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Rats' Alley

Chapter Text


I said kiss me, you're beautiful, these are truly the last days.
Dead Flag Blues, God Bless You! Black Emperor


Highway 15

Somewhere between Barstow and Vegas, on the boring uphill climb out of California, signs were posted telling drivers to shut off their air conditioners and keep to the speed limit. It was the desert, or close enough: it was hot and a straight away. Most people ignored both the speed limit and the warning. The ones who paid attention were usually the ones with the windows rolled down and a nervous eye on the temperature gauge.

Coming back from Nevada, no one gave a damn.

Derek had his windows down because he liked the rush of smells that flooded the SUV he drove on the bounty hunting jobs, even the mixture of exhaust and hot rubber. Along with those came the scent of baked earth, dry brush and the variety of desert life, intricate and layered and intriguing. Sometimes, he wanted to just pull off the road, stop, and inhale.

Beacon Hills sat in Northern California only a couple of counties away from the redwoods, and the Preserve had always smelled of damp and pine. Derek liked cool and rain, he'd even liked New York, outside the city. The desert had never been his favorite place, too different from home, but the emptiness of this part of the state appealed to him. It smelled better than Los Angeles at least.

He had no intention of stopping, however. Instinct and what Stiles insisted was paranoia pushed him to get back to his territory as soon as possible, where he could protect his pack, no matter how competent they were now, even knowing that they could call on Hester's pack if real trouble showed up, and that any – or all – of them would call him if something happened. He'd spent the last month and a half braced to receive a middle of the night call from Stiles, worrying about his annoying and amusing packmate's study trip to Baja California. Stiles had a talent for finding trouble even in the most innocuous situations and studying with a bruja really wasn't safe, even for a member of a werewolf pack. Danny was careful and Lydia might laugh because Stiles might have saved Derek as often as Derek saved him since they met, but Derek couldn't shake the habit of worrying. Stiles was still stubbornly human, after all.

If he worried more about Stiles, it was because Stiles was a trouble magnet and the only pack member living away from the pack and Derek would stick with that story to anyone else, even if he had to admit to himself it went deeper. And maybe, when Stiles came back, if no one was trying to kill them that week, he might even finally give in to Stiles' awkward, determined efforts at seduction, now that Stiles wasn't in high school. Six years age difference wasn't the horrifying gap it had been when they first met. Twenty and twenty-six didn't freak Derek out the way sixteen and twenty-two had.

Derek tapped his fingers on the steering wheel and let himself half smile. Maybe. Maybe Stiles was right. Maybe they could be something good.

He could at least try. He'd come that far, farther than he'd dreamed he might after Laura died. Far enough he could see his sister would have wanted him to have good things in his life.

He just had to stop ignoring the way Stiles made his breath come faster and pretending he didn't know the arousal rolling off Stiles around him wasn't just teenage hormones.

Maybe the brief trip to Vegas was a sign, not that Derek believed in those, but... He needed to take a chance, gamble that he could live and not just endure. Derek quirked a smile at his thoughts. He wasn't much for gambling, but he thought the odds were in his favor for once.

A river of weekend gamblers were pouring back to the LA basin – Derek's bail jumper had been one of them, now in the hands of the Las Vegas PD – and Derek let his foot press down the gas a little more, half intending to pass the mini-convoy of semis ahead of him. The SUV coughed and died instead; not just the engine but the electronics as well. Swift reflexes and strength let Derek wrestle the steering wheel right, hard enough to bounce off the Interstate and maintain control as it bounded onto the shoulder at eighty-five miles an hour. The SUV pinballed and smashed sideways between two other vehicles in a horrendous screech of metal on metal and dust rose in a choking cloud around it.

Derek's head snapped to the side with a crack. The steering wheel pulled leftward fast and hard enough it caught his thumb and dislocated it as the seatbelt caught and cut across his chest. He felt something in his shoulder wrench too before the airbags deployed and obscured the kaleidoscope swing of sun glaring off spinning glass and shining paint.

