Actions

Work Header

Spark, Flame, Burn

Chapter Text

He remembers running. He remembers running until his shoes were wet with blood, the skin around his metatarsals shearing off and healing and rubbing bloody again as he ran. He remembers running for hours, for days.

He remembers the look on Deaton's face as the doctor had pulled him into the nurse's office at the school on base. How his mouth was serious in that way adults have when they're patting themselves on the back for doing something difficult. His brown eyes were dark with sadness and solemnity, his voice a rising buzz in Derek's ears.

He doesn't remember Deaton's words. Just the hum in his head getting louder and louder until he pressed his palms over his ears, his claws digging into the sides of his head as blood trickled down his neck.

He doesn't remember either how he got off base- he hopes he didn't hurt anyone, but he can't say for sure. The blood on his claws hours later only smelled like his own, but between the sweat and the rain, it's hard to say.

He prefers to believe he didn't cause harm.

He's not sure how far he gets before he's run through his shoes. Maybe a day, maybe two. He's slowed down, certainly, the last few hours, his heart pounding in his chest, in his head, a rhythm that doesn't let up, doesn't cease. The fields around the base give way to rolling hills, then to woods. He's fully shifted, knows it's dangerous, doesn't care. His mind is fighting with itself, the animal piece of him fully invested in running, in hiding, in survival, the human in him screaming out for his family, for death.

He hears hunters behind him twice; once right at the beginning, when he can still throw on a burst of speed and make it miles before they can track him again, then again on the second (?) day at twilight.

He's wearing thin, he can tell, his body eating itself alive as it tries to keep up with the demands of his enhanced metabolism and his unending exertion. He can no longer tell if the mocking laughter in his ears is memory or hallucination, if the images of the mangled bodies of his brothers and sisters along the creek-bed are warning or promise or dream.

He's been aware of the hunters for a few hours, but can't decide whether he cares or not. He's exhausted, hopeless, but the wolf in him keeps driving him forward, the last of his pack, searching for safety. The city in front of him seems at first a mirage, but it keeps getting bigger, and when his bleeding feet hit asphalt, he realizes that his wolf is smarter than he is. They'll find him in the woods, the farms, the pastures, but here in the wilderness of artificial scents and impervious ground he can get lost, and not be found.

He presses onward, each street, each alley another maze of screens and trash, people and vehicles and doors that open and bang in the night. He's lucky it's dark; he can't pull back his wolf, so he ducks his head and hopes for the best, too exhausted to get invested in whether he's seen or not. He keeps jogging, following his nose to the underbelly of the vast metropolis, the gangrenous heart where odors overwhelm and no one looks twice at who or what is hiding in the dark corners.

He makes it until the pale fingers of sunrise are creeping up the edges of the tall buildings, gilding the edges of the glass and aluminum with sickly light. It's the third dawn he's spent alone on this earth, and he'd hate it as much as the previous two if he could find the energy to care about anything beyond crawling behind a reekingly full dumpster and passing out.

Stiles sees him come in like some B-holo actor, his face all hairy and hideous, snout like animals Stiles has only seen in holos, wild-eyed and bleeding from every limb. Stiles stays still, confident in his camoscreen blanket's ability to keep him hidden unless he moves. The stranger doesn't see him, but Stiles isn't sure the guy would have noticed if he had tap-danced in front of him wearing coconuts on his skinny chest, to be honest. The guy glances around, red eyes flaring as he gives a cursory sniff, and then passes out behind and a little under the dumpster as thoroughly as Ama Lea does when she's been into the hooch.

The guy's still there when evening comes and Stiles wakes from his own sleep, and he hasn't moved. It looks like his face has changed, the furred and pointed ears having faded into rounded skin, but it's hard to see with the shadow of the dumpster on his face, and Stiles isn't dumb enough to get close. He'll give him another day, and then maybe he'll find a good long pole to prod the guy with, see if he's just died where he fell. It's the rainy season, the body won't start to smell any worse than the trash for a bit, so there's no hurry. If he's just asleep, maybe he'll get up and leave while Stiles is out. It's too early to tell, so Stiles shrugs to himself, carefully folds and hides his blanket under a bit of loose pavement, and heads out into the deepening night to pick some pockets, scam some credit machines, and try to stay alive for another day.

The guy's still there when Stiles comes back at dawn, but he's moved this time, shuffled further under the dumpster like maybe he's cold. Stiles pushes down any sympathy he might have. There's no place for compassion in this life, not if you want to survive. He's learned that lesson.

Nonetheless, he's careful to piss on the other side of the alley before he curls up with his blanket, so that it doesn't run down onto the guy where he's lying on the ground.

He wakes up in the middle of the afternoon to the sound of someone crying out, and for a moment he's lost in time, struggling out of his bed in his house, listening to his father's hoarse cries in the dark. He comes to himself halfway across the alley, blanket abandoned and arm stretched out to the crouched figure in front of him.

The fear is sudden and complete, sweeping over him like nausea, as he takes in the glowing eyes and elongated teeth in front of him. The stranger is clearly a mutant, a very likely dangerous one, and Stiles' jig might well be up.

“Hey. Hey, it's ok, dude. Just... pull those claws back in, ok, big guy?” Stiles raises his trembling hands and begins to back slowly away. “I'm not gonna hurt you, I'm not gonna tell anyone where you are, we're all copacetic here, just... take a deep breath for me.”

The stranger's eyes flash, and a low snarl puddles in the air between them. His eyes are vacant, and it's impossible for Stiles to tell if he's crazy or just delirious; still asleep, or awake and ready to rip out any available throat in front of him. Stiles freezes, one foot on the ground, one balanced on its toe behind him. If he runs, he has no doubt in his mind that this guy will catch him, and he can't imagine a scenario in which that ends well. But maybe... maybe if he just manages to calm the guy down enough, the stranger will pass back out, and Stiles can collect his things and get the hell out of Dodge. It'll be a shame to leave his spot; he's gotten it all fixed to his liking with little hideyholes and illicit vid feeds; but what can you do? Survival is the name of the game, and that game involves keeping his person in one piece.

“Ok, buddy, we're all friends here. Just... take a breath. Listen to the sound of my voice, ok?” Stiles forces himself to put his foot down carefully, holding his ground. He drops his hands from a warding gesture into a welcoming one, palms up and out. The eyes in front of him are still empty, flashing intermittently between blue and red, but the sound coming from the guy's throat is less of a snarl and more of a sob.

“That's it. Deep breath. You can smell me, alright? This is my alley, but you can stay here. I'm not gonna push you out. Just... maybe lay back down. You should go back to sleep. Lay back...”

Stiles has only seen a few mutants like this, ones that take the twisted appearance of wild beasts. There's some theories he'd seen on the feeds about mixed genetics, and throwbacks to evolutionary dead ends, but as far as he knows it's all inconclusive. He thinks this guy must be a mixer, though, because he may not have paid the closest attention in sci-class, but he's pretty sure humans and canids never really shared a branch on the old family tree. He's more than a little fascinated, but he'd feel better about his desire to touch one of those teeth if he knew he could do it and keep all his fingers, too.

