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Lydia misses rain.

She used to hate drizzling afternoons and puddles in the street. She was a California girl; she specialized in towering high heels and flouncy skirts, neither of which were suited for rain. Her feet would get wet and her curls would droop and her mascara would run. She hated the gray clouds filling up the sky and dropping down torrents of water that would inevitably ruin the image she put in so much effort to perfect.

She would do anything to have rain now.

She wants rain to soak her hair all the way through until she feels coldness seep down to her scalp. She wants it to wash her face. Wants to walk barefoot on wet pavement and breathe in the smell of earth and ozone. She wants a storm, fierce and tumultuous. She wants to feel pure again. She wants to feel clean.

Instead, she’s stuck in this godforsaken desert. Trapped in a shroud of heat that smothers every pore on her skin and leaves her panting for breath.

Of course, the Jeep doesn’t have AC.

Stiles has rolled down every window and both of their heads are shoved out into the dry air. Their hair whips around in the makeshift breeze, but there is little relief. Lydia’s tank top is still plastered to her chest with sweat, her jeans chafing against the sensitive skin on the backside of her knees.

“I can’t breathe,” Lydia chokes, bringing her head back inside. It’s meant to be for herself, but he hears her and nods wearily in agreement.

Lydia would trade every sunny day for the rest of her life for a single day of cold rain.

They’ve been on a long stretch of highway for hours and there’s been nothing. Not an exit sign or even a speed limit sign in sight. Just infinite beige punctuated with spindly bushes stretching forever in either direction. She tries to quell the panic that is knotting in her stomach, but with every unsatisfactory breath and every mile that ticks down like a timebomb to zero, the pain grows sharper. The knotting more twisted. Her panic, more impossible to quell. Her vision narrows and her heart rate speeds up before she’s even aware of the wave of anxiety that’s settled over her.

“Pull over,” she says, her hands curling into fists on her knees. Her heartbeat is pounding in her ears. She can’t seem to catch her breath. She’s suffocating.

“In a few miles.”

“Stiles. Pull. Over.”

“We have to keep going, Lydia.”

“Going where?!”

“East.”

She needs East, she needs Allison, like she needs oxygen and rainfall, but right now they need to stop.

“Stiles,” she pleads. Her voice sounds so small. Maybe that’s why he finally turns to look at her and sees the frenzied desperation etched on her face. He pulls the car to the side of the road and cuts the engine.

She brings the heel of her hand to wipe across her forehead, swiping her greasy, sweaty hair up and back. Stiles twitches a hand towards her as if to comfort her but retracts it just as quickly. They do not touch when the sun is out. These are the rules.

“Lydia, if we find something, anything, we’ll stop,” Stiles says slowly.

Lydia nods along, trying to take deep breaths. Her lungs inflate with torrid air. She feels like screaming.

“Drink some water, okay?” Stiles says, producing his canteen from its spot on the backseat and pressing it into her hands. Their fingers brush against the metal of the cap and Lydia thinks she feels her heart calm infinitesimally. She brings the rim to her lips and swallows mouthfuls of lukewarm water, the liquid splashing down her parched throat and alleviating the knot in her stomach. She lowers the canteen and hands it back to him, making sure not to touch him.

“Thanks,” she says, clearing her throat. She can taste dust on the back of her tongue and suppresses a gag.

“Do you want food?” he asks her.

“We don’t have anything to eat, do we?”

Stiles bites his lower lip and turns to the backseat to dig around in his duffle bag, before unearthing the lone jar of maraschino cherries, still unopened.

“No,” she says.

“More for me,” Stiles shrugs, popping the lid with a twist of his wrist. Lydia crosses her arms across her chest and glares at him as the sticky smell of artificial sweetness immediately permeates the thick, stuffy air.

“Yummm,” Stiles hums as he dips a single finger into the syrupy liquid of the jar before sucking the digit with a satisfying smack of his lips.

Lydia glares harder at the sight of exaggerated rapture on his face.

“So sweet,” he sighs, digging around for the stem of a cherry. He lifts it up like he’s about to baptize an unholy fruit in the river of his saliva.

He sticks out his tongue and lowers the cherry agonizingly slow with a moan that sounds explicitly pornographic and, with a lick of his lips, devours it whole.

“What is going on?”

“Cherries, Lydia.”

“Stiles, get something else for me to eat.”

“This is all we have.”

“We only have cherries?”

“Bingo. And if this is the last thing I ever eat in my life, I’m gonna make damn sure it’s the best thing, too.”

“Your delusion is astounding.”

“Come on. Have the best cherry of your life. You deserve it.”

She eyes the offending jar warily. The heat has made Stiles borderline cranky and deliriously goofy, and she finds herself falling into a similar state.  

He pulls out another cherry and this time make a big show about moaning and sucking it dry. It reminds her of when boys used to pretend they were making out with someone on the playground, when they’d wrap their arms around their back and make obnoxious kissing noises. Back when there were still playgrounds and people to play on them.

“You sound like you’re losing your virginity,” Lydia says, rolling her eyes.

“I lost my virginity when I was sixteen. Best night of Heather’s life.”

