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Phase 3

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Stiles Stilinski tapped a rhythm on his desk, hiding a smirk when his seminar leader, Mr. Harris, shot him a venomous glare. Harris was standing at the side of the room, leaning against the wall and alternating between faked looks of confidence and death stares at students. Stiles wasn’t the first one to get the thunderous look of promised retribution, but it was the last day and, with the wolfy audience in the room, any consequences would be slow coming, if they came at all. This made everyone dangerously bolder.

But now wasn’t the time for that, not for Stiles, so he ducked his head and made a big show of focusing on the presenter.

Not that focusing was hard. At the front of the room, the glorious and beautiful Lydia Martin was presenting her final project, a review of the history of the Human Preservation Act. She was as lovely, precise and factual as always, reciting the story everyone had memorized by the time they were eight.

She looked bored to tears.

Stiles didn’t blame her. He knew, that she’d had a far more explosive project in the works originally—a proper send off to their last day of seminar. But when Harris learned that the representatives from Beacon Hills, the closest supecity to Beacon Dome, wanted to sit in on the seminar’s final presentations, everyone’s projects got nixed.

Stiles was pretty peeved about it, to be honest. He’d had half a report on the shift of old world memory technology from bulky physical mediums to single atom-based systems finished. It was fascinating. It was thorough. It was interactive. Minds were going to be blown.

But now? Now everyone had a sanitized and werewolf-friendly project to present.

Well, almost everyone. Stiles’ mouth split into a sharp, bright grin.

Scott eyed him warily from a desk over. “Dude, tell me you’re not doing the thing,” he whispered.

“I’m not doing the thing,” Stiles lied instantly.

Scott, smart boy, didn’t believe him. “Harris will straight up murder you if you do the thing,” he warned, brow furrowed.

Stiles’ glee dimmed. Forget Harris. Lydia was glaring at him from the front of the room, not a single hitch in her speech as her eyes promised slow de-skinning and disembowelment if he said another word.

Actually cowed this time, Stiles nodded once, sliding deep in his chair.

“…the act, of course, followed on the heels of the Event, which followed the 2025 World War,” Lydia was saying, clear voice echoing through the room. “As we all know, the Event has never been explained to the satisfaction of anyone involved, but the prevailing theory is that the war itself was the cause.” She shifted to the next notecard in her hand. Not that she ever looked down… “The Event is another name for the respiratory disease that spread globally during the war. Werewolves and other supernaturals, aka “supes”, all of whom went public in 2015, seemed entirely immune while humans died in the millions.”

Harris cleared his throat at the faintest hint of negativity in Lydia’s tone. Normally a fan of pleasing anyone who had an influence on her seminar score, Lydia’s smile turned distinctly acidic as she glanced back down at her notes. She wet her lips, and then, voice thinly pleasant, started again.

“Due to the Event, governments broke down all over the world. Werewolves came to the forefront of politics at the time and turned who they could.” She changed slides and an upward trending graph replaced the picture in the hologram. “The global werewolf population in 2025 jumped from 1 in 100, 000 to 1 in 1000. Seventy years later, they remain the majority global population.”

On cue, Harris smiled at the werewolves at the back of the room. Stiles followed his gaze, glancing over his shoulder at the three people huddled around a table, looking distinctly out of place. His glance turned into a rather long gaze after a moment, then into a shameless stare as his perpetual irritation with the wolf subspecies was overpowered by pure curiosity.

His attention was captured by the one in the middle; an intimidatingly beautiful older woman with long dark hair had her chin propped up in the heel of her hand. Compared to her magnetic presence, the other two werewolves, male and good looking in their pressed business suits, might as well have been wall fixtures. Attractive wall fixtures, but wall fixtures all the same.

The wolf lady wore a dark red and almost black jacket. It was well fitted, as was the collared white shirt that poked up over it. Her long legs were stretched out and crossed in front of her, giving all the semblance of relaxation. But her focus revealed it to be a lie. She watched Lydia with unblinking eyes, thick claw tips pressing bluntly and gently into the skin of her cheek.

Lydia was unbothered by the attention and shifted smoothly into her next topic. “The compounds, known colloquially as ‘The Domes’, were established in 2034 by the Preservation of Humanity Council, which pushed forward the Human Preservation Act five years earlier.”

Light shifted behind Stiles, like Lydia had changed slides again, but he didn’t turn to look, too busy staring at the woman.

“The domes’ force fields, which are powered by a series of…” Lydia’s voice started going in one ear and out the other as Stiles’ attention drifted.

The wolf tensed slightly under his gaze. Then, without any warning, her eyes shifted to Stiles, narrowing on him like a snake fixating on a mouse.

Stiles turned back to the front, seeing that the graphic behind Lydia had shifted into a table of various external shots of the electric blue force fields that inspired the name ‘dome’. His heart hammered in his chest.

“These domes provided a clean, controlled environment for the remaining members of humanity. Once placed in a dome and provided with a Lupa Shot, a revolutionary advancement in medical technology derived from werewolf blood, a human’s life expectancy raised about sixty years—but dome life and entry procedures are a topic for another presenter.”

Still a little jumpy, Stiles reacted to the cue and winked at her obnoxiously. But Lydia completely missed it, absorbed by her notes. She paused, clearly reading the page in front of her. Stiles frowned at that, because Lydia Martin never needed presentation notes.

“The Human Preservation Act has three phases,” Lydia said, starting again a little unsteadily. “Phase 1 involved moving humans from the infected regions to the domes. Phase 2 involves pooling resources towards finding a cure. Phase 2 is the phase we are currently in.” She seemed uncharacteristically uncomfortable, her mouth set into a grim line. Then, abruptly, she pulled on a fake smile. “And that’s the Human Preservation Act!” Stiles tipped his head slowly at the obvious hole in her presentation, confused. “If we all work together, we can find a cure and beat the Event. Thanks for listening.”

She stepped off the podium to a chorus of scattered applause, spinning around and sitting in her front row seat with a flare of her skirt. Allison leaned over, face pulled into a frown. Whatever Allison said made Lydia shake her head, but before Stiles could lean over and try to eavesdrop, Jared stumbled to the front of the room and touched his data chip to the podium.

The cool blue tones of Lydia’s presentation shifted to orange, and Jared started talking quickly about medical technology advancements since the 2025 World War. He stuttered and stumbled through most of it, forehead slick and shiny with sweat. The guy had a notoriously weak stomach, and, on this fateful day, Jackson and his goons in the second row were swaying back and forth in tandem, trying to mess with him.

Jared powered through it though. After discussing several wins in medical technology advancement, he paused, clearly trying to find a way to gently say that Phase 2 was a bust that wouldn’t have Harris gunning for him. “L-like Lydia so astutely mentioned, the Lupa Shot was an amazing achievement! One of the best products of Phase 2, hands down. Synthesized from a werewolf’s blood, it temporarily accelerates your healing—human healing, I mean,” he said, abruptly correcting himself as all of his focus went to the back of the room. A flush was crawling over his face. “It, uh, accelerates human healing without turning us into, well, you.” Jared gestured awkwardly to their guests.

Harris closed his eyes. He looked like he was praying for patience.

Jared’s presentation didn’t improve much from that point on. Though it was thorough and technically interesting, it had no flow or structure and thus petered out awkwardly—so awkwardly that applause came only after Jared had sat back down.

Now it was Stiles’ turn. Grinning, he clapped a quick little rhythm on his thighs excitedly before popping out of his desk, thumbing his data chip. More than one person groaned or rolled their eyes when he bounded up to the front, knowing he was up to something.

Stiles hated being so predictable, but, eh. Whatever.

When he got to the podium and turned around, he saw that Scott had sunk down in his seat, hiding so low behind his folded arms that only his eyes were visible. Allison was already frowning at him, as if asking him if this was really the way he wanted to end his education. Harris had straightened at his approach, eyes narrowing suspiciously at Stiles’ wide Cheshire grin.

Humming softly, Stiles tapped his data chip against the podium, blinking away white spots as orange shifted to green and yellow and blue and red and- yeah, okay. He’d maybe been a little too enthusiastic about colors there.

“So,” Stiles chirped, rubbing his eyes. “Domes.” Still a little blinded, he grinned at his captive audience.

Harris audibly groaned, hiding his face. In the way back, the wolves looked very dubious.

Stiles cleared his throat, adopting a serious face. “Domes. Like the lovely Lydia Martin said”—Lydia rolled her eyes—“they were established by the Human Preservation Act in an attempt to, you know. Preserve humanity. Domes.” Stiles spread his arms out. “Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.”

He leaned forward on the podium, smile taking a bitter edge. “Let me tell you about domes, okay. They were written in as a temporary housing situation until the Event was resolved. They were completely optional! Can you believe that? Then, two years later, they’re suddenly mandatory. And now, seventy some years later, they’re permanent mandatory housing, and you have next to no choice about whether or not you can stay in one. And god forbid you get exiled from one.”

Stiles paused. A few people glanced at Allison when he did and he felt a little bit of belated guilt. She stared back at him and only him, expression neutral. Feeling bad about dragging her into this, he hurried to his next point.

He gestured to the room around them. “This? This was not what humanity agreed to.” He tipped his chin up to the quiet werewolves in the back, projecting his voice to them. “Seventy years! We’ve been waiting seventy years for you guys to find a cure. That’s a lifetime for the most of us. And you wolves have prospered off of our impending extinction. You’ve become top dog, you’ve won the world from us-”

Harris stepped forward. “That’s enough. Your presentation is over.”

Stiles ignored him and kept talking. Real anger started bleeding into his voice as he thought about everyone they lost over the years. “Seventy years, we’ve been trapped in these domes with our hands tied as you take our smartest and brightest and turn them. Seventy years, we’ve been stuck here as you use us as a workforce indiscriminately. Seventy years, and what did we get in return? A handful of lousy domes and a couple of supes invading even that. You couldn’t even let us humans have our little final projects to ourselves.” One of the male wolves flinched, but the woman looked unmoved, so Stiles directed his next point to her. “Seventy years of imprisonment disguised as charity, lady. Where the hell’s our cure?”

A second later, Stiles was dodging under Harris’ arm and the room was erupting into chaos.

-

The dismissal Harris barked out was probably just for him, but everyone leapt to their feet at his words, eager to leave the tension building up in the room. And Harris, not wanting to lose any more face in front of the supes, had to let them go.

Before Harris could corner him behind the podium, Stiles scooted out, and then hopped over a few rows of chairs to grab his things, hoping to be lost in a crowd of students hurrying out of the room. He’d lost sight of the supes in the mess too—oh well. Out of sight, out of mind

Like a true friend, Scott waited for him to pack up. But it was probably Scott’s sigh and disappointed face that distracted Stiles just long enough for Stiles to be caught.

Seething with rage, Harris shoved at Scott, cornering Stiles against the wall. “You’re dismissed, McCall!” he spat. His eyes said that Stiles would soon have a shallow grave at the edge of their fields, if he had any say about it.

But Scott didn’t shove well. He was only nineteen and was shorter than Stiles by half a foot, but he was still pretty bulky from helping out with harvest and the healer’s wing. He stood still, blocking Harris’ access to Stiles and ignoring him completely.

“You can go,” Stiles said, answering the question on Scott’s face. Stiles sighed, rubbing at the bridge of his nose.

With an understanding but unsympathetic look on his face, Scott left Stiles with a blisteringly furious teacher. Stiles tried to follow him out. Harris didn’t stop him, but rather followed, like a small yappy dog.

“I can’t believe you,” Harris snarled out, purpling. “Are you so stupid and incompetent that you can’t think about simple consequences?” When Stiles just hummed and tipped his head, Harris grabbed his arm, forcing him around to face him in the main aisle of the room. “Not only did you make me look like a complete fool, that presentation in the presence of those people-”

“One,” Stiles interrupted quickly, “I presented, so I’m entitled to half credit, according to Education Regulation 17.51B.” He shook off Harris’ grip. “Two, even if you illegally gave me a zero, I would still pass the seminar with 550 points. So I’m really not seeing any consequences.” Stiles swung his backpack over his shoulder and shot him a winning smile.

Harris stared at him, disbelief and genuine horror battling it out on his face. “Oh my god. You have no idea what you’ve done, do you.”

“Oh,” Stiles said, drawing the word out. He stood up a little straighter, making his best contrite face. “Well, I’m sorry I made you look stupid in front of the alpha species. My bad.”

Harris’ expression twisted and turned hateful. “That wasn’t just any werewolf, you waste of resources. That was Talia Hale.”

Stiles froze at that. Oh, shit.

Seeing his surprise, Harris did a one eighty, donning a nasty smirk. “Oh yeah. That’s right. Your very own Alpha Prime.” He opened his mouth, like he was going to detail, in bullet points, how screwed Stiles was for publically humiliating the most powerful person in the west, but a voice cut in from behind Stiles.

“Thank you, Adrian, but I’ll take it from here.” Before Stiles could run, a hand tipped with black claws fell on his shoulder, anchoring him. Trapping him.

-

Talia Hale ran a hand over Harris’ desk musingly. His office was small and cramped, filled with more old world books and tablets than anything else, but there was still a faintly earthy pungent scent, like an old plant that hadn’t been taken care of in a while.

Harris had led them into his office just a few minutes before. For all his vitriol and anger from before, he seemed oddly reluctant to push anything, do anything. After a few awkward moments, he finally just turned around to leave.

“If you want to kill him, I’ll help you clean up the mess.” Stiles could barely hear him past the roaring in his ears, but flinched when Harris closed the door, leaving him alone in that cramped space with the woman he’d publically humiliated.

“Oddly vicious, for a human.”

Talia kept her back to him, sorting through the various odds and ends on Harris’ desk. Even though handwriting was considered old fashioned, the guy had a ton of pens, pencils, and other various writing utensils spread all over his desk. It was too bad Harris was such a dick. Stiles knew a whole bunch of people who would have liked to debate the merits of handwriting over typing as a primary source of communication.

Talia lifted a mechanical pencil, shaking it curiously. “It’s strange that you didn’t recognize me,” she said eventually. “Do you not have adequate access to our electronic libraries?”

Despite his dread, Stiles made a face at the blatant reference at the imbalance of power here.

The libraries were not theirs, like most things in life. No, access was a free service, a courtesy—a gift—from their wolfy overlords. And they should never forget it.

“It’s been a while since I looked at your picture. I assumed you were older now.”

Talia laughed softly, turning to face him. “Supernaturals age differently than humans,” she said, a smile playing around her lips. She leaned on the edge of the desk, looking at him, and, despite everything he’d learned about werewolves, both real and gossip, he met her gaze.

The Alpha Prime of the West wasn’t shifted, so it wasn’t a remarkable one. She was beautiful, sure. Stiles wasn’t going to argue against that. She had dark hair and a long straight nose with a charming splash of freckles over the top. As he stared at her, her thin mouth hooked up in a smile, and Stiles had a sudden thought that this? This could be a kind face. This could be a caring face. Then he focused on her eyes, warm and brown, and-

-then they were deep empty pits of darkness, a yawning cracking void, screams echoing and echoing and-

Stiles blinked, shaking away the after image.

After a beat, Talia cocked her head to the side. Her expression changed minutely, but Stiles got the feeling that he graduated from amusing diversion to person of interest.

He was rattled by what he’d seen, what he’d felt, but he set it aside, sterning his jaw and trying to look impassive. Stiles didn’t want to be interesting—especially not to her.

The world was run now on a confusing mix of democracy and globalism and pack dynamics—not that you said pack anymore, god. It was considered a slur, a hold over from when supernaturals came out of the woodwork, outing themselves to the human-dominated world of 2015. Back then, werewolves were especially fixated on divorcing their kind from any attachment to animals, establishing themselves as merely ‘humans with a little extra’.

Now that humans were in the minority, they were less concerned about appealing to similarities. You rarely saw a wolf without claws or fangs or even pointed ears, even when they were doing something mundane.

Talia tipped her head down slightly before huffing out a small laugh. Then she looked up at him steadily before saying, “Your presentation was very interesting to me.”

“Was it?” Stiles asked, stalling.

“Yes. Interesting and familiar.”

“Familiar how?”

There was a long pause. “It sounds,” she said gently, “like you have sympathies with the human separatists.”

His hackles raised and his heart started beating a little bit faster. There was rumors and whispers of a human-only region where Arizona used to be before the war. They were led by a mysterious figure known only as the Darach and their mission was to free humanity from the domes.

They were in a war with the wolves and supes of the Western Region—Talia’s region. It was still considered a civil war, since Darach-controlled territory was, legally, still under Talia’s dominion, but it was a bloody one. Casualties were swelling with every year, and all the media streamed into the domes (all Western, of course) made sure to pin the blame for these deaths on the Darach herself.

Being associated with an enemy was just about the worst thing that could come out of an Alpha Prime’s mouth, especially right after he’d just pissed her off. Nevertheless, he couldn’t help but rise to the challenge.

“Having no sympathy for my fellow human beings is, by definition, inhumane,” he said flatly, not addressing her accusation. After a beat, he tipped his head towards her. “Not that you’d understand.”

She stared at him for a moment, mouth lax. Then she let out a soft laugh, running a hand through her hair. There was no true joy or warmth in it.

Then she stood, pulling away from the table she had been leaning on, and that was terrifying.

As she moved towards him, every muscle in Stiles’ body seized up. With death suddenly an option in front of him, he had a sudden and harshly clear understanding of how rash, stupid, and childish he’d been that day. He had planned on lashing out, throwing some negativity at the feet of whatever stupid werewolf had lowered themselves to come to one of their little presentations—never mind it was their last one, their most important one. But he hadn’t planned on being murdered for it. And, honestly, who planned on being murdered? Seriously. Not Stiles.

But, instead of hurting him, she bypassed him completely, going for the door. She opened it before saying, in a neutral tone, “This yours?”

At that, Stiles whipped around, seeing none other than…

Than his dad, looking stunned and furious all at once. Shit.

He was so busted.

-

His encounter with the Alpha Prime ended like that—anti-climatically. He wasn’t sure if it had really been such a close shave with death, but it sure felt like it. And, naturally, that’s how he presented it to everyone else involved, including his dad. Stilinski wasn’t impressed.

In the end, though, Stiles was only grounded for a week. Half-way through the week, Stilinski wasn’t mad anymore, just tired, which was worse. Most of his seminar-mates were exasperated with him, but not overly concerned, while the people closest to him (Scott, his mom, their other assorted friends) were angry, but resigned.

Stiles wanted to piss people off with his project, but, now that they were pissed, he was left feeling uncomfortable and unhappy and not sure what to do about all that.

But life went on. Shaken by the confrontation with the most powerful person on this side of the continent, Stiles kept his head down and focused on his placement exams.

Dome children were presented with the materials on the exam when they were about three years old. Nothing was kept secret. Everyone knew what job they wanted by the time they were ten. All they had to do was put the right answers in the right spaces, and they were golden.

That being said, there was still a good deal of memorizing and studying to do. And then, even if you did all that and made it into the career, where you went and how high depended entirely on you and your range of skills.

Stilinski often liked to say that he knew too many people who went into Order Maintenance to become Dome Leader only to spend fifteen plus years as a glorified paper boy.

“Don’t be complacent and think your job is secure,” he always lectured. “Go above and beyond. Try to better yourself.”

That was the plan. Stiles had a very strict plan, actually, one that hadn’t changed since he made it, since…

Since his mother died.

There were four categories of jobs that you could qualify for: Resource Management, Order Maintenance, Liaison Development, and Medical Wellness.

Resource Management was everything from their farmers to their scientists to their teachers. There wasn’t a lot of upward mobility there, and good will toward you depended on the output of your labor, but it was a nice career path. Steady. Dependable. Teaching apparently wasn’t so bad either, no matter what Harris said about it, and Stiles’ own mother had been an incredible early childhood development expert.

Scientists, on the other hand, were always under the microscope by the Hales in charge. They wanted a cure as much as anyone, but the job was stressful. And, besides, control issues or not, good scientists were rarely allowed to stay human. You could say no, but you were under a whole lot of pressure to say yes.

And, once they noticed you, well… you were screwed. It didn’t matter how old you were either. Danny Mahealani got turned almost as soon as they found out he had an almost preternatural talent with computers. He had only been 12 years old. Hadn’t even grown into his teeth yet. He was now nineteen and in the GreaterSanFran Dome, making and improving software.

After that happened, Lydia spent five solid years acting like she had her brain removed, just to get the heat off her. At the time, Stiles hadn’t understood where his smarty pants friend went, but she did. It was a hell of the thing for a child to have to do, just to protect the sanctity of their own humanity.

Anyway, shitty supe behavior aside, the career path Stiles was aiming for was Order Maintenance. Order Maintenance was their leaders and their peace keepers. They shaped and enforced policies for basic morality, health, and sanitation. His dad was the head of the peace keepers and made sure the rules were followed. He had a different title (“Executive Crowd Control Officer”), but anyone who’d devoured a lick of old world media called him Sheriff.

Also part of Order Maintenance was the Consequence Review Board. Once rules were broken, they had to assemble and discuss what reparations had to be made or what privileges had to be withheld. In the most extreme circumstances, they also had to decide if a call to the supecity Beacon Hills had to be made. While they tried to handle everything internally, they still had to check with the Alpha Prime when they wanted to kick someone out of the dome.

Exile was rare and, for the most part, the Hale representative came in with the intent to dissuade the process. But of the seven times Stilinski had to call them, all seven of them had been warranted and all seven of them had been exiled. Even so, those decisions weighed on his dad a lot. Everyone knew exile was basically a death sentence when you were human.

Medical Wellness was where Scott’s mom worked. When Stiles and the rest of his peer group were sixteen and in need of internships, Medical Wellness was where Scott went. He still had strong ties there and would go help out, even though it was no longer required by their curriculum.

Medical Wellness workers worked all over the place. They worked with farmers to grow basic plants with medicinal properties. They also worked with scientists with new medical findings and planned how to best implement these things in their localized area. They worked with teachers, peace keepers, supes—damn near about everyone, actually.

Melissa herself tended to focus more on people and their injuries and sicknesses. Alan Deaton, on the other hand, tended to focus on the turned shifters under the dome. When he was interning, Scott worked with both of them and had a particularly friendly rapport with Deaton, who wasn’t the most openly amiable person in the world. Stiles knew this was true—he met the guy.

The fourth and final career field was Liaison Development. No one wanted to be in Liaison Development, not if they had half a brain. As far as Stiles was concerned, Liaison Development was a fancy way of saying “werewolf chewtoy”. Officially, though, the career was centered on establishing and maintaining a strong connection between the species. While no entry level position was glamorous, the entry Liaison Development position was cleaning out bitten were cells while they were sedated.

Thing is, the sedatives didn’t always work and even the kindest bitten shifter didn’t like people invading their den. Accordingly, this field had the highest mortality rate and least stability.

The only draw of the field that Stiles could think of came with advancement. Once you went up a few ranks, you got to go out and visit other supecities and domes and discuss the various issues surrounding the bitten shifter’s transition into society.

Once, a long long time ago, Stiles might have been drawn by that, but… not anymore.

See, Order Maintenance was tethered, anchored to the dome. Once you were in, you were in. You didn’t move, you didn’t get taken. You stayed. And Stiles really needed that right now.

Stilinski wasn’t that old, but Stiles could start to see him slow down. Things had gotten rough after his mom died (a wall fell, no one could have predicted it). Stiles was very aware that, after that rough patch, he’d become his dad’s reason to be in life.

How could he go gallivanting around the continent—and, god, maybe even the wide empty world—when his dad needed him so much? Sure, Stiles could send in a request, stretching out the amount of time he had until he was expected to start working—or, better yet, when his work expected him to leave. He could even stretch it into bereavement leave, if he worded it right, but the fact of the matter is that they expected him to work at some point.

No, the best solution was to stay local, stayed tethered. He was invested in keeping his father alive for a long, long time.

-

Stiles had been studying his butt off for the last four years for this one placement exam. He knew exactly how many he needed to get wrong, how many he needed to get right, and which questions required crucial answers. There was absolutely no way he was bombing this test.

And, because he was an awesome friend, he also learned and fed Scott all the answers he needed to slam dunk Medical Wellness—answers that, for reasons beyond Stiles, seemed elusive to Scott at that very moment.

Stiles was trying to lead Scott through a study session. They only had a few days before exams, but Scott’s mind seemed a million miles away.

After his fourth missed question, Stiles slapped his hand against the study room table. “Come on, man! It’s C! It’s always C.” Stiles was met with a chorus of shushing noises all around the room.

Scott looked miserable. “I’m sorry. I guess I’m just distracted.”

“Are you kidding me? What is more important than the test that will define the rest of your life?”

They weren’t even considered adults until they took the test. Stiles may have been approaching twenty, but his dad was still signing everything for him, still legally the boss of him, something that wouldn’t change until he’d been placed in his career.

Scott pulled on his hair, an anxious gesture Stiles hadn’t seen in years. Then, abruptly, he was blurting out, “They’re not letting Allison take it!”

What?

-

On top of being Lydia’s best friend, Allison Argent was Scott’s on-again, off-again girlfriend. They were more off than on these last two years, but they didn’t stop being close, being friendly.

And, of course, Allison was Stiles’ friend too. How could she not be? Allison was awesome. While their relationship wasn’t like her and Scott’s or her and Lydia’s, it was pretty good. Calm. Easy. Friendly with a lot of give and take.

That was how he knew she’d forgive him with the way he started their next conversation.

You’re on probation?”

Allison paused mid-chew. She was sitting in one of the common areas between their living units, a book on one knee and a sack lunch on the other. She finished the bite of the sandwich and swallowed before saying, “Yes? So?”

Stiles stared down at her in disbelief. Then, with a groan, he collapsed into the chair next to her.

“I’ve been on probation since I was fifteen,” she said mildly, flipping a page. “This is not news.”

“But that wasn’t even you,” he mumbled at his chest, agitated.

Probation wasn’t something the Consequences Review Board put you on. No, the only way you got on probation was if some higher up supe put a big x mark on your record. You had to do something pretty heinous to get put on probation, and probation usually meant you were on the cusp of being exiled.

Stiles sunk lower in his chair, scowl deepening. Those bastards up in the supecity let an ax like that hang over Allison’s head for four freaking years. And it wasn’t even her fault.

Five years ago, one of Allison’s relatives did something so bad and so awful that all of the Argents were kicked out of all the domes. No one knew the details, but they did know that Allison had been kicked out of the GreaterSanFran dome with her mother and father.

Because of the Event, she soon became deathly ill. Her father petitioned the nearest supecity, Beacon Hills, for months on end, begging them to let Allison back in. Finally, they relented, bringing her to the Beacon Dome.

She made quite a sight when she was carried in—pale, unconscious, and thin as a rake. It was only when she was given a series of Lupa Shots that she regained a little of her health.

Once she could stand, the first thing she tried to do was dig a hole under the force field. Naturally, Scott fell in love at first sight.

Love, right? Love was weird. But he guessed it was always weird when you were the one looking in.

In any case, Allison and Scott still felt very strongly about each other. Stiles didn’t know if Scott was in love with her anymore or if he just plain loved her, but his loyalty to her had no equal. He’d follow her to the edge of the earth—and over, if needed.

There were times where Stiles was jealous of that, where he wished he was the one with that kind of relationship, but it never seemed to materialize. He’d had that crush on Lydia, of course, but she pulverized him when they were fifteen—which was probably good for them in the long run.

Then the Tates transferred to their dome with Malia. Stiles and Malia had a brief heated thing going on before it was suddenly revealed that Malia wasn’t human. They knew she was adopted and knew who the mother was, but apparently the identity of the father wasn’t made clear until an eighteen year old Malia sprouted fur and fangs in the middle of an argument.

Jackson liked to make fun of Stiles for not knowing his one serious girlfriend was a werecoyote, but Stiles couldn’t even bring himself to react, negatively or positively. He was just sort of numb, still shocked in a way. All he could remember was Malia’s angry, twisted face as she fought off the three supe representatives sent to collect her—her last angry shout.

“Why can’t you just leave us alone?!”

That was the last time he ever saw her.

Stiles’ jaw tightened at the memory, a rush of anger making his skin flush.

Danny. Lydia. Malia. And now Allison. Damnit.

Stiles covered his eyes. “What are you going to do?” he asked dully, because there was no point asking. You did whatever the Alpha Prime wanted you to do, be it good for you or bad.

Allison hummed softly, turning another page. “I guess I could just… leave?”

She phrased it so flippantly, Stiles had to look at her for a moment. She was looking at her book, but her lips were pursued in a casual considering way, like she was trying to decide between a green apple and a red one.

There was a long pause. Then, slowly, Stiles said, “No, you can’t. It’s impossible.”

“Is not,” she sang softly. “Do you know the love story of the boy and the fox?”

Stiles made a face. It was an urban legend. Twenty years ago, a teenage boy stood on one side of the GreaterSanFran dome, looking out past the protective force field at the world he would never touch. On the other side, a fox stopped walking and looked back at him. They stared and stared at each other until the boy’s friends called him back.

Afraid for him, his parents forbade him to go there ever again, but the boy couldn’t stop thinking about her. And she apparently couldn’t stop thinking about him, because each night after, the boy and fox came to the same spot on opposite sides of a glowing blue force field, just to see one another.

They met each other in secret for weeks, sharing dreams and secrets deep into the night. Then, one day, the boy never came back. Everyone scoured the dome up and down, but he was nowhere to be found. It was thought that he found a weak spot in the force field and escaped outside to join his fox. Or that she found it and led her human out.

The story traveled, like most stories do. Parents shared it to talk about the dangers of wandering too close to the outside world and of the bad things that happened when you didn’t follow the rules and stay away from the force field. They tried to spin it like a horror story—this evil fox creature that preyed on a good natured teenage boy—but most people thought it was romantic—two very different beings refusing to let laws and advanced technology to stand in the way of their bond.

Stiles didn’t know which interpretation to believe.

All he knew was that, if some lovesick boy accidentally found a way out, then sweet, smart, cunning Allison would have no trouble doing the same. Compared to the bitter sick child that tried to escape, she was older, smarter, and more motivated now than ever.

“Don’t drag Scott with you,” Stiles said at length.

“I would never,” Allison said hushed, protective. She shot him a reproachful look. Stiles smiled dimly, reaching out and patting her arm. Allison was good people. There was a lot of loyalty there, a lot of love for Scott.

There was no such thing as love for him. There was Scott. There was his dad. That was it.

And that was okay.

-

Two days after every qualifying nineteen and twenty year old took the Career Placement Exam, the results came in.

“I’m going to be an awesome adult, just you wait!” Stiles called out to his dad, excited. He shoved his feet into his shoes and made a beeline for their living unit’s front door.

“I’m still waiting,” was the dry response from the couch. Stiles came by his sarcasm honestly.

He stepped outside, rubbing his hands together. Now, see, the results were directly uploaded to their user accounts. They could access their accounts through the computation station in their living room, if they wanted, but most people preferred to make these sorts of things social events, huddling together in front of the large touch screen in the Home Union Building.

The HUB, as it was called, was usually a place of parties, get togethers, and celebrations. Weddings, naming days, birthdays, anniversaries—that sort of thing. Happy things, generally. But once every year and a half, it was swarmed by people displaying a whole lot of emotion—pride, despair, disappointment, happiness, hopelessness. Some people talked about prospects loudly and with strain. Other people laughed and clapped hands with everyone around them.

Stiles inched his way through the lively mob already present in the HUB, pushing his way to the screen. He looked around, trying to see where Scott was. Oh well.

Too impatient to wait for his friend, Stiles quickly scrawled out his family name in his patch of the touch screen, swaying with the rough shoves of shoulders of other would-be adults.

In front of his nose, his family’s account popped up, listing family members. With years of experience, Stiles forced himself to look over his mother’s grayed out name and picture until he found his own profile and clicked it open.

After inputting his passcode, he scrolled through the old files. Behavior assessment, blah, public documents, double blah. Health reports were stacked with grade reports and grade reports with teacher comments. All were organized by year. Then, at the very bottom, under the current year, a file called “Career Placement Assessment – Results” rested under a baker’s dozen of teacher complaints about his disruptive behavior, intermittent motivation, and, strangely enough, “his annoying need to prove himself, even if only as an idiot.” Three guesses who that came from.

Ignoring the complaints—for now—Stiles tapped on the new file twice quickly, waiting for the results to load.

When they did, Stiles grinned wildly, silently pumping his fist in the air.

ORDER MAINTENANCE – PROJECTED COMPETENCE: 99%

He hadn’t doubted it, but he had feared it. Career heads could influence these scores a little and, while he didn’t think his dad would deliberately sabotage him, he knew more than a handful of people were groaning right now, realizing they had to work with him. Pleased with himself, Stiles scrolled around, checking out his scores for the other fields (medical, 15%; resource, 63%; liaison, less than 0.1%, ha!), knowing that all was right with the world.

Stiles was distracted by his amazing and totally earned score by a loud sound of confused dismay in his right ear. Greenberg was next to him, staring up at his own scores, his profile lighting up his face. Naturally nosy, Stiles leaned back sneakily, looked at Greenberg’s profile.

The guy had somehow scored a solid 55 across the board. He’d gotten Resource Management in the end. Greenberg clapped his hands against his cheek and leaned in, staring at his results with his nose pressed up against the screen.

Stiles didn’t know why he was being so dramatic about it. You could petition your field choice if your score was low enough. Sure enough, a moment later, one of his friends was patting Greenberg on the back.

“Any field you want, you got. The world is your oyster!” his friend enthused. The reality was that the people in the field had more of a bearing on that final petition decision than anything else, but the white lie cheered Greenberg up.

Stiles got jostled again as more people tried to get access to the screen, so he closed his window, about ready to leave. Then, on an impulse, he swayed back to the screen and scribbled Scott’s family name over the surface.

The screen threw up Scott, Melissa, and, ugh, Rafael’s faces and names in response. Stiles tapped once on Scott’s goofy, shy expression, dancing from foot to foot as the picture resized and loaded a drop down password prompt. Pfft, security.

Stiles typed in Scott’s code and was let in. He quickly scrolled down until he found the results, double tapping to open them up.

The grin fell off of Stiles’ face.

LIASION DEVELOPMENT—PROJECTED COMPETENCE: 87%

-

“How the hell did you do so well on the answers I never gave you?” Stiles demanded angrily, hands on his hips.

Scott was lounging on the couch in his living unit, somber but not overly distressed. He was flipping his asthma medicine back and forth between his hands. “I don’t know. It was just common sense stuff. Do you prefer interspecies harmony, yes or no? Rate your empathy for supernaturals, one being the lowest and ten being the highest.” He shook his head. “I mean, how was I supposed to answer that?”

By pretending you don’t have a heart!” Stiles bellowed, infuriated.

Scott just sighed, rolling his eyes. Breathing hard through his nostrils, Stiles paused, gritted his teeth. Then he tried a different tactic.

He lifted a hand, gesturing to the adjoining living unit. “Your mom is in there, crying. Why can’t you at least act like this worries you?”

That at least made Scott wince, a guilty look passing over his face. Still, though, he said, “It sounds like you two are worrying enough for me.”

Stiles covered his face with his hands. “God, I hate you.”

A thread of strain appeared in Scott’s voice. “You know, I did talk to Deaton about this. It’ll be fine. If I get on the right track, I can be sort of like him: one foot in Liaison Development, one foot in Medical Wellness.” Scott brightened. “He says I have the right skills and temperament. He’s even willing to mentor me!”

“Yeah, that’s if you even get past your first year without getting chomped on by some subhuman trash,” Stiles spat, starting to pace. How dare Deaton encourage this…

Scott was frowning again. “It’s not that bad. I’ve been over at the north wing, I’ve been through the rehabilitation center. Most of the people there are generally okay…”

“They’re there for a reason, Scott,” Stiles said impatiently, trying to rack his brain for a way out of this. “They’re bitten and they have zero control. One moment, they shaking your hand, the next they’re ripping it off.

Scott scowled at him in a rare show of temper. “Knock it off, Stiles.”

Stiles stopped, surprised. “I’m just-“

“No!” Scott’s voice was sharp, brooking no argument. He was actually mad at Stiles this time.

There was a pause. At a loss, Stiles found himself worrying at the hem of his plaid shirt. His shoes were ratty and his jeans had big holes in knees and ankles. When he started work, he would have to throw these away, switch out his kid clothes for the Order Maintenance beige.

Scott wouldn’t have to switch his clothes out at all. Liaison Development didn’t enforce a dress code. Why have uniforms for dead men?

“It’s about time we grew up,” Scott murmured, “don’t you think?”

Flustered, Stiles couldn’t think of anything to say and just flapped a hand wordlessly in his direction.

Scott pressed his advantage ruthlessly. “We live in a world where something in the air is actively trying to kill us. We’re an endangered species. We can’t-“ He swallowed audibly, throat clicking. “We can’t pretend that we can be safe, that the people we love won’t get hurt.”

Why not, Stiles thought. Why the hell not. But he couldn’t give voice to that thought, not when it was as effective as digging up a mountain with your bare hands.

Scott’s expression shifted, a soft smile pairing with the sad look in his eyes. “But, with this, I can do something good with my life, however long or short it may be. I can help the people that humans don’t like and werewolves don’t want to deal with.”

Stiles sputtered, protesting, “So you’re going to risk your life for subhuman-“

“Stop calling them that,” Scott said firmly. Stiles flinched, unused to being censored by Scott. Unused to criticism or unhappiness from Scott. Unused to… this, them standing on two different sides of an argument and being angry about it. “They’re people. I’m risking my life for people, and I can make their lives better. And I’m happy to do so.” After a beat, Scott looked down at his hands, mouth twisting grimly. “I just wish you were a little happier for me, that’s all.”

-

All the newly crowned adults of Beacon Dome now had careers and were set on their path to greatness—or so Dome Leader Thomas claimed during their advancement ceremonies. Whether or not that was true was yet to be seen. All any of them cared about was the break.

They were given the span of four weeks to officially “adjust” to adult life before moving into their career. Except no one was actually treating it like a transition period. Instead, they were treating it like a vacation—the last “hoorah”, as Stilinski liked to call it. People with extended families were petitioning to go to supecities or other domes. Some were planning parties right at the Beacon Dome. Some people were wrapping up extracurricular projects and yet others wasted the vacation away by sleeping all day. The older adults looked on fondly, remembering their own last hoorah.

Even with all the festivities around him, Stiles just couldn’t relax, and he couldn’t blame that on Scott. Well, not all of it. He was trying to be more supportive of Scott, but it was hard when Scott did stupid things like forgo his vacation to start early at his job. But then again, each day, Scott would come home, happy and enthused and full of stories and awe for people.

And, with each day that Scott came home, whole and content, Stiles let himself think that maybe, just maybe, this whole shitty situation would be better than he thought.

Not that everything was turning out okay in the end. Allison still hadn’t been allowed to take the exam, for example, and that was really frustrating for everyone involved. Stiles’ dad tried to talk to some supes in the government to get the probation taken off, but even he was stonewalled.

She’d had a little hope that Stilinski could fix it—just a smidge. When he too failed, Allison tried to take it in stride. She talked big, but her disappointment was as clear as day.

Then, one day, her upset, as subtle and hidden as it was, disappeared into smooth even serenity.

He wasn’t the only one who noticed. Lydia drifted away from her usual crowd to Stiles and Scott, lingering near the people who were around her best friend the most. With sharp intelligent eyes, the woman destined to rise to the top of the Order Maintenance career started watching Allison very, very carefully.

“She accepted it,” Stiles tried one day when the furrow between Lydia’s eyebrows reached new depths. “She’s calm.”

Lydia didn’t say anything. For a moment, Stiles thought she was going to do the thing where she pretended she couldn’t hear him. But then she tipped her head to the side. “Calm is what worries me,” she said at length.

Heart heavy with the memory of his conversation with Allison, Stiles started watching Allison too.

-

Thing is? He really should have been watching Scott.

-

Stiles heard Scott’s scream before he saw him. He burst into the medical wing three steps behind his dad, heart pounding and terrified. Stilinski had started running as soon as he saw the team of healers burst out of the north wing, and Stiles, who could only think of one person, chased after him.

Stiles was shaking and a bed was being pushed rapidly down the hallway. Scott was on it, half sitting and resisting the hands that tried to gentle him, to hold him down. His clothes were shredded. His expression was wild. He was drenched in blood—it was on his hands, his arms, his chest…

Scott was still screaming.

Stiles choked out a sob and tried to follow. Stilinski caught him around the waist, keeping him still.

“Not everyone who’s bitten turns,” his dad said, trying to reassure him. “Not everyone who’s bitten-“

Scott’s scream broke, then his eyes blazed gold.

The last thing Stiles heard before the doors swung close was an angry monstrous roar.

-

The next day, a series of announcements were broadcasted to the dome during breakfast. The harvest was coming along nicely. Due to the water shortage, they were cutting back everyone’s water rations. Scott McCall was injured last night and was currently recovering in the east medical wing. Allison Argent was missing.

Lydia was ashen faced and tight lipped, like her worst nightmares were coming true. She kept looking at Stiles, as if trying to find answers in his face, but Stiles just couldn’t…

He just couldn’t care. He liked Allison, he did, but her absence, once such a consuming thing, was no longer even a blip on his radar.

She chose to leave. She’d been planning to leave since she was a kid and he didn’t blame her. If there was one thing he could say, it was that it was lucky that she chose that day to leave. She wouldn’t have gone if Scott had gotten bitten just a few hours earlier. She would have stayed for him, escape itch or not. That wouldn’t have been fair to her. Not that anything was fair in this life, in this dome, in this cramped little world the wolves shoved them.

As whispers broke out across the six long tables that made up the communal dining room, Stiles grimly finished chewing through his eggs. He ignored the looks and most of the whispers, forcing himself to blur it all together into one indistinguishable lump.

He wasn’t successful. One voice refused to meld with the rest of the whispers—mainly because the owner didn’t bother with a whisper at all.

The owner was Jackson Whittemore. The guy was his age and pretty—like, really pretty. He had these ridiculously symmetrical looks, the kind usually only seen on statues. Problem is, he looked good and he knew it, and, although his arrogance had died down a lot in the last few years, he was still a complete and utter ass. Stiles couldn’t think of anyone less suited for the Medical Wellness field, but there he was.

“Yeah, well, I heard they’re going to put him on the frontlines,” Jackson was saying to his table. “Turn him into one of those mindless killing berserkers—can you believe we know a guy who’s going to be one of those?”

Stiles froze mid-bite, mind racing. Where did he hear that? Like Scott, Jackson had skipped the break and went straight to work. Did he-

Did he hear that while he was-

With weak legs, Stiles shoved away from his table, taking shaky strides to Jackson’s table. Everyone there was listening to Jackson with keen interest as Jackson told all how injured Scott was, how quickly Scott turned and injured others.

“What did you say?” Stiles said the second he reached the table. He felt ill.

Jackson stopped smiling when he saw Stiles. A complicated set of emotions flickered across his face before Stiles was stonewalled. “That wasn’t for you,” Jackson said gruffly, focusing on his cereal. “Stop eavesdropping, you mouth breather.”

One of his friends laughed, repeating ‘mouth breather’, but everyone went quiet when Stiles swiped Jackson’s tray right off the table. It hit the ground with a resounding clang, sending milk and grainy bits of cereal all over the floor.

“It’s not eavesdropping when you’re shouting it across the room,” Stiles said, his ears buzzing. “What. Did. You. Say.”

A deep flush was forming over Jackson’s face. He looked humiliated and angry and guilty at the same time, and the longer people stared at him, the more the humiliation grew. Finally, he snapped, “I said they’re going to put your precious McCall on the front lines! That’s what they do to all the bitten. It’s the only use for a bitten werewolf that can’t control itself. Subhuman trash!”

Stiles stumbled back a step, his chest tight and his head pounding. His vision started to gray around the edges.

Jackson looked everywhere but at Stiles, ears bright red. Then, with forced casualness, he turned to the person next to him and said in an undertone, “Can you just imagine McCall on the front lines? He’d be all-“ He started clutching his chest and gasping, pretending to have an asthma attack.

Stiles lifted his gaze, head pounding with people’s laughter. Laughing, laughing, everyone was laughing. And who was in the middle of it? Who was soaking in the ill-gotten attention?

“And he’d- and he’d- he’d probably fight with his elbows-” Jackson said, demonstrating to the glee of his friends. “And then apologize afterwards. Really, he’s going to be so pathetic-”

Stiles went straight for Jackson’s throat.

-

They both went in front of the Consequences Review Board that afternoon—Stiles with a black eye, Jackson with a split lip and a bruised throat. It wasn’t the first time he’d been in front of them, far from it, but those were for childhood offenses, the ones that didn’t go on his record.

This was definitely going on his record.

They had both violated ordinances of their position. Jackson violated a specific one regarding patient’s right to privacy while Stiles violated a general one regarding disrupting the public’s peace. And because violence was involved, they were both being charged with five days suspension from their respective positions.

Stiles hadn’t even started work yet and he was already in trouble.

The board was seated at a table, five people strong. In front of them was Stiles and Jackson, both on separate chairs ten feet away from each other.

Lorraine Martin read out the preliminary punishments for the both of them based off of the objective evidence obtained—5 days suspension, one black mark each. She sat down, then looked to the left.

Myers cleared his throat, looking ill at ease, as usual. “Would you like to argue your case?” He tapped an impatient anxious beat on the side of his table.

There was a wrath inside of Stiles that kept mounting higher and growing bitterer and bitterer. Stiles knew he should argue his case, try to talk down the punishment so it wouldn’t look as bad on his record, but rage made his jaw wire shut. Stiles hated all of them at that moment, even Lydia’s grandmother.

Scott was a great guy. The best of guys. Sweet, open hearted, good natured, and just so freaking… good. And yet everyone was just sitting around with their hands in their lap as his best friend was being sacrificed as cannon fodder for a war that no one really seemed to understand. Yeah, Stiles hated them all.

“Guess not,” Myers said. “Alrighty then. The punishment for Jackson J Whittemore and, uh, Stiles Stilinski are-”

“Wait,” Jackson said suddenly. “I want to argue.”

Of course he did. Stiles rolled his eyes, sighing as loudly as possible before slouching in his chair. Jackson glared at him, standing, before turning back to the board.

“In private.”

After brief hushed conference with each other, the board acceded to his request.

-

Fifteen minutes later, Lorraine poked her head out the door and quietly asked him to come back inside.

Jackson was still sitting in his seat, but now he had an elbow on his knee and his face in his hand. Argument couldn’t have gone well, Stiles figured.

As soon as Stiles took his seat, Myers cleared his throat and started again. “So. Jackson J Whittemore, the punishment for you is five days suspension and a mark on your record. As usual, during these five days, you will be expected to report to Dome Leader Thomas to complete five days of wageless community service. Also, as you know, that mark will be counted against you when it comes to promotion time.”

Jackson ducked his head, his jaw tightening.

“And you, Stiles Stilinski, the punishment for you is three days suspension. Please report to Dome Leader Thomas to complete your three days of wageless community service. Dismissed.”

Stiles stood up immediately. “Wait, what?” he demanded. Jackson was already out the door.

“Three days,” Lorraine said. “Community service. Wageless.”

“I don’t understand,” Stiles said, approaching their table.

“The case Jackson wanted to argue was yours, not his,” she said, eyebrows rising. “You’re dismissed, Stiles.”

-

Stiles looked at his account later, reading the uploaded case document, scouring the brief summary for any clues to what the hell Jackson must have said to them in those fifteen minutes Stiles was out of the room.

Jackson had gotten two days and the black mark off his record by arguing that it was a grief-related incidence, but how he did so was not included in the file. And Jackson was avoiding him like the plague.

It was probably best that he did.

-

As soon as they gave him the green light, Stiles went to go see Scott.

Scott was on the third floor of the north wing, Beacon Dome’s very own rehabilitation center for new shifters. He was the seventh cell down.

“Jeez, don’t call it that,” Scott said sheepishly. He looked clean and settled, not an injury in sight. He was wearing his own clothes (for scent purposes, Stiles’d learned), so the rest of his surroundings—sterile and white—seemed odd in comparison to the familiar threads.

“Well, what else am I supposed to call it, dude?” Stiles replied, gesturing at the surroundings behind Scott. “I mean, bright lights, shitty narrow bed, toilet, and a sink, all within… what are the dimensions? Ten inches by ten inches?”

“You’re hilarious,” Scott said flatly.

“Not to mention whatever the hell this is,” Stiles continued, approaching the cell. He lifted a hand, reaching towards Scott. Before he could fully extend his arm, his palm hit invisible resistance. The harder he pressed, the more visible it became, showing up as faintly blue masses with spider-web etching. Stiles pulled his hand back, frowning, and all sign of the barrier disappeared.

“It’s a force field. It’s actually cool,” Scott said with a smile. “There’s this machine that catches the waste energy from the dome force fields and rechannels it inside this building.” He knocked on the barrier, sending flashing blue bursts out with every touch. “It’s werewolf-proof.” His smile dimmed a little. “It’s also a contained environment.”

“Contained? Like the dome?” Stiles didn’t understand that. The air here was already clean and pathogen free.

“Except it keeps the bad air in,” Scott said, shrugging. “It’s Aconite 352. It’s a synthetic strain of wolfsbane. It’s mildly poisonous to humans in small doses, but it keeps werewolves… calm.”

“Look at you. Dropping all these facts.”

Scott ducked his head shyly, rubbing the back of his head. “Well, these things are important to know,” he deflected.

Stiles dropped his gaze. “You would have been so good at your job,” he muttered, then looked up again, wondering if he had crossed a line.

“Yeah,” Scott said bleakly. He brightened up a fraction. “But, um, if I find control, I can still do it. At least from the other side. Limits the tracks I can join, but I- I can still be useful.”

There was a hopeful note at the end of that sentence, one Stiles couldn’t bear to snuff out. So he nodded reassuringly, remembering what Jackson said and biting down on his cheek. There was only one use for Scott.

Scott… Scott was not a fighter. Scott was gentle and sweet and… he’d fight if he had to, but he wasn’t made for war. War would kill him. Becoming a berserker would kill him. There had to be a way around this. Stiles just needed to find it.

Scott clapped his hands. “So. How is everyone? Did they let Allison take the test yet?”

Stiles was momentarily speechless. “I, uh. No?”

Scott cocked his head to the side. “Is that a question or a statement?”

Stiles blew air out of his lips, lifting one shoulder awkward. “Well, see, it’s like this-” But Stiles stopped mid-sentence. How the hell were you supposed to tell your locked up best friend that his close friend/ex-girlfriend jumped ship into the wild and the lethal unknown?

Scott’s face suddenly was very still. “Why hasn’t she visited me?” he asked, voice faint.

Stiles rubbed the back of his neck, uncomfortable and staring at his shoes. “I… well. It’s kind of-”

“What. Happened,” Scott rumbled. Stiles looked up to see Scott’s face was flushed, his blood pressure rising. “I know how many people are in this dome. Why aren’t there enough heartbeats?” His eyes narrowed further. “And why is yours racing?”

“Scott…” Stiles said slowly, dread tightening his throat. Then he leapt back on instinct as Scott slammed his fists against the force field, forcing it to bend.

WHERE IS SHE.

For the first time, Stiles saw the monster lurking under his friend’s face.

-

Stiles hid like a coward for the next few days, playing and replaying that lightning fast shift in his head. His nights were tormented, too. He snapped out of bad dreams more than once, heart pounding as he tried to erase the image of Scott at the end of his bed, claws digging in Stiles’ thighs, nightmare face contorted in so much rage.

Why are you lying to me?” He’d snarl, and then there would be pain—so much pain.

He received a letter from Scott a day after the encounter—a written one, mostly because it wasn’t a good idea to have a delicate computation device in the same room as a wolfy rage monster. He’d gotten through one line of Scott’s shaky writing, apologizing and pleading for him to come back, before he had to set it aside and put his head between his knees. He couldn’t breathe and he felt sick to his stomach. Scott hadn’t done a damn thing to him, but he was still so, so scared.

And he hated himself for it.

He’d harbored a general mix of irritation and mild fear towards shifters—and werewolves in particular—for his entire life, but never such a specific fear. Never such a gut wrenching one either, because Scott? Scott was his brother, man. And Scott needed him now more than ever.

But every time Stiles tried to go to the north wing and the center, he would break out in cold sweat, dizziness making him take a knee.

He tried every day. He failed every day.

Today was different. Today, he saw a man making his way towards the rehabilitation center, too much deadly predator grace in his stride for him to be a mere human. He wore a jacket with Hale insignia sewn boldly on the back.

There was only one reason for someone like that to be here. There was only one reason for someone like that to be going there.

A bolt of adrenaline shot through him and suddenly he found himself sprinting at the man, panicking and desperate.

The wolf, of course, noticed and paused just outside the door to the center, one eyebrow raised. He had cool blue eyes and light brown hair. While not all that tall, the man was nevertheless powerfully built with a thick neck and way of walking that suggested that he was used to people looking down at the floor when he was around.

“Yes?” the man intoned with dark humor.

Stiles hunched over, lost for breath. He lifted a quelling hand, trying to catch it.

“You’re- You’re-” Stiles swallowed around the dry lump in his throat. “You’re Peter Hale.”

After Talia mocked him for not knowing what she looked like, Stiles made sure to make himself familiar with the unfairly attractive mugs of their wolfy overlords—overlords who were surprisingly cagey about photographs, mind you. For example, everyone and their mother knew that Talia Hale had three children, but two of them were never named or photographed.

Only Laura was named and only Laura was photographed—once as a bright eyed young adult, perpetually smiling, and once as a sleek, thin faced hunter with shadows in her soul. The war had ripped the smile off of her face in three short years, the same years she’d risen to the top of the region’s hunting parties. She was the second most powerful person in the west.

And if she was the leader of all the region’s hunting parties, then Peter was the supplier of both bodies and supplies. There were plenty of pictures about Peter. Plenty of stories, too. Peter came across as the kind of guy who liked to run things from the sidelines. He was a puppeteer, a manipulator. There were a lot of rumors and gossip and speculation about what he was up to, but, so far, nothing seemed to stick.

“Well?” Peter seemed less amused now and more impatient.

Stiles stared him down, straightening to his full height. “I will do anything to keep Scott McCall out of the war and off of the front line.”

After a beat, Peter cocked his head. “What on earth are you talking about?” He said softly, brows pulled together in confusion. When Stiles just sputtered at him, Peter rolled his eyes. “Humans are so oblivious.” He started walking again, waving a dismissive hand at Stiles. “Go home, kid.”

“I’m serious!” Stiles hurried after him, irritation mounting. “What do you want in exchange? What will keep him safe?” Peter ignored him. Stiles stopped mid-stride, outraged. “Hey, I’m talking to you, you mangy mutt!”

Peter stopped so quickly, he almost stumbled. Then he was ducking his head, huffing out a small laugh.

When he turned around, his eyes were red and his teeth seemed twice the size. Stiles froze, breath caught up in his throat. He didn’t move, even when Peter strode back towards him, every step measured and aimed to intimidate.

Peter stopped in front of him, brushing off an imaginary bit of fluff off of Stiles’ shoulders, taking his time. Stiles was hyperaware of the prickle of claws against his arm, the open vulnerability of his neck, stomach, chest—his everything.

“Why do you even care?” Peter murmured at length, his voice so, so soft and so sure. “He’s not one of yours anymore. He’s one of mine.”

Stiles had never hated someone so much in his entire life.

“Funny, didn’t think I had to explain pack to a werewolf.”

Peter blinked once, slow. And then, to Stiles’ relief, he pocketed those lethal, lethal claws, leaning back on his heels. “You’re an isolated, coddled little child of a species that is no longer relevant,” he commented lightly. Despite this dismissal, he still sounded like he was humoring Stiles, somehow. “What makes you think you know what I need right now?”

“I think you’re in a war you can’t sustain against people you can’t take out, and your allies are just waiting for you to crash and burn.” Stiles swallowed past the lump in his throat. “The last thing you need is another uncontrolled shifter on the front lines.”

Peter’s small smile winged into something dangerous. “That sounds…” He trailed off, menace bleeding out of his face. “That sounds vaguely like an argument I’ve made this week.” After a beat, he cocked his head to the side, looking at the building with a calculating expression. He seemed conflicted.

A few moments later, he looked back at Stiles with new eyes. “Anything, you said?”

-

Peter Hale left the dome without Scott that day.

“On my mother’s grave,” he said with a little too much relish, “I will make sure we never assign Scott to the front lines.”

There was a loophole there somewhere, some way Stiles was getting screwed over, some path that they were going down that benefited Peter somehow. That was the only explanation for Peter’s smirk. But, whatever it was, Stiles couldn’t find it and, at the moment, he couldn’t care less.

Scott wasn’t going to be tossed in the middle of a war. He wasn’t going to become one of Talia Hale’s berserkers. Stiles won this round.

But his triumph dimmed as the day went on. He wandered around his and his dad’s living unit, eyeing the computation station, revolving around it, hovering over it. Finally, he just gave up and sat in front of it, pulling up his profile and staring at it, chin in hands, waiting for that shift in his orders—away from the career he wanted and to the career he needed.

He sat there for a long time, refreshing his profile over and over. Once the letters rearranged, it hit him like a fist to the gut.

Stiles left the computation station to go try and remember how to breathe. He was now in Liaison Development, and he was assigned to the supecity Beacon Hills. He was expected to report for duty in two days.

Stiles stuck his head under the kitchen faucet, trying to drown out the roaring in his ears.

When he returned, Stilinski was sitting in his abandoned chair, staring at Stiles’ new orders with a bleak expression. Stiles froze. He hadn’t even heard his dad come in. But Stilinski was flushed, like he’d ran over the second the dome’s network of gossip hit his ears.

Stiles felt sick and guilty, knowing he’d left his dad on the lurch and left him learning the truth the worst way possible. Stiles hadn’t been the only one to want him to stick with an anchored career.

Stilinski noticed him then and tried to smile. “They don’t usually assign people so quickly to places,” he said before his eyes flicked back to the computation station. “Then again, Peter Hale rarely takes interest in humans.” Peter’s unique authorization code was in a blazing red, blinking like an accusation.

“Dad-“ Stiles started to say, but stopped. He had nothing to add.

There was a long pause. Then, strangely, his dad smiled, albeit sadly.

“You used to love the idea of magic and shifters,” he said at length. “You spent all of your sixth year pretending to be a dragon.” His gaze became troubled. “Then when that wolf refused to bite your mom-“

“She let her die,” Stiles snapped, the wound still fresh. If his dad was going to talk about his mom, he’d better say it like it was.

“It’s not that she wouldn’t, it’s that she couldn’t,” Stilinski said tiredly, rattling off an oft said sentence that meant little to Stiles anymore. He must have seen that, seen the rising anger in Stiles’ face, because he just sighed, rubbing a hand over his scalp. “I’m not sure this is the right decision for you, Stiles.” He looked back at the screen, jaw tight. “Unfortunately, it looks like I have no input on that matter.”

Stiles softened. He closed the space between them, resting a hand on his dad’s shoulder. “All I have to do is survive the first year. Then I’ll ask to come back.”

“It’s your life, son,” Stilinski said neutrally, still trying to smile.

No, it wasn’t. It was Scott’s.

Chapter Text

It was a sad procession that saw him out of the dome—sad, meaning sparse. Scott still didn’t have enough control to come out of his air-controlled prison and Allison was already gone. Jackson didn’t care to do much more than watch him go, hands dug deep into his pockets. Lydia didn’t even show up.

Despite all that, Stiles still felt distinctly smothered by all the attention he was getting. His dad kept reminding him to mind his manners and Melissa, who could barely say anything at all, kept smoothing his clothes down and grabbing his bags for him. At the gate, he finally just hugged them both, whispering in Melissa’s ear a request to keep an eye on his dad.

While Stiles had been out of the dome before, it was under different circumstances—happier ones. A grandfather’s ninetieth birthday, a distant cousin’s wedding, a rare family vacation. Even when he was younger, though, he was always aware of the constraints on them, the limitations placed on their freedom, the eyes watching their every movement. He felt the metaphorical collar around his neck then as he did now, only now he was being dragged instead of guided. And there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it.

The air quality outside of the dome was different, thinner, and faintly smoky with pollution. While supe society had a lot of the major trappings of an advanced society, they didn’t dive into the industrial side of work as much as humanity used to. Because of this, there was much less pollution in the world than there was when humans were in charge. The earth was healing, albeit slowly. And wars left bigger wounds.

The wolves sent to fetch him were unobtrusive and yet also completely abrasive. They guided him to the train station with short, monosyllabic orders, like he couldn’t understand anything more complicated. Left, right, no, sit.

Stiles bit down on his temper and spent the entire time staring out the train window at the world beyond it.

Once upon a time, there were cities and cities as far as the eye could see, some crammed so close together that even the residents could barely tell when one ended and the next began. There were humans everywhere—on the ground, under the ground, in buildings, in the air. Even in space, believe it or not.

Now there were just wastelands. Huge empty stretches of cities whose only residents were denizens of nature, stubbornly taking back the land one inch at a time.

And then there were supe havens, cities and towns like Beacon Hills.

Beacon Hills had a dome too, not that they would ever call it that. It was fainter and weaker. Most supes weren’t susceptible to whatever killed off humanity in the billions, but there were still scores of things that negatively affected them—an array of deadly elements for every unique supe species. So they kept the dome up to filter out what they could and had an aggressive entry process to get everything else.

All Stiles could say about the experience was that they were efficient. He’d been stripped naked, searched, sprayed down, and given a medical exam in less than fifteen minutes.

Feeling vaguely violated, Stiles shrugged back on his plaid shirt, buttoning his jeans as he moved to the next station. As soon as he saw who was waiting for him, though, he almost turned straight around. He’d rather have another round with the hose than deal with Peter Hale.

He kept going, though, closing his eyes once to gather his strength. This was for Scott. And he would do anything for Scott. Even waltz into a wolf den.

Stiles approached the table, chin up and jaw tight, but the façade was for nothing. Neither Peter nor the wolf behind the desk took notice of him. Peter was too busy scrolling through a document on his tablet while the other sorted files on his computation interface.