No one else had managed to maintain any control and the SUV didn't so much escape the massive pile-up as end up on the fringe. The deafening, disorienting noise of so many cars impacting each other came from every direction. Derek's hearing shut down in self-defense, leaving only a ringing whine in his ears.

He blinked and pulled in a hard breath once the SUV shuddered into stillness, rocking back onto four wheels and settling. He pushed until his thumb relocated and waited out his body repairing the rest of the damage it had taken, his neck healing last, while the world outside the shattered glass windshield went terribly, terribly quiet. His mouth tasted of his own blood – so familiar – briefly. He wiped a trickle from his lips with the back of his wrist, before it ran into his stubble.

The driver's side door had caved in and jammed the seat belt. Derek shifted his hand and used a discreet –he didn't want anyone to see -- claw to slice it open and pull himself out from the driver's seat. His ears still rang, worse than in any other car accident he'd ever experienced. The need to hackle up, to shift, tugged at him with a sense of something gone very wrong. In Derek's experience, wrong always equated to dangerous. The perpetually paranoid part of himself warned of hunters and wondered if he'd been targeted because he was alone.

An inhalation did little to soothe his rattled nerves, but he didn't catch the telltale scent of wolfsbane. Raw gasoline, burning oil, rubber, and dirt dominated the scent picture, but a second breath brought him one more element, growing stronger: blood to go with the cries coming from everywhere around him. Not hunters, he thought, it sounded like there were too many people involved. This was too overt.

The passenger side doors were both blocked by another vehicle and Derek glimpsed more cars beyond it, but couldn't make out much through the brown fog of dirt still drifting down. He punched out the shattered windshield, peeled the broken glass back with little care for his hands, and climbed out onto the crumpled black hood, leaving a bloodied handprint behind him on the dashboard.

He hadn't grasped the extent of the smash-up from inside. The hairs on the back of his neck and on his forearms lifted and Derek barely held in a freaked out snarl.

Crouched, one knee bent and one down, with his left palm flat on the hot metal, Derek stared. Cars and trucks were tumbled like dominoes as far as the road stretched in either direction, jammed into each other, crumpled, turned around, flipped, lying on their sides. The chaos extended to the other side of the freeway and the two lanes heading east too.

His ears had healed enough he could hear the cries from people trapped in their vehicles, panicked voices, angry shouting and screams.

A blue sedan had t-boned into the SUV. Derek glanced through the spider-webbed windshield and picked out the driver, slumped and unconscious, but alive and probably all right, judging by the steady thump of his heartbeat. He turned his attention to the woman in the older compact accordioned between the passenger side of his SUV and a banana yellow Hummer. Her heartbeat was jackhammer fast and uneven. Her gaze caught with Derek's and she began crying. The sobs mixed with the higher shrieks of a child somewhere close by.

Carefully, Derek dropped from the SUV onto the compact's hood. The metal groaned and dented under his boots. There was no way to get the doors even with his strength.

She gestured and tried to turn herself to look in the back seat. Derek cringed inside as he saw the two forms in back, both in child safety seats, because he could hear her heartbeat, but only one other.

He mimed for her to duck her head to protect her face and kicked the windshield in. Once he could, he snaked his arm in and shut off the ignition, annoyed with himself for not thinking to do the same to the SUV. A loud thump and the hated sound of flames signaled a gas tank had caught fire somewhere in the tangle of cars.

"My kids – " the woman gasped as the safety glass caved in and covered the seat beside her. The smell of fresh blood almost choked Derek, thick and salty and humid inside the confines of the little car.

"I'll get them first, then you," Derek said.

He crawled inside and leaned past the trapped woman, between the seats, to free the first child. He thought the boy was probably three or so. He'd never been good at judging human ages. Born werewolves matured physically faster, able to keep up and run with a pack within the first year of life, though their development slowed down to something closer to human after that. It made home schooling a necessity and paperwork in the modern age a nightmare.

Derek released the boy from the safety seat and lifted him free so he could place him in the woman's arms. The kid was half awake and whimpering, but okay. At least, Derek thought he was.