“You mean best two minutes.”

“Hey, it wasn’t two. It was five.”

“I’m sure her parent’s finished basement floor was very comfortable.”

Stiles smirks, and then gives the passenger seat she’s currently sitting in a very long look.

“Please don’t tell me...”

“Like I said, best night. I got my driver’s license, then drove straight to Heather’s house and lost my virginity.”

“Instead of talking about popping cherries, why don’t you give me one.”

Stiles winks lasciviously and she finds her patience thinning.

“Give me a fucking cherry, Stiles.”

“No. You said you didn’t want them, so they’re mine now. Sorry, not sorry.”

He pulls the jar childishly away from her outstretched hands. His eyes drop down to her chest.

“You know…” He starts.

“No.”

“...you could earn them.”

“If you think for a second I’m touching you in this heat, you’re out of your damn mind.”

“But you’re so pretty-y-y-y.”

“I can barely breathe, we’re both sweating buckets, and this entire car reeks .”

He looks pointedly at the passenger seat and wags his eyebrows again.

“Stiles. Give me the cherries and start the fucking car.”

He sighs, acquiescing to her demands. She dips her fingertips into the jar and pulls out a single cherry, plopping it into her mouth.

The syrup is too sweet and the cherry tastes like chemicals, but he’s watching her, and so she flutters her eyes and moans wantonly.

Stiles’ mouth becomes a tight, flat line. And his hand stumbles before gripping onto the key in the ignition.

“...Okay. Let’s go.”

She’s really feeling much better.

* * *

They pull off at the next exit they see, towards Richardson. The desert has given way to concrete. Lydia is almost thankful for the change in scenery. They pass a long-since looted gas station and a burnt-out strip mall before Stiles stops the car at the entrance to an overgrown subdivision. A brick sign near the road proclaims the neighborhood to be Iron Gate Communities.

The eponymous gate is twisted backwards, uselessly hanging by a single hinge. It looks like someone rammed it in their desperation to get out, or to get in. There’s a bright red quarantine sign still stuck to the bars. The quarantine was a last ditch effort by the government to contain the outbreak that had already grown too large to control. Lydia can still remember the red signs popping up like weeds, plastered on schools and apartment complexes and hospital doors. They didn’t work, of course. There was no cure coming. No hope. No salvation.

“Think there’s anything in there?” Stiles asks, his palm coming up to rub the healing wound on his chest.

“Only one way to find out,” Lydia responds, leaning forward in her seat to inspect the gate. It’s the first sign of civilization they’ve seen in days. “You’re Immune, right?”

“Well, I’m not dead yet, so I guess I am. What about you?”

“I got tested when my mom…” She stops herself before she can finish, blinking back the memory of the violent red sores spreading across her mother’s chest. “Yeah, I am.”

Stiles nods nervously. He taps his fingers on the gear shift, his jaw clenching. Finally, he shrugs his shoulder and sighs.

“Guess let’s do this,” he mutters, inching the car forward towards the ruined gate.

The first house in the complex has all of the windows smashed out and graffiti streaking across the white vinyl siding. The yellow draperies on the second floor flow in and out with the breeze. A minivan sits in the driveway, its back hatch wide open and the tires gone. A row of five houses are burnt to the ground, one with a collection of half-melted children’s playground equipment still visible in the backyard. They make a few turns past ruined houses, ending at a wide cul-de-sac. One house looks like a fire started in the garage but didn’t spread to the rest of the structure. The neighboring house looks stripped down, the doors and the windows all completely gone. The final house, however, appears remarkably intact. The bright red paint on the front door doesn’t even look scratched.

“Well, there goes the neighborhood.”

“Do you think anyone’s still there?” Lydia asks. She’s not sure why she’s suddenly whispering.

“Only one way to find out,” he replies, pulling into the empty driveway.

Lydia bites her lip and pats the holster on her waist, checking to make sure her ring daggers are in place. Stiles has been nothing but nonchalant since pulling into the suburb, but his knuckles are white on the wheel.

“Ready?” she asks. Stiles doesn’t answer as he grabs his bat from the backseat and shoulders his door open. He doesn’t meet her eyes. She sets her face to neutral and follows him out of the Jeep, heading towards the red door with her fingers already wrapped around the handle of the knife.

Stiles falters when they reach the short porch, nervously twitching the bat in his palm.

“...Do we knock?” he asks.

Lydia pauses, scanning for any signs of life from the house. The drapes on the windows are still, and there is no sound but the stale air crackling through dead trees.

“Kick it down,” she says. Stiles walks up to the wood and rears his foot back, slamming the edge of his heel next to the knob. The door shakes violently and they can hear wood splinter. Stiles pauses briefly, listening for anything from the inside. When nothing sounds, he kicks again and the door gives way.

There’s a gunshot.

For the space of an eternity shoved into a second, the entire world stands still.

Stiles spins around, his face white.

Lydia feels something wet seeping down her arm before pain rips up through her nerves. She looks down to see bright red blood spurting from the wound in her bicep, the flesh obliterated and torn where the bullet divided it. They both watch in frozen horror as the blood stops it's spitting and instead begins to pour down her arm, mixing with the sweat on her dirty skin.