After being ignored for a full minute, Stiles cleared his throat. “Um, hi. Stiles Stilinski.”

The unknown wolf stared at him, unimpressed, before heaving a sigh and digging in one of the boxes at his feet. Stiles glanced at Peter cautiously, but, other than a slow smile, Peter gave no indication he recognized Stiles. Not even eye contact.

The stranger sat up then and tossed a security band at Stiles. It skidded across the table, stopping an inch from the edge. It was a simple thing, smooth, metal, and gray. Stiles knew from previous experience that it was part identification, part tracker, part grotesque punishment, so he was a little leery about putting it on.

There were seven lights on the band, one for each of the districts in Beacon Hills. On this band, all but one of them was red. Stiles was under the strictest restrictions, apparently. Making a face, Stiles closed his fingers around it.

At the last second, Peter snatched his wrist, holding him still. Stiles froze, but remained pliant enough for Peter to flip his hand around and look at the band himself.

After a beat, Peter leveled a cool stare on the stranger wolf. “Don’t assume you know my thoughts,” he said softly. “Give him six levels of authorization, not one.”

The other wolf recoiled. “A new human that close to the house after what happened? Are you-“

“Insane?” Peter intoned dangerously, a small smile curling his lips. He picked up a wand on the desk and pressed it into Stiles’ band. A few beeps later, he had six green lights and only one red one. Stiles didn’t dare breathe.

Peter put down the wand. “That’s what the rumors say. Come, Stiles.”

Stiles didn’t dick around. He immediately followed Peter, condescension or not. He was very aware of how out of place he was and, for now, Peter’s face was the only familiar one.

They exited the gatehouse, leaving the darkness and artificial light for the bright light of the sun. Stiles squinted, covering his eyes with his hand.

There used to be a human Beacon Hills in this very spot seventy to eighty years ago. Stiles had seen pictures of it—long lines of houses and buildings, giant lots for giant stores, rare splotches of green for parks. With their fences and walls, borders and boundaries, it seemed like humanity was well used to locking themselves up and barricading themselves in before supes made it mandatory.

That human Beacon Hills didn’t exist anymore. The supe Beacon Hills was much, much different, rebuilt from the ground up. First, it was much smaller—noticeably so. Second, it did away with the straight lines and grids of the past. Instead, the city was set in concentric circles—seven of them, in fact. Seven circles for seven districts. There were no sharp corners and severe lines. Everything was edged with a gentle curve. Even the road wasn’t completely flat and straight.

The districts were connected through several gates set into the boundary walls. If one had high enough clearance, they could take one road straight to the center of the city, which had a secondary dome all of its own. The Hales and their extended family lived there once upon a time. It was a half mile across and, according to his security band, one of the few places Stiles couldn’t go.

As a security measure, it would shock him twice to warn him to remove himself from the area. If he ignored the warning, it would tighten to a pinprick. Stiles heard it could cut through a diamond in under a minute, if it wasn’t stopped, so he wasn’t eager to test how quickly it would cut through his wrist.

Distrustful, he kept one eye on it and one eye on his surroundings as they started passing through districts and gates. He refused to lose his hand over a security glitch, no-siree.

The outer circle was populated by a dazzling array of different living quarters—some communal, some not, some set into houses, some set into the ground, and one very noticeable one on top of a pole. The species of supes here were wildly diverse.

The second ring was also living quarters, but the living quarters were more the same. There were fewer feathers and scales and gills here—no, the people looked mostly human. Shifters, probably.

The third ring was similar to the second one, only this one Stiles could tell belonged to wolves. You couldn’t not tell that a shifter was a wolf. It was too obvious, too present in everything they did. Supes may have inherited the world, but shifters got the bulk of it. Of them, the wolves were the top of the food chain, and they never let you forget it.

By far the largest ring, the fourth ring had greater uniformity. There were buildings and stands and carts, all devoted towards selling things. Everything from food to clothes to snake oil was sold there. Stiles, despite his caution, lingered a little bit, intrigued by the pace and the fast negotiations and the way supes tapped their credit chips against the till before moving on to their next purchase.

By the time Stiles caught up with Peter again, Peter was crossing the bridge between the fourth and fifth ring, which was full of official looking government buildings. The bridge arched over a river that seemed to meander all the way through the dome. Stiles looked down at the deep dark waters just in time to see a long tailfin flip up and out of the water.

Stiles crossed the new gate, squinting down at his security band suspiciously—still no reaction there. However, because of his inattention, he ran right into another man. He caught himself, reflexively reaching out and steadying the other person, but when he made eye contact, he recoiled.

Deaton?” He hissed, confused. He stepped closer, whispering frantically. “Deaton, you’re here?” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Peter walking back to them, his eyes narrow.

Deaton straightened his shirt. “It appears so.” Smart ass.

“She won’t see you,” Peter said sharply, arms crossing over his chest. “You know that.

Deaton looked over at him. “I was hoping Talia would reconsider.” From the grim play of his lips, Stiles guessed that he had probably been turned away at the door. “More importantly, however, is this. What are you doing with Stiles?” His voice had hardened by now.

“Me? Oh, I’m just assigning him to a worthy cause.” Peter shot Deaton a shark’s grin, ambling up behind Stiles. “My cause.”

Deaton frowned. “Young Stiles has expressed quite a bit of sympathy with the human separatists. And now you want to put him to work here?” Tattler.

“Ah, but that was, what, two weeks ago?” Peter squeezed Stiles’ shoulders, like they were friends. “So much progress has been made. So much personal growth.”

Stiles scowled at them both. “I’m doing this for Scott. He’s a lover, not a fighter.”

“Why is that relevant?” Deaton challenged him. His gaze moved from Stiles to Peter and back to Stiles again. “If Scott’s treatment goes the way I plan, he shouldn’t get into fights with other people at all.” Suddenly, his gaze was sharper. “Or is that not what you were talking about?”

Stiles, for a moment, couldn’t even speak. Now, thing is, Stiles didn’t always like the guy. Deaton, to put it simply, gave him the heebie jeebies, ever since they met. But that didn’t stop Stiles from recognizing that Deaton was a good man—a great man who cared for people.

Deaton would never consent to anything that would put one of his patients in peril, let alone Scott. Deaton loved Scott—everyone did.

More importantly, there were laws about this sort of thing, right? Knowing, willful, and enthusiastic consent was mandatory in many different facets of life, including war. How the hell could a government justify turning bitten werewolves out on the field when they could barely tell which way was up and which way was down?

Simple answer? They couldn’t.

There was polite confusion on Deaton’s face. Stiles stared at him, tipping his head back as it all crashed together in his head. Sending the bitten to the front lines—it was a rumor after all. And Peter let him believe it was the truth.

Stiles was aware of a rush of heat, equal parts anger and humiliation. Then, abruptly, the press of claws in his shoulders took priority. He flinched, twitching to accommodate the sharp edges without losing any blood.

When he glanced behind him, all he saw of Peter was a benign smile.

“Just saying,” Stiles said at length. “He’s my best friend. Might as well try and contribute to the society he’s going to belong to.”

“Once he regains control,” Deaton clarified, eyes narrow.

“Yeah,” Stiles said flatly.

Peter patted his shoulders twice. “Yes, yes,” he said, clearly bored. “If you do well, I’ll make sure you get assigned to where ever he goes. We’re not in the habit of breaking up relationships.”

So Peter thinks Stiles is in love with Scott, huh? Fine. Stiles could swing that. Deaton thankfully didn’t disabuse Peter of that notion, but he did linger, watching, waiting for Stiles to give him a sign, maybe, but Stiles felt good and trapped. As usual.

They parted ways eventually. Stiles turned and faced the government building Deaton just came out of, biting down on the inside of his cheek. It was the only way he could keep in the scream bubbling up in his chest.

Peter must have smelled his aggression. “What?” He passed him, getting four steps up before turning around to face Stiles with an infuriating little smirk. “I get what I want, you get what you want. Let bygones be bygones, huh?” Then, with that, he went up the rest of the steps, whistling softly to himself.

Stiles stayed at base of the stairs, trembling, needing a moment to himself. Peter seemed smaller and more genial than his sister, but there was an alpha under that smirk who just loved getting his own way. Stiles needed to remember that and guard himself at all costs.

After a beat, Stiles ran up the rest of the stairs, trying to catch up with Peter.

In front of him, Peter barged into a room. In it were a bunch of people clustered around a long oak table. Talia Hale was at the head and her hands paused over a tablet at the unannounced entry. Stiles crept in after Peter tentatively, eyes jumping from supe to supe. The second he stepped into the room, whatever that was being projected over the table disappeared and the dim room lit up.

“We’re in the middle of a meeting,” a kanima snapped scathingly, her long tail lashing irritably.

“Ssh, it’ll just take a second,” Peter said dismissively. Then, projecting his voice, he said, “Behold, Alpha Prime. The new babysitter.” He stepped to the side and, all of a sudden, there were ten eyes focused intently on Stiles. The room went so quiet, you could hear a pin drop.

Stiles tugged on his ear lobe, so sure he’d heard wrong. “What was that?”

He was ignored.

“You sure about this?” A wolf asked, rubbing a hand over his beard. He was a powerfully built man, like most shifters were. Gray was creeping into his jet black hair at his temples.

“Of course I’m sure,” Peter said, turning to him. “I’m always sure.”

“But why a human?” The kanima demanded. She looked nothing like the kanimas in Stiles’ textbooks, who seemed to prefer the mostly human look. She had absolutely no hair, choosing to sport the gray green scales of her mostly shifted state.

Stiles stood very still, uncomfortable with the way he was still being stared down. In fact, besides Peter and the kanima, the only person in the room who wasn’t looking at him was Talia herself. She sat quietly at the head of the table, head bowed. Her hands had stilled, eyes fixated on the table.

Nevertheless, Stiles couldn’t help but feel like every inch of her focus was on Stiles.

“In case you’ve forgotten,” Peter was saying haughtily, “my nephew is an alpha and, while his sisters are willing to see to his needs, they’re not going to be in this city forever. We don’t even know where Laura is and Cora is already seeking a way out. Setting strange betas on a feral alpha is never a good idea, Senator.” The kanima’s yellow eyes narrowed. “A human, on the other hand, makes for a much smaller threat.”

“Good to know that Kate was such a minor threat to you,” the wolf shifter said mildly.

Peter’s smile turned acidic. “If I assigned any of the betas you suggested to my nephew, he’d just stand there and growl like an idiot until the shocks killed him. And I assume killing him is still off the table?”

Stiles’ attention flicked back to Peter. The way he was saying it, Stiles knew he meant it to be flippant. However, when it came out, there was an edge to it, a challenge.

One by one, the supes at the table looked back at Talia. Once all focus was on her, Talia nodded once, expression distant. She gathered up her things and stood, radiating power and poise. Her gaze, when it reached Peter, was very, very cold.

“He’s your problem,” she said at length and left the table. She left the room as well, stepping around Peter and Stiles. She spared Stiles only a second’s glance, but Stiles was seared by it, his hair standing straight on end.

The other supes, senators and all, filed out after her a few seconds later. After they left, Peter stood still for a moment, then he was pivoting, moving with less flair and geniality out the same door. Rattled, Stiles followed Peter out, jogging to catch up with his quick strides.

It wasn’t until they reached the stairs outside again that Stiles realized how ill Peter looked.

“You okay?”

Peter didn’t say anything for a long moment, taking the steps at a slow jog. Stiles, with his longer legs, kept pace, patiently holding his silence.

When they reached the end of the stairs, Peter broke his silence. “My sister…” he said slowly, words carried by a breath. “My sister is not the person she used to be.” It was soft, like a new observation.

Stiles could tell the second Peter realized that Stiles wasn’t merely talking wallpaper. He immediately shot Stiles a sharp, meaningful expression. Stiles looked down, pressing his mouth shut.

He wasn’t stupid.

-

Peter shook off whatever dark mood overtook him as they entered the sixth ring, which was almost completely empty, save for a miniature forest, a large central guard house, and an intimidatingly huge building that looked a little like Beacon Dome’s rehabilitation center.

It was to the last feature they went, Peter narrating the whole way. He had a thing for his own voice.

“The world’s single biggest threat towards peace and finding a cure for your species’ malady is the Darach and her forces to the south. I must do my duties to the Alpha Prime by checking on and supplying the front line.” Peter pushed open the double doors of the building, striding in like a man who wasn’t used to people telling him no. “In the meantime, I need someone to watch after my nephew.”

They stepped into a lift. Stiles looked around, plagued by a sense of déjà vu. “This looks just like the North Wing at Beacon.”

They stopped on the second level and stepped out into an open room—a lobby of sorts. It was exactly identical to the one back home, right down to the shelves of cubbies on the left and the wooden floor below their feet. “It should. Yours was built by the same people who built this.”

Stiles frowned at that, because he could already see the differences—and that was before they entered the hallway of cells. There were a lot of differences from that point forward.

Like the dome’s center, they only had cells on one side of the hallway. The other wall was blank. But there was no buzzing of a force field. Every cell was blocked off by thick, reinforced bars. Also different was the way the cells were set up. At Beacon Dome, each one was set into the wall. Here, they were protruding, leaving a ledge about seven and a half feet up. A shifter was up there, balancing a thick stack of dirty, giant filters on his head and walking them down.

The caged shifters under him could apparently see him through an open, because some playfully jumped up, harassing him and grabbing at his ankles.

“Knock it off,” the shifter with the filters said mildly, keeping up the pace. He traded his stack with another shifter on the floor, easily catching the new and cleaner batch when it was thrown up to him.

They weren’t the only people at work. There were also a lot of people moving back and forth in the hallways—the same hallways that were usually empty in the dome’s center. They were a diverse crowd, but all were armed with clipboards and wary expressions. There were chalk lines on the floor about two feet away from the cell. Although the people outside of the cells readily engaged the people in the cells, they never did more than toe the lines. What conversation there was grew hushed and stopped until Peter and Stiles passed.

“There are marked differences between your north wing and our rehabilitation center, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. No force fields. Thick bars. That sort of thing,” Peter said easily, tucking his hands behind his back. “These are no converts, no human born idiots struggling feebly under the weight of the enormous gift they’ve been given. No, these are born shifters.”

Stiles looked in the cells they were passing. One per cell, the shifters generally ignored them, focusing on anything from reading to tossing a ball to talking to each other. Stiles could tell just by looking at them that most of them were wolves.

“As such, there are different procedures. Different privileges, different punishments.” Peter gestured at one of the people in the hallway. “For example, we assign them to a separate rehabilitator—someone who tries to help them through finding their control. I believe the bitten at Beacon Dome only have one.” They did—Alan Deaton. “But we don’t coddle them with Aconite 352. If they want control, they find it themselves or they will rot.”

“Seems harsh,” Stiles said distractedly, watching the shifter on top of the cells reinstall filters in the ventilation.

Peter stopped so abruptly, Stiles almost ran into his back. He retreated a few steps back when Peter turned, a wide fake smile on his face. “Okay, let me put it in a way even you will understand.”

A red haired rehabilitator walked by with a tray piled high with food. She flinched when Peter swiped an apple from her, but, other than that momentary pause, didn’t falter in her walk.

“These are the dregs of our great society,” Peter said, spinning on his heel and walking away. Stiles hurried to catch up. “Flea bitten, mangy excuses of were beings. These are the flies in our pudding. And, as far as you’re concerned, each and every one of these weaklings is a potential murderer.” He took a big bite of the apple in his hand. “Your potential murderer, in fact.”

They came to the last two cells in the hallway. There came a low, rumbling growl from a blond beta girl in the second to last cell, though it subsided quickly under the unimpressed stare of her rehabilitator, a tall black man with biceps bigger than Stiles’ head.

“And then there’s my nephew,” he said with a sigh and walked past the blond beta to the very last cell. “You will focus on this cell and this cell only. This cell will be your primary duty.”

Stiles stopped next to him and peered into the cell, ill at the thought. This cell was the exact opposite of Scott’s pretty cell back home. It was almost pitch black and only got darker the deeper the cell went. Occasionally, sparks flew from where something had reached up and ripped the lighting out of the wall.

Peter leaned into his shoulder. “Don’t worry. There’s a compartment that opens up in the back,” he said into Stiles’ ear. “They stay in there while you clean and tidy up. The floor under their feet is electrified and they’re lovingly shocked until they get the hint to exit. Then when they’re out and secure, the front will open and you can enter. It’s perfectly safe.”

“The dome doesn’t have that.”

“The dome also doesn’t have feral alphas. You see why we’d take the extra precaution.”

Stiles didn’t and he made a face at the self-serving statement. Shifters healed quickly. Humans didn’t. If anything, the dome’s center should have more security options, not less.

“You’ll have precisely fifteen minutes to sweep, mop, and disinfect. If you get caught inside of one of these cells, well, it was nice knowing you.”

Stiles rolled his eyes and looked to the left. In the next cell, Miss Blond Beta was leaning up against her bars, gazing at him curiously.

Then, down the hallway, there was a wild, raucous roar of satisfaction. One of the betas had reached across the divide between the cells and slashed up his unsuspecting neighbor. Both betas’ rehabilitators hurried in, shouting, subduing the impromptu claw fight before anyone got too injured.

“He’s a werewolf. He’ll live,” Peter said mildly. When Stiles whipped around to stare at him disbelievingly, Peter just smirked. “Mind the line. It’s only chalk.”

Stiles felt faint and swayed on his feet. Everything he’d ever imagined about Liaison Development was rapidly becoming true. He was going to die, he just knew it. He was going to become a freaking werewolf chew toy.

Flustered, Stiles gestured at the closest rehabilitator. “Why can’t they do this?”

“Because, disgrace to the name or not, my nephew is a Hale. And he won’t stand for a mere beta to touch his things.” He took another huge bite of his treat, then considered it critically. “We’re indulging him because he’s just the apple of his mother’s eye.”

After a beat, he half-turned, whistling into the cell like you might whistle at a dog. Then he tossed the half-eaten apple through the bars, like it was a gift.

In the darkness, something crept forward along the ground. And then, as Peter turned back to Stiles, all smiles, that same something threw the offering back so hard, the apple exploded against the wall. Peter didn’t even flinch. Stiles, on the other hand…

“So glad I have your attention,” Peter said cheerfully, turning back to the cell. “This is Stiles. He’s going to be your caretaker until I get back from the front.” He shook his head, sighing at his nephew with faux-fond exasperation. “Yes, that hideous human stench is him. So rude, nephew. So rude. Is this how we treat new friends?”

Stiles squinted at the cell, still unable to see anything. Then whatever it was in the cell stepped forward, stepped into the light. Stiles wished it hadn’t.

He didn’t have a point of reference for this—not really. The textbooks talked about shifter’s human forms, beta forms, and full animal forms. Alpha forms were barely touched on, mere footnotes in comparison. The few pictures Stiles had seen were for other types of shifters—cats, beavers, snakes, etc.

While those pictures had been intimidating in their own right, they had nothing on a wolf’s alpha form. What came into the light was a huge, bear-like creature. It—he—was covered in thick full black fur all over massive muscles. When he stood, he was six, no, seven feet and he looked like he’d like to use his uncle as a toothpick.

Most intimidating, though, was his face. His muzzle was pulled back into a snarl, highlighting all thirty thousand of his teeth and his deep blood red eyes. Stiles could feel the rumble of his growl inside his bones and felt, for a moment, that the only right thing to do in this situation, the only logical and moral action to follow through with, was to faint. Dead straight.

Instead, he waved. “Uh, hi.” Red eyes flicked to him briefly. Although the gaze was dismissive and brief, Stiles felt burned from the inside out. The nephew, Hale, let out a judgmental snort and turned away, dropping to all fours to slink back into the shadows.

Annoyance won out over the fear. “Okay. Nice to meet you too, asshole.”

The bear-ish hulk of a creature actually tripped and whipped around, but Stiles was done with him. So done.

When Stiles turned to Peter, annoyed, Peter’s smile was toothy. “You two will get alone just fine.” He stepped back, gesturing down the hallway again. “Come on. I have someone else to introduce you to.”

Without giving the caged Hale a second glance, Stiles walked back down the hallway again, passing Miss Blond Beta and her rehabilitator as well as a score of other betas and their people.

He made the mistake of glancing into the cell that caused the ruckus a few minutes earlier. Everyone was settled down. The injured beta only had a row of faint pink scratches on his arm and was currently reading an old fashioned paperback book.

But the beta in the next cell, the one who took a swipe at his neighbor? He was in the corner of his cell, sucking at the blood on his hand with a blissful look.

Stiles sighed, hanging his head. He was so going to die.

-

Only Stiles had to clean Hale’s cell every couple of days and feed him three times a day. That was it. Though Stiles didn’t like the idea of being so close to feral shifters, he knew that this workload was actually really light—too light for him, his short attention span, and his propensity for mischief. So he wasn’t disappointed when Peter also assigned him to help in the kitchen.

They walked into the central guard station, heading straight for the back. It opened up into a huge room with two levels, huge amounts of counter spaces and ovens, and five industrial sized cooling units.

“And here’s the kitchen,” Peter continued. “This is where you will report if you have nothing else to do. Now, depending on how stupid you are, you may or may not be picked up for other tasks in the future.” He wagged a finger in Stiles’ face. “Whatever you do, keep in mind that you have no true place here. You are an unwanted minority. Unlike other supe cities, we don’t like having humans here, but we suffer your presence because, occasionally, you are slightly useful.”

“Fuck you too, Peter,” someone said mildly. Stiles looked up to see a man coming down the steps to their left. He had sandy blond hair, a sturdy build, and a perpetual frown.

“Oh, didn’t see you there,” Peter said, pretending innocence.

“Is it wise, I wonder, to insult the man who makes your food?” Closer up, Stiles could see that the man had incongruously, boyishly bright eyes. Those same eyes flicked over to him and the man’s frown deepened.

Stiles frowned right back at him. The whole conversation pointed to the man being human, but Stiles still couldn’t get a good read on him—and Stiles was usually quite excellent at telling who was human and who was not.

The man sized him up, then nodded once. “You, stay with me,” he said with finality.

“Humans banding together, how frightening,” Peter said blandly. “I’ll just be on my way. Keep an eye on him, won’t you?” With that, he left, leaving Stiles behind.

Stiles’ heart started pounding rapidly. He didn’t like Peter, but, as he’d thought before, Peter was the only familiar face in the city. He looked back at the other human nervously, but the man’s frown had lessened now that Peter was gone, looking a little less perpetual than Stiles thought.

After a minute, Stiles took a liking to him, despite the mixed signals. “Man, I never thought I’d see another-”

The man lifted a finger, gesturing for silence. “Peter likes to eavesdrop.” They stood there for a few moments in silence. Then, frown completely easing, the man relaxed his shoulders and, oddly enough, offered his hand. “My name is Parrish.”

“Stiles.” Stiles grinned and they shook hands. After a beat, Parrish smiled back. It looked like Stiles was going to have to eat his words when he and his dad got into another bicker match about following old human traditions and-

Wait. Wait. Peter was leaving soon, going to aid the war effort, and Stiles’ time to demand answers had abruptly shrunk.

Stiles dropped Parrish’s hand like it was on fire. “Wait. Just- I have to- I’ll be right back.”

Stiles turned and fled out of the room, leaving a confused human behind. He had a feeling that slimy slippery wolf wouldn’t bother responding to any communication that was less than face to face. So he ran into the guard house entry, got his bearings real quick, then burst out the front door.

Peter was waiting for him outside, leaning up against a post and pretending—poorly—that he was not.

Stiles came to an abrupt stop, then demanded, "Why me?"

Peter blinked at him. "Hm?"

"This wasn't ever about Scott for you,” Stiles said, closing the space between them. “So why me. Is this a punishment?"

Peter clucked his tongue, rolling his eyes. "Oh, please. Not everything revolves around you humans."

"Then explain this," Stiles snapped, gesturing around him—at the guard house, at the rehabilitation center beyond it, even at the miniature forest he’d yet to look at.

Peter snorted and pushed away from the post. Stiles’ hackles shot straight up. "Why did I choose you? Why did I trick you? Why did I drag you from your little dome and your uncreative career plan to be your father?” Peter stopped in front of Stiles, smoothing down the collar of his plaid shirt. Stiles stayed perfectly still.

“You perturb my sister,” Peter said finally, a strange light in his eyes. “And if there's something in this wide empty world that makes an Alpha Prime nervous, I want in on the ground floor.” He smiled faintly, leaning into Stiles’ space. “That you’re here and you’re unhappy with me? That’s just a bonus. Icing on my cake.” He patted Stiles’ chest twice before swaying backwards, casual. “Be careful, Stiles. No one likes humans in these parts.”

-

Rattled, Stiles went back to the kitchen, apologizing for running out. Parrish would hear nothing of it.

“Please, I know him. Do what you gotta do, Stiles.”

Parrish then gave him a rundown of the kitchen. It provided food for the rehabilitation center, the central guard house, and some of the government buildings in the other rings. Parrish and a handful of other humans made meals for about one hundred-fifty people.

Stiles, frankly, thought it was impossible—even their dome’s communal kitchen could only make enough food for about sixty people—until Stiles saw the size of some of the pots and pans.

Parrish patted one of the huge drums with a bashful smirk. “Yup. We do a lot of stews around here. Stews, soups, and very rare meats.”

They generally didn’t have to deliver too much, thank goodness—there were other people for that. For example, rehabilitators generally ‘volunteered’ one of their own to pick up for their clients with a rolling cart—one cart per floor. And Stiles himself wasn’t really expected to do all that much. He apparently wasn’t on the official roster, so they were just going to use him as an extra pair of hands whenever he was free. Stiles was okay with that.

“You’re not going to see a lot of humans around here, Stiles,” Parrish warned him, leading him back downstairs. He just finished showing Stiles where he was going to live for the time being—a tiny but cozy room right above the kitchen. “Your arrival makes five.” Parrish paused by the base of the stairs, then lightly tapped Stiles’ shoulder, guiding him to the many pantries on the first floor. “Whether they like it or not, there are just some tasks humans are better at.”

“Like?”

“Being in the kitchen.”

“Really?” Stiles said doubtfully. He would have thought the super sniffers would be better here.

Parrish stopped in front of a pantry. “I’ll give you one example. Come here.” He opened up the double doors and stepped inside. The light automatically turned on. It was a walk-in with heavily laden shelves on every side.

Stiles followed him in, making a face. He could barely breathe in here.

“What do you smell?” Parrish asked, turning around to face him. He had his serious face on again.

“Spices. A lot of spices.” Stiles covered his mouth. “It’s pungent.”

“To us, yes. To them, actively painful.” Still looking deadly serious, Parrish patted a hand over one of the shelves. “So, if you ever need to hide from a werewolf or another shifter, you know where to go, understood?”

Bewildered, Stiles asked, “Why would I need to hide?” All the out of control, slashy, stabby types were behind bars, right?

Parrish paused. “Peter always sounds like he’s making a joke, but, really, he’s just saying what everyone is thinking,” he said somberly. “And, sometimes, when a shifter is angry, they don’t think twice about hurting a person. We get double dinged on this one because A, we don’t heal well, and B, humans are not well liked around here.”

“Why not?”

-

It was a rough first day and it was quickly becoming a rough first night. He kept waking up and out of nightmares about fires set by humans.

Parrish had been polite and vague when recounting Beacon Hills’ sordid history with humans. Peter, when he caught him later, was much more explicit. He detailed the screaming of werewolves as they burned, how they escaped death, but not pain and disfigurement. He told Stiles about Talia’s terror, the way she raced from the outermost ring of the city and forced her way through the mountain ash barrier in her panic set around her home, a feat.

Her daughters had been badly burned, but they were alphas and survived. Her beta husband, on the other hand, had died of his wounds.

After using her son—Peter’s nephew—to get inside the innermost dome, the arsonist had drugged and dropped the alpha in the river. Only luck kept him alive—kept him from drowning, kept him from being turned into a meal by the supes that swam just beneath him. In his grief and horror, Hale turned into his alpha form and hadn’t changed back since.

Peter didn’t name the arsonist, but Parrish did. Kate Argent.

Stiles wasn’t an unsympathetic person. To him, this was all horrifying, albeit distantly—people he’d never met getting injuries he’d never seen.

But that night, he kept having nightmares about Scott scraping at the sides of his small sterile cage as fire ate up his body, as a woman with Allison’s build looked on. Every time, he woke up, shuddering and gasping, tears pouring down his face.

-

The first week of work was a mess. Parrish was unfailingly kind, waking him up in time and pushing him out the door and making sure he stayed on schedule, but Stiles still made a bunch of mistakes. Breakfast was generally on time, but he forgot about lunch. Twice.

Hale didn’t quite growl at him when he ran up, flushed and breathless with the cold meal, but he stared, and that was worse.

Then, one morning, someone bumped into him just as he stepped into the lift in the center. The meal carts stayed on the first floor always, so Stiles had to get in the lift, walk several hundred feet to Hale’s cell, and very carefully slide it into the grate at the bottom of the bars, all without crossing the chalk line. No part of this was easy or fun, especially since all the trays tended to be super heavy and full of food.

So when Stiles lost his grip on the tray, all he could do was gape at the mess in horror.

The person—a beta with flashing blue eyes—just laughed meanly at him. The sound seemed forced and at odds with his curly blond hair and a face that seemed to lean more towards vulnerability than cruelty.

Stiles got shoved against the wall of the lift, as he didn’t step aside soon enough. Then he had to go all the way back to the kitchen to get a new meal, as they didn’t make extras. Stiles ended up being thirty minutes late.

He was late for lunch too. With dread, Stiles hurried down the hallway with the tray. Hale had been especially pissy about the late breakfast delivery—it seemed like he was a morning person. Stiles wasn’t looking forward to his reaction to this late meal as well and so he wanted to cut down the lateness as much as possible. Even so, he slowed down quite a bit when he realized that Hale wasn’t alone.

The first thing he noticed about her was that she ignored the chalk. She was leaning into the bars casually, one arm looped in and out of a group of them. She had long, straight brown hair and dark eyes. She seemed younger—Stiles’ age, maybe—and she spoke to Hale with the confidence of someone who knew they were talking to a sympathetic party.

“-and they won’t let me join the hunting parties to go find Laura,” she was saying. “Mom says I’m too young. Too young! Why does everyone always treat me like a baby?”

Stiles could tell the second she noticed his approach. It was like someone lined her bones with metal. Her mouth slammed shut. Stiles ducked his head, closing the distance at a slightly faster clip.

“You’re late,” she said acidly.

“Yeah,” Stiles said, because that was all he could say. He got down on one knee, lining it up with the chalk, then carefully slid it across the ground. Today was a good day—it went straight into the grate without hitting any of the edges. This was distinctly unlike the first day, where it had hit metal, spun, and splattered both Stiles and Hale with food. Hale had not been pleased.

Hale caught the edge of the tray on the other side, sitting up from where he had been slouching. Every cell had a bed in the back compartment, the one that they had to get into before anyone could enter their cell, or else be shocked to death, but Stiles never saw Hale use it. He was always either skulking towards the back corner, standing up and eerily still, or crouching near the bars. Stiles had taken to bringing a flashlight with him, needing to know for his sanity how dangerously close the alpha was at any time.

Stiles glanced over at the girl, marveling at how comfortable she was, being within arm’s reach of such a scary, scary guy. A moment later, she looked at him dead on, eyes challenging. She had a burn mark on the side of her face. It was faint, pink, and textured, and it interrupted her hairline. It stretched out, thinning, towards her jawline—and Stiles was startled to realize that he knew exactly who she was.

“You get one question, new guy,” she said, eyes narrowing and flashing red. She had the same dead eyed fish stare as her brother, Hale.

Stiles took his time, wiping his hands off on his jeans. “Why do you want to join the hunting parties?” he said at length.

She stared at him for a moment longer. Then she angled her chin up. “That’s not the question people usually ask,” she admitted reluctantly, but something in her face loosened. She looked away, tucking a strand of hair over her ear. “My sister, the head of the armies? She went missing 7 weeks ago. They haven’t found her yet.” She looked back at her brother.

Stiles glanced at Hale. With his slouched posture, slumped body language, and downcast eyes, he was the very picture of misery.

“I’m sorry,” Stiles said, and meant it.

“Don’t be,” the girl said gruffly. “She’s probably just out of contact. The Darach’s powers interfere with communication.”

“That’s probably it,” Stiles said with an agreeable nod, even though he knew nothing about the Darach and her powers—what she even was, what she could do. The media streamed into the dome had limited things to say on the subject, insisting only she did Very Bad Things. It still seemed overly optimistic of the girl, though, to assume Laura was still alive. But he wasn’t about to criticize someone for hoping for the best for their loved ones.

He changed the subject. “So you’re-”

“Cora Hale,” she said. Stiles nodded. Just as he thought—one of the unnamed progenies of Talia Hale.

“Stiles Stilinski,” he said, automatically sticking out his hand. She stared at it blankly, her forehead creasing, and he hastily pulled it back. “It’s okay. It’s nothing. Just tradition.”

She shifted towards him, settling on her knees. “No, show me.”

Another alpha who didn’t know the meaning of no, Stiles guessed. He shook his head, but stuck his hand out again. She cautiously mimicked him, clasping his hand and shaking once when he did.

“I don’t understand the purpose of this.”

“It’s uh, old. Very old, considered polite,” Stiles said quickly. “It’s to show the other person that they have no weapon in their hand.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” she said, frowning, then she abruptly jerked him forward by her grip. Before he knew it, he had a set of claws tapping over his stomach, his hand trapped in an iron hold.

“A hand is a weapon, after all,” she said at length, her eyes glittering with mischief.

“For you!” he wheezed, more surprised by the playfulness in the gesture than the gesture itself. “I didn’t say it was perfectly logical. Just tradition!”

Cora shot him a brief grin, then released him, letting him slide back behind the chalk line where he felt safest.

Hale, the bastard, looked on, visibly amused.

“Sorry I was late,” Stiles told him. “I got… forcibly detained by a group of your peers.” At that, Cora sniffed him. Stiles wasn’t lying either—the strangely cruel boy with the gold hair came with friends and waylaid him just outside of the kitchen, playing gatekeeper until Stiles would tell them about Hale. Stiles didn’t know anymore than they did, with all their visits to Hale’s cell, but they seemed fascinated nevertheless.

“They’re curious about you,” Stiles revealed.

At that, Hale bared his teeth before delicately setting them into the meat of the day.

“They’re curious about you too,” Cora said, eyeing Stiles. “We all are. Him included.”

Hale gave her a soft warning growl, which she just rolled her eyes at. Bolstered by this, Stiles just laughed, which was a mistake. “Him? Oh, what does he have to be curious about? We’re practically best friends already. Aren’t we, buddy?”

Stiles got a plate of vegetables in his face in response.

-

Stiles didn’t see Cora again for a long, long time, which was a shame. He learned later that, now that Laura was missing, Cora was Hale's only source of family interaction. Peter was an ass and Talia had walled herself off from her children, keeping them from staying in her presence for longer than a few minutes. By that logic, Hale must have been her favorite--the only one who didn't, or couldn't, test this boundary. This made Stiles feel sad.

But it was very very hard to stay sympathetic to Hale, who visibly and obviously didn’t seem to like him at all. Over the next few weeks, his opinion didn’t improve. Like or dislike, Hale still wasn’t a very engaging conversationalist, so Stiles instead got to know Hale’s neighbor, Miss Blond Beta.

She was Erica Reyes, dome guard—former dome guard, that is, after she grabbed her supervisor by the neck and the seat of his pants before hurling him out the window. She was hilarious, but not always nice.

Stiles kept busy by talking with Erica and talking at Hale. He didn’t make waves at all. He kept to himself, head down and all, and focused on his duties.

Speaking of duties, boy, was that a learning curve, or what. Hale was fortunately cleaner than some werewolves, but Stiles still only had 15 minutes to scoot out before the gate closed again. He panicked the first time he had to clean Hale’s cell. It seemed like an impossibly short amount of time to do so much for such a large cell. But three weeks in, he found himself finishing in about eight.

As time went on, everyone starting gaining confidence in him, relying on him more and more. Instead of being an extra hand, Stiles found himself running orders in gap periods—getting ingredients, ordering food, updating head counts, delivering specials meals. Sometimes these tasks didn’t come from Parrish at all.

Stiles still had free time, though, and Parrish encouraged him to use it. He figured out how to set up a mailer account on the city’s computer systems and started sending his dad, Melissa, and Lydia letters. He told them about Hale and the city, Parrish and the job. He always had weird little stories for them, like the enthusiastic beta Finstock who loved sports and aggressively advertised the inter-city sports leagues like they were the only things keeping the economy afloat.

It wasn’t just fun stuff, though. He told them about other stuff as well—the different shifters he saw in town, the way they behaved. He told them about the golden haired beta, the bane of Stiles’ existence—Isaac Lahey. He told them about Mr. Lahey as well, and that one time he tore a door and threw it at a man he’d been having an argument with, and how no one reacted.

He told them about how a shifter had disemboweled another right in the street, and, two minutes later, was grudgingly apologizing to the healed up supe under the stern eye of Ennis, the city’s version of his dad.

Things were so similar and so different at the same time. Many of the differences weren’t fun. He found himself feeling appalled and offended and, yeah, afraid, and they could smell it on him. Stiles fielded more jokes about him being delicate than he could count, but he kept his mouth shut and focused on the city itself—because it was, oddly enough, beautiful and wonderful and strange all at once.

He thought about the strange order—how so many things in the city were based on superstition and ritual, like moon festivals and the neat concentric circles that made up the infrastructure. At the same time, so many other things were based on hard facts and science—technology and innovation.

For every shiny, quick convenience, there was no missing that this was primarily a city of wolves founded on the principles that guided wolf mythology. That being said, the more you looked around, the more you saw the other in everything—humans shaking hands. Witches dealing in magic stones. Bird shifters singing at each other. A naga, glittering and beautiful, easing himself onto a rug with a knife and an urn.

Everyone had their own rituals, their own customs, their own traditions. This wasn’t a wolf’s world only.

It just felt like it.

-

Stiles didn’t need a reminder of how little he belonged in this place, but he got one anyway about three months in.

He staggered back, clamping a hand to the line of fire across his forearm. Laughter echoed throughout the store as Isaac Lahey examined his red claws.

“You bleed red too,” Isaac commented lazily to the delight of the boys around him.

“Way to live up to the stereotype of being a violent brute,” Stiles snapped.

Isaac paused, expression contorting briefly. He looked at his claws again. He always had the delicacy and vulnerability of someone about ready to crack, but he played up well for a crowd.

While Isaac was distracted, Stiles pushed past him and his little crowd of peons, all of whom seemed oddly against touching him, against pushing the barriers of acceptability like Isaac did. He left his groceries on the ground and went to the city’s version of a healer.

The man, a tall wraith-like creature with faintly purple skin, was not sympathetic. He typically dealt with alpha wounds and accidental poisonings and, more happily, monitoring pregnancies. He thought little of a human’s injuries and turned Stiles away with little more than a rag to staunch the blood.

Angry and flushed with it, Stiles went to Parrish instead, who disinfected it and wrapped it up tightly. He said it would scar.

“Subhuman trash,” Stiles spat bitterly, hating Isaac and all he stood for.

Parrish didn’t pause. “Be careful who you say that to. You never know who’s going to take offense.”

Stiles froze, assaulted suddenly with a flash of Scott’s face. Of Erica’s. Of Cora’s. He flushed. It was the first time he ever felt bad about saying it. Then again, it was the first time he even knew a supe that he kind of liked.

Hurting and humiliated, Stiles was abruptly all too aware of how stupid he’d been in the past. He hung his head.

-

Erica had good and bad days. Good days saw her laughing and cracking jokes, usually at someone else’s expense. Bad days saw her mute and on the floor, stuck in the quagmire of her own head.

Today was a really, really good day.

“Stiles!” she called out joyfully. “Long time no see.”

“Relax, I missed two meals,” he fired back, smiling. Parrish had pulled in a favor with one of the kitchen staff and got them to deliver Hale’s lunch and dinner the previous day. He hadn’t wanted Stiles to carry the tray until his injury had a chance to scab over.

“Yeah, and, for once, they were on time,” she teased, flipping her hair over her shoulder.

“I know, Hale must have been super excited.”

“Hell no.” Her grin turned sharp. “He misses you when you’re gone.” That was a loaded statement.

There was a snort the next cell over, purposefully loud and disdainful. Erica leaned against her bars and laughed, looking over at Hale. He was up against the bars too, oddly enough. In the mornings especially, he was usually in the far corner, giving him the cold shoulder and fish eyed stare combo for free.

But now he was up close and personal, nostrils flaring and eyes eerily focused on Stiles. Still worried about crossing the chalk line, Stiles kneeled down, sliding the tray perfectly through the grate. Silently cheering himself on, he looked up at Hale, only to see him staring down at Stiles with a furrowed brow. Feeling playful, Stiles stuck out his tongue and jumped back, dusting off his hands.

He liked to pretend he knew what Hale was thinking and, in fact, kept a running narrative in his head for all Hale’s unspoken thoughts. Good job, idiot.

Faintly amused, he looked to his left, tipping his chin up at Erica’s rehabilitator, a wolf named Boyd.

Boyd was an interesting guy, both Erica’s keeper and her life coach. Erica adored him to bits, but Boyd was hard to read in all facets, except for one—he definitely, definitely did not like Stiles. He had a tendency of looking at Stiles in a way that made Stiles want to shut down, go into a corner, and rethink all his life choices, starting from birth.

Hale reached out of his bars, stretching out his long arm and offering Erica a strip of meat. She grabbed at it greedily, teeth lengthening in her mouth before she even took a bite. This was not uncommon—Hale was a feeder. Boyd kept an eye on it, though, and so did Stiles. Hale wasn’t a bad guy, all things considered, but some betas were desperate for any chance of violence and would use any lure.

Hale fed her a few more pieces, chewing on a few of his own before grumbling and bending over. Very gently, he slid the tray across the floor and across the line to Stiles, who stopped it with his foot.

“Thank you,” Stiles said pointedly. Hale purposefully ignored him, hunching a grumpy shoulder in his direction. Shut up, human.

Stiles just smiled, glad he was no longer flinging the tray with all his strength. Hale liked to throw things at people who irritated him, but after Stiles told him off that one time, he dialed it down a lot. Post-adrenaline fueled rant was the only time he’d ever seen a seven foot tall man-beast look bashful. He kind of liked it.

A shout rose from further down the hallway. “What are you doing? Let-”

Everyone looked down that way. Stiles couldn’t see what was going on, but whatever Boyd saw made him drop his clipboard and start running. When the yelling started, Stiles moved to follow but failed. Instead, he tripped over Hale’s tray and fell over the chalk line, slamming face first into the bars between Erica and Hale’s respective cells.

Feeling disorientated and bruised, Stiles let out a yelp of his own when Erica suddenly grabbed the back of his neck, forcing him to look at her. Down the hallway, the yells were eclipsed by a long, drawn out scream followed by a deep, fleshy rip.

Stiles fought Erica, but her grip was like metal. Her eyes were shut. “Don’t look, don’t look,” she pleaded with him.

Frustrated tears prickled at the corners of his eyes. He knew she could sense what he was just guessing at. “M-Matt’s blood thirsty,” she said, hand reflexively tightening. “Bennent shouldn’t have gotten so close. He knows his guy is a psychopath.”

Stiles finally went limp in her grasp, closing his eyes as well. “That’s not going to heal, is it.”

Stiles felt more than he saw her nod.

They stood there like that for a long time, forehead to forehead, sharing the same breath, and would have stayed there longer, if not for Boyd.

“Erica, we’re not going to have any problems, are we?”

Erica let out a shaky breath, her grip on Stiles loosening. “Bite me,” she said softly, but her fingers disappeared.

Stiles opened his eyes and was shocked at what he saw. “You’re-“ he sputtered.

She’d shifted in the time they stood together. Her teeth had lengthened, her ears had straightened to become long and pointy. Her forehead seemed to have buckled, been given more definition, and fur had replaced hair in some places.

But her eyes, a glowing born beta blue, were clear and sharp.

“The change doesn’t cause a lack of control, Stiles,” she said quietly. “The change is normal. It’s the rage that’s the problem. Some people are more happy to indulge the rage than others.

“You know, for a society of beings who talk a lot about control, you guys show surprisingly little of it,” he told her.

She smiled beautifully at him, fangs and all, shrugging a shoulder.

“Thanks,” Boyd said flatly from behind him. Then he fisted his hand into Stiles’ collar and dragged him back over the line. “No offense,” he told Erica. “It’s just procedure.”

Erica’s expression chilled. “You’re all about procedure, aren’t you,” she said flatly. Stiles looked between them, suddenly feeling like he was stepping in something he had no business knowing about.

Erica turned back to Stiles. “See? This is the kind of crap we gotta deal with. Once you’ve flipped out once bad enough, they make an example of you. Then you have to prove twice the amount of control just to get out.” Her expression darkened. “Everyone always looks at you, too, like you made some great failing when, in reality, their control is not much better than yours. The sin is the fact that you betrayed the myth of absolute control in public.”

When Stiles didn’t say anything, she gestured over at Hale. “Look at him. He might be hairy and huge, but does he look feral to you?”

Stiles looked and met glittering, intelligent, somber eyes. Then Hale turned away, large furry shoulders hunched over, like he had the weight of the world on them.

-

The tension between Boyd and Erica finally dissipated a week later. Stiles found out why there was tension in the first place—Erica had a visitor the previous day, an old coworker. He told her that Boyd was instrumental in her stay in a cell. She had a hard time wrapping her head around the idea that her life coach—her adored friend—had been the person to put her there.

“We talked,” Erica said with a sigh. She was slumped against the wall and she looked exhausted. “He means well, but I think he has more trust in this system than I do. More trust than is wise.”

“Do you feel like you have more control?” Stiles asked curiously.

She frowned at him. “Maybe, but my experience isn’t typical. He’s very good at his job. He’s well trained. Most people in his shoes just…” She trailed off.

“What?”

“Go through the motions.”

Her words stuck with him for a long time, chewing at his brain. Hale didn’t have a rehabilitator—just Stiles. Was Stiles going through the motions? Was he failing Hale in some way?

He wished someone would help him figure out what he was supposed to do.

-

Just as Stiles thought Hale was becoming more tolerant of him, he suddenly withdrew. Hale became more and more reticent with each passing day. Things that used to provoke eye contact and a growl barely got a reaction now.

Stiles even took to leaning daringly close and poking at Hale’s trashcan. Hale absolutely hated it when Stiles touched his stuff and would take great pains in nudging his things back into the right order after Stiles cleaned.

But Hale didn’t even react. And when a reaction came, it wasn’t from him.

-

Stiles awoke to the sound of a door breaking open and Parrish’s deep voice ringing out demandingly. Then his own door kicked in and Stiles was dragged out of his bed by Mr. Lahey.

Stiles had no idea the guy even knew what he looked like, let alone that he took care of Hale, but, nevertheless, he was dragged out of the guard house by his hair. Parrish was bare chested and pissed, yelling at the guards to do something, but no one moved. Stiles just gripped Lahey’s wrist as best as he could, trying to keep his scalp. If he knew this was what his hair was going to be used for when he was growing it out, he would have kept the buzz cut.

“None of his family are around,” Mr. Lahey puffed out between high, tense breaths. “But you’re here and you’re his keeper. You shut him up or you die, you hear me you pathetic piece of trash? Shut him up or I’ll hang you from the nearest pole by your entrails.”

Sensing no lie, Stiles wheezed in terror.

“Lahey!” Boyd’s voice boomed over the open space. He rapidly moved to intercept them. “Let go of the human.”

There was a crowd forming—a tired looking group with twisted faces. Stiles recognized a lot of them, but only knew a few names. Isaac was among them, but he was of the few that didn’t look sleep deprived and angry for it. No, he was staring at his own father with bone deep fear.

“Yeah, you want to fight for him?” Mr. Lahey challenged, dragging Stiles to his tiptoes.

Boyd’s eyes burned blue and his teeth lengthened. “If you make me.”

Before anyone could start a fight, though, a howl rose from inside the rehabilitation center. The crowd—Mr. Lahey and Boyd included—cringed. There was something wrong with the sound, something awful Stiles couldn’t put a finger on. It sounded nothing like the beautiful harmonics of a pack or even a lone wolf.

“What the hell is that?” he asked, struggling against Mr. Lahey’s grip. The werewolf finally let him go.

“It’s Hale,” he said grimly. “He’s been doing that for hours. No one can sleep.”

Stiles looked around the crowd, reassessing them based off this new information. Beacon Hills was a wolf’s city, no matter how diverse the residents, which meant that much of the city, if not most of it, was adequately represented by these angry, distraught faces. Parrish stood outside of them, frowning with his arms crossed protectively over his chest.

“And you think I can do something about that,” Stiles said dubiously.

“Hey,” Boyd said quickly. “You don’t have to do anything he says.” Despite his strong words, Stiles didn’t see a whole lot of sympathetic faces in the crowd.

Isaac spoke up. “We can feel him,” he revealed in the hush. “All his frustration, all his pain, all his rage. It’s like a constant blow, over and over and over.” He let out a shuddering breath. “It’s carried by the howl and we can’t… we can’t shut it out.

Stiles stared at him for a moment. Using the word ‘pack’ was a slur nowadays, but Stiles had looked up what that meant in the past. Pack was more than a community, more than a team, even more than a family. It was a branching tree of mystical connections that tethered members to each other, whatever their species was. And the alpha was the trunk, the great moderator of the collective.

And, knowingly or not, this alpha was using that power to hurt his extended pack.

Tightening his jaw, Stiles nodded once and strode off to the rehabilitation center. The crowd parted for him and, after a beat, Boyd came up on his heels. Less welcome was Mr. Lahey, who looked like he’d take Stiles’ head off if he dared to do anything but what was ordered of him.

Stiles tried to ignore Isaac’s dad. “Has this happened before?”

“Yes,” Boyd said, strain evident in his face. “Usually one of his relatives comes and talks him down.” When Stiles opened the doors to the rehabilitation center, Boyd froze. Then, a moment later, Stiles felt what he felt.

It wasn’t just a sound, this howl. It was a force. It was bestial, massive, and impossible. It made the hair on his arms stand on end while the prey part of him hissed out all the benefits of running away and living to fight another day.

Feeling a pressure and a weight through every inch of his skin, Stiles stepped into the center with Boyd at his side.

For all his aggression towards Stiles, Lahey was unwilling to walk past the door, face paling. Boyd made it as far as the control module where all the overrides were, but managed to get Stiles off-hour access.

“I just- I’ll be right behind you,” Boyd promised, running a hand over his face. After a second, he took a knee, breath going ragged.

Stiles took the lift alone, flinching every time one of those powerful howls rose, rattling the inside of the lift. He stepped out, shaky, scared, and sweaty. Stiles’ heart hammered like mad in his chest, and the howls were only getting louder.

Then he happened to look inside one of the cells to his left. Stiles didn’t know the beta—in fact, knew few of them at all—but the man made a pathetic sight, cringing with his hands clamped over his head. Stiles thought about big, confident Boyd on his knees and walked faster down the hall. The next beta was sweating, eyes wild, thin arms wrapped around her legs, and then Stiles was walking faster. And faster, anger growing when cell after cell revealed betas curled up in the fetal position—the only protection they, the captive audience, had against the howls of a selfish alpha.

Stiles had been jerked around and screamed at and assaulted and outsmarted by assholes. He would be damned if he let Hale do the same.

Stiles ran to the last cell in the hallway. Before he even stopped, he snapped, “Shut the fuck up!

The next howl was aborted, choked, like he’d swallowed when he meant to breathe. Furious red eyes jerked towards Stiles.

Stiles met Hale’s anger with his own. “Yeah, you! Shut. Up! What are you, twelve? Because only a child would do this!” He flung out a hand to gesture to the rest of the betas on the floor. “Only a child would keep up an entire freaking city with a goddamn temper tantrum.”

Hale’s eyes narrowed and became mean. He seemed to swell, growing bigger, but, before he could do anything else, Stiles bit out, “You let out one more howl, I swear to God, I will leave. I will leave and find a dog whistle and come back to sit right here.” He stepped right up to the bars, seething and spitting with his rage. “All night, I’ll stay up and watch you, and the second I see you start falling asleep, I will blow on it. I will blow on it and keep blowing on it until I’m as annoying to you as you are to literally everyone else. Shut. The. Fuck. Up!” Hale seemed frozen. When he did nothing, Stiles spat, “Nod if you understand!”

And then, bizarrely, Hale did. Stiles straightened to his full height. “Excellent. Now, good night.”

-

Stiles rolled over in his bed, humming to himself. Besides some minor throbbing in his head, he’d had a great night sleep, fantastic even. A breeze made him shiver and roll over, squinting into the early morning light.

Parrish was standing in the wreckage of his broken doorway, armed with his usual mug of coffee and eyeing Stiles oddly. Stiles mumbled something long and nonsensical, ending it in a question.

Parrish’s eyebrows rose. “Do you remember what happened last night?”

Stiles stared at him for a long moment. Then his hands flew to his head, patting over the tender spots where Mr. Lahey tried—and succeeded—to pull his hair out. After a beat, he let his hands fall.

“So that wasn’t a vaguely satisfying dream.” Parrish shook his head. Crap.

“You’re the minor hero of the morning, from what I hear,” he said casually. “Had three people come over already to thank you.”

“Oh, this isn’t going to end well,” Stiles said in an undertone, dreading the day. He kicked his legs out of his blankets, forcing himself to stand. And the morning had started so nice too…

“Nope,” Parrish said cheerfully. “He’s practically a crown prince and you told him to shut the fuck up and go to sleep. You’re now my new favorite person. You’re also a dead man, so…”

Stiles grabbed his clothes for the day, tossing them to the foot of the bed. “They wouldn’t execute me for being disrespectful, would they?”

“No, but you’ve been around. You’ve seen how fluid morality is around here.” Stiles dropped to his hands and knees, seeking out his shoes. “In our human society, murder is only tolerated in the event of self-defense or defense of others. In both wolf and supe society, well… just the perception of a threat is a good enough reason.” Stiles looked up at Parrish with a serious frown, one shoe in hand. “Be careful, Stiles.”

Stiles rubbed a hand over his face, sighing. “Okay.”

Parrish nodded and left, only to abruptly reverse back into the room. “Also, one other thing.” He was frowning like he wasn’t sure if he should say something. Finally, he decided and tipped his head back. “Hale’s dad died six years ago yesterday.”

Stiles’ heart dropped. So did the shoe.

-

Parrish wasn’t exaggerating. They really were treating him like a minor hero. Stiles had never had his back slapped so many times before, and he used to fancy himself an athlete.

Every time someone thanked him, he sank or slouched lower, feeling like crap. It got to a point where Stiles practically ran from task to task, trying to dissuade small talk. He didn’t want to be the abusive jerk who yelled at people in mourning. He was supposed to be the Boyd to Hale’s Erica, and he hadn’t been at all. He’d failed Hale in a massive way and he had no idea how to fix that.

An hour later, just as the sun was starting to rise, Stiles got ready to get Hale his breakfast. Parrish caught him just as he came in to retrieve the carts from the warming unit. “Hey, everyone’s sleeping in over there,” he said. “It’s okay. We can feed them later.”

Stiles hesitated for a moment, then grabbed one of the trays off the top. “Might as well go now,” he said, avoiding Parrish’s eyes. He pushed past him and went for the rehabilitation center at a fast clip.

Parrish was right—every beta in every cell was asleep. Even the rehabilitators were sluggish, lounging around the lobby areas of each floor, some biding their time, others blatantly dozing.

Stiles stepped out on Hale’s floor, checking in on each beta as he passed. The last was Erica. She was slumped on her bed in the back, breathing deeply with gold hair tumbling over her arm.

Stiles crept to the next cell on light feet, squinting to see the figure inside. Hale was lying in the back of the room on his bed, just like Erica, but he was far too still to be asleep. Nodding once, Stiles slipped the tray in through the slot. Then, ignoring the chalk line, he sat down, back to the bars.

It took him a while to figure out what he wanted to say. When he started, he smiled at his lack of creativity—he started by talking about himself.

“Back at the dome, I was the top of my class. Well, almost the top. Point is, I’m smart. I plan things, you know? Strategize, assess, move forward.” His current actions seemed to retroactively negate all that, but he tried not to think about it. “So you bet your furry ass I researched you guys up and down before I set foot in this place.”

So much of it was redacted and censored, and everyone under the age of twenty was referred to as “the Alpha Prime’s progeny”, but Stiles had gotten the gist. Even before Peter gave him the nitty gritty details, even before Parrish revealed the arsonist’s name, Stiles understood enough to realize what happened.

“I know why you’re stuck in that alpha form. You don’t want to be human again. Maybe you feel bad or something- I don’t know. I don’t want to project my feelings on you or anything.”

But he was, wasn’t he?

Stiles sucked in a deep, shuddering breath, palming his knees. “Thing is, I know what it’s like t-to be a selfish, destructive little shit. I know what it’s like to purposefully cause people pain. I know the kind of person you have to be in order to do things like that because I am that person.” He swallowed, closing his eyes. “And I also know that you aren’t.”

And how could he be? Werewolf or not, there was a good person in the cell behind him. The kind of person who missed their father and listened to people rant. The kind that fed betas in the cage next door, looked at his sister with love, and kept the peace on the floor with sharp threatening barks that echoed through the hall, nipping most of the fledgling fights in the bud.

“One day, when I was eight, I pitched a huge fit to get out of my class and go home. I mean, it was awful. Completely pre-meditated. Totally selfish. My friend was sick and I was sick of being at school, and I just-” Stiles stopped, shaking his head. “Anyway, Mom got called in just like I planned. But, instead of taking me home, she decided to keep me in her class, the one full of five years old a-and I- that wasn’t my plan. I wanted my plan. Pitch fit, go home, play games with Scott. So I pitched an even bigger fit and embarrassed her and, finally, she called Dad and got someone to cover her while she ‘removed me from school’.” Stiles did air quotes, smiling dimly. “She used those words exactly, because although I was just an eight year old brat, I was a sharp one.”

Stiles took a deep breath, trying to calm his heartbeat, trying to quell the heat that was rising to his face. “I didn’t find out until we left that she wasn’t taking me home. She was taking me over to Dad’s work, so he could watch me. Dad would have picked me up himself, but he was in the middle of something, thus… the ruse.” He shrugged. “Well, I didn’t stand for it. The second I could… wrench myself away from her, I did. I ran all the way home.” Stiles rubbed his nose with the back of his hand. “See, see, the thing is… the usual short cut is through the bottom floor of this building, right? And they were doing construction on it, updating some of the interfaces or something, a-and I knew they were working on it, right? But I was so set on having my plan go my way, I just… ran through the construction site.”

There was no sound behind him, not one bit, but, while that should have been eerie, it was secondary to the revived memories of that horrible, horrible day.

“I was okay until the last part. I startled a guy and he startled a guy and that guy knocked over a machine, and then… this wall. It was just coming down, right on top of me, and I was watching it come. In the corner of my eye, I see one of the guys trying to save me, trying to get me out of the way, but he couldn’t catch up to me.” Stiles swallowed around a huge lump in his throat. “But my mom? My mom caught up to me. She pushed me out of the way of the wall. It… crushed her from waist down.”

She’d died three days later. No amount of surgery or Lupa Shots could stop the bleeding. She’d spent most of it apologizing and kissing his cheeks while Stiles sat there numbly, barely able to comprehend the damage he had wrought. His dad, to this very day, still blamed himself for not picking Stiles up, and Stiles was too terrified to look him in the face and say, “It was me.”

Stiles cleared his throat, wiping at his cheeks with his palm. “But you, Hale, you didn’t do that. You were just a tool. And, before you blame that on yourself, too, think about this: she was planning it for months. Do you know how long it takes to work up from the outer circle to the inner circle unless you know someone at the top? Six years. She did it in six weeks. She knew the right people. She started gathering supplies for the arson the second day she got here.” His voice deepened, solidifying with confidence. “With you or without you, she would have done it.” After a beat, Stiles gentled. “You’re allowed to feel grief, man, you are. But let blame fall at the feet of the person who actually deserves it.” Stiles turned to look in the cage, saying, “Kate Argent is the reason why your dad is dead, not you.”

It took Stiles a second to realize what he was looking at, because Hale was so close—mere centimeters away. Faintly alarmed by the silent proximity, Stiles took a moment to take him in.

His shoulders were hunched. His head was bowed. Hale was just this… huge mass above him, but Stiles couldn’t really even see his face.

While Stiles was yammering on, Hale could have ripped his spine out or crushed his skull between his hands. Instead, he was leaning on the bars like they were the only thing keeping him upright.

His breathing, now that Stiles was listening for it, was very unsteady.

Stiles very gently put his hand on Hale’s arm.

-

Stiles couldn’t say that his methods were the best, but they did have some effect. Tension between Hale and Stiles had eased greatly. In fact, Stiles hadn’t realized how on guard Hale was every time Stiles came by until he was just… not anymore.

Hale certainly teased him a lot more, which took a while for Stiles to understand. One day, after Stiles cleaned his cell, Hale stalked around his cell, pointed at his eyes, then at Stiles, then at himself. Then he made a huge show of putting his furniture back into place.

Just to dick with him, Stiles put everything on the opposite side of the room the next time he cleaned up. In retaliation, Hale sneezed half of a raw bloody steak at him. It was gross. And hilarious. But mostly gross.

-

One day, right after a good call, Stiles found himself boasting about his dad while giving Hale his meal. This spiraled off into a complaint about his diet and his habits and everything else his dad did that compromised his safety and health. He remembered too late that parents were a sensitive topic with Hale.

They were doing so well. He didn’t want his massive bursting feelings about all things John Stilinski to get in the way of what little progress he’d made with Hale. Although the guy didn’t look particularly angry, Stiles still spent a solid three minutes apologizing. Hale seemed annoyed by the entire attempt.