The other boy wasn't. He looked older, but still small enough for a safety seat. Five, maybe. The blood choking thick in Derek's nostril's came from his slight body. Derek wasn't sure how to free it up. A piece of metal had sheared through the Honda's driver's side passenger door and gone through the boy's shoulder and chest.

His hands hovered over the body and he felt sick, because he had the strength to bend the metal, to tear the safety seat loose, to break and rend with tooth and claw, but he was still as helpless as he'd been when Kate Argent burned his family alive. He didn't know what to do.

"Danny?" the woman asked, voice quivering with a sob that said she already knew on some level. "No, no, no, no... Please, no, Danny... " The jackhammer beat of her heart, the acrid flood of grief and terror she put out, both thrust Derek back to his own moment of endless denial. His family died and he couldn't help them and there was little he could do for this little family either. Couldn't tell this woman anything was okay or would ever be again. He never had been.

"Danny," she sobbed again. Panic quavered in her voice and she jerked against the seatbelt and steering wheel, thrashing futilely against the confines. Derek could smell the terror and denial sweating out of her; the smell curdled the blood in his own veins. He'd smelt like that, sounded like that, once. When everyone died and all he could do was repeat no, no, no, over and over again the way this woman kept repeating Danny, Danny.

Derek winced at the name, because his human pack member of the same name could just as easily die. He told himself Danny Mahealani was safe back LA. He was probably at school right now. If he wasn't, then Danny would be home, at the pack house in Nichols Canyon that Derek had bought when the pack relocated to attend college.

Derek twisted to face the woman. She had the younger boy pressed to her, one hand protectively cupped to the back of his neck, fingers threaded into the bowl-cut hair the same shade as hers. She was repeating ‘Danny’ over and over under her breath, freckles stark against her shock pale face. Derek pressed his lips together and shook his head.

"Let me get you two out of here," he said.

"Three! Three of us," she insisted, her voice rising and rising, flailing one arm out as if she would hit Derek for telling her anything different. She twisted in the seat again, or tried to, but her legs were trapped under the dash. "You can't be... You could be wrong. He could be okay. Please, I need to get him out – " Her voice broke on a small scream before she cut herself off and choked on wet sobs.

"Don't look," Derek told her. He took a deep breath. "I'm sure."

He knew he wasn't comforting. He'd never been able to make words offer any ease. If Stiles were with him, he'd say something awkward and out of context that would still provide a distraction, or hover silently and still be more helpful emotionally than Derek. But if Stiles were here, he'd have been hurt in the pile-up or devastated by the death of a child and Derek was abruptly glad Stiles was elsewhere for once.

She didn't say any more and Derek focused on finding a way to free her. "Are your legs broken or just trapped?" he asked.

"Just trapped," she replied. Her voice trembled and had gone thick. The little boy had begun whimpering in response. He let a sigh of relief, because he had no equipment to deal with that kind of severe injury. Humans were so horribly fragile.

"Have you -- has anyone called for help?" she asked.

Feeling like an idiot, Derek contorted enough to pull his cell phone out of his pants. Someone must have reported the massive multi-vehicle crash, but he could – He stared at the black face of the smart phone. It had been fully charged when he left Las Vegas. He tried powering it on again. "Damn it."

"In my purse," the woman said and nodded to the passenger floor board. The contents of her purse were spilled across the carpet. Derek spotted a phone in a bright pink case and snagged it. His frown deepened when the phone proved as dead as his own cell. When he silently set it down, the woman asked, "No coverage?" Somehow, she'd calmed herself down. He could see she was shaking, biting at her lower lip, but she was keeping herself together on the surface. Derek could hear her heart trying to beat its way free of her chest and the quick breaks in her too fast breathing, the grind of her teeth as she swallowed back all her words and denial. The living child quieted again and he realized she was trying to hold herself together and not terrify him.