The mutant has crept closer while Stiles stared at him, his nostrils flaring as he takes in Stiles' scent, and Stiles backs up involuntarily until he's flat in his corner, the rough plascrete pressing into his shoulder blades. The guy's still crouching, but he pushes himself into Stiles' legs hard, shoving at Stiles like a stray dog. He's skinny, Stiles can see the bones of his wrists and elbows in full relief where they hang out from the tatters of the guy's shirt, but he's still got a good 40 or 50 pounds on Stiles, so Stiles sits where the guy pushes him without much choice, and holds very, very still as the man? beast? kid? presses himself over Stiles' legs and buries his face in Stiles' side.

There's not much he can really do about it, not without risking life and limb, and while the guy smells unspeakably foul, he's also warm, so Stiles pulls the camoscreen blanket over both of them, and waits for night to fall.

Stiles wakes up well past dusk, the night sky artificially bright with the light from a thousand neon signs, the multicolored headlights of a hundred thousand hovercars. His buddy Scott says it's darker up high, where the rich folks live, but Stiles has never seen it. He's visited Scott, where he lives with his mom and the family they work for, but Stiles'd taken the Climber up the inside of the towers, and never got near a luxury like a window. Even when his mom was alive, their family was only ever low-mids; they didn't live on the ground, like he does now, and they had a hovercar, but they never made it above the 40th level.

The stranger has slid off his legs while they both slept, and Stiles' nose has adjusted, thank gods, so the rank stench of him is no longer as noticeable over the general odor of the alley. The guy still has an arm across Stiles' legs, though, so Stiles very carefully starts to lift the arm just enough to slide his legs out. The guy's wrist is all bone in Stiles' hand, and from what Stiles can see of his face, it's thin to the point of ill health. Without the weird facial hair and the enormous snarly teeth, his face is young, pinched and unhappy, maybe only a couple of years older than Stiles himself.

If he's a mutant, and he pretty much has to be, Stiles thinks, he's likely to have the enhanced metabolism that frequently comes with the assorted mutant powers. Which means...Stiles sighs internally as he gets his feet free and gingerly sets the guy's arm back down, which means that he's likely to starve to death, and soon, if he doesn't get help.

He should leave, Stiles thinks. He should just leave him here in the alley to die, no matter how badly he seems hurt, no matter how much of a sucker Stiles is for another loner in this shithole of his life. Stiles can't be around anyone else, it's dangerous, he knows this, he does.

He pulls himself free, resolutely looking away as the stranger's face twitches and his fingers reach before he settles back down. Stiles tucks the camoscreen blanket over him so he can't be seen, grabs his waist pouch, and heads out into the night.

His first stop is food- the Texican truck is in the next banlou over this week hitting levels 10-30, but the Japino truck should be down on the streets tonight, and that means he can talk to Danny. He heads over to the eastern base of the Trans-Bay towers, taking the back streets and walking swiftly through the shadows. His dark hood and dirt-stained clothes make him nearly invisible, but sometimes mutants can feel his effect on them as he passes in spite of his hard-learned control, so he tries to be as quick and silent as he can. That way, if they do notice, he's nothing but a fading shadow on their periphery- nothing special, nothing to notice, nothing here.

It takes him a half hour of solid walking to make it, the vast black wall of the towers rising above him into the semi-darkness and smog. His dad had said he could remember them being finished; they'd been started more than a hundred years ago, but completed when Stiles' father was a child. They'd held an open house on the top floors, running a shuttle from the ground past every level all the way up to the top, 500 floors above the surface. His father'd gone, eaten the hors d'oeuvres, and looked out of all of that glass. He used to tell Stiles about it at night, sometimes- how there were only other buildings below it, but none around it; how he could see a vast cloud ocean stretching out to every horizon; how the clouds had swept away for a moment, and showed the actual sea, dark and roiling; how, right as his shuttle-craft had started to descend, a white bird had flown past and screamed, and all the old babas on board had wailed and covered their faces in their scarves, and said it was a bad omen.

Stiles couldn't imagine it, not really. He'd seen the holos of what used to be, just like every other kid in school, but trying to imagine being out there, where the buildings stop, where there's not a wall on every side... it makes him shiver. He thinks he wouldn't like it.

The Jappino truck is parked at the 8th eastern corner, jets turned off and settled onto its struts, counters out and lights flashing. The menu scrolls through all their dishes, flashing holos of the most popular onto the few tables set up around it. Stiles makes his way around to the back, slipping between the plasment of the tower wall and the thin metal of the truck itself until he can knock lightly at the back door.

It takes a moment, but then the metal flickers clear, and a tanned face with dark hair and eyes blinks back at him. Stiles grins and waves.

“Danny! How's it flying, dude?”

The other guy rolls his eyes. “Stiles. Hi. What can I get you?”

Stiles wiggles in place, trying to decide. “I need...well, I need the usual, but twice as much.” He grins warily, trying to exude charm.

Danny's eyebrows shoot up. “Twice the usual? Fuck no, Stiles, you wanna get me busted?”

“C'mon, I'm good for it, you know I am.” He tries to keep things on the side of wheedling, rather than whining, but he's not sure how successful he is. To be honest, twice the usual isn't going to be nearly enough, not with a mutant's metabolism, but it'll be a start.

“No.” Danny reaches up a hand to pull down the rolling screen, but Stiles throws his hand against the field between them.

“Wait! I'll...” Danny looks at him expectantly. “I'll come in and sit with you for 20 minutes after you process my request.”

He hates trading on his own mutation this way, too aware of all the ways it can be used against him. But he's known Danny a long time, knew him when they both first started manifesting, knew him before Stiles' mother was... before his mother died. Their families go back. If he sits with Danny and boosts Danny's powers for even 20 minutes, there's no telling what advantages it'll give Danny and his family. Danny's hacking is already well above average because of his mutation, the way he can slip his will effortlessly into the programs, speaking to the machines like it's his mother tounge, but with Stiles' spark as gestalt...

Danny rubs a hand over his handsome face and thinks for a minute.

“With your help, I'll be able to hide how much I'm taking for you.” He eyeballs Stiles contemplatively. “And I might be able to catch the person who's been rifling through my security.” He chews his lip. “Thirty minutes.”

Stiles grins. “Thirty minutes, three times my usual, and two big plates of the plantain curry with rice.”

Danny glances at him sharply, then rolls his eyes and nods. “Fine. Come in.” He palms the button and the field dissolves into the air with a shimmer, and Stiles steps into the back of the truck.

He's been in it before, but not in years. Danny's bunk is in the same place, down the narrow hallway and in the top back left. It's tall enough to sit on cross-legged, with your head brushing the ceiling, so they clamber up and Danny removes the wall panel to display an impressive assortment of electronic interfacing. He unfolds his fingerscreen and, with a meaningful look at the flashing holo clock on the wall, starts tapping.

While the best things about Danny may indeed be his skill with the nets and his family's excellent food, his discretion and disinterest in prying are definitely close behind, Stiles thinks. They're technically close enough for Stiles' spark to definitely be assisting him, but Stiles is feeling generous, and a little sleepy, so he leans his head on Danny's shoulder as he types. He can feel the other boy shudder beneath his ear as the extra boost from the contact kicks in, hear his fingers tapping faster than before.