Stiles reacts. He drops his bat and rips the flannel from around his waist, wrapping it tightly against her arm. He presses his palm down on the wound to stop the bleeding and Lydia grits her teeth to stop the gasp of pain from slipping out.

Fuck!” Stiles bites. “Goddamn tripwire, fuck, are you okay?”

“I got shot,” Lydia says, her voice sounding far away in her ears. She clamps her free hand onto Stiles’s shoulder to balance.

“Tripwire, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know, I’m sorry,” Stiles replies, his grip tight on her bicep and his eyes worriedly searching her face.

“I got shot?”

“I didn’t know the tripwire was there, please tell me you’re okay.”

“I got shot!” Lydia blinks rapidly. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

“Does that mean you’re okay?”

He pulls the flannel away slightly to inspect the wound. It gapes back at him in all its gory, open-mouthed glory.

“It's just a scratch,” he puffs with relief.

“Just a scratch, Stiles?! I got shot!”

Stiles brings the edge of his bloodied flannel up and seizes the end of the sleeve with his teeth. He pulls forcefully and tears a strip away, the long tatter swaying between his lips. He wraps it tightly around her arm and tucks the edges in. Red blossoms slowly through the fabric, but it’s the best they’ve got.

“There are probably supplies inside,” Stiles says, jerking his head towards the splintered front door. His hand has stayed on her arm, his thumb pressed against the skin just over the edge of her makeshift bandage.

“Inside the boobytrapped house that just shot me?”

“I’ll go first?” Stiles offers.

“You went first last time and I still got shot,” Lydia huffs.

“I know you got shot, Lydia, I was in front of you when it happened.”

She opens her mouth to argue or exclaim or change his mind, but he takes the hand hanging limply by her side and squeezes it, and she finds her teeth clicking shut at the look in his eyes.

“I’m not letting anything happen to you again,” he says. “I mean it.”

She grits her teeth and nods, and he gives her hand one last squeeze before pushing through the doorway. She watches as his silhouette darkens and his head turns from side to side, scoping out the derelict home. Lydia waits until he looks over his shoulder and gives her a nod before she trails in behind him.

Putrid air immediately hits her nose. She raises her elbow to cover her mouth, and from the corner of her eye she can see Stiles do the same. The smell makes her eyes water, but they still dart around, taking in their dim surroundings. A wooden staircase dominates the entryway, a shotgun jammed between the balusters. The living room opens up to the right, harshly illuminated by a still-functioning television. Empty cans of food are stacked behind the boarded up windows, acting as a makeshift alarm system. Dead leaves crunch underfoot on the bare hardwood floor.

Wordlessly, they make their way over to the glowing television where SMPTE color bars burn too brightly in the dark.

There’s a part of Lydia that transcends the stinging of her arm, the boy standing next to her, the broken house with the rotting air—until she’s a child again, sitting in front of the television, waiting for a show that will never come. From the way Stiles stands still next to her, both of their eyes locked on the screen, she figures she’s not alone in her twisted nostalgia. It’s weird that a pixelated rainbow has the power to make her remember that her life wasn’t always about running and fighting and blood; that she was a child once, with a home and a mother who loved her and her favorite cartoon at four pm every Tuesday.

Her vision starts to darken at the edges, the world narrowing down to the glow of the television. She can hear her heart in her ears, the deafening pounding overtaking her senses. She knows it’s the shock setting in, logically knows that she will be okay and she just needs to get through it. Her legs feel weak. She’s tired of fighting.

“Don’t be afraid,” she says, and when the words come out they don’t sound like her.

She doesn’t wait for Stiles to fuss or look concerned. Instead, she collapses onto the grimy couch as the room spins around her.

Somewhere far away, Stiles is babbling, darting in and out of her vision while everything fades and ebbs around her. She jams her eyes shut and concentrates on pulling in air: slow inhale, slow exhale.

Slow inhale.

Slow exhale.

She comes back as quickly as she faded away, the fetid air burning in her nostrils and settling in the back of her throat. Stiles crouches in front of her, worriedly searching her face as his hands hover over her body.

“I’m fine,” Lydia croaks. She pushes herself up into a sitting position and runs her tongue over her lips.

“I’m fine,” she repeats. Stiles wordlessly hands her a bottle of water. She holds it in her palm, awestruck at the reality of fresh water after a scorching day of thirst, before twisting the cap off and taking three deep swallows. The liquid is lukewarm and tastes like plastic and Lydia has never loved the taste of anything more. She passes the bottle to Stiles, who takes a few swigs before popping the cap back on.

“We’ll do a quick sweep for supplies and then get out,” He tells her, his voice soft. “Twenty minutes, tops. Okay?”

Lydia nods. Stiles slides his hand into hers and squeezes for a brief moment before he stands and shoulders his bag.

“Ready?” He asks.

Lydia doesn’t respond. Instead she stands, brushes dust off her jeans, and walks past him towards the kitchen. She does not wait to see if he will follow.

