They had been arguing. That was a pretty normal thing for them, which was probably why it was somehow extra shocking when their van was rammed into almost hard enough to overturn it. Snarls and hoarse howls were suddenly way too close for comfort, rotting fingers digging into the metal and fighting to rip it apart to get at the tasty brain-treats inside.
How had nobody seen them coming? Was Boyd driving with his fucking eyes closed?
By the time they shook off the disorientation, they could already hear gunfire from the others, enough to know the other vans in their convoy had caught up with them. A heavy thump from above told them that Allison had made it to the van’s roof and was shooting from there.
A terrible screeching noise and a pinprick of light, quickly blocked by a rot-riddled tongue.
Derek cursed and pulled his own gun. Stiles followed suit and, when Derek kicked the back doors open, opened fire.
This much, too, was pretty normal. There hadn’t been a day in the last year that they hadn’t had some sort of run in with the persistent and omnipresent undead. All attempts to turn them back to regular dead had so far failed, not that they were giving up just yet. As of right now, the pack was on its way to meet up with a scientist who claimed to be working on some sort of vaccine. Stiles was withholding judgment until he saw some results; no point in getting his hopes up.
The meetup point—a town that had put up walls substantial enough to actually keep the zombies out—was only an hour or two away, which was probably why the zombies were so damn aggressive here. They were deprived.
“Too bad, sucker,” Stiles said. “Eat this. He planted a bullet in a zombie’s brain stem and tallied it up on his mental chalkboard of successful kills.
“Quit trash talking and focus, will you?” Derek yelled over at him.
Stiles rolled his eyes as best he could without losing track of the things trying to kill him. Most of the swarm had been put down, at least, but there were still a pretty healthy number of them trying to claw their way past the hail of bullets coming from every direction.
“What makes you think I can’t do both? Maybe trash talking helps me focus! You ever thought of that?”
Apparently, it did not. Stiles was just taking a second to reload, relatively sure that there was nothing within biting distance, when Derek called his name. Then Stiles was on the ground and there was a shout of pain that wasn’t his and a decomposed body crashing down beside him, oozing blackish blood from two new bullet holes in its head.
Stiles scrambled to his feet to find Derek, swaying and clutching a hand to his side. It came away slick and red, but that wasn’t all—there were traces of black there too.
“No,” Stiles breathed out. “No, no, no, no, no!”
A zombie lurched out in front of him, blocking his way forward, but the pop and whistle sound of one of Allison’s sniper rounds put it down. It was a good thing; Stiles wouldn’t have been table to take it out himself, not when he couldn’t take his eyes off Derek.
Stiles pulled Derek’s arm over his shoulder and began dragging him back toward the van. He let Stiles take most of his weight, teeth clenched against the pain of walking while gut-shot, and he slumped down against the rear tire with a groan as soon as Stiles released him.
Stiles kept up a steady stream of curses under his breath as he pried Derek’s hands away from the wound. He had to tear Derek’s shirt open to get a better look, but Derek didn’t protest. All the weres had lost plenty of shirts to bullet holes. This one was different, though. The black wasn’t just on his hands, but in the wound too, mixed in with his blood and splattered across his skin.
“Did you get bit?” Stiles demanded. “Or—or scratched or something? How is this—”
“Accident,” Derek gritted out. “It was a through and through. I was just right behind it.”
Behind the zombie getting shot at, he meant. Because he had been pushing Stiles out of its way. Usually he and all the rest of them tried to be mindful of each other’s lines of sight—even if friendly fire probably wouldn’t kill the weres, getting shot still hurt like a son of a bitch—but he had been too busy saving Stiles’ life to look out for his own.
And now there were bullets coated in zombie blood lodged inside him.
Stiles cursed even more fluently. He tried to take a deep breath, but it got stuck in his throat because this was bad. This was very, very bad. The weres had proven to have a bit of a resistance to the zombie virus (or curse or whatever the fuck it was), so a scratch or a nick wouldn’t kill or turn them, but this was contaminated bodily fluids implanted as deep as it was possible to get.
What were the odds that this wasn’t a fatal wound? What if Derek was already turning and they were going to have to put him down before he turned into one of them? What if Stiles was going to have to put down Derek? He couldn’t do that. He knew he couldn’t, not to Derek of all people, not when the mere thought of losing Derek had bile rising in his throat, and not when Stiles had never told him -
Something clattered down onto the ground beside Stiles: tweezers, some of the long tapered ones that were bent at the end. Stiles looked up to find Boyd, still with a gun in his hand and an eye on the nearest threat.
“You need to get the bullets out,” he said, glancing down at Derek. “There’s still a chance he can heal from it if you get them out now. Can you do that?”
Stiles stared at him, then at the tweezers, at the messy flesh wound, at Derek’s face twisted up in pain. His brain felt like it was stuck in a loop of dying and can’t and please don’t go.
A zombie lurched around the van. The echo of Boyd’s gunshot so close made Stiles’ jump. Derek too, if his agonized grunt was anything to go by. Stiles gripped his shoulder and Derek reached up to take a hold of his wrist, holding on tight enough to hurt.
“Stiles,” Boyd said sharply. “Can you do it?”
Derek opened his eyes. They were glassy and bloodshot, but they locked onto Stiles’ with all their usual intensity.
Stiles swallowed hard. He nodded.
Boyd nodded back. He reloaded his gun with quick, efficient motions and said, “We’ll make sure you stay covered. Good luck, Derek.”
He was back around the van and into the fray in a second. Stiles was left to pick up the tweezers and try to force his hand to stop shaking.
Derek squeezed his wrist. “Just do it,” he panted. “You don’t even need to worry about fucking it up. You can’t possibly do more harm, can you?”
Stiles let out a shaky, mildly hysterical laugh. “I don’t know if that’s helping, Der.”
Derek let go of Stiles’ wrist. Stiles immediately wanted it back, but he gritted his teeth against the sudden urge to beg Derek to hold on, in both the literal and the figurative sense. He could do this. He’d done it before, just never with actual zombie blood involved. Never with the stakes this high.
And never on Derek.
God, he couldn’t lose Derek.
Stiles closed his eyes tight, breathing and counting his heartbeats until he didn’t feel like he was about to shake out of his skin (or break down crying). He only allowed himself a few seconds, though. Then he forced himself to splay his left hand over Derek’s stomach and position the tweezers with his right.
It was a testament to Derek’s self-control that he didn’t scream or pull away when the tweezers sank into the wound. His whole body was tense as a bowstring, tendons on his neck standing out in sharp relief as he pressed his head back against the tire behind him, but he stayed still and silent. His obvious pain still made tears prick at Stiles’ eyes. He blinked them away; he needed a clear field of vision for this.
The sensation of digging around inside of someone’s body was always disgusting in a visceral sort of way, and this time was no different. Slick, soft flesh parted easily around the cold metal instrument, and Stiles had to root around until he finally felt the clink of tweezer on bullet. It came out easily enough and Stiles dropped the blood-slick casing on the dusty ground.
“One down,” he offered.
He gave Derek a moment to gasp for breath, but he couldn’t wait much. Too long and either the zombie blood would start taking effect or Derek’s advanced healing would kick in and seal the infected bullets inside. Neither was a desirable option.
The second bullet was a little harder to find. Stiles shushed Derek, murmured to him as reassuringly as he could as he dug it out, trying to pretend like the whimpers Derek let out didn’t feel like bullets of their own. Finally, the bullet came free and Stiles threw it aside.
Derek went limp. His skin was sweat-slick beneath Stiles’ fingers, but it looked like the edges of the wound were starting to knit back together.
Before it could get too far, Stiles unhooked the canteen from his belt. It was probably a really uncomfortable feeling, having water poured directly into a hole in his body, but Derek only flinched a bit. The stream washed the streaks of black off of his stomach and side, but Stiles could only guess at how effective it was (or wasn’t) at cleaning out the actual wound.
There was nothing else to do now. Just wait and see what happened.
Stiles collapsed back onto his ass, knees aching from spending too long on the hard ground, and tried to rub the blood off of his hands. No matter how used to it he got, he still hated blood. He got most of it off—his poor, bloodstained pants were probably a casualty of war at this point—and then found one of his hands caught in Derek’s.