The time passes quickly, and it's not long before Danny's shaking him off to climb down from the bunk, Stiles' wristband in hand. He runs it over an eraser, and then back over to reset the info contained within. He clambers back up, holding it out of Stiles' reach as he makes grabby hands for the worn red plastic.

“Ok. I gave you three times the usual, because you just made me a lot of money, and I caught my little red-haired trespasser red-handed. BUT” he leans back further, keeping it out of reach, “you need to be careful. I was seeing evidence of sweeper bots in the system, so that means they're keeping an eye out for suspicious activity. Make it last, and mix up the places you use it.”

Stiles nods vigorously, and Danny passes it over, watching as Stiles snaps it back onto his wrist.

“I cleaned your info, too- you're now from the Fruitvale District, so try to do at least some of your acquisitions there, ok? And no one should be looking for this profile, it's completely new.”

Stiles throws his arms around Danny in a quick hug, pressing their faces together. “Thanks! I should be good for at least a couple weeks. I'll make sure none of it leads back to you.”

Danny rolls his eyes. “Oh, I've already made sure of that.” He gives Stiles a shove, and he falls off the bunk, landing in a laughing splay of arms and legs on the floor as Danny hops gracefully down. “Do you want that curry or not?”

He doesn't like to linger, especially not when he's carrying food, but Stiles pauses as he passes the Fruitvale Square, his eyes skimming over the flashing images and scrolling text of the massive holo-projectors that circle the inner area of the open space. Most of it he doesn't care about; the latest Toppers' flying finals, and the upcoming Topside mayoral race, but down in the bottom of the left screen he sees familiar looking pictures of a ragtag crowd of Middies with signs outside a KPHealth building, juxtaposed against the smiling and reassuring face of the senior Senator Argent. It makes his stomach hurt, but he forces himself to read the text below the waving signs: it's the same old thing, protesting the existence of the vaccines, the undisclosed use of them, the subsequent coverup. Stiles had heard the litany of crimes over and over from his mother as she raged about the government program and what it had done to her only son. Until the day when he hadn't heard it from her again, anyway.

He shakes his head and moves on, stopping at a dispensary on the edge of the Alacosta Transit line. He waves his wristband over the scanner, waits for it to register, then scoops the resulting disgusting protein bars out of the slot and adds them to his already heavy bag of rice and curry. The sky is starting to lighten with a glow that's different from the continuous neon sign-radiance, and he needs to get back.

He finds the guy where he left him, asleep under the camoscreen. He does seem to have shifted around, but he looks like he's not awake, and Stiles steels himself to have to figure out a way to either a) wake the mutant up without losing life or limb, or b) do without the screen for the night. As he's contemplating his options, though, the mutant's mouth moves, and a surprising light, sharp voice emerges.

“I can hear you standing there, you know.”

“Uh, yeah, um.” Stiles scratches the back of his head. It's their first words exchanged, and they're far more coherent than he'd expected. Well, on the other guy's part, anyway. “Yeah, so, I'm Stiles, and this is kinda my alley?”

The mutant's eyes flutter open this time, and he looks... crestfallen? resigned? something that makes Stiles feel instantly guilty. The poor guy's clearly still very much in the recovery phase. What would his mother think of him not sharing his territory with this poor critter?

“I can leave.” The guy starts to get up, and Stiles waves his arms hastily, the bag tipping and lurching from where it's hanging on his arm.

“No, wait, it's ok! I brought some food, you looked like, um, you looked like you could use some, so I've got some, here, just...” He thrusts the bag at the other guy and stays where he is, unsure of the wisdom of approaching. The guy eyeballs him for a moment before flinging a bony hand out from under the blanket to seize the bag. His eyes are light-colored and hypnotizing in the growing dawn, flickering warily at Stiles where he stands.

“So, um, I'm just gonna come...” Stiles waves his hands vaguely at the guy and the food, “I'm gonna come sit down, ok?” The guy's already shoveling curry into his mouth straight out of the bag, but he nods while chewing and flips the blanket back with his free hand so Stiles can slide under it. It's late enough in the year that it's cool when he stops moving, so he creeps over slowly and settles with his back against the wall, legs under the camoscreen. He reaches for the food, but the guy next to him growls, and Stiles snaps his arm back so fast he whacks his elbow on the wall and moans in pain. The guy is instantly contrite, dropping the food between them and ducking his head.

“Sorry! God, I'm so sorry!” The guy shrinks in on himself, his face falling, and Stiles thinks there must be so much more going on here than he knows about. He's barely exchanged ten words with this stranger, but already he wants to feed him, keep him warm, teach him how to live on the streets. It's painfully obvious that he's new and alone, and Stiles grimly thinks that he won't last long on his own, and well, Stiles can't help but remember what that was like, with his mother dead five years and his father killed in the line of duty. He'd survived by luck and quick wits, and this guy doesn't seem like he's got much of either.

“It's ok.” Stiles cradles his elbow for a moment, then fishes in the bag for the second container of curry, pulling it out and popping the lid. He lets the heat of the container warm his hands, his eyes closing as the smell of hot food overlays the stench of the alley. “Hey, um...”

Those light eyes consider him for a long moment, letting the silence stretch, before he finally shakes himself and gives a tiny shrug. “Derek.” The other guy's tongue trips over it, like it pains him to say. Stiles keeps his face carefully blank.

“Ok. Derek.” He puts the first container back into Derek's hands. “Here. Eat this. Then we're gonna get some sleep.” He nods with a lot more authority than he feels, but it's like his dad said, if you act like you have authority, everyone else will act like you do, too. Derek swallows convulsively for a moment, and Stiles realizes that he's assuming that Derek won't just bolt as soon as he's eaten as much as he can cram down his throat, but Derek gives a short nod before returning to shoveling the still-steaming curry into his mouth, and doesn't comment further.

The small amount of leftover curry is gone the first morning, but the zip-packed protein bars Stiles picked up the same day hold them for a bit longer. Derek's clearly trying to make them last, unwilling to rely on Stiles' charity, but his bodily needs win out, and Stiles is gratified to see him moving away from “emaciated” to “slim” to “could fuck you up.” He stays in the alley when Stiles goes out every night, or at least Stiles thinks he does. He's never seen any evidence that Derek does anything besides huddle in the corner under the camoscreen and skim the various links and feeds on Stiles' reader.

He's a mystery, is Derek, and for the first little while, Stiles is pretty content to let him rest and heal. He does haul Derek around the corner to Tia Yamana's when it's time for Stiles' weekly ablutions. Derek becomes extremely skittish at the thought of venturing forth, clearly warring within himself between the human desire to be clean, and the more animal desire to be safe and hidden. When they finally do venture out, it makes Stiles jumpy, because it means that Derek's eyes keep flickering colors, and his fingernails keep sprouting and then disappearing again as soon as Derek notices. He also seems to have a real propensity to want to sniff around corners, and growl menacingly when the crowd in the streets presses too close, and it drives Stiles to new levels of anxiety trying to get Derek to keep his mutant-wolfiness pushed down. He's clearly never had to keep it hidden before, and Stiles spends the whole trip convinced they're going to be nabbed off the streets at any moment. It's not good for his nerves, is what he's saying.