The kitchen is small and yellow, the single window over the sink boarded up with cabinet doors and the back door and garage door nailed shut. The fridge is not functioning, but stocked with dozens of bottles of water. Stiles shoves them all in his bag, as well as a handful of what looks like military rations crammed in the back of the pantry. They find a single tube of Pringles on the top shelf of the only cabinet with a remaining door and Lydia’s mouth waters at the promise of a salty snack. They search an attached dining room, finding the splintered remains of a dark oak dining table and a small hatchet. Lydia picks the hatchet up and grips it in her palms, testing the weight. She eventually slides it into her belt, enjoying the way the steel head feels against her hip. The remaining room on the bottom floor is a single half-bath tucked under the stairs. Lydia throws a box of tampons in her bag and takes a single bar of soap for good measure. She remembers the underground springs in the Oni’s caves system and longs for the feeling of hot water engulfing her skin. She wonders when she’ll be able to shower again.

Stiles heads cautiously up the stairs, his bat held at the ready in front of him. A hallway stretches the length of the house, lined with four closed doors. The smell is worse up here. Lydia brings her good arm up and tries to breathe through the fabric of her sleeve, but the smell seeps through. If Stiles is as affected, he doesn’t let it show. Instead, he heads towards the nearest door and gently swings it open. The smell grows worse and Stiles ducks his head out of the entryway, retching. Lydia moves around him and peers into the room, trying to steel herself for what she might see.

Purple curtains embroidered with silver sequins swaying in the air coming through the broken bedroom window. The bookcase in the corner stuffed with children’s books, a plush dragon, and a painted unicorn statue. Glow-in-the-dark stars climbing up the moulding around the window and onto the ceiling in swirling patterns. Wooden letters on the wall spell out the name “HAILEY.” A small purple jacket hanging on the edge of the ottoman set at the edge of the bed.

The bloodstained sheet drawn over a child-sized bulge laid delicately on top of the bed.

Lydia covers her nose and mouth with her hand, squeezing so tightly that she feels her nails digging into the flesh of her cheek. This was a place of love, once. This girl, Hailey, fell asleep in this room, dreaming of the future underneath a sky of plastic stars. Now she’s decaying in the same bed she was once kept warm in. There is only death here.

Lydia steps back into the hallway, shutting the door softly behind her. Stiles has composed himself, though he cannot hide the fierce red of his bloodshot eyes or the angry flush climbing up his neck. He stares into her face, searching for something in her expression—comfort? Strength? Familiarity? She doesn’t know. She stares back anyway.

Lydia finally turns and heads to the next door, opening it with more force than she thinks might be necessary. She finds a plainly decorated bathroom. She ignores the toys in the bathtub, grabs an aspirin bottle and a box of bandages from the medicine cabinet, and swiftly shuts this door as well. Stiles has already opened the door to the next room and comes out empty-handed.

“Just a study,” Stiles says. “Unless you want a dead Macbook and a bunch of manuals on accounting.”

“I’m cutting it pretty close on submitting my taxes, they might come in handy.”

Stiles breathes out an incredulous laugh, the corners of his mouth twitching up momentarily before he wipes his face and rearranges his features into something harder. He motions towards the final door. Lydia steps into place behind him. He turns the knob and swings it open.

A hammer cocks.

Lydia draws in a breath and holds it.

Stiles begins to raise his bat.

“She was Naomi. She was Hailey. I was David.”

Click.

The hammer cocks again.

“She was Naomi. She was Hailey. I was David.”

Click.

Stiles lowers the bat. Lydia steps forward.

A man sits on the edge of the bed, a woman’s body draped over his lap. Her bottom half is covered with a blanket, her face turned away from them, her stiff, graying arm hanging towards the carpet. The man has one hand in her hair and the other holds a pistol to his temple. He stares blankly up at Stiles and Lydia and cocks the gun again.

“She was Naomi. She was Hailey. I was David,” he says, his cracked lips forming the words like lost prayers. He cocks the pistol and pulls the trigger.

Click.

Out of bullets. The man heaves in a sob, sunken eyes blinking rapidly. He grits his teeth.

“She was Naomi. She was Hailey. I was David.”

He lowers the gun and sighs.

“I was David,” He repeats. “They were Naomi and Hailey.”

He gently moves the woman’s head from his lap, her bones cracking unnaturally and too much hair coming off in his hands. He stands, straightening his back and tugging down the edge of his shirt. He looks between Lydia and Stiles, his gaze boring into their faces until Lydia feels like she will have to look away from the intensity of it.

“We were happy,” David says.

Beside her, Stiles brushes his knuckles against the back of her hand, and he’s shaking so hard it makes her hand shake too.

“We know,” Stiles responds softly.

David nods, satisfied. His shoulders pull in as he takes a deep breath.

He lunges straight for Stiles.

Lydia charges forward to meet him with her arm raised and her knife out. The blade sinks through his jugular as his shoulder rams into her jaw. They fall to the ground in a heap of blood and limbs. Something jams against her fresh wound and she yells, shoving with all her might until he rolls off of her. Her top is stained dark with his blood, her knife still lodged in his throat. They stare, disturbed and gasping, as the man sprawls onto his back, palms outstretched to the ceiling.