"No power," Derek answered, still frowning. His mind went to the supernatural and whether there was a spell that killed cell phones. Cell phones and cars, he corrected himself, as he repositioned himself and the ugly reek of burning gasoline filled his nostrils. Priorities. Figure out why later, get out now.

After a brief examination of the car's interior, Derek took hold of the steering wheel. "Close your eyes again," he ordered.

The woman gave him a wide, disbelieving look. Derek glared back until she closed her eyes obediently.

He tore the steering wheel free with a crack and groan from the plastic components. Muscles in his shoulders and back tore with the strain, but knitted together a moment later. Derek tossed the steering wheel out the empty frame of the now missing windshield. With it out of the way, he could reach down and find where the seat bolted to the floor. "Oh my God, I can't believe you did that."

"Adrenaline," Derek said, flat and uncaring if she believed it or not. "Hold onto – " he stopped because he didn't know the kid's name.

"Billy. I'm Angela."

"Hold onto him."

He found the first bolt and ripped it loose. He had to reach over Angela to get the bolts on the other side before the entire seat came loose and Derek could push it back, finally freeing Angela's legs. It put him over her in intimate position that would have been awkward in another lifetime.

She had on a pink and white sundress and cheap sandals. Her legs sported cuts and an abrasion on one knee, but were mostly okay.

Derek took Billy in one arm and helped Angela climb out over the dashboard, handing Billy to her once she was on the hood, then exited himself.

"Oh my God, God, God," Angela whispered as she looked around. The hot wind off the desert whipped strands of dirty blond hair over her face, tangling it, gluing strands to her skin. She clutched Billy closer to her. The toddler clung like a leech and Derek had begun to worry over how quiet he was. "What happened? How could this happen?" A sob convulsed her frame. "Danny. Damn it. Danny."

"Come on," Derek said. He closed one hand around her elbow to steady and urge her on. She was about one breath away from losing it again. "You have to get away from the cars. Some are already burning."

"Danny – " She wouldn't move and he couldn't drag her away despite having the strength to do so. He wanted to ignore his own memories but he couldn't.

"I'll get him." He wasn't leaving anyone, even dead, to burn.

Derek crawled back into the car and made himself cut the body free and pull it loose. He couldn't keep Angela from seeing as he brought Danny out. She sobbed but said nothing, just stumbled and staggered over the uneven landscape of wrecked cars along with Derek until they could jump down to bare earth. Derek carried Danny and wished the feel of blood soaked through his clothes and into his skin and caked under his fingernails wasn't so familiar.

Other people were out of their vehicles now. Some stood, some sat on the side of the road and stared, and a few were out in the wreckage trying to free others – or unwilling to leave someone. Derek walked farther out from the road, vaulting a ditch to find a place to lay Danny's body down. Angela followed him, stumbling down through the weeds, crying and half blind, clutching Billy to her and nearly falling twice. Derek waited for her to make it up the other side, pretending he didn't see the way the skin around her eyes already looked swollen and bruised, the snot choked thickness in her words, or the way her eyes couldn't stay on the body in his arms, slipping to the side, gaze lost on the horizon, instead. After a brief second of internal debate, Derek pulled his shirt off, leaving him in one of his sleeveless undershirts. The shirt made a poor shroud, but at least it covered the boy's torso and face. When he looked up, Angela was staring at the dirt to the side of Danny, not blinking, and he guessed she was going numb.

"You should stay here," Derek muttered, wanting to get away from her and the pain searing the air around her, "I'll come back."

She nodded but he wondered if she'd really heard him. He left her sliding down to her knees next to the little body, rocking Billy in her arms.

He went back to the knotted rope of wrecked cars and found someone else to get out and someone after that, caught broken bits of information as he worked, but nothing that answered his questions. He cut himself and was burned more than once. It didn't matter. The sun seared from its zenith, so bright no one could look up or find any shade. Salt sweat burned into his eyes and mixed with dirt and soot when Derek wiped it away.