Amazingly, they make it in and out with no incident, both of them much improved by some quality time in Tia's shower cube. Stiles bumps his wristband to Tia's and flicks some chits between them that have her pursing her lips, but then coming back an hour later with freshly replicated clothes for both of them, and a pair of shoes for Derek.

It's like bliss, bathing- it's the thing Stiles misses most about living inside, other than his parents. Regular cleanings, and more than one set of socks at a time. Derek looks like a completely different person with his hair washed clean of residual blood and dust and filth. It's soft, and falls across his head like the black chicken feathers Tia keeps from her roosters. His eyes in the daylight are soft, but haunted by things Stiles thinks he probably can't even imagine.

The problem with bathing is that it makes the alley seem even more rank, but Stiles doesn't dare keep it too clean. He doesn't want to draw any attention to his space, and really, now that he thinks about it, he should probably move on, with or without Derek. He's been here over a month now, and that's a long time to not be noticed coming and going. It's just that the location is so damn convenient.

Still, he thinks, better safe and inconvenienced, than registered and swept away.

He resolves to go scouting tomorrow.

It's three days later, and he's just finished checking out two potential spots for their imminent relocation when he realizes he's being followed. They're subtle, which is bad, because it mean's they're more than just opportunistic street goons looking to frisk him for his wristband and any weapons. He walks a little faster, sticking to the walls and overhangs of the buildings all around.

It's getting near dawn, the time when the streets are emptiest, folks out for the night having stumbled home while folks working the early shift are just starting to shuffle out. Generally, this emptiness makes it the safest time for Stiles and his particular mutation, but in this case, it means that it's going to be both much harder to lose his tails, and much less likely that anyone will help him.

He doubles back, walking quickly, ducking behind storefronts and awnings, following a twisting path through the underbelly of his neighborhood, but every time he dares a glance over his shoulder, they're still there. They don't seem to be herding him anywhere in particular, which is a small mercy, and there only seem to be the two of them, which is also good, but he's starting to get nervous about his inability to shake them off.

He ducks behind a covered replicator cart to consider his options.

He could head for the business district, try to lose them in the rising crowds of drones and shoppers. The problems with that are that he has to stay ahead of them long enough to get there, and also that he doesn't exactly blend in with the Lower-Mids working class anymore. Alternatively, he could head for the proverbial hills, and hope to disappear into the carts and cars of the markets. Disadvantages there include getting caught by store owners if he has to hide somewhere a little less... publicly accessible, and also the fact that the markets will be much quieter and emptier than even the streets at this hour, and thus, if he gets caught, a lot less full of assistance.

He peers out. They're close enough now that he can identify them; some of McCobb's goons. He curses under his breath. He'd done McCobb a favor once, once, when he was starting out, and ever since then McCobb will sometimes take a wild hair to try and add Stiles to his collection of pets. Stiles has managed to put him off so far, but someday he won't, and then he'll be a captive mutant in a collar, lending his spark to whatever nefarious or selfish purpose McCobb sees fit.

There is a third option. He's close to his alley now, only blocks away. He could make a break for it and head for home, and pray to all the gods that Derek's there; Derek is bigger, stronger, and scarier than Stiles is, and doesn't usually leave the alley, as far as Stiles knows. The downside is that then the goons will know where Stiles has been staying; but they were going to move anyway, so this would only speed things up.

It's a gamble. If Derek isn't there, he's pretty much f outu, but that's also a distinct possibility whichever option he goes with.

He risks another glance. The thugs have paused, looking carefully around. One tall and skinny, darker skinned with sparkling tattoos that ripple in a paisley pattern up his arms, the other pale and dark-haired, her face chirpy and disarming, but no doubt hiding a small militia's worth of weapons under her lavender coat.

No time like the present, he thinks, and goes bursting out of his hiding spot, running through the dimly lit streets as fast as he can. He hears their shout of surprise and the pounding of their footsteps behind him as an energy blast marks the wall above his head.

He pours on the speed, rounding the corners at a full out run, taking advantage of every tiny bit of knowledge he has about his own turf to dodge obstacles and hurtle forward. He can hear his heart thumping in his chest, the blood rushing in his ears, and the relentless rhythmic beat of them gaining on him as he sprints down the last piece of pavement to his alley.

He flings himself into the mouth of it, and Derek's already up, on his feet, claws extended and growling. He's the best and most ferocious sight Stiles has ever seen, and he has zero qualms about the way Derek grabs him and shoves him behind his wolfed-out bulk.

The goons seem to have other feelings about the figure Derek cuts, and they skid to a cautious stop in the mouth of the brick archway.

“Hey now” the tall one raises his hands and slinks carefully forward. “We were just having a word with Stilinski here. No need to get all worked up.”

Derek growls in a way that leaves no doubt in anyone's mind as to his menace.

“You tell McCobb he can fuck right off, you hear me?” Derek's crouching in front of him, still growling, and Stiles has a heady feeling that he's never felt out here on the streets, the sense that someone would defend him, protect him, challenge dangerous people on his behalf. “I've told him before, I don't want shit to do with him.”

Lavender Coat draws a weapon.

“I see you've made a friend.” She tips her head slightly to the side. “I'm sure McCobb will be very interested to hear about the...” she takes in Derek's teeth, claws, and twisted face “nature of your buddy, here.”

Derek moves faster than Stiles can follow. There's a quick crunch, a yelp of pain, and the clatter of the weapon skittering across the pavement until it hits the wall, and then the woman is clutching her wrist in pain.

“You will tell no one .” Derek's voice is a rumble, hissing slightly around his protruding teeth. He steps forward suddenly, making the two goons pale, though they hold their ground, and makes a big show of sniffing the air. “I have your scent, now. I can track you anywhere. And if anyone comes to find us...” he snarls long and low, stepping forward again to speak quietly a foot from their faces, “I will come to find you.”

Lavender Coat is backing away slowly, but her partner is a little slower on the uptake; he adjusts his stance, places his hand on a weapon just inside his cloak.

“You may be a mutant,” he spits at Derek's feet, “but I bet you still bleed.”

“Yes,” Derek says, over the sudden sound of cloth fibers parting. “But not like you.” five lines of red bloom on the man's shirt front as he staggers backward, clutching his chest in horror. Derek bares his teeth and crouches like a sprinter, letting loose a terrifying snarl.

“Better run.”

The two goons go clattering out of the alley, shouts echoing behind them, and Stiles waits until they've gone at least a couple hundred feet before he bursts out laughing, reaching out to settle a shaky hand on Derek's back.

“Thanks, man, really. I thought I was a goner for a minute.” He smiles as Derek straightens up, his face sliding back into the sharp, pale, fully human features that are starting to seem so familiar.

Derek growls low and long again as he turns to face Stiles, his face serious as he pats Stiles down.

“They didn't hurt you?” His face is open, concerned. It makes Stiles feel warm, and a little silly.

“No,” Stiles shakes his head, and pats Derek's wide, firm shoulder. “No, I'm fine.” He smiles. “Thanks to you, so yeah. Thanks, buddy.”

Derek nods once, his eyes still searching Stiles' face.

“You're welcome.”