It gets very quiet.

His finger quirks and points to the gray corpse of his wife.

Naomi.

Stiles sucks in a breath that quivers in his chest and leans over, fisting the woman’s tattered clothes and pulling her lifeless form to rest by his side. The man’s lips are still moving as blood bubbles out from between them, mouthing something like “thank you” as the light in his eyes fades. Lydia makes to wipe her face, but finds her hands covered in blood. She feels like she will be sick. She stands shakily and moves to David’s corpse, wrenching the knife out of him with a disgusting squelch . She wipes it off on the edge of her shirt as best she can before she puts it back into the holster at her side.

Wordlessly, she stumbles out the door and heads down the stairs. She’s distantly aware of Stiles following her. At the bottom, she pulls her shirt off and over her head, throwing it onto the floor. She couldn’t stand the weight of the blood seeping through onto her chest. Couldn’t stand the feel of it smearing onto her skin.

Will she ever be clean again?

Stiles moves somewhere behind her. Lydia steps forward into the harsh orange light of the afternoon, blinking back tears she can blame on the glare from the sun, and heads silently to the Jeep.

She thinks Stiles will try to stop her, or call out her name. He doesn't. But he does stop short of the Jeep, and says something she can’t make out.

“What?”

“The baby,” he stammers, eyes unfocused. “We shouldn’t leave the baby alone.”

It takes her much too long to realize he’s talking about the little girl beneath the red sheet. She wasn’t a baby, but she was David and Naomi’s baby.

Lydia watches as Stiles sways in place, hands vibrating uncontrollably by his sides.

“I don’t want to leave the baby,” he chokes wetly, and it hurts her to watch.

“She’s already gone, Stiles.”

“She’s alone—”

“She’s not alone.”

“She’s alone in that room—”

“Stiles—”

“It shouldn’t end alone. She’s just a baby. It can’t end this way. It shouldn’t end alone like this.”

He’s hyperventilating now, eyes wild and rolling practically into the back of his head. She watches as his chest heaves with a breath he can’t catch, and he shakes so hard she’s afraid he’ll break everything inside of him.

She climbs into the driver’s seat and leans out of the open window of the car, reaching out to him, grabbing tight to his hand.

“It’s not going to end alone, Stiles. Not for you. Not for us.”

He looks at her, raw and unblinking, tears spilling out of his eyes and trailing softly down the rough planes of his face. Lydia wipes her hands on her jeans and reaches up to cup his cheek, rubbing away the moisture with her thumb.

“Wherever they are, they’re together. That’s all there is.”

Stiles relaxes into her grasp, his eyes open and vulnerable, then quickly steps back and shakes his head violently, exhaling deeply. He looks up one last time at the broken house, his gaze drifting to the window where a flash of purple can be seen through the wooden slats, before getting in the car and cranking the ignition.

As they round the last corner out of the subdivision, Lydia wonders briefly if Stiles noticed the lack of sores on David’s skin or the clarity of action in his eyes. If he did, he doesn’t mention it. There are small favors left in this diseased world after all.

Her arm twinges in pain.

“So, it turns out that bullet wounds hurt pretty badly,” Lydia says, trying to sound nonchalant through gritted teeth.

“Huh,” Stiles grunts, eyes still red. “Who would’ve thought?”

As they exit the neighborhood, he puts his hand between them with his palm up. She slides her hand across and laces their fingers together. He gives it a squeeze in solidarity.

It doesn’t hurt as much anymore.

* * *

Stiles stops the Jeep abruptly at the fifth burned-out pile of cars and pounds his palm down on the steering wheel.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” he shouts, slamming himself backwards in his seat.

Lydia eyes the wall of blackened, twisted metal blocking the highway exit. Like the others, the cars are stacked methodically across the pavement, barricading the only way off the long stretch of pavement leading directly to the sparkling skyscrapers looming on the horizon.

“It’s on purpose,” she says. “They’re forcing us into downtown.”

“Who?” Stiles asks, his long fingers gesturing around wildly.

“Whoever is in there,” Lydia points towards the city. A flash of sunlight burns off the glass side of a building and slashes through Lydia’s vision. She blinks furiously as her eyes water, the arc of blue dancing erratically behind her eyelids.

Stiles exhales harshly, tapping a closed fist on the top of the stick shift.

“Can we go back?” Lydia asks. “Find some way through the backroads?”

“We don’t have enough fuel. Unless you want to walk to Virginia?”

“Not particularly, no.”

“Then the only way out is through.”

He jams the Jeep into first gear and steps on the gas. Lydia lets out a long exhale.

The only way out is through.

***

It was a bad idea.

Lydia knows it as soon as the Jeep is swarmed by a small army dressed in riot and SWAT gear, their faces obscured by thick goggles and gas masks. Stiles slams on the brakes as a wall of bodies block the road a mile into the city of Dallas, dozens of guns trained directly on the windshield.

They freeze in their seats, so still that Lydia can’t hear Stiles breathe over the sound of her own pounding heart.

Yards away, a man calls out through a megaphone.

“Exit and surrender your vehicle with your hands in the air. This is your only warning. We will open fire.”