Another man joined him as he knocked out a back windshield on a car with an older couple trapped inside. Derek's new partner had a blue plastic tarp he laid over the sharp edges and pieces of glass and an easy patter that got the old man and old woman to crawl out over their car's trunk. Derek pegged him as a professional; the gray t-shirt under the man's plaid work shirt had a faded out logo for a fire department and he'd donned heavy protective gloves that looked flame retardant.

The old man had an antique pocket watch and went on and on about the shameful response times of emergency personnel, declaring he was timing everything, while his tiny, white-haired wife rolled her faded eyes in exasperation.

After ushering the two seniors toward the side of the road, the guy wiped sweat from his forehead and commented, "So far no one knows shit. You?"

Derek grunted a negative.

"No one can get any kind of signal, electronics are fucked. It's not just cells, there's a guy back there with a sat phone. He's got nothing. Same for the people with tablets and laptops and other crap I've talked to so far."

Derek shrugged. He listened for the sound of anyone in any of the cars near by. Figuring out what had happened could wait until later. He pointed toward a partially crushed hatchback and then headed to check it. Someone had left their dog trapped in the baking prison of the car. It made him growl in his throat, low enough no one heard it but the dog, which exploded into fearful barking.

"Geezer McGrumpy back there's watch was working though," the guy added as he came to Derek's side. He had a tire iron in one hand. "Let's get this bitch open. Poor dog's gonna cook otherwise."

Derek wiped his hands on his pants and took the tire iron. It was the work of a moment to work the thin edge between the car's door and the frame and pry. He found it satisfying, using the strength that often had to be used in combat for something so simple. The door look gave way with metallic squeal.

The dog, somebody's half Pit Bull, cowered back from Derek until he caught its gaze, then bounded out and streaked away.

"Well, that's about as much thanks as anyone else has given us. I suppose we should be grateful he didn't bite."

Derek gave him a flat look and said, "I bite too."

"Not something I needed to know." But the guy laughed before he sobered and said, "This is just going to get worse. People are going to drop from heat stroke even if they aren't injured and there's enough fuel leaking everywhere to send up some of these cars like bombs."

Derek started toward another vehicle, a van tossed on its side, weaving between cars when he could and going over them when necessary. He paused before vaulting into the empty cargo bed of a pick-up and glanced back. "You coming?" he prompted.

"Yeeesh, yeah, let's keep at this as long as we can."

Black smoke billowed into the bleached blue sky as one crashed car after another caught fire. Derek's companion jolted along with him and cursed under his breath. "No god damn equipment. This is shit."

Derek and the other man weren't the only ones pulling people from the wreckage, but inevitably the flames found victims still trapped in their vehicles.

The thin screams made him want to run and run until he couldn't hear, couldn't smell, couldn't see.

He gave up when a Toyota exploded into flames so close the heat blistered his face briefly. Most of the other rescuers had already retreated, except the guy that Derek had been working beside. He cursed viciously and dragged Derek away from the Toyota.

"Shit. Stop. We don't have the equipment – " His red hair, buzzed close to his head, had gone dark with sweat and his freckles stood out even against his reddened skin.

Derek could have pulled himself loose easily, but didn't, instead just shrugging the man's hands off his shoulders after a moment. He breathed in deeply and kept his face turned away until the blisters were gone.

"Still got your eyebrows?" the man asked.

Derek chuckled. If he only knew... Stiles had teased them all enough over the beta form's lack of eyebrows. "Yeah." He wondered if Stiles was all right, if whatever this thing was had affected more than a stretch of California desert. Baja was isolated; safer in some ways, more exposed in others. He wished like hell Stiles was beside him instead of there.

His nameless partner peered up at the cloudless sky. "Something's really wrong," he said.

Derek stared at him silently before nodding.

"Even with the roads completely blocked, there should be choppers out here, surveying the extent of all this. CHP. Someone." A wave of one dirty hand took in the long line of the highway and the cars clogging it. "Someone must have noticed something – "

Derek rolled his shoulders to release a little tension.. It didn't matter what had happened. They had to deal with it. If no one came – and clearly no one was, the afternoon had rolled onward and the shadows were stretching black and long – then everyone had to take care of themselves. He'd already done more than he had any reason to do. He hadn't bothered himself trying to figure out the reasons for the mess. Someone else could figure that out. Someone else could play rescuer, too. He had no obligations to anyone here; he had to get back to his pack and take care of them.