“Here, see.” Stiles bites his tongue and swears, but in the next second his tiny file slides home, and the dispenser starts shooting out zip-packs like an over-excited pitching machine. Derek deftly plucks most of them out of the air as they go flying, then bends to pick up the few he missed and shove them into the large carry-all they've brought with them. Stiles pulls the tip of the tool back, letting the machine sputter out a last pack or two before going silent and displaying a sad red Error message across its shiny face. “I bet you could do this with a claw, I don't think you'd need my tool at all.” He squints critically at the slot, then at Derek's hand. “Yeah, I bet... we'll have to try it on the next one. Now...” he glances around carefully before wrapping the camoscreen blanket over them to confuse the cameras as they stroll out from under the dispensary's overhang, “now we go.”

They stride quickly off into the darkness, Stiles pulling them through several back alleys and through a couple of different markets before he feels secure enough to drop the blanket and fold it into his pack. It's not a perfect method; the blanket doesn't make them invisible unless they hold completely still, but the background ripple it makes when moving, while noticeable to the naked eye, is difficult to track on camera, and definitely obscures their identities.

They've made it down to near where Pedmant District and Mer't share a boundary, and Stiles steers them toward the dispensary at the end of the Lake complex. It's not one that he's used in the last month or so, so it should be unwatched, and he wants Derek to give it a shot before they move into Fruitvale and Stiles uses his wristband to get them the last of their supplies.

He looks around, can tell that Derek is doing the same with his mutant senses, which, Stiles would really love to know how strong those are. They're clearly stronger than Stiles' are, but then Stiles' mutation doesn't seem to have affected his senses at all, so that doesn't really mean much. Derek also doesn't seem to have the same distaste for smells that Stiles does; he's clearly aware when the dumpster they squat next to is getting particularly pungent, but it doesn't seem to make him gag the way it does Stiles.

They catch eyes, and Derek nods sharply, so Stiles catches hold of his wrist and pulls him toward the dispensary's overhanged recess. Really they're just asking for them to be scammed, Stiles thinks, the way they keep them all set back from the street like this, with a careful little lid over them to keep the scammers safe. Ostensibly it's to protect persons making legitimate withdrawals; you can't see if someone is using it until you're nearly upon it, and the narrow opening makes it easier to defend, even if it does also make you trapped. There are theoretically cameras pointed at each one, but they get disabled within minutes of being installed by other folks who have a vested interest in there being no record of who is using the machines for what. The city attempts to maintain and replace them maybe once a year, but they're no concern for Stiles.

He hadn't even known about the dispensaries at first when he came down to be a Grounder- they hadn't had them in the Lower-Mids where he'd grown up. You got your food from your in-house replicator, or if you lived with someone who was old-fashioned, there were occasional markets around where one could go and buy replicated food that wasn't programmed into the household units, or even the pretty rare True Food items. Stiles remembered his dad bringing home a small jar of tiny green things to his mom once for her birthday; capers, they'd been called, and his mom had been beside herself with excitement. Stiles thought they'd smelled god-awful, so he hadn't had any.

Kinda wishes he had, now. Oh well.

“Ok, see the slot?” Derek nods, considering the tiny opening where some helpful soul has already pried up part of the covering around the dispensary's input screen. “Try using your next smallest claw. The point you want to press is up, and slightly to the left. You don't need to do anything fancy to it, just give it a little pressure, and it should be good.”

Derek flicks his eyes at Stiles dubiously, but holds out a hand and pops the claw on his second-to-last finger, sticking it in the slot. His face is a study in concentration as he feels around, his finger bent at an awkward angle. He scowls, pulling his hand out. “It's not working. My claw's too big, and bending it back like that is going to crack it.”

Stiles rolls his eyes. “C'mon, try again. Maybe use your littlest claw? You need to learn how to do this.”

Derek scowls, but obligingly pops out the claw on his littlest finger.

“Why?”

“In case something happens to me, duh.” Stiles shrugs his shoulders and tries not to shiver. It's late into the night and cold. “You need to be able to survive on your own. Besides.” He shrugs again, resisting the urge to scoot closer to Derek, who gives off body heat like a furnace. “You should probably strike out on your own soon anyway.”

The look on Derek's face is so stricken that Stiles raises his hands in protest without even realizing he's done it.

“No, no, it's just, I'm not...” He takes a breath, takes Derek's hand in his own gloved fingers, guides his claw into the slot, aims it unerringly up and left, then gives a gentle push. The machine obligingly spits out several zip-packs that fall to the stained concrete. “I'm not a safe person to be around.”

He makes himself let go of the warmth of Derek's hand, and bends to collect the packets, sliding them into his pack.

Derek's still staring at him, face pinched and tight.

“Stiles...” his voice is rough, “...I'm not either.”

Derek's expression is so earnest it's killing him, so Stiles rolls his eyes and hefts his pack, ducking his head to hide his burning face.

“Yeah, yeah, big scary sour-wolf. I've seen worse. C'mon.” He takes a steadying breath. “Next stop.”

There's a line at the Fruitvale dispensary he usually hits, which he doesn't like. Lines make him nervous, like crowds. Too much risk of him accidentally getting too close, tripping someone's mutation, and getting discovered. Derek has to have noticed Stiles' effect on him by now, or else he's too distracted by everything in his new surroundings and is just chalking it up to his new life, but Stiles has been happy to avoid the conversation thus far. He trusts Derek, and maybe that's going to be the last mistake he makes, but it's too late now. He pulls them around the edge of the square, moving quickly and keeping to the periphery. Derek seems perfectly content to evade attention with him; in the couple weeks they've been squatting together, he's never shown any inclination to be near any people other than Stiles, and that's frankly fine with him. The fewer people who interact with them, the safer they are.

The holo-screens are playing as ever, and Stiles scans them for anything relevant to him. Mostly it's Topside gossip and politics, but as he's half-watching, an announcer with blond hair and the distinctive Upper-Mids cheekbone markings comes on with a serious cast to her face.

“Three new attacks have been reported in the 250th Pedmant level this week, leading authorities to believe that the terrorist known as the Mutant-Maker is on the move. One of the victims was an eleven year old Topside female, who has since died from complications of her sudden mutation onset.” Stiles grabs Derek's arm and pulls him to a halt in the shadow of the closest building. He can feel his heart pounding in his chest, the thumpa-thumpa skipping with the sudden onset of nerves. The announcer continues. “Authorities are speculating that the criminal's actions may be in response to the latest wave of Hunter Party bills in Congress, two of which are expected to pass this November. Bill-0375A, sponsored by Senator Gerard Argent, Beacon District, calls for the registration of all persons who have received the vaccine, whether they have displayed mutant capabilities or not, for the general welfare of the public.” She clears her throat, her eyes scanning the tele-prompter as she continues. “0375B, its companion, calls for the registration of all unions between vaccinated persons, and automatic testing and registration at the birth of any child with known-vaccinated parents.”

Derek's giving him a funny look, but Stiles doesn't care. This means it's getting worse than he'd realized. If the Hunter Party has enough power to start pushing things through... that means the Mutant Defense Fund is losing ground. He grits his teeth, remembering his mother in her blue Proud Mom of a Special Child shirt kissing his cheek as she went off to the protest that killed her. Life is fickle, this he learned early; you're only ever an angry mob's stampede away from death.