There’s no time to think. Instead, they fumble to unbuckle their seatbelts in a blind panic.

“Stiles—” Lydia murmurs, breathlessly.

“Just stay close.”

They tumble out of the Jeep with their hands raised above their heads. The faceless crowd immediately descends on them and jostles them into position against the vehicle with their hands pressed against the hot metal and their legs shoulder-width apart.

“Who has authority here?” Stiles asks as the nearest soldier frisks them. Lydia feels a rough hand at her hip yank the Chinese ring dagger from it’s holster. She wants to move to take it back, but she can see the sidearm hanging off of the soldier’s utility belt.

“One dagger,” the man inventories, his voice distorted by the mask. He drops it into a nondescript black bag.

A feeling of panic begins to creep along Lydia’s skin, tingling the back of her neck. She knows she looks afraid when Stiles meets her eyes, but his gaze is sturdy and unwavering and it grounds her.

“Who is your commanding officer?” he asks again to the unresponsive troopers.

“No questions,” a man grunts as his hands circle Lydia’s waist.

“You have a Colt M4 Carbine pointed at our heads. So yeah, I have a few fucking questions,” Stiles spits.

Again, Lydia is reminded of what little she knows of his life before the sickness. What kind of man knows what a Carbine M4 is?

A dangerous one, she thinks.

“Just stay still and no one gets hurt,” the soldier closest to them says. Two more open the doors of the Jeep and begin rummaging through their supplies.

“Four gas cans, three empty, one a quarter-full,” a soldier calls from inside the Jeep. “One axe, one...modified bat, food and drink rations, two bags containing clothes and one container of human ash. The nameplate reads—”

“Who the fuck has authority here?!” Stiles yells, his hands curling to fists on the surface of the Jeep. “State Police? U.S. Army? F.B.I.? Texas fucking Rangers?!”

“We serve the Council of the Immaculate Temple,” the nearest soldier barks coarsely. “Are you Immune?”

“The Council of what? Who funded you? Where did you get your weapons?”

“Are you Immune?”

Where did you get your weapons?”

The soldier brings the barrel of the gun up and presses it against Stiles’s temple, his finger on the trigger. Lydia sucks in a deep breath and holds it.

“I asked are you Immune?”

She swears she can see fire in Stiles’s eyes and she prays to a God she knows isn’t listening for him to not do anything stupid.

“Yes, obviously we’re Immune,” Stiles hisses evenly through clenched teeth. “Now get your gun out of my fucking face.”

The soldier lingers briefly, his finger moving slightly on the trigger before he lowers his weapon and Lydia finally exhales.

“Take them in for examination,” the soldier says, making a circular motion with his fingers.

“What the—” Stiles begins before a black mask is shoved over his head. Lydia moves forwards towards him as he falls, but gloved hands pull her back and her vision goes black as a mask covers her head as well. She smells chloroform, then fades into unconsciousness as easily as blinking.

* * *

Lydia opens her eyes.

She is unprepared for the blinding white.

There’s a brief, floating moment where she can’t remember how she got here, lost in the sea of light.

But then it all comes back.

She sits up and feels a violent tug at the crook of her right arm. Her vision swims and she turns her head to take in the IV trickling a slow stream of clear liquid directly into her veins. The bag reads, “0.9% NaCl.” Lydia sits dumbstruck, watching the small drops of fluid escape down the bag and into the tube winding its way to her arm. She’s surprised somehow that saline still exists. She presses her eyes closed, a headache pounding behind her eyes.

Okay, she thinks. Take stock. Make a plan.

She’s in a bed with a stiff white blanket covering her legs. She’s scrubbed clean, and she feels her skin crawl at the thought of a stranger with their hands on her unconscious body. White bandages wrap the fresh wound on her arm and she feels the fabric of more around the healing gash on her leg. Her clothes are gone and instead she wears a blue hospital gown.

Hospital?

She looks around the small room she’s in. No windows, a small chair beside her bed, a speaker and a security camera mounted on the wall above a plexiglass door with a thick rubber seal around the edges. There are no handles. There’s no way out.

She’s in a containment room.

She’s quarantined.

Lydia swings her feet around the side of the bed and hoists herself up. The tile is cool against her bare feet. She pulls the IV out of her arm, a spurt of blood spilling down her arm with a jab of pain as the needle slips out of her skin. She thinks she might see the camera shift to follow her movements as she walks towards the doorway. She does not look up to let them know she sees them. She has always found that there is a quiet power in feigned ignorance, in observing everything without letting them know you are. She presses her hand against the plexiglass and pushes. As she expected, it does not give. She cranes her neck to look down the hallway instead. Stretching out on both sides are rows of doors just like hers, all empty. There’s a flash of movement to the right. Lydia strains her neck to see.

The door six rooms down vibrates with force once, then again. She can hear the dull sound of impact resonating through the hallway. Her own door rattles slightly in its frame. There’s one more bang and the end of an IV stand crashes through the entryway, showering the floor with rough pieces of acrylic. An arm forces its way through the jagged hole, then a leg, then Stiles is stumbling out and onto the floor.