“You can talk about your family, Stiles,” Erica finally said, exasperated. “No one cares.” She shot him a sunshine smile. “Besides, it’s nice. You’re protective. You feel for him the same way we supes feel about humans.”

Stiles shared a look with Hale. “Uh,” he said, stalling. “Pretty sure I don’t want to eat my dad.” Or lock him up in a bubble, he thought darkly. Though the thought was tempting.

Erica groaned at him. “No. Not that, I mean… There’s familial bond there too, right?” When Stiles just squinted at her, confused, she sighed, rolling her eyes. “Alright, I’ll back up. Research has shown that supes and humans are related species, right?”

“Right,” Stiles said cautiously. He humored, gesturing between them with a hand. “Because we’re similar. You’re humanoid-ish creatures, we’re humanoid-ish creatures-“

“Is that really all they teach you?” Erica puffed out like a ruffled bird. She leaned closer to the bars, splaying a hand over her chest, eyes widening. “Because what we’re taught is that we’re literally related to you, that the human species is the parent species of all supernatural creatures. Shifters like us have an especially strong connection with humanity. Why else would we be able to turn you?”

Stiles had never thought about that before. He’d just assumed the curse overrode everything, including your rightful human DNA, just the way supes had overrode everything else in life. Staring at her earnest face, Stiles started to feel uncomfortable with that line of thought, though. It wasn’t one she shared.

“What about the domes?”

“What about them?” When he scowled at her, Erica said dismissively, “They’re protecting you, aren’t they? They’re the best shield we have for you guys until we find a cure.”

Right. That old song and dance. Stiles’ gaze dropped to his shoes, lifting only when Erica’s bars rattled.

“Why don’t you believe me?” she said quietly, brows furrowed.

Stiles’ jaw tightened. Instead of looking at her, he looked at Hale. Hale gazed back at him, fathomless red eyes locking with his own.

“You’re our family, Stiles,” Erica said with feeling, strain in her voice, “and it freaks us out that something we can’t see and we can’t fight is killing you from the inside out.”

Stiles blinked rapidly. In her fervor, Stiles saw decades of good intentions, decades of allocating resources to fund a potentially impossible project, decades of digging in heels to fight the last stages of the extinction of all humanity.

On the flipside, though, he also saw decades of imprisonment, decades of flimsy promises of future freedom that never panned out, decades of people just like Erica lashing out against the people who truly reaped the consequences of her charity.

“Wow, you really buy into your society’s propaganda machine, don’t you?”

Erica stilled, hurt flickering over her face. Stiles hardened himself to the sight. He had nothing to apologize for. Human Preservation Act of not, supes hated humans—this, Stiles knew for sure.

Well. Some supes, anyway.

-

Stiles was approached later that day by a man who called himself Deucalion. Blond, slight, but still powerfully built, the odd wolf actually stalked him around half of the market before Stiles got fed up and confronted him directly.

“You’re the one who tamed our indolent prince,” he said, amused, then clucked his tongue when Stiles tried to deny it. “Nonsense. I’ve heard all about you. But none of that. Hale is not the reason I approached you. I am a teacher and I was hoping you’d be able to help me.”

“I’m Liaison Development, not Resource Management,” Stiles countered. Even cooking was more to stay near Parrish.

Deucalion waived his concerns away. “Come now, Liaison is a sort of catch all field, is it not? Especially when it deals with supes and humans. I could use an extra grader.” He smiled charmingly, leaning in as he sweetened the pot. “This could be very good for you. You would get to know supes in this city, you would be paid, and I’d write an excellent recommendation for you, provided you… live up to it.”

Hundreds of years of human—then supe—society later, ‘more money’ remained a most powerful motivator for a human, even a suspicious one like Stiles. “What kind of grading are you talking about?”

-

Stiles ran it by Parrish that night, handing over the preliminary agreement. The man dropped everything to read it over. Stiles still hadn’t gotten a good read off of Parrish, but Parrish was good people.

He scrolled through the file with a serious expression, the light of the tablet turning his green eyes blue. “This is very good pay. Teacher is one of the most important jobs you can have.” Parrish stopped, turning to Stiles, clearly deep in thought. “And your room and your board is already paid for. If you do all the jobs people ask of you, you can go home and live comfortably.” Parrish looked back at the tablet, lifting an eyebrow. “Very comfortably.”

Stiles froze across the room where he was preparing vegetables. He dropped the knife and turned, saying very softly, “They’ll let me go home?”

Parrish’s head rose at that. “Of course! Who said they wouldn’t?”

Fidgeting with his hands, Stiles approached him slowly. “I heard that, once they grabbed people, you’re pretty much stuck.”

“Rumor and lies made up by people who have never been anywhere,” Parrish said with only a little exasperation. He followed up with a reassuring smile. “No. One severance form and they’ll send you home within a week.”

Stiles crossed his arms over his chest. “Then why haven’t you gone home?”

Parrish hesitated. His eyes dropped to the tablet and the counter he put it on. He leaned back. “I tried once. You grow a lot when you’re allowed to leave.” He looked up and smiled bleakly. “Like trying to fit in a pair of jeans you haven’t worn since you were seven. There’s a bigger world out there than the ones inside of our domes.” He stepped away from the counter, pivoting to get back to his work. He paused outside of the storage room, expression troubled, and then turned back to Stiles. “They put out of control shifters in cages to remind them of boundaries and control. It helps them. It’s a kindness. But if you put a human in a cage, all they do is suffer and go insane. That’s something that supes are still trying to wrap their heads around.”

“A dome is not a cage,” Stiles countered quickly.

Parrish paused, then cocked his head. “Isn’t it?”

-

Stiles took the job. It went fairly smoothly, save for the part where the students were involved. Isaac and his squirmy little friends were nosing around him more now that they knew he was grading their papers. They seemed wrong footed about the whole thing, like they didn’t know whether they should bribe or intimidate him.

Stiles didn’t go to any of the classes, which were mostly focused on literature and history. He just graded things. First, he stuck to typos and logical inconsistences. Then he started reading the required book beforehand so he could judge the choice of their supporting evidence. Then he started reading two more, leaving them little notes about better examples they could have used, better paths they could have taken.

Stiles didn’t realize how deeply he’d involved himself until Deucalion accepted the grader tablet and then just froze, reading Stiles’ essay on how some kid could have written a better essay. Stiles’ scathing rebuttal was crammed in the margins of the (poorly written) assignment.

“Uh, sorry.”

“Don’t be. It’s not often my students are forced to deal with excellence.” With that, Deucalion chuckled, exuding amusement and self-satisfaction.

Stiles just left it at that and vacated the premise. Deucalion was not a person he wanted to mess with. The guy had a reputation and a long bloody history. He used to be the supe version of a general back in the day, only a step or two below where Laura Hale was now. One day, he went off on a rampage and killed every member of his hunting party. No one really knew why. It took Talia Hale herself to bring him down.

Ten years ago, Deucalion was the thing of nightmares. Now he was just a quiet, vaguely unsettling man who got his kicks off of dispelling ignorance in youth—or trying to, anyway. Deucalion always was rather benign in all of their interactions, but Stiles never let his guard down. He was all too aware of the violence inherent in all supes.

-

He didn’t need any other reminders of that violence, but he got them anyway. To avoid interacting with the students he was failing, Stiles started hiding out in the rehabilitation center, eating his meals with Erica and Hale. Boyd couldn’t always stay, but he tried to have a meal with them at least once a week.

Stiles had a feeling it was against procedure, but Boyd was trying. They all had to give him credit for that.

In a rare good mood, Stiles hummed while the lift went up, swinging his lunch by his side. He paused, seeing an unwanted bunch at the end of the hall where he usually sat.

He tapped the nearest rehabilitator. “What the hell are they doing here?” he demanded, gesturing at Isaac and his friends.

The rehabilitator looked, then shrugged. “Don’t know, don’t care.” Then she walked off.

He scowled after her, but he supposed she had a point. Technically, anyone was allowed in, right? Putting on his best frown, he closed the distance between him and the group.

For once, Isaac didn’t seem to be the one causing all the trouble. A boy beta was toeing the line, hissing, “…come on, howl. Act like the leader of the pack.”

“Really, this is dumb,” Isaac was saying off to the side, looking extremely uncomfortable.

“He’s right,” Stiles spoke up, drawing their attention, “it is dumb, and you are all dumb for doing this!” Not his best insults to date, but, hey, he’d like to see you do better when you felt like he did—tight and compressed, heated with the helpless frustration that came from watching someone bully a friend.

“What are you going to do, grade us down?” the boy retorted, snorting.

“Maybe, jackass.” Stiles regretted not putting names to faces.

The boy scoffed at him, dropping something on the floor at his feet. He shoved Stiles to the side and into the wall, where Stiles, used to this behavior, stayed as they walked past him. Adding insult to injury, the beta knocked his food down out of his hand, causing it to spill across the floor.

Stiles bit down on his cheek, closing his eyes. When he opened them, Erica was looking at him with a frustrated expression.

“They do this a lot,” she revealed, current situation clearly winning out over past indiscretions. “Bunch of freaking bullies.”

Stiles nodded, then looked down when his shoe nudged something on the ground. It was a bunch of rocks—familiar ones too. He picked one up, flipping it over in his palm.

“You know,” Stiles said softly, “I always wondered why there were stones in his cell.” Hale crept closer to the bars, looking at him in the light. Saddened, Stiles whispered, “Oh, bud…”

Hale snorted, as if saying it wasn’t a big deal. He leaned into the bars, wrapping his hands around them dexterously. The way he handled them made Stiles think, if he really wanted to, he could rip them right out of the cement that anchored them.

“They’re fascinated by the fact that he’s an alpha,” Erica said bitterly. “But they’re more fascinated by the fact that he’s an alpha that can’t talk. An alpha that they can prod and torment at a safe distance.” She growled softly, eyes flashing blue, then she burst out, “They were so much better when Derek was actually out and around. He was the trendsetter. Also, because he was into intercity sports, everyone was into intercity sports. There was none of this loitering drive-by abuse bullcrap.”

Stiles nodded sympathetically, smoothing his shoe over the chalk line. It came up easily, giving him an idea.

“So who was Derek?” He asked, distracted.

Erica choked on her air. Then she was demanding, “A-are you kidding me?” She pushed out as much as she could, turning to face Hale. “Is he freaking kidding me?”

“Wait a sec, guys,” Stiles said and went back down the hallway. They didn’t seem to hear him, too busy barking at each other. Literally. Well, not literally. There were growls from Hale and brief monosyllabic bursts of words from Erica, but Stiles amused himself by thinking that they were.

Stiles saw thick sticks of chalk in the shelves in the lobby a few months ago. Sure enough, they were still there. Palming one in his hand, he turned around and went back to the two bickering wolves.

Those bullies were going to learn if they were going to play with fire, they’re going to get burned. Barely aware that Hale and Erica stopped fighting, Stiles dropped to his hands and knees and erased Hale and half of Erica’s lines with huge sweeping gestures. Then he got down to work.

A few minutes later, Stiles heard a low grumbling. He looked up, only to see Hale disturbingly close to the bars.

After a beat, Stiles shot him a cocky smile. “See where I’m going with this?”

Hale flashed him a nightmare grin, showing off precisely all of his one million teeth.

-

It only took three days for the trap to close. When it did, Stiles wasn’t even there to watch, more’s the pity. When he came in after, Erica was howling with laughter almost too much to tell him what happened, but she managed eventually.

The little beta brat had stood there in front of the cell, trying to get Hale to react again. As usual, he smugly toed the chalk line. Only this time, Hale got up close to the bars and, while the beta turned to his classmates, openly mocking the caged alpha, Hale’s huge fist shot out, easily spanning the newly shortened “danger zone”

Hale curled his hand in the collar of the beta’s shirt and yanked him forward. He slammed the brat into the bars three times before letting him go.

“They ran s-so fast,” Erica told him, wiping away tears of mirth.

Hale, as usual, didn’t say anything, but his eyes were glittering and his chest, already massive as it was, puffed out. What a dork. Stiles grinned at him, tickled pink.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” Boyd said, speaking up for the first time that day. His brow was deeply furrowed.

“What? Why not?” Stiles protested, turning to him. “They weren’t going to get hurt. Hale here is a good guy.”

“Don’t forget he’s here because he lost control.”

“No, Hale is here because he won’t come out of his alpha form,” Stiles said frankly. “The change isn’t what causes the loss of control, it’s the rage. And does he look mad right now?” Hell, Hale looked about as happy as Stiles had ever seen him, though that was steadily draining away with every word that came out of Boyd’s mouth.

“You shouldn’t be the judge of that,” Boyd said quickly, and when Stiles started to protest, he made a sharp gesture with his hand. “No, you’re his keeper. You’re not his rehabilitator and you never will be. You are human and you’re in no way qualified.”

That… hurt. That hurt quite a bit. Stiles stepped back an inch, trying to process.

Then, abruptly, like he couldn’t help it, Hale was grumbling out something deep, raspy, and vaguely chastising.

Hurt forgotten, Stiles stared at him in surprise. Then, leaning towards Boyd, he said in an undertone, “…Did he just call you vermin?”

“Vernon,” Boyd enunciated sharply, shooting him a glare. “It’s my name.” He looked back at Hale, something like awe and surprise and, yes, a little bit of guilt. Finally, he just rubbed a hand over his face. “I… yeah, okay.”

Stiles’ head was buzzing with excitement. Hale talked, Hale was talking. This was huge. This was progress. He felt like jumping or climbing the walls or something. Stiles was grinning so wide, his cheeks hurt.

In his cell, Hale was settling back, ears a little less hostile, nose pointing down. He was very clearly embarrassed. Stiles grinned wider, feeling a burst of fondness for the guy. Then his smile fell and his jaw was tightening with determination.

Stiles turned to Boyd. “He doesn’t have a rehabilitator, Boyd. He has me,” Stiles said gravely. “And we’ve gotten to know each other pretty well. I know what he can handle. But you trap a guy up in a cage without any sort of outlet, you’re going to drive him insane. This was good for him. No permanent injuries. And a bunch of bullies learned a lesson, right?”

Boyd didn’t look at him for a majority of this speech. Towards the end, he angled his head, eyeing Stiles with a strange sort of expression. Stiles was used to exasperation from him, yeah—disapproval, disbelief, and, yes, even dislike. Not this expression. Not this concern.

“I’m worried about you,” Boyd said finally. “You’re trying to play a shifter game with shifters. You’re delicate and human. If they retaliate…”

Thing is, Boyd wasn’t wrong. Stiles got the logic of it. It wasn’t like everyone in the city was so much more immoral than the people back at the dome. Nothing like that! It was just… morality about assault changes when everyone around you heals in the blink of an eye. Which was all fine and dandy until breakable people got involved.

Feeling self-conscious, Stiles looked back at Erica and Hale. They were both hanging off their bars, looking glum.

-

Stiles was walking to the center one day to deliver lunch. He arrived just in time with his cart to see their resident psychopath, Matt, being escorted out of the center. He was wrapped up in chains and guided with a stick, but his full focus seemed to be on the miniature forest Stiles still hadn’t explored quite yet.

Matt’s new rehabilitator was being aided by three others—no one really trusted Matt anymore. Boyd was the fifth rehabilitator, but he was just looking on, arms crossed over his chest.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

Boyd did a double-take, like he was surprised Stiles was asking now, of all times. Then he smirked. “This is the first time you’ve actually been on time for lunch, huh?”

“I had to be,” he said frankly. “I drew the short straw this week, had to take the cart.” Though, now that he thought about it, he’d been drawing the short straw a lot these last few weeks, mostly for breakfast delivery.

Boyd just snorted, looking amused. Then he lifted his chin up, gesturing towards the procession. “It’s his weekly run. Shifters might get comfort from boundaries and restraints, but you weren’t wrong when you said a guy could go crazy without an outlet.”

As wrong footed as he’d been about all his duties, Stiles couldn’t help but feel gratified by that. “When does Hale get one of those?”

Boyd shifted his weight, then started to head back to the center. “He doesn’t, not now. There’s not an alpha in the city to take him.”

This was usually where the conversation would end, but today Boyd paused. He hung back by the door, looking back at Stiles. “It’s to control the situation. Matt is a beta, like Erica. Three betas can take them down if they get rowdy or try to run off. Hale would need at least three alphas.” He hesitated, then said, “His mother and sisters used to take him out all the time. But then his mom...” Boyd paused, as if trying to phrase it delicately. Finally, he said, "She just stopped."

The problem, then, was supervision, and it was a daunting one. Talia was all gung-ho on war and anti-family, Peter was gone in the wind, Laura was missing, and Cora was doing everything she could to get on the front line.

Stiles only knew of one alpha in town. Half-baked plans spinning through his mind, Stiles went straight to Deucalion.

-

Deucalion was courteous. He listened patiently, a hip propped up on his desk, as Stiles went on and on about alternative solutions for Hale’s problem. A half dozen betas and one alpha should be enough security detail for an alpha who may or may not go feral, right?

“That’s why I thought of you,” Stiles finished.

Deucalion dipped his head briefly. Then he leaned back, reaching for something in one of his top drawers. “Your ignorance is sweet.” He tossed something to Stiles, who clumsily caught it. It was a bottle of purple capsules, a prescription. And on it, the pills were named.

“Aconite 331,” Stiles read out, then looked up. The Lupa Shots wiped out most human diseases and disorders in the domes, but Stiles had seen enough pill bottles to know that case numbers and mandatory doses “as approved by Alpha Prime” were not generally on the label.

Deucalion scratched behind his ear, his mouth pulled flat. “It’s, uh, quite debilitating. I am to take it three times a day. It renders me next to powerless.” He smirked faintly, gently taking the bottle out of Stiles’ slack fingers. “Yes. I’m little better than a human now. Supe society may have different moral standards than yours, but there are still crimes considered beyond the pale and there are still consequences to fit them.” Deucalion’s gaze, as he stared down at the bottle, was haunted.

“I’m sorry.”

Deucalion blinked, remembering his presence. “Why? It wasn’t your fault.” He put the bottle on his desk. “You’re worried about Talia’s son. Don’t.” He looked up, turning his full attention back on Stiles. “While there’s still a war, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to get him any time out of that godforsaken cell. Strangely enough, further warfare is the only thing that might net him some fresh air. If it gets bad enough, Talia might start asking for volunteers from the rehabilitation pool.” He smirked. “We could always use an angry werewolf at the front lines. Ever hear of berserkers?”

Stiles swallowed through a lump in his throat, standing very still. “I thought they didn’t do that.” And Peter swore.

“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” Deucalion said frankly. “But, of course, they need to be aware enough of their surroundings to give consent. And they almost never use the bitten.” It was the almost part that freaked Stiles out.

As Stiles silently agonized over that, Deucalion stood up and shuffled through the piles of stuff on his desk. Then he handed over Stiles’ grading tablet, freshly loaded with a new set of papers to grade. Stiles took it numbly, hurting for Scott, hurting for Hale.

Stiles tucked it against his chest, then asked tentatively, “Is he being punished for something?”

Deucalion looked up at him then, blue eyes sharp, and Stiles wondered how much he had given away. Then he was sighing. “I would say no, but I can’t be sure. Talia is not the person she used to be.”

-

Stiles ended up drawing the short straw for dinner delivery as well. He wrinkled his nose at the trays piled high with protein. It was rare to have meat in the dome, especially the fresh stuff. Even simply eating in Beacon Hills was a total culture shock.

Stiles didn’t handle it well. For the first few weeks, Stiles was a glutton for all things meat and immediately put on seven pounds. He also ate so much, he made himself sick. Even now, he felt queasy just looking at meat, which was unfortunate, seeing as 85% of a supe’s diet was protein.

Supes were generally not big on vegetables or fruits, beyond what was necessary for them to stay healthy. Absence of these things didn’t hit them as hard as it hit humans. Werewolves in particular couldn’t get scurvy, he’d learned.

But queasiness aside, Stiles kept his lunch down, delivering dinner to all and skipping out quickly, as he usually did, to go fetch his own. He almost exclusively ate with Erica and Hale, and, the best thing about it, some of the other rehabilitators were copying him. There was always someone to talk to.

Armed with his refreshed grading tablet, a promising can of corn, and two loaves of bread—one of which was between his teeth—Stiles was waylaid by Parrish just as he tried to escape. Parrish no longer tried to get him to eat with the other humans, but he still tried to get Stiles to eat more than the leftovers of supe meals.

Today, Parrish got him a sticky, juicy treat, knowing he’d been down for a while. “I know a guy who knows a guy,” he said casually when Stiles gaped. The offering was a fresh freaking pineapple, something Stiles had only ever eaten out of a can.

Parrish showed him how to cut it up, criticizing his knife technique and bumping him with his hip when Stiles tried to lick the juice off the cutting board.

It was nice, like having an older brother. Scott and Stiles grew up like twins more than anything else, trading off on who was going to cover who on what. Being with Parrish was similar and yet entirely dissimilar as well. He was always looking out for Stiles.

Stiles went back to the center, armed with his food, his newly cut up pineapple, and, yes, his tablet. He was so late, everyone was pretty much already done eating. Boyd must have picked up Hale’s tray and everything for him, but Erica, strangely was gone, and so was Boyd.

“Weekly run, huh?” Man, Stiles must have been super late.

He shrugged and sat down in front of Hale’s cell, momentarily distracted by how quiet it was in the hall. Several of the rehabilitators were gone, likely helping with Erica, and Erica’s absence was like a void. A few of the betas had actually even fallen asleep, lulled into complacency by a full belly.

Hale wasn’t asleep, though. He was creeping towards the bars, his nostrils flaring.

“Hey, big guy,” Stiles said easily, but then frowned, because Hale looked famished. He was staring at Stiles’ pineapple like a cat eyeing a piece of raw fish.

“Are you as starved for fruit as I am?” Stiles asked, surprised. Then, making a decision, he ordered, “Stick out your hand.”

After staring at him distrustfully for a moment, Hale did just that, fist uncurling steadily until it was completely open and, strangely, vulnerable.

After every two bites of his meal, Stiles fed little bits of pineapple into Hale’s palm until there was just pineapple left. Stiles scooted closer, sliding the plate between them so Hale could grab more, and they both ate together like that, hunched over and delicately snatching up bits of fruit with their bare hands.

Stiles idly sucked juice off of his wrist, lifting his eyebrow when Hale froze mid-reach, staring at him—like he hadn’t done the same thing seconds before. He was fastidiously clean, for a werewolf.

Deep in thought, Stiles sucked on his fingers. He wondered if there was something inherently wrong about wondering what Hale looked like, imagining what he’d be like, upright and furless and out of his cell. If he’d still talk to Stiles. If he’d even want to look at him.

Stiles had a handful of friends here and there—Parrish and Erica and Hale too—but he was bone achingly lonely here. Scott, his buddy, his brain twin, his confidant, was thirty miles away, scratching at the walls of his cell and trying to quiet down the voice of the wolf inside. And while his dad was willing to take calls, there was nothing quite like being in his presence. Allison was off wandering the domeless world and Lydia… Lydia had probably taken over the dome by now, knowing her.

Here, though, Hale spoke to him on a level he didn’t understand yet, but how much of it was them? How much of it was Hale? How much of it was Stiles pathetically projecting his fantasies and longing for someone on a guy beyond bars, a guy whose shifted physiology prevented him from saying more than a few words? For all he knew, Hale hated his guts and was plotting his murder.

Though... if that was a homicidal expression? Hale was so doing it wrong.

Amused at himself, Stiles nudged the rest of the plate towards Hale, sliding back and away until his back hit the opposite wall. He settled his grading tablet on his thighs, lighting it up. Up to this point, Stiles had been grading the younger kids’ essays, which tended to follow up whatever odd topic they’d wandered to in class discussion. Older kids’ work tended to be more regimented with more deadlines, and it was older kids’ work that Stiles was grading right now.

“Oh my God, you get the same homework assignments as us. That’s hilarious,” Stiles said, shaking his head when he saw the prompt: Analyze and summarize the Human Preservation Act.

His smile dimmed when he remembered glittering and brilliant Lydia Martin under the soft glow of lights, stumbling around the obvious hole in her presentation: Phase 3. Stiles scrolled down to the right section, genuinely curious to see how a werewolf would describe a phase that one of their own hadn’t been able to put words to.

He found, oddly enough, that the werewolf seemed to be just as much in the dark as Lydia was, discussing it in vague terms like he was typing from memory rather than research. Frustrated, Stiles pulled up a different essay from the same class, but this joker described Phase 3 as simply the “phase that came after Phase 2”.

Stiles aggressively docked twenty points from the both of them, narrating his disappointment to a silent Hale. Then he set his finger to the screen and swiped the program away, opening the electronic libraries with a couple of short taps.
Twenty minutes later, Stiles was rubbing the bridge of his nose, making a note to give those two wolves their points back. The libraries were vague and vaguer about the subject, despite the fact that it was such an important law.

“This is so stupid,” he told Hale.

After five minutes more of futile searching, Stiles went straight for the jugular—the original document. The library prompted him with a sign-in screen, one that was already half filled in with Deucalion’s user name.

Pressing his hands together under his chin, Stiles weighed the pros and cons quickly. Then, with slow strokes, he typed in Deucalion’s password. The original bill was loading seconds later. He clenched his eyes shut, still not sure he made the right decision—he could get in a lot of trouble for this.

Curiosity won out, though, and he found himself sifting through pages and pages of political jargon and backscratching. Finally a phrase popped out—‘Policies and Objectives Behind the Implementation of the Phases.’

“Ha,” Stiles said, grinning. “Found it. Phase 3.” He read through it quickly, then doubled back, reading it again. His smile fell. “Phase… 3…”

After a minute, Stiles looked up, stunned. Hale was hunched over small by the bars, eyes big and ears pulled back, like he knew exactly what Stiles just read.

Blood was roaring in his ears. He stood unsteadily, feeling light headed and anchorless. He left behind the tablet and the sad remnants of their shared meal.

-

Stiles didn’t sleep that night. He got up at the usual time, groggy and mute. He ignored everyone and did his morning tasks—no lingering, no small talk, just in and out. Avoiding eye contact with everyone he ran into. Hale didn’t press it and, surprisingly, neither did Erica.

And then there was Isaac. Isaac caught him in between tasks and crowded him into a maintenance closet. He started pestering him about grades, blatantly accusing him of bringing his score down on purpose. When Isaac wouldn’t let him pass, Stiles explained to his shoes that every assignment he graded came to him anonymously. Even if he wanted to be a dick, there was no way of knowing which terrible essay belonged to which wolf.

“Or supe,” he said after a moment, considering it. Deucalion only taught the students in the centermost districts and, while the majority population were werewolves, there were a few affluent exceptions here and there.

Feeling as if his point was well and made, Stiles made as if to step around Isaac, but the wolf got in front of him again.

“You don’t understand,” Isaac said, desperation threading throughout his voice. “I have to get good grades.” His jaw hardened. “And you’re going to make sure I do.”

Stiles rolled his eyes. “Go to hell,” he said dully. “Or whatever wolfy counterpart you crawled out of just to irritate me.” Stiles couldn’t care less. His mind was stuck on an endless loop, had been since yesterday. Phase 3, Phase 3, Phase 3.

One minute, he was side-stepping Isaac. The next, his arm was being grabbed and twisted behind his back. He fought back immediately, knocking his shoulder against the wall brutally, but still somehow getting free.

But not unscathed. Stiles whipped around, staring at his forearm in numb shock. The previous injury he’d given him was a paper cut in comparison—more burn than blood. Stiles could hardly wrap his head around this—four long gouges in his arm, each one burning and aching. As he watched, beads of blood combined together and rolled down to his elbow, dripping thickly onto the floor.

Across from him, Isaac stared at his claws in horror, more shocked than Stiles was. Then, strangely fragile, he was demanding, “Why are you still bleeding?” He took an abrupt step forward, suddenly looking furious. His face started purpling. “Stop trying to draw attention to yourself. Heal, damn it. Heal!”

Isaac lunged at him, but Stiles ducked just in time, grabbing the closest thing to him and using it as a weapon. He slammed Isaac over the head with a heavy broom—once, then twice again when that wasn’t effective. He hit Isaac for a third time, escaping the closet the second Isaac hit the floor, clutching his head.

He sprinted towards the guard house, bursting through the front unceremoniously and almost knocking over two wolves on duty. He headed towards the back, to the kitchen, but he wasn’t sure if he was looking for the spice cupboard or for Parrish himself.

He ran right into the middle of lunch preparation. The other humans looked up, sweating and startled from their work. Parrish called everyone to order, reminding them of their schedule. Then he saw Stiles and dropped his ladle.

Face twisting, Stiles ran up the stairs to his room, white knuckling his injury and hissing softly. He angrily tossed things around, frustrated and in pain.

Parrish came in just as Stiles was knocking over his dresser. When Stiles turned and saw Parrish, he burst out, “Do you know what Phase 3 is?”

Parrish looked gutted, concerned. After the last word came out of Stiles’ mouth, his shoulders slumped slightly. “Stiles….” His sad, resigned expression said everything Stiles needed to hear.

No longer feeling safe, Stiles shoved past him, snapping out, “How can you even work here?” Despite having more bulk than Isaac, Parrish was pliant, letting himself be moved, standing silent and frozen in the hallway. Stiles pounded his way down the stairs, leaving the kitchen in the same way he arrived—furious, scared, and bleeding.

He wasn’t aware of where he was going until he was outside, blinking past the glare of the afternoon light. He’d automatically started towards the rehabilitation center without thinking. Once he realized his unconscious decision, he trudged over there in double time, anger rising again. The center was almost completely empty, save for maintenance staff swapping out air filters again. It was the day of the full moon and the one time of the month everyone was out doing group runs in preparation for riding out the night.

Everyone except Hale.

Stiles got out of the lift, making a beeline for Hale’s cell, his skin flushing as he thought of all the things running through his head the last two days.

Phase 3 was simple. In the event that Phase 2 was impossible and no cure could be found, the supe government was supposed to implement Phase 3. Phase 1 isolated the problem, containing it in a near-sterile environment while also preserving quality of life. Phase 2 examined the problem scientifically, pouring resources into the hunt for the cure and, ultimately, the preservation of the species.

Phase 3, recognizing the impossibility of the situation and the waste of resources, called for the complete and systematic elimination of humanity, one by one.

Hale met him at the bars, standing upright and tall, but looking somber.

Stiles faced Hale, toeing the line. “You know what Phase 3 is, right?” He meant for it to sound accusing, strong. Instead, it came out soft and broke in the middle. His voice echoed in the hallway. The silence of the floor, usually so noisy and full of people talking, only amplified how alone he felt, abandoned and isolated and at the mercy of others.

Hale’s ears flattened. He looked away, gripping the bars in his hands.

Stlies’ mouth wobbled. He stared at the ground, hating the way his eyes heated up, hating the way he could stare at the chalk smudged floor and remember laughter and mischief and good conversations—mostly one-sided, but always listened to. Stiles wanted to be angry still—angry enough to yell at people, angry enough to break things—but he’d already sailed right past that and deep into sadness and loneliness.

“If you guys wanted to kill us, why didn’t you do it already?” Stiles asked his shoes. “Why drag it out. Why make us feel hope.”

There was a clanging noise over his head. Stiles looked up, blinking back tears, surprised that Hale hit the bar. When he looked up, he saw that Hale had taken a step back and was shaking his head violently. He was grumbling and growling continuously, the noise garbled and disjointed. It took Stiles a moment to realize that Hale was trying to say something.

A moment later, Stiles realized that Hale was trying to shift.

It wasn’t going anywhere. Other wolves shifted like they were just knocking off a layer of water. Hale seemed to be hitting a wall. His shoulders were hunched, his neck bowed. His eyes were clenched shut and his teeth were bared in an expression that Stiles would have found frightening, if not for the whine that squeezed out between clenched fangs.

“Stop,” Stiles said softly.

Hale didn’t seem to hear him. His fur rippled. He jerked forward suddenly, like he’d been hit, and dropped to one knee. His bones started cracking audibly. Hale was still gripping the bars and, because of that, Stiles could see that his nails were bleeding.

Stiles stood there for a minute more, frozen and terrified, then he surged past the chalk line. “Stop!” he begged, grabbing Hale’s thick bicep. “Don’t do that. It’s fine. Stop hurting…

They were almost face to face like this, of a similar height, for all Hale’s head was bowed. Then Hale let go of the bars, hands shooting out past the gaps to grab Stiles’ shoulders.

Stiles was pinned there, flush against the bars with an alpha panting in front of him, inches away. Stiles couldn’t think—he could only hear the wild, heavy breathing. He could only see the thick wetness of blood through Hale’s fur where skin had split. He could only feel the minute trembling of Hale’s body, the flex and pull of where Hale tried to work past the pain, tried to re-learn the boundaries of his body.

And yet, through all that, Hale’s grip on his shoulder was gentle, fragile, like he was gripping glass.

Stiles swallowed and nodded, eyes clenching shut. “Okay. It’s okay. It’s fine.” He patted the fur under his hand, aware of the gust of warm breath on his face.

Letting out a low wheeze, Hale sagged again the bars. His grumble sounded frustrated, but tension had left his body. The wounds were healing, stitching together like they had never existed. His hands dropped from Stiles’ shoulders.

Exhausted, Stiles shifted onto his hip, still up against the bars. Hale was slouched down as low as he was, one hand gently pressed into the small of Stiles’ back.

“It’s okay,” Stiles said again, drained. It didn’t feel like a lie. Besides, it wasn’t like this was Hale’s fault.

-

Stiles woke up to someone kicking his shoe. He blinked groggily, then made a face, feeling like he had the impression of a bar against his spine. He had his grading tablet propped up on his thigh, though it was off and cool to the touch. He looked up sleepily, stretching, only to see Boyd staring down at him with a tight expression.

“How insane are you, taking a cat nap by the bars?” he demanded in an undertone. Then something in his expression twisted and his eyes burned born beta blue. “Are you bleeding?”

Stiles was too tired for this conversation. Remembering Hale, he looked behind him and into the dark cell beyond the bar. He didn’t have to squint to see Hale—Hale was right there, back against the bars, almost completely mimicking Stiles’ position. Unlike Stiles, Hale was deeply, deeply asleep, head buried deeply in the cross of his arms.

No wonder he didn’t feel cold. Hale put off heat like a stove.

Stiles patted his forearm reflexively, remembering his encounter with Isaac Lahey. Thing is, both Stiles and Hale had been bleeding and Stiles was far more concerned about Hale. Stiles got a little sliced open because a bully of a beta hadn’t watched his grip. Hale, on the other hand…

Stiles peered at Hale, but any hint of wound was gone.

“Stiles,” Boyd barked in an undertone, gripping Stiles’ ankle like he was tempted to yank Stiles across the floor and back into safety.

“Yeah, yeah,” Stiles said with a huge yawn, getting to his feet. “I’m fine. Not in any pain.” He tapped his wrapped forearm again, barely feeling an echo of sensation. Gripping his tablet in one hand and his forearm in the other, he stumbled over the line, leaning up against the wall behind Boyd. Boyd watched Hale cautiously for a moment, then hooked his hand around Stiles’ elbow, pulling him down the hallway. Stiles went without a fight.

“Don’t ever underestimate a werewolf, no matter how tame they are.”

“Tame,” Stiles scoffed. “I’m not under any illusions, how do you think I was injured in the first place?”

Boyd did a sharp double-take. “Hale?” For all he kept on Stiles to follow procedure, he seemed genuinely shocked at the idea of Hale hurting Stiles.

Stiles made a face at him. “What, no! Are you kidding me? Isaac Lahey.” They stepped into the lift. Stiles leaned against the corner, peeved, as Boyd pressed the buttons for the first floor. “And how is it the supes behind bars have better self-control than the idiots they let run around the city?”

“I’m not answering that question,” Boyd said mildly, but his shoulders were tense—and, perhaps, for a different reason. “By the way, Erica’s out. She finally passed the last test. She’s going back to her job tomorrow.”

Stiles blinked at him, trying to read the back of his head. Then he realized he could see Boyd’s face in the reflection of the lift wall. He looked down at the grading tablet hanging by this thigh and pressed his mouth into a thin line.

Stiles liked Boyd, despite it all. And the glum expression on his face made it hard for Stiles to generalize, to see Boyd as part of a species that wanted to eliminate his own. He was just… Boyd. And Stiles liked Boyd.

“Are you okay with that?” Stiles asked gently as the lift doors open. Neither of them went out.

“I’m a rehabilitator,” Boyd said at length. “This is exactly what I wanted for her.”

Stiles nodded once, then pushed away from the corner. “Well, she’s no longer your client or whatever. Right?” He patted one of Boyd’s shoulders companionably. “There’s no conflict of interest if a rehabilitee and rehabilitator hook up after the rehabilitating is done, right?” Stiles figured that was the problem. Boyd was so by the book, it was sad.

Boyd shot him a surprised look over his shoulder. “How did you-”

“I had to grow up right next to Beacon’s very own version of Romeo and Juliet. I have a sixth sense for these things.” Stiles pointed at Boyd, doing a little circle. “And this thing in particular? Was mutual.”

Boyd seemed aggravated, for some reason. “I always thought you and her…” He trailed off. Was that why Boyd was always so distant? Geez…

“No. You were imagining things.” Though Erica was awfully pretty. And just awful, too, but in the way that an awful person like Stiles could always appreciate. “Go, shoo.”

Boyd did just that, stumbling out of the lift like he was the one who just woke up. For all his stunned confusion and whiplash emotions, he looked so much lighter, like some massive weight had been taken off his shoulders.

A second later, though, he was pivoting, pointing at Stiles. “No more cat naps next to feral werewolves!” he ordered.

Stiles made a face, feeling justifiably chastised and not liking it. “Got it! God.” He waved Boyd off, stepping out of the lift himself.

After a beat, he touched the cloth tied around his forearm, feeling a buzzing, slightly numb sensation of having his pain drained from him. He didn’t recognize the cloth. Nor did he remember seeing the grading tablet on the floor where he left it, for that matter.

He looked back at the lift with a contemplative expression, mind consumed with thoughts of Hale.

-

Stiles researched Phase 3 again. If Hale knew something about it, something important enough that he’d hurt himself to try and tell Stiles, then maybe Stiles was missing something. Maybe Stiles wasn’t understanding the purpose of Phase 3 or the many restrictions and conditions there were for it to be implemented.

Stiles read the original bill over and over again, feeling his skin tighten up and his heart hammer away with anxiety every time. Feeling as if he’d go crazy if he read another bland sentence detailing the procedure of how to eliminate his species, he tossed his tablet away from him and threw himself into any task Parrish would give him.

The essays he was supposed to grade for Deucalion were two days late—and Stiles just didn’t care.

Within a few hours, Stiles was jumping back into research mode, bypassing the original document and looking for anything else that mentioned Phase 3—any other government document. What he found was a treasure trove of petitions.

As Alpha Prime, Talia Hale had the last word about whether or not Phase T3 went forward. That being said, a lot of people had to agree to Phase 3 before it went ahead, so a lot of work had been done to convince those people that they should. Stiles read through argument after argument, petition after petition for Phase 3, many of which were endorsed by Peter Hale. It was enough to make a guy want to pull his hair out.

But as many as there were of those, there were at least five time as many petitions to hold off on moving forward. The reasons were many and varied—great strides were being made in the medical field, the human population was steady and healthy, profit was being made off of products and services coming out of domes, etc.

There was even a long and interesting bit on how just elimination wasn’t as simple as they thought. Humans popped up out of the woodwork all the time, even in many supe families. They also couldn’t account for the presence of every human left on their wide empty planet. For evidence, they talked about a town of humans found in the Urals who, while all infected with the Event, seemed to have developed a partial resistance against it. Before the wereyeti stumbled on their town, everyone else in the world was under the assumption that no humans lived that far north.

Then he came to the petitions tearing through Phase 3, ripping holes through the logic behind it.

A major problem with Phase 3 was that bitten shifters rarely found control. That was why they were kept in the domes for so long. If supes felt a certain patronizing closeness with humanity, then the bitten were down right clingy and dependent. Humanity reminded the bitten of their personhood—of their thoughts and feelings.

Other shifters, even the bitten ones, provoked territorial behavior. They’d tried keeping the bitten somewhere else once. But all the bitten were capable of without humans was brief periods of lucidity punctuated by long episodes of violence and aggression.

That tendency decreased sharply when there were alphas around, which suggested alphas were the solution.

But that was the other problem: alphas were few and far between. The entire Hale family bloodline were alphas, but war and assassinations left the entire region with only five: Talia, her brother, and her three children. Even the only non-Hale alpha in the region was out of the question, thanks to the criminal aconite sentence that burned through Deucalion’s powers.

Alphahood used to mean something else amongst werewolves, used to be something acquired through a lifetime or through battle. Now it was inherited and, because of that and because of the very low population of people in the world, alpha werewolves were really rare. Blue eyes marked all born wolves who weren’t alphas. Gold eyes marked were all wolves who were bitten. Red eyes marked the born alphas.

Supes liked to talk about how wolf alphas wouldn’t exist for very much longer, but didn’t talk about alternatives—few supe species even had alphas after all. So the problem of the bitten shifters still remained.

Even if there were tons of born alphas lying around, the bitten still only responded to them grudgingly, as if there was some other distraction more pressing, some other stimuli that pulled their attention and focus like a siren song.

Some theorized that this was because bitten and born shifters operated on different levels of consciousness, and that the beta-alpha bond was passed through a very particular wavelength. For whatever reason, it seemed like humans and the bitten shared similar wavelengths. A born alpha barely intersected with it—and born betas, not at all. Hence the problem—and hence why the current solution—humanity—needed to continue to exist.

But there were stories of bitten shifters finding control through their own strength of will. There were even legends of the bitten finding control, then giving control to others—a True Alpha, not a born one.

Many who were against Phase 3 admitted that it would make the elimination of humanity much more palatable if they could find a True Alpha to help new shifters adjust to their powers. Even the ones who talked about stability of humanity, even the ones who were cashing in on the profits left room in their argument for this one compromise, this one thing that would convince them to shift their support.

If they ever found a True Alpha, all of humanity was pretty much dead.

Stiles leaned back in his chair, covering his eyes.

-

Stiles went into the center for lunch, his own swinging by his side. His head was buzzing and it felt like he was permanently on vibrate. He hadn’t slept in two days and was looking forward to just sitting with Hale and talking.

Only Boyd was already there, doing the same. He turned when Stiles approached and shot him a wide, toothy smile.

Stiles choked and tried to play it cool. Boyd never smiled and now Stiles saw why. It was devastating and mind melting, like a beacon of warm light shining on you. One would have to use such a thing sparingly and with caution.

Stiles sat next to Boyd, facing Hale. Erica’s cell was still empty, but Stiles found himself still looking at it, still expecting her Cheshire smile and leer.

Stiles hadn’t seen what a newly minted free and in control Erica looked like, but he expected it any day now, likely abruptly. She was probably going to drop in on him from the ceiling or pounce on him while he was asleep. Erica was very stressful.

Hale slid closer to the bars. He too was sitting, but only seemed to turn on when Stiles approached. He pressed up against the bars, red eyes focused on Stiles intently. He looked ridiculously and purposefully innocent.

“What have you been doing?” Stiles said, suspicious. Hale’s ears flattened. How dare you besmirch my honor.

“He’s been trying to shift,” Boyd revealed, a corner of his mouth pulling up.

Stiles made an outraged noise. “What did I say? No shifting without moral support!”

Hale snorted, tipping his chin up. I do what I want.

“He’s been trying to shift for you,” Boyd amended.

Stiles flapped a hand at him, still peeved at Hale. “We discussed this, you nodded and everything. One finger at a time, at most!”

Hale gave him a finger—the middle one, in fact. What a brat.

-

As soon as Stiles left the center, his smile fell. So did his spirits. It was hard, trying to pretend like his very existence wasn’t dangling by a thread. But Hale was trapped in a cell, trapped in his alpha form because of his grief. He didn’t need Stiles’ angst on top of his own.

“Hey,” Parrish said, catching him as he walked into the kitchen. He’d been treating him like broken glass ever since he walked in on Stiles trashing his room. Stiles didn’t have the energy to like or hate this, so he just looked back, noting Parrish’s creased forehead, his look of concern.

“Your dad called,” he said at length. “Just a few minutes ago. I bet you can still catch him.”

He hadn’t talked to his dad in weeks. Stiles stared at him, then turned, running up the stairs to his room. He fell on his bed, grabbing the grading tablet and pulling up the communication interface. Sure enough, his dad’s picture flashed, indicating the missed call, his perpetual frown deepened in the blinking lights.

Stiles stared down at his dad’s picture for a moment, a sharp, renewed sense of anger burning through the numbness and despair that clung to him ever since he learned about Phase 3. He wanted to be mad at Hale, but couldn’t. He was mad at his father instead, for keeping this from him, and, oh god, it hurt so much—made him nauseated, made him tremble. The anger settled like a boulder in his stomach.

Stiles called his dad back, face flushing. He wanted to know if his dad knew about Phase 3. He didn’t know how to react if he did. Harris must have known. Lydia must have stumbled across it. So his dad had to know too, right?

Stiles’ teeth clench as it rang and rang, feeling himself climb towards a towering rage.

Then his dad picked up, his picture replaced by a live feed of his face. Stilinski’s face was ashen and he looked like he’d aged ten years.

Stiles’ mind went completely blank, then he was demanding, “What happened?”

Stilinski sighed, but didn’t beat around the bush. “Scott escaped the dome. We think he followed Allison.” Stiles pulled back reflexively, recoiling. “It’s out of our hands. He’s not human. And Allison gained permanent exile with her stunt.”

“They gave her no choice,” Stiles snapped, still trying to process.

“Maybe not, but Scott did have a choice,” Stilinski interjected calmly. Then his eyebrows pulled together. He pulled at his graying blond hair. “Scott, if he’s caught… they’ll send him away. He’ll never see Melissa again.”

“Then he can’t get caught,” Stiles said decisively.

“Thing is, I hope he does,” Stilinski admitted. At Stiles’ outraged expression, he lifted his hands in defense. “Son, look, Allison went after her family. And the Argents are always near the front line.” He frowned. “Allison’s strong, Allison’s smart. She’ll find a way. But Scott?” Stilinski shook his head slowly. “That boy’s heart is too soft for him to be so close to a war.”

Stiles had always thought that Scott was stronger than people gave him credit for, but he didn’t disagree with his dad. Scott didn’t belong on the front line.

Not alone, anyway.

-

By the time Stiles finished filling out his job severance form, it was nighttime and he was two hours late for dinner. He skipped the part about transferring residences. Sure, he’d pretty heavily implied that he was going back to the dome, but he didn’t follow through with the paperwork. He was gonna let them take them there, but then he was leaving. He was going to live outside of the dome. He was going to find Scott.

At nine, Stiles went to the doctor and picked up his order: five sets of Lupa Shots. He would have to get more, but it was a nice start. Then he ran back to the sixth district and the guard house. In the kitchen, he slammed together a meal, more than Hale probably needed, and then went to the center.

When he got to Hale’s cell, he found that Hale had already eaten—Boyd had probably covered for him when he didn’t show. Still, though, he shoved the food through the grate, not sure when they would be able to replace Stiles and definitely not wanting Hale to starve.

Hale made a soft humming noise, approaching the bars. Stiles looked up when he approached, but kept shoving food into the cell.

“I have to go. M-my best friend. He’s bitten and… there’s a girl, a great girl, and a war…” Stiles was stammering. His heart was clenching with guilt. “I have to go to him. I’m sorry.” Hale stopped just out of reach, absolutely still. Stiles braced his palms on his thighs, looking up at him and trying to read that face. It was the first time he ever felt like he couldn’t understand what was going on in Hale’s head.

“I’m sorry,” Stiles said again, stressing it. His voice broke. He pushed himself to his feet. With one final look at Hale, Stiles fled.

-

“Denied,” the wolf at the gate said. A huge red X appeared over Stiles’ job severance form, then the wolf was flicking it aside, pulling up the next person’s paperwork. “Next!”

Stiles resisted the push of the line. “What? Why?”

The wolf sighed, looking bored. “Your form has to be signed by one of the Hales.”

Stiles blinked rapidly. “Well, where do I find one?” he asked reasonably.

“Haven’t you noticed that there’s a war going on? They have better things to do than listen to a human’s whining. Next!

Stiles left in a daze. He wandered a few steps into the first district before turning around and looking at the gate. He couldn’t walk right out of the city, not with all the border patrols. Even if he managed it… After a beat, he looked at his security band. The thing that granted him access was now keeping him tethered.

After thinking for a minute, he walked back into the gate house, getting back in line. This late at night, there were few people in line, but all operated with a sense of urgency. The gate closed up for good at midnight. Stiles was at the front in no time at all. When the wolf saw him, he rolled his eyes.

“Look, kid-”

“I know, I know,” Stiles said, heading him off. He clasped his hands together. “It’s just… could you send me the authorization form?”

“It’s attached to your profile already.”

Stiles widened his eyes. “Are you sure?” The wolf sighed loudly and dramatically, sending a long look at the clock before he went to his computation interface. Stiles leaned against the table, pretending to be keenly interested. When the wolf’s back was turn, Stiles reached out and palmed the wand that operated his security band, slipping it up his sleeve.

The wolf impatiently showed him the form that, just a few hours earlier, Stiles had naively assumed got signed at the gate. Then the wolf unceremoniously kicked him out.

It was midnight and the gates were rising, blocking off all entrances and exits—for there were things in the darkness even wolves feared.

Stiles stared longingly at them before ducking into an alley. He walked most of it, looking left and right, before coming to a stop next to an opening to the sewer. Quickly and quietly, using the light of the street lamp to work, Stiles wedged the wand under the security band. It took him a few seconds to figure out which buttons did what, but when he did, the band cracked open, uncurling from his wrist.

Stiles caught it before it hit the ground, making a face at his clumsiness. Then, heart pounding, he tossed it into the sewer before quickly striding off. He rubbed his wrist, squinting down at it. Wow. He had a tan line there. Who would have thought?

Stiles shoved his hands deep into his pockets and started walking towards the fourth district.

He had a plan. The city had a river. It divided the city in half and emptied out into a lake just outside the city walls called Lake Kay. Stiles had never been, but he’d seen it on a map. The dome around the city, as weak as it was, couldn’t extend all the way down to the water. It just couldn’t—otherwise there would be no Lake Kay.

Stiles had to pack. He had to gather his things, his Lupa Shots, his everything and put it in a waterproof bag. He was a criminal now, he had to go. Morning would be best—the earlier, the better.

Stiles nearly walked into someone just as he was rounding a corner. He backed up a step automatically, heart flying into action at the unexpected company—because although many supes were night creatures, few of them wandered around after eleven.

Hands still in his pockets, Stiles squinted at the figure in front of him, recognizing the jawline, the faintly curly hair-

“Mr. Lahey?”

He stepped into the light, expression dark and serious. “Running away, are you?”

Stiles froze. Then he was sputtering, indignantly, “W-what makes you think that?”

Isaac’s dad had a smirk that made Stiles think that maybe Mr. Lahey had been on his tail longer than he thought. His worst fears were realized when Mr. Lahey grabbed his forearm and yanked it out, baring his wrist to the light.

-

If Isaac’s dad was actually concerned about laws and being a good citizen, Stiles wouldn’t have worried so much. Crime and punishment was predictable, uniform, written. Stiles was very comfortable dealing with that kind of situation.

But Mr. Lahey wasn’t a model citizen who cared about law and order, and that made Stiles twist in his grip and dig his heels in—not that either of these helped.

He didn’t report him to the nearest guard. He didn’t drag him to the guard house to talk to Ennis. And he sure as hell didn’t get into contact with Talia or Peter Hale. Instead, he dragged Stiles by the shirt and into the rehabilitation center, nearly flinging him through the entrance.

Stiles landed on his feet just barely, heart racing at Mr. Lahey’s sparking beta blue eyes and the sharp fanged leer just under them.

He lifted his hands defensively. “If this is about Isaac-”

“You think I care that you hit my son? I couldn’t care less about that.” Mr. Lahey seemed to swell, grow bigger. His face contorted as he shifted, bones rearranging themselves. His voice deeper, slurred behind huge fangs, he hissed, “No, you know what pisses me off? Some human scum we should have annihilated years ago wandering around my town, pretending he’s people too.”

Every hair on Stiles’ body stood up. Stiles tried to flee, but Isaac’s dad shoved him so hard, he flew into the lift and hit the wall. He crumbled to the floor, stunned and aching, but he barely had a chance to get up to his knees before he was grabbed by the back of his neck, held brutally in place while Mr. Lahey stabbed in the numbers for Hale’s floor.

Stiles’ lip was split open. He could taste blood in his throat and he could swear he felt a lump on his head forming, but the pain of all these things seemed distant, secondary to the situation. Isaac’s dad was a lunatic—literally. He’d been driven bonkers by the full moon and had nothing against using Stiles to amuse himself.

Stiles had been warned not to play shifter games with shifters because it would actually kill him one day. He just hadn’t been aware of how soon.

The lift doors opened. The rehabilitation center was largely empty of any crew this night, considering the moon. But perhaps this night was one they should have been fully staffed, 24/7, because the betas were wild. The hallway was a never ending cacophony of sound—banging and screams and howls. Even the calmest beta was growling, fangs protruding from his mouth as he glared at Stiles with evil intent. Matt, on the other hand, was bouncing from his bed to the bars and back to the bed again, letting out intermittent howls—and the bars were looking alarmingly bent already.

Isaac’s dad started forward, leaving Stiles with no choice but to scramble off his knees. He was shoved after a few feet, this time unable to catch himself. He fell diagonally across the chalk line, face close to an occupied cell. He jerked away quickly as the beta, who normally never spared Stiles a second glance, hurled herself at the bars, claws scratching towards him.

Stiles got to his hands and feet, shoving up before demanding, “Why are you doing this?” He was terrified, but the command came out strong—which was good. All the better to distract Mr. Lahey. “You scared me, good job! Now knock it off. What use is all this?”

The hallway didn’t loop, didn’t bend back to the lift and there was no other life there besides the ones in the cages. There was one entrance and exit in this place, and Mr. Lahey was standing right in front of it.

Then it all slammed together. It appalled Stiles because, while being mauled by someone who was mooncrazy was awful, premeditating that mauling was a hundred times worse. No, Stiles knew why he was here.

Mr. Lahey wanted to hurt someone, wanted to draw blood, but wasn’t allowed to. They were at the rehabilitation center so he could hurt Stiles and blame it on the wolves in the cages.

Vibrating for a second with this awful realization, Stiles turned and hurled himself against the bars of the closest cell.

-

This startled the beta inside, making him pull back, giving Stiles just enough time to scramble up the slippery bars and clap a hand on the top of the cell. He yanked himself up with a desperate wheeze, kicking out his feet when he felt a beta try and snatch his ankle. Then he was up and on his feet, racing across the platform towards the lift.

Then suddenly Isaac’s dad was in his way again. What Stiles had only managed through fear-strength and adrenaline, the wolf did in one lazy jump.

“Oh Stiles.” Mr. Lahey clucked his tongue. “Didn’t they ever tell you not to run away from a werewolf?”

Feeling sweat pour down his face, Stiles took a wary step back, jumping suddenly when one of the ventilation panels rocked up violently. He looked down at it, seeing the twisted face of an angry beta through the clear plastic.

He used to watch the maintenance workers walk on top of the cells, swapping out filters in the ventilation panels. The caged shifters would playfully jump up, rattling the panel, snatching at feet where there were small openings. Everything was done in good natured fun.

There was nothing good natured about this. Stiles’ breath went shallow and tight. He edged around the rectangle, backing up, keeping one eye on Mr. Lahey and one eye on the panel. Then he was jumping again—another beta was slamming against the panel behind him, and Isaac’s dad hadn’t stopped stalking him down the cells. Stiles kept stepping back, kept trying to retreat, feeling the inevitability of it as he did—the utter uselessness.

Mr. Lahey paused, curling a hand around a pipe on the wall. Then with a wrench, he ripped it from the wall, twirling it idly. It was twice his height. “You think they care? You think they wouldn’t devour you the second you came close?” Mr. Lahey had a wide, fangy grin. “You’re wrong. But let’s give them something to get excited about.”

He stabbed the pipe at Stiles suddenly, trying to skewer him, but missed. Panicking, Stiles dodged left and right, stepping around wild stabs and rattling panels.

He then found out the hard way that, while the air vent was reinforced on the inside against the betas, there was literally nothing reinforcing it the other way.

He caught his heel on the corner of a panel and fell, the plastic—and the filter beneath it—giving way under his weight.

Stiles hit the ground hard. He blacked out for half a second and, when he came to, he was flat on his back, stunned. He hurt all over and it felt like there was a cement block on his chest. He’d landed in Erica’s old cell, not Matt’s, like he’d feared.

Then Mr. Lahey’s face appeared in the rectangle of the broken panel and Stiles was scrambling up on his elbows, pushing past the pain, but the wolf didn’t jump down. Instead, he took his pipe and jabbed it through the hole, excited and wild with it.

His aim was awful, until it wasn’t. Thing is, if he’d stabbed just a few centimeters to the left, Stiles would have been fine. But it didn’t and Stiles screamed, pinned to the floor by a metal pole. He screamed louder when it was cruelly yanked out.

Abruptly, something burst through the wall. Through tears and a graying vision, Stiles saw something massive leap through the rubble. Then it was stepping over Stiles himself, roaring defiantly, the sound resounding down and into Stiles’ very marrow.

-

It was Hale. The sight of him was so unbelievable, so unexpected, that even Mr. Lahey paused, gaping.

In that very second, Hale grabbed the end of the pole, snapped it, and then forced the broken bit up and through the panel and into Mr. Lahey’s thigh. The beta howled, part pain, part challenge. But if the man’s howl was terrifying, then Hale’s second one was like a force out of nature, pure fury given sound.

Mr. Lahey retreated, face disappearing from the square above them. Then there was a thump and Mr. Lahey was at the bars, livid but also cowed, beta face hidden away. Stiles lifted his head to stare at him. The man was trembling, clutching at his thigh. Blood pooled around his foot. He glared at Hale with a look of absolute loathing.

Then he made eye contact with Stiles. “I hope he tears you apart,” he spat. “And if he’s too weak and pathetic to, I’ll come in tomorrow morning and make you wish he did.”

With that, he left, his retreat marking an end to the horrible night.

-

Moaning in miserable pain, Stiles let his head fall back, face streaked with tears. He curled up as much as he could, still hurting from the fall. His hands were covered in blood from where he was pressing on his side. Instead of subsiding, the pain seemed to swell, gaining new heights.

Hale dropped down to all fours by his side, nosing at his hands and making concerned noises. At that, Stiles laughed softly, sniffling and rubbing at his face with the back of his wrist. Hale, even under the influence of a full moon, was still his friend.

Hale wouldn’t stop rumbling. He manipulated Stiles’ body carefully, palming under his knee and neck, and Stiles realized with dread that he was going to pick him up. Stiles grabbed a fist full of the fur on Hale’s chest reflexively, not sure if he’d be able to take that. But then, abruptly, all the pain went away.

With it, everything else went too—Stiles passed out, crumbling against Hale’s chest.

-

Stiles woke up the next morning, groggy, starving, and vaguely aching. He pushed up on his hands, looking around. He was on the bed in the back of Hale’s cell. It was dark, as usual, but the light from the hallway and the hole in Erica’s cell gave him a sense of direction as well Hale’s position.

The sparking from Hale’s broken light strips, pulled down in a moment of pique, didn’t help at all, as usual.

Stiles got up tentatively, instinctively moving around his injury. He looked down at it. It was wrapped up tightly, probably too tightly, but any discomfort from that was only a vague sensation. Stiles didn’t feel the injury at all. He felt drugged.

Hale was at the bars, letting out a vibrating subvocal growl. Stiles started slowly towards him, feeling awkward, wondering if it was directed at him. Then he froze, hearing a familiar voice. In the hush of the early morning hours, his voice boomed.

“…piece of shit human,” Mr. Lahey was spitting somewhere down the hallway. Stiles couldn’t catch a break, could he?

Mr. Lahey barked at one of his older sons to open Hale’s gates. A moment later, there was an audible buzzing. Stiles went on high alert, knowing what was happening.

That was the shifters’ warning that they needed to get to the bed and the closing back compartment to escape the shocks from the floor. Stiles immediately turned and went back for the bed on quick feet, but he stopped an inch from it, realizing something was wrong.

The compartment was way too small for an alpha form werewolf and a human.

Hale had already come to this conclusion, it seemed. He was still by the bars, but Stiles wasn’t going to have any of that. They’d make it work, damn it!

“Hale, get your furry ass over here. Now,” Stiles hissed quietly. The werewolf ignored him. Hyper aware of the ticking clock, of Mr. Lahey walking down the hallway, of the increasingly loud buzz that made his hair stand on end, he spun in a tight circle, gaze darting around the room. Then his eyes caught on the hole in the wall. A light bulb went off in his head.

“If you don’t jump in bed right now, I’m going into Erica’s cell!” he threatened, even though they both knew that, without that closing back compartment, there was no place Stiles could hide once Mr. Lahey stormed past.

Hale stiffened up, like he hadn’t considered that. He shot a malevolent and terrifying red eyed glare at Stiles. When Stiles just jutted out his chin, taking a big, dramatic step towards the brightly lit hole in the wall, Hale growled lowly.

Then, making a frustrated noise, he turned, dropping down to his hands and knees, walking quickly to the back of the room. Delighted, Stiles leap into the bed, twisting around and holding the compartment door open as it, reacting to the weight on the bed, started to close.

Hale seemed to hesitate for a moment. What happened next was too fast to even see. One minute, he had this mammoth werewolf shadow thing approaching him. Then the next, Hale was shrugging his neck and his shoulders and, with a series of alarming noises, Stiles had a lapful of just wolf. He clasped his arms around the wolf reflexively, letting go of the door.

Then the compartment closed shut, reuniting Stiles with his apprehension with tight spaces. He clasped a hand in Hale’s scruff around his neck. The only thing he could see was Hale’s red eyes, which were eerie enough without his continuous growling. The only benefit Stiles could see from that was that the sound would probably obscure Stiles’ heart beat.