Sometimes he thinks he smells her perfume in the street, and has to go sit in his alley for the rest of the night, waiting for the panic attack to pass.

“It's thought that the terrorist known as the Mutant-Maker may himself be a mutant, seeking revenge for the harm done to him as a child.” Stiles makes a face at the melodrama in her voice, but listens anyway as she continues. “However, this conflicts with reports of the victims which describe him as in his late 30s, well over the 19 year old age threshold for the oldest mutants. Doctors are testing blood samples from the victims, all of whom have been confirmed to previously be non-mutated vaccinated children, but who have spontaneously developed a mutation post-attack. Those who have received the vaccine are cautioned to stay in their own property as much as possible, and to travel in groups when moving about.”

The scene switches to a holo-vid of pro- and anti-mutant supporters fist-fighting at the base of the gates of the White House, and Stiles exhales hard, his stomach churning. Derek's still watching him, a perplexed look on his face. He wants to leave, to go back to their alley and hide for a week, but he can't. They can't. So he pulls Derek with him to the corner, and heads for another dispensary, glad of his strong, silent, shadow.

They've moved alleys once in the two months that they've been sharing space, but Stiles thinks they're probably overdue for another move. He's kept his mutation as quiet as he can; only going onto the streets at the emptiest times, making sure his skin never touches another's; but he's paranoid, and he can't help but feel that it's not unwarranted. The holos about the Hunter legislation are getting more and more dire, as are the reports of free-form Hunter parties roaming the banlous, sniffing out mutants and detaining them for tiny infractions. Derek's out picking up some more zip-packs and stopping by Tia's for a change of clothes; they've both realized that, for all that he might want to stay hidden as much as possible, he gets far too restless when trapped in an alley for hours and hours, and ends up making them both crazy. Stiles had stayed behind to try and update his feeds links because he wasn't feeling well, but now in addition to the sniffles, he's feeling watched, and he doesn't like it. He's been hiding under the camoscreen blanket all day, but it's not enough.

They need to move.

He packs their meager belongings into his carry-all; feed reader, blanket, extra zip-packs, his tool set. Then he waits for Derek to return.

Hours go by, and still there's no sign of Derek. Stiles is restless with the kind of irritable tension that comes with being not quite well. The dumpster reeks, putting out what feels like a continual assault on his nasal passages, and there are little rustles in the darkening corners of the alley that signal the evening rodents are coming forth. It's chilly, but he's too hot under the camoscreen, and he needs to take a piss, but doesn't want to move because his joints ache. He has no idea where Derek is, and it's making him progressively more and more anxious. He's not at all sure when or why he agreed to be attached to this random other mutant, this other drifter on the bottom floor of the Bay Cities megalopolis, but it seems like it's too late now, and he can't stop turning Derek's absence over and over in his mind. Is he hurt? Not likely; he's large, and well armed with claws. Did he get lost? Stiles supposes it's possible, but Derek's never indicated that he has any difficulty getting around before. Did he just up and leave? Probably not, because he didn't take any food with him, and he seems smart enough that he wouldn't just take off with no supplies. Probably, if he wanted to, he'd just take all the supplies- he seems like he has a pretty solid ruthless streak, for all that he's latched on to Stiles like a particularly sticky bit of refuse.

The thing that has Stiles thinking in circles, though, the piece that keeps tumbling around in his brain, all rough edges and pointy bits, is the thirty seconds of holo from the other night, the bit that used the words “hunters” and “on the rise”, and showed the Argent fleur-de-lis on the screen wrought in pale silver.

After three more hours, Stiles gives up. Something's clearly wrong- Derek should have been back a very long time ago.

Stiles is just going to have to find him.

He spends a few minutes debating whether he should take their packs with him; he'd like to just move tonight, leave this particular corner for another one, dark and undisturbed. But then what if he can't find Derek, what if Derek comes back and finds their things gone? He doesn't want to make Derek think that Stiles has skipped out on him, definitely doesn't want Derek to then disappear. It does mean that they'll have to come back once he's found Derek, but. Probably it's still the better choice.

He leaves their stuff all packed, tucks it all under the edge of the dumpster and covers it with the camoscreen, and sets off on foot.

He stops by Tia's, where she tells him that Derek did come by, but hours and hours ago, so he lets her light a candle under her portrait of La Virgen, and then heads out into the night. He doesn't have any particular pattern to his wandering, and he's honestly not at all sure what he thinks he's going to accomplish, but he feels better thinking while he's moving, sliding through the dim late-night streets under the cloud of glowing fog from the Topside lights, his skinny legs carrying him aimlessly through the humid dark.

He tries to think it through. His dad was a cop, he grew up with this shit. Think like the person you're trying to find, Stiles. What do you know about this guy? What would he do if something went wrong? Where would he go?

Not back to the alley, that's for sure, Stiles thinks. Derek seems almost more animal than human sometimes, owned by his mutation in a way that means it must've come on young, which is funny, since he's older than Stiles himself. He must've been one of the very first to show it, which would make sense with how strong it seems to be. So, if Derek's thinking with his wolf-man brain, then he wouldn't bring a threat back to his den. To Stiles. He'd try to lose it.

The thing about Hunters, though, is that they're good at traps. They know how to corner a panicked mutant, know how to drive them to ground. If they got a hold of Derek, they're going to be hard to lose, harder still to beat.

Stiles' heart quickens at the thought, his steps speeding up. He doesn't like the idea of Derek tracked and trapped, chased like an animal and hauled in for processing. He doesn't like it at all.

Neither would Derek. So where would he go?

Stiles lets his feet carry him into the red light district, where the bases of the buildings nearly touch, where shanty tents and overhangs sprout from every corner and available piece of wall. Oaksterdam's finest ply their trade here, offering anything you could think to ask for, for only a couple chits, just a few, oh, you don't have enough? Well, surely you have something to trade...

It's close, and winding, and would make the ideal place to escape a pursuit, were one attempting to do such a thing. Unfortunately, that also means it's nearly impossible to track anyone, and it's not a place that Stiles likes to be. The close quarters and handsy come-ons make him much more likely to be discovered, so he hurries even more up one byway and down another.

He's in the trap before he's even aware that he's sprung it, tripping over a stray prostitute's high-heeled boot that conveniently ends up right where his foot needs to be, and as he falls, he catches a glimpse of two well-armed figures walking up behind him.

They might not be after him, but he can't take the chance, so he flings himself to his feet and runs, his heart pounding with adrenaline as he sprints to the end of the row, diving left without a thought or a plan, his blood pumping to the sound of booted feet and muffled curses behind him. He takes a right, and then a left, diving for whatever way seems more open, and only realizes that it must've been set by design when he fetches up in a dead end, cornered as five figures in dark clothing advance on him from the backlit end of the short space.

“Hey, I don't want any trouble. I got my ID right here.” He makes a show of digging in his pocket, but the old man in the front of the group just laughs.

“Sure you do, kid. And I'm sure it's a very good fake, too.” He has a long black stick with him that he taps against his thigh as he walks slowly forward. He smiles. “But I'm also sure that it's a fake.”