Lydia feels her heart jump as he rises up on shaky legs and scans the hallway, his gaze coming to rest of hers. He pauses, and she can see the air whoosh out of him. There’s blood on his shirt and down his arm and the look on his face would frighten her if she didn’t know him but, despite everything she told herself about keeping her distance from the stranger she met in the dirty diner with diseased bodies on the floor, she does know him. She does.

A shrill alarm begins to sound through the speakers and the lights blink off and flash back on a brutal red. They have to hurry. Someone is coming.

He jumps into movement, throwing himself towards her, his eyes feral and furious on hers through the plexiglass. He scans the area on the outside of the door that she can’t see, finds something to the right of her room and pulls. The door retracts into the wall with a low whir . Stiles wraps her in his arms for so little a moment that she can barely register, then his hand is tight on hers and he’s pulling her out into the hallway and ducking to the right.

Stiles stoops to pick up the IV stand as they walk past, his stride unbroken. Lydia has to jog slightly to keep up with him. The door to a stairwell and a row of elevators at the end of the hall sits next to a deserted counter. They walk past it without a second glance.

Lydia knows with a certainty that aches in her bones, that their escape is futile. It’s them against an entire Texas army. Her mind whirrs into action, devising plan after plan. Maybe they can find a utilities closet to raid for unused uniforms and disappear through an equally unused door. Maybe they can break into the ventilation system and crawl their way out. Maybe they can run fast enough and quietly enough that they will become sand through the cracks of Dallas, slipping right on through.

She knows it’s wishful thinking. She knows none of her half-formed plans will work, but in this moment she’s delirious with gratitude that Stiles’s palm is slick on hers, that his breath is harsh and stunted next to her, that she’s not alone in this.

She wants to tell him so. She wishes they had more time. She wants to find a safe space in this world and pull him into it and look him in the eyes and spill everything that’s pushing its way into her thoughts and the space between her ribs. And more than anything, she wants him to stare back at her in that fierce and unblinking way, and know that she is known the way she knows him.

But then she hears the shouting of guards turn the corner, guns trained on their sprinting bodies, barking orders to stop running. She’s an animal in a cage, and her desperate daydream for more time becomes a beautiful and useless thought. Beside her, Stiles raises the IV stand in his hands to attack.

A gun fires.

Stiles crumples to the ground.

Lydia opens her mouth to scream, but the sound is cut off by another gunshot.

The world becomes quiet and the time she wanted more of comes to a whimpering end.

* * *

Lydia tears into consciousness with a shuddering gasp, heart hammering in her chest. She tries to bring her hands to her face, but finds them bound to her sides. With difficulty, she pushes herself into a sitting position.

She’s in another hospital bed, cloaked by a blue curtain. A bag hangs from an IV, the stand far out of reach.

A cry of frustration wails from her lips before she can stop herself, and she throws her body violently up and down on the hospital bed, anger, grief and exhaustion a boiling brew in her veins. At her wail, a shadow appears on the other side of the curtain at her feet. Lydia watches the shadow’s hand raise to the edge of the fabric and gently slide it aside.

“Glad to see you’re both awake.”

Lydia blinks. A woman with an impeccably white coat stands at the foot of her bed, her voice muffled by a pink respirator covering her nose and mouth. The name Dr. Miranda Shaw is embroidered in elegant blue script over a breast pocket. She holds a black tablet in her hand, the glowing screen lighting her face in stark whites and blues. Lydia can’t stop staring at the severe crimson of her fingernail polish.

Fingernail polish.

“Both?” Lydia asks. Her throat feels dry. What in the hell is this place?

In response, Doctor Miranda Shaw throws the curtain the rest of the way around, revealing a second bed feet away with a very pissed off but very alive Stiles Stilinski. Their eyes meet, and in that moment Lydia can feel the rainstorm she misses so desperately. She lets it wash over her and swallow her whole.

“You two have been quite a handful,” Doctor Shaw continues, looking down at the tablet screen. She’s yet to look Lydia in the eyes. “Most people flock to the Council for protection. Not many want to leave.”

“We don’t need protection,” Stiles spits. She sees the same defiance in his gaze from their capture at the Jeep, the features of his face rearranged into hard lines and seething rage.

“Oh, come now,” the doctor tuts. “Everyone prospers under Their glorious conservation.”

“Who are the Council?” Lydia asks, feeling the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. The woman meets her stare for the first time, her eyes wide with surprise.

“The Council of the Immaculate Temple!” Doctor Shaw says incredulously. “The chosen few who will guide us into the healing light! Long has their reign blessed the holy state of Texas, Hallelujah!”

“Yeehaw and Amen,” Stiles mutters.

The woman’s face hardens beneath her mask.

“We do not abide blasphemers, Mr. Stilinski. You would do well to remember that. You laugh in the face of forces you don’t understand. They will become known to you in time.”

“How do you know our names?” Stiles asks. “And how did an entire militia get organized and equipped with assault rifles? Who’s backing you? The government was dissolved months ago.”

Doctor Shaw gives him a look.

“...This is Texas, son. Glory be to the Council. Your IDs we found in your vehicle, Mieczyslaw Stilinski from Beacon Hills, California and Lydia Martin from San Francisco. You’ve certainly come a long way from home.”