“Thank you,” Derek said, his voice hoarse and gritty from holding in screams.
Stiles mustered up a smile from somewhere. “How far we’ve come from clinics and buzz-saws, am I right?”
Derek’s laugh hitched halfway through, pulling at the wound. He didn’t let go of Stiles’ hand. “For sure,” he said. “I’ll probably be fine, you know.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I know, absolutely. You’re gonna be totally fine. You’re always fine.”
If Stiles was laying it on a little thick, he thought he could be forgiven. It was either this or fall apart, and it was a bad idea to lose his shit out in the open with zombies running around, even if almost all of them were dead by now and there were plenty of people with guns still running interference.
Derek interrupted his ramble with another pained noise as he tried to hoist himself into a more upright position. Stiles hurried to help. Derek’s other hand—the one not still holding onto Stiles’—landed on Stiles’ shoulder to steady himself, but it didn’t move once he was resettled.
“I’ll probably be fine,” he repeated. “But...if I’m not. Stiles, I—”
Stiles cut across him. “You’ll be fine. Do you hear me?”
How Derek could roll his eyes at a time like this was beyond Stiles.
“Yes, fine,” he said once more. “But on the very slim possibility that this is the last chance I’ll have, I need to say something to you.”
“No, Derek, don’t talk like that,” Stiles bit out. “You don’t get to talk like that, okay? You’re not going to—”
"Jesus, Stiles, just shut up and let me tell you that I love you.”
All of Stiles’ protests and admonishments dried up on his tongue in an instant. There were gunshots still sounding and snarls and the thump of bodies hitting the ground, but between the two of them, there was silence.
The hand on Stiles’ shoulder squeezed and released, then made its way up to cup the side of Stiles’ neck instead. Derek’s thumb traced a path over Stiles’ jaw. There was no way he couldn’t feel the way Stiles’ throat worked against his palm, trying to swallow through a dry mouth.
Stiles’ voice came out cracked: “You what?”
Derek didn’t take it back, though, and Stiles ears couldn’t play tricks on him twice in a row, so when Derek said it again, there was no denying it. As if Stiles would ever want to deny it.
Stiles didn’t give a damn about how thoroughly covered in blood they both were, or that they were still in a fair bit of danger, or that there was still the possibility that Derek might drop dead or turn into a flesh-eating corpse soon. He just threw himself forward to kiss Derek for all he was worth.
Derek kissed him back for as long as he could before the bullet hole in his stomach reminded them both of its presence. He hissed against Stiles’ mouth and Stiles pulled back with a grimace.
“Sorry!” he said. “Sorry, that probably hurts.”
“Yes, Stiles, it definitely hurts.” Derek didn’t look too upset, though. He even managed a grin. “But it’s healing.”
He was right. The edges of the wound had lost their angry-red hue, inching closed bit by bit, and there were no spidery black markings. None of the signs of infection they usually saw around bites. Stiles reached out to trace the tanned, unmarked skin with a shaky hand.
“Thank god,” he let out on a sigh. “Because I’m pretty sure I love you too and it would really have sucked if you died before I got to kiss you again.”
“Oh, are you two on the same page now?”
Allison dropped down from the roof and slung her rifle over her shoulder, a smirk on her face.
“Finally,” she said. “We were about to start placing bets on how long it would take.”
“I would’ve won,” Boyd, coming around to lean his shoulder against the van’s back end, informed them with the utmost confidence. “All brain-eaters are down and the other vans are back on the move. They’ll let the gate-runners know that we’re a bit behind schedule so they don’t lock us out.”
“Please keep the making out to a minimum,” Allison requested. “We can totally hear everything that happens back there from the front seat.”
“And remember,” Boyd said, aiming a light kick at Derek’s foot. “You’re not cleared for sex.”
Derek threw the bloody tweezers at him. He was smiling, though, and so was Stiles. He needed Boyd’s help to get Derek hoisted back into the van, but that was okay. Derek would be back on his feet and fully functional again in a few hours.
He was going to be okay. Stiles let that thought run through his brain, over and over. Then he let Derek lean into him, head on his chest, as the van started up and pulled out. Headed toward a possible cure and with Derek in his arms, things didn’t look quite as bleak as before.