Stiles doesn't make any effort to repress the shudder of terror. “I know us Mids aren't supposed to be cruising down here in the slums, but you know how it is,” he laughs awkwardly, “I'm just trying to get some fajna dupa, you know? Get some practice in. What's a guy supposed to do with all those pretty middies, anyway? Gotta learn somewhere.” He gives what he hopes is a salacious leer and grabs his crotch.

The old man just laughs. “Nice try, bachor .” Something clicks, and the stick he carries lights up with a sparking blue glow. Stiles feels his insides scramble all over themselves as they try to climb up his throat. “We know you're a mutant. You can come with us now, easy, and we won't be too hard on you.” His smile is all teeth, his eyes black and hooded in his round, friendly face. The face Stiles has seen on the holo-screens, smiling kindly as he suggests it's in everyone's best interests that the mutants just be shut away and allowed to live out their natural lives away from the rest of the vulnerable population. Gerard Argent's close enough now that he could reach out and touch Stiles if he wanted, and the plascrete wall behind Stiles' fingers isn't any closer to mercifully absorbing him than it was when he slammed up against it in the first place. The man has the sickly sweet smell of the ill, and it makes Stiles want to barf on his nicely polished shoes.

Stiles spits. “I ain't no fucking mutant. You got the wrong guy.”

The fist slams into his face out of nowhere, knocking his head hard against the wall, and at first he thinks the roaring sound is just the wind in his ears as he shakes his head dizzily and coughs a mouthful of blood down his shirtfront, but the sound doesn't stop.

He opens his eyes cautiously. The men have all turned their backs on him, spun around to face the source of the deep rumbling growl that has every hair on his body standing at attention. Blue eyes glow in a hulking mass at the end of the alley, just beyond the silhouettes of the hunters and their raised guns.

“Oh, fuck ,” Stiles swears fervently, pushing himself off the wall and sauntering toward the hunters. There's too many of them, he knows it, and they have special weapons. But maybe if he distracts them, Derek can get away.

“Hey assfaces , are you really stupid enough that you believe your own bullshit propaganda about the purity of the race, or do you just like having an excuse to come slum it down here with us bottom-feeders and get your rocks off by smashing in the faces of helpless kids before you haul them away?” They're turning to him slowly as he gets near, but the one right in front of him's still focused on Derek. This won't do. Stiles taps him on the shoulder, and the guy turns, gun lowering, face confused. Stiles wants to roll his eyes. They sure didn't pick this one for his brains. “Hey pendejo! Your mama had a better stache.” Stiles hauls off and punches him in the nose, thumb outside his fist just like his dad taught him, and can feel the crack of the bone underneath his fingers and the spurt of wet liquid before he's going down under a pile of fists and can only curl his arms around his head and pull his knees up.

There's a sudden break of air around him, and then the roaring sound from before is really loud and right above him, and he wants to cry, because Derek didn't run , and he should have gotten the hell out of here, but he didn't. Derek's shielding Stiles with his body, standing over him and swinging at the hunters, but Stiles can feel the vibrations of the blows raining down on Derek, see and smell the spark of the electric rod, hear the pained howls as bullets strike home. There's no doubt that his mutation is helping Derek already, or probably Derek wouldn't still be standing, but it's not going to be enough for long, so Stiles uncurls enough to frantically rip off his gloves and wrap his hands around Derek's ankles, skin to skin, and push . There's a surprised noise from above him, and then Derek literally shifts and grows under Stiles' very fingers, exploding in size. Stiles can't see him from his angle facing the ground, but the horrified sounds from the hunters are enough. There are some disgusting thumps and squelches, and then the sound of two pair of running footsteps, and Derek gives one last tortured-sounding howl.

Energy is still pulsing through Stiles, but he can't quite figure out how to stop it now, and he can't move either, waves of dizziness washing through him. There's a moment of silence, then a pair of clawed and furred hands gently pry his fingers off of Derek's... ankles? hind feet? and start to turn him over, at which point he finishes out his evening by listing to one side and vomiting copiously before sliding into unconsciousness.

When he comes to, it takes him a minute to recognize the ceiling of Tia Yamana's tiny public room. His vision's still a little swimmy, so he lets himself lay still and take stock of his various body parts one at a time. Head: hurty. Face: also hurty. Right hand: definitely sore. Throat: sore, and also his mouth tastes like his least favorite dumpster smells.

He must make some kind of noise, because suddenly there's a face over him, and he feels the first sense of relief he's felt in what seems like years.

“Melissa?”

“Hey, mijo .” Melissa McCall's face is crinkled in concern, her curly dark hair tied back tightly from her face. “How you feeling? You took some pretty good knocks to your noggin.”

Stiles pulls a hand up and prods gently at his face, wincing as he gets to his left cheek.

“Yeah, baby. He got you good.” She wipes his face with a cloth. “I gave you some painkillers two hours ago. You had a little bit of a fever too, did you know?”

He grimaces and waves a hand. “'s just a cold.” He braces himself and sits up slowly, forcing the nausea down carefully as he steadies himself against the wall.

Melissa watches him closely, then hands him a glass of water as soon as she can tell he's settled, then lets her face crumple.

“Stiles, I've told you again and again, you can come stay with us. You don't need to do this. Your...” she looks down and takes his hand, “this is not what your parents would want for you.”

He looks away. Tia's collection of feathers has grown, and is starting to spill off the mantlepiece.

“You know I can't, Melissa. A mutant in the Argent household?” He laughs, tries to smile at her. “I'm all for the hilarious cosmic joke on them, for sure, but I can't put you and Scott in danger like that.”

“Where could be safer?” She's gripping his hand and leaning forward now, dark eyes intense in her worried face. “There would be no other mutants to give you away.”

He shakes his head. “How would you explain me? Where did my parents go? And all it would take would be one of their captured mutants getting too close to me, and it'd all be over. Either the mutant'd spill in the hopes of getting it easier, or the Argents would notice that the mutant was suddenly so much more powerful, and start looking for why.” He leans his poor, aching head against the wall. “No. I won't. And don't come looking for me. I don't want to have to disappear again.”

She sighs and rubs his hand, reaching up to press her palm against his cheek before reaching for a small bowl of rice and a couple sticks. “Here. Eat something.”

It tastes like nothing, which is good, so he begins methodically putting bites in his mouth, one after another. He takes another drink, continues eating.

“I met Derek.”

Stiles coughs, stuck on a grain of rice, and Melissa hands him the water.

“He was here when I got here. Tia said he brought you in, didn't know what else to do for you. She knew to comm me, of course.” She looks at him consideringly. “I didn't know you had a friend.”

Stiles shrugs, feeling abruptly protective. He still knows next to nothing about Derek, and he doesn't really want to talk about whatever strange amalgamation of friend/co-squatter/helpmeet that Derek seems to be turning into.

“Yeah. He just showed up a couple months ago.” He purses his lips into something nonchalant. “He's quiet, helps pay the bills, and doesn't smell any worse than I do, so I kept him.”

Melissa nods slowly, eyebrows up, looking completely unconvinced.

“He was pretty beat up too, when I got here. I had to use a lot of bandages on him.” She eyeballs him shrewdly. “Good thing he heals so fast, or I don't think he would have even come close to surviving the number of bullets I pulled out of him.”