There was a squeak Stiles remembered from cleaning Hale’s cell—the bars lifting, swinging up, and tucking themselves against the ceiling of the cell. Stiles’ body seized up tight. He clapped a hand over his mouth.

There was a sound of footsteps, then- “He must have escaped through the other cell,” Mr. Lahey muttered, barely a foot from them. Hale’s growls increased in pitch. “The ventilation panel is small, but he’s small enough-”

“Yeah, he could have escaped last night,” someone else said. “I can’t really tell. His scent is everywhere-“

“You useless idiot,” Mr. Lahey spat, turning on whoever was with him like it was his fault. “I didn’t ask you to find where he was, I asked you to find where he is now! And if you don’t deliver, Camden, then you’re going to be that feral beast’s next meal!”

Stiles clenched his eyes shut, pressing his face against Hale’s fur. He willed himself not to listen anymore, not to remember being hunted down for sport by someone’s father. He tuned out Mr. Lahey, knowing that Hale would stop growling the second the man left.

And he did. Stiles cautiously opened his eyes to darkness. Fourteen more minutes to go, he thought grimly.

He spent two minutes of it in silence, stuck in his own head, but the silence only heightened Stiles’ awareness of Hale, awareness of Hale’s position, awareness of how unfair he was being to his friend.

“I have to go,” he said, finding himself explaining. He swallowed, then said, “My best friend escaped our dome, Erica’s gone, I’m getting attacked left and right, they denied my job severance form, and... it’s just… too much.” He loosened his grip on Hale a little, letting the guy move. But, beyond shifting on his paws, Hale didn’t move away from him at all. Instead, he tipped forward, leaning on Stiles.

Emboldened by that, Stiles continued. “My friend Allison said it wasn’t impossible to escape anything. She’s not wrong. I found a way. There’s a river.” Hale’s head moved sharply, like he knew exactly what Stiles was talking about. Stiles nodded sadly. Hale was the one who gave him the idea.

“I’m going to let the current take me under the walls, just like it did to you. Then, when I hit Lake Kay, I’ll get out and start walking.” Stiles winced, palming his side. “Not the best option, considering my condition, but…” Hale pressed his face into Stiles’ neck, whining. Stiles patted his head soothing. “I know it’s not safe out there. But I’m not the only human. If I stay here much longer, I’m going to die.” At that, Hale pressed his nose harder against Stiles’ neck. Something about it struck Stiles as being worried, even petulant, and he laughed hoarsely, pulling Hale to him again. “You’re a good guy, Hale.”

He spent the rest of the fifteen minutes hugging the wolf to him, hoping that the form change didn’t mean he wasn’t going to remember this.

-

When the compartment opened again and the coast was clear, Stiles carefully crawled into Erica’s cell. Hale followed him with such a lack of aggression that Stiles knew Isaac’s dad wasn’t around anymore. No, the reason was his carefulness was the tenderness in his side that he was hyperaware of. That tenderness was slowly sharpening, becoming pointed, like a blade, and Stiles knew that, he’d be hurting again real bad real soon.

But, while he was still faintly numb, he stacked up Erica’s old furniture until he could just reach the broken ventilation panel. Huffing in a few tight breaths, he jumped up, grabbing the edge and pulling himself up and over, grunting at the stretch. He slipped past the broken plastic, cutting himself as he did, then looked back down at Hale.

Hale was sitting in the little circle of light, staring up at him with calm, gentle eyes.

Hale didn’t jump at the chance of escaping, because that wasn’t the point of all this, was it? The cells weren’t about being kept away. They weren’t about locking the bad fruits up and away from pleasant society. The cells were about feeling secure, contained. It was about relying on walls for control when you felt like you had none. They were about giving you a crutch to lean on until you could walk all by yourself again.

Stiles sat up, sucking in a breath. He peeled his shirt up, looking at the cracked scabs of his injury. Momentarily preoccupied, Stiles almost missed that noise—that small noise. That sound Stiles had come to associate with shifting. There was a crackling, like wood being broken, then a deep fleshy sound.

And then a new sound: a low human groan.

Stiles swiveled back to the panel, looking down, but Hale wasn’t in Erica’s cell anymore. “Buddy?” he croaked, angling his head around.

There was no response. Tightening his jaw, Stiles crawled to the next panel over. Using a piece of broken plastic, he pried up the panel and yanked up the filter underneath it, peering past the plastic. He couldn’t see a damn thing through the textured thing, so he stuck his fingernails in the corners of one of the squares, pulling it up and leaving a hole about six inches by six inches.

“Hale?”

The property damage didn’t help. Hale’s cell was, as always, pitch black and hard as hell to see into. But as Stiles squinted in, willing his eyes to adjust, sparks of Hale’s broken light strip lit up a form—bare, human, and naked, slumped to the ground.

“Buddy?” Stiles croaked again, voice raising high in fear. Then, stupidly, thinking nothing of the fact that people wanted him dead or that he’d broken a major law, he sputtered, “Hale, I can- help, I can get-”

He sucked in a breath, air lodged high in his chest, because the next spray of sparks outlined a white human form rising from the ground. Then, when darkness fell again, two red glowing eyes looked up at him, closer set than they had been before.

“Hale?” Stiles asked, confused.

His head seemed to bow briefly, because the eyes disappeared. Then, Hale was rasping in a little used voice, “Go.” After a beat, he looked up. “Scott needs you.”

Stiles hiccupped a small laugh. “You did listen to me!”

Hale’s voice was scratchy, barely more than his usual growl, and Stiles already loved it, wanted to hear more of it, wanted to see if it would strengthen and deepen or stay soft—wanted to see the face that used it.

But he couldn’t see a damn thing in this light.

“You gave me no choice,” Hale said wryly, like a dick, and, vindicated, Stiles knew he’d been right about Hale all this time, knew he would be a little punk and a brat and-

And his chest grew tight and full. He pressed a hand against it, his face clenching in pain, but not the kind of pain a werewolf could drain away.

There was this sense of loss and grief churning inside him, and Stiles couldn’t understand why he couldn’t simply—simply!— be happy for a friend. He couldn’t understand why not knowing what color his eyes were when they weren’t being dominated by alpha red was killing him inside.

Stiles swallowed, then reached through the open square in front of him. He stuck his arm all the way through the tight fit, hand dropped so low, his face was pressed flat against the ventilation panel.

He reached down, not to help Hale up. Hale had shown he could escape his cell anytime he wanted to. No, he reached down for something a little more selfish that that.

After a beat, Hale clasped his offering in one of his own. His hand was smaller than Stiles expected, knowing his alpha form’s giant mitts, but still larger than Stiles’ own. They were surprisingly soft too, given only a slight edge from claws. It was a secure touch and, for all Hale’s brattiness, a gentle one. Stiles closed his eyes, taking strength from it. This was their good-bye, because, the second he got up? He needed to start running.

And he was probably never going to see Hale ever again.

-

Stiles was caught in the guard house, though not by anyone he expected. He’d snuck in through the back, through a window. He’d stuck himself with a Lupa Shot, shoving the syringe all the way home before tossing the remains to his bed. Then he packed up his stuff, wrapped and sealed it in a water-proof bag, and walked out of his room at a fast clip.

Isaac Lahey caught him on the stairs on the way down.

“I wanted to give you the heads up,” Isaac told him in a rush. His face was flushed and his hair was in disarray. He looked terrified. “My dad’s trying to convince everyone that he caught you in the rehabilitation center, trying to kill Hale. About forty video recorders caught him dragging you there and threatening to feed you to the betas inside, but he… he has lots of friends. I’m not sure how much longer evidence against him is going to stay around.”

After ambushing Stiles, after blurting all that out, Isaac swayed back, mouth pressed into a thin line. He looked at Stiles worriedly, expectantly. And Stiles didn’t know how to react.

So he just stared at him silently, trapped on a staircase with a werewolf. Stile felt numb and hollowed out, bruised and battered and left for dead. There was a huge part of him that wished he hadn’t jumped so quickly to leave, that wished he could stay a little longer here, with Hale, with Parrish, with all of them. There was bitterness there. He never even got to see how Erica acted, free and confident and out of a cell. He never got to ask if Boyd was brave enough to ask her out. He never got to see Hale’s human face.

But a bigger part of him knew he had to find Scott. Everything else was a lesser priority. No one here needed him—or wanted him—more than Scott did.

After a minute, Isaac wilted, backing up. “Look, I’m… I’m s-sorry,” he said earnestly. “I shouldn’t have hurt you like that. I shouldn’t have…” He trailed off. His mouth pressed into a thin line. He looked, for a moment, self-reflective. “I always thought he took everything out on me because it made him feel powerful, picking on people weaker than him. Looks like I have more in common with him than I thought.” Something regretful flickered across his face. He reached out, moving up a step. “Oh, god. You’re still bleeding-”

Shutting down, Stiles backed up a step, moving his bag in front of him—like that would help any, he thought, angry at himself.

Isaac froze, looking gutted. And that was what gave Stiles the energy to speak.

“You want to make up for being an asshole?” He asked evenly, but didn’t wait for a response. The response was written all over Isaac’s face. Stiles dropped down a step, and then another, and then another until they were face to face. “Tell no one you saw me today.”

Isaac swallowed, knowing the consequences of silence. “Okay,” he agreed anyway. He let out a shaky breath, running a hand through his curly hair. “Where are you going?”

“None of your business,” Stiles said flatly. Even though it was a shifter’s game, he never broke eye contact with Isaac.

“Okay. Good luck.” Isaac dropped down the last few steps, gaze dropped as he did, and Stiles couldn’t help but compare this to all their other encounters—the shoving, the violence, the mockery.

Isaac was trying, Stiles knew that. And it wasn’t too little, too late. Maybe it was just enough, just in time.

Stiles stopped at the bottom of the steps, turning to face Isaac, who lingered awkwardly.

“Thanks,” Stiles said grudgingly. Isaac’s eyebrows swung up in stunned surprise and then, slowly, he gave Stiles a small, shy smile.

Then Stiles shouldered his bag and headed for the fourth district. He was leaving Beacon Hills behind him whether they liked it or not.

Chapter Text

He was an idiot. He was an absolute freaking-

Why did he think this would be an easy way out? Why.

Why didn’t he think about strong currents that smashed him up against walls and rocks? Why didn’t he think about underwater supes and freaking waterfalls?

Something massive moved under him, twining around his ankles lazily. Stiles kicked, spitting up lake water, heart hammering in his chest. He blinked up into the bright sky, spinning where he was treading in Lake Kay. His muscles were sore, pulling down on him like anchors, and every ragged breath felt like his last.

He was going to drown. He just knew it.

-

It didn’t start well. Sure, he’d climbed down to the river well enough (minus a slip or two). He hung down off of the bridge between the fourth and fifth ring of Beacon Hills. Then he let go, landing unsteadily on the sand, his bag striking him in the back as he tried to find his footing, shoes sliding across the ground. He straightened to his full height. Slinging his bag (tightly waterproofed and full of food, extra clothes, and four Lupa Shots) more firmly over his shoulders, he tightened the straps, tying the loose ends together just in case.

Then he crossed the shore to the water.

It was a good thing he tied his bag down because his first step out into the water tore his footing right out from under him. One minute, he was standing, the next, he was being dragging into the cold embrace of a giant river rock. It kicked the air out of him brutally, but it gave him something to cling to, to climb across. Until he had to let go and get dragged to the next rock, which was no less merciless to his plight.

It went on like that for a while until the water calmed, deepening and slowing down as he went under the first ring of Beacon Hills. Before Stiles could relax in the slower current, maybe even enjoy looking up at the clay and wood archway that blocked off most of the sun, he heard the sounds of giggling children rise and echo off the walls.

The river cut through all the rings of Beacon Hills, but no other ring had direct built-in access to the river like the first one did. Stiles mentally kicked himself, gliding over to a post and clinging to it, resisting the force to go forward—forward to the access point, forward to the children, forward towards getting caught.

He hadn’t known about the access point until just now. He’d never gone past the third ring. He never had to. Parrish had runners for that sort of thing and he seemed leery of letting Stiles too far out of his sight—protective, maybe. Or clairvoyant, considering the amount of trouble supes dragged Stiles into.

Stiles eyed a bushy bit of stubborn brush poking out through rocks and more rocks and stretched his arm out, uprooting it. Then, castigating himself for the worst idea in the history of ever, he sank low in the water. He let only his nose and his eyes above water, keeping the bush between him, the splashing nine year olds, and their inattentive babysitter, who was idly scrolling through something on the tablet balanced on his knees.

Then, sucking in a deep breath, he let go of the post and let himself float.

Absurdly, it seemed to work. No one screamed or pointed him out or even seemed to notice him. The kids kept giggling and splashing each other and the teenager kept ignoring them. It was great. Stupidest idea in the world actually worked!

He made the mistake of looking back.

All seven of the nine year olds had paused their splashing. Eyes glowed at him in a variety of colors as diverse as the colors of their skin.

Then they started giggling again and one, faintly orange with red ridges up their nose, lifted a hand, waving at him.

“Bye bye!” the child called. The others followed suit, cheerfully waving him off and calling out their farewells.

Sheepish, Stiles waved back, feeling heat flood his cheeks. He let go of the stupid bush.

The babysitter never looked up from his tablet.

-

Stiles swam under the last set of gates, aware that the current was picking up now. He looked for land he could climb up on, a shore he could mount. He didn’t want a repeat of his early journey, but all he could see was rock and stone walls going up and into clay and wood structures above him.

It was dark and more than a little spooky, but, all in all… not a hard escape? Not hard at all. He wondered why more people didn’t go this way—both in and out. Without even a simple gate to keep people inside, it seemed like a massive security breach.

The arch gave way to bright sunshine and open water. Stiles blinked away the spots in his eyes, momentarily blinded.

Of course, he hadn’t counted on a freaking waterfall, had he?

-

The fall was short, abrupt, and terrifying. The collision made the air rush out of his lungs. He lost his bag and, yes, his wits. He managed to claw his way up through a feat of accident more than skill and then bobbed up and down on the surface, gasping. Something massive moved underneath him, reminding him that the waters were never empty.

Something broke the surface behind him, then to the left of him. Shoulders tight, he swallowed, clenching his eyes shut, and tried not to think of the many bloodthirsty supes that called the water home.

He’d avoided death by werewolf only to throw himself to the mercies of an underwater supe. That was just great, just splendid, just freaking-

“Hello!”

Stiles’ eyes shot open.

There was a girl in front of him. She had dark eyes and stringy wet hair that looked blond from a distance. She looked like she was in the same boat as he was—floating in the middle of the water with supes under their feet—but somehow infinitely better at treading water.

“H-hi,” Stiles said after a beat.

A brief, closed lip smile crossed the girl’s face. She moved forward, but not in the normal way. She moved like she had something under the water that was much stronger than his two legs. “I’m… Heather.”

She blinked once and Stiles realized that she wasn’t like him at all. The longer he looked at her, the more aware of it he was. There was something slightly… off about her face. Something not quite human. Her nose was too flat. Her hair was more green than blond. Her eyes, for instance, were especially odd—completely dark, but not in the way some were. There were no clear divisions between pupil, iris, and cornea—just thick, shiny blackness.

But her demeanor was friendly, attentive, and despite his reservations Stiles said, “Hi, Heather.” Then he stupidly stuck out his hand and almost drowned.

She hauled him back to the surface with one strong green tipped hand. After gasping for air, Stiles took a second to look at it. Her fingers had webbing between them and no nails. They ended in hard points nevertheless, like everything from her middle knuckle down was coated in keratin. The green faded off near her elbow into grayish white.

“Not swimming for fun, huh?” She let him go, going back to lazily circling around him with kicks of her thick, pretty tail. Her luminous black eyes never left him and he treaded water, spinning every once in a while to keep her in front of him.

She seemed fascinated with him for the time being, which was great, because he was equally fascinated with her.

This was a merperson, he realized, memory flashing back to videos and pictures during his Supes 101 class. On the heels of that was the one hundred plus stories of merpeople and their cousins dragging their prey down to their deaths before consuming their still warm flesh.

Unaware of his thoughts, she tilted her head, scrutinizing him. “It’s easier for your walky type to go through the front gate.” The lines on her throat flared—gills, he realized—and then, suddenly, she was surging forward, making him yelp and flail.

But all she did was tweak his nose and gasp, “Oh my gosh, you’re a human.” Stiles found himself treading backwards to avoid her, not that that stopped her from following. “I’ve only seen pictures of you little things.” She seemed fascinated and kept touching his face—pulling his ears and pinching his cheeks. For one odd moment, she actually grabbed his chin and looked at his teeth.

“You know,” she said conversationally, “they say if you’ve seen a shifter, you’ve seen a human, but you look nothing like a shifter at all.”

“T-that’s-“ Stiles sputtered, miffed at being called a thing.

“Oh my gosh,” Heather said again, this time with a different inflection—scolding this time. “You’re an endangered species, you dork. What are you doing here in this lake? There are creatures living here that have more teeth than you have bones in your body.”

Stiles’ heartbeat spiked. He didn’t doubt her.

“I-I’m trying to find my friend,” Stiles said through chattering teeth. Even as he said it, though, even as he tried to inject his determination in his words, he felt distinctly… stupid. Like maybe he deserved the patronizing pout Heather was sending in his direction.

What was he doing here? Did he even have a plan? Was there a version of this that didn’t involve him getting eaten by a supe?

Stiles felt woozy. The bandage had come off and his injury was now swollen with water. On top of that, every bruise and contusion he suffered through in the last three days were making themselves known in the most horrifically painful way possible—all at once.

Stiles wasn’t the strongest swimmer on a good day, so when his arm seized up, stiff and aching from slamming into rocks, he immediately sank.

Not for long, though. Heather bobbed under the water, hooked her fingers into his shirt, and pulled him to the surface again. He accidentally coughed water at her, making her flat nose wrinkle slightly.

Instead of letting him drown for the insult, she harrumphed in a dramatic way, then twisted the fabric in her grasp. She turned her back to him, and started dragging him through the water with lazy, powerful kicks of her tail.

He thought, for a brief hysterical moment, that she was dragging him to her underwater lair. Then logic kicked in, as well as observation—she was taking him to the edge of the lake. She was quite literally saving his life.

Ten minutes later, Stiles was climbing onto the rocky shore, looking and feeling like a wet, pathetic rat.

After a beat, he rolled over on his elbows. “Thank you,” Stiles said belatedly, unable to help the note of surprise in it.

Heather beached herself, flicking water in the air with her green tail. “Don’t mention it! Didn’t want to see you drown or anything.” She rolled over, folding her arms behind her head, as if sunning herself. “That’s always super awkward.”

This move made her front chest plate more prominent. There were four separate pieces of it, all stacked on top of each other like a pile of books. Distracted by it, Stiles wondered if each piece was made of many, many scales or was just one big one.

This was a merperson built for fighting, and Stiles could only thank the powers that be that she didn’t see him as a threat, but rather as an endangered misbehaving poodle pup.

Stiles pulled off his shoe, then upended it, clearing out the water. “What did you guys do before supes came out of hiding?” he asked, genuinely curious. She seemed ridiculously friendly, especially for a species of supe that was well known for its secrecy.

Heather hesitated for a moment before murmuring, “Stayed deep and drowned all who saw us.” After a beat, she looked over at him. She smiled wide, charmingly, showing three rows of sharp, jagged teeth.

-

Stiles laid out on the shore until he could feel heat in his bones again. Thankfully, it was a very, very hot day instead of a cold rainy one. He drowsed, a perpetual wince on his face from the pressure of the rocks at his back, pressing into his bruises and sores.

While he did that, Heather pushed herself back in the water, leaving without explanation. When she came back, she brought back a gift and another merperson.

“Look what I found!” Heather called out triumphantly. She was swinging his missing bag by the strap, grinning widely at her success. It had survived the trip down better than he did. He sat up when she cheerfully threw it at him and opened it up. Everything was still dry, thank goodness.

Suddenly starving, he pulled out some of his food, devouring it, slowing down only when he noticed the other merperson.

Merpeople ran large and Stiles was half Heather’s size. Even her arm was bigger than his—longer by a few inches and corded with muscle. Even so, Stiles got the impression she was an adolescent—not quite full grown.

The other merperson was twice her size. Like Heather, she was female (or at least female presenting—gender was confusing). She had darker skin and darker scales. Stiles only saw her tail briefly, as she didn’t beach herself like Heather did, but it was a deep, dark blue to Heather’s pale green. Her front plate was larger and looked much more like armor—armor that had been used. And she had this perpetual look, like she was forever unimpressed with him, like she’d like nothing better than to drown him for good.

When Heather harassed her to be friendly, she rolled her eyes. “Hi. My name is Danielle, what’s yours?” Although her tone was sarcastic, there was odd hesitation when she gave out her name, like maybe it wasn’t her real one.

Of the two merpeople, Danielle was the only one who knew where Beacon Dome was. Merpeople generally didn’t travel outside water and, when they did, it usually involved a transportation vehicle and a huge tub of water. But Danielle was apparently some sort of ambassador for fresh water based merpeople—not that she offered the information.

Heather kept up a steady stream of commentary, interrupted by only Stiles’ questions and Danielle’s pithy commentary.

Stiles was fascinated. He was genuinely sad when he had to go.

Heather seemed sad too. She rolled over onto her front plate, flicking her tail agitatedly in the shallow waters. “Bring me back things?” She asked, smiling hopefully.

Stiles paused as he pulled back on his shoes. “What kind of things?”

Heather let out a bored groan. “Anything. Seriously.”

“She’s been irritating ever since her agua tablet broke,” Danielle revealed, smirking faintly.

Revealing her age, Heather splashed her irritably. “Excuse me if I can’t entertain myself!” She turned back to him, looking faintly sheepish. “Anything, Stiles. I’m desperate.”

Stiles stood. “Thank you,” he said simply, with feeling.

She paused, looking up at him. Then her expression warmed and she smiled, embarrassed and shy. “Well, I’m not going to make a habit of it!” she said defensively. “I’m drowning the next person I see.” Behind her, Danielle rolled her eyes. Stiles didn’t need that to hear the hollowness of her threat.

She was awfully cute.

-

Alone at the shoreline and with a grimly thinning mouth, Stiles injected himself with another Lupa Shot. He pulled up his shirt and, as he watched, the soft unhealthy tissue of his injury hardened, turning red and scabbing over. Within minutes, the pus filled skin dried out, pulling tight and small. It still hurt and it was still present, but Stiles was no longer in danger of infection.

Good. That was the last thing he needed.

He only had three Lupa Shots left, he realized. Resolving to ration it as best as he could, he closed his bag and flung it over his shoulder.

And then he started walking.

-

And he walked. And he walked. And he walked.

While following Danielle’s directions, he thought many thoughts about how much a person can physically walk in a day without dying. He thought about how long one had to walk before their feet wore down to the bone. Mind plagued with these ideas, he kept moving.

Not all supes were bad. He had empirical evidence—Hale, Erica, Boyd, even Isaac after a while. And now Heather and Danielle.

He’d been prejudiced for so long. It hurt to think that he could be so thoughtlessly hateful, that there was a part of him that was still just a child, screaming at the grim werewolf who wouldn’t save his mom. Even on the cusp of adulthood, he’d been the same way, purposefully botching up his final project just to have the forum to attack a couple of visiting werewolves.

How free he’d been, to have been allowed to be so stupid.

At night, he slept on hard dirt, grass and bugs on his pillow. In the day, he walked along paths and scrounged for food, nearly always coming up empty handed. He rationed his food harder and harder each day, and stayed near creeks and streams. The water didn’t always taste clean, but he had yet to get sick, and that was all that mattered to him.

Three days later, light headed and with a stomach heavy with water, Stiles stared down from a hilltop at the gleam of his dome and thought a little more.

He thought about his dad. He thought about his bed. He thought about the harvest and the backbreaking work of it, but always paired with the sweetness of the product.

He stumbled numbly down the trail leading up to the dome, eyes never leaving it. But when the inevitable fork in the road came, he took the route that led away from his home, his determination growing even as his heart sank in dread.

With every step that he took, he wondered if he’d made the wrong choice—if he should double back and go back home. But, no matter how much he longed for a bed, for easily accessible food, for his dad’s arms and his voice and his scent, he knew Scott wouldn’t be there.

And that was unacceptable.

-

A week later…

Stiles hit every domeless settlement from that point on, following stories of a brown eyed wolf boy. Species divided many of them, but if there was one thing everyone had in common, it was a propensity for gossip.

He learned quickly that the established areas were both harder and easier than the more rural areas. On one hand, violence was kept down to a minimum in these places, but, on the other, the people there expressed a stronger demand for money and credits and credentials. This made it harder for Stiles to replenish his supplies, as he was technically on the run.

In the less established places, they were willing to trade food and shelter for labor, and that was exactly what Stiles needed. He weeded and mopped and helped children study for exams. It was much easier than he thought it would be, moving around as a human on the run, but most folk out here were shifters or supes and knew the right questions to ask to sniff out a liar or a thief or a psychopath.

No matter what job he picked up, he was already gone from the place the next day. He couldn’t afford to stay still.

Life outside the dome—even life outside of Beacon Hills—was… eerie. It wasn’t the settlements that bothered Stiles. It was the gaps between them. There were more empty towns than nature. More people-less places than he’d thought.

Huge empty human settlements of the old world loomed over it all like tall creepy graveyards. They were instantly distinguishable from post-war settlements, as post-war settlements were almost entirely made out of wood and clay, not concrete and glass. Stiles avoided these places as much as he dared, wanting to avoid the hard faced, steely eyed humans crawling over their remains like bugs.

It was funny, but sad, how the dome-less humans freaked him out more than the supes next door.

-

Stiles kept following rumors of Scott, but listened for other stories as well—humans on the run, the war front, updates on the Hales. He learned quickly that one rogue escaping human didn’t matter much, especially when there was a war going on.

That didn’t make Stiles any less wary, though. He broke his contract—broke the law—by leaving without an authorized job severance form. Part of him was still expecting some ‘do gooder’ supe to smell him out and drag him by his ear to the nearest dome.

After a week passed, Stiles realized, law breaker or not, no one was coming after him. And as for the second thing—the hypothetical do gooder supe—he was hardly the first human to make their way out of a dome. Even those who fancied themselves as species savers looked him over with distant contempt.

He was on the wrong side of the dome walls—they assumed he was exiled and as good as dead. And, unfortunately, quite a few of them were willing to hasten the process.

-

The first two attempts on his life happened in public. He managed to flee with his life by turning the one-on-one encounter into a massive brawl—first accidentally, then on purpose.

The settlements around the supecities were heavily diverse and overrun with everything from shifters to humanish magic users to nightmare creatures Stiles didn’t have names for. The animosity in the air was choking; everyone hated each other. It didn’t take much to convince a supe that Stiles’ would-be-murderer-of-the-day was just talking shit about their mom, dad, or progenitors.

Despite everything, though, this didn’t happen all the time in his travels—brawls, attempts on his life, or even indifferent conversations. It couldn’t. There weren’t enough people.

The world was just a whole lotta empty.

Stiles traveled smarter after that, staying away from any one supe, staying near the outskirts while making sure he had enough to keep upright and moving.

Food, water, currency, and his last three Lupa Shots. Anything else was a luxury he couldn’t afford.

-

There were three days Stiles had absolutely no food. None of his traps worked on the wily animals in his presence. Fruit-baring plants bore no treats. Wild root vegetables were at the wrong stages of development for consumption and even the herbs here and there were sparse.

Stiles was hours away from any town, wandering along the edge of road.

He’d had a hard time getting up that last day, dizzy and woozy with the lack food. He used another Lupa Shot, not to heal any injury, but rather to give him the strength to keep moving.

That was his lowest point ever.

-

Stiles met Kira three weeks later. Determination had sharpened his mind down to a fine point—he was going to find Scott, no ifs ands or buts about it. But failure after frustration after more failure pulled him to a low point emotionally.

He’d lost weight. He’d lost his jacket. He’d lost one of his Lupa Shots.

He’d lost the trail of the brown eyed wolf boy.

The last week was just one long episode of Stiles trying not to panic. He decided early on to follow stories of Argents instead—and, boy, were there many. Argents were infamous in these parts—the boogieman’s boogieman. The things Kate and Gerard Argent had done to get one up on Talia? They were horrifying and played in front of his mind’s eye in a loop.

So, no, Stiles wasn’t exactly in the right frame of mind when Kira popped up.

“Hi! I’m Kira!” Literally. Popped. Up.

“Oh my god-” There may have been screaming involved. There may have been jumping. There may have been a full body flail—who knew?

Ah, that’s right. Kira knew. And she felt so bad, Stiles actually felt bad for her even though he’d been the one who was spooked.

“Oh my gosh,” she gushed, surging forward, helping Stiles out of the bush he’d sprung back into. “Sorry, that was… I should have started with something else. Let me try again.” She even made as if to walk back around the tree, like a reentrance would help anything.

They were in the middle of the woods—there was no way a surprise confrontation would go well, he reassured himself. Even if said woods were thinning out. Even if said woods were so close to a settlement, Stiles could smell the meat cooking on the fire.

Stiles caught her sleeve. “I-it’s okay,” he said, forcing his breathing to settle down. “I’m Stiles.” He stuck out his hand, a habit that hadn’t been broken out of him despite months of dealing with supes.

His dad had been critically old fashioned. He taught Stiles to offer handshakes until it was automatic. Most humans in the region seemed to recognize the gesture faintly, but supes were a different matter. Some were smart enough to figure out that they were supposed to touch hands, but they usually went into the gesture limply, like they weren’t sure what he wanted to do with it, like the good old fashioned handshake had died out long ago.

But, whatever she was, Kira just grinned and took his hand firmly, shaking it with both of hers.

Kira had dark straight hair and dark eyes. She was slightly tan, like she spent a lot of time outside, but her clothes were neat, well kept, unlike Stiles’ own. She had an infectious grin and was really very, very pretty, and not necessarily inhumanly so.

“What are you doing out here so far away from home, Stiles? I can smell the human on you. You don’t have the look of humans who live out here.” Each sentence was delivered rapid-fire, too fast for Stiles to do more than absorb their meaning.

“I’m looking for someone,” Stiles admitting, eyeing her as she dropped his hand. Then, embellishing slightly, he said, “Like for a quest.”

He couldn’t help himself. These last few weeks, all the people he dealt with were scary, jaded, and hard eyed people. But Kira had a certain innocence that he couldn’t help but respond to. It wasn’t that she seemed childish, exactly—he was pretty sure she was his age, if not older—but there was a certain kind of optimism to her, a familiar brightness that stood out in the crowd.

She reminded him somewhat of Scott.

Proving his point, she grinned excitedly. “Yeah? That’s so cool!” She paused, a brief worried look passing over her face. “But aren’t you, like, supposed to be in a dome or something? For your own protection?”

“This quest is more important than that,” Stiles said with a hand wave.

Kira’s grin renewed itself. “Cool.” She immediately winced. “I mean, not cool, but still…”

“Do you know where the nearest town is?” Stiles said quickly.

Kira brightened. “My town? Yes! I can take you into town.” Gold flickered across her dark eyes, a brighter yellow than he was used to with shifters. “Maybe get you something to eat and drink?”

Stiles must have looked really pathetic to her. “That would be great,” he said with too much feeling. He was salivating for the meat he could smell but not find. He started digging around in his pockets. “I have some-” trinkets and junk he’d fixed, plus some horrifically outdated paper money he’d received from a grateful ghoul who probably hadn’t been out of his house since 1980.

“Keep it,” she said firmly. “Humans are rare around here. And you’re on a quest.”

With a sunshine-y smile, she took his elbow and led him out of the clearing and onto the path he’d dismissed as a game trail.

At this point, he didn’t care if he was going the wrong way, just as long as he had a bed and some friendly faces. Besides, Kira was clearly not human, so human separatists were probably not anywhere near here.

This was good. Stiles was nowhere near ready to meet Kate and Gerard Argent.

-

“I know this many,” Kira said, lifting six fingers up in the air.

“Only six humans? That’s depressing.” In the back of his head, Stiles filed that away. He didn’t know why she was so fond of humans and part of him was wary about that, wondering why she would even care.

He thought about the narrow eyed look he received from just about every person he’d run across outside of Beacon Hills, and he had to sigh. A suspicious mind was apparently deeply, deeply contagious.

But she led him to the town, just like she promised. It was a small thing, barely populated. Only twenty buildings made up the whole area, two of them communal. It didn’t look like a post war settlement at all, but rather like someone had found an abandoned pre-war human neighborhood and moved in. Ten of the buildings looked like they were definitely pre-war—stucco and glass and concrete and wood all together. Everything else was built around them, made out of wood and clay. Despite the different look, it still managed to work as a whole.

There wasn’t a whole lot of activity going on in the town—a handful of kids running after each other, a cat shifter and a wendigo carrying a huge tree to a fresh looking building site, and an inscrutable woman of an unknown species humming softly at the farm set off to the side.

But there was noise—people talking and moving around, one person shouting to another, children laughing and shrieking.

“Everyone keeps to themselves,” Kira told him, “but we still work together, you know?” There was a proud little smile on her face.

Like her voice had drawn attention to them, the wendigo and the cat shifter froze, looking over at Stiles in unison, eyes flickering with their species’ different colors—wendigo white and shifter blue.

Kira seemed as unnerved by the sullen attention as Stiles was. She stepped a little closer to him, pulling his arm closer. “Don’t take it personally, but I think I should stick with you.” He looked at her in confusion. “It’s because the war front is so close,” she explained. He looked back at them, watching as the two supes started walking again, posture stiff and still wary. “They don’t recognize you, so they think you’re one of the human separatists.”

After a beat, Stiles looked down at her. For all her fascination with his quest, there was a question in her eyes, a hint of wariness that made Stiles practically trip over himself to reassure her. “I’m not, I’m looking for someone, remember?”

And Scott was looking for someone who may or may not be shacking up with a human separatist, but he didn’t say this. Then he changed the subject. “You’re not human, right?”

Kira looked up at him with guileless eyes. “No, I’m a kitsune.”

The species was vaguely familiar. “Werefox?” he guessed, eyebrows pulling together.

Kira rolled her eyes. “Werefox and kitsune are two totally different things, Stiles,” she said with a dramatic sigh. “Werefoxes can be made, kitsune are always born.” She let go of him long enough to make pinchy gestures with her left hand. Electricity popped between her fingers like she was made of wires. She smiled smugly at his awe. “Plus I have awesome powers that shifters don’t have, so…” She lifted up a shoulder, shrugging. “Want to come to my house?”

Stiles barely got a nod off before she was dragging him to one of the pre-war houses. It was two stories, a strange amount of space for Stiles, a human used to living so closely with other humans, even in Beacon Hills. It had a porch in front, like they did in the movies, and still had glass in the windows.

Stiles dug his heels in the top step. “Why are you so friendly?” he asked suspiciously. Supe 101 told him to never go in a supe’s lair. He’d broken that rule, like, a million times already, but never with a supe so enthused with the prospect.

“You’re human!” Kira said, like that explained everything. She let go of him to open the front door. “And you’re from a dome, right?” Without waiting for him to respond, she said, “My dad was from a dome.”

“Which one?”

“GreaterSanFran Dome,” she replied, looking over her shoulder. “Why, where were you from?”

-

Stiles was stunned.

When stories grew feet and were passed from person to person, they gained life and sentience. They changed, expanding to become something they were not. Or they tended to hyper focus and miss a lot of the details. Sometimes they were generalized and made vague or sanitized and made palatable. Stories were not to be trusted.

And Stiles knew not to trust stories, to accept these facts with a grain of salt, especially when living in the dome. Boredom turned even the most basic happenings into intrigue filled plots.

But one thing that one of their stories didn’t lose was the name of the boy who loved the fox so much, he escaped the inescapable dome.

“You’re our urban legend,” Stiles said for the third time, stupefied.

“I’m still not sure what you’re talking about,” Ken said mildly. The boy was now a man. He had dark eyes and dark hair like his daughter and a face that made Stiles think of dads and teachers—unfailingly kind, but firm when needed. He seemed so normal. “Someone telling tall tales?”

There was a hint of a joke in his voice. Pieces of a radio were scattered across the kitchen table in neat piles. He’d paused just long enough to greet Stiles, but never once stopped palming the components—lifting them, checking for breaks, cleaning them, fitting them back together.

“They say that you searched and searched for a way out of the dome so you could unite with the fox you fell in love with,” Stiles said honestly.

For the first time, Kira’s dad paused. “Oh. Right.” Ken’s expression turned dreamy. He turned warm eyes to the woman standing in the doorway—the fox, Stiles realized. Or kitsune, rather.

Her name was Noshiko. She seemed pretty neutral throughout their introduction, assessing him with a calm expression. But when Ken turned his heart eyes to her, she dipped her head slightly, clearly suppressing a smile. In that one motion, Stiles could suddenly see Kira in her in a way he couldn’t before, because there was a world’s worth of difference between a bubbly friendly teenager and a mature older woman, no matter how much they looked alike.

“It’s nice to know you and Mom are so gross, they’re still talking about you,” Kira said, walking away from the pantry with an armful of bottles.

“Kira…”

Kira’s eyes widened innocently as she dropped the load into Stiles’ arms. “No offense?”

Stiles scrambled, trying not to drop anything. He failed—one bottle, full of crystal clear water, dented and rolled under the kitchen table. Flushing, Stiles moved towards it, stacking the bottles up on the edge. “Sorry to derail, but I’m kind of looking for someone. Do you know where the Argents are?”

The kitchen went quiet. When Stiles looked back at Kira, she had that bleak expression again. She looked to her parents, who both looked guarded.

“Depends on which Argent you’re looking for,” Noshiko said at length.

“Allison… Argent?” Stiles said slowly, treading carefully.

He was surprised how quickly the tension shifted out of the room. Ken’s face instantly smoothed into a smile. Kira crowded him, knocking his shoulder with hers, and beamed up at him. “Allison! Yes, we know Allison. Why didn’t you say so before?” She leaned against the edge of the table. “She lives here, you know.”

Stiles was almost too tired to feel excited. Instead, he felt relief, and it was like the force of it sucked all the energy out of him. He sank into the nearest chair, mumbling, “Thank god-”

Kira swatted his shoulder, then pulled him up to his feet. “Don’t sit, you have a quest to finish!”

Oh, right. That old thing.

-

Stiles was excited to see Allison—no question about it—but he also dreaded it. He was gonna have to tell her about Scott, about how he’d escaped to go after her, and then he needed to tell her where he’d escaped from and how, and there was no way Allison wasn’t going to feel guilty about it.

She needed to leave, needed to find her family. That something had happened to Scott at the same time was not her fault.

Scott jumping the dome? Also not her fault. In fact, it was entirely Scott’s fault, because, of all the people of their year, Allison was pegged to be Most Likely To Survive Outside The Dome. You know. If they voted on that sort of thing. She was the last person who needed the extra protection of a well-intentioned friend.

So, yeah, he was dreading that conversation.

Noshiko and Ken offered to bring him over to Allison’s house. He followed them a few paces behind, distracted and trying to think of how to tactfully update Allison on everything. In front of him, Kira kept pace with her parents until Ken reached out and messed with her hair, making the top frizzy. She whined at him, patting it frantically down and hissing something about how he was “so embarrassing”, an observation that made Ken gloat and puff his chest out.

Noshiko leaned around Ken, throwing in a quick jib that made Kira put her hands on her hips. Stiles watched them arguing good naturedly amongst each other, their words too quiet for him to hear. He saw enough, though—saw the love in the way they looked at each other, saw the affection in the way they teased, saw the way the curve of Kira’s mouth betrayed her smile.

Stiles missed his own dad so much, his chest hurt. He had to look away, focus his attention elsewhere.

Allison’s house was tucked back into the forest, well away from everyone else’s. There were rundown plots where homes used to be on either side. Only slabs of concrete, empty rooms, and stripped bare paneling remained. The house in the middle looked like it may have been in the same condition, once. Then someone had patched it together using bits and pieces of other houses—a green wall from one house, a metal sheet from another. The steps were not steps so much as they were wooden boards, stacked up and nailed on top of each other until they were high enough to reach the ancient, groaning porch.

Noshiko stepped forward, knocking on the door. Ken leaned back slightly, hands in his pockets and, in unison, both he and his daughter glanced back at Stiles. Stiles smiled nervously, trying hard to pretend he wasn’t hiding behind them, but failing. They looked forward after a beat, Kira smiling faintly.

There was a pause. Stiles redistributed his weight careful, so sure his foot was about to go through the floor underneath him. His attention was caught, briefly, by a shaky looking flower painted into the wall.

The door opened suddenly. Stiles stood straighter, anticipatory, but the person who stepped outside wasn’t Allison.

It was a man—broad shouldered, older, hard of face. He had a thick salt and pepper beard and eyes like shards of blue glass. At his hip hung an antique gun, boxy and small, and at his thigh was an intimidatingly large knife, both of which reminded Stiles that, although people called this place home, there was absolutely zero expectation of safety.

“Hello, Chris,” Noshiko greeted, warmth in her voice. “This is for you.”

As a unit, the family parted, opening up a space between them. Stiles had no place to hide, no place to escape the stranger’s wary scrutiny. Under Chris’ gaze, Stiles was suddenly aware of how stupid, childish, unprepared he’d been for the domeless world. All he’d been armed with was a couple of Lupa Shots, some food, and some water.

“Uh,” Stiles started. He stopped, mentally kicking himself, then started again, sticking out his hand. “Hi, I’m from Beacon Dome.”

Chris studied Stiles for a long moment before a reluctant smile creased the corners of his eyes. He clasped Stiles’ hand in a brief, but firm handshake. “So yet another person jumped the dome for Allison,” he said slowly, with a hint of satisfaction. He had a pleasant voice. “I’m impressed. My daughter must have been very popular.”

Right after Stiles absorbed that surprising revelation—this wasn’t just a guy, this was Chris freaking Argent—his attention was snared by a flash of red over Chris’ shoulder, deeper in the house.

Shock propelled Stiles forward. “Lydia?

-

Lydia’s arms were crossed over her chest. She had a mule headed expression on her face, which bode well for this conversation. Not.

They were in the corner of Chris’ kitchen, hissing at each other. The parents were talking to each other in a different room—about what, who knew? Kira was lingering awkwardly in the doorway of the kitchen, eyeing Lydia curiously and with no little trepidation. She stayed behind with Stiles out of some solidarity, he thought, or maybe some sort protection? Lydia was awfully intimidating for a human.

“She’s my best friend,” Lydia said scathingly. “Why wouldn’t I go after her?”

“You’re supposed to become the leader of the dome one day,” Stiles snapped, feeling raw and seeing perhaps too much of himself in Lydia’s sparking green eyes. “That’s a pretty damn good reason why, right?”

Lydia tipped her chin up. “So? I heard you got a good job at Beacon Hills. What are you-” She stopped and blinked once. Then she peered at him with an odd expression—odd because it was surprised and gentle and even a little sad. “You came for Scott.”

All of a sudden, it was like the ground had been pulled out from under him. All Stiles could hear was white noise. His heart was racing, but not as fast as his mind. He felt all of three inches tall—compressed and small and vulnerable. He was tumbling, tripping ahead, settling his feet at a much wanted conclusion—and so afraid he was wrong, he could cry.

Stiles didn’t stop to think how she knew that, how she knew he hadn’t come for Allison. Because if she knew that- “Lydia,” he started shakily, pleadingly. He felt faint.

Lydia gazed up at him for a long moment, not answering the unspoken question that reverberated between them. Then she smiled and leaned forward, tapping Stiles’ chest with both palms. The touch lingered. Then her hands slid up over his shoulders, pulling him in a loose hug.

He stood there stiffly, feeling as if he’d shake apart if she said the wrong thing. In his periphery, he could see Kira ghosting closer, a concerned look pinching her features. Lydia smoothed a hand over his back before rising up on her toes.

“He arrived an hour ago,” she whispered in his ear.

Stiles flushed with sudden heat. Choked, unable to speak, he swooped Lydia up in a hug, burying his face in her shoulder.

In this trembling, fragile place, he rasped, “Really?”

“Really really.” She pet his hair and Kira, just beyond them, smiled, relieved but confused. He felt bad, leaving her out of the loop like this. He’d mentioned Scott exactly once to her, but never really expanded on what he meant to Stiles—or why Stiles was out this far in the world in the first place.

Then, outside, there was a shout: “Dad, we’re home!” The voice was familiar and light and feminine and Allison.

Stiles instantly let go of Lydia, stumbling his way out of the kitchen. Kira’s parents and Chris paused in their conversation as Stiles skidded through the hallway. Stiles flung himself at the front door before barging out.

Allison was ten feet away from the house, her hair longer, shoulders looser, expression more tired. He’d startled her. “Stiles!”

She wasn’t alone. The broad shouldered man next to her looked up sharply, eyes glinting gold in the low light.

Stiles briefly froze, feet nailed to the porch. Then he shuffled one foot forward, then the other. Then he was jogging and running, and didn’t stop. Not until he was in front of Scott, practically on top of him, squeezing him hard in a hug.

“Scott. Scott. Scotty.”

Scott didn’t even act cool about it. He was practically hyperventilating, eyes wide open. “How the- I don’t even-”

Scott kept grabbing his arms, trying to hold him still, trying to look at his face, but Stiles kept clapping his arm, his back, bouncing up and down like a puppy—he couldn’t help it. He wanted to jump and scream at the top of his lungs and climb up a tree. He felt so happy, he could hardly believe himself.

And Stiles saw all that mirrored on Scott’s face between the wheezes and the cut off sentences. “How are you already here?” Scott finally got out.

Stiles grinned broadly at him. “Dude, you are so lame. You had three days head start and werewolf powers to guide you. And I was still only an hour behind you.”

“I got lost,” Scott said defensively, trying to pout but failing. Finally, he grinned right back. “Wow. This is so great.” Scott clapped his arm with a little more force, then blurted out with feeling, “I missed your face.”

“I missed your face more,” Stiles retorted, viciously competitive before rushing forward and hugging him again—hard, dammit. Stiles crossed ten settlements and ruins for him. Scott deserved to have the stuffing hugged out of him. The jerk.

After a beat, though, Stiles let go of him reluctantly, suddenly aware of their audience. As much as he wanted to keep leaping in Scott’s arms and crying grossly over his hair, Allison was trying very hard not to laugh at him. He guessed everyone else was probably watching too, embarrassed for them.

“Uh.” Stiles cleared his throat, half-turning but keeping a hand on Scott. He sought out a distraction. “Hey, have you met Kira?”

He was right—everyone was watching. Allison stood a few feet away, a hand tucked in front of her smile. Lydia was standing on the porch with a judgmental pop of her hip. The parents were watching from the doorway, some more amused than others. And Kira?

Just as she’d lingered in the kitchen, protectively monitoring a heated conversation, she’d also followed him right out the door, ready to deal with whatever new threat had come their way. She stopped when she saw Scott, though. Froze right in her tracks, and not because of the happy reunion either.

Kira looked at Scott like she was seeing the sunrise for the very first time.

-

Stiles hugged Allison before they went inside—of course he did. He missed her too. He almost wished he didn’t—hug her that is.

Allison had always been fairly slight for a girl her age, but she was also always wiry and strong—the first to climb up a wall, the first to finish a run, the first to score a point. In fact, they’d had one game of lacrosse in the dome—just one. Jackson, unable to stand the fact that she’d outscored him, broke all the sticks and tossed them back in the dark, dusty box from whence they came.

Allison hardly resembled that flushed cheek girl that led their asthmatic (Scott) and winded (Stiles) team to victory. She seemed downright skinny now, like there was less substance to her. Like the domeless world had carved vital pieces from her—and she was suffering from it.

As if she could hear his thoughts, Allison backed away quickly, expression falling, gaze anywhere but at Stiles. She was afraid he was going to say something, so he didn’t, tucking his observations inward—but not away. Not out of mind.

Chris accommodated Allison’s guests with a minimal amount of grumpiness that night. Stiles got the couch in the living room. Scott got the extra room. Kira stayed over too, permanently mortified for reasons she wouldn’t explain.

Stiles spent a good time staring at the ceiling, heart full and in disbelief. As he drowsed, he wondered if it was more likely that he’d passed out in the middle of a clump of leaves between ruins, and all this was a fever dream. It was, he concluded grimly and half-asleep, much more likely.

Around the midnight, Scott came in, armed with pillows and blankets from the extra room. He apologized when he saw Stiles open his eyes, but didn’t stop building himself a nest right next to the couch. He flopped in it when he was done, sighing deeply.

Giddy at this new development, but too exhausted for anything else, Stiles just stuck his hand over the side of the couch, groping blindly until he found Scott’s fingers. Scott squeezed him right back.

They really didn’t need to say anything else.

And when he woke up? Scott was still there.

-

All the technology in the house was, like, fifty years old. The next afternoon, Stiles came upon Lydia staring at the refrigeration unit in the kitchen with fascination. Before he knew it, they had taken it half apart to figure out how it worked. Then Chris suddenly loomed in the doorway, exuding fatherly disapproval. They never put anything back together that fast before.

The rest of the day went in a blur—eating, catching up with Scott, catching up with Allison, debating with Lydia. Kira disappeared for a while to do chores, which made Scott voice the fact that they were all basically freeloading. This spurred a group cleaning spree that, somehow, made Chris even grumpier than the whole taking-apart-the-fridge adventure.

Later, Stiles found himself outside, looking at the waxing moon. Lydia was on the porch, systemically grilling Scott over every step of his change. Scott sat in front of her somewhat meekly, shoulders hunched and hands between his legs, but he answered her every demand. She recorded it by hand in a yellowing notebook, something so archaic that it made Stiles pause, staring. Then he mentally smacked himself—of course. Paper couldn’t be tracked. Lydia was on the run, too. That was hard to wrap his mind around. Perfect, star child, human of the year Lydia Martin, in as much trouble with the law as Stiles—if not more.

Leaving them to it, Stiles walked around the house, hands in his pocket. It was quiet around here. Very quiet. It would have been very dark too, if not for the light of the moon.

Stiles paused when he was near the back of the house. Hearing soft voices, he spun around once, trying to pinpoint them until he realized they were coming out of the second story window.

Oops, he was eavesdropping. He immediately turned around, ready to go back to Lydia and Scott. He’d had the best intentions too—that is, until he heard his name. At the sound of it, Stiles crept closer to the house, straining his hearing.

“…Stiles told me a little about him too. I don’t know why I didn’t put two and two together,” Kira was saying miserably. “You’ve talked about Scott before.” There was a pause. “You’re going to have beautiful babies together.”

Allison sighed. “Kira…”

Then Kira was bursting out, “He’s so cute and so sweet and so earnest, can hardly believe he’s a freaking wolf! Foxes and wolves don’t get along. Not usually! I see him once—once!—and I get an instantaneous crush, and it turns out he’s with someone. I’m trash. Such trash.”

There was a soft noise, like someone shifting away on a bed—or closer. Allison’s voice was soft and earnest. “We’re not- we’re not together. It’s fine.”

“No. No no no,” Kira said. “You were my friend first. Never want to do anything to hurt you.”

“Kira, seriously,” Allison said. There was exasperation in her voice, but also deep, deep fondness. “We’re not getting back together.”

There was a long pause, then Kira said, “Does he know that?

Stiles tipped his head against the wall of the house, mouth pressing into a thin grim line. Good question.

-

“Deaton taught me how to find my control,” Scott told Stiles the next morning. They were sitting on the porch together, a small mountain of toast between them. “And Allison’s my anchor.”

“At least I now know who to blame for you.”

“I love her,” Scott said through a mouthful.

“You’re not destined to be with her.”

Scott snorted, wiping butter off of his chin. “I know that.”

Stiles squinted at him. Then, slowly, he said, “She doesn’t want to get back together.”

“I know that, too,” Scott said, surprising him. He swallowed. “I may still love her, but that doesn’t mean I want us to get back together either.” And then, firmer, he said, “We’re not getting back together.”

“Good.”

Scott fidgeted. “Does she know that?”

Stiles rolled his eyes. He flung himself back on the porch, laying out over the wood. “Oh God,” he said, rubbing his face with both hands. “It’s like years 14-17 all over again.”

Scott let that slide, chewing thoughtfully on his next piece of toast, gazing out into the woods. “What about you? Anyone in your life?”

Stiles blinked slowly at nothing with nothing but the sound of Scott crunching and bird singing accompanying his thoughts. That was a hell of a question to ask—especially since Stiles had no idea how to answer.

He’d been serious about Lydia until they’d become friends. He’d still date her in a heartbeat, of course, but he’d do it without putting her on a pedestal, holding her up to some ideal perfection that even she couldn’t live up to.

As far as actual, literal relationships went, he hadn’t really been in a serious one since Malia. Malia had been fun, but it hadn’t been the best relationship—for either of them, if he was honest. He was a shitty boyfriend. He hadn’t even tried to contact her once she was outed as a werecoyote—not that she wanted that from him, not that she cared enough about him to have him present in the new chapter of his life. Still, though… he should have said something. With his silence, he barricaded that door shut to the both of them before it even opened.

Then there was Erica, who had flirted with him, but had eyes only for Boyd. And then there was Parrish, who looked at him like an older brother might. There was also sort of Isaac, who was awfully pretty, but still someone he had hated right up until the end.

The only person Stiles wanted to tell Scott about was Hale. Which was dumb, right? They may have talked to each other in their own way, but there was no actual words until the end. No true communication.

And what did he know about Hale anyway? Besides the fact that he was good and knew how to dress injuries. Besides the fact that he loved fruit or felt so much guilt over his past, he was only able to shift when Stiles’ life was in danger.

He knew Hale got pouty when Stiles teased him, embarrassed when Stiles had to clean after him. He knew Hale was protective and kind, and that his voice, although raspy from disuse, sounded strangely soft for someone who spent most of his days as a hulking seven foot tall wolf monster—or maybe it was just soft for Stiles.

Stiles winced and shook his head. If there was anything more pathetic than not having someone, it was reading into things that weren’t there.

“Nope,” he lied. “No one.”

Stiles turned on his hip, putting his back to Scott. Biting his lip, Stiles reminded himself of the fact that he didn’t know who Hale was or what Hale thought was important or even Hale’s first name. He didn’t know the guy. Not at all.

Even so, that didn’t stop him from missing the big guy any less. Even if he was a Hale, even if he was the only son of Talia Hale, who, on top of being the most powerful person in their region also distinctly disliked Stiles for reasons beyond the obvious insubordination. Everything about Hale was complicated, but that keep Stiles from liking him or from wishing things were different.

Even if Peter didn’t eviscerate him for breaking out, there was no way he was going back to Beacon Hills again.

Stiles’ fists tightened, then loosened all. He had to face facts: He wasn’t ever going to see the guy again. And that was… upsetting.

He curled up, clenching his eyes shut, trying to convince himself that it was the bright glare of the sun that was making his eyes water.

It was stupid.

-

So far, Stiles’ domeless life had been quick and anxiety provoking. Short days blurred into short nights, and short nights blurred into short days. Stiles rarely slept and rarely ate and rarely spoke. Weeks passed in a blink of an eye.

Here, though? Here, a day dragged on like a century. He ate well, slept well, and talked so much, his throat hurt.

And he was so fucking bored, he couldn’t believe himself. There was an itch under his skin, one that he was desperate to scratch out—a different anxiety he couldn’t quite understand. Because life was sane and placid and good. He should be enjoying himself, right? Not stuck, not trembling, not anticipating a second shoe to drop.

On one of these long days, Stiles found himself walking the outskirts of the farm, placidly following Lydia in her inspection of the town. It was calmer out here, quieter here. It made him itch even more.

They both paused as one, looking at the main road. A group was coming in sedately, loaded with bags and resources from another town—another successful trading day, it seemed. From a distance, even Stiles could tell who was supe and who was human. Humans were relatively burdenless in comparison to the supes, guiding wagons or pulling along carts instead of carrying anything.

But that was the only real difference. The supes and the humans worked together seamlessly, in a harmony that Stiles rarely saw in any population, let alone a mixed one.

Lydia suddenly turned into him and hugged him. She let him go as quickly as she’d reached for him, barely allowing him enough time to react, to look at her.

Her eyes were bright, shiny. Her chin trembled slightly and, in that moment, Stiles realized that he hadn’t been the only one occupied with his thoughts, the only one consumed with larger concerns.

She laughed faintly at his expression, rubbing a tear out of the corner of her eyes. “I questioned myself a lot,” she revealed hoarsely. “Coming here, I mean.”

Stiles didn’t say anything. He had too, but, then again, he’d been stuck between a rock and a hard place. He had to leave anyway, if he wanted to live. The only real question was where. Lydia, on the other hand, had made a real leap of faith, coming out here. She left comfort and safety and guaranteed future success, armed with only the hope that she’d find her best friend again.

“Between the two of us, we hold half the smarts of our entire class. And if we can justify escaping into this strange empty world to go after people we love, then…” She shrugged a shoulder. “It must be the right thing to do.” Stiles looked away for a moment, jaw tightening. “What? You didn’t question yourself?”

“Of course I did,” he said quietly. “I’m questioning myself right now.” He shifted, facing her. “Lydia, what are we supposed to do right now?” Lydia’s eyelids flickered tellingly. Stiles pressed his advantage. “Live here? Drag Allison and Mr. Argent back to a dome? Convince the people in charge that they should reverse their exile?”

A rash of other impossibilities flooded his head—what were they supposed to do? Convince the dome that Lydia should only get a slap on the wrist for breaking the dome’s most serious nonviolent law? Make them reconsider locking Stiles up for breaching the terms of his work contract? Force them to let Scott live freely in the dome instead of transitioning him out into supe society?

And they couldn’t just stay here either. It was way too close to the front of a war that showed no signs of stopping.

Lydia looked troubled. She looked out towards the road again. “When I know, I’ll let you know,” she said cryptically.

Stiles snorted, but followed her gaze. Some part of him wished and hoped she had a life plan for all of them, because he was clueless.

All he knew was nothing was going to be the same ever again.

-

Stiles didn’t try to integrate in the town’s odd synergy. Even so, he was inexplicably drawn to it, wanting to learn more. All of them—the humans included—fascinated him.

He stayed at the periphery, though, listening in, but not participating unless Scott was, unless he could hide behind one of his friends. He’d followed Allison around so much, she finally turned around and told him, gently but firmly, he needed to go find a new hobby.

Stiles’ favorite time of the day was the night. The supes always reacted to it, becoming strangely lively and boisterous, like the moon was giving them strength. They tended to come together in the center of the town, armed with treats and drinks and giant grins—especially the ones that were mega grumps during the day.

Every once in a while, some of them would clump together and start telling horror stories around the fire. They had to endure the obligatory good humored “you’re a horror story” and “no, your face is” before someone let loose and started spinning a tale, but it was still fun.

Stiles had a strange feeling that the fire was a rather new addition, a concession to their human audience of one, but no one brought it up to him. So he didn’t ask.

A supe with a sharp long face and steel gray eyes told stories about a snake as tall as a building. An orange hued cat shifter parted with a warped story of Deucalion and some of his earlier campaigns. There was a story about spiders from a werewolf that Stiles had to walk away from.

Freaking spiders, man.

Tonight, the friendly insults were still being tossed back and forth, as no one yet stepped forward to tell a story. Clutching on his sharply spiced apple juice and desperately trying to stave off the coughs building in his throat, Stiles watched as Kira sashayed in to leave a flower in her mother’s hair before kissing her cheek and walking away. Noshiko smiled at her daughter’s attention. Like Stiles, she’d stayed mostly quiet during these sessions, only interrupting with slight corrections and pithy commentary.

Stiles wasn’t the only who noticed.

“Noshiko, you’re the only one who’s been off this continent,” one of the shifters commented, black eyes flicking over to the kitsune. He was built like a brick—broad across the shoulders and hips. He was a rare shifter, able to turn into some kind of bear. What was his name again… Bart? Boris? Burt? “How about you throw in a story or two?”

Stiles nodded, but the motion was largely lost behind his drink as he threw back the juice in a desperate attempt to drown his sore throat.

An excitable dog shifter named Gladdis clapped her thighs, practically throwing herself over Stiles’ lap to get closer to Noshiko. She knocked half of his drink to the floor in the process. “Yeah, what’s the scariest thing you’ve ever seen?”

Stiles flapped at her, pushing her blond hair out of his face before sneezing twice. The sneezing was followed by four forceful coughs, to his embarrassment. He was pretty sure he was allergic to her. She pouted at him but sat back down.

Noshiko tipped her head up, considering the request. Aging was an odd topic for supes. They didn’t seem to age like humans, and even the younger looking ones were always much, much older than even his most generous estimates. Even Kira was seven years older than he’d thought.

But Noshiko was in a different class—she was old, almost too old for numbers. Much older than everyone else around here. She’d seen the world when it was human dominated, seen the world when humans scrambled for survival. He wondered if it was just a pattern to her. If the pattern had its ups and downs or was simply a line curving ever downward.

(If even a person like that could fall in love, then what the hell was wrong with Stiles?)

“Come on, Noshiko,” Boris—Barthemelow?—chided. Everyone else around the fire was leaning in, watching her with hopeful anticipation.

After a moment, a small indulgent smile curled Noshiko’s mouth. “Fine,” she said, looking up. She pulled the flower free from her hair. “The scariest thing I’ve ever seen is called a…” She paused, sobering. “Nogitsune.” Any hint of a smile vanished from her face. “The year was 1943…”

Noshiko was a natural storyteller. She didn’t tell a horror story—she told a love story, and a sad one. She told them about torment and persecution. She told them about murder, and then the revenge and the despair that followed.

Her broken heart and rage had summoned a thing even she wasn’t prepared to handle—the nogitsune.

It cut down through people, human and supe, friends and strangers alike. She followed the trail of broken bodies and tracked it down in a tunnel with a werewolf named Satomi. She told them about the fight that followed, the bitter attack that broke the body of the man—her lover—it had possessed. She told them about how she’d forced the thing out of him, capturing it before it could possess another.