Another wave of heat from the burning Toyota made him start moving again. He picked his way back to his SUV. The other guy followed him. Years of ending up covered in either his own or an enemy's blood had taught him to keep something in his car to use to wash up along with at least a change clothes. He cleaned himself up and pulled a clean shirt out of his duffel bag before deciding on what to carry with him.

He had trail mix, protein bars, and a case of bottled water. He added another shirt, fished out a butane lighter, and then grabbed the bag with the gear he used when he went after a bounty. Bulletproof vests and guns were excess baggage for an alpha werewolf, but it paid to fit in and look like a normal human. Working by himself raised enough eyebrows, though Boyd and sometimes Isaac helped out occasionally. The bag had a knife, zip ties, a windbreaker and a baseball cap, along with his guns. He didn't want to leave those behind. He added in another shirt, a couple of bottles of water, and half the box of protein bars. He handed off the rest and said, "Grab anything here you want."

A coppery eyebrow went up in response to that. "So, I'm Alex," the man said and offered his hand. Derek shrugged at him then tossed him the rest of the protein bars and trail mix. After a second's consideration, he added the extensive first aid and emergencies kit Stiles had insisted he carry. He slung his gear bag over one shoulder and picked up the rest of the water. Alex followed with a chuckle.

Angela was where Derek had left her. She sat next to Danny's body, still rocking Billy. Her shoulders were sunburned. It took a minute before she looked up at Derek and Alex, even when their shadows fell across her face. Her eyes were nearly swollen shut.

"You're back," she said eventually.

"I've got water," Derek told her. "This is Alex."

"Alex Komorovski."

"Angela Bailey. This is Billy." Billy peeked at Alex briefly then hid his face against his mother again.

They both looked at Derek. Derek handed Angela a bottle of water and didn't offer his name.

Angela alternated drinking and giving sips to Billy. Alex winced when he saw Danny's covered body and said nothing. He sipped slowly at the bottle of water Derek handed him and squinted westward. "Any ideas?" he asked eventually.

"Walk," Derek replied. A ragged line of people already had the same idea. Some were headed west down the side of the highway, though a few were marching back, maybe figuring they were closer to a town in that direction.

Alex nodded.

"My grand dad has a house in Afton," Angela said unexpectedly. "We should go there."

Derek shrugged and finished his own water. "I've got to get back to LA." He glanced down at Angela and Billy, then caught Alex's gaze. "Keep the water."

Alex raised his eyebrows again. "You sure?"

He could shift and find water. He could even hunt. There were always jackrabbits. (Derek drew the line at cats. He wasn't a coyote, damn it.)

He meant to nod and leave, but the shift of gravel under shoes snapped his attention to two skinny guys headed toward them. Both had their eyes on the case of water.

"So, hey, how about sharin'?" the one wearing tie-dye and a beanie asked.

"Yeah," the other one, taller and skinnier and smelling of patchouli and grass and body odor to Derek's nose, agreed.

Alex's pale blue gaze flicked to Derek and they weighed helpfulness against looking out for themselves, Angela and Billy.

Derek fished out a single bottle and held it up. He tossed it to Tie-Dye. "That's it. Go." A hint of a growl rolled under his flat words. He let his eyes flare red, just for a second, where Alex and Angela couldn't see. The shift painted the two men in monochrome reds, a glow of heat coming off them even in the desert, and they looked like prey. Derek didn't know what his face looked like, but both men stumbled away in a hurry.

With a grimace at how much longer this was going to take, Derek turned back to Angela. The Afton exit had to be around twenty miles down the highway. "Let's go." At least it would take him in the right direction.