Stiles nods and swallows, then offers her his most disarming smile.

“Yep. Good thing.”

She rolls her eyes and pats him on the leg, then stands and stretches, her back cracking as she turns to reach for a bottle on the side-table.

“Here. Take these as needed with food for the next few days. If you're still throwing up or fainting in a few hours, you comm me, ok?” She leans in and pins him with her gaze. He gulps. “ Ok ?”

“Yes, ma'am.”

She nods, satisfied, and leans back up. “And come see me next week so I can check up on you both. Argent Jr. will be in DC for a vote on the latest bills, so it'll be safe to come to the house.” She leans in and kisses him on the cheek, her hand cupping his face as she smiles softly at him. “You're a good kid, Stiles. Take care of yourself.”

He forces himself to smile back.

“Okay.”

“So.”

They're sitting on the edge of the abandoned 880 overpass, careful to stay away from the rotting girders sticking out of the abandoned concrete, but high enough to dangle their legs. It's just past dark, and Stiles likes to look out at the endless sea of colored lights. From here they're in every direction, above, below, to every side, shrouded and beautiful in the ever-present fog.

“So.” He kicks his feet. “Thanks for saving my skinny ass. I didn't mean to get you trapped too.”

Derek shrugs, picks up a loose pebble, and skips it down the sloping road bed to the main street.

“They'd been tracking me for hours. I don't know that I could have lost them, even if you hadn't turned up.”

Stiles nods. It's no doubt true. The hunters are good at what they do, and are only getting better with every passage of legislation that favors them. He's been trying not to think too hard about what that's going to mean for him and his continued freedom and survival, but largely failing. As to what it means that Gerard Argent himself was down in the streets getting his own hands dirty, well. It can't be anything good.

“I wasn't even sure you were a mutant, you know?” Derek sounds vaguely perplexed, and Stiles laughs drily.

“Yeah. I'm a stealth.”

Derek's eyes are pale in the dim light, reflecting the colors of the neon signs on the next tower over. He nods slowly. “You have to be. You're never safe.”

Stiles lets his head drop and exhales. “Yeah. I'm not.”

“You're what, a... a boost? A catalyst? What you did to me...” Derek pops his claws absentmindedly and lets his eyes bleed into his mutation. They glow red now, not blue, and Stiles wonders what it means. “You boosted me straight up to alpha, and even now it hasn't gone away.” He sounds both shocked and amazed, and Stiles hurts to hear it.

“My mom used to call me a spark.”

“You're a valuable commodity.”

“Yeah. To pretty much anyone. It's why I stay mobile.” Stiles scrubs a hand through his hair. “Sorry about what I did. I've never tried it with anyone before. Usually I just let someone pay me to sit near me for a while. If I touch them, it's more effective, but I don't like that getting out. What I did with you...” He trails off, distracted by Derek watching him closely. “Skin to skin, and then I was panicking, and I just... I pushed it into you. I'm sorry if it fucks you up too much.”

Derek reaches out and hooks a hand over the back of Stiles' neck. “No.” He shakes his head calmly. “It's fine. It made me stronger, and saved us. And even now, I think. I'm still stronger. So together, maybe we can be safe.”

Stiles chuckles, because really, safe, it's such a pipe dream. But it is a nice one, he thinks. Safe with Derek. It's a start.

He shakes it off, setting his foot on a bent piece of rebar and pushing it back and forth as it groans.

“What about you? You must've been one of the first wave.” Stiles looks at him appraisingly. “I'm nearly seventeen, but you're older, and they only started vaccinating when I was eight. But it's so natural for you.”

Derek is shaking his head as Stiles trails off, his face a perfect study in rigidly composed.

“I was never vaccinated.” He pops his claws again, picking at them nervously. “I was born.”

“What?” Stiles' foot falls off the rebar, limp with surprise. “No you weren't. You can't be a mutant without having gotten the vaccine. The vaccine is what triggers the genetic changes in susceptible individuals. Everyone knows that.”

“No. My family and me... I've been watching the holos when I've been out. I didn't know about any of it, the vaccine, the mutation rates, the government cover-ups. The protests.” He takes a deep breath. “My family... I think we might have been the originals.”

“The what ?” Stiles can feel his mouth hanging open unattractively. “You can't be serious.”

Derek spreads his hands, looks up at Stiles from under his dark eyebrows.

“My whole family, they're all... they were all like me. Werewolves, they called us. Military, we were all military, or going to be. My parents, my older brother and sister. I was being trained, but hadn't gone into the field yet.” His face is stony, waiting to crack. “I saw some theory, they were talking about it on the holo, that the vaccine was made from the blood of a super secret military experiment?”

“No. No, Derek, those are just conspiracies. Those are just crackpots making shit up. That's impossible!” Stiles realizes his hands are waving in the air in disbelief, pulls them back down. “You can't be serious.”

Derek laughs bitterly. “Yeah. It's so much more implausible than me sprouting claws and fur, and ripping people to shreds. So much more unbelievable than a boy who can spark another person's powers, just by being in their very presence.” He rolls his eyes, and Stiles sticks out his tongue. “I think it was us. I think we were the ones that they used to make the vaccine.”

He picks up another pebble and skims it down the road.

“We don't get sick. We heal fast. They were always studying us.” He shrugs. “We always knew we were different, but I didn't know we were the only ones like us in the world. Until the vaccines, anyway.” He slides a sideways look at Stiles, reaches out and drags a finger down Stiles' arm, then focuses back down on his hands. “All the pieces fit. I can see why you'd try to make a vaccine from us. And.” He sighs deeply, staring out into the foggy night. “And I can see how it could backfire. A vaccine made from us to combat the plague du jour that was working its way through the banlous and the Lower-Mids, threatening to climb even higher. But a vaccine that carried maybe a little too much of us. A little extra piece that would make some people like us.”

Stiles feels like he can't breathe. He doesn't want to know, but he has to ask.

“What happened?”

Derek's face grows dark, and he sinks his claws into his thigh to hide the shaking of his hand.

“There was a woman who worked with my parents. She was... she was our friend. She worked for the government, I'm not sure exactly how, but in some sort of supervisory role. But... she was a friend of the family for the past five years.” Stiles can't move for watching the play of emotions on Derek's face. “She was my sister's best friend, my older brother's confidant. She treated me like a kid, but I worshiped the ground she walked on.” Derek's voice is so quiet Stiles can barely make it out, and he can't so much as swallow around the lump in his throat. “She went crazy, and she killed everyone. I was at school when they told me; I'd stayed late for basketball practice. They called me to the office, and... and said that she'd arranged for my parents to be killed in action on their mission. That she'd taken a gun with wolfsbane bullets and shot my brothers and sisters.” He takes a deep shuddering breath. “I ran. I ran a long way, for a long time, while her hunters chased me. I don’t' remember all of it, but then I woke up in your alley, and there was you.” He looks at Stiles, his face full of anguish.

“They chased you to the city?”

Derek nods grimly. “Yes. And last night, they found me.” He picks up another rock and hurls it angrily down the street to crash into the roadbed, clattering the whole way.

“But that means...”

Derek turns his face to Stiles and nods once.

“Yeah. They're coming for me.”