“How did you kill it?” Gladdis asked in the hush that followed.

“That’s the thing, isn’t it?” Noshiko’s expression was grim. “I didn’t.”

The group disbanded soon after the story, mumbling and tired and in no mood to share anything else. Many of them were rattled by the lack of a resolution, but all Stiles saw was a woman who was drained by the telling of it. Leaving his drink where he was sitting, Stiles lingered behind, helping Noshiko kick sand into the fire pit. Noshiko was very quiet.

“You said that you were still hunting it down,” Stiles said after a moment, focusing on the stubborn fire. “It could literally be anyone right now.”

“Yes. And no.” She hesitated and pulled the flower out of her hair. Then she said, “There are certain creatures that are too tethered to be possessed—werewolves, for instance. Dryads. Vampires. Most shifters. All of these are pack creatures. Creatures of communities.” She straightened up, meeting his gaze. “Humans, unfortunately, are one of the most isolated species on this planet. Your kind would be an ideal host.”

The last ember was successfully buried. Stiles debated with himself, then let his mouth say what his mind had been chewing on all night. “Must be a little hard to hunt down a chaos sucking spirit with a family.”

“I don’t know where it is. For all I know, it’s inhabiting a merperson at the bottom of the deepest trench of the ocean.” She stared down at Kira’s flower, spinning it slowly between her fingers. “But this? This pause. It has been nice.”

“I know you’re next to immortal or something, but your family shouldn’t just be a pause to you.” There was an edge to the comment, a sharper one than he’d intended, but it stayed there, lingering.

A different person might have taken offense, but Noshiko just looked at him. “What about your family, Stiles?”

Stiles took a step back. “What- what about my family?” He let out a humorless laugh. After a beat, he clapped his hands on his hips, blowing air out of his mouth, stalling. It was hard to breathe for a moment, but he tried. “M-my family?”

“Yes.”

Stiles stared at her a moment longer, his chest tightening in a knot. Then he was replying, slowly, then faster as the words tumbled out. “I got my mother killed and my father is working himself to death and my brother got bitten by a werewolf because he has too much heart and wouldn’t lie on a freaking assessment.

Noshiko merely gazed at him for a moment before smiling gently. “Holding that in for a while?” When she looked like that, it reminded him that she wasn’t just an ancient kitsune—she was also a mom.

It took Stiles a moment to realize he was gasping. His chest ached still, even worse now, and his cheeks were flushed. Even so, he tried to compose himself, pretending at indifference. “A little.”

Noshiko laughed softly, ducking her head. Despite the age difference, she looked so much like Kira then. It gave him courage.

“What’s being in love like?” His voice was hoarse.

She was surprised by the topic change. Her eyebrows lifted and her mouth softened. “Hm?”

Stiles made a face. He was usually better at controlling his leaps in topics, but he was tired and his mind was wandering. “I mean, you’ve been in love at least twice, right? Once with the, uh”—the guy the nogitsune had possessed, he thought but was too tactful to say out loud—“and Kira’s dad. So that’s at least twice the experience I have.”

Noshiko looked amused. “It’s different for each person. It’s different for each relationship,” she said, and it was probably meant to be dismissive—because who wants to talk about love with some boy she barely knew?

She even made as if to leave, but then she saw the look on his face. She paused, lingering with him.

Then she was saying, softly and in a hushed voice, “Often, it’s like… the world is coded in this difficult language, and you spend your whole life struggling to figure it out.” Her sober expression blossomed into a warm smile. “Then you meet that one person—or people—and it’s like… you’re delivered a partial translation of the universe. Not a lot, just a little. But enough to make an earth shattering difference. It’s… change. Both good and bad.” Her focus seemed to turn inward, contemplative.

Stiles watched her for a moment before murmuring, “What happens if the nogitsune comes out of nowhere? How would you recognize it?”

Her gaze flicked back to him. “How could you not? It is void where there should be matter. It is chaos disguised as order. It’s an aberration.” She shook her head. “It doesn’t belong.”

Humans were told by everyone, even their own biology, that they didn’t belong on this planet. Not anymore. He told her that point blank, bitterness coating the words.

Frowning sympathetically, Noshiko shook her head. She closed the space between them. “Not that way, Stiles.” She reached out, touching his arm. “It literally does not belong in this world. Its unnatural presence creates ripples that all of us can’t help but feel. Even you humans.”

All Stiles could think of was her comment about humans being perfect hosts. His heart raced and his palms started to sweat. “What if it possesses someone?”

“That’s how it hides,” she allowed. “But it can’t stay hidden forever.” Her expression darkened slightly. “You can force it out of its host by destroying the host or by changing it. After that, you have a very small window of time to catch it. It will manifest as something else—usually small and unnoticeable. You must catch it and seal it in a container.”

Stiles muffled a cough in his hand. “What kind of container?”

“Any, though one made out of the wood of a nemeton would be best. I used glass. That’s why it’s free now.” She blinked once, shaking her head as if to clear it of some fog. She stepped back, moving away from him. “It’s late and I do not wish to speak of this anymore.”

Stiles blinked too, feeling his heart calm down. He wondered if he was affected by some sort of kitsune energy, but he waved the thought away—the feeling that her own anxiety had become, ever so briefly, his own. But why?

Still confused, still trying to figure out which thoughts were his and which were hers, he said, “If it showed up tomorrow, what about Kira and her dad? Would you leave them behind?”

Kira’s mom was almost twenty steps away from the campfire then, but she stopped, pausing. Her back was to him and her body language was hard to read. “No.” Noshiko tossed him a fierce, quiet smile over her shoulder. “I would take them with me.”

-

Chris Argent was a strange man. Stiles had heard stories about him since he was fourteen years old. Chris came off as a resilient, persistent sort of heroic figure, even while shadowed with the history of his family. In person, though, he seemed slightly… less larger than life.

He didn’t quite have the look of the man who threw everything he had into getting Allison back in a dome. He didn’t have the look of a widow who stood up after his wife died and dealt with the aftermath of his father and sister’s activities, even though they hadn’t talked for years. He certainly didn’t look like the man who stoically stood on trial after his father blew up a dome in another region or the man who single handedly created a town open to misfits and humans and assorted supes alike.

In person, he just seemed like a tired guy who loved his daughter and dreaded her continued presence for reasons no one really understood. Yet, anyway.

That didn’t make him any less strange, especially now, standing over Stiles with a foreboding expression. Stiles had been in the middle of making up his bed on the couch, tired and exhausted from tonight’s story. He felt drained for some reason, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. He couldn’t stop coughing either—maybe he was getting a cold?

And yet Chris’ scrutiny didn’t fail to make him perk up, to make blood pump through his veins just a little bit faster.

Ears ringing, Stiles broke the silence with an inelegant, “What?”

Chris didn’t say anything for a moment, but he stared at Stiles unblinkingly. Then, quietly but with authority, he asked, “How long has it been since your last Lupa Shot?”

“Why do you ask?” Stiles fired back, but on the heels of it was a cough—a strong cough that rattled him like someone punched his lungs.

For a moment, Chris looked sad. Then, in the blink of an eye, the expression was gone. He was the only person Stiles knew who could be more opaque than a freaking immortal supe. “You’ll know soon enough,” was all he said.

Confused, Stiles watched him leave the room. Then, slowly, he let himself tip into the couch and his bed of blankets.

Above him, he could hear footsteps and voices. Laughs followed—first loud, then muffled. Stiles knew he could go up there and join in, that he was expected to. And yet…

Stiles turned towards the back of the couch, scooting closer to it, wondering how he could be surrounded by some of his best friends in the world and still feel so lonely.

-

Everyone was taught about the Event, and the first thing they learned was that it wasn’t called “the Event” just to be catchy or melodramatic. No, it was called that because it was the single most defining moment in history. It was groundbreaking and government toppling and species destroying. The Event was quite literally like nothing they had ever seen before.

That being said, when people reference the Event, they weren’t really talking about a moment in time. Instead, they were talking about the consequences of it, the causes of it, the thing in the air that seemed hell bent on killing every non-supe human who made the mistake of breathing it in.

At some point, though, bitter and jaded with everything that had happened in his life, Stiles had convinced himself that it was a lie, a way to keep humans scared and hiding.

Now that he was out of the dome, he knew it wasn’t. All he needed to know that was the sight of Chris, gray faced and hacking, in the morning.

He tucked that observation in, though, vainly hoping that pretending it didn’t exist would somehow magically make it go away. Vainly praying that it was panic and dread that was making his chest hurt, not anything else. After all, maybe Chris had something they didn’t.

But it wasn’t just Chris.

Stiles was helping Allison cut wood one morning—though help was a strong word for what he did. He was basically the glorified cart filler, especially after his one attempt with the ax sent it flying in the air behind him. Allison took an armful of wood from the top of the pile on the cart and walked it inside her house while Stiles dutifully dragged the rest to the wood pile stacked behind the house. It wasn’t a pile now so much as a wall, but fall was approaching, and after it, winter. And with as many guests as Chris had picked up, it was likely even this amount wasn’t enough.

They might need two walls.

Stiles heard a sudden noise from inside—like a thud and a series of crashes. Stiles dropped the handle of the cart and sprinted through the back door, pausing only when he came to the living room.

Wood was scattered over the floor. Allison was hunched in on herself on her knees, arm braced against the table. She was coughing, deep spirited things, and her teeth were stained red.

Stiles lurched forward helplessly, hand reaching out. Up until this point, his entrance had been unnoticed. When he moved forward, though, he accidentally kicked an errant piece of wood, sending it spinning across the floor. At the sound, her head snapped up, her expression like a cornered rabbit.

They stared at each other with equally wide eyes.

The stalemate wasn’t broken by either the half formed questions in Stiles’ mind, nor was it by anything Allison said. Instead, it was broken by the sound of Scott and Lydia talking, their voices moving closer and closer to the house.

Allison suddenly surged forward, shoving Stiles backwards once, and then again until he was stumbling back into the hallway. Then, clearly rattled and panicking, she pushed him into the bathroom and crowded in after him, closing the door. She reached around him and turned on the faucet to full strength. When he tried to say something, she raised a finger at him. He bit down on his question, jaw tightening.

Scott and Lydia’s voices were muffled as they walked past. They continued their conversation—about weather patterns, of all things—sparing only a confused comment about the scattered wood. Allison and Stiles waited in silence until the footsteps were gone.

“It really is a death sentence out here.”

Allison nodded, hand pressed against her mouth. Then she straightened to her full height, looking determined. “I don’t want to tell Scott. I think… I think I can convince him to head back to a supecity. But I need your help.”

Stiles nodded—the further Scott was from the front, the better. Then he shook his head. “He’s not going to leave if he knows-”

“Ssh, ssh. I know.” She closed her eyes briefly, looking pained. Her jaw tightened. Then her eyes, dark brown and luminous, were open again. She said in a low hushed voice, “But I lost my mom when I was in that dome, and I didn’t even know it. Staying there isn’t an option for me.” Tears bright in her eyes, she gave Stiles a shaky little smile. “I- I just want to stay with my dad, okay? Just until the end.” She brought her head down sharply, her mouth pressed thin.

Heat pricking behind his eyes, Stiles leaned forward and hugged her. In his arms, she was rail thin and stiff. Then, slowly, she thawed, lifting her arms around his torso. And then, when he didn’t let her go, she quietly began to cry.

-

Allison and Stiles didn’t tell Lydia. They decided to spare her that, decided to let her keep thinking that nothing was wrong out here at all. They weren’t trying to keep her out of the loop, it was just… hard to think about your own mortality. They decided together that, when Lydia started getting sick, they would loop her in on the lie as well.

But time passed and Lydia seemed just as sturdy and healthy as ever. Allison wondered darkly if there was ever going to be a good time to tell her, if she was even going to live long enough to see Lydia absorb the truth.

Neither one of them wanted to tell Lydia the truth if she didn’t have to know it. Stiles was too much of a coward and Allison was too heartbroken already.

Stiles may not have had the courage to tell Lydia that the Event was real, but what he did have was one Lupa Shot after all his travels. He gave it to Allison. She protested the entire time, trying to press it back into Stiles’ hands. Stiles refused, insisting she needed it more than he did.

“You’ve been out here for a long time, Allison,” he argued. For months and months.

Finally, she gave up and administered the dose in her thin arm. Whether she wanted it or not, it put the color back on her face.

“I’m mad at you,” she said unconvincingly. Even her hair seemed brighter.

Overwhelmed, he just hugged her. She dropped the syringe and hugged him right back, squeezing him with the strength he’d come to expect from her.

Allison and Stiles stayed close to each other after that, bonded together by the weight of a shared secret.

Scott, surprisingly, didn’t notice, preoccupied as he was with Kira. Stiles had always thought of Allison and Scott as soul mates, but something between Kira and Scott just… clicked. Kira might have crushed first, but it was well into becoming mutual. Sparks flew between them like electricity, and, as much as Stiles liked Kira for just being Kira, he started to see her as a way to get out, a way to get Scott out of the reach of the front.

Having lived a sheltered life under her father’s gaze and her mother’s tails, Kira had yet to see much of the world. She’d never even been to a supecity and would hang on Scott and Stiles’ every word about them. Stiles felt like, if he just prodded her the right way, she would go to a supecity on her own. And Scott would follow.

As bad as he felt about using his friend as a lure, he didn’t feel bad enough to think of a different strategy. After all, straight out asking Scott to leave wasn’t going to work. And if Kira was the lure and the lure worked, then two of the people he cared about would be out of harm’s way.

There was no way he was going to feel bad about that.

Not that they would be completely safe, mind you. It was a shifter world out there, and, on this continent at least, wolves were kings. Kitsune like Kira weren’t shifters, so they were second-class, at best. Kira’s hopes would be dashed the second she realized, and for that, Stiles felt bad.

This town wasn’t a utopia—far from it. People did work together and there was some measure of harmony, but it wasn’t perfect. People fought and argued and there was at least one family feud in the town, if not more. But no one really cared about what anyone else was or did, as long as they didn’t interfere with each other.

In comparison, supecities shifters got crappy with each other based on whether or not they were born or turned, alphas or betas, inner circle or outer circle. And anything that wasn’t a shifter was automatically inferior.

Even so, Stiles nudged Kira along, encouraging her and her curiosity until she started voicing tentative plans to visit the nearest supecity. As Stiles predicted, Scott immediately offered to tag along.

Noshiko was surprisingly on board with it, even suggesting that she come along—which provoked a long, heartfelt groan from Kira and a whined, "Mom…” Even Lydia seemed intrigued. Stiles hadn’t quite entered the conversation properly, but he thought about what he’d say, what he’d do, if he’d follow.

The only person who had been mum on the issue was Allison. She had no plans in following them, not without her dad. Stiles thought about leaving Allison alone, but everything in him rebelled against it.

It was stupid. He hadn’t realized how much he liked her as a friend until he was faced with the very real threat of her mortality—and his own.

-

As time went on, Stiles got sicker and sicker. He could tell the day Lydia was clued in. She went from flushed and pink cheeked and thrilled with herself to ashen faced and quiet. She didn’t seem to be getting sick like they were, but she knew. She hung around Allison like a red haired shadow.

“You too?” Lydia confronted him. He nodded wordlessly, too tired to defend himself. Her expression twisted and, for a second, she looked ready to slap him. And he was ready to let her do it.

But then her expression crumbled and she walked away. The same secret that bonded Allison and Stiles together drove Stiles and Lydia apart.

But it was still a good feeling, not having to hide it from her. It seemed like the only person they were hiding this from now was Scott—and maybe Kira herself.

A shifter and a kitsune, neither susceptible to the Event. As far as Stiles was concerned? Neither of them needed to know.

-

Chris ignored them for the most part, and Stiles was okay with that. Then Stiles got sick, sick enough where he couldn’t hide it anymore. Then Chris suddenly stopped ignoring him.

It started off slow, a shred of wooziness paired with black spots in his vision. Chris rounded the corner just as Stiles started hacking into his sleeve, spitting up blood. He was outside when it happened, pulling weeds from Chris’ ancient and withered flower beds—a task assigned only to keep him busy, he imagined. Neither Chris nor Allison were flower kinds of people.

Chris watched over him until the fit was gone, giving him an arm to brace himself up on when his knees threatened to drop him.

Stiles found his feet eventually and stood there, trembling and vulnerable. Chris watched him for a moment, eyes like blue ice, then he wordlessly clapped a hand across the nape of his neck and directed him back to the house and back to the couch.

Stiles explained away the scent of blood to Kira and Scott as the inevitable frailty of humanity—a vague enough response to Scott’s concerned question, and one sharpened like a blade, calculated to make Scott back down. Stiles’ humanity—or, rather, Scott’s lack thereof—was a sore point for the guy and not one he liked to think about.

Kira frowned at him for his dishonesty and evasion, but didn’t call him out on it.

-

Stiles woke up the next morning at the crack of dawn to Chris dragging the blanket off of him. Grumbling on principle, Stiles rolled to his feet, wondering what chores Chris was going to point him at next. What was it today? Busy work? Actual work? Group chores? He bet it was group chores.

But it seemed like group chores was not in the cards this morning after all. Stiles was the only one dragged out of bed, the only one pushed outside, and the only one chosen to go to the next town.

They walked. Of course they did. Few people had transport vehicles—be them hover or low tech—around these parts. There was no infrastructure to support them—no charging stations, no update pods, no landing areas, nothing. Few supes in the world were even rich enough to have them, but the lack of them was even more poignant here in this place where trees and nature seemed to dominate everything.

Anyway, they walked, and Chris kept up a quick pace, pulling a cart behind him with a ridiculous amount of rice, bread, and grains on it. The cart Stiles pulled was stacked six feet tall with wood and it found every hole in the road. Every time Stiles had to stop and restack fallen bits of lumber, he could feel Chris’ laser glare fixated on the side of his face.

Once they were a certain distance away from town, Chris cleared his throat. “So. You’re dying.”

To hear it said so plainly was mildly shocking to Stiles, then numbing. “Yup. Seems like it.” And then, because his body was sore all over and his chest was aching and, yes, he was a complete asshole, he said, “And so is Allison.”

There was a long pause. Then, never looking back at Stiles, Chris said, “Yes. Yes, she is.” And then, stronger, he said, “But not as fast as she was before. All because you gave her a Class X Lupa Shot.”

Stiles couldn’t interpret the tone in Chris’s voice, how it could be both brittle and warm at the same time. “There are classes?”

“Yes. The lower the number, the shittier the quality.” He glanced briefly back at Stiles. “We get Lupa Shots out here too, you know. How else would we domeless humans survive for so long?” There was dark humor in his voice. Then he hesitated.

“Allison, she…” Chris’ mouth thinned. “It took a while for her to find me. She didn’t know...” He trailed off.

“She didn’t know she needed to keep taking Lupa Shots,” Stiles guessed.

Chris nodded once, sharply. Stiles understood then why Allison was so much sicker than Chris, a man who’d successfully lived outside the dome for six years.

“Let me guess,” Stiles said quickly, needing to change the subject. His head pounded. “You don’t get Class X Lupa Shots over here.”

“Nope, not even close,” Chris replied. “See, they want to put it down on paper that they’re doing everything they can to preserve the human population, even the domeless upstarts. They proudly proclaim that every human, no matter where they are, has access to the treatment they need to survive when, in reality? We’re lucky if we get Class II Lupa Shots around here.” He shook his head once. “And we gotta trade a whole lot of resources to even get within arm’s reach of them.”

Stiles absorbed this slowly, thinking. He looked back at his cart, then at Chris’s. “So… we’re getting Lupa Shots now.”

“Yes, we are,” Chris said dryly, then launched into an explanation on the process—the dos and the don’ts. The people to talk to and the people to avoid. Even body language seemed to play an important role in this process. The whole thing threw Stiles for a loop and confused him.

When he asked why he was teaching Stiles this, all Chris would say is, “You never know when someone new needs to take over.”

That shook Stiles out of his self-indulgent grumpiness, forced him to look at Chris—really look at him. There was as much gray in Chris’ face as there was in his hair. His expression was haggard and his sharp eyes seemed duller, half covered by heavy lids.

Subdued, Stiles shut up and listened.

-

Chris was right—the Lupa Shots out here were crap compared to the ones in the city. They were diluted and week, and yet few and far in between. He was also right about the fact that it took a ridiculous amount of resources and food for one five inch stick.

They took a half of one of these sticks every night. It delayed the symptoms, but only by a little bit. It was like trying to save yourself from drowning in a pool by scooping out a cup of water every day.

Once he knew about the Lupa Shot trade, it was like a whole aspect of the town that he’d never noticed suddenly opened up to him. Everyone was in on it, from the smallest human to the biggest supe. Everyone, human or otherwise, gathered resources for the trade silently, contributing what they could every week and avoiding all discussion of it.

Chris—and now Stiles—went to the other town to trade for Lupa Shots every Monday. Only humans came to collect the treatment that everyone had collectively paid for—and there were fewer and fewer of them each time.

Stiles found out later that they burned them.

-

The wendigo family was habitually standoffish, even for supes. They ate bones and animal carcasses instead of people, but they were still odd.

Their teenage son was standing next to Stiles, watching the dead body with a strange expression. Stiles supposed it was like having a prime slice of meat waved in your face after a lifetime of eating beef jerky.

“Have you ever eaten a neighbor?” he asked curiously. “You know, dig up a grave and nibble on the hamstring of old Mrs. Robinson?”

The wendigo jerked, almost guiltily. Then, leveling Stiles with an embarrassed glare, he bared his pointed teeth at Stiles and walked away.

When Stiles looked back at the group, gesturing wordlessly and incredulously after the teen, he got a lot of judgmental looks instead.

Ah. Right. That was kind of a dickish question, wasn’t it? Stiles was never comfortable around death, even when he didn’t know the person who died, but that was no excuse. He mumbled an apology to the crowd of mostly adults, who in turn ignored him—save for Kira’s dad, who stepped away from Chris and Gladdis and Boris—Ben?—to catch Stiles’ elbow, gently guiding him away.

Not out of sight, Stiles noticed, but out of the way.

“We don’t bury. We burn,” Ken said soberly. “We have to.”

Stiles hesitated, looking at the people standing over the human’s body. “They don’t bury or burn people in the dome either,” he reminded Ken. “They just take them.” Stiles had a flash suddenly, of being a child—screaming and restrained in his father’s arms—as a shifter from Beacon Hills eased a LIU pod over the still form of his mother. The isolation unit sealed around her and, when he got free, he banged his fist against it.

The metal had been freezing cold, he remembered, and just as unforgiving as its warmer counterpart.

“Ah, yes. Cryonics.”

Stiles blinked at him. “What?”

Ken crossed his arms over his chest and glanced over at Stiles. “They’re essentially doing the same thing that we’re doing, except better, considering the need to find a solution to the Event.” Seeing Stiles’ confusion, Ken faced him fully. “Cryonics is the preservation of deceased beings using extremely low temperatures. With cryonics, they’re both keeping the body from walking around and preserving tissue samples they can study.”

Stiles reeled back slightly, thrown by the information overload. On one hand, it hurt to think of his mother sitting in some freezer somewhere, her tissues at the beck and call of any dick scientist who wanted to take a scalpel to her. On the other hand- “Wait, walking around?”

Ken sighed. “This is a strange, strange world we live in, Stiles,” he said softly. “Death is not always the end for a person’s body.”

Hair standing up, Stiles looked left and right. “A-are you meaning… zombies?” he questioned in a hushed voice, alarmed.

“Worse,” Ken replied. “Zombies are mindless and, not to mention, rotting corpses. You might get a zombie wandering around for a month or two before it breaks apart.” He looked distracted. “No, worse is when they’ve just died. When they get up and leave without saying anything, you know worse than zombies has happened.” And then, for some wild reason, Ken starting walking away, like the conversation was over.

Uh, no way.

Stiles caught his arm before he could move more than a foot away. “Whoa, wait! What’s worse?” He demanded. “What’s worse than a freaking zombie?”

Ken seemed unruffled by his panic. “Spirits, demons, and other similar creatures.” If anything, Ken seemed slightly perturbed Stiles didn’t already know these things. “They’re what we’re guarding against when we burn our dead. And what other supes guard against when they freeze their dead.” He smiled suddenly, clapping Stiles’ shoulders once. “I wouldn’t worry about it, Stiles.”

“Worry? You’ve given me enough nightmare material for weeks. Between you and your wife, I’m never going to sleep again!”

Ken snorted at that. “All I meant was that there are fail-safes. So don’t worry about it.”

“But what happens when those fail-safes fail, huh?”

Ken got that pinched look on his face that meant he was considering arguing the definition of fail-safe. But he apparently thought better of it because he said, “Even if they fail, it will be okay in the end.” He hesitated, clearly gauging the look on Stiles’ face, because he then said, “It doesn't matter how powerful the spirit is. If the host is damaged, then the spirit is affected. If the host is dead, the spirit can’t help but be affected by that too.”

He said this like it should comfort Stiles. It didn’t.

Ken frowned, looking pensive. “I mean, unlike zombies, they do have ways they work around it, I guess. Telekinesis to compensate for limb loss. Slowing down cell production to slow down aging, cancers, and certain diseases. They can even stop bleeding or start up a nonfunctioning brain stem, actually!”

Stiles’ eyebrows lifted high on his forehead. “That sounds terrifying.”

He made a face at Stiles. “What I meant is…” Ken paused, as if trying to think how to phrase something. “Spirits are both… greatly empowered and greatly limited by their hosts. The host's strengths become their own, but so do their many weaknesses, including the mortal ones.” He met Stiles’ gaze then, holding it. “There’s never not any hope, never not any way to defend yourself from a spirit or a demon…” He petered off awkwardly. “If that makes any sense.”

Behind him, a flame engulfed the corpse, eating away at everything that once made that person a human.

-

Three more humans died the next week. The town was pitched into mourning. Then, of course, it got worse. Chris and Stiles went to the other town one day and the Lupa Shot stand was gone. The whole place was empty, abandoned, and looking like a wasteland.

They found out why later.

The messenger’s name was Braeden. She came in on horseback, as subtle as a thunderstorm. She pulled on the reigns, bringing the massive animal to a stop in the middle of the town. Her hair was wild and her eyes narrow and dark in the blinding red of the fading sun. She wore khakis and a black tank top emblazed with a sprawling white tree, the uniform unique to the human separatist army.

The most striking thing about her wasn’t the rare horse or the blatant show of where her loyalties were or even the large shotgun strapped to her back. No, the most striking thing was the stretch of deep claw marks over her throat.

The reaction to an actual human separatist was different here than it would have been somewhere else. If they were closer to a supecity, Braeden would have been met with little more than unthinking hate. If they were closer to a dome, she would have been met with more panicked rejection—a survival instinct more than anything else.

But they were so far out here, so isolated from everything. What she got from the crowd was a mild uneasiness, shifting feet and restless eyes looking for someone to take the lead in all this, looking for someone to decide for the group what to think about this unwanted visitor.

More people crept close, curious about her, but no one stepped forward to control the situation.

That didn’t seem to affect Braeden, who had a naturally commanding presence. She sat up straight on her horse, steely eyes flicking over each member of the crowd. Her brief eye contact with Stiles made his hair stand on end.

“Attention, people of this town.” She hardly needed to raise her voice—all eyes were on her. “You need to leave. Immediately. The front is moving in your direction.”

It was nothing that they hadn’t expected, hadn’t prepared for. Even so, dismay and disbelief traveled through the crowd in a thick haze.

“The front is miles away,” rasped a silver haired werecat, back bent with age but orange eyes sharp.

“Not anymore.” Braeden’s horse stamped all four of its feet, one pair after the other, the motion panicked. The supes in front of her barely flinched, but, then again, they could probably weather getting kicked by a horse. Stiles, a good twenty feet back, recoiled, as he could not.

Braeden quickly got the horse under control, clamping a hand on the animal’s thick neck, but it seemed like the animal’s instinctive reaction heightened her own anxiety.

“I don’t care what you are or who you support,” she snapped at them all. “Just move! All the Hales are on the battlefield.” Her mouth twisted and she spat, “And they’re bringing their berserkers with them.”

A gasp rippled through the crowd. True Berserkers—and the methods of making them—had been wiped out years ago, but the creatures that took their name were no less terrifying. Berserkers in this day and age were weaponized shifters that didn’t have control. Their handlers would overdose them on Aconite 352, then point them at someone before remotely shutting off the wolfsbane. The result was an army of angry powerful people suffering under swift and vicious withdrawal.

This was a rare tactic, but an infamous one. It had been pioneered in what was once Canada during the 2025 World War. The video evidence of it had spread like wildfire—wild eyed werewolves overwhelming the resistance, ripping through anything that moved, friend or foe.

The crowd moved from shock to panic and started to disperse in seconds. Voices rose and orders were snapped out. Parents called out directions to children. Friends divided up tasks between them. Everyone was in a dash to get out.

This was all interrupted by a single gun shot.

Braeden froze and looked startled, as did everyone else. Her hands tightened on the reigns of her horse as she looked beyond them, focusing in on one section of the crowd.

Stiles followed her gaze, only to look upon… strangers. Absolute complete strangers. Strangers and humans, armed for war, and intimidating enough that even the biggest supes parted out of their way when they moved forward.

“We’re not moving!” the woman in the middle called out. “We’re staying.”

She was gorgeous, sure. Stiles could admit that. She had shoulder length dirty blond hair with a faint wave. Her eyes were light and her smile had an edge to it, mostly because of the way she was looking up at Braeden. The guns in her cohort’s hands were antiques, but the weapon she handled was even more archaic—a crossbow.

“Who are you?” Noshiko demanded somewhere to the left of Stiles, eyes narrow.

The woman tossed the kitsune a bright grin. “I’m Kate Argent,” she said, emphasis hard on the name. “And I have claimed this settlement in the name of human separatists.”

Everything he’d heard of the Argents and the human separatists said they were on the same side fighting the same battle. Nothing of that could explain the look of frustrated hatred on Braeden’s face.

“Are you stupid? Everyone is going to die!” Braeden shouted. “The only way for people to stay safe is if they run, and run now!”

Kate shot Braeden a wide, toothy grin. “And this is where the Darach and I have to disagree.”

And then, without warning, Kate leveled her crossbow at Braeden and pulled the trigger.

-

The crowd scattered in a panic, jostling Stiles left and right. He’d started off in one direction, only to almost get run over by the horse, which, after Braeden fell, had spooked and started sprinting like everyone else. Stiles spun and started going off in the other direction, only to catch sight of Chris running into the thick of things. He was going to the fallen human separatist.

In a split second, Stiles made his decision and went after Allison’s father.

Chris had dropped to his knees beside Braeden, but had stopped for some reason. When Stiles got closer, he saw why—Braeden had a bloody hand pressed over her wound and a knife pressed under Chris’ chin.

“Let me get you out of the way before she finds you,” Chris was saying in a low voice. The look she tossed him was angry and hurt and, most of all, distrustful. Even so, after a moment, she nodded sharply and put away the knife.

Chris got her up on her feet and, reacting to Chris’s impatient gesture, Stiles got around on her other side and tried to help. The way she grabbed his arm made him all too aware that she might break his arm if he tried anything funny. She made every hair on his body stand on end, like a prelude to a thunder strike. Even if she didn’t, that bolt in her side made Stiles want to hurl everything he’d ever eaten ever, and just the thought of accidentally jostling it made black dots dance in his vision.

Together, they made the quick trek to Chris’s house.

All around them was chaos. Kate’s people hooting and hollering at supes and humans alike, driving them back into their houses with gleeful shouts and gunfire aimed at their feet. The ones brave enough to keep running got bullets between their shoulder blades, then a knife dragged over their throats.

Stiles was terrified and shaking with it. His head buzzed and his heart raced, and he was trembling so much, he felt like Braeden was carrying him, not the other way around. But he kept following Chris. Chris had to know what to do. He just had to.

They crossed the threshold with Braeden in tow and were met with a scary looking Allison and an even scarier looking kitchen knife. When she saw them, she blurted out a quick, “oh!”, and ran off to the bathroom, emerging with the first aid kit and no knife.

They got Braeden into the kitchen. Then Chris picked her up and put her on the table. “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” Stiles hissed under his breath, uselessly flapping his hands at her. He was barely aware of the other people who crowded in the room—Noshiko first, then Kira and Scott and Lydia and more.

Then he did very nearly pass out, because a second later Braeden was grimly ripping the arrow out of her side.

Stiles gagged. “Oh my god, why would you do that.

He grabbed her wrist without thinking about it, not noticing the way she situated her hands, her palms facing her wound. Without any warning, flames licked through every inch of him. Her hands lit up with pale green light.

She paused in what she was doing before looking at him with narrowed eyes. Still feeling the fire in his veins, Stiles slowly backed away, dropping her wrist. The heat went away instantly. The light under her hands dimmed as well but didn’t completely go out.

In moments, her wound scabbed over, forming a hard cover.

Stiles looked down at her and, for a confusing moment, saw himself. When he blinked away the afterimage, her head was cocked. She stared up at him with the same recognition, but with a faint smile, like she understood what was going on better than he did.

“Well well well,” she said quietly. “Where the hell have you been hiding, little brother?”

What. What.

Their staring match was broken by the front door. It swung open, wide and without warning, the doorknob hitting the wall and making the door rattle.

Immediately, everyone pulled together in a mass between the interloper and Braeden. Chris and Noshiko blocked Stiles’ view, their hands fisted, while Ken stood in front of his daughter. Allison was gripping a roll of gauze like she might use it as a weapon and, behind her, Lydia scooted up close, hand fisted in the back of Allison’s shirt.

Kira and Scott were holding each other’s hands tightly. Everyone was so, so still.

Then Stiles heard her voice and froze.

“Brother betrayer,” Kate purred, sauntering into the open floor space. She had a crossbow held loosely in one hand, a thick chain in the other. She came with an armed entourage of five men and women, who fanned out across the wall warily. Although her people seemed oddly nervous, attention divided between them and something still outside, Kate only had eyes for her brother.

She spared a brief moment to glance at the mixed group of them—supes and humans all. She spared a faint smile before turning a playfully bleak expression to her brother. “Playing this song and dance again, huh?”

“Get out of my house,” Chris demanded, voice a low growl.

Kate grinned briefly, looking around. Finally, she lifted a shoulder. “Not your house anymore, is it? Not your town.” Her attention snapped back to Chris. “And there’s nothing you can do about it.”

There was a long moment where no one said a word. Stiles shifted anxiously, weighing their chances. There was more of them, but Kate and her people were all armed. And who knew how many followers Kate had right outside their door?

Do or don’t, they were screwed.

After a few more moments of silence, Kate nodded once, lowering her crossbow. “Since she’s already here-” Stiles looked back in time to see Braeden tensing, gripping the edge of the table “-mind if I commandeer your house as a jail? Thanks.”

Kate yanked forward once on her chain and, as a group, her followers jerked away, backing away from the door in a reaction that spoke more of fear than obedience.

Kate yanked again and something big shifted forward, falling through the door. “Keep an eye on it for me, would you,” she said casually. “I need it for our big debut.”

With that cryptic statement, she dropped the chain on the floor before walking out. Her people were all too quick to follow her out.

They left behind the furry, many limbed mass on the floor. Stiles stepped forward curiously, déjà vu tickling the back of his mind, but was stopped by Noshiko’s outstretched arm. She was frowning down at the creature, wary, pulled back slightly, like she was ready to respond if it attacked—and she did not want Stiles in the way.

So Stiles stood on his tiptoes and looked over her shoulder, trying to figure out what it was—if it was dead or alive.

Oh, damn. It was definitely alive. He smelled it before he made sense of the shapes and the rippling fur. The scent was ripe and thick, wet and grating like herbs and sweat and blood.

By the time Stiles realized he was looking at a werewolf’s alpha form, the wolf shifted into a human. Pale, black veined skin replaced matted brown fur. Stiles saw prominent shoulder blades, then a long, curving back before he realized, oh, she’s naked. He looked away, aware anyway that she had sagged against the floor and was breathing hard.

Still, no one approached her. Supe 101: don’t corner a wounded werewolf, especially not when it’s an alpha.

“Well,” Braeden said flatly, rising, “that was fascinating.”

That was the last straw for Chris. “Why the hell did you people bring the front to us?” Chris demanded angrily, spinning on her. “Kate and her forces have been circling us for months trying to find a reason to take over, and you gave them one on a silver platter!”

Braden’s temper swelled. “What about us?” she snapped, getting in his face. “Do you even know what we’ve been going through?! We’ve been retreating for years. It’s people like Kate Argent who make it seem like we’re not!”

Her shout rang, even in the brief silence that followed.

Chris’ eyebrows were deeply furrowed. “Kate’s not with you?”

Braeden tipped her chin up defiantly. “She’s no more with us than she is with you, apparently.” She looked around at the group suddenly, as if she could sense their collective disbelief. Her expression twisted. “I don’t care what kind of propaganda you’re hearing. We’re not trying to pick any fights, unlike Laura freaking Hale.”

Then, behind them, a hoarse voice grumbled, “Say that to my face, druid.”

-

By the time Lydia got her a blanket, Laura Hale looked just about human, with only the faintest hint of tips around her canines and her ears. She was very pale and much thinner than Stiles remembered from her pictures. Her hair hung ragged around her high cheekbones and her full mouth was chapped and cracked. She had beautiful eyes in either form.

She looked nothing like her sister Cora.

Still sitting on the floor, Laura greedily guzzled down three cups of water in quick succession. Stiles hung out next to her and kept refilling her cup from a pitcher.

What a day.

“You’re working with them?” Scott asked, confused. He tipped his head to the outside, where Kate and her forces were.

Laura paused in her demolishing of a granola bar. “Please, like I’d work with hunters.” The truth of that was as obvious as the black veins in her skin. Then her lip curled and she flashed red eyes at Braeden. “They’re your friends, not mine.”

Braeden was furious. “They are not-”

“Knock it off,” Chris interrupted, leveling them both with a glare. “You’re not enemies. Not here, not under my roof.” After staring at them for a hard moment, arms crossed over his chest, he switched his focus to Laura only. “What does Kate have planned for this town?”

“Nothing good,” Laura admitted. She turned to Stiles all of a sudden, scenting his arm. “You smell familiar.” She seemed a little loopy, probably from whatever made her veins all vein-y and gross.

Around them, the conversation went back to Kate Argent and what she was doing in their town. For Stiles, it was like the noise went in one ear and out the other, because this? This was Hale’s older sister. It was wild.

“I, uh, I used to be your brother’s keeper.”

“Yeah, I can tell.” She nuzzled his wrist quietly, red flickering through her eyelids. A low whine emerged from her throat, instinctive, more of a vibration than a sound. Stiles’ heart ached for her. She’d been a prisoner for months, and the first scent of family she got was on a human.

She leaned away from him a moment later, her expression shuttering closed. When she leaned away, he saw that the collar around her throat wasn’t metal, like he’d thought, and he reached out without thinking, fingers going for the clasp.

He froze at the weight of one red eye. “Uh.” Stiles made grabby hands at her. “Can I take this-“

Her mouth flattened. Her jaw screwed tight. Then she was tipping her chin up. “Do it fast.”

Stiles didn’t realize why she lacked any excitement over losing the collar until he’d already pulled it off—quickly, like he’d been asked. He dropped the leather strap instantly once he registered what he saw on the inside—twenty sharp spikes, each one glistening with poison and black blood.

Stiles panicked and dropped down next to her. “Y-you need an antidote. Maybe I can-”

“Don’t bother,” Laura said, eyes half-lidded. She rolled her head back. The skin of her throat was gray. “This is the kind of aconite I have to ride out.” As if to give truth to the statement, color was already returning to her face.

Braeden’s voice cut through the fog in between his ears. “We intercepted a message. I know exactly what they’re going to do.” When Stiles looked over at her, her expression was closed off and dark. Her eyes were on Chris. “They’re gonna cut Laura in half in a live feed while wear our banner.”

There was a long pause. Then Laura was drawling, “Well, that’s not exactly out of character for you, is it?”

Braeden’s glare flicked over to Laura and her eyes narrowed with contempt. “Excuse you?” She didn’t give Laura the space to respond. “We reached out to your kind two years ago. We wanted to talk peace, we set up a meet. You responded by tearing through our people like they were trash.”

Laura let out a bitter laugh, rising shakily to her feet. “Peace? What peace?” She lurched into the loose half-circle of the group and said hoarsely, “You sent us baby shifter heads by the dozen!”

Braeden got in her face. “We would never do that!”

Noshiko stepped between them. “Knock it off, the both of you,” she ordered. The energy in the room seemed to expand threateningly when she spoke, speaking truth to the unspoken promise of a power she could—and would—use if they kept it up. Stiles wasn’t the only one who felt it, because both Laura and Braeden’s stances eased up somewhat. But they didn’t look away from each other—not once.

“Communication has definitely broken down,” Lydia said in a judgmental undertone. She was leaning back gracefully against a wall, her hip popped out. She examined her nails. “Not surprising, considering how stubborn and short sighted this war has been.”

She ignored the twin outraged expressions from both Laura and Braeden.

“You know, she’s right,” Allison said. Her expression turned stormy. “Killing shifter babies doesn’t sound like something the Darach would do… but it does sound like something my grandfather would.” Chris looked at the floor, but didn’t deny it.

For a long moment, no one said anything. Then Allison nodded once to herself. She crossed her arms over her chest and moved closer to the center of the room, seemingly in thought. She looked up at Laura at the last moment. “And as for you, would you have attacked at a negotiation meet?”

Laura’s eyelids flickered betrayingly. “We would have jumped at any chance for negotiations,” she said with feeling. “No, we wouldn’t have attacked first.” Braeden let out a disbelieving snort, which made Laura snap, “We wouldn’t have.”

“Uh-huh,” Braeden said flatly. “Are you telling me you wouldn’t benefit from a war?”

Laura snapped, clearly frustrated, “Don’t you get it? There’s no benefits to this war for either of us!” She paled, taking a step back, as if that last outburst had sapped all the energy out of her. With all the poison running through her veins, it was a miracle she was even awake, let alone standing and trying to argue. She swayed slightly, then whispered, “You know as well as I do that Phase 3 is the only thing that will come out of a war over humanity, and nobody wants that!”

So used to people talking around it, Stiles blanched at her directness about Phase 3. Phase 3 was like this open hideous secret, open hideous wound, and Stiles was so not in the place to handle someone casually bringing it up in a conversation.

Scott and Allison were frowning, clearly not understanding the topic change. Braeden looked similarly thrown off, but she directed her gaze at Laura before looking down, jaw tightening slightly.

“No,” Braeden said softly, “I didn’t know that.”

Laura blinked at her bowed head, looking confused—and lost without someone to argue with.

“So we know the separatists are being sabotaged by Kate and her people,” Ken said slowly, taking charge of the conversation when it was clear that the two enemies didn’t have any fight left in them. He looked at Chris for confirmation. When Chris nodded, he asked, “Is it possible you’re also being sabotaged?”

The last bit was directed at Laura. “It’s very hard to lie to a werewolf,” she replied distractedly.

“But not impossible,” Scott interjected. “I would know.” Sure, he would know, wouldn’t he? Stiles winced. But he really had no idea.

“It doesn’t make any sense.” Noshiko shook her head. “Who would want a continued war? Who wants Phase 3?”

“Okay, so, am I the only one out of the loop here?” Kira broke in, voice slightly high and wavering. There was obvious strain around her face. She was still white knuckling Scott’s hand. “What’s Phase 3?”

There was a long, awkward pause. A few people shot a look at Laura, Stiles included. She pulled back her shoulders a little, chin up, like she was ready to take whatever was going to be thrown at her next. Even so, she seemed reluctant to answer the actual question.

So someone else did.

“It’s the complete elimination of humanity,” Chris said slowly, a grim little smile on his face. “It’s the third phase of the Human Preservation Act. As you can imagine, it’s not as… publicized as the other two.”

Kira looked gutted and sick, like she wished she’d never asked. Next to her, Scott’s mouth was open. He looked devastated. Then, suddenly, he was looking at Stiles, as if trying to find some solidarity in the revelation of what a crazy, messed up world they were living in. He found none.

Stiles could tell the second Scott figured out that Stiles already knew. The disappointment on Scott’s face was like a blow to the stomach. Stiles looked away.

One lie down, two more to go. And which one was worse? A, ‘Hey, Scott, the only reason I’m Liaison Development is because I got tricked while trying to save you’ or B, ‘Hey, Scott, we’re all dying around here and there’s nothing you can do about it’.

Probably the death thing.

After a pause, Lydia spoke up, piecing the whole damn thing. “A war, if sustained over the destiny of human kind, may motivate some who resist Phase 3 to change their mind… right?” She pursued her lips together when no one responded, her anxiety visible only to those who knew her. “If there’s nothing to fight over, then there would be no more fighting.”

“Except from Kate,” Chris commented, eyes sweeping towards a window. “I know her. I know my father. They’re not concerned with the fate of humanity. All they’re concerned with is power, and how it’s not in their hands.”

No one had anything to say to that.

-

They got Laura dressed and Braeden upright. While the others moved around the house, trying to arm themselves, trying to see the scope of the threat in their midst, Braeden and Laura stood still, face to face with stony expressions, unwilling to let the other out of her sight.

After a good solid minute of this, Scott scooted between the two of them. Still unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the reality of being a werewolf with built in weapons, he loosely held a poker from the fireplace in his hand. It was a good weapon—solid and made out of iron, likely to cause quite a bit of damage to the average human, if you swung hard enough.

Though Scott seemed more likely to scratch his head with the tip of it than swing it at anyone, bless and curse his pacifist heart.

Stiles was still trying to find something, dammit.

After another minute of standoff, where neither alpha werewolf nor human separatist acknowledged anyone but each other, Scott sighed. “Different motivations, same side, right?” he murmured, looking between the two of them.

There was a long moment, then Laura was cocking her head. “I suppose.” There was obvious strain to her voice, and Stiles couldn’t help but remember the imminent threat to her life—being cut in half in front of the whole connected world.

Braden lifted her chin. “Scared?” she asked brusquely.

“Terrified,” Laura said flatly.

Braeden clearly hadn’t been expecting honesty. She flinched slightly, blinking. Then her mouth flattened and she looked away.

Anxious, Stiles whirled away from them, following after the closest adult—Noshiko.

The kitsune was prowling near the windows. Stiles could think of only one reason why a creature as old and as powerful as her would be so agitated, and that was because there were more hunters than even she could handle. Not without losses, not without horrible injury.

Stiles thought about how she looked at her family—at Kira and at Ken—and blurted out, “Tell me we have a plan.”

Noshiko didn’t spare him a glance. “We have a plan,” she said tersely. “The plan for you and the rest is to stand down and not draw attention to yourself.”

Outraged by that—there were armed killers outside and Hale’s big sister was in danger—Stiles started to say something, started to give voice to the misplaced rage bubbling in his chest.

He was interrupted by a firm clap on his shoulder and a rumbled voice in his ear. “She’s right, Stiles,” Chris said. “Just stand back and stay with your friends.” There was a hollow look in his eyes. “Stay safe.”

At that, Stiles looked back at his friends. Scott had gathered them together on the other side of the room—even the two enemies. In fact, they were even sitting next to each other, gingerly and warily. All of their heads were bent together. Braeden wasn’t that much older than Stiles and Scott, Allison and Lydia—five years, at the most. Laura was the oldest, but she certainly didn’t look like it, especially not now.

They were all so young. So young and ignorant and oblivious, firmly set on their own sides and ideologies, and yet not so blindly and stubbornly that they couldn’t sit down with each other and cautiously discuss strategy.

Tension rippled through the room suddenly and out of nowhere, without warning. Then the door swung open, letting in a group of armed hunters.

“We want Laura Hale.”

-

Later, Stiles would remember no one reacting, no one protesting. Everyone froze up, paralyzed and unprepared.

Everyone but Braeden, that is. Of the group of them, only she reacted. She stood up halfway, mouth opening in a protest. She even slipped slightly in front of Laura, as if that would do anything. But then the hunters pointed their weapons at her and waited.

Very reluctantly, she sat back down. Of all the things Stiles forgot that day, he would never—could never—forget the sight of Laura’s hand on Braeden’s shoulder, tugging her gently—but insistently—out of the range of fire.

Laura got up then, leaving with the hunters. As armed as they all were, they still gave her a wide berth, eyeing her with fear.

She paused by the door and looked back at them all, eyes shifting from person to person. Her eyes landed for an eternity on Stiles, then longer on Braeden, who looked so frustrated, she could cry. Then she was slipping out of the door and out of their grasp.

The hunters didn’t leave, though. Not all of them anyway. They roughly rounded everyone in the room, making it clear that their presence was expected as well.

“Nothing like murder with a live audience,” Lydia said under her breath. All of them—parents and kids and kids’ friends included, shuffled together in a tight knot. In the middle of the knot, a fierce trade went on, weapons exchanging hands.

This did not go unnoticed. Allison was passing a knife into Stiles’ hand when one of the hunters, a red haired boy not much older than Scott, came up from behind him and slammed the butt of his rifle on Stiles’ wrist. This instantly turned into a struggle. Stiles dropped the knife, clutching his arm in pain while, above him, Allison pivoted and punched the hunter across the face. There was shouting and shoving, and the hunter came back, bloody, furious, and ready to murder Allison.

But then Ken was between Allison and the hunter. He let out a hair raising growl—higher pitched than a werewolf’s, but no less threatening, no less of a promise of violence if he was pushed too far.

The man was dragged back by another hunter, who hissed at him, telling him off. “Besides, you idiot, that’s an Argent.”

Everyone closed ranks around their people, forming two clumps of warily watching enemies in the room. Aggression sizzled in the air.

“So what? Kate hates this side of the family.” With that, the hunter spat at their feet.

“Not so much that she won’t kill you if you touch them!”

The red haired hunter looked pissed, but didn’t argue. After a beat, he pointed his rifle to the door. “Start walking,” he barked. “Now!”

They didn’t argue.

-

The platform in the middle of the town was rarely used. But when it was used, it was never used for more than meetings, announcements, and the occasional playground. Although it was meant to draw focus, meant to be a place where the eye went to and lingered, it was just so… odd, seeing so many people around it. Focused on it. Eyes peeled.

Laura Hale was on her knees in the middle of it, her borrowed pants picking up holes from the rough wood underneath her. She stared studiously at the gap between her legs.

Incongruously advanced against the contrast of all the old world theme of their little village was a vidcam. It floated ten feet above the ground, hovering lazily over its sensor plate, which was planted in the ground. Every once in a while, it would swerve, lens tightening as it focused in on something moving and exciting. Stiles squinted up at it, absently rubbing his wrist. It focused on him for a moment, a red light blinking under its cold blank eye, before veering away, zooming in on the wendigo family trying to calm down their youngest—a rangy eleven year old girl.

It was a live feed. And, to anyone watching, they were an enraptured audience eager for a kill.

But in reality they were as much prisoners here as Laura was. The hunters, now carefully decked out in human separatist gear, outnumbered them greatly. There were now three hunters for every one supe or human, and those were just the ones Stiles saw. It was enough to make anyone feel itchy, let alone a human or a kitsune or a hungry wendigo child. Stiles had Scott, solid and silent, by his side but even that didn’t help.

The one advantage they had was that they were a crowd, and it was hard even for an army to control the movement of crowd. Chris immediately took advantage of this and started moving freely amongst them, touching base with each family and individual he passed by—a word here, a shoulder pat there. Noshiko all but vanished into the press of bodies while Ken rooted himself into the ground towards the back, keeping an eye on the hunters there. Stiles still didn’t know what their plan was, but he hoped it was well underway.

Kira came up from behind Stiles, one of her hands briefly lingering on Stiles’ elbow before she stopped next to him, watching as they watched. He looked down at her, acknowledging a brief flutter of relief before looking back out at the crowd.

Stiles didn’t know where Allison was. Or Braeden. He’d seen a flash of red hair a moment ago, but it wasn’t Lydia.

Stiles was scared. He couldn’t help it.

There was a long pause. Then Kira was tipping up her chin. “Mom just told me about the Event,” she said softly, voice shaking. Stiles looked at her again, confused. Her eyes were very bright. “I- I didn’t know. I’m sorry.” She briskly whipped her hand over her eyes, then said, “Dad’s not human anymore, you know. When he starting dying, Mom didn’t know what to do. She didn’t want him to die, so she started looking for an alpha.”

“An alpha? Why an alpha?” Stiles whispered. This caught Scott’s attention.

“Only alphas can turn people. No matter what shifter species they are, only alphas have the power.” Noticing his focus on her, she met his gaze, smiling faintly. “He’s a werefox now.” She looked back at the platform, letting out a shaky sigh.

Stiles rocked back slowly on his heels, absorbing this new knowledge. Then, slowly, reluctantly, he looked at Scott. Scott’s jaw was tight and he was staring at the floor grimly, like he was expecting Stiles’ next question and dreading it.

Stiles voiced it anyway: “If turning requires an alpha, then how the hell did you turn?”

Kira turned her attention back to them, overhearing this, but Scott didn’t say anything for a good long while. All around them, people hissed at each other, shifting back and forth on their feet as fight or flight instincts demanded action. Laura kept kneeling, kept staring at the floor as the hunters put together the final pieces needed to sever any chance of trust or peace between supe society and human separatists.

“Some of the bitten escaped their cells,” Scott said finally, his voice hushed. “Or so it was said. It was a mess. People were yelling and screaming and… even the supes were freaking out. They didn’t know what to do. They just wanted back in their cells.” He blinked rapidly, eyebrows raising slightly. “So I was helping them get back to them and raising the force fields. Everything seemed alright. They trusted me, even though they were scared. Then I turned a corner and there was this… massive bear-like thing in the middle of the hallway. I didn’t know what it was. But it jumped me.” After a beat, Scott lifted his gaze, meeting Stiles’. “It had red eyes.”

“There are no alphas in Beacon Dome,” Stiles said, but it was a weak statement, because clearly there was. He glanced at Kira and her furrowed brow for a moment, and then, to Scott, he said, “Didn’t you turn down an offer when you were fourteen?”

Scott was quiet for a moment. “They wanted all of us—Mom, Dad, and me,” he said finally. “Dad said yes, Mom and I said no. All of them—Dad, the werewolf liaisons, Peter himself. They all put pressure on us. But we kept saying no. I saw what they did to Danny and I just…” He shook his head. “Mom wouldn’t have minded, but she would have never left me behind. And because I said no, she said no. And she stuck with me the entire way.”

Kira’s mouth pressed into a sad, thin line. “But they didn’t accept no for an answer, did they.”

“No,” Scott said grimly, voice hardening. “They did not.”

Stiles blinked up into the sky, momentarily dissociating with himself. His ears were ringing. He was in shock. He could barely pair even the idea of that kind of manipulation with Hale, whose reactions always seemed so honest. He couldn’t pair it with Cora or with Laura either. So who the hell bit Scott?

He was pulled from his thoughts by the sight of a smug faced man marching up to the platform with a sword. He had lightly tan skin, a wide face, and dark brown hair. He seemed triumphant, somehow, like he’d won a prize.

He got up to the platform, resting the flat part of the sword on his shoulder, careful to let everyone see the human separatist symbol blazing across his chest. Not even the people far away would be able to miss it—whatever algorithm the vidcam used when following potential stories had it focused singularly on the man and his ascent to the stage.

Stiles could only shake his head. Whatever happened next, many would be horrified. Some would run away from the feed. Some would look away. Others would be sitting in front of it soberly, memorizing the human’s face. He was a dead man walking, and he didn’t even know it yet.

Once the man climbed up to the stage, the crowd went silent. “My name is Brunski. I am the right hand man of the Darach.” Unlikely. Stiles wouldn’t even trust the guy to tie his shoe, let alone run an army. “With this sword, I am severing the tyrannical ties that bind us to the monsters that stole our world. Humans—men, women, children. Watch closely. Today, I am undoing the damage of seven decades of imprisonment dressed up as salvation.”

He might not have been a true human separatist, but there was no denying his zealous fervor—the maniac glint in his eyes. Stiles blinked slowly, remembering botching his own final presentation just to provoke a few visiting werewolves.

Had Scott not been bitten… had Stiles not confronted Peter… had Peter not changed his career designation and brought him to the attention of Hale… would he have been his own generation’s Brunski? The thought made him break out in a cold sweat.

Then Brunski was pulling his sword off his shoulder, giving Stiles a whole new reason to sweat, a new reason to panic. He charged forward half a step, only to get yanked back by Scott and Kira. On the platform, Laura’s eyes were closed. She was silent and still, bracing herself. Over her, Brunski pulled back, preparing the swing.

Then a single shot rang out. Brunski dropped the weapon to the floor, cursing and clutching his arm. For the first time in minutes, the vidcam swung away from him, focusing its lens on the center of the crowd—on Chris Argent and his antique gun.

“On behalf of all of humanity,” Chris drawled out, “shut your fucking mouth.”

Then the supes in the crowd sprung.

-

It was chaos—pure and utter chaos.

Shifters had moved to the outskirts of the crowd. After Chris was done, they immediately turned on the hunters bracketing them in, shifting immediately into their other forms. On the platform, Laura tossed Brunski to the ground, the latter like a limp rag doll after she snapped his neck. She let out a triumphant howl that the others echoed—humans and shifters and wendigos and all.

Everyone was fighting. Ken was back to back with the bear shifter Stiles could never name. Allison had her back to a tree and was firing arrow after arrow into enemy lines. Noshiko had somehow summoned fighters dressed in black and armed with swords. Stiles couldn’t see him anymore—Scott had dragged him into a bush to hide—but Stiles could hear the retort of Chris’ antique gun. The hunters didn’t stand a chance.

Just as it seemed like they were winning, Kate came out of nowhere, face bloodied and expression twisted into a terrifying rendition of hatred. She stepped up behind Laura, the sound of her approach blocked by the fighting crowd.

Before anyone could call out a warning, she stabbed Laura in the back.

-

Laura was on her hands and knees again, spitting up black blood over the side of the platform. This didn’t seem like a type of aconite she could shake off—not this time. She collapsed on her stomach and, above her, Kate advanced on her vulnerable back, ready to finish the job.

Without thinking about it, Stiles scooted out from under the bush, dodging Scott’s grasping hand. He hurried over to the platform single mindedly, scrambling and darting and even crawling his way over. He was stepped on twice and kicked once, but not any harder than he could handle.

But Braeden got there first. She vaulted on top of the platform and threw herself at Kate before she could stab Laura again. By the time Stiles got to Laura, she had disarmed Kate and delivered a strong kick to her ribs, knocking her off the platform.

As the vidcam spun in the air above them, trying to find a new subject to focus on, Stiles stood in front of Laura, grabbing her arms but unable to say anything.

“Y-you have to pass on a message,” she croaked. “Y-you have to let Mom and Cora and Derek know I-“ She stopped for a moment, burying her face in the crook of her arm as she coughed. “Oh my god,” she said wetly, “I’m going to die.”

Stiles couldn’t say anything, not when it was true, so awfully and completely true.

But then Braeden was dropping off the platform next to him. “Don’t be so melodramatic.” She lifted Kate’s knife up in the air. “I can make an antidote from this.”

Laura took a moment to focus on the knife, her gaze bleary. Then she was pushing up to her knees slowly, groaning. “Why do human separatists know more about aconite than we do?”

“Trial and error, princess.”

Laura froze, kneeling there. Her shoulders were rounded, compact. She looked under so much strain, but, for a moment, because of her surprise, it seemed to lift.

Then, oddly, she laughed. It was a beautiful sound, soft.

And it was almost completely drowned out by a long, haunting howl.

-

The howl was like nothing Stiles had ever heard before, and he’d heard more than his fair share. Up to this point, Hale’s howl was the most terrifying howl he’d ever heard—but this one? This one blew Hale’s right out of the water.

The howl was bestial, but as melancholy as it was terrified. It was high pitched, strained, and a thousand times more terrifying.

Laura’s eyes were red. She forced herself to her feet with new energy. She called out, “We need to scatter. That’s a berserker howl!” She jumped off the stage, landing almost on top of Stiles. She grabbed his shoulders and then shouted to the crowd, “They go after large groups first! You have to run!”

No one needed to be told twice—not the supes, not the humans. Not even the hunters.

It was like the shout had taken the last of Laura’s energy, sapping her of all but the strength of will to lean against him. Everyone around them was scattering.

Braeden peeled Laura off of Stiles. “I’ll take the princess.”

At that, Laura seemed to swell slightly. “I can-“ Her belligerent tone made it clear that she meant to stay, to distract if needed. Like a poisoned werewolf would stop the coming wave.

“No, you can’t. You need that antidote.”

Stiles turned away from their argument, seeking out the rest of his friends. He’d turned in time to see Allison and Lydia and Kira disappear into the woods together. In the middle of the rapidly dispersing crowd, Chris was frozen, staring desperately after Allison. He stayed there until Noshiko grabbed a fistful of his shirt and pulled him after her and Ken.

He turned around again, hollow and removed from it all, just to see Braeden take off with Laura down the road. She had one arm around Laura and one arm free enough to carry a pilfered shotgun.

Stiles was alone.

And then he suddenly wasn’t, because Scott was colliding into his back, taking in short anxious breaths. Fingers threaded through his forcefully, then yanked him along and out of his stupor.

Together, Scott and Stiles ran.

-

The berserkers bowled over Kate’s remaining forces in a torrential wave. For all of Kate’s plotting, even she couldn’t come up with a defense for something as uncompromising and undiscerning as nature. Bodies were strewn across the forest as one berserker after another found prey, tore through it, and then moved onto the next. It was terrifying.

Stiles only saw brief glimpses of the berserkers, but that was enough. Their eyes were blue flame, their corneas molten red. They looked like something that crawled out of the pits of hell.

So Stiles and Scott ran and they ran and they ran. Stiles’ panicked thoughts formed and flew away in time with the pounding of his feet. How long should they run? Was this enough? Was this plus five miles enough? Was there any measure of “enough”?