"You're a chatty bastard, aren't you?" Alex commented after an hour of silent walking. They'd brought Danny's body, wrapped in the rain poncho from Derek's emergency kit. Derek carried the body without discussing it with either Angela or Alex. He knew even if they covered the corpse with stones, scavengers would find it before morning. The bones would end up scattered across the desert and no one would find them. It was just nature, but he wouldn’t leave this child for the animals the way Peter had left Laura's body.

"Very," Derek said and allowed himself a smirk.

Alex let out a snort of laughter before slowing his stride to even up with Angela. "You want me to carry him for a while?" he asked.

After thinking about it for a minute, Angela nodded and handed Billy over. The boy protested, whinging wearily until Angela's murmurs settled him. Alex whispered encouraging silliness to him next. They kept walking, sometimes passing others who were going slower or had stopped. Once, a set of three bicyclists pedaled by them. The endless line of motionless cars stretched ahead of them as they topped a small rise and continued on into the distance. Derek stopped and waited for Alex and Angela to catch up, watching the uneven, unorganized trail of people walking ahead of them. When he looked back there were more straggling behind, as far as he could see.

Smoke rose from burning wrecks, thick and black, and periodically a boom would sound from another gas tank going up. It sounded like some kind of desultory bombardment, like a lazy siege, like a war, like death. Every shift of the wind brought the reek of smoldering rubber and flesh.

Despite the heat, Derek shuddered. He really hated fire. He feared it, a fear that writhed and clawed at him inside, tearing at his control every time.

They walked onward, until the sun hung over the western horizon, and Derek pinned down the sense of silence bothering him. It wasn't truly silent, because the sounds of the natural world were unchanged, and he could hear Angela, Alex and Billy close by and often enough other stranded walkers ahead or behind them. It was the lack of anything electrical. The hum of civilization, the buzz that came off power lines and crackled sometimes where stray voltage leaked, that formed as much a background to life as the sough of the wind or his own heartbeat, was gone. Derek frowned. He and Laura had been in New York when the Eastern power grid went down. He remembered the people walking out of the city, an exodus, and it resembled this too much.

The grid crashing hadn't crashed vehicles, though. This was bigger.

They walked through the post-sundown dusk and Derek steered them away from a rattler sliding its way out of the daytime shade once. Angela squeaked and danced back into Alex. "Worry about them when they're coiled up," Derek told her.

"I'll worry about them, period," she snapped back.

He shrugged.

Flashlights, it turned out, still worked. Too simple to be messed up. The patchy thread of people walking became slightly more familiar as a line of lights in the dark. It seemed paltry compared to the usual river of head and tail lights, though.

The dark told Derek more than the day had. The stars overhead were stunningly brilliant and the horizon disappeared into the sky without the silhouette of light pollution.

No glow from a town's lights nearby or the LA basin to the southwest diluted the pitch black of the night. No vehicles, no aircraft, and when Derek peered up, he couldn't pick out the track of a single satellite either, when it should have been much, much easier than normal.

He stopped stock still though because something else colored the night sky abruptly, brightening until Alex and Angela both noticed and looked up too. A curtain of green rippled across the sky, then pink, more green, delicate flares of light that were still brighter than Derek had ever imagined aurora could be.

"Look, Billy," Angela prompted her sleepy son. "Look, isn't it pretty?" Billy smiled at the sky and the cascades of light.

"Yeah, it's pretty," Alex muttered to Derek. "It's pretty like snow in the freaking Sahara. I mean, I'm right, that's like the Northern Lights?"

"Aurora Borealis," Derek agreed.

"Which we should not be seeing down here, especially not like that," Alex said. "We should be seeing light pollution from LA."

"Yeah."

"I figure there's been a war or something and no one bothered to tell us."

Derek grunted.

"Maybe a terrorist attack with an EMP," Alex said.

Derek side-eyed him. "You're the firefighter. You guys probably got briefings or seminars on that kind of stuff."

"And you're a cop or – "

"Bounty hunter," Derek corrected him.

"Huh."

"We should keep moving." The aurora light made it a little easier for the humans to see where they were walking. They should take advantage while they could.