“Have you looked outside lately, lady? The world’s gone to hell. There not much ‘home’ left. Where is my Jeep?”

Doctor Shaw makes a few taps on her tablet.

“Safe in Parking Garage Omega, Mr. Stilinski. Don’t worry. We’ll sort you all out just as soon as your blood tests come back.”

“What are you doing blood tests for?” Lydia tugs uselessly at her restraints, the feeling of violation crawling over her skin. What else had they done to their unconscious bodies? What else had they taken?

“Look, Mandy. Can I call you Mandy?”

“It’s Doctor Miran—”

“We need to get the fuck out of Texas, toot sweet. It’s nothing personal. We just have an appointment to make,” Miranda opens her mouth to argue, but Stiles cuts her off. “—And it’s not a fucking doctors appointment, Mandy, okay? I’m up to date on my shots.”

Doctor Miranda Shaw bristles and Lydia has to bite the inside of her cheek to keep the hysterical laughter building in her throat in check.

“We’ll get your test results back within the hour,” the doctor says tersely. “From there, the Council will decide your fate. Glory be.”

She sweeps around, ignoring Stiles’s shouted protests, and disappears through a glass door. Stiles and Lydia are left alone under the watchful gaze of a camera positioned above the doorway. They sit in stunned silence, trying to wrap their minds around how truly well and fucked they are.

Stiles eventually breaks the silence.

“Well, to be honest, it was only a matter of time before I was recruited by a cult.”

Lydia blows out a laugh through her nose, but her heart is racing too fast to smile.

“This is bad, Stiles.”

“We’ve been through worse. The Oni were pretty awful, if I remember correctly. And remember when we didn’t have air conditioning in the desert? That was definitely worse than this.”

This time, Lydia’s mouth does twist up, and she turns her head to meet his eyes.

“I was scared, when I didn’t know where you were. When they separated us in those rooms? I was scared,” she says. It rips everything from her to say it, but she needs him to know.

Stiles swallows hard, his gaze unflinching.

“I was scared too, Lydia.”

“I don’t want to be separated anymore. I don’t want to do this alone.”

“Okay,” Stiles nods, and his eyes are too bright and wet to be just okay . “Okay.”

Lydia wipes her eyes as best as she can on the rough fabric at her shoulder, trying to quell the storm raging in her chest. Beside her, Stiles is quiet. She wonders if he, too, is wrestling with a force of nature. Lydia is unsure if she wants him to. Caring will only get you killed. It’s one of the first lessons she learned after the sickness. But she keeps turning new corners within herself and every time she comes around he’s already there, waiting for her.

“So…” Lydia says finally with a cough, trying to keep her voice level. “Mieczyslaw?”

Stiles grumbles and throws his head back.

“It’s a family name,” He says. “Or, was a family name, I guess.”

He’s staring at his hands now. Lydia wonders if she should ask him to elaborate, but her tongue feels stuck to the roof of her mouth. Asking him about family would unearth a lot of personal information. If she indulges her desire to know more about him, would that mean she’d have to return the favor?

“Do you have anyone left?” Stiles asks, his eyes still at his hands.

Lydia thinks of her grandmother, neatly tucked into a dark oak casket. She thinks of her father disappearing into a crowd of people at the airport when she was fourteen. She thinks of her mother, vomiting blood all over the bottom of their white tub with sores blooming across her temple.

Then she thinks of Allison with her fierce dark eyes, holding her hands and telling her they would be alright. Allison, who kept her safe when the world was burning around her. Allison, who’s waiting for her somewhere on the other side of the country.

Lydia closes her eyes.

“Allison,” She breathes. And it hurts. It fucking hurts. “Just Allison.”

* * *

They take him.

Lydia’s vision swims and she brings her limp hands up to swat helplessly at the arms of the people in lab coats surrounding her.

“Up the dosage,” A voice rumbles from above her head, and she wants to scream out her anger but it doesn’t leave her lips.

They took him right in front of her. One moment Stiles was beside her. She could have reached out and touched him if she really tried. She imagines she felt their fingertips brushing together for just a moment and it shatters everything inside her.

They took him, and this would be how it ends for her.

Lydia had imagined her death ever since the Sickness began. She envisioned it countless ways. At first, she pictured it practically. She would get sick like her mother and die manic and bleeding like so many others. She would die at the hands of someone desperate, someone who knew that survival always came with a price. She would starve, she would run out of water, she would cut herself on a piece of rusted metal and die from some mundane infection.

The longer she survived, the more wild the fantasy became. She would get bitten by some poisonous lizard. She would be eaten by wolves. She would be mauled by a bear. She would throw herself off a cliff.

But alone. She was always alone.

She knows now, even with her mind swimming in lucidity and colors flashing luminous and blinding behind her eyes, that in all the ways she had fantasized her death she hates this the most because she had him. She fucking had him and they promised each other.

And he had said okay .

“Where’s she going once she’s out?” another voice asks, and Lydia catches the answer before everything goes dark.

“Look at her. She’s a Cloister Rose.”