His body gave him a hard limit at one point, locking up his leg and refusing to let him go any further. Since Stiles’ momentum was going forward, this meant he tripped, nearly taking Scott down with him.

They stumbled into a clearing, Stiles hanging off Scott and gasping like a winded horse after three back-to-back races.

“Oh my god,” someone said—not them.

As one, they jumped half a foot in the air, then whirled on the interloper.

A man was sitting on a branch. No, not a man—judging by the agitated swish of a tail behind him, he was cat shifter. Lithe and compact, like most of his kind, he jumped down from the branch. There was nothing particularly threatening about this guy—he seemed more spooked by them than they were of him—but they still backed up a step. Because this guy? This guy was so not from their town.

He wore a half face mask, a twisted metal maw of a thing that covered his nose and his mouth but not his watery gray eyes. There was a bio-monitor in the center of his chest flashing a steady green, secured by straps that went over both of his shoulders and around his waist.

This wasn’t just a cat shifter. It was a rare cat berserker, and they had managed to catch it between its feral periods.

He kept a hand half raised in their direction. It wasn’t welcoming. It was quelling, a clear “back off” signal. He kept muttering something about human separatists and hunters, and how they didn’t hold hands with supes. He kept muttering this louder and louder, becoming more and more agitated. He slapped himself—no, the mask. Then he turned away from them, shoulders tight.

Scott and Stiles shared a look and started edging backwards to the trees.

The cat shifter whipped around. “No, don’t!” he snapped, eyes wide, hands frozen on the edges of his mask.

Then there was a low insidious hiss of gas.

The cat shifter’s bio-monitor flickered to yellow and his eyes went vague and dreamy. His head dropped and he sort of… crumbled on the floor. Unmoving, barely breathing. Still.

After a beat, Scott and Stiles pulled away from each other. Swallowing heavily, looking back to Stiles for support, Scott slowly approached the cat berserker, hand outstretched. “Hey, are you okay?”

The berserker started uncurling a bit at that, rising from a mere puddle on the floor to something with bones and joints that could kneel. He kept his head low, brown hair hanging over his eyes. Scott kneeled beside him, hand settling hesitantly on his shoulder.

A beat went by. Then another. Then another.

“Hey, buddy,” Scott said softly. Stiles recognized that voice, that soft murmur. The one that promised panicking animals and scared sick children that all was going to be alright. “What’s wrong?”

The cat shifter stilled. Then his head snapped up, revealing bright glowing blue eyes and blood red corneas.

Before Scott could react, the berserker went right for his throat, knocking him over. They tumbled into the brush, accompanied by feline shrieks that stood in for other shifters’ roars.

Stiles ran after them, but froze at the edge of the bush as the shriek was abruptly cut off.

“Scott?” he called out, voice trembling, heat prickling in his eyes.

Without any warning, something exploded through the bush right at him. Yelping, Stiles ducked, turning just in time to see Scott crashing against the opposite tree.

Scott fell, but caught himself on his hands and knees. He got up on his feet slowly, with menace, fully shifted in his beta form. His eyes were wrong—not brown, not even a proper bitten beta gold. They were bright and glowing, but trembling in at the edges. Stiles didn’t recognize him at all.

Hearing rustling behind him, Stiles stumbled towards Scott, the known danger. By the time he reached Scott, Scott had straightened to his full height. The strange colors in his eyes settled—more red than gold.

“Go,” he said through a mouthful of fangs, never taking his eyes off of the brush. When Stiles hesitated, Scott tensed, biting out, “Run. Stiles, please!”

Seeing the cat shifter come through the bush, Stiles did as he was told, scrambling out of the clearing alone. He looked back just long enough to see them spring at each other.

-

Stiles didn’t know how much time passed. Some part of him was still in the clearing with Scott, fearful and present and not knowing which shifter was going to turn on him next, but still so afraid for Scott, his chest hurt. Another part of him was miles ahead, running because Scott told him to, ordered him to, had trusted him to.

Stiles was in neither place, and it was killing him.

For the third time in as many minutes, Stiles threw himself under a log, tucking into a tight ball in the grass and crackling dead leaves. Seconds later, another berserker was using it as a launching pad, hurling herself across the forest. Stiles held his breath, willing the berserker to leave without noticing him, just as all the others had.

As if she could hear him, the berserker suddenly froze mid-sprint, skidding to a stop. She half-turned, eyes like blue flame swallowed by red. She licked past the huge fangs of her shifted form, sniffing the air. Stiles pressed himself tight against the ground, trying to become one with the leaves. All she had to do was turn around, all she had to do was look, and he was screwed.

She looked and her eyes locked onto his. Stiles couldn’t see her face behind the mask, but it changed, becoming focused, anticipatory.

Then she looked up above him and visibly flinched. She flashed her throat, then turned around, running away with her tail between her legs.

The back of Stiles’ neck was tingling. All too aware of his vulnerability, of the presence behind him, he was afraid to turn around. But turn around he did, flopping over onto his back and scrambling into a crouch.

There was another berserker there, standing silently on the fallen log. And that probably scared Stiles the most—that purposeful silence, that absence of elated, angry sound found from all the other berserkers. The screams, the shrieks, the roars—none of that was here.

The berserker was bulkier, bigger than the others—a proper wolf, most likely. His sleeveless undershirt revealed his impressive physique, and his mask, though identical to all the rest, seemed to only emphasize the foreboding energy coming from him.

Stiles bit his lip, trying to put his feet under him quietly. He might have been able to sidestep a stringy dog shifter or the rarer coyotes, but he wouldn’t be able to outrun this werewolf. But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t try.

His foot slid over some wet leaves noisily. This earned him something that he hadn’t had before—the berserker’s complete focus. Stiles almost choked on his spit, freezing, but the werewolf didn’t come down from the log. He was just… staring at Stiles, staring back at him with the same intense scrutiny Stiles was giving him, the same sanity that the cat shifter had shown before-

That hiss. That same hiss that heralded the cat berserker’s attack filled the air. Stiles scrambled back in a mess of limbs, slipping and sliding until his back hit a tree trunk.

The berserker seemed equally horrified. He staggered back, almost falling off the log he was standing on, gripping the edges of his mask like the cat berserker had. But where the other had yanked in vain, the werewolf grunted, then ripped off his mask, metal belts bending and tearing apart as it separated from his face. He threw the thing, still hissing, onto the floor.

He clenched his eyes shut, coughing twice before his soft mouth pressed into a thin line. He clamped a hand over his lips, turning before coughing twice more.

Stiles watched, frozen, as the werewolf appeared to just shake off the brief exposure of aconite. After a beat, his eyes went to the mask and watched numbly as a puff of dense purple gas rose above it before disappearing.

“Sorry,” the werewolf got out, voice hoarse. He coughed again, muffling it in his forearm.

“Uh,” Stiles said stupidly. “No problem.”

That got the werewolf’s attention again. Without the mask, Stiles could suddenly see that the man’s scrutiny wasn’t as menacing as he thought. Not without that metal monstrosity twisting his rather—yes—handsome features.

Stiles unclenched slowly, his gaze darting over the stranger’s face. He focused first on the eyes, which weren’t glowing and blue and surrounded by red. Instead, they were pale, multi-shaded, even human—more green than anything else.

He focused next on the shoulders. What he’d taken as aggressive was… well, probably aggressive at the time. But now they were hunched ever so slightly, as if the man had pulled back on himself, moving strangely tentatively, like he was wrong footed and ill-prepared for this.

Stiles was so dazed that he’d barely registered the werewolf coming down off the log until a hand was being extended in his direction, claws up. The stranger’s bio-monitor was green, but Stiles couldn’t help jerking back automatically, heart pounding, almost giving himself a concussion in the process.

The guy looked wrecked. “St-”

-

Stiles!

On the heels of that great shout, Scott came skidding in at a crouch. He was still shifted, still inhuman looking. There was a nasty cut on his forehead, but it was healing before Stiles’ eyes. “Stay away from him.

There was an unmistakable order in that two-toned voice, deep and brooking no disobedience. Even though Stiles knew it wasn’t for him, there was some basic part of him that wanted to jump up and obey—just as he’d obeyed Scott before. Without question. Without hesitance. Without heeding the small voice in his head that said ‘no’.

The berserker cocked his head, eyeing Scott, but otherwise didn’t move. Suddenly realizing how this looked like—Stiles reeking of fear, on the ground, his back to a tree with a werewolf crouched in front of him—Stiles groaned, knocking his head against the wood behind him.

Scott’s intensity dialed back at this until he looked like he was no longer in a stance of intent, but rather frozen, balanced awkwardly on his back foot.

“Relax. He’s fine,” Stiles said hoarsely, unsure if he was lying. He got to his feet, shooting the berserker a look when the guy offered his hand again. Standing under his own power (and ignoring the twinge of guilt that occurred with the rebuff, with the stranger’s obvious and hurt reaction), he brushed leaves off of his ass.

“Scotty, why are your eyes red?” Stiles asked his shoes. There were other questions too. How did Scott win against a berserker? How did Scott get here so fast? And why oh why did Stiles’ very bones ache to obey him?

There was a long pause. Then, quietly, Scott said, “I don’t know.”

Grimly, Stiles looked up. Scott stared back at him, coming down from the shift until all there was left was clear tan cheeks and soft, confused brown eyes.

The berserker stepped away from them, focusing on the trees—no, beyond them. “We have to move.”

Scott broke their stare first, swinging his gaze over to the stranger. “We?” he replied. “Who the hell are you?”

Stiles realized that the guy was looking at him expectantly, as if expecting him to answer Scott’s question for him. There was an awkwardly long pause when Stiles did not.

“My name,” the berserker said tersely, “is Derek.”

-

“Dude.”

Stiles kept his gaze on the floor, on the quickly passing landscape of leaves and weeds, dirt and grass. “Dude, I know, shut up.” He looked up briefly, mouth pulling into a frown as his eyes sought out the tense back of their friendly neighborhood berserker—Derek.

Not so friendly now, though.

“Dude,” Scott said again, but with feeling. “What did you do?”

Stiles sighed, hauling himself over a boulder. Thing is? He didn’t know. But he must have done something wrong somewhere with Derek. He just couldn’t pinpoint it. Derek didn’t just start off glacial. Quiet maybe. Anticipatory, definitely.

But then he cycled from anticipatory to confused to disappointed to dismissive and rude. Stiles didn’t know what his issue was, what he was looking for—a thank you for not mauling Stiles?

“I knew him for five minutes longer than you did. What could I have possibly done in five minutes to justify, justify this?” Stiles hissed, gesturing at Derek’s back.

“A lot, I think,” Scott said frankly. “You’re kind of terrible sometimes.”

Stiles made an outward display of outrage, not letting a minor stumble over a root stop him in lamenting the betrayal. Even so, he didn’t necessarily disagree. He could be pretty terrible sometimes, and not even on purpose. But he was ninety-nine percent sure this wasn’t his fault this time. It had to be Derek.

Maybe Derek was anti-human? That would explain a lot, like how he was okay at first when Stiles was still probably stinking of supes. It would also explain how he slowly but surely warmed up to Scott.

Or maybe it didn’t. Lots of people liked Scott, but Derek seemed especially intrigued by his eyes, which had faded back to gold. None of them could explain it. Red was the color of an alpha, gold was the color of the bitten, and blue was the color of the born. It hadn’t always been that way, but werewolves changed just as much as anyone else. They’d evolved too. Derek knew a lot about that.

Of course, Stiles shut down that whole conversation by daring to breathe and have opinions. “Can you be bitten and alpha?” he asked, looking to Derek.

Derek’s eyes jerked from Scott to Stiles. “Apparently,” he said, tone clipped. His expression was icy again. Then he looked forward again, picking up the pace.

Derek clearly didn’t like him.

That was an hour ago. Now, with Scott’s help, Stiles had just finished navigating his way around a swampy pond, feet slipping and squelching in the slick mud. On the other side, Derek waited impatiently.

Stiles made the mistake of meeting his eyes once they hit solid ground.

Derek immediately turned his back on Stiles, tossing over his shoulder, “Try not to slow us down any more than you already are.”

It stung.

Stiles leaned into Scott slightly, murmuring with raised eyebrows, “Oh great, we got a human hater here.”

Some part of him felt vindicated by the revealed prejudice, but also horribly vulnerable, because so much of his safety had been dependent on Derek not knowing he was a human.

But that was the most logical explanation. Stiles must have smelled like supe just a little bit to Derek’s wolfy nose. After all, he had rolled around the floor with Kira and let Scott put tiny braids in his hair just the day before, right? And that morning, before everything had gone so wrong, he’d been sweating like it was the middle of summer while trying to help Ken patch the roof. And then, towards the end, all manner of supes were jostling him and climbing over him while they were corralled in the center of town to watch Laura’s murder.

Laura. He felt a pang of loss. She’d gone off with Braeden, but Braeden herself wasn’t in tiptop shape either. Did they manage to escape the berserkers? Did Kate and her hunters catch up with them? What about Lydia and Allison and Kira? What about the three parents?

“Stiles, is this really the time?” Scott said in an undertone, a high note of tension emerging towards the end.

Stiles blinked at him, then looked up at Derek. Derek, who stopped for nothing in all the few hours they’d known each other, had stopped now. Was facing Stiles. Was standing in a confrontational stance.

Stiles blinked again and rewound the conversation, the private aside he’d directed at Scott.

Right. He must have struck a nerve.

“I don’t hate all humans,” Derek spat. “I only hate specific ones.” The way he said it, Stiles had made it to the short list—and without any effort at all.

Stiles rolled his eyes, pushing past Derek. No way he was going to be blamed for the delay this time. “Way to split hairs, hotshot.” Derek could keep his hissy fit to himself. Meanwhile, they needed to stay on the move—to avoid Kate’s people as much as to avoid the berserkers. Not that berserkers dared to approach them now that their beta count rose to two.

“Like you’re one to talk,” Derek muttered under his breath.

Stiles froze mid-step. “What was that?” he said softly, turning. Derek avoided his gaze, which only galvanized Stiles. Fury buzzing under his skin, Stiles said louder, “Want to explain that little comment, fuzz boy?”

“You hate my kind more than I hate yours,” Derek replied darkly, the words rumbling out of his mouth in a rush, like they’d been sitting behind his teeth, festering.

So now Stiles was the prejudiced one? How did he figure?

“I-” Derek glared at him hotly, daring him to lie. Stiles shifted tactics. “Look, I have plenty of reasons to dislike you guys.”

They were facing each other now, stances wide and tense, mutual anger tainting the air between them.

“Name one!” Derek bit out, eyes flashing—and not like a supe. Derek had yet to flash his wolfy blue at Stiles yet, so no. Not like a supe at all, but rather like a human who was arguing passionately about their point.

Stiles’ anger swelled. “Phase 3-”

“Isn't what you think it is!" Derek bellowed, interrupting. Quieter, hoarser, he spat, “It's the clumsy, heavy handed, inept attempt of a child trying desperately to shelter his only living relative. You should know what that’s like.”

For a moment, Stiles was struck breathless, hit on two levels. On the first, his appreciative lizard brain noted how strangely beautiful Derek was like this, like life and fire had touched him and turned him into a real boy, instead of that moody son of a bitch they’d been graced with all this time.

That was the aesthetic side, though. On the other side, Stiles felt oddly wounded, like that last barb from a stranger had been meant solely for him, and solely to hurt. And there was no way a stranger should know enough about Stiles to hurt him like this.

A third side emerged—calculating, cunning, quick. Self-preservation reared its long dormant head as a voice—Boyd’s voice—chided him again about playing shifter games with shifters, ordering him to notice the situation he’d stepped into. The challenge, the careless tumble into dominance displays, the danger of it, what with him being a squishy human.

It told him he needed to defuse the tension somehow and back off. And yet…

His self-preservation might be knocking on his door, but… still…

He ignored it. Because for all Derek’s posturing and bitten off responses and generally unfriendly behavior, Stiles could sense a very thick link between them that Derek wasn’t going to cross, would never cross.

Suddenly, Stiles was furious. Because wherever this was going, Derek really, really wanted Stiles to believe he was going to cross it. Was going to hurt him. Was going to make good on the threat his aggressive display promised.

So Stiles stepped closer, tipping his chin up. He stared Derek down defiantly, never once dropping his gaze.

Once he was sure Derek got the shift in tone, he whispered mockingly, “Which way are you going to go, bud?” His mouth pulled into a smirk and he shrugged. “This close, you only have two choices—kiss or kill. Which way you gonna go? Hm?”

It was…

It was stupid, he’d think later, smacking himself. People had been killed for less in the past. Did he have any sense at all in that moment? The answer was no, of course. Adrenaline was rushing through his veins, giving him false bravery, fortifying a moronic sense of power and aggression, adding strength to his misplaced sense of righteousness…

Because there were two sides of this fight. More than two, even. And he wasn’t dumb enough to pretend there wasn’t.

Anyway, whatever he’d thought he’d get out of this? It didn’t happen. Instead, his stomach lurched, dropping suddenly and sickeningly when Derek just… flinched. Backed away. Derek didn’t even respond—not verbally anyway. He spared Stiles a brief look, one that ached to meet because Derek looked wounded, like Stiles had ripped away his last defense, tearing off a barely healed scab.

Then Derek started on the path again, walking past Stiles stiffly. And while Stiles should have felt victorious, having won, in some version of the word, he instead felt… raw, like he’d wielded a double edged sword, like… he’d hurt Derek’s feelings.

Scott clapped his shoulder, jarring him out of his thoughts. The flat look he sent Stiles let him know that whole exchange wasn’t imagined—that the damage had truly been done. After a beat, he started after Derek in a half jog, calling out, “Hey, man, wait up!”

Stiles stood there alone for a moment before sighing. “Good job, jackass,” he muttered to himself. He hurried after them.

Maybe he should do what Derek kept telling him to do and just shut the hell up. If words were weapons, then his mouth was full of sharpened steel.

-

“I hate you all.”

There was a laugh in Scott’s voice. “It’s not our fault you stepped in a trap.”

Day Two of their impromptu camping exercise met him with a frigid morning that reached every single one of his bones, little food to mute the growling monster in his stomach, and two perky werewolves who seemed completely indifferent to the fact that they’d slept that night on icy rocks and unforgiving roots.

Oh, and also Stiles tripped over a wire and got a face full of white powder around midday. It was super.

It didn’t help that he was absolutely dependent on those two werewolves for directions. He’d stopped asking where they were going early on, because all Scott would say is somewhere safe. (Later, when he’d ask Derek alone, Derek would only say, “Away from them.”) Either way, Stiles was completely lost. Sometimes they went north. Sometimes they went east or west. They never went south, but sometimes they would pick up their meager belongings (an abandoned canteen Stiles hung off his shoulder, a couple of promising bits of food, and the clothes on their back) and go back along the path they walked hours before. It was maddening.

Today took the cake, though. Stiles stepped out into the river under the light of the moon, shaking like a leaf as dark cold water stabbed into his legs. The powder had been pheromones, he’d been told. Scent markers hunters used in traps for their dogs. Hunters like Kate Argent.

“Can’t werewolves control dogs?” Scott asked curiously.

“Not these dogs,” Derek replied. “They’re specially bred to be blind and deaf to us. All they got going for them is their nose and their loyalty to the last creature to stick food in their mouths.”

Even though Stiles was a walking scent trail, a neon arrow pointing down at their pathetic little group, they still traveled for a while that day. Derek wanted to put distance between them and the berserkers he and Scott could sense in the surrounding woods.

“One berserker has the presence of mind not to attack when they’re outnumbered and out powered,” their resident berserker told them grimly. “But pair one up or put them in a group…”

“Mob mentality,” Scott realized.

“Bingo.”

They didn’t stop moving until Derek was satisfied—or some measure of it, anyway. By that time, it was dark and spooky in the area with every tree moonlighting as a potential enemy.

Derek, of course, picked this time to order Stiles to head west until he hit the river. Upon solo discovery of said body of water, Stiles was to wash off the rest of the pheromones still clinging to his face. Meanwhile, Derek and Scott were going to go a bit north and find a good place to set up camp, even start a fire.

Stiles was exhausted by this point, his brain down somewhere near his toes, so instead of ranting out the well ordered and exquisitely detailed reasons why this was not gonna happen, he let out a vaguely affronted, fully rejecting little noise of despair. It sounded vaguely like air coming out of a balloon.

When Derek turned to face him, genuinely baffled, heat flushed Stiles’ cheeks. He hung on Scott’s arm, looking at his best buddy, and his best buddy only.

“Dude,” he said gravely, “I can’t see.

Scott seemed just as confused as Derek. “What are you talking about? It’s, like, six o’clock out here.”

Stiles swatted at him with the back of his hand, hissing, “You jackass, it’s midnight and it’s pitch dark!” Maybe he was overstating the darkness, but it sure as hell was getting there…

Understanding flashed across Scott’s face—or, at least, what little Stiles could see of it. He grabbed Stiles’ fingers and squeezed. “I forgot. I’m so sorry.”

Behind him, Derek had a rigid expression, like someone punched him. “You can’t see?” he demanded harshly, and yet also in a way that said he didn’t expect a response. Stiles was dimly reminded of Isaac ordering him to heal. Moronic born werewolves.

So, instead, Scott and Stiles built a torch and hunted down the river together while Derek scouted out a good place to rest their heads. Just as Stiles stopped whining about the temperature and started toeing off his shoes, Derek popped up out of the woodwork, scowling fiercely. In the span of time between their last chat and now, Derek had shifted from confused to suspicious and dark eyed yet again. Whatever.

Shivering, Stiles eased out deeper into the river, naked as the day he was born. On the shore, Scott had a pile of his clothes by his foot and was helpfully extending the torch towards Stiles, as it was literally pitch black now, no matter what stupid berserker werewolves thought.

The light didn’t help, turning shadows into creatures and back again. Stiles screwed his eyes shut, arms clutched high across his chest. “There’s something in the water, isn’t there?”

“Of course not, Stiles,” Scott said soothingly, dry and warm. “There’s never anything in the water.”

“There’s always something in the water.” Stiles peeked out of one eye at him. Affronted by what he saw, he snapped, “Hey, prude, I told you to watch me.”

“I don’t want to see you naked,” Scott complained, looking off into space.

Irritated, Stiles kicked a wave of water at Scott, wetting him and—yes—Stiles’ own clothes, dammit. Barely registering Scott’s yelp, Stiles considered the fact that, yes, he could have asked them both to watch him instead of just Scott. But he felt odd about pressing the point with Derek, who barely seemed to look at him when he was clothed, let alone when there was naked booty involved.

“I don’t care! Just- don’t look below the waist, dude.” He turned his back on Scott, sloshing towards a murky, deep area of the river, which pushed all around him in a lazy, gentle current. “And let me know if there’s any, like, spiders or snakes or whatever.” Or alligators or underwater supes or leeches or-

With that comforting thought, Stiles ducked under the water, feeling as if years were being stripped from his very soul. He popped up out of the cold water, gasping breathlessly, just in time for Scott’s face to go weird and grimace-y.

He dropped below the water two more times, furiously scrubbing at his face and ears. Before ducking under a fourth time, he paused, wiping water away from his face and trying not to think too hard about the press of things floating around him. He blinked into the night, flipping his hair off of his forehead as he did, ever watchful for bigger water predators. Or bite-y ones.

A flash of red out of the corner of his eye made him turn back towards the shore. Scott was looking away again, damn it, but Derek’s gaze was steady. Subdued by that, Stiles settled back on his heels, looking right back at him.

Stiles wouldn’t have been able to see the guy, if not for the firelight, which lit up the curve of Derek’s jaw and the side of his long thin nose. The light also got into his eyes, turning them into pale sheets of green glass. Stiles shivered, but not with cold.

Stiles ducked under the water one more time before trudging back to the shore—and not to Scott. Stupidly defiant, as usual, trembling, cold, wet, and naked, he stopped in front of Derek.

“What do you say, wolf man?” he challenged. “Successfully de-pheromoned?”

There was a long pause. Derek’s gaze was a heated weight on him, flicking down briefly before rising slowly, making eye contact. As if an afterthought, his nostrils flared slightly.

“Yes,” Derek replied stiffly. Without any further commentary, he turned, melting back into the woods, leaving Stiles alone in the cold.

Stiles’s mouth pursed into a thin line. It was strange, but also sad, wasn’t it? That he’d understood the silent stranger with his aconite gas mask more than he understood Derek, who walked and talked and had opinions about things. Derek, who could snap at him so bitterly and yet look at him like he’d like nothing better than reach out and touch him.

Putting an end to those kinds of thoughts, Scott walked over to Stiles with a faint smile, torch in one hand, faintly damp clothes in the other. Stiles got up onto the shore, his trembling beginning anew. He shrugged on his clothes with a bad temper, faintly numb limbs catching on his clothing.

“He h-hates me.”

“Um.” Scott scratched the side of his face awkwardly. “No, I don’t think so.”

“Oh, shut up.”

“Hey, he watched out for you, didn’t he?” Scott said all too reasonably.

The way Stiles jerked on his shoes was straight up vicious. “So you could watch him watching me, but you couldn’t watch me yourself?” Stiles dropped to the dirt, roughly tying the knots again. “We had communal showers, dude. Why are you being so weird? If I got a leech because you wouldn’t watch me, so help me…”

Guilt successfully engaged, Scott jumped forward, effusive with late but entirely genuine apologies. The hilarity of it all was almost enough to distract Stiles.

Almost.

-

Icy dunking with theoretical leeches aside, that night wasn’t too bad. Derek set up a big, comfortable fire, seeming to have veered towards his thoughtful mode again. Better than the bitter suspicious one, Stiles figured.

Derek had gotten meat while they were lollygagging and chatting next to the river, and it smelled amazing on the fire. Neither werewolf could sense anyone nearby, which had the side effect of making them, plus one human, relax enough to sit and talk.

Stiles could almost pretend that Derek was just another supe in Chris Argent’s isolated little town, if not for the bright green glow of Derek’s bio-monitor.

Scott took advantage of Derek’s slightly less tense shoulders to ask again about alphas. It took a little bit of prodding, but they eventually got Derek to admit that he thought Scott was an alpha, even if he couldn’t explain how or why.

A True Alpha, though Derek didn’t call him that. Trying to ignore the dread that came with that phrase, Stiles tried to distract himself.

“And the thing before,” Stiles said. “When he ordered me to do something, and I did it? What the hell was that? I’m human.”

Scott’s forehead was crinkled in a concerned little frown. He nodded along with the question. Only Scott would be so profoundly disturbed by the idea of having power over someone’s actions, even if it was for their own good—and he’d been right to order Stiles away. What the hell could Stiles contribute to a fight like that?

Derek seemed a little overwhelmed by being in the spotlight, even if it was only a spotlight of two. Irritably, he said, “The power of an alpha is the power of magic. That’s how it works. And humans are not without magic, especially sympathetic ones.” He made eye contact with Stiles then, his gaze steady. The fire danced between them. “You felt the pull of his order because some part of you acknowledges him as the leader of your pack. That’s why it worked on you, even though you’re not a wolf.”

There was a long pause. Then Scott turned to Stiles.

“Stiles,” he said with gravity, “I’m the alpha.”

The air stilled. Staring back at Scott, at his unwavering expression, at the calm human face that hid the wolf underneath, Stiles felt the truth of it ring between them. Scott was his alpha.

Scott McCall was a huge hulking alpha werewolf, just like Hale. Just like Laura. Just like the Alpha Prime herself. Tiny, gentle, asthmatic Scotty McCall—frequent crier, holder of kittens, and, yes, future leader of supes everywhere. Who would have thought.

Lydia was going to murder them both.

Stiles stared at Scott for a little longer, and Scott did the same to Stiles. Then, without warning, they exploded into laughter.

Derek looked very put out by all this.

-

But of course it wasn’t all rigorous exhausting hikes and giggle fests by open fires. It wasn’t even all Derek debating Stiles’ every human weakness. It wasn’t even all Stiles defending those weakness alongside his special Stiles-brand varieties.

Stiles could write a book about the things he could not do, he told Derek. No, scratch that. Books with volumes.

Stiles wasn’t even a very good outdoorsman. He could start fires and find water and harvest edibles from the ground, sure. It had been enough to keep him alive between Beacon Hills and Scott, but it wasn’t enough for Derek. Derek, who found it personally offensive that the only two skills Stiles could add to their group was making the camp fire and lovingly brushing rocks away from their bed of the night.

“I can do daisy crowns,” Stiles offered generously when Derek started rubbing his nose. So he did, just to mess with Derek. He crowned his alpha with it when he was done. Tickled pink by the idea that he could even look at flowers without dying, Scott wore it until it fell apart.

But those were the happy times. And it wasn’t all about the happy times.

Stiles woke up one morning with a hand clamped to his mouth. Inches away, Derek gazed at him for a long moment before touching his lower lip with his finger. Absolute silence—got it. Stiles nodded once, noticing after a beat that Scott was just beyond Derek, carefully kicking dirt over the embers of their fire.

Derek helped Stiles up and, as a team, they started hiking again, maneuvering quickly but quietly through the brush.

Dread hung between them that day, heavy and high up, choking. Stiles didn’t ask what was going on. He didn’t have to. Derek was ashen faced and thin lipped. Scott had a permanently grim expression. Stiles just shut up and followed. Even later, when they relaxed a fraction and started walking like they didn’t think a bomb was about to go off under their feet, Stiles still didn’t ask what they sensed or what they smelled. Their expressions were enough.

And, because he didn’t ask, it took Stiles way too long to figure out that it wasn’t the berserkers that freaked them out the most.

-

On a better day, they trudged up a hill. It was hard for Stiles to breathe—and was getting harder every day—but he forced conversation with Scott, needing to hear voices break the monotony of insects, bugs, and the occasional howl in the distance.

Somehow, it devolved into a debate about schooling. “Hey, did you know supes and humans use the same curriculum?”

“Really?” Scott dragged his attention away from Stiles. “Did you take the assessment tests, Derek?” Derek was ahead of them, leading the way but trapped up inside his head—or in his “mute” mode, as Stiles like to call it. This was not the first time Scott attempted to loop Derek into the conversation.

“You are an adult, right?” Stiles asked, interjecting doubt into his tone just to watch Derek’s shoulders tighten. Again, not the first time Stiles attempted to goad Derek into a conversation.

“Yes, Stiles, I am,” Derek replied with faux-patience. He never broke his stride.

Stiles made a face at his back. That didn’t tell Stiles anything new, did it? Of course Derek was an adult. They didn’t send children to the front line, after all. Also, Derek was noticeably older. Age didn’t necessarily gain a person adult status, but it was one of the most common factors.

The assessment test was the major hurtle for anyone wanting adult status. Even so, it wasn’t that difficult of a test. Designed and customized per person for optimal processing, it not only sought out people’s interests, but also their skill sets and abilities. Ultimately, no one was ever placed into a career path they couldn’t handle, no one ever took a test they couldn’t understand, and no one ever failed. Not really. So, in that sense, it was easy. But in others, it was very, very hard.

But, yes, Stiles was pretty sure Derek wasn’t a child. Not with that stubble and those cheekbones, those broad shoulders and that long waist and that tight-

“Resource Management,” Derek bit out at length.

“Really?” Scott said, clearly surprised. Dubiously so.

“I was going to be a teacher.”

“No way,” Stiles said, stunned. For a second, he thought not of Harris, who was terrible at life, let alone teaching, but rather his mother with a mob of sticky fingered children trailing after her adoringly.

“Stiles was gonna be Order Maintenance,” Scott offered, trying to even the score in his own way. “I was gonna be Liaison Development.”

Derek did a sharp look back. But, for once, it was aimed at Scott instead of Stiles. “I thought he was Liaison Development.”

Stiles frowned at him in confusion. How the hell did Derek know that? But before Stiles could even think to ask, a plausible explanation started spinning together in his head.

Derek was a berserker—or at least started out as one. That meant he had to come from a rehabilitation center somewhere. The bitten were never taken, so he had to be a born beta, which means he was from one of the centers in a supecity. Transporting anything was still ridiculously expensive nowadays, so Derek had to be local for him to be here, fighting this war.

There were only five supecities with rehabilitation centers in the area, which meant there was a one in five chance that Derek was from Beacon Hills.

Stiles’ face scrunched up as he tried to remember the center, the shifters he passed on a day to day basis. Maybe they did meet once? But how could Stiles forget that face? Or those eyes?

But why would he be in a rehabilitation center? Everyone he’d met, aside from Hale, had obvious control issues. But there was nothing shaky about Derek’s control. Quite the opposite actually. The guy could stand to loosen up a little.

Erica always said a supe only got put in a center when they broke the myth of absolute control and that control issues existed in all supes. After Mr. Lahey, Stiles was inclined to agree with her. But what the hell could Derek have done to get locked up in a center with the rest of them? Erica threw someone out of a window. Matt killed someone. Hale turned into his alpha form and refused to turn back.

What was Derek’s way in?

Stiles realized after a moment both werewolves were looking at him—staring, really.

“You okay, bud?” Scott asked, a frown pinching his eyebrows together. The folds reminded him of being back under the dome, of staggering back, heart racing and terrified as Scott viciously tore at the shield between them, trying to reach for a meatier target—Stiles himself.

Scott’s eyes were very gentle.

“I’m fine. What- what do you want?”

“Derek asked what happened. With your career path.”

Stiles shook his head, mood darkening. That seemed so stupid and far off. Ancient history. “I switched over,” he said impatiently. “It’s something I really don’t want to talk about, okay?”

Ancient? What a lie. It hurt like a fresh wound. Stiles dropped all of his plans, dropped all of his dreams, just to make sure Scott didn’t get shoved out to the front line. And yet here they all were anyway—crazy hunters on one side, aconite riddled berserkers on the other.

It just freaking figured.

-

Stiles got in a fight with Derek. It started off innocent—casual questions interspersed with huffing breaths as they hiked up a steady incline. Scott was the one answering, usually, though Derek tossed in a response every once in a while.

Then Stiles got on the topic of rehabilitation and his experiences with it, and Derek. Cut. Him. Down.

“…and I’m not interested in your little opinions,” Derek finished, practically spitting the word out. The sheer loathing in his tone made Stiles feel simultaneously faint and nauseated, like something unpleasant had curdled in his stomach.

It went downhill from there. They kept bickering with each other, all three of them. It left Derek cold and biting. It left Scott breaking his neutrality to defend Stiles. It left Stiles a half a step behind Derek, faint of breath, red hot, and angry.

“If your Alpha Prime spent more money on guys like Alan Deaton and less on picking fights with human separatists, my friend, her own freaking son, wouldn’t still be locked up in a cage. That’s not opinion, that’s fact!”

Derek hiked up a foot against a rock and pivoted slightly, shooting a glare down at Stiles. Then his eyes fell to Stiles’ chest disbelievingly—first with anger, then confusion.

“You don’t want to be social? You don’t want to make friends? Fine.” Stiles stopped when they were on the same level, glaring Derek in the eye. “We’ll keep going. We’ll get away from the berserkers and the hunters together. Then, when we’re safe?” Stiles leaned in, took a deep breath, and then said with feeling, “I never want to see you again.”

With that said, Stiles left Derek standing there, frozen in place, and hiked up the hill just a little faster, frustration giving him strength.

Scott took an irritatingly short amount of time to catch up with him. He was quiet for a little bit, but watchful in a way that was almost louder than words. They kept pace with each other, more or less shoulder to shoulder, even as they picked different paths to climb up. Stiles was already lagging and he knew it.

“What?” Stiles snapped when he caught Scott’s eyes on him.

Scott hesitated before murmuring in a low voice, “Look, that thing he said about- about people taking advantage of lonely werewolves-“

“I don’t need to hear it again, Scott,” Stiles bit out with a sarcastic smile. That snide little comment hit a little too close to home. He’d left Hale behind for Scott, right? And he was never going to regret that, never, but that didn’t stop a small part of him from spinning away at that miserable What If machine.

What if Stiles stayed behind? What if Stiles reported Mr. Lahey? What if Stiles had been firmer about being trained as a rehabilitator? What if Stiles coaxed the shifted Hale to follow him out of the city?

When he thought of Hale sitting there, alone in his cage, with no Stiles and no Erica and potentially no Boyd... It hurt. It hurt so much, it made his eyes sting. No, he didn’t take advantage of Hale, except in the ways friends take advantage of friends. Except in the way that he was a bad one. Except in the way he’d left the guy behind.

“Maybe he’s speaking from personal experience?” Scott continued tentatively, looking behind him. It occurred to Stiles that this was the first time he’d taken point since they grouped up together a few days ago—the first time he’d been allowed to be anything but behind Derek and a good distance away from whatever mess he’d walked them into this time.

Something uncomfortable scrambled up his throat, and he yelped, “What, now you’re defending him? You told him to take a long walk off a short pier!” He made the mistake of looking back.

Derek stood where Stiles left him, still and alone.

-

It took Stiles a few hours to realize that this scrambling, tight feeling in his chest, in his veins? That wasn’t entirely anger at Derek. His vision was swimming too much for that. His breathing was labored. He could taste blood at the back of his tongue.

It had officially been a week since he’d had his last Lupa Shot, and he was feeling the effects.

The morning had shifted to afternoon, then late afternoon. It was a handful of hours since that confrontation on the hill, and yet it felt so much longer than that. He’d fortified himself against Derek mentally, preparing himself for cold shoulders and hateful comments and that singular skill Derek had in spades—the ability to make Stiles feel like a tiny and insignificant piece of trash cluttering up an otherwise reasonable environment. So he was naturally unequipped to deal with what happened next.

“We’re actually going to take a break this time,” Stiles snapped, a sharp response to Derek’s rather tentative concern. “Are you familiar with those? Go kill a bunny or slow dance with a bear.”

Derek pulled back slightly, hesitating. Then he nodded slowly and turned back into the woods at a slow jog. From the side profile, Stiles saw the start of the shift—pointed ears, twisted facial muscles, and more—but not his eyes. He’d never once pointed his wolf eyes at Stiles, not even once.

Scott was watching him closely. Stiles waved him off. “Go find some water.” He turned his back on his friend, muttering, “I’m going to see if I can find anything around here.” He focused on the idea of non-poisonous berries, root vegetables, and certain plants they could eat. Even so, his heart pounded with the lie.

There was a pause, then the sound of shoes shuffling through loose dead leaves.

Stiles stared blindly at the ground, shuffling his feet as he made a show of looking around. Then, two minutes later, he slowly pitched towards a tree, catching himself on the trunk. He gave into the overwhelming need to drop to his knees.

That was a mistake. The shift in posture put unexpected pressure on his chest, provoking a cough. Once he started, he couldn’t stop. He hacked over and over, feeling as if his ribcage was trying to crawl up his throat. The world spun around him in dizzying spirals, constricting tighter with every breath he failed to take in. There was blood in his mouth, on his chin, and spattered over the dirt, but Stiles. Just. Couldn’t. Stop.

He was in a tight ball of misery when a warm hand settled on the back of his neck, anchoring him.

It felt like his chest was suddenly expanded by force, by the shock of the touch or something else. He could breathe again, and so he did. He took in deep, rattling gasps of air, feeling the world resituate itself around them, seeing the dizzy whites and blacks turn back into green and brown and blue. The buzzing in his head died down to a low throb and, too late, he had the sense to wipe his mouth off.

The hand stayed there the whole time, thumb sweeping in comforting circles.

“You don’t take orders well,” Stiles croaked. He looked up with a faint smile, squinting into the sun.

He was half expecting Derek. He didn’t expect to see Scott, wide eyed and vulnerable looking. It hit him like a gut punch and, all of a sudden, he was all too aware of where he was, what he was doing, how he looked. Twigs and roots bit into the skin of his palms, and he swallowed, tasting blood.

“This is the- this is the-” Scott kept stammering, his voice hitching.

Something in Stiles stilled, calming. “Yeah. It’s the Event. It wasn’t- it wasn’t a lie.”

Scott was a sharp cookie. He dropped to a crouch, frown deepening. Stiles could see him put it all together, yanking all the loose threads into one messed up tapestry. “You. And Chris. And Allison.”

Stiles thought about the last time he’d stepped around vital news about Allison, about the sheer rage it provoked in a newly bitten Scott, and his throat dried. A beat later though, he shook his head internally, chiding himself. He looked up, ready to talk Scott down from an episode, ready to give his best friend the time he hadn’t last time when he just ran.

But Stiles was wrong. Scott wasn’t angry at all.

Scott looked wrecked, heart broken, and when Stiles made eye contact with him, his whole face buckled. Without any warning, he dragged Stiles forward and into his lap. This forced him out of his crouch and abruptly onto his ass, but he didn’t seem to care, too busy wrapping inhumanly strong arms around Stiles in a giant hug that left Stiles’ nose half smashed into his shoulder. Scott’s chest trembled as he let out a shaky, wet sounding sigh.

Stiles was such an asshole. He sagged against Scott with a gusty breath. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled guiltily.

“It’s not your fault,” Scott replied instantly, voice tight.

Stiles thought for a minute that he should correct Scott. Then Scott started patting his back in slow, smooth, calming strokes, and Stiles suddenly knew he didn’t have to explain himself. Scott already knew Stiles didn’t trust him. Scott knew Stiles all too well.

Stiles leaned against him awkwardly, half in and half out of Scott’s lap (he was a bigger guy, after all), but made no movement to get out of his place. A weight had pulled itself off of his shoulders and he was basking in it.

The days were getting colder as winter approached, enough to make Stiles pine for the clothes he’d left in Chris’ house. But Scott? Scott was warm and familiar. Stiles may not have had the nose of a wolf, but he could still take in Scott’s scent and be transported back to happier days, warmer days under the dome.

Had it really been so long ago? Stiles felt ancient now, aged beyond telling, but it couldn’t have been much more than half a year now. Not for the last time, Stiles felt the paralyzing pull of homesickness. Not for the last time, Stiles was reminded that this feeling would never be alleviated.

They were never going to be allowed to go home.

After a few minutes of peace and silence, Scott cleared his throat. “We should tell-“

Stiles instantly shot him down—because he knew Scott too well himself. “No. I don’t want to give Derek another reason to judge me.” Reluctantly, he pulled himself off of Scott, settling on his knees. “Do I smell like blood anymore?” He wiped his face off, sniffling slightly and not surprised to feel his cheeks were wet.

Scott looked sad. “You always smell like blood.”

Stiles eyed him for a moment, hands clamped over his knees. Two lies down, one more to go.

“Scott, I didn’t leave Beacon Dome to run away from you,” Stiles confessed softly. “I left Beacon Dome and Order Maintenance to try and save you.”

After a beat, that teased a smile into his friend’s face. It was small, weak, but still there. “I know.” Scott let out a shaky breath. “Your dad told me.”

Stiles stared at him for a minute, then surged forward, giving him another hug because Scott—red eyed potentially hulking alpha werewolf Scott?

He looked like he was about to cry.

-

Stiles was flat on his stomach, top half hanging over a cliff. The cliffs appeared out of nowhere.

Derek made a shadow over him. “He just said he’s fine,” he said impatiently.

Stiles ignored him. No one had been prepared for the cliffs, the deep gullies that were dug into the ground like some ancient monster’s claw marks. No one had been prepared for the mud that formed after that morning’s light rain, so when they started skidding…

Scott!” Stiles’ worried shout echoed, spiraling downward into empty space. He squinted and squirmed closer to the edge of the cliff, mud squelching under him. He slipped forward slightly, gravity and slick mud easing the way.

Derek abruptly planted his boot in the small of Stiles’ back. “He said he’s fine,” he said again.

Stiles scowled up at him before returning his gaze to the worrying pinprick under him. A pinprick that waved.

Details about the pinprick settled in his brain—two arms, two legs, and miraculously standing. If he squinted, he could even see a face. Scott looked like he was more concerned about sloughing off the mud caked to him after his impromptu slide off the cliff than anything else.

After a beat, Stiles sheepishly waved back.

Derek looked over the cliff as well. “There has to be a low point somewhere. We’ll keep following this and meet up with you later.” It took Stiles a moment to realize Derek wasn’t speaking to him.

There was a long pause. Scott tipped his chin up, forehead creasing. His mouth moved.

“Yes, I’ll take care of him,” Derek said quietly. This seemed to reassure pinprick-Scott, but not Stiles, who still had Derek’s boot in his spine.

Take care of him? Ha. Yeah, and put him in an early grave. He may have muttered that under his breath, right before he wheezed and started a coughing fit.

It wasn’t until he was standing and knocking mud off his shirt that he had the good grace to feel embarrassed. Then abruptly ashamed, because Derek was staring at him, visibly alarmed and sad.

Scott was right. He could be a dick sometimes.

Annoyed by himself, Stiles cleared his throat, muttering a soft “well then” before taking off.

“Wrong way,” Derek said quietly, reluctantly.

Stiles smoothly pivoted and went in the right way, catching himself before he skidded in the mud. No one was going to keep him down. He was strong.

-

He was weak. He was jello and pudding and muddy water.

Something about watching your best buddy fly off over the side of a cliff was super exhausting; Stiles found himself flagging early on, slowing down long before the noon sun graced them with its heat. By late afternoon, he was constantly catching on things—the trees, the floor, Derek’s arm—just to gather enough strength to keep going.

He was already dreading the night. It had only been a handful of nights since they fled the town, the berserkers, and Kate Argent, but Stiles had already become well accustomed to curling up with Scott in the cold. The ground was never comfortable, but Scott always was.

So on that first Scott-less night, Stiles prepared himself for the worst. He scooted as close to the fire as he dared, back to it, then tipped over to his side, immediately curling into himself. He tucked his arms tight into his chest, trying to focus on the pleasant feeling of warmth on his back instead of the numbness settling in his cheeks.

Derek tried to talk to him and tried to get him to eat. Stiles just curled tighter in response. Mind over matter, he thought—then yelped when Derek grabbed the waistband of Stiles’ pants and dragged him across the dirt. Derek didn’t pull him far, just close enough so they were next to each other instead of on opposite sides of the fire, but Stiles still squawked at him.

“I don’t care how much you hate me,” he said quietly, getting in Stiles’ face. “But I’m not having you freeze to death.”

Stiles scowled at him before flipping over in a huff. Derek shifted so he was between Stiles and the surrounding woods, so Stiles flipped again, glaring moodily into the fire.

It seemed like that would be the end of it, but Derek ruined it by trying to speak.

“Phase 3-”

“Go choke on a branch, Fido.”

“Phase 3 is a directive to eliminate humanity,” Derek hissed, “not to murder humans!”

Stiles hesitated. Then he turned over, frowning. “How do you figure?”

Derek’s eyes went very wide. “We were going to turn you, all of you,” he said, like that was important to know. “We know the conditions that cause rejection and we know how to minimize them. If we couldn’t find the cure…” He trailed off.

Stiles sat up, trying to absorb that information and fit it in with the rest. He remembered reading about Phase 3, and all the arguments against it. There were even some that looped the bitten population into the critiques, but made it seem like the only good reason to keep a human around was to ensure the ruling powers had a way to control bitten betas.

Not that all humans would become those betas! Had he seriously misread something back then?

“But bitten betas have horrible control,” Stiles said. “Danny! Danny was bitten years and years ago because you guys wanted his computer skills, and they still don’t let him out of the cage-”

“I know,” Derek said quickly. “I know. That’s why everyone is stalling. We can’t find the cure and the work around won’t change anything. We can’t keep you in a dome forever, but we also can’t just swap one cage for another.”

Stiles stared back at him. After a beat, his gaze dropped from Derek’s all too direct eyes to the safer sight of his biomonitor, flickering a persistent green. He felt very cold inside and very small.

Stiles hadn’t liked dome life, but had counted on it. He was born in a dome, raised in one, and expected to die in one. It was a sanctuary as much as it was a prison. It was just like his humanity—inconvenient and limiting, but his. And, like the dome, about to be taken away without his consent.

“What we think… does it even matter to you people?” Stiles’ voice was hoarse. “What if we want to stay in the dome? What if we want to stay human?”

“Keeping up the domes exhausts a lot of resources. Resources we’re not going to have in ten years. And, for the other thing…” Derek leaned forward. His voice softened. “Given the alternative, who would stay human?”

No one, Stiles thought. Not when early death outside of a dome was the only alternative.

After a beat, Stiles slowly shook his head. His eyes were stinging. “There’s nothing wrong with being human.”

“No. There isn’t,” Derek said, surprising him. “Please. Eat.”

-

Stiles was deteriorating. He lost time too. He remembered sleeping. He remembered walking. He remembered Derek leaning over him, expression contorted in a look of deep concern.

He remembered flopping on Derek’s lap at night, feeling too poorly to care about how he slept. The nights were filled with him staring dully into the surrounding woods, chest tightening, breath wheezing. The days were full of him stumbling along blindly, seeing spots in his vision.

He would have stopped eating entirely, if not for Derek.

“Hey,” Derek said sharply. He was crouching in front of Stiles with a charred bit of squirrel. The sun was too high in the sky for them to be sitting around the fire, but there they were.

When Stiles’ attention wandered away, Derek flicked him once, sharply, on the knee. The brief, bright point of pain focused Stiles. He whined, pulling his leg up, acting as if Derek gave him a charley horse instead of a tiny ache that was already fading.

“What gives?”

Eat.

Stiles’ vision wobbled a bit, then he said, his words coming out with reassuring strength, “What, is food how you display your affection?”

Some tension left Derek’s face. “Yes,” he said simply. “Now eat.”

-

They stayed around the fire that whole day. Not a single step was taken by Stiles. Instead, he spent the whole time napping, eating, or drinking water. By the time late afternoon rolled around, Stiles felt almost normal—stomach full and fingertips full of feeling. And so, so warm.

When Stiles tried to get them to move, to make the day a little less of a time suck, Derek argued that it would be late soon, that there was no point breaking down the camp and building a new one an hour later. Although Stiles had many reasonable points—super valid and debate winners, all of them—Stiles rendered them all pointless as he fell asleep mid-argument, head tipping into Derek’s shoulder.

-

On Day 5, Stiles realized Derek didn’t hate him anymore. In fact, every little thing Derek did seemed strangely like an apology, which was starting to make Stiles squirmy and uncomfortable, like there was some sort of imbalance here he couldn’t see.

He strangely preferred it when Derek hated him. Except at night. Never at night.

Once the former rabbit, may it rest in peace, was cooked to Derek’s liking, he passed the stick over to Stiles, who sniffed the meat noisily, mouth watering. Derek dropped down next to Stiles then. “Can’t see, can’t smell, can’t hear… It’s a wonder your species still exists.”

Stiles didn’t say anything at first. His mouth was full of food. Instead, he chewed, absorbing Derek’s words. Without Stiles’ anger in the way, without Scott’s attempt to referee blocking communication, Stiles realized something important: Derek wasn’t making a point.

He was dancing around one like an awkward dork.

“We can do all those just fine, thanks.”

Derek tipped his head forward. Then, finally, he said, “I’m sorry I was a dick-” And, boom, there was the point.

“Well, live and learn.” Stiles took a big bite of his rabbit.

“-and I’m sorry you’re dying,” Derek continued, a hitch in his voice.

Stiles hesitated before swallowing. He hadn’t said anything about it but the Event was open knowledge, even when it was doubted. “It’s okay. Find me a couple of Lupa Shots and I’ll be as right as rain.”

Derek looked away sharply. Stiles nibbled on the rest of his meal and didn’t blame him for it. Lupa Shots were scarcer in this region than water in the desert. But then Derek was nodding, jaw tightening, allowing the lie like a friend would.

Stiles was miserable and dejected and cold and in pain, but a part of him smiled at that. Maybe they could be friends after all.

Wouldn’t that be something?

-

For all their detours to avoid berserkers and hunters, they were still traveling faster than Stiles did on his own, and on a much better diet too.

It was working out well. Sometimes they’d catch Scott in the gully and get a status report. Scott was always cheerful up at them, which was a red flag. Stiles was cheerful right back at him, obnoxiously so, and would spend the rest of the day dissecting Scott’s every movement out loud. Derek tolerated it.

“He said he’s fine.”

“Everyone says they’re fine. No one is ever really fine!”

“He was,” Derek argued right back. He tapped his earlobe. “I would have heard it if he lied.”

That made Stiles stop and think about all the times Derek stared moodily at Stiles’ chest. Had he lied a lot? Probably. But, hey, that wasn’t his fault. He didn’t know he was with a walking lie detector.

But sometimes they didn’t catch Scott and it was still okay. It was all pretty much okay. In fact, on the great days when he wasn’t hacking up a lung, Stiles had room to even be optimistic, to look forward to the day where they got ahead just enough to get out of the sandwich that was berserkers verses Kate’s hunters. They’d talked about it extensively, Derek tracing out a map from memory in the dirt.

The way they were going, if they got far enough ahead, they could go west and hit a well populated supe town. It was a little rough around the edges, but they would have to have at least a roof and easily obtainable food over their heads. Berserker status or not, Derek thought that he could get them into anywhere at anytime with little effort at all. Remembering the less than cordial way he was greeted while trying to find Scott, Stiles snorted.

“Trust me,” Derek growled, swatting Stiles’ leg. Stiles bit down on his smile. They were taking a brief meal break. It was still sunny and the weather was cool, but not cold. Were they not on the run, Stiles would have mistaken this for a more idyllic scene—green grass, blue skies, the beautiful but fierce nature that took back the world of men.

There was a metal bench in front of them, old and rusted and overtaken by vines. It seemed wrong to sit there, like it was a sacred monument instead of an object for use. They sat on the ground instead.

“When we get there and we get a safe place to stay,” Derek was saying firmly, “we’ll get in contact with a Beacon Hills rep. And then we can tell them about what happened in your little town.”

Stiles tore at the grass under his hands. “They already know what happened in my town,” he said finally. “It was an execution. There was a live feed and everything.” Neither Stiles nor Scott got around to telling Derek about Laura, and Stiles wasn’t going to be the one to break the silence. That whole experience may have turned around for the better, but the image of Laura, gray faced and pliant, kneeling on a platform in front of her murderer…

It didn’t leave him. It couldn’t.

Derek’s expression softened. “Hey,” he said quietly, palming Stiles’ knee for a second. “It’s going to be fine.”

Stiles looked up. Their eyes met and, slowly, Stiles let himself smile. He could almost believe Derek. He could almost imagine the future he laid out in front of them.

Then, of course, Kate caught up to them.

-

It was roughly an hour later when Derek started complaining of buzzing noises and a severe headache. Stiles uselessly circled around him a few times before Derek put his foot down and made Stiles keep walking. Stiles did so ungratefully, eyes on Derek more than the ground, more than the woods surrounding them.

He had no warning. Someone shoved him ass over teakettle down a grassy hill before he’d even known they had company.

Once Stiles stopped rolling, he flattened out on his stomach, out of breath and disorientated. Then, remembering the flash of metal, the press of bodies coming through the trees, armed to the teeth, he scrambled up the hill on his hands and knees.

It wasn’t like he never saw Derek fight before. It was just berserkers didn’t usually give him the chance to do more than let out a hair raising growl. Even a dull eyed berserker, deep in their rage, scampered at the sound. They scampered faster when Scott was there—alpha’s privilege, Stiles supposed.

But Derek was fighting now, and fighting well. It didn’t seem right that something so violent could be so beautiful.

Six hunters went in. Ten seconds later, only three were still standing. Stiles watched, not understanding why they went in with clubs and black sticks instead of their rifles. Then Derek jerked, a zapping nose splitting through the air with the accompanying flash of blue. Almost immediately, Derek’s elbow was swinging back, hitting the hunter so hard Stiles flinched. The man hit a tree and collapsed, not moving. The other two circled Derek warily.

One of the people left raised a weapon—a gun with a wide, empty barrel and huge storage space in the back. Derek jerked it out of the hunter’s grasp before a trigger could be pulled, heading butting him into submission.

The gun landed a few feet in front of Stiles. He stared at it, only peripherally aware of Derek flipping the last hunter over his shoulder. He knew that weapon. He’d seen it in class. It fired a net and was used to capture big game animals and occasionally supes.

They were trying to incapacitate Derek, not kill him. Somehow, that struck Stiles as being even worse, and he stood anxiously, hand on a tree.

Stiles looked up. Derek was surrounded by the unconscious or groaning bodies of the humans foolish enough to challenge him. He hardly looked satisfied, though, his eyes swinging back and forth like he was looking for something. His face was twisted in a grimace. His hand lifted to his head. The buzzing noise hadn’t gone away.

Stiles leaned forward, swiping the weapon in front of him. “Derek-”

Any illusion that Derek had won was shattered a moment later. Something exploded above him, showering him in a fine purple powder. It was only then that Derek staggered, hand rising to his face. The light in his biomonitor shifted to an alarming yellow.

Then one of the fallen hunters was standing, slamming his fist into Derek’s stomach. He doubled over, wheezing. The seventh hunter came forward, clapping slowly.

It was Kate Argent.

Derek took advantage of the distraction to swipe at the hunter in front of him, gouging his claws through the man’s thigh. The man shrieked in pain.

But Kate only laughed at that, shaking her head. “Oh Derek. You try so hard, don’t you?” There was a genuine, messed up sort of fondness in her voice.

The aconite was taking its effect out on Derek. He blinked rapidly and then he dropped to a knee, breath going ragged. He kept on trying to wipe away the powder, kept on trying to track her. Black was streaked all over his face.

Kate approached him casually, tipping her own weapon—the aconite gun—against her shoulder. She clicked her tongue, eyeing him up and down like she was thinking of purchasing him at the market.

Stiles saw red. He clenched his fists so tight, his nails dug past the first layer of skin in his palm in one hand. In the other, plastic and metal creaked, reminding him of the presence of the weapon—the net launcher.

“Oh well,” Kate sighed, tossing her hands in the air. “You’re not the one we wanted, but, hey, I’m flexible. It’ll still say the same message.” She shot a look of contempt at her wounded ally, who was still whimpering. “Shut up. It’s not the first time you’ve been clawed.”

Derek fell back, bracing his hands behind him. His face was as white as snow. She followed his retreat, standing over him. She tipped his chin up with the aconite gun, smirking into his stricken face.

“How much does it piss you off, knowing that it’s your blood, wolf blood, that keeps us in fighting shape?” she purred.

“Get away from me.” Derek looked terrified.

“Aw.” Kate cocked her head to the side. “Still wearing your heart on your sleeve. I warned you about that. You never know when someone is going to swoop in and take advantage.”

There was something thirsty in her expression, something dangerous. Stiles had faced down berserkers and feral werewolves and a homicidal Mr. Lahey, but never seen someone so threatening.

There was a rumbling in his head, a heat that flushed him from head to toe. It swelled in him, growing teeth and fangs, obscuring his thoughts. And then, abruptly, it turned cold.

Stiles stepped forward, the hunter’s gun hanging loosely at his side. Kate’s attention suddenly snapped towards him. For a second, she just stared at him, confused. Oddly enough, she didn’t seem to recognize him. Did a week’s worth of peach fuzz make him look so different?

Stiles lifted the gun slightly, clearing his throat. “Uh. Hey,” he said hoarsely, but stalled on a threatening follow-up.

“Uh, hey?” Kate echoed, eyes narrowing. She stared at him for a long moment, calculating. Then, filling in the gaps, she shot Derek an appraising look. “Did the pretty little berserker take a human prisoner? How unlike you, Derek…” She looked back at Stiles with a wide, insincere smile. “Don’t worry, kiddo. We’re saving you.”

There was a heavy layer of condescension to her words and then she was looking back at Derek, a triumphant little smirk playing about her lips. That plus Derek’s suddenly defeated expression? That was quite enough.

He pulled the trigger.

The net had enough expanding weights to make a rock summon take pause. For a human, it was like being head butted by a rampaging elephant. The net shot across the clearing in a gray blur, slamming into Kate. She went down in a sickening lurch.

Stiles didn’t stop to check on her. He immediately ran forward and smashed the side of the gun in Kate’s last conscious ally. Then he dropped it and ducked under Derek’s rising outstretched arm.

Derek was heavy. Stiles gripped his waist and his wrist until the blood left his knuckles and they marched at a half-run, Derek stumbling along with him.

-

“You okay?”

“It’s not lethal aconite. Just paralyzing. I’m fine.”

There was a tiny creek, a small, pathetic thing that would be mistaken as a rocky trail in a drought. Parts of it were bone dry, but a small trickle of water fed the dips and bowls of the ground.

Derek splashed his face sluggishly with the water from one of the drips. Behind him, Stiles wrestled off his plaid shirt and balled it in his hands. He stopped, glaring at his trembling hands. Pull it together, Stilinski.

A minute later saw him with steadier hands and kneeling awkwardly at an angle. He was wiping down Derek with the wet shirt. He went after the powder and the dark purples, liquefied by sweat. He went after the black fluid too, scraping the parts that had dried.

Stiles could feel the weight of Derek’s focus, which made his thoughts both scatter and focus to an intense point.

Derek’s arms eventually fell back to his sides, allowing Stiles full access. His shoulder bunched up slightly when one of Stiles’ hands clamped onto it for balance, but the tension soon faded away. Stiles leaned him back to look at his bio-monitor. Derek was plaint under his manhandling. The only reaction to it was a fainting fluttering of his eyelids.

The black blood was still coming out of his nose and eyes, but in small bubbles now instead of a flood. Stiles nodded once and rewet his shirt. He didn’t relax until the yellow light stopped flashing, didn’t stop washing Derek’s down until Derek looked fresh faced and normal.

And not like he’d almost been kidnapped by Kate Argent. Not like he’d almost been leashed up like Laura Hale. Not like he’d almost been tortured and poisoned and paraded around like a pet for months-

“If you rub my skin any harder, it’s going to come off.”

Stiles flinched back. “God. Really?”

Derek’s expression was unreadable. He reached out and pushed Stiles out of the way, getting to his feet shakily. Stiles got up and followed him, watching closely as Derek splashed out of the creek, each step measured and in control.

He stopped on the shore, visibly trembling. A moment passed, stretching on like taffy, and then Stiles was crossing the water and hesitating behind Derek.

