and the luck in it was debatable at best - got retired to breeder status. There was no out once the collar was around their neck.
But Stiles had taken off Derek’s collar, and now he had no idea what was or was not possible anymore.
Stiles sucked in a breath, clearly having expected the question eventually. “Right. That. Tell me- how much do you know about Division 1 fighting?”
All Derek could do was shrug. He’d never been in a Division 1 fight, but he knew what the others in the match pens said, the lone fighter who had been lucky enough to be retired back to Division 3. “Death matches,” he replied. “People like me against creatures like Negira. They’re rare outside of special facilities because the arena has to be stronger.”
“Yeah,” Stiles confirmed. “They mostly take place in Div 1-and-2-specific venues. Division 2, that’s mostly easy to get by in; I mean, on my end, it runs the same as Div 3 matches. Keep all your records straight, and then you get to pick the matches, or agree to challenges.”
“You decide beforehand who we fight?” Derek asked softly. It seemed like a very big setup when put like that. Planned fights. He hadn’t thought his disgust for the entire venue could run any deeper.
“Well, yeah. Mostly.” Stiles nodded, risking a glance over to him and wincing. “I mean, there’s a lot that goes into it, of course, but yeah. We pick who fights who, and when, and how often our game pieces fight. Most importantly, we can choose to move down in Division at any time, without doing anything more than reactivating the previous registration.”
“But…?” Because he could hear the but in Stiles’ tone, knew that there was a catch coming. He hated that he had started to hope there wasn’t a catch after all; it made it that much worse to finally find it.
“But,” Stiles began, letting out his breath. “When you move to Division 1, you have to sign a contract. It seals you into a certain number of fights - usually four, sometimes six or eight - before you’re free to do anything else with your game piece; if they even survive. After that, you get a choice, and it’s always been a really shitty choice,” said Stiles with a little offended huff of laughter.
“Death or breeding,” Derek commented dully. "Or go right back into the pit."
A dry, mirthless chuckle preceded Stiles rubbing at his forehead with the heel of his hand. “Basically. Derek,” he said, waiting until Derek met his eyes. “There’s a good chance, no matter what choice lies at the end, that you won’t make it through Division 1 alive. So, if you don’t want to do this, I understand. We can retire you into Div 3 and you can fight the minimum required to keep you here.”
“Just tell me,” Derek breathed.
Taking a deep, steadying breath, Stiles nodded. “At the end of a Div 1 contract, we can choose to renew - which is what I do every two years with Negira - or you can retire the piece to a lower Division or a breeding facility.”
“But there’s something else, now,” Derek concluded, eyes narrowing a little at the expression on Stiles’ face.
“Yeah,” Stiles agreed. “Or at least, there could be. A way out.” For a moment he seemed to struggled with something, then sighed. “Look, it’s a really long story, and there’s someone you should meet before I tell it to you, but for now, just know that the ARC is giving me a chance to prove something to them. If I can move a piece through Divisions 2 and then 1, they’ll let me test another option.”
“Freedom,” Derek concluded.
“Community,” Stiles corrected softly. “A preserve about a hundred miles north of Sacramento. We’re petitioning for them to allow the full release of Division 1 survivors within its bounds.”
For a long moment Derek just stared, turning over the information, watching the worry flicker over Stiles’ expression. This was what Derek had agreed to, not knowing what it was.
“But we couldn’t leave.” He knew the answer, and he could see that Stiles knew that he knew, so Derek just sighed, turning on the bed and scooting up to sit against the headboard. “It's just trading one cage for another, then.”
Stiles pursed his lips, but he nodded, and Derek knew that he at least understood that it wasn’t a solution; it wasn’t truly freedom. “It’s a step in the right direction,” Stiles told him, voice low even though there was no one else here to hide secrets from. “If you want to wait to decide, or if you want to go see it before you decide, that’s fine. I’ll take you out there myself. So… there’s that.”
Derek fell silent, again turning the idea over in his head, touching all the angles. There was no good reason for Stiles to lie to him about this, even if Derek hadn't been able to hear the steady beat of his heart. It wasn't ideal, or even close, but it wasn't a fighter pen. It wasn't knowing he'd someday die in a collar, penned or bloody. Maybe it wasn't a lot of hope, but any hope was more than he'd had two days ago.
"If I do this, make it through," Derek began. "It wouldn't be just me, would it? Others could get out after?"
"That's the plan," Stiles told him. "We show it works, that a warden would be willing to choose it and that my friend’s group can run the preserve safely, and they make the change."
Nodding, Derek looked back down to his hands. He took a deep breath. “Okay.”
“Okay,” Stiles said, letting go of his breath in a huff of relief. He gave a hesitant smile.
“I mean, okay,” Derek corrected, watching Stiles’ eyes widen as he realized that Derek was agreeing to the terms. He didn’t need to see the sanctuary - although he would go, if Stiles would take him - to know that he wanted to try. It wouldn’t be easy or fun. The price would be unimaginable, if he made it through, but the idea of a place where he could roam out of restraints, feel the touch of the sun and wind and rain on his skin… it was worth it. The idea of a place where the full moon shift would not be agony was definitely worth it. “I’ll do it.”
“That’s great!” Stiles exclaimed, immediately looking abashed afterward. “I mean, not really. It’s going to suck, but… well, you know.”
“I know,” Derek agreed, because he did know, and maybe that was the worst part.