Stiles stared for a long time at the back of Derek’s head. A mess of emotion clanged around in his head. Lingering aggression and fear tangled confusingly with stark relief and a sense of… something. Something unexpected. Something tender hearted and fragile, yet so powerful, so fierce, Stiles didn’t know what to do with it.

So he settled a hand on the broad curl of Derek’s shoulder, his chest tightening a bit when Derek shuddered but still refused to show his face. And Stiles knew that, in that very moment, if Kate Argent and her band of hunters came out of the trees for Kidnapping, Round Two…

He wouldn’t run. He wouldn’t hide. He’d fight dirty and desperate, with bare hands and bloody knuckles and not a chance in the world of winning—of living, breathing beyond that moment. And that? That was terrifying.

Stiles slowly took his hand off Derek’s shoulder, resigned. Something settled deep in his gut, like dread. Like anticipation. He knew this feeling.

Stiles blew noisily out of his nose. Yup. There was no way this was going to end well. No way at all.

-

“What the hell, Derek.”

Orange light trickled in, high amongst the trees. Stiles was exhausted and cold. The early morning chill seeped into his bones and nipped at his extremities. He could barely feel his nose. And Derek?

Derek was setting up a fire.

“Hunters are still out there,” Stiles said with a bounce, rubbing his arms. “We need to keep going.”

“And now many times have you tripped in the last hour? Do remind me.”

Stiles tucked his hands in his armpits, shooting him a withering look. “How is that relevant?” he retorted. “They can’t have you, Derek!” As soon as the words came out of his mouth, Stiles stiffened, feeling all too exposed.

Derek looked over his shoulder at Stiles. “And they’re not going to get me,” he said quietly, expression soft.

The look on Derek’s face slayed Stiles and his determination to keep going. He flopped on the ground gracelessly, hugging himself loosely. They had traveled all day and all night following their encounter with Kate. Stiles hadn’t complained once. The tension was high and choking, and Stiles knew he wasn’t the only one feeling it.

Of course, Derek’s anxiety manifested not with shaking or jittery behavior or timid movements, but rather absolute and complete silence. The silence of the grave. Stiles didn’t press.

Derek ended up making the first move. When Stiles tripped last night, almost losing a tooth on a rock, Derek grabbed his hand and didn’t let go, guiding him through the rest of the smudges and shadows of the night. And then, somewhere between stumbling blindly in the dark and sunrise, the guy’s anxiety just up and vanished.

“What are you so chipper about?” Derek didn’t do happy, not from what Stiles had seen, but there was something unmistakably… content about him at the moment.

“I have a lot to be thankful for,” Derek said easily. The fire roared into existence. He dropped from a crouch to a seated position. “Scoot closer.”

Stiles did so obediently. “Name one,” Stiles challenged, sticking his hands out to the flame. It was smaller than the one they usually made to last the night, but it felt so good.

“I’ll name several,” Derek said, knocking his shoulder against Stiles’. And then, ridiculously, he started ticking them off on his hand. “We escaped Kate.”

“Okay,” Stiles allowed.

“We are relatively uninjured and I haven’t heard buzzing, berserkers, or hunters in the last four hours.”

Stiles perked up at that. Neither of them had been willing to detour into a populated area with hunters and berserkers hot on their tail, but if Derek couldn’t hear them… maybe they were no longer being followed.

“And it is a beautiful day,” Derek said, looking up at the sky. After a pause, he brought his gaze down, licking his bottom lip. Then he was swinging his intense gaze towards Stiles.

“And,” he said quietly. “I was wrong.”

Stiles pulled his knees against his chest. “Wrong about what?”

“You,” Derek said gravely. Stiles just blinked at him. Derek rolled his eyes. “You’re a smart guy.” Stiles shifted uncomfortably. That was debatable. “And you know Kate had Lupa Shots.”

“So?”

“She didn’t think you were my prisoner. But she did know you were human and you were suffering from the Event,” Derek said. Then, softer, he said, “It’s obvious. You look like hell.” Stiles made a face at him. “So she dropped it in the conversation—that she and her people had what you needed. She gave you a way in to get on their side by pretending she thought you needed saving. You could have went to her so easily.” His mouth flattened into a frown. “She’s very good at what she does,” he mumbled, almost as if to himself.

“So? Why does that make you happy?”

Derek’s attention shifted back to Stiles. “Because, despite all that? Your first instinct was to save me.” Warmth rushed through Stiles. “Because, for the first time in the longest time, I’ve found someone I can trust.” Derek paused, then said carefully, weight in every word, “I trust you.”

Stiles ducked his head slightly. Then, letting go of the smile he was suppressing, he said, “Me too.”

Stiles quickly sobered. He had a ton of crushes in his lifetime, but only a handful he’d get in a fist fight for. This was a new low for him, and Derek wasn’t making it any better. Stiles could have managed his crush if Derek was mean and standoffish, not all soft eyed and declarative.

He was panicky at the thought of Derek’s trust, Derek’s regard. It was okay when he rushed headlong into danger for someone else. It was not okay when someone was willing to do the same thing for him.

Stiles mumbled something. It chased the softness out of Derek’s eyes.

“What was that?” There was no way Derek didn’t hear him. He wasn’t asking for clarification, for a repeat. No, he was challenging Stiles to stick by his words.

“I said you should leave me behind,” Stiles snapped. The heat of his anger died quickly, fizzing out. “You’d go a lot faster.”

“Shut up,” Derek muttered, crossing his arms over his chest.

“What? It’s a valid point.”

“You’re annoying.”

“Well, you’re… double annoying.” Derek snorted, shooting him a wry look. Stiles swallowed, heart aching a little bit, then pressed on. Derek needed to know the reasoning behind his fast feet and closed mouth.

“I don’t think I killed Kate.”

Derek stilled. “You didn’t,” he confirmed. He shook his head. “But she’s going to be in a lot of pain.”

Stiles twisted his fingers together, picking at his nails. He opened the palm of his left hand, looking at the half-moon marks his nails left behind. “I could have done worse,” he said. He paused, thinking maybe he should backpedal. He might have, if he was with another human. He might have blustered on about how he hadn’t known what overkill that weapon was. He might have spun a few words about being trapped between a rock and a hard place, and how he wished things were different.

But all those things would be lies. Stiles thought Derek might actually understand the truth.

Stiles was told again and again not to play shifter games with shifters, but he never felt so much like one before. He couldn’t begin to describe the teeth aching fury and protectiveness he’d felt when he saw Derek start to falter, how, for a second, he wanted to fight with his teeth and nails like a wolf, like a shifter, like a supe.

After a beat, Stiles swung his gaze back up to Derek.

Softness was back in his eyes. “I know.” He reached out and a hand settled over Stiles’.

Stiles couldn’t, for the life of him, convince himself to shake it off.

-

A day later meant they’d covered more distance. They’d gotten far enough ahead of berserkers and hunters that Derek stopped talking about what ifs and started talking about concrete details—how long it would take them to reach such and such trail, which way they’d need to follow it, whether or not they should approach the town from the south end or the east end.

Derek also talked about how to hide his bio-monitor, tugging on the tight straps lightly with his pinky. Stiles’ plaid shirt started straining before it was even buttoned—not a viable option.

Stiles ended up having to peel it off Derek. “Stupid muscle-y werewolf.”

Derek turned, pulling his wrists free as he did. His mouth pressed tight, but flare of his cheekbones and the brightness of his eyes gave away the smile he held back. “I’ll figure something out.”

“You’d better.”

They were too far away from the gully now—from Scott. Stiles missed Scott and worried about him constantly, but somehow… that worry was lessened. Stiles trusted Scott and his newfound control and alphaness. It took losing him to understand that. It took seeing Scott’s cheerful face looking up at him from a pit to make him realize that this guy, this man, was not the one Stiles flinched from back home. He still had that outlandish streak of kindness in him, but he was more than he’d ever been—confident, self-assured, powerful.

Scott would be just fine.

Stiles, on the other hand? Stiles was huffing and puffing and, yes, wheezing. They’d climbed too much today, a steady incline that might as well have been vertical, as far as his lungs were concerned. There was no blood today, but there were fuzzy spots in his vision and faint sense of unreality, so… there was that, he supposed.

Neither of those symptoms helped when Derek covered Stiles’ whole face with his palm and pushed him down to the ground. He’d been in the middle of arguing why they should go on for a little longer. The only nice thing Stiles could say about the gesture was that it was gentler than Stiles anticipated.

“We’re taking a break,” Derek grouched. He was hovering awkwardly next to a tree, eyes intent on Stiles.

“What?” Stiles rasped at him. “You’re anti-break. You’re the anti-est of break people.”

“So?”

“Give me one good reason why we need to do this!”

Derek’s gaze dropped to Stiles’ chest before flicking back up. “I can give you two.”

It took an embarrassingly long time for Stiles to get what he was saying and, when he did, he made a face. “Hardy-freaking-har.” Then he crossed his arms, pointedly looking anywhere but at Derek.

“Silent treatment, huh?”

“Yes. No. Shut up.

Derek huffed out a small noise of amusement. Out of the corner of his eye, Stiles could see him lean his hip against the tree. There was dirt smudged over his face, arms, and chest. Dried mud caked his boots and pants, and there were holes in the sleeveless shirt that hugged his body under his bio-monitor. All that, and he still had the nerve to be the most attractive thing Stiles had ever seen.

What a jerk.

Stiles clapped his hands on his knees and bounced up to his feet. “Okay, good break.” Ooh, head rush.

“Five more minutes,” Derek said, distracted. His eyes were sweeping steadily across their surroundings, not suspicious, but cautious.

Stiles waved off his concern. “Nah, I’m good. Let’s go.”

“Let’s not,” Derek replied, tone distinctly non-judgmental when Stiles sank back down to the ground again, light headed. But there was still something annoyingly knowing about it.

“I’ll crawl,” he threatened when his world cleared again.

Derek looked back at him. The playfulness on his face was a vast improvement over that constant worried frown. “You will not.”

That sounded a little bit like a dare. Stiles perked up. Derek watched him steadily. Faking innocence, Stiles stood up slowly, stretching. He turned his back on Derek briefly, if only to hide his growing smirk. He was tempted to run, if only to see if Derek would chase.

So he did.

-

“Every time you move, I’m resetting your five minutes,” Derek told him sternly. He was enjoying this a little too much, Stiles thought.

Stiles hadn’t gotten very far before he was whisked off his feet—literally—and carried back to Derek’s tree. Some part of him was thrilled at the prospect—at the chase and capture, if nothing else. Another part of him was hacking and trying to violently expel his ribcage through his throat.

“You’re such an idiot,” Derek muttered, nudging Stiles’ mouth with his canteen. It was battered beyond recognition, and had been that way when Stiles found it. Stiles grabbed it and chased down the last bit of water, cold and good against his throat, even if it was a bit stale.

Only Derek could make an insult sound so fond.

Once Stiles was done, he threw himself dramatically backwards. Derek made a soft ‘oof’ of surprise, then a lower growl when Stiles tossed back an elbow.

“Geez, this pillow is lumpy…”

“Ass.”

Stiles smirked widely, but the expression faded. He became aware of where he was sitting, what he was touching in disjointed fragments. Derek’s thighs bracketed him like bookends. Like those bookends, he had barely noticed them. Initially, anyway. This wasn’t much different than the way they slept together the nights Derek couldn’t sleep. This wasn’t a strange place to be at all.

And yet he found himself staring at a hand, his hand, casually placed high on Derek’s raised knee. Thick, warm muscle bunched up under his palm as Derek shifted minutely. His heart started beating faster and he swallowed thickly. Stiles wasn’t sleepy and cold, desperate for something friendly and warm to cuddle up to.

So what was he doing?

He tried to act normal, tried to focus on the hard press of Derek’s bio-monitor against his side, but instead found himself tracing the inside seam of Derek’s pants with the pointed tip of his thumb.

Derek’s breathing hitched once, then continued again, shallower than before, warm against Stiles’ ear. Playfulness faded into something else—something tense and fraught with promise.

Frowning at the thought, Stiles squirmed around on the floor until he’d turned himself roughly ninety degrees, until he could turn his head and look Derek in the face.

Derek looked back at him calmly. His eyes were at half-mast but still focused on him. Strong arms were loosely held around Stiles’ shoulders and hadn’t moved from that position, even when Stiles moved.

Stiles felt distinctly surrounded, but in a good way.

Derek blinked slowly. “Awfully close,” he commented.

Stiles’s heart was rabbiting now. “Way to state the obvious.”

Stiles felt it more than he heard it—a soft huff of amusement from Derek, who then ducked his head and smiled slightly. “Remember the last time I was in your face?”

“Might need you to narrow that down,” Stiles admitted. He kind of got in Derek’s face. A lot.

“If I recall correctly,” Derek looked up again, blinking bright eyes innocently. “You said I could either kiss you… or kill you.” Stiles cringed at the memory, groaning out loud. Not his finest moment.

Visibly smug, Derek watched him mentally castigate himself for a moment before his expression sobered. Then, quietly, he murmured, “Those options still open?”

Stiles froze. He stared back at Derek, unresisting as two fingers caught his chin, tipping it up.

Quick, his mind told him, say something. Say something profound. Say something noble.

Nothing came to mind. So Derek kissed him in the orange tinged sunlight of the afternoon.

Stiles’ lips were dry and chapped. He was wrung out like a rag and he knew his mouth tasted like too many mornings and old blood. Derek kissed him again anyway, pressing in softly before pulling away.

His eyes were green glass, pupils dilated.

“Yo-ou like me,” Stiles croaked finally in a singy, mocking voice. He swallowed past a lump in his throat.

“So do you,” Derek said calmly. He dragged his nose down the line of Stiles’ jaw. “I can smell it.” And then, imitating Stiles’ teasing, he sang against his throat, “And yo-ou can’t.”

Stiles laughed, couldn’t help it, and cupped the back of Derek’s head. He was giddy. No, scratch that. Elated. Ecstatic. What was a good word for hyper and happy?

Stiles pushed away from Derek, easily escaping the loose circle of his arms. Derek blinked sleepy, surprised eyes at Stiles as he pushed Derek’s legs down and crawled over them. Stiles scooted closer then and slung his leg over Derek’s thighs, shooting him a triumphant smile as he did.

He’d never properly sat in a man’s lap before, and he really really wanted to.

He pressed a hard kiss into Derek’s mouth, grinning through it. He might have been sick, they might have been chased, but they were so close to getting away from everything, so close to reconnecting with society. Once they got to a town, they’d find everyone, starting with Scott. Once everyone was rounded up, he’d go and finally get medical attention, and he’d drag Allison and Chris with him too.

Everything was going to be alright.

They parted after a second, but Stiles didn’t lean away, instead bumping his head lightly against Derek’s and looking him in his wide eyed expression. Then, slowly, Stiles smiled.

Mirroring his smile, Derek slid both of his hands over Stiles’ face, thumbs circling Stiles’ cheekbones. He closed his eyes briefly, seeming to savor the moment. When his eyes opened again, they dropped down to Stiles’ mouth, which felt sensitive and hot to the touch. Stiles desperately wanted to be kissed again, and it looked like his wish would be fulfilled when Derek started to lean in.

Then a howl ripped through the air.

This howl was different than the others. Whole. Strong. Commanding. Every muscle tensed up in Derek’s body.

Silence fell after the howl ceased. “What the hell was that?” Stiles whispered, loath to interrupt it.

Derek’s throat worked as he swallowed. He was looking out towards the trees. “The hunt’s over,” he said reluctantly, leaning his head back against the tree. He still didn’t look at Stiles. “Cora’s finally hauling in all her berserkers.”

“And they’re just going to obediently listen?” Stiles retorted, voice a little too harsh.

That, at least, got Derek’s attention. “They have to. It’s instinctive. They’ve imprinted on her.”

Stiles suddenly got the feeling that he’d hurt Derek’s feelings without meaning to. He winced and reached up, loosely circling his fingers around Derek’s wrists. “Do you need to go?” he asked, gentling his tone.

“I’m not leaving you here,” Derek said, but his gaze drifted off to the trees again.

Stiles stared down at the bio-monitor with its blinking green light. Humans tagged their livestock with position tracking hardware, and animals in the dome had literally nowhere to go. Who said they didn’t do the same with berserkers?

He wanted to ask Derek if he would take it off and keep going west with him, keep following the plan they’d laid out. Once they found everyone, maybe they could go off the grid and resettle in a different abandoned town. They could all start a new life there—away from the war, away from the domes, and away from Beacon Hills. There was no going back to their old lives, after all.

But Derek had a longing expression on his face that Stiles couldn’t just ignore. He reminded himself that, while Derek had ripped off his mask to save Stiles’ life, he never once touched the bio-monitor. Stiles had to respect Derek’s choices, even if he wished for something different.

“Let’s go anyway.” When Derek looked at him sharply, Stiles rolled his eyes, emphasizing, “together.”

Derek glowered at him like he was trying to read Stiles’ mind. “Are you sure?”

No. Stiles shrugged vaguely, simply saying, “I like Hales better than Argents or Darachs.” Uncomfortable with Derek’s continued scrutiny, Stiles leaned back, clearing his throat. “So. Where are they going? Where’s Cora?”

Another howl rose in the air—just in time, it seemed. Derek listened to it, distracted from Stiles. “North,” he said. Then, clearly thinking, he said, “There’s an old human settlement there—a few old stores, I think. That’s the only thing left.” He looked off into the distance. “They’ve probably set up a basecamp there. They’ll have shelter. Food.” Then, with careful weight, he said, “Fully equipped medical personnel.” After a beat, he looked at Stiles.

Stiles’ world went white around the edges. He felt faint, but in a good way for once, relief rushing through him in a wave. Maybe he was sick. Maybe he was dying, but now there was a definite light at the end of the tunnel rather than a theoretical one.

Stiles wasn’t going to die here after all.

-

When Derek said they were going back with the berserkers, somehow, Stiles didn’t think that this was what he meant—that Derek would be so literal. Derek watched him worriedly out of the corner of his eye, brows knitted together.

“Don’t read too much into my grip,” Stiles said tightly, trying not to trip over his moving feet. “I trust you.”

Derek’s gaze dropped to Stiles’ hand, white knuckled and fisted in the bottom of Derek’s shirt. He nodded once and dropped a step out of rhythm with Stiles—just enough to lift his arm and wrap his arm around Stiles’ shoulders.

Stiles couldn’t even relax into it, not even for a second. His other arm brushed up against another’s. He shrank into Derek, eyes darting to the stranger to the right of him.

The man looked back at him with watery blue eyes over a metal mask. Red still sat in his corneas, but in patchy clumps instead of a solid ring. For a second, he seemed absolutely disinterested in Stiles. Then his nostrils flared, faded blue surging into glowing beta blue. Under the mask, a rumble started up, echoing in the chambers and turning into something out of a nightmare.

A deeper, threatening growl rose to his left. The berserker visibly flinched, beta blue fading. He walked quickly to the right, head down.

Stiles let out the air he’d been holding in. “You’re so bossy,” he said, trying to hide his relief. “Bossy, bossy beta.”

Derek’s arm tightened slightly. Stiles didn’t complain. They were surrounded by a freaking army of berserkers, after all.

To the right of them, to the left of them, in front and behind—they were quite literally surrounded. And weirdly the berserkers, for all their howling and hissing and jeering before, were completely silent. They were bloodshot and exhausted. Most of them looked alert, but had tired, tortured eyes behind the metal maw of their mask. Others, like the one who’d approached Stiles, had blood red corneas and spaced out looks like they were in a thrall.

Stiles swallowed heavily, anxious. He didn’t think Derek would let him get mauled. He was more worried Derek was going to get jumped from behind. He cast his gaze behind them often, wary and watchful.

It took him three times to realize that berserkers were giving Derek a wide, wide berth.

Before Stiles could figure out why, they came upon their destination. The trees opened up and the ground flattened out, turning from packed dirt and wispy weeds to cracking asphalt and raised concrete. A few squat buildings loomed in the distance, but barely drew the eyes. There was too much happening in front of them—transports going back and forth, kicking up dust, supes barking orders into comm. units, people striding purposefully from one end of the area to the next. Tents were set up everywhere. A cat shifter looked up at the sky, waving her arms sharply to guide an aerial supply drop off.

Stiles was distracted by it, entranced by the steady whip of the blades. The supe society that followed The Event may have used much of the technology humans developed and left behind, but air travel was one of the areas where little innovation was made and much was lost. The thing in the sky—the helicopter—had to be an antique. At least seventy years old.

“Holy crap- Stiles?”

Stiles’ attention shot back down to the ground. The berserkers were being funneled into a line that fed into the camp and into their own building. The main gate keeper was short, lithe, dark of hair and eyes, pale of skin, and all too familiar to Stiles.

“Hey, Cora,” Stiles said curtly. “Made it out to the front line, I see.”

“Yeah, I was put in charge of the berserkers.” She had a tablet popped up her hip and was scanning people in by waving a wand over their bio-monitors. They had finally inched to the front by the time Stiles noticed her.

“Good job with that, setting them on a whole town.”

Cora froze. Then, slowly, she lifted her wand and waved it over Derek’s bio-monitor. “Sorry you got caught in the middle,” she said quietly. Her eyes caught on Derek and lingered. “It wasn’t my decision.”

“You could have warned us,” Stiles argued angrily. “Even the Darach did us that much.”

Cora looked stricken. Stiles stalked past her, exhausted and irritatingly so. He ran a hand through his hair, scanning the camp critically. What now?

Derek didn’t stay with his alpha and didn’t follow the procession of berserkers. Instead, he followed Stiles, grabbing him by the elbow in a tight grip. “That’s not fair.” Derek pulled him enough so that they were facing each other. His mouth was in a flat, unhappy line.

“If I didn’t have Scott and I didn’t have you, I wouldn’t have survived five minutes out there,” Stiles retorted. Stiles stared at him for a moment longer before slowly and purposefully shaking Derek’s grip loose. “How is that fair?”

Stiles turned away again, trying to swallow down the bitterness that came with Derek siding with another wolf. He should have expected it, what with how quickly Derek got along with Scott and how long it took him to quit hating Stiles. But it still stung.

Derek caught his arm again, gentler this time. Two fingers curled in the crook of Stiles’ elbow and no pressure at all was placed on him. Still, though, Stiles shook the uncharitable thoughts away and looked back at Derek.

Derek’s expression was very gentle. “That’s not fair either,” he whispered. “You shouldn’t have been put in that position. No one in your town should have been caught in the middle.”

Stiles could only look at Derek’s earnest expression for so long before he had to stare at the floor. He hadn’t really been all that concerned about the people outside of his group of friends until Derek mentioned it. From the wendigo family to the bear shifter to the hyper dog lady Gladdis, they all seemed inherently hardy people. Stiles would be happy to hear they were alive, but he didn’t have the space in his head to worry about them too. Not when he was constantly followed by thoughts of Scott, alone and cold in that gully. Not when he was smothered by thoughts of Lydia, who didn’t even like to run recreationally, being chased by rabid berserkers. Not when his mind was choked up by thoughts of Allison and Chris succumbing to the Event, separated from each other in their last hours.

“Stiles!” A female voice rose in the air, delighted. And then, with surprise, the same voice bleated, “Derek?”

Stiles turned and saw none other than Laura Hale. All of his panicked thoughts evaporated and he laughed at the sight of her, relief surging through him. He approached her at a quick clip. “Oh my god, you’re okay!” He babbled.

Laura tore her wide eyed gaze away from Derek, but his delight was mirrored in her eyes. She hugged him the second he got within arms’ reach. Her color was good, but she was still too thin. Stiles didn’t want to think how long she’d been with Kate, so he focused on her grip—much too tight as usual. She didn’t have a single black vein on her.

They parted. “Everyone is going to be so happy to see you,” she said, grinning.

“Everyone?” Stiles echoed, voice hitching slightly.

Before she could answer, Scott was pushing his head out of a tent, frowning faintly. Stiles’ whole being lit up with light the second he saw Scott was alive and okay. And, judging by the mega-watt grin Scott sent him, the feeling was more than mutual.

Laura was similarly distracted, too busy staring at Derek. Derek looked back at her, seeming to shrink slightly on himself. His expression was tragic. Hers wasn’t much better.

After a beat, though, Laura shook her head and said to Stiles, as if remembering he was still there, “We’ve been sending out parties and rounding people up, taking them to safer places.”

Stiles looked at Derek, firmly expecting an ‘I told you so’, but Derek only had eyes for Laura. “Did everyone make it back here?” Stiles pressed. “Allison, Chris? Kira and her parents? Lydia?” He paused, then, remembering, blurted out, “What about Braeden?”

“You were the last one,” Laura reassured him. “Everyone’s-“

She stilled suddenly and looked out across the camp. Stiles was reminded of his mother suddenly, doing head counts of her little ducklings. Scott had noticed it too and had taken to a steady, cautious approach.

Laura scented the air, red flicking over irises. Then she growled and took off towards the backend of the camp. Scott and Stiles exchanged a look and followed after her. Derek kept pace with them warily.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Laura was growling at a startled beta transport driver. The poor guy practically fell out of the vehicle to get out of her way, tossing his key card between profuse apologies. Key card in hand, Laura marched around the transport, swiping the card through the back doors.

She practically ripped them open. One of the doors lost a hinge. Stiles, Scott, and Derek hurried around the vehicle to see what she was looking at.

Inside was none other than a steely jawed Braeden, still bleeding openly from her wounds.

Laura reached out to her, stance nonthreatening. Braeden stared at Laura’s hand for a moment before hesitatingly scooting closer, briefly resting her fingers. She held herself stiffly, but accepted the alpha’s help down from the transport. Laura’s arms darkened with branching black veins as she drained away her enemy’s pain.

“What happened to you?” Stiles blurted out.

Braeden’s eyes flickered briefly towards him. “Berserkers. A whole mob of them.” She tipped her chin at Laura. “She looked worse.”

“But you were with an alpha,” Stiles said, not understanding. Whatever odd version of an alpha Scott was, it made all the berserkers stay way the hell away from them. Even Derek had been enough to-

“Berserkers aren’t impressed by betas,” Braeden said. “They’re even less impressed by an alpha that smells more like prey than predator.” Braeden flicked her hair over her shoulder, looking Laura up and down. “No offense, princess.”

“None taken.” Laura tried to hide her smile, but failed miserably, which made Braeden huff.

“You’re so irritating...”

Laura’s suppressed smile grew teeth. Stiles frowned, his mind whirling. He’d seen that smile somewhere… hadn’t he?

But Laura’s amusement dimmed quickly. “Who put you in here?”

Braeden’s eyes slid to the left, narrowing darkly and with old hatred. Laura followed her gaze.

Stiles didn’t know why he didn’t expect Peter, but there he was, stalking up to the group. “Why are you consorting with one of the Darach’s soldiers?” he protested, clearly peeved at this new development. “She is to be taken to Beacon Hills to be tried for her crimes.”

“That’s unacceptable. I need her,” Laura snapped. Braeden only had eyes for Laura at that moment. She was staring at Laura like she’d never seen her before. “There’s something fishy going on and I want to get to the bottom of it. Starting with the peace talks that were supposed to happen two years ago. The ones that were sabotaged.”

Peter’s eyebrows shot up. “Peace talks?” he echoed, confused. He shook his head. “Laura, what peace talks?”

“Exactly,” she fired back, tipping her chin up. “I know my mother would have jumped at any chance for peace talks. So do you!” Peter seemed like he was still processing, so she pressed the point. “So why do none of us know about two years ago?”

Peter’s expression cleared. “There’s a very simple explanation. She”—Peter jabbed a finger at Braeden—“is lying. They’re on the losing side of this war, remember? Of course there’s suddenly ‘sabotaged peace talks’-”

“I can show you,” Braeden cut in. “Our old camp, where it all went down? It’s not far from here. The Darach had extensive security records.”

Laura stared at her for a long moment before nodding once. “Okay,” she agreed.

Braeden looked relieved, like she hadn’t quite expected Laura to listen. She got ahold of herself quickly. “We’ll need a transport and some backup. I have no idea what lives there now.”

Laura nodded and then, with surprising tentativeness, swung her gaze not to Scott, not to Peter, but to the man standing quietly behind Stiles. “Can I count on your help, Derek?”

Something jabbed Stiles in the back of his brain, forcing him to pay attention. Hadn’t he heard her say his name before? But when was that? What was the context of that conversation?

Confused, Stiles looked back at him. The complicated expression on Laura’s face was mirrored on his. “Of course,” Derek said quietly, like he wasn’t sure why she had to ask.

Laura nodded again and led Braeden away, talking quietly about medical attention first. As Peter followed after her, visibly frustrated, it occurred to Stiles that Kate hadn’t been the only one to benefit from Laura’s kidnapping and imprisonment.

“You didn’t tell me you knew Laura,” Derek commented. Scott looked back at him curiously.

“You didn’t tell me you knew Laura either,” Stiles fired back. He winced almost immediately, regretting it.

Behind him, Derek let out a gusty sigh.

-

“How long have you been here, Scott?” Stiles asked curiously. They were both sitting on overturned boxes behind one of the buildings. They would probably be chased out of there soon enough, forced to contribute some way to the war effort, but for now they were left alone.

“About four hours.” Scott gazed at him with a worried expression. “You should go see one of the doctors.”

“I will, I will,” Stiles promised vaguely. “When the demand dies down.” There were lines out the door and around the building—all injured, all berserkers. “How was it? Hoofing it alone?”

“Lonely,” Scott admitted. He smiled faintly up at the sky before saying, “Sometimes I could hear your voice, though. That helped.”

Stiles felt heat rise to his face. “What- what did I say?”

Scott swung his gaze over to Stiles. His expression softened. “You really like him, don’t you.”

And of course Scott would bring it to that level. Of course Scott would believe anything like that could pop up in a scant two weeks time. Of course Scott would assume some bickering and some flirting sandwiched between terror and saving each other’s lives would automatically provoke feelings, even though he knew as well as anyone that Stiles was the least romantic person he knew. And yet…

And yet…

“Yeah,” Stiles said with a slow smile, thinking about Derek. “I do.” Despite everything that happened, he really did.

After a beat, he turned to Scott. “Speaking of which, where’s Kira? Where’s Allison?” He knew where Kira’s parents were—helping lead parties to pick up the rest of the residents of their scattered town.

The wendigo family had been pretty badly hurt by berserkers, but had picked up the unlikely protection of Gladdis, the hyperactive dog shifter. They were in another camp, receiving medical aid. The bear shifter—Boris? Bart? Benjamin?—had been found up a tree, having tea with his three surviving human neighbors.

But Stiles didn’t know where Allison was, or Chris for that matter. He’d had Laura’s assurance that they, along with Kira and Lydia, had been picked up by Beacon Hills’ patrolling, but he had yet to see any of them.

Scott’s smile faded. “Allison, she’s….” He stopped, staring at his hands. “They sent her to the closest supe city.”

Stiles turned to face him completely. “What? Why?”

“She’s in really bad condition.” Scott cleared his throat, still avoiding Stiles’ gaze. “Kira- Kira kept them safe from the berserkers. And the hunters. But Allison went downhill, like you did.”

“The Event,” Stiles muttered.

Scott nodded, agreeing. “She’s been out here a… a really long time. And when she no longer had a steady supply of Lupa Shots?” He paused, seemingly unable to finish. Then he looked up at Stiles, eyes wide and vulnerable.

Stiles hooked an arm around his shoulder. He pulled him close. “It’s okay, Scott.”

Scott laughed, surprising Stiles. “But it is actually okay!” he was saying quickly, his words wobbly. “Because Laura? Laura, she lifted the ban off Chris and Allison and sent them to the supe city almost immediately. Allison is going to get the best medical treatment.”

“That’s great,” Stiles said quietly, feeling a warm glow appreciation for the alpha he didn’t know all that well.

“And she’s not alone either,” Scott babbled. “Chris and Kira and Lydia went with her.” Scott looked up at Stiles. “She’s going to be fine,” he said again.

“That’s great,” Stiles said again, squeezing Scott a little tighter. A thought occurred to him. “Why… why didn’t you go with her?”

Scott shot him an irritated look, like he’d just asked the stupidest question ever. “I’m not leaving you behind, dummy,” he growled, yellow-red eyes flickering at Stiles with the force of his fierce resolve.

Stiles couldn’t suppress the grin that formed or the warm feeling that curled in his chest. He’d crossed an abandoned world for Scott. It was nice to know that the feelings were still mutual, even after all the crap Stiles pulled and all the lies he told.

“I’m going with Laura to investigate Braeden’s claim,” Scott announced out of nowhere.

Stiles’ good mood plummeted. “Oh.”

Scott looked at him for a moment. He knocked his shoulder into Stiles. “You’re coming too, moron.”

“Oh. Oh! Good. Great,” Stiles babbled. Scott slid off the box. “Wait, why?”

-

Laura was going to follow up on Braeden’s lead the very next day. Peter didn’t seem to like it.

The hours leading up to it alternated between him cajoling her to him denying her. He really didn’t want her to leave at all. Stiles wondered briefly why he didn’t just overrule her and put his foot down, but he was reminded sharply, when she dismissed Peter over and over again, that she was the second most powerful person in their territory. He couldn’t overrule her at all.

A mean little part of him was gleeful about it. A nicer part of him was grateful because that meant Braeden had a chance to say her piece.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” Peter said sarcastically, “but we’re sort of in the middle of an active battlefield.” There was a faint purple-ish tinge to his skin. “Now’s not the time to chase rumors.”

It was nighttime and they were all set up in one of the buildings in a large empty room. A mobile computation station was set up in the middle of a rickety table. In the air it projected a faintly flickering map of the local area, mountains pulled tall with their elevation, valleys pulled low. All the forested areas were marked with a green haze. Somewhere in the biggest block of green haze was the former basecamp of the woman known only as the Darach.

Laura was there, coordinating a strategy of approach. Braeden was feeding her information about the surrounding area—which places were impassable, which places had traps, which places were dangerous. Scott tossed in his two cents every once in a while, leaning his full weight against the table.

Derek rarely spoke at all. He was immediately named as Laura’s second on this, a reality that seemed to still bother him on a deep level. When Stiles tried to talk him out of it, Derek would only shake his head, saying “We need to talk.”

Stiles wasn’t really sure why he was there, but he figured his contribution to the whole affair was two giant steps up from Peter’s. Peter’s only function at this meeting was to be a colossal dick.

Stiles wasn’t a werewolf, but even he could see the coiled tension pulling tight. Laura hesitated more than once, responding to that if nothing else. The meeting quickly devolved into glares and angry asides.

“This is a waste of time and resources, Laura,” Peter said. “You’re looking for answers that aren’t there.”

“Those answers are to questions you can’t address!” Laura fired back testily.

“I can explain everything,” Peter promised, swinging back to honey instead of vinegar. “Anything you want to know.”

Laura seemed troubled. If she was leaning towards humoring him or towards calling him out, Stiles didn’t know. And he didn’t get the chance to find out.

“I got one,” Scott said, pushing off the table. “Where you were when I was cursed a couple months ago?”

That was the last straw. Peter spun on Scott, lengthening teeth bared. Stiles flinched back reflexively into Derek, who caught him by the waist. But Scott stood tall, dark eyes as steady as his stance, even as Peter seemed to swell and growl.

“That was a gift,” Peter growled through a nightmarish mouth. Then he blinked once, seeming to realize the position he was in. Scott stared back at him challengingly, letting Peter pull back, compose himself, but it was too late.

Silence fell upon their group. Laura’s gaze was darkening. Confused, Stiles tried to piece together what Scott already knew.

There were only a handful of alphas left in the world. When Scott got bit, Talia was already back in Beacon Hills, miles and miles away doing press conferences from her home office. Deucalion was chemically defanged for a crime no one talked about. Cora was confined to the city and Hale was literally behind bars.

Peter, on the other hand, was the only alpha near Beacon Dome when Scott was bitten.

“You son of a bitch,” he whispered. He thought about Peter’s smugness about it all, his veiled words. Then, stronger, he sputtered, “That’s-that’s-”

“Very illegal,” Derek finished.

Peter lifted an unimpressed eyebrow at Derek. “It speaks.” Derek flinched. Peter swung back to Laura. “I broke the rules. So what? It was for the greater good.”

For the first time that whole night, Scott looked troubled—and for good reason too. Peter didn’t seem at all bothered to have been called out for the crime he’d committed. In fact, he seemed to relish the idea of laying it all out for them.

Stiles never hated him as much as he hated Peter in that exact moment.

“In fact-”

“Peter, shut your mouth,” Laura whispered, “before I wire it shut for you.” She was leaning against the table and her head was low, dark hair hanging to cover her face.

Peter sucked in a small breath, eyes dropping briefly to her chest. He seemed to wince briefly and settle, mouth closed. Laura didn’t issue idle threats.

Everyone watched Laura. Eventually, she pushed herself off the table, eyes gleaming like old blood. She stalked to the entrance, but paused just in front of it. She looked back over her shoulder. Her eyes went instantly to Braeden, betraying some desperate emotion. Then her eyes, more guarded, swung to Scott.

Then, finally, they settled on Stiles. Stiles stiffened, unable to read anything but apology in her enigmatic gaze.

“I’ll see the rest of you tomorrow morning at sunrise.” Laura tore her gaze away, shaking her head. “Damn you, Peter.”

The door slammed shut behind her, leaving Stiles with the feeling that Peter had found a way to overrule her after all. But how? And with what?

-

The sun was just barely peeking over the horizon. The world around them was still more gray than anything else. It was horrible time to be awake, in Stiles’ opinion.

Scott cringed as Stiles yawned with enough force to audibly crack his jaw.

“We get it, you’re not a morning person,” Scott said crankily. He was helping someone move supplies. “We still have an hour and a half before we leave. Go away.”

Stiles yawned again, but stumbled away obediently, eyes moving across the camp. He’d mostly given up trying to corner Derek. Every time he tried to talk to the guy, Derek would find some reason to leave. It was escalating to the point where Derek started to leave the second Stiles entered a room. It was irritating.

Whatever. Stiles wasn’t going to chase him—and it wasn’t like Stiles was the one who claimed they had to talk!

Either way, Stiles was in on this road trip thing. Derek would have to talk to him then. Maybe he’d pull the stick out of his ass. Then again, maybe this was how Derek was normally. Stiles only knew traveling-and-running-Derek, not sedentary-and-constipated-Derek.

He hoped that wasn’t the case. He liked Derek a lot, but he didn’t want to have to always be in mortal danger for them to get along.

Stiles yawned again, wishing he wasn’t awake. Laura was up too, looking like she’d never gone to sleep in the first place. She was fortifying the camp in her absence and increasing patrols. She even put the effort into stressing the difference between human separatists and hunters, but not with a whole lot of patience.

When a beta tentatively asked, again, what the difference was, she snapped, “How about this- a true human separatist isn’t going to charge you hyped up on Lupa Shots!” She’d meant it sarcastically, but it seemed to clear up a lot of the confusion.

Stiles could barely believe the transformation she’d gone through overnight. Such a short time ago, she’d been grinning at him, her elation making her look ten years younger. Now she looked burdened and haggard, shouldering the weight of criminally inclined relatives, secret botched negotiations, and a war. It made her snappy, too.

Stiles picked up a random empty crate and hoisted it on his shoulder, using it as a barrier to hide his face. Hoping it would work, he passed Laura—no dice.

Her hand shot out, grabbing him by the collar. He yelped, dropping the crate, suddenly inches away from sleepy cranky alpha.

She sniffed him critically. “Do you seriously sleep in this?”

“What answer will end this conversation faster?” Stiles asked pleasantly.

Laura glared at him before pushing him away. “Get those Lupa Shots, Stiles,” she ordered, her tone brooking no argument. “Marin’s waiting for you.”

Stiles straightened his shirt, a little nauseated at the thought. “Are you sure you want me to go with you?” He twisted the ends of his shirt in his hands. “Aren’t I a liability? Lupa Shots or not.”

Laura looked at him, eyebrows high on her forehead. The camp was coming alive with people. They moved all around Laura and Stiles, focused on their duties. A supe with wings landed lightly on the roof and called out their report to their supervisor. A team jogged in from the south, bearing stretchers. Some of the patients moved. Others did not.

Stiles wondered if they burned their dead too.

“Honestly,” Laura said quietly, “I’d rather you stayed behind and got some rest.”

Stiles wanted it to sting and to hurt, and it did. But for the wrong reasons.

An arm pressed into his shoulders. The owner of it, Braeden, was to his right. “I’m the one who asked for you,” she said and led him away.

-

“You look good.”

Braeden and Stiles were sitting down in the camp’s version of a mess tent, getting breakfast. They both had an apple on their plate, a mess of yellow eggs, and a hard flat square of bread. The supes around them acted like they had the plague, which meant they had a whole table to themselves.

“Power of wolf’s blood, I suppose,” Braeden said, chasing around the last of her eggs with her bread. “You gonna eat that?”

“Why do you want me?”

Braeden paused, swallowing. “You’re human, little brother. You’ve seen both sides and you know neither one of them is really evil.” She sat up a little straighter. “You also know what it’s like living in a cage.”

Stiles’ eyes narrowed. “Why do you call me-” Braeden had a mysterious little smile, like it was a shared secret. Stiles changed tactics. “Cage?”

She rolled her eyes. “I’m only two years older than you, little brother. You really think I was born out here?” She took a crisp bite of her apple. “I was in a dome too.”

“What happened?”

“Human separatists blew it up,” she said simply, examining her apple. “Or so I was told.”

There was an odd sort of tension about the way Braeden said it. He knew he should tread carefully. “What were you?” he asked instead.

It was the right tack to take. She smiled at him, putting her apple down. “Order Maintenance,” she said, leaning into the table. “You?”

“Me too,” Stiles said before he remembered what actually happened. He winced. “Well, I used to be, anyway.”

Braeden’s smile faded, but didn’t quite disappear. She stared beyond his left shoulder. “I was patrolling the edges of the dome’s force field. You know how it is. It’s transparent and sometimes we get gawkers. So when that happens, we-“

“Recite the law prohibiting harassment of protected populations,” Stiles finished. He grinned at her. “Then take a picture if that doesn’t scare them off.”

Braeden grinned too, but didn’t quite make eye contact. “Exactly.”

There was a long pause. Then, carefully, Stiles asked, “Any gawkers that day?”

“No,” she admitted, looking back down at her tray. She frowned. “A whole lot of nothing went on that day until a whole lot of something blew up. Lot of people died…”

Stiles didn’t understand. This flew in the face of everything he thought he understood about her. “Human separatists, though. Your people-”

Finally, he got her eyes again. “No, not my people,” Braeden said with force. “It was Gerard Argent.” After a beat, she cocked her head. “This war is more complicated than your Beacon Hills is telling you. It’s not just human separatists verses supe world order, just as it isn’t humans verses supes.”

Stiles looked down at his plate. No, it wasn’t as simple as humans verses everyone else. He used to think that, though. He thought all supes were conspiring against them, having a grand old time on the remains of human civilization. Now he knew different. Now he knew that, in their stupid way, supes were trying to protect the last dying dregs of humanity with the dome system. Supes cared for them in their own weird way. Moreover, supes needed them and in more ways that one.

“This day is historic,” Braeden was saying. “This is the first time we have a chance to show someone with authority the complicated elements of this struggle. This is the first time we can show them that my people aren’t the bad guys here.”

“You’re saying ‘we’ a lot-”

“And I mean it.”

“I’m afraid… I don’t know what you want from me,” Stiles admitted.

Braeden stared back at him steadily. “And I’m afraid I’m gonna lead them there and they’re not gonna get it. I’m afraid I’ll get this prime opportunity to make a stand about what the Darach was trying to do, and I’ll miss it, because they don’t understand the position they’ve put all of humanity in with these domes.” She lifted her shoulders. “I’m afraid they’re just gonna dismiss our whole mission as some small person’s pet peeve, some unique irritant, when we both know that a cage is no place for a human.”

Stiles thought of Derek and Phase Three. “They already know that.”

“Do they?” Braeden challenged. “Because seventy years of dicking around says otherwise. They have surprised with the depths of their power and of their c-compassion”—Braeden said the last bit unsteadily, a frown crossing her face—“but my opinion of them hasn’t changed. I don’t trust a single werewolf, and neither should you.”

-

“Cora’s in charge of the camp while I’m gone,” Laura said, passing off a tablet to her sister. Cora moodily took it and walked away. The early morning light lit up the auburn in her hair, fading only when she stomped back up the steps of the main building they were meeting in front of.

They had forty more minutes until they were supposed to leave, but this was the first Cora had heard of it. Stiles wasn’t surprised she was pissed.

Laura was handing out final orders—duties, expectations, and responsibilities. She’d told him his earlier, just as the others started to arrive. Stiles tried not to be offended by the fact that his only responsibility was to not die and to run away if there was any danger.

(“Fat chance,” Scott said wryly. Without looking, he and Stiles fist bumped. Laura looked put out.

“No kidding,” a voice said from behind Stiles.

Stiles turned, facing Derek as he walked up, annoyed at the way his heart lurched at the site of him—diminished, somehow, and still dressed in his old clothes. His bio-monitor blinked steadily. Derek stared back at him like he was looking at something he’d lost—which was stupid, because he was the one running away.

“Maybe we should do the buddy system,” Scott said slyly. “Dibs on Laura.”

“Dibs on me, myself, and I,” Braeden commented dryly, appearing out of nowhere.

“Dibs on Stiles,” Derek said quietly.

As confused and hurt as he was, Stiles couldn’t help but reward Derek with a smile.)

“Really? Cora?” Peter was saying with a wrinkled nose. Thank God Laura immediately vetoed him coming. “I’m not sure that’s the best idea-”

“And Peter,” Laura said loudly, talking over him, “will tend to the wounded, make sure critical cases get transported back to the city, and facilitate berserker rehabilitation.” She slammed a tablet into his chest, eyeing him. Peter’s mouth was open in protest. “He will do this all while coming up with a good explanation for my mother why he’s a special snowflake who doesn’t have to follow the rules.”

The last bit was the only thing Peter seemed to agree with. Stiles scowled at him, imagining Peter crafting and re-crafting responses to Talia Hale about Scott’s stolen humanity. Peter struck him as the type who could leave you thinking his idea was your idea first.

Peter acquiesced gracefully, making it look like that was his intention the entire time and settling long nails on the back of his tablet. “Allow me to talk to young McCall first, and I’ll be happy to assist the wounded.”

Stiles tensed up. Next to him, Scott did the same. Laura looked over at Scott, a question in her eyes. Then she shrugged, giving her permission. She went to the beta taking over Cora’s duties while she took over the camp. The poor guy looked nervous.

Meanwhile, Peter approached Scott, stalking towards him. There was something mean and vindictive in his expression. Whatever his game plan was, he hadn’t appreciated Scott’s challenge last night, and Stiles was dreading what the revenge would be, when it came. Hackles raised, Stiles stepped in front of Scott.

Peter paused. His anger turned into amusement, angling a single raised eyebrow at Stiles as if saying ‘how are you even relevant?’.

Stiles didn’t care. He just needed to be between this guy and Scott. “What do you want?” he demanded fiercely.

“Stiles…” Scott said warningly.

“Yes, Stiles, run along,” Peter said condescendingly. “This is not for human consumption.”

“Stiles, it’s okay,” Scott said, gently pushing him towards Derek. “Go. Check your supplies. Get your shot. I got this.”

Stiles hesitated. He didn’t like it. But he also had a to-do list as long as his arm, and only thirty minutes left in which to start. It took one more “it’s okay” from Scott for him to unstick his foot from the ground and start to leave. Derek reached out, catching his arm. He was going to go with Stiles, it seemed.

“And don’t think I forgot about you, Stiles. You can go do your job.” Peter’s eyebrows popped up sarcastically. “You know, the one you ran away from?” Only Peter could make what Stiles did—the uncertainty, the danger, the fear—sound cowardly.

“My job was to take care of your nephew in Beacon Hills,” Stiles reminded acidly, turning back to face him. Words bubbled up in his throat: I got invited and you didn’t, neener neener neener.

Peter looked smug. “Yes. Isn’t it so convenient that he followed you straight into battle?”

“Followed me?” Stiles echoed, confused. “What are you-”

Peter purposefully flicked his eyes over Stiles’ shoulder. Tense, Stiles slowly turned around. Derek was looking past him, at Peter. He seemed struck, caught off guard. Then his gaze snapped back to Stiles.

He looked very, very guilty.

-

Stiles’ head was buzzing. He faced a counter, hands braced up on the surface. He stared blankly at the wall.

“Shut up, Stiles,” Cora said, annoyed. He’d stormed into a building, only to find out that it too was retro-fitted for bunks and sleeping areas—but for berserkers. Thankfully, only Cora was present, swapping out her shoes in the corner area overlooking the rest of the beds.

“You could have given me the heads up. That’s all I’m saying.” He could understand Laura not getting it, but Cora? She’d been there at the beginning.

“About what? Derek? You’re the idiot who didn’t know his name. You didn’t even bother to do your research. It would have been as simple as asking the wolf next door, hey, what’s his name? Idiot.”

Stiles thought of Erica’s sputtering disbelief when he asked who Derek was. She would have told him if he’d pressed.

But he didn’t so she didn’t and there were a ton of other people who just didn’t too, starting with Derek freaking Hale. Stiles vibrated for a second, clenching and unclenching his fists. He pushed himself off the counter then and started pacing, ready to wear a hole into the ground.

He just felt so… betrayed and humiliated and… god. He didn’t know what to feel. He covered his face with his hands, heat washing up and down his body, boiling just under his skin.

“And you know what? You’re an asshole,” Cora was saying testily. “You think I like this? You’re wrong.”

“What are you talking about now?” Stiles snapped back.

“I only wanted to get involved with this stupid war so I could find my sister,” Cora shouted. When Stiles just looked at her, confused, she threw her old shoe at him, hitting him in the shoulder. “Berserkers, Stiles! You think I like it? No! I hate it. I hate knowing I’ve put people in danger just as much as I hate forcing people to become berserkers in the first place. But that was the only way I could get to the front line.”

She started off strong—defiant and angry—but she was deteriorating fast, voice breaking, face crumpling up. By the time she’d finished her last sentence, her eyes were shiny and her face was flushed red, and Stiles found himself picking up her shoe and gingerly offering it to her.

Cora swiped it out of his hand. “And, you know what,” she said in a quieter voice, “My only comfort was the fact most shifters are too smart to volunteer, even when they’re being rehabilitated. I went up and down those hallways for a week, asking for volunteers. People rarely do, you know. So imagine my surprise when my brother sticks his hand out and volunteers when he’s supposed to be feral, stuck in his alpha form, and completely unable to communicate. Speak of the devil!”

Just as she finished, Derek was stalking into the room, looking mad. “Cora, out.”

Cora swelled like a bullfrog. “Really.” She seemed ready for a fight.

“Please,” he snapped, glaring at her.

To Stile’s disappointment, Cora deflated almost immediately. “Okay. Here’s the key to your bio-monitor.” She tossed Derek a flat card. And, when Stiles shot her an incredulous look, she shrugged. “He said please.”

She left soon after, not looking back. So much for hiding behind her.

Stiles waited for a moment, then whirled on Derek, so sure his anger would come swooping back in any minute now.

All thought stalled as he watched Derek handle his bio-monitor, swiping it across the top with the key card. The light flicked from green to yellow to red in second. Then there was a clicking noise, and all the straps fell, allowing Derek to pull it off and set it on the opposite counter. He then reached for his shoulders, pulling his shirt off over his head.

Stiles looked away then, faintly annoyed at the realization that Derek really was strong all over. Then again, why wouldn’t he be? He was an alpha, after all.

Stiles wanted the anger to come back, but the hurt feelings crawled first. How stupid did Derek think Stiles was? And what the hell was with that game? What did Derek gain by holding his hand and keeping him safe and kissing him?

“Why didn’t you say anything?” Stiles asked quietly. He looked back at Derek. Then, stronger, “Why didn’t you tell me we’d already met?”

For a second, he didn’t think Derek was going to respond. “When I shifted back in the cell, you were there. I thought you knew.” And then, defensively, he said, “You made eye contact.”

“Your eyes glow in the dark. What the hell else was I supposed to look at?” Derek’s jaw tightened, but he didn’t refute it. No wonder Derek kept testing him about his senses. Smelling and hearing, those were ruses. The only thing Derek was interested in was Stiles’ sight. What a self serving son of a-

“You didn’t say anything,” Stiles said again, feeling that needed to be stressed. “And god, this place? What made you think this was a good idea?”

“Stop,” Derek said quietly.

“Derek-”

“Stop,” Derek said again. Then, with more fire, he said, “You’ve talked enough.” There was a long pause where Derek did nothing but glare at him. Then he looked pained and his eyes shifted away. “My life was just one big- I kept playing the memory over and over again in my head. Knowing my uncle and my sisters burned for me, knowing that my father died because of what I did. Every day, every hour I was conscious, that’s all I did.”

Stiles held his breath. Derek was smiling very faintly, very sadly.

“Then this kid comes along and it was like… It was like I could think about other things again. He teases me. He challenges me. He takes care of me.” He cocked his head and sighed. “One day, he tells me that it wasn’t my fault and I… I believe him. I believe him more than I have ever believed myself.” Derek blinked rapidly. His voice hardened. “And then he’s hurt, then he’s leaving, then he’s running away, and all I can see in front of me are endless, downwardly spiraling days.”

Stiles’ humiliation and anger took a vacation at the sound of real pain in Derek’s words. His heart ached for him.

Derek turned around finally, facing Stiles completely. He looked frustrated and angry and sad. “Of course I was going to volunteer, Stiles.” In his eyes was the anger that had festered under the silence, the cutting remarks of the stranger Stiles only knew as a berserker. “You left me, Stiles. Not the other way around. You don’t get to tell me what I should or should not do.” With that, Derek left.

Stiles flinched as the door slammed behind him, feeling like he’d just made a huge mistake.

-

“Is Derek still pouting?” Peter was smirking. Stiles tightened his shoulders and walked past him, ignoring the question. “I’m not surprised,” Peter called after him. “He’s used to people throwing themselves at him. You would have thought a few years as a wolfman would have taught him some humility.”

Stiles scowled, skin going hot and tight as Peter laughed. He knew logically that Peter was just trying to get a rise out of him, to seek out some small amusement in this war camp, but it still affected him. He found himself fielding a shower of self-doubts.

Did he throw himself at Derek? Did Stiles make a fool of himself? Did Derek react on autopilot? Was it all a ruse, playacting? Did Derek just go along with what Stiles wanted in order to gauge if Stiles had screwed him over originally?

Stiles felt sick, twisted up inside. Maybe even literally, because a woman caught him by his elbow as he walked past.

Her grip was like iron and her eyes were dark, calm. She had long straight black hair and was wearing a medical uniform. She was very, very pretty, but that wasn’t what made Stiles pause and stare.

There was something in her eyes that was familiar, elemental. It reminded Stiles of still waters or the perpetual gaze of a statue.

It made every fiber of his being tighten up and straighten, snapping into attention.

“You need medical attention,” she said, gazing at him with the same intensity. “You kept me waiting.”

Stiles shook his head, not in negation but rather to make himself focus on her words. “I’m human. What do you care?”

“I care for the same reason I care about treating myself, little brother.” Otherness in her wasn’t inhuman, like a supe. In fact, her humanity reflected back at him in her dark calm eyes. “You need a lupa shot, don’t you?”

Finally, it clicked. “You’re Marin Morell.”

She nodded once. “Please come with me. If we hurry, you won’t be late for your journey.”

Stiles followed her back into the medical building, dimly remembering a time where the draw of coming here was to see her. How long ago that seemed.

Morell had him strip down to his pants. Poking and prodding at his ribs, she made him inhale and exhale—and then she patiently waited him out as he tried not to cough up his entire organ system on her neat little shoes.

“Bleeding, shortness of breath, dizziness,” she said, nodding. “What else?”

“Nausea,” Stiles supplied. “Hm. Loss of time?” When she looked at him sharply, he lifted his hands. “Not usually. Just on really, really bad days.”

“Well, you definitely meet all the requirements to receive a Lupa Shot,” she murmured, distracted as she felt along his neck. “I’ll administer it in a few moments.”

It bothered Stiles—that it was that easy. “There’s a bunch of people out here who don’t get that shot.”

Morrell settled back on her heels. “Yes, I know. We’re looking into resolving that issue. Supply trains are, unfortunately, a favored hit amongst the criminals in this region.”

Of course, that made Stiles think of Kate Argent. He subsided, barely aware of Morell leaving, spinning off in that miserable spiral that came with sudden awareness of past stupidity.

Derek had such a strong fear reaction to Kate. That was a huge red flag and he didn’t even register it. Berserkers respect for Derek’s space? Another red flag. The rapid way Derek healed? Huge red flag. The way Derek managed to ignore Cora’s howl, and would have continued to? Gigantic red flag with flashing lights.

Stiles was so dumb.

Morrell came back. She rolled in a cart. “The damage is extensive,” she said without preamble or sugar coating. “The shot isn’t going to be as effective. You’ll need to breathe it in.”

There was a squat fat cylinder in the cart. A long thick tube fastened at the top. She handed the end of it to him. The tube ended in a mask meant to fit around his face. It was clear all the way through. Stiles imagined another one of a similar make, and shuddered.

Trying not to overthink it, He fastened it behind his ears, watching as she made some adjustments to the cylinder. The gas that came out a moment later was almost sickly sweet. He made a face, but obediently followed Morrell’s instructions.

“Breathe in,” she said, looking at her watch. “Breathe out. Breathe in…”

They went through a couple of cycles of this. Stiles found himself cradling the mask in his palm, tension seeping out of him with the pain.

“What does it do?” he asked, voice muffled behind the mask. “The thing that kills us.”

Morrell looked up at him. She hesitated, then said, “It shreds your lungs on a microscopic level until you either die of infection or drown in your own blood.”

Stiles’ eyebrows shot up at her honesty. There was a long pause.

“Fan-ta-stic,” he said finally.

Morrell’s stoic expression crumpled slightly. She gave him a small, bleak smile. “Isn’t it?”

-

Stiles stepped into the shower cubicle gingerly. This was the first time in a while where he felt like he was not breathing around shards of glass. He hadn’t realized how shallowly he’d taken to breathing until he purposefully took a huge inhalation of air without spinning into a coughing fit that threatened to knock him out.

Everything seemed to straighten out a bit after that—mind less fuzzy, vision sharper. He looked down at his naked body, watching as minor nicks and bruises faded away as the vaporous Lupa Shot continued to cycle through his body.

Morrell let him use the shower in her office and brought him stuff to freshen up with, including new clothes. But it was the soap Stiles touched first—scentless but bubbly between his fingers. He washed himself thoroughly, preoccupied with the way dirt swirled down the drain.

By the time he got out and starting toweling down, he felt aching and new again. But when he looked at the mirror, all he saw was a pulled down mouth and huge jaded eyes. His body might have been healed by the Lupa Shot, but his heart…

He blinked at his reflection, practicing a blank look, then a look that said ‘don’t talk to me’. But when he thought about when he might have to use it, heat burned in his eyes so fast, he spun and put his back to the mirror, not wanting to see the pathetic look on his face.

He tightened his jaw. Braeden said she didn’t trust a single werewolf. Maybe she had a point.

There was a soft knock on his door, then Morrell was saying, “Ten minutes until your journey. Good luck.”

Stiles hurried then, running the towel over his hair again. He pull the plaid shirt over his arms, adjusting the long sleeves when they caught on his elbows. Then he yanked on the borrowed jeans, socks, and hiking shoes before stumbling and tripping through the door.

Morrell was already tending to another patient. He could hear her voice through the hallways—distinctive but just muffled enough that he couldn’t pick out what she was saying. Stiles ducked back into the bathroom and traced on the steam clouded mirror a quick ‘thank you’.

Then he left.

Scott met him outside just as he was shrugging on another borrowed item—a thick jacket with a clunky zipper.

“You look good in red,” Scott said in lieu of a greeting.

“I look good in all colors,” Stiles countered, adjusting the shoulders of his jacket—black to his shirt’s red. He was distracted from his preening by Scott’s face. He sobered quickly. “What did Peter say?”

Scott made a face, staring at the floor. “He said… he said he saw something in me as a human, something with potential.” He looked up at Stiles. “He says I’m the missing piece to Phase 3. He said something about how… bitten betas only respond to bitten betas and would only find true control under a bitten alpha.” He looked confused. “But bitten alphas aren’t even supposed to exist, so I’m not sure how-“

“Oh god,” Stiles said. “You are the missing piece of Phase 3. Shit.”

“What do you mean?”

“You can’t trade a cage for a cage,” Stiles said meaningfully, remembering too late that this wasn’t a conversation he’d had with Scott. He rushed to explain. “Once they fix us, they’re going to release us from the dome. They expect us to become fully functioning members of society.”

“What are you saying? That sounds fantastic.” And then, because Scott was sharper than people gave him credit for, he asked, “What’s the catch?”

“The catch, Scott,” Stiles replied tersely, “is our humanity.”

Understanding flared in Scott’s eyes—as well as horror. “Dammit.”

“Yeah.”

Scott pinched the bridge of his nose. “Sorry.”

“No worries, Scotty,” Stiles said, slinging an arm around Scott’s shoulders. He gently guided him away from the building. “Peter really didn’t tell you this? That’s weird. I expected him to gloat.”

“He may have wanted to, but I didn’t give him the chance.” Scott looked up with a pinched, guilty expression. “I sorta… punched him.” They came to a dead stop. Stiles stared at Scott, who reacted defensively. “What? You can’t tell me that that face wasn’t made to be punched.”

Charmed, Stiles grinned. Then he patted that precious little head until Scott half-heartedly batted him away.

-

Being in a transport with Derek was super awkward. Stiles could have dealt with anything Derek threw at him—not that he did anything. For the first hour, all Stiles got from him was silence and a whole lot of avoided gazes. But what he wasn’t prepared for was everyone else.

Everyone else knowing, that is.

“You really didn’t tell him your full name?” Laura hissed at, yes, her brother for the third time in as many minutes. Braeden was in the front seat, guiding the transport with a steady hand and a faint smirk. Laura was in the passenger side, but angled back and glaring at them in the back compartment.

The back compartment consisted of two benches on either side, facing each other. Stiles sat next to Scott and Derek sat across from them, staring at his clasped hands.

“Laura. Drop. It,” Derek bit out.

“Why do you always have to make everything so complicated?”

“Laura!” he barked.

Stiles and Scott exchanged an amused look. That earned them both a fiery hot glower from Derek. Scott ducked his head, coughing into his hand and mumbling an apology, but Stiles held Derek’s gaze, captivated by Derek’s bright, pretty eyes, even if they were narrowed in a glare.

After a beat, Derek seemed to remember they were fighting and looked back at his hands, expression moody. Stiles continued to watch him, attention flitting from the long swoop of his eye lashes to his dark soft hair to the intriguing dips and contours of his shoulders under his dark green shirt.

Derek was Hale. Hale was Derek. Stiles was still trying to wrap his head around that. All this time, Stile had been dreaming about what it would be like to talk to Hale in his human form. It was unsettling to know that, given the circumstances, Stiles would rather be facing a seven to eight foot tall alpha werewolf who said so much more with his body than Derek ever did with his mouth.

“Are we there yet?” Stiles asked.

“Almost,” Braeden replied.

“You’ve been out maneuvering us for the last couple years,” Laura said, eyes on Braeden. Stiles’ attention shifted to the front seat. “Am I allowed to ask how?”

Stiles had become immune to the bumping and rocking of the traveling transport, but the sudden slide of the vehicle almost threw him off of his seat. By the time everything stopped moving, he found himself half on the floor with Scott’s fist twisted up in his jacket.

“What gives?” Scott demanded.

She ignored him. “Kali is how,” she said shortly, pushing her way out of the driver side door.

Laura sat there, frozen for a second. Then she launched herself outside.

The three of them left behind scrambled out after her. Scott conscientiously shut the door behind them, but Stiles spared no thought to anything like that. Instead, he jogged after Laura. What could he say? He was nosy.

“Kali’s been missing for years,” Laura shouted after Braeden. “She’s one of my people. I sent her out in this region four years ago to investigate murders tied to the Darach, and she never came back.”

Braeden’s hands were shoved deep in her jacket. She kept walking into the woods, following a path only known to her. Her shoulders were up against her ears, but she didn’t seem bothered when they all finally caught up to her.

“She’s ours now. Or we’re hers. It’s hard to tell with wolves.” Then, impatiently, she snapped, “Do you want to hear about the botched peace talks or not?” Her nose was reddening and her breath came out in a visible plume of fog. She cast a glare over the thin short sleeved shirts of all the werewolves in her presence before taking off again at a brisk pace.

Stiles rubbed his hands together and followed her, breathing into the cupped bowl of his palms. He was grateful for the speed, even if it meant he was out of breath. His ears were freezing cold!

-

The old camp was clearly abandoned and had been for a while. There were a couple of faded structures still standing, the wood rotten and moldy. There were paths everywhere, grass stripped bare from years of traffic. A pole in the middle of the camp still had yellowed bits of paper attached. Wispy strands of rope hung from it, floating in the faint breeze.

Laura’s camp was characterized by a distinct lack of trees. Braeden’s, on the other hand, had an overabundance. The thick redwoods and sequoia lined up around and through the camp, stretching high into the sky and blocking out the day’s feeble sun.

There was sort of a sad feeling about the place all by itself—a forgotten bit of history shrouded with fog.

Braeden pushed past them. Stiles stopped gawking at the reminder of her. She looked around with a grim expression, eyes unfocused with memories. Then she shook it off, focusing on them.

“Come on. The Darach used to live further back.”

Further back was even darker, mosses and ivy strewn between tree trunks. It seemed like they were venturing into the very heart of nature.

And yet, when they turned the corner around a tree, an incongruously metal box sat there, making its home on top of broken tree trunks and smashed bushes.

Braeden turned towards them after a beat. “No one knew about peace talks, huh?” she said sarcastically. She seemed unsurprised about its presence but jabbed her thumb at the box. “Then explain this.”

The Hale logo glared back at them ominously.

-

“How do you know that’s ours?” To her credit, even Laura sounded dubious.

Braeden snorted. “Well, it’s not ours. We would never drop such an eyesore in the middle of our camp.”

Stiles had his hands splayed out across the metal of the box, searching. It went at least a hundred feet high and looked to be just as long and as deep.

“It’s a LIU,” Stiles called out over his shoulder. When Braeden just winged an eyebrow at him, he clarified. “Lockdown and Isolation Unit. LIU. A drone flies by and drops it down in pieces. It assembles itself around the programmed coordinates and drags everything in the way along with it. I’ve seen vids of it. But this?” He wrapped his knuckles against it. “It’s… clunky.”

“That’s because it’s first generation,” Laura told him, squinting up at the sky. “I can’t remember the last time one of these was used.”

“Yeah,” Braeden drawled, “really not convincing me you don’t know anything about this…”

“A little trust goes a long way, Braeden!”

“I found the panel!” Scott called out triumphantly. They all rounded the box to where Scott stood at an innocuous corner.

A square formed in the metal and split down the middle, revealing a small monitor and fold out keyboard. Scott was already clacking away at the keys by the time Stiles reached him.

“It’s obviously locked,” Stiles said unhelpfully.

“No duh,” Scott replied. “And not only that, it’s locked by the second highest authority in the— oh geez.”

“What?” Derek snapped.

Scott looked up sheepishly, gaze jumping from one person to the next. Then it landed on Laura. “You’re the second highest authority in the land.”

Braeden tugged on the lobe of her ear. “What was that about trust, again, princess?”

“I didn’t lock this,” Laura insisted, glaring down at the keyboard like that would make it reveal its secrets. “Even if I did, why would I use a first generation? It takes thirty minutes for them fully engage. The newest ones pop up in under three seconds.” Even as she said that, she tried a few passwords. Every single one of them threw up a red error message.

“They were counting on the contents not moving very far.” When that got Derek a suspicious look, he said, “What? I was in cage for five years. I have a great alibi.”

“Can it be remotely accessed?” Scott asked. “I mean, if it can, then no one needed to watch it get put into place, right?”

“All LIUs are set up for remote access,” Stiles said. He turned to Laura. “Can I borrow your comm. unit?”

-

“So can you?”

“No hellos, no how-are-yous, not even a compliment on my hair. That’s cold, Stilinski.”

His first boyfriend, a dark haired man with striking eyes and killer dimples, glared at him through the tiny screen of Laura’s comm. unit. Of course, Danny probably barely remembered them dating, since Stiles was only eight and thought that the height of romance was cuddling with a pretty boy after reading time.

Danny being turned into a werewolf ruined any chance for them to reconnect.

Stiles shot him a short wave. “Hello, how are you, nice hair. Now help us, please.”

“With what?” Danny pointed at him. “You started this conversation with a shitty excuse for a picture and a three word demand.”

“First of all, it was a nice picture and, second, it was more like a three word request-”

“Stiles!” Stiles winced at the chorus of voices yelling at him and plugged up one of his ears with a pinky.

That, at least, pulled a smile out of Danny. He was walking and then he was sitting at a desk, propping up his own comm. unit on something. That was promising.

“It’s a first generation LIU,” Stiles cajoled, then read him off the serial and identification numbers. “We both know you could do this in your sleep. So hack it!”

Danny rolled his eyes, clearly still resistant, but assuaging his curiosity nevertheless. Stiles heard the telltale clack of an old fashioned keyboard as Danny typed.

To the left of them, the panel was lighting up, reacting to the remote access.

Meanwhile, Danny was grumbling at him, saying, “Don’t just say ‘hack it’ like I can just-” He froze. He immediately lifted his hands away from his keyboard, scooting back an inch like it was infected. “Uh, no. I am so not touching this.”

“Why not?” Stiles demanded, panicking. “Because it’s sealed with Laura Hale’s authorization code? Because if that’s a problem, I have her right-”

“No, because it’s actually sealed with Peter’s!” Danny snatched up the comm. unit, his eyes flickering with an unsteady gold. Pointed teeth were starting to poke through his mouth. “Forget what you see on the outside. There’s no way I’m pissing that guy off. What the hell have you gotten me into?”

Stiles winced and immediately tried to salvage the situation. “You’ll be fine, just trust me.”

“Like I’m going to trust you, Stilinski!”

Stiles paused—because, yeah, okay, he got that. “Youthful indiscretions aside- hey, rude!”

Derek had yanked the comm. unit out of his hand and glared down at it. “Can you or can you not do it.”

“It’s not can I. It’s will I,” Danny fired back. “And I will not piss off Peter. Freaking. Hale. He’s scary as all hell.”

Laura swiped the comm. unit from her brother, leaving him grasping empty air. “Scarier than me?”

Danny hesitated. If he was surprised at the nature of Stiles’ company, he didn’t mention it. “With all due respect, Alpha Hale, you’re a freaking hero, a role model. Role models don’t generally murder people in their sleep.”

A muscle in Laura’s jaw ticked. “Fair point,” she muttered, offering the comm. unit back to Stiles.

Scott intercepted it, leaving Stiles to teeter awkwardly. “Please, Danny,” he said with feeling. “I know it’s a horrible risk and I’m sorry we’re putting you in this position. But we wouldn’t ask you otherwise.”

Danny was grimacing. “Anyone else there from back home? Lydia, Jackson? Want to parade my mom past the screen to get me to do your bidding?” His tone was sarcastic but his expression was pained.

“Please,” Scott said again.

Finally, there was a crack in his armor. “Ugh.” Danny buried his hand in his face. When he lifted it finally, he looked back at them, all crowding around Scott’s shoulders. His expression was pinched, but also resolved. “Give me a few minutes.”

-

“It’s open,” Derek called out. In front of him, the metal cracked into a large rectangle, just as it had for the panel. He headed through the opening as soon as it formed, racing through like he had something to prove. Braeden was only three steps behind him.

Scott swore under his breath and went after them, leaving Stiles to say his goodbyes.

“We owe you one.”

“You owe me many,” Danny corrected, eyes stern. “You can start with an explanation—and more frequent calls! I don’t get a whole lot of visitors here.”

That struck a chord with Stiles. He hadn’t kept in touch. He hadn’t really thought about Danny at all. But, before Stiles could think to apologize, the signal cut out, leaving Stiles with only a blank screen.

Troubled, Stiles silently handed Laura back her comm. unit. She pocketed it, flicking her hair over her shoulder. “Let’s go see about a cover up,” she said kindly.

They walked together to the entrance, then through it.

-

The internal lighting flared up, blinding him briefly. He blinked spots out of his vision, squinting through parted fingers—first in simple curiosity, then in astonished awe.

There was a perfectly preserved structure in the middle of the container, but that wasn’t the surprising part. The LIU dug several feet into the ground when it came together, but the plants shouldn’t have survived as well as they did in the darkness, robbed of sunlight and fresh air.

Flowers bloomed. Ivy chased itself up and over the walls. A single sapling rose, curving gently when it reached the ceiling. The few feet of dirt the LIU trapped was covered with a thick carpet of grass.

And yet…

“It smells like death in here,” Laura said, scenting the air. “Old death.”

They exchanged a look before heading towards the isolated structure. It was made out of wood and secured with metal nails. There was a low porch, lower than the tallest grass and the roof had an alarming and gravity defying slope to it. Empty panes stood where glass should have been, but were covered on the inside with rippling purple cloth.

Stiles stepped onto the porch and immediately tripped, face planting into the wall. Flustered, he glared down at the culprit. It was rope, thin rope braided together with patience and focus. What was striking about it wasn’t the neatness of it, but rather the length. Bracing one hand against the wall, Stiles lifted part of it with his foot, following it with his eyes. There was no end. There was coil after coil after coil.

“Why the hell would someone make rope this long?”

“I don’t know,” someone said two inches from his ear. Stiles jumped back, startled. Braeden arched an eyebrow at him through the glassless window. “She was working on it before she died.” She shrugged. “All I know is it’s from one plant and the sameness was supposed to be important.”

She disappeared from the window. A moment later, the door, a rickety little thing crudely crafted from driftwood, opened. “Welcome to the Darach’s home.”

Warily, Laura crossed the threshold, guard up like she expected the Darach to come barreling around the corner. Braeden kept the door open for Stiles too, waiting for him to follow. She looked very, very tired.

There were only three rooms in the house. Eating was communal in this setting, so there was no kitchen area. Also missing was a bathroom. Braeden described a latrine-like situation that made both Scott and Stiles, creatures of civilization, cringe pathetically. But what was present was a sitting area towards the front door, meant for private meetings, a tiny bedroom with a mushroom sprouting mattress towards the back, and an office area.

They gathered in that room. It was a very promising area. There were file cabinets stacked up to the ceiling. Ten boxes were slid haphazardly across the floor, filled to the brim with journals and binders and notebooks.

“Say what you want about the Darach,” Derek said, flipping through one of the binders. “But she was definitely detail orientated.”

It was there in that office that they saw first vestiges of technology in the whole area. There was a computation station on the Darach’s desk. The cold fusion generator in the back of structure that needed to get kicked, but it turned on eventually, the house’s lights turning on with it, giving the area a warmer glow than the LIU’s glaring fluorescents.

Scott and Stiles shared a chair, both poking at the machine. It was at least ten years behind what they were used to in the Dome, but still functional. The Darach’s digital organizational method, on the other hand, was actively painful.

“Did she seriously name this file ‘blah blah blah’?” Scott whispered. Stiles shrugged. The answer was there in black and white—blah-blah-blah.mp14.

“Why would someone go through the trouble of all this?” Stiles asked, turning in the chair. “Why collect this information?”

He didn’t direct this at any one individual, but instead let his eyes move from person to person. Laura was preoccupied. Derek was staring down at the binder in his hand. Braeden was reaching out to grasp a knob of another door. It didn’t look like it could be more than a closet.

But Derek was already nodding. “Most of these are just inventories—what came in, what went out, what was needed…”

“I think I know why,” Laura said. She had her eyes on the wall of pictures. Of all the things in the room, it seemed the most whimsical and the least professional, and, yet, also exactly the sort of thing an actual person would have on their wall. Pictures of friends. Pictures of neighbors. Pictures of people smiling and sitting together.

Braeden was in those pictures too, her face rounder and eyes brighter. The scar across her throat was noticeably absent.

In the corner, Braeden opened the closet and stood there for a very long time.

“Rumor has it,” Laura said, “the Darach came up with a way to cure whatever it is that’s been killing humans left and right, and she’s been using it on her people.” She shook her head, turning back to face Stiles. “But if people heard that the Darach was the one who came up with the miracle cure, and my mother buried that information-”

“They did more than just bury it,” Braeden said suddenly. “They dug it up.”

All attention jerked towards her. “Braeden?” Scott said softly, a question in his tone.

After a beat, Braeden sharply pivoted, facing them. Her jaw was tight and her eyes were glittering. “I’d like to introduce you to the Darach.”

-

For a second, there was nothing but panic. Scott and Stiles stood up so suddenly, the chair fell over. Then they were pushed, backs tight against the wall, two protective alphas standing between them and every open space—the rest of the office, the newly opened door, the hallway. Even between them and Braeden.

Everyone was still for ten seconds. Braeden watched them with sad eyes, all by herself on the other side of the room. She had a bit of cloth in her hand, connected to a larger blanket in the closet.

Remembering their meal together, her desperation, Stiles impatiently pushed at Derek’s shoulder, but he wouldn’t budge.

“Guys,” Scott said carefully, tone diplomatic. “I don’t hear anything.”

Both Laura and Derek seemed to straighten up slightly, reacting to that if not anything else.

“You wouldn’t,” Braeden said. Then, letting out a shaky sigh, she stepped to the left. She yanked on the rest of the blanket, and something tumbled out of the closet in a messy pile.

It was dirt crusted bones.

“The Darach, aka Julia Baccari, aka Jennifer Blake… she had a lot of aliases,” Braeden said. “That’s what happens when people are out to kill you.” Her voice was quiet, betraying her grief. But that grief was slowly being taken over by a slow, rising rage.

Finally, Derek budged, edging forward and giving them more breathing room. “She’s been dead for at least a year.”

“Try two,” Braeden corrected harshly. “And we blessed her and we burned her and we buried her under a nemeton.” She vibrated with tension, throwing the blanket away from her. Then, suddenly, she was saying, “There were twenty of us in the camp when he came. Did you know that? The Darach was hopeful that peaceful negotiations could be made, but she wasn’t stupid. She sent most of us back to the other sites the week before and was in the process of sending off everyone else.”

She tipped her head slightly. The light of the house, as warm and golden as it was, threw her scars into sharp relief. “That night, I was out patrolling. We weren’t expecting your representative for another day, but I noticed someone coming our way, running. I saw the Hale insignia on the hood. I didn’t think anything of it. I stepped out and welcomed them to our territory.” She covered her throat. “I didn’t expect to be attacked. But they missed my arteries. The local nemeton reached out, healing me a little, giving me enough strength.” Her expression darkened. “But by the time I got back, the Hale was long gone. And so many people were dead.”

Stiles looked away, unable to meet her gaze. He focused on Laura, whose eyes fixed on Braeden’s face. Her profile looked stern, but the gradual fluttering of her eyelids gave away the fact that she wasn’t as unaffected as she was trying to be.

Braeden stepped closer, voice harsh with tears. “I was so sure Kali did it, that Kali betrayed us! I was so certain she’d completed the mission you yourself sent her on.” Laura swallowed, but didn’t look away. “I grabbed what weapons I could find, ready to avenge my friends and neighbors.” Her eyes widened slightly. “Then I found Kali. Then I found Jennifer.”

Laura lurched forward, voice fraught with emotion. “Kali wouldn’t have-“

“Kali tried so hard to keep Jennifer alive. She tried so hard to defend everyone in the camp, and she suffered greatly for it.” Braeden cleared her throat. “Once Kali could stand, she took over and started the retreat. She might not have been one of us, but she knew that it was better to have a life on the run than death while trapped into a corner.”

Laura recoiled, her gaze finally dropping to the floor. Stiles was stunned by the revelation. All the media on the topic of the war painted the human separatists as constantly attacking, constantly interfering. No one ever once implied that the Darach’s people were on the retreat, and had been for the last two years.

Hunter interference or not, surely that was something people back in Beacon Hills would have noticed by themselves…

After a beat, Braeden looked away from them, gesturing at the desk. “We kept extensive video records of everything. If you go through this, you’ll find footage of the night we were betrayed and she died. Will that be enough to show your Alpha Prime what actually happened?”

“More than,” Laura assured her quietly.

Braeden nodded sharply. She edged reverently around the bones and made for the hallway, expression downcast and eyes low.

“Who was the negotiator?” Derek said suddenly. Braeden paused by the door. “You said that our representative was supposed to come the next day. Did you know who he was?”

“Of course.” Braeden gestured at the paperwork around them. “In her later years, Jennifer was fond of transparency, for better or for worse.” Then, with a harder tone, she said, “The representative who was supposed to come, the only person in your entire nation that knew where we were camped was none other than your own uncle.”

-

Once Laura stepped out of the containment chamber, she called it in. The LIU was taken to the closest supecity and the group of them—Stiles and Scott, Braeden and Laura, and, yes, Derek too—followed it in a somber procession in their transport.

Laura drove back this time while Braeden took up the passenger side, staring out the window. In the back compartment, Scott rose halfway back to camp and sat next to Derek, patting his back once. After a moment, Stiles did the same on the other side, creeping into the seat like he wasn’t sure Derek wanted him there.

Derek had his head buried in his hands. He never once looked up, lost in his thoughts. Meanwhile, Laura took her aggression out on the road.

Peter was immediately arrested and taken to Beacon Hills. Stiles talked to a few people from the camp who’d trickled back to the city and was told that Peter had gone surprisingly quietly. The way they shared the story, even as they were taking him away, Peter’s frown just deepened and deepened, like he was still trying to figure out a puzzle.

Once at the city, Stiles went to go visit his favorite Argents and their entourage. Lydia hugged him hard enough to leave bruises. Kira kissed both of his cheeks. Allison reached out to him with a hand from her hospital bed and Stiles had a very, very hard time letting it go. But she was a lot better. There was color in Chris’ cheeks because he was being taken care of too.

Stiles spent hours mingling with them, swapping stories and jokes. Scott came too at one point, somber and eyes heavy with the things he’d learned. Laura might have liked Stiles, but it was Scott she took under her wing, and unwanted state information was the consequence of that.

But, by the end of the day, some of the shadows were chased out of Scott’s eyes. Friends were good for that, and their friends were especially adept at distractions. When they had to leave, Stiles left with the knowledge that this was the start of something great with all of them.

Not only did they have each other, but they also had a future. When Laura removed the ban on Chris and Allison, she’d did a sweep on the group of them. Scott was no longer in trouble for escaping from the dome’s rehabilitation center—and then the dome itself. Neither Lydia nor Allison were in trouble for sneaking out and Stiles wasn’t in trouble taking a ride on the river out of the city that almost killed him.

He wasn’t even in trouble for leaving without filling out an authorized job severance form, but he couldn’t give Laura the kudos for that. He’d researched it on some downtime and found the form, authorized and sealed, on his account, dated just twelve hours after he left.

It was signed by D. S. Hale. It seemed like the second thing Derek did after stupidly volunteering to be a berserker was to cover Stiles’ ass as much as possible the only way he knew how.

Stiles wanted to be happy. Instead, he felt discontented, like worms were crawling under his skin, and paranoid, like he knew someone was pulling a wool cloth over their eyes. But for what reason? For what purpose? Stiles’ suspicions grew. And, as anyone could tell you, a suspicious Stiles was a Stiles that would inevitably get into trouble.

-

There were no guards and the LIU still opened to Danny’s temporary passcode. Stiles crept inside. The preserved space was still eerie, still strange, but worse without company. Stiles left off the compartment’s lights, relying on only the interior glow of the place that once put a roof over the Darach’s head.

The dead body was gone—Stiles knew this before entering. Laura expedited the report on the cause of death, then personally saw to it that the Darach—Jennifer—was reburied where the human separatists had made her grave. Braeden went with her with the plans to meet up with a few other allies along the way.

It caused a huge drama—first the revelation that their enemy’s leader was long dead, then second their own leader’s demand that her body be paid the right respects. There were whispers about how Laura was just asking to be kidnapped again, to be murdered. The live almost-execution had strained a lot of people, but, without direct orders from Talia Hale, no one could tell Laura what to do.

The computation station, once cloned, had been left behind. The papers, on the other hand—the ten boxes and rows of file cabinet—were missing. The wall of pictures had been picked at, which bothered Stiles for reasons he couldn’t quite put his finger on.

He sat down on the chair, pulling himself and it closer to the desk. Then he paused, realizing the surface of the table was hollow. He pushed back, craning his neck under the edge. Strapped to the bottom of the surface, tucked neatly into the hollow, were three yellow folders, two flimsy journals, and a leather bound book.

So much for transparency, Stiles thought, pulling them free from the strap. He glanced over them briefly, resting them by the keyboard eventually, for he’d broken in not for a glimpse at the Darach’s painfully detailed paperwork, but rather the machine in front of him.

And, more importantly, the alleged videos within.

He was all too aware he was interfering with an investigation—one with global consequences—but he didn’t care. He thought about Braeden’s certainty that this was all going to be pushed under the rug, that the siren call of the status quo would keep them from realizing not just the separatists’ point of view, but the point of view of humanity itself. Supes, Stiles thought darkly, were not the best people to investigate this.

The Darach may not have been fond of passwords, but her digital disorganization was security in its own way. Stiles spent a good fifteen minutes trying to figure out where she stored her recorded security feeds, distracted with the knowledge that every minute there was a minute closer to getting caught.

In the meanwhile, he learned “blah-blah-blah.mp14” was an imperious video message from an oily older man with dark eyebrows and stark white hair. He spoke fervently about disrupting Lupa Shot distribution and the concrete effects it would have on the Alpha Prime’s chokehold over the region. He had a skewed sense of how the supernatural world worked, frequently commenting on how the current level of civilization was the “weak attempt” of an inferior species to mimic their betters.

This guy was clearly the polar opposite of the most zealous anti-humanist, and made just about the same amount of sense—that is, none at all. Towards the end, he called the Darach a weak minded idealist who needed to learn the true art of war.

Gerard Argent looked nothing like either of his children or his granddaughter, but there was something in him that reminded Stiles of Kate.

None of the initial following videos were as interesting as that. There were bits of audio files of recorded mundane conversation—introductions, benign questions, and the like. A throaty female voice admonished a young, giggling couple in the last audio file he listened to before switching to video only.

The videos were random and unwrangleable—folder after folder of unorganized how-to videos, files and files of recorded videos from news feeds.

Then, tucked into a folder with heaps of recorded English lessons, was a video log. It was named simply “Part 1”.

“Oh gosh, how do I start this.”

Stiles was struck first not by the narrator of this video, smiling prettily, but rather at the background just behind her. The woman herself was striking in her ordinary-ness. Her pale skin and pale eyes contrasted with her dark hair, but not startling so, like Laura and Derek Hale. She had the look of someone who smiled and laughed a lot and maybe planted a garden some place, and not at all like the person Stiles instinctively knew she was.

There were file cabinets peeking behind her to the left and a door knob peeking to the right. Right behind her was a solid wall of pictures, fuller in presentation than they were now.

Jennifer Blake, aka Julia Baccari, sat in the chair Stiles was sitting in. Her smile faded into something somber and sad. “From the beginning will take too long, but if I tell it backwards, I might miss something.” She looked down, thinking for a moment. Then she nodded once. “I’ll start with her. Kali, I mean.” She looked up then, though not quite at the camera, her mouth pulling into a bashful smile.

“Once upon a time, I made a friend. She was, um, an acquisition at first.”

A clip cut in—a small sample of the security feeds Stiles had yet to find. He learned acquisition was euphemism as the scene unfolded.

Two women were shouting at each other hatefully from a foot away. A blooming purple plant secured one—a beautiful werewolf with dark hair and flashing beta blue eyes. Although the plant was constantly, constantly burning at the beta’s skin, she still somehow got free. She lunged at the other woman—a cold eyed Jennifer—only to fly back under some invisible force.

The vid flipped back to Jennifer in her chair. She was wincing. “It, um. It didn’t start well.” She ran a hand through her hair, looking to the left. “I wasn’t born hating people like her. I wasn’t born hating their government. It just… happened.” She sighed, dragged her gaze forward again—and yet, still not quite on the camera. “I didn’t grow up in a dome. I was born in a time where going into them was mostly optional, where the shifters in charge led humanity into their cages with a carrot instead of a stick.”

As she spoke, her face disappeared behind pictures of the dome going up, newspaper articles about the shift of voluntary to mandatory “evacuation”. Then a file on a person was thrown up: Julia Baccari. She had a rounder face back then and brighter eyes, with a birthday that made Stiles choke on a breath. Over her personal details was a blood red stamp reading “non-vital human species”.

“Soon, I found that I was… different enough from the humans around me. Different enough not to be effected by what was killing everyone else. If death didn’t take the people I loved, the domes did.”

The video shifted to something much more familiar—news broadcasts, updating the world on the ongoing battle between supes and the human separatists. Stiles had seen most of these before. They were all the same: grim faced newscasters delivering the story with a hard emphasis on her lawlessness, her terrorism of the smaller towns, and the anguish and suffering she left behind.

Stiles remembered watching them and, in his deepest pits of bitterness, feeling trapped between a rock and a hard place. Maybe the supes’ status quo wasn’t for him, but neither was the Darach’s revolution. The resulting mess in his head was scattered discontent, but general inertia.

“I know what they say about me in the domes. I’ve listened to every broadcast. I’m no hero. That much? I’ll admit. But I’m not the monster they make me out to be. I’ve been searching for a cure as much as anyone else. And, unlike your werewolf government, I’m actually getting somewhere.”

The video went back to Jennifer. She was frowning faintly. “Kali says that I have to bring my findings to the supe governments nevertheless.” Her words flowed faster, gaining an edge. “We’re at war, and what they’re doing is wrong. They’re dressing up imprisonment as charity and I hate-” She stopped and bit down on her lip, energy flowing out of her. She pinched her nose. “All I ever wanted was to get people out of those domes. Now I have a way. My path and the wolves’ path are finally aligning.” A strange, sad little smirk curled her lip. “Who thought we’d ever be on the same side?”

The video ended. Since it was only part 1, Stiles rationalized that there had to be a part 2 somewhere.

He was right. He found it hidden in a folder labelled “To Delete” all by itself. It was dated later than the first one and was clearly a work in progress.

Jennifer was there again, but standing, fiddling with the camera. Her hair was wilder and her mouth was pulled into a wide grin.

She dropped down on the seat with a flourish. “So Peter Hale is supposed to come down here in a week, and I’m so excited. Just think of all the good we could do with this!” Her smile dimmed, her gaze turning self-reflexive. “I was so convinced that the only way to do things was through force. Wiping out every werewolf in my way.” Her eyes glowed briefly with an eerie white light. But then she blinked and it was gone. “I feel like I’ve wasted so much time. The idea that the solution I’ve been looking for was right there all along, waiting to be uncovered. By accident,” she spat.

It hurt to watch her in this part. He could see why she’d wanted to delete it. This? This was raw. The first video had been edited—empty minutes carved out, clips crammed in, emotions sanitized for consumption.

She hadn’t had time to edit this one, hadn’t had time to remove the vulnerability, the way that she slid from triumphant declarations to self-conscious awareness. This Jennifer, for all of her initial exuberance, was a very different creature than the composed woman in “Part 1”. The only similarity between the two videos was her constant avoidance of the camera.

Even now, she was staring at some point past the monitor.

With the softness of a deathbed confession, she whispered, “I’ve done so many horrible things for power.”

“Jen, who are you talking to?” Jennifer flinched. She wiped tears off her face and straightened up. Her eyes jumped to the hallway.

“Myself.”

Someone walked into the room and then right into the view of the camera.

“That bodes well,” Kali teased, dark eyes twinkling. A faintly pixie-ish face that had once twisted up in contempt and hatred for Jennifer now bore a smile. Jennifer pushed her chair back, looking up at her “acquisition” with a gentle expression. It was like night and day.

Jennifer ducked her head slightly, suppressing her smile. “I’m gathering my thoughts.”

“You think too much.”

Jennifer scrunched up her nose. “Is that an insult?”

Kali cocked her head to the side, picking up and tweaking a long strand of Jennifer’s hair between her claws. “Do you want it to be?” When she was pouted at, Kali just laughed. She leaned over and cupped Jennifer’s face gently before kissing her. “Come to dinner.”

“I’ll be right there,” Jennifer promised. She watched Kali nod and leave, eyes lingering well after they had to. Then she turned back to the monitor and the camera. She reached across the table to turn off the camera. Then she paused, fingers curling slightly. “I don’t know where we’re going to go from here, how long we’ll have before the end meets us both. But I do know this. When this is done, I will be as happy as anyone to finally bury the Darach.”

Jennifer paused. Then she reached out again, turning off the camera. The video ended.

Stiles scoured the computer, but there was no “Part Three”. He threw himself back in the cradle of the chair irritably when system scans failed to pull up any of that title. The scans closed, leaving behind only the desktop, which Stiles hadn’t really had the opportunity to look at before. Now that he knew what Kali and Jennifer looked like, the background image was striking instead of vaguely pleasing, but populated by strangers.

Kali and Jennifer stood together, arms loosely hooked around each other’s backs. They were crowded by others—aged men whose burdens seemed lifted for a brief moment in their smiles, small children with gaping teeth and bright guileless eyes, laughing women with flushed cheeks and flashing teeth. Behind them was the wooden post that marked the center of the camp. The wood was bright and papers were white and crisp. Whole structures and tents were in the distance, hinting at the lively and full camp it once was.

Maybe it was the skewed perception they were fed in the domes, but Stiles always imagined the Darach was some dark shadowy figure in a cloak, perpetually plotting over a table in an equally dark and evil cave. Stiles couldn’t say for certain that it hadn’t been like that at one point, but he could say that, at this moment, it hadn’t been.

They’d been in the middle of a war, and yet it looked more like a home than even the place Stiles grew up in.

Stiles slowly became aware that something was out of place—not in the picture, but rather above it. All the files and folders on the desktop space were neatly lined up to the left—save for one, that is. It was placed right in the center of the photo, the icon almost blending into the shirt of a dark haired, dark eyed teenage boy.

It was called “Please Watch”.

Feeling a surge of dread, Stiles clicked on it, leaning back as the file expanded in the video player.

It was Jennifer again. The date on the video was earlier than the other two, set a good four years before her gleeful announcement of Peter’s visit. When she lifted her gaze, Stiles flinched. This was a much different person than he’d become acquainted with. There was less self-consciousness in her gaze and a greater sense of purpose. That itself wouldn’t have been so bad, if not for a certain coldness of her features, a narrowness of her face.

The wall of pictures behind her was gone, replaced with a map full of tacks and red marks.

She slowly pulled her hair free of its ponytail. “The last set of sacrifices successfully triggered the Sight. Now I’ll be able to predict the movements of Talia’s forces and turn the tide of this war.” Her tone was clinic, her eyes hollow. She looked like a stranger.

A moment later, she made a face, looking familiar again. “Theoretically. I have yet to see anything to do with a single werewolf.” Her dark eyebrows lowered in a scowl. “Even that one irritating shewolf doesn’t figure in them.” Her frown deepened. “But the Sight is here. I’ve seen things. Strange things. A long hallway that echoes with a scream. A grotesque shadow shifting forms. A deep, black pit.” She seemed troubled. “And the Sight. It’s violent. It’s an assault, and not just on me. It’s dangerous. And I can’t- I can’t control-” She gripped the edge of the table, turning pale. A moment later, her eyes flared a bone cold white.

Then, abruptly, she threw herself back so hard, the chair went flying to the left. She disappeared from sight below the desk, but there was a low rumble—not of animal or creature, but of nature. Then the camera started shaking, and so did everything with it.

It was an earthquake, but not like one Stiles had ever experienced. It was angry and forceful, knocking down a file cabinet, shrieking as it did. Half of the map flopped over, showering the floor with its pins, and the camera skewed wildly before falling, focusing on the hallway. A crack split open in the wall in slow, hitching stages, deepening and splitting the wood.

Then the rumbling stopped. The camera stopped shaking. The only thing left was Jennifer’s deep, gasping breaths.

Stiles flinched when a hand suddenly shot up in front of the frame, grabbing the camera and setting it back into its stand. Jennifer was shaking. Her eyes were wide, unseeing and darting around, like she was trying to process something.

“Oh my God.” Even as she put things back together, straightening her chair and picking up things that had fallen from the desk, she kept whispering the phrase over and over. She sat back down again, profile to the camera as she gasped, sweat pouring off her face.

Then she froze. In slow, hitching motions, she looked straight into the camera, something she’d avoided doing in the later videos.

“Oh my God,” she whispered again, scooting closer. “Czesław.” Stiles jerked at the sound of his birth name on a stranger’s lips.

There was a long pause. Then, suddenly, tears rose in her eyes. “Oh, little brother. I am so, so sorry.”

Stiles shoved away from the table so fast, he fell out of the chair.

-

Stiles paced the floor of his hotel room, jittery and chewing on his nails. The hotel experience was rather new. Humans occasionally visited different domes, but no one dome was such a hub that they needed to build a hotel. They tended to stay with family. If there was no family, someone else always offered a bed or a spot on the floor.

But Stiles couldn’t enjoy the new all expenses paid set up in Hill Valley, not with his ears still ringing with Jennifer’s voice.

Stiles paused mid-pivot and stared at the door. There was a noise just outside it, feet shuffling against carpet. Then—a knock.

Stiles’ heart jumped and his eyes immediately went to the bed. On top of the comforter was everything that had once been strapped under the Darach’s desk. He’d been deeply spooked by the video, spooked enough to leave, but he wasn’t stupid. He’d grabbed everything right before he peeled out of the LIU. Finders keepers.

Not that supes would appreciate his logic. Stiles sighed, closing his eyes. Someone had followed him. Someone knew what he was up to. Who was behind that door? Laura with an entourage of investigators, looking betrayed? Just investigators? Maybe Talia herself—though that wasn’t likely. She was supposed to be in town soon, but not for another few days.

There was another knock—sharper and firmer. Stiles winced. Whoever it was, he wasn’t going to ignore them, and not just because of the futility of dodging a werewolf when they had you in their sights. Some concrete consequence of his snooping was better than the specter of a dead woman’s voice whispering in his ear, he supposed. Or, if not better, then definitely distracting.

Aware it was a worthless gesture, he grabbed the yellow folders, the flimsy journals, and the book, shoving it under his bed. Then he walked over to the door, swinging it open and putting on his best innocent face for whatever trouble he was about to face.

But the person at the door wasn’t some stern faced stranger-wolf nor Laura nor Talia herself.

It was Derek, and Derek alone. “Hi.”

Stiles hung off the door slightly, thrown off-guard. “Uh, hi.”

They stared at each other for a moment. Then, eyebrows popping up, Derek lifted a hand to the room. “Can I come in?”

In the thrill and terror of his law breaking, Stiles had just about forgot about his myriad of issues with Derek—the lies, the omissions, the feelings, the humiliation… All that came rushing back at the slight edge in Derek’s voice. “Why?” he challenged.

“I wanted to talk to you,” Derek muttered, entering Stiles’ room.

Stiles didn’t stop him. Instead, he turned, tracking him, a massive confusion of bitterness and sarcasm twisting up his face. “Now you want to talk to me. That’s-that’s good.”

Derek reached the bed, sparing only a moment to glare at him over his shoulder. “Don’t even start.”

“Start what? Talking?”

“Not-” Derek’s face twisted. “We can’t-”

Derek’s feet were less than six inches away from Stiles’ stolen evidence. The anxiety of that plus the anxiety of having Derek near him at all made him snap, “Spit it out, Derek. Then go back to leaving me alone. I rather liked that part!”

Derek froze. He slowly turned, eyes rising from Stiles’ clenched fists to his tight shoulders to his face. Whatever Derek saw in it made him visibly shrink. “You’re not lying.” Something like defeat flickered across his face. It was quickly followed by desperation and determination.

But there was none of that in his voice. His voice was even and calm, calculatingly so. “We can’t end it like this. We need to talk.” When Stiles didn’t say anything, Derek took a step forward, hand hovering between them. His voice cracked, horrifying Stiles in its vulnerability. “Please, Stiles. Talk to me.”

Derek’s eyes were wide and earnest, more green than anything else today. It was hard to look at him, so Stiles didn’t, wrapping his arms around himself defensively as heat prickled uncomfortably under his skin. He tightened his jaw, teeth grinding together slowly.

In his peripheral vision, he saw Derek nod once, expression smoothing out and turning stoic. He headed for the door then, which was absolutely what Stiles wanted. He edged carefully around Stiles, not touching, and disappeared somewhere behind him. Leaving. Which was exactly what Stiles needed.

Which meant Derek would be gone, soon. Gone and out of the way and-

The door knob scraped as it turned, then Stiles was blurting out, “Why did you lie to me?” Then, softer, he whispered, “Why did I have to find out from Peter.”

The door knob stopped scraping. Then Derek was saying, equally soft, “I thought you were pretending you didn’t know me. I didn’t realize you didn’t recognize me.”

Stiles turned sharply, meeting Derek’s gaze. “Why the hell did you think I would recognize you? I’ve only ever seen you, you know-“ He paused, then curled up his hands into ‘claws’ before growling.

Derek rolled his eyes, pushing away from the door. Stiles hated himself for the relieved little leap his heart made in his chest and made sure to up his scowl to compensate. “You made eye contact with me,” he reminded Stiles. “After I shifted.” He moved closer to Stiles.

Stiles had to roll his eyes too. They hardly knew each other, but already had tired old arguments to rehash. “Two words for you, buddy.” He flicked Derek’s chest. “Pitch freaking black.”

The last time they had this argument, Derek’s expression was blank and still somewhat angry, like he knew he needed to process something. This time, though, Derek’s expression was soft and focused. A small smile played around his lips.

Stiles stilled, heart pounding. Uh oh.

“That’s three,” Derek teased, catching Stiles’ arm before it could fully retreat. Then his expression sobered, turning self-reflexive. “Then, when I realized you didn’t recognize me, I…” He looked away. “I didn’t know what to say.”

Stiles’ gaze lowered. First, it fell on Derek’s chest, lingering on the even expanding and contracting—the most obvious reflexive proof of life to a person who couldn’t hear heart beats. Derek was here and alive instead of dead or under Kate’s thumb, and Stiles couldn’t help but be deeply appreciative of that, no matter what they were fighting about.

Stiles’ gaze then dropped to Derek’s hold on his arm, the fingers gently curled around his forearm, a grip so light, Stiles could hardly feel it. Their arms hung between them, barely separating them. Stiles could barely hear over the roar of his heartbeat. He’d willingly flung himself over Derek’s lap more than once when they were on the run. It was so strange that he’d be self-conscious now, of all times.

“I couldn’t find the words,” Derek breathed into his head. “I wish… I wish I had been braver than that.”

“And I wish you hadn’t followed me.” A beat later, though, Stiles found himself huffing out a small laugh, ducking his head. He was surprised to notice that the bitterness and anger that had flared up just… left. All that remained was sadness.

And he had a lot to be sad about. He was sad that he’d been lied to, sad that Scott had been bitten, sad that so many people died during the berserker raid. He was sad that two vastly different people on opposite sides of a messy, violent war had come together and found love, only to be ripped apart by Peter freaking Hale. This feeling made him feel both tired and worthless. There was little he could do about anything, and it grated.

“But,” Stiles said, closing his eyes. He smiled faintly, admitting, “I’m glad you did.”

There was a slight catch in Derek’s breath. Then there were hands on his face. Stiles’ eyes shot open. “Derek-”

Derek was kissing him. Stiles made a soft, surprised noise at the gentle contact.

Derek retreated instantly at that, expression apologetic. “Did I- did I read that wrong?” His palms slid from Stiles’ face, instantly making Stiles ache. “I thought-”

Stiles’ heart was racing. He’d fly apart if Derek said the wrong thing right now, but he couldn’t help but hope this meant what he thought it meant. All this time, he’d assumed that he’d been played. After all, why else would Derek lead him on with a kiss in the forest when he’d been holding onto something as critical as his own identity?

After Stiles confronted him the first time, he’d concluded unhappily that everything gentle between them had been a game—espionage chicken. Who would go the farthest before they put their foot down and blew their cover?

But it hadn’t been a game at all, not for Stiles who really, honestly, hadn’t recognized Derek and didn’t recognize the hostility for what it was—hurt.

But maybe it hadn’t been a game for Derek either. Something in Stiles started to burn bright with hope.

But Derek was already retreating. “No!” Stiles blurted out, chasing Derek and hooking his fingers into his shirt. “No. Really. I-it’s all good.”

Back to the door, Derek watched him closely, eyes hooded and clearly cautious. That look was chased away when Stiles leaned in closer, pressing him tighter against the wood. Derek blinked rapidly, breath hitching.

“It’s really… fine. Really,” Stiles said, distracted by the way Derek’s hands rose and settled on his hips.

Derek leaned in. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly, never dropping eye contact.

“Me too,” Stiles admitted around a lump in his throat. Then he pushed forward the last few inches.

-

The kiss was wet and good and Derek’s mouth was so soft. Derek’s hands were mapping the skin of his back greedily. Stiles lost his jacket and his shirt was on the floor beneath him.

Derek freed his mouth long enough to flip them. Stiles’ back was against the door now, pressed all up against the residual heat Derek left behind. “Don’t step on my shirt,” Stiles said automatically.

Derek ducked his head in amusement. “That’s my shirt,” Then, gaze heating, he said, “You’re wearing my clothes.”

Well, that explained the fit of them. Stiles grinned. “That could change.” He reached down and popped a button. The jeans fell around his ankles. “Oops. They don’t fit too well. You must have a bigger butt than I do.”

Derek nipped his jaw for that comment. He pressed Stiles into the wood, nudging his face into Stiles’ shoulder. He thumbed both of Stiles’ hips, scraping through Stiles’ underwear. Then his hands slid back, behind Stiles, and squeezed.

“Hm, I don’t know,” Derek mused, a smile in his voice. “I’m going to need to investigate this.”

Stiles let out a noise—an embarrassing one that was half gasp, half nasally cackle. But Derek met him halfway with even this, shoulders shaking with silent laughter. Stiles planted his hands in Derek’s chest and pushed. Derek stumbled back, still smiling, even when Stiles pushed him again, hands sliding and lingering over broad shoulders.

Derek’s legs hit the bed. Under the pressure of Stiles’ hands, he sat. He looked up at Stiles, palming the back of his thighs when he moved in between Derek’s knees. Jeans scraped across Stiles’ bare legs, sensitizing his skin. He settled one hand on Derek’s shoulder and rested the other on his head.

There were things under his bed that needed to be followed up with, needed to be investigated, especially if he ever wanted to get this itch out from under his skin. Even so, he couldn’t deny himself this. Not after everything that happened. Not that after everything he’d been through. No, he was going to press pause on this timer. He was going to allow himself to have something good, something without thought, something that was just pure and selfish and pleasurable. And he was never going to allow himself to regret it.

He smiled and grazed Derek’s lips with his mouth.

-

Stiles woke up slowly hours later, faintly sore. When he remembered why, he smiled, deliriously happy.

He wriggled on the bed sheet, stretching down to his toes. He could feel ghost imprints on his body from everywhere Derek touched him. And, as if he’d sensed Stiles’ awakening, the man himself rolled over, resting his head on Stiles’ chest and on top of stubble reddened skin.

After a beat, Derek lifted his head, visibly sleepy. Stiles grinned back at him. Derek matched his expression faintly before tipping his chin up. He kissed Stiles slowly, then pulled back, yawning slightly.

Sleepy Derek was a new sight, and a pleasing one. Then Stiles thought about how many nights he’d stayed up so Stiles could sleep, and sobered.

“Sleep,” he whispered fondly. He ran two hands through Derek’s hair, scraping his nails against his scalp.

Derek hummed softly and put his head back down. He quickly fell asleep.

Stiles didn’t. He stayed awake, enjoying the weight of Derek on him. It made him feel good, protected. Even at 3 in the morning.

He was beyond the point where he’d be able to shrug this off as a one night stand, but he thought he might not be alone in that. Stiles liked this. Liked Derek. And Derek? Derek liked him back. And, if Stiles was very very careful, he might avoid ruining this.

Which was why he probably shouldn’t have swiped the stuff under his bed. Stiles made a face at the ceiling. Maybe if he just snuck them back real quick under that desk… It’s not theft then, right? Just, uh, borrowing…

Stiles hemmed and hawed over that plan until four in the morning. Then, resolve firmed, he inched out of the bed. Derek didn’t like the moving, so Stiles had to pet Derek’s back until his forehead smoothed out again.

Stiles got on his hands and knees and pulled out the contraband evidence. Then he hesitated, fingers folding over the pile. He glanced up at Derek’s sleeping face.

Well, maybe just a peek…

One eye on Derek, he flipped open the folders first. All three of them held inventory lists for the camp—boring! They were old, though, written out at least five years ago. All Stiles could tell from scanning them was that the Darach ran a very different camp before she met Kali. That said, there was nothing particularly outlandish about any of the items. Just a lot more weapons and fewer items of food.

Stiles quickly flipped through the papers, making sure he didn’t miss anything. Everything, even the official ones, were hand written, nothing typed. Stiles was glad his mom had been so old fashioned and made him learn hand writing and cursive. If he’d been raised on standardized typefaces like everyone else, he would have gotten stuck halfway through.

Jennifer really liked cursive. Fancy cursive, pretty cursive with big loops and circles. He found himself following the trajectory of one swirl instead of the word itself and had to shake his head. Next!

Stiles looked up and blanched at the numbers on the clock. He went for the book. It was handmade. In the cover, someone wrote, in careful blocky letters For JeNniFer. It was even dated, and that date was barely two years ago.

Stiles only needed to flip through a few pages to realize that the book was an anthology of short stories and that the authors were children. The big childish scrawl made his chest tighten and his pace slow. Most of the stories were accompanied by colorful, painstakingly drawn pictures. In one, a dark figure with a scarred, waxy face chased stick figure wolves away from the “happy place”. Another detailed how the dark waxy faced figure was very sad and stayed far far away from people until she met a nice wolf who yelled sometimes.

Stiles wondered how many of the children were in the camp when Peter came. He had to close the book, suddenly nauseated.

He moved to the journal. Like the folders, it was also old and pre-Kali. He scanned the contents quickly, trying to make sense of the short, coded entries. It took him all of ten minutes to realize that the persistent theme of three referred to the people the Darach had killed for power. He promptly backed out of that journal, letting it fall to the floor with a noisy crack.

Above him, Derek slept on.

The last journal was new. The Darach had written in it for six months. It was a personal journal of sorts, and Stiles was surprised by it. He knew Jennifer to be long winded and thoughtful, and prone to speak on those thoughts at length. The entries, though, tended to be short and to the point. Whole weeks were missing. Important days were lucky to get a few lines of reflection.

Stiles, for instance, found out that Jennifer received the story book for her birthday, and she’d been very touched.

But somewhere near month four, everything changed. Her writing became erratic, periods becoming exclamation points. On too many days, she wrote promising results so far! with a smiley face, but no explanation. This frustrated Stiles, who turned page after page of vague but distinct excitement.

Finally, a story emerged. There was a simple ritual one could do to cleanse the area of bad energy. This was generally done before erecting a house or moving into a new structure—half-placebo effect, half-celebration.

The Darach found out that, if one did it on a sacred area or a sacred tree, the power of ritual was extraordinarily amplified. When she noticed this effect, some volunteers gave up their weekly supply of Lupa Shots—a necessity in a domeless world—and hung out around the tree for a while.

For three months, these volunteers never once caught the Event.

Jennifer theorized that ritual was filtering out whatever was killing humans, just as it was supposed to filter out bad energy. This was exciting, because it implied that the Event didn’t have a physical origin, as was theorized, but rather a magical one.

Stiles knew from experience that the worst anti-humanists liked to blame humanity’s plight on overreaching technology, never mind that overreaching technology was still being used by supes today. These types of supes dismissed human suffering, thinking it a just consequence for hubris. If people knew it was the supernatural world that was the cause of the Event, well… it would be a much different society, wouldn’t it?

If that wasn’t exciting enough, Jennifer found out that she could amplify it even further by creating a network. Two sacred areas, blessed by the same ritual, could put out twice the same radius of protection as they could individually if they were connected by something.

That massive coil of rope Stiles tripped over was the connection. The uniformity of it was supposed to be important—blessed by one person and made from one plant, all in one moon cycle. If someone cut off a piece, did the ritual, and tied it to their respective sacred-whatevers, it would be added to the network. The sum was greater than any of the individual parts.

Towards the end of the journal, Jennifer detailed a list of strategic places that should be added to the network. Then she wrote, Humanity would need to cluster around the Nemetons and sacred areas of the world, but with the proper ritual and attention, I believe the Event could be gone in fewer than three years. It doesn’t reproduce. The contaminants killing people five decades ago are the contaminates killing people now. All we need to do is to get rid of them.

According to her, everything was connected. Even the bitten shifter problem was connected to the Event. Like born shifters, bitten shifters were assaulted by the Event. Unlike born shifters, who’d had since birth to get used to it, bitten shifters were aware of it on a level their brains couldn’t handle or process. All their instincts could register injury and healing and injury over and over again. It made it very difficult for them to learn control.

If they followed Jennifer’s plan, life for everyone would get better. The locked up members of society could be released, could help rebuild and repopulate the world. Domeless humans would stop dying in droves. They were seventy years late, but the world could start healing again. If they just… listened.

Stiles closed the journal slowly, pressing it to his chest. Jennifer was the worst enemy of the state, and yet she had done it. She had fixed everyone’s problems with one tidy solution, and what did she get for it? A lonely, forgotten grave in a storage container.

Stiles looked up at Derek’s peaceful, sleeping face, and was finally content to let sleeping dogs lie.

Investigation time was over.

-

By the time the first shreds of orange sunrise peeked over the horizon, Stiles slipped out of the LIU, hands empty. He looked both ways before shoving his hands in his pockets. He took off in the direction of the hotel, trying not to draw any eyes.

Beacon Hills was rare in that it was completely new, built up in concentric circles that were somehow meaningful for the shifters who built them. Hill Valley, on the other hand, was not new. It was set in the ruins of an old human town, then expanded. The streets here made sense to Stiles, as they were set in straight lines and rectangles instead of Beacon Hills’ dizzying curves.

But that didn’t stop Stiles from getting lost. He stopped under a street sign, idly tapping the pole with his shoe. The sun was higher now. There was no way he was going to be able to convince Derek he wasn’t out and about. Maybe he could bring them breakfast?

Stiles looked up at his surroundings, face numb in the cool, crisp air of the early morning. It was then that he saw her—long slim body, long straight black hair, making her way down the side of the street like she owned it. She wore a bomber jacket and green leggings and was oddly barefoot.

As if she could feel his gaze, she stopped at the intersection and turned to face Stiles, aggression and caution warring in her dark gaze.

Stiles instantly recognized her. “Oh.”

Kali lifted her sharp chin slightly, eyeing him from across the street. Tension racked up and his anxiety heightened, especially when she tore her gaze from him just long enough to check for incoming transports before making her way to his side of the road.

What was that thing about making eye contact with predators? Oh yeah—don’t do it.

She strolled up to him, hands shoved deep into her jacket pockets. “You’re one of the Hale’s humans.” Her tone was startlingly mild, despite the look on her face. Born beta blue flared briefly in her dark eyes as she took a sniff. “More than, even. But why oh why would a shifter hook up with you.”

Stiles’ hackles raised. “Probably for the same reason you hooked up with Jennifer, you hypocrite,” Stiles bit out.

Stiles’ mind worked quickly, trying to unpack the reasons why the Darach’s girlfriend—hell, the current leader of the human separatist resistance—was calmly walking around the center of town. She’d probably followed Laura back after the reburial.

Kali surprised him by laughing softly. “Probably,” she admitted with an amused nod. “You do smell an awful lot like her. Far less pretty, though.” When Stiles took a step back, she made a face at him. “Relax, kid. You’re not my type.”

“But the Darach was your type.”

“The Darach was not my type,” Kali snapped quickly, like it was an accusation she’d fielded one too many times. She grimaced, taking a step back. “Forget it. No one ever understands.”

Stiles felt distinctly dismissed. He watched her leave. Then, after a beat, he headed after her. “Hey!” He called out, just pulling short of touching her. “Explain it to me.”

Kali froze in place. Then she turned. She stared at him like she’d seen a ghost.

-

“The Darach was my enemy,” Kali said grimly, “my mission.”

“You were supposed to stop the sacrifices.”

They sat together on the low wall that circled the fountain. Kali was staring off into the distance, a resigned and tired look on her face. Stiles could barely believe she was humoring him, but there she was—clearly humoring him.

“The murders made her very, very powerful. And I’m good, but I’m not that good.” Kali shook her head once. “I couldn’t kill her and I couldn’t stop her. I couldn’t escape and I couldn’t turn anyone against her. I befriended her, but that didn’t help a damn thing. So I did the last thing I could do to fulfill my mission.”

That made Stiles think, rather uncharitably, of his thoughts on espionage chicken. His heart twisted in his chest. The Darach hadn’t been a good person, but when he thought about how much Jennifer had loved Kali, how her expression lit up and softened at the same time, he felt sickened at the idea that it might have been a ruse.

“What was that?” Stiles asked dully, expecting the worst.

Kali didn’t say anything for a long while. She stared off into the growing crowd, mouth pulled into a semi-permanent frown. A gust of wind made her hair dance around her face, but that was the only movement. She didn’t even blink.

Then, slowly, she said, “I offered myself as a willing sacrifice.” Noticing Stiles’ expression out of the corner of her eye, she shifted her focus on him, a wry smile playing at the edges of her mouth. “A lot of power in that, you know. The consent. My only demand was that I’d be the last sacrifice she ever made.”

“What happened?”

Kali’s gaze dropped. Her expression saddened. “It was the last straw. After decades, she finally broke down.” She lifted her head, a small, genuine smile curving her lips. “And then I met Jennifer.” The first shred of vulnerability slipped into her voice. “And I loved Jennifer very, very much.”

Stiles couldn’t look at her for long. The grief was still there, a raw festering wound. Braeden’s grief was flavored with anger and rage and desperation, but she’d lost a home and people she called friends and neighbors. Kali had lost all that, and the woman she loved.

Stiles shook his head. “What are you doing here? What do you want? Revenge? Peter’s getting arrested. What he did was practically treason.”

“I’m here because…” She paused. “I’m not sure it was Peter.”

Stiles snapped his gaze back to her. “What? Of course it was. Jennifer said-“

“I know what Jen was told,” Kali said impatiently. “But I don’t think that was the person who showed up.” She stood suddenly, jaw sterning. “And Laura,” she growled, “won’t listen to me.”

“I guess that’s what happens when you go native,” Stiles joked weakly—and regretted it immediately, because beta blue eyes narrowed on him as fast and as unexpected as a blade in the night.

Kali’s stance shifted. “But you’re listening to me,” she said quietly, calculating. She reached out, settling a hand in the curve of his neck. Stiles was deeply uncomfortable, but unwilling to move. “How about I show you what I mean?”

Stiles stared at her cautiously, all too aware of the claws tapping against the skin of his nape. “How?”

She leaned in, cocking her head to the side. “Like… this.”

Then Stiles was stabbed in the neck by four sharp claws.

-

Everywhere Stiles looked, there were trees. He was running. The faster he ran, the more they blurred and ran together in one huge smear. He could smell everything—the wet soil under his feet, the crisp sharpness of the last rains, the heady musk of animals that had crisscrossed over these paths hours, days, and weeks before him.

And then there were people, and Stiles was slowing, dialing down from a sprint to a run to a jog. Then he was walking, lifting a clawed hand up to wave at an old woman.

“Back so soon, Miss Kali?” she commented mildly. She was pulling down the ropes and canvas that made up her home.

“I am,” Stiles said with a slow smile, only the voice and the mouth wasn’t his. His—no, her—smile faded. Stiles—Kali—lingered. “You’re packing?”

“I am,” the woman replied. They shared a long look, then Kali nodded, feeling troubled. She took off to the center of camp, following the scent of a human she would never, ever forget.

Jennifer was near the message pole, staring off into the one main trail into their camp. Kali approached her from behind, putting more weight into her steps. She’d snuck up once on Jennifer and regretted the experience.

“You’re sending more people away?”

She’d been the one to talk about showing a strong front. She wanted Beacon Hills to know she felt no fear and that her people didn’t have to run and hide. But now Jennifer was staring off into nothing, face paler than usual, eyes both dark and luminous.

When Jennifer didn’t answer, Kali closed the space between them. She cupped her hands over Jennifer’s shoulders, pulling her back slightly. “What’s wrong?”

Jennifer didn’t reply right away, but she did sag back into Kali, leaning into her strength. “Something doesn’t feel right,” she admitted finally. “This feels like a set up.” A breeze picked up and whipped her hair to the side. She turned into it, seeming to get more from the gust than even Kali, who could name and track every animal, person, and plant whose scent just brushed her nose.

Kali licked her lips. Then, hesitantly, she asked, “Did you- did you See something?” A thought rose to mind of a moonless night in which she’d demanded her future from Jennifer. That wasn’t a good night for either of them.

“The Sight,” Jennifer said darkly, “has never benefited me.”

Kali didn’t understand. “Then… why-” She bit down on her question. Jennifer was so hard on some topics and yet so soft on others. She’d learned she could press forward and demand answers from Jennifer, and Jennifer would eventually give them up. But sometimes Kali could do without the truth.

“I trust you,” Jennifer said chidingly. Kali felt relief. “I don’t trust him.”

“Oh, Jen. I wouldn’t trust him at all.” She curled her arms around Jennifer’s waist, hooking her chin on her shoulder. “But if they’re sending Peter, they have to be serious. Peter’s not the type to stick his neck out.”

Jennifer breathed in deeply, closing her eyes. “Okay,” she said finally. She tilted her neck, resting her head against Kali’s.

Kali had about half a second to enjoy that, the validation, Jennifer’s continued trust despite their odd situation. Then her head snapped up, her attention swiveling to the other side of camp.

“Something’s wrong.”

She always had a near constant tab on the sounds coming in and out of camp. She’d learned to drown most of it out, but it was never silent, not even at night, not with the bugs and the heart beats and the chittering and chattering of humans and animals alike.

Except for now, to the north of them, where even the insects held their breath.

Then, suddenly, a scream split through the air.

Jennifer yanked herself from Kali’s arms, tearing towards the noise. More screams went up across the camp—whatever it was, it moved fast. Kali followed Jennifer, trying to track the intruder. She almost tripped over Jennifer when they came across the first victim. A human—a new arrival—was face down in a puddle of his own blood.

Jennifer hovered over him for a long moment. Then, suddenly, she seemed to swell, her presence expanding. Another one of her humans, a teenage girl, hurried around the corner and stopped abruptly, smelling of terror and fear—and not just because of the attack.

The Darach was a horrible and terrifying thing to witness. She was elemental. She was angry. She’d dissociated herself with everything her people were familiar and comfortable with. Gone was the woman who used to doodle on the back of important documents and make faces at celery.

“Find Braeden. Find the rest that have escaped,” she ordered the human. After a beat, the girl nodded, swallowing. “Bring them to the northern camp.”

Then, with a sound like a thunder clap, the Darach was gone.

Kali swore viciously, shifting into her beta form. The camp was overlaid with a filmy haze of red, but her senses sharpened, showing her where Jennifer had gone. She bolted after her, as angry at her as she was afraid for her.

The Darach was already fighting the intruder when Kali caught up. For all Kali’s warnings, her stomach dropped in disappointment when she saw the Hale insignia etched on a dark green cloak. The cloak itself was standard issue, made out of an easily detachable cloth, given by the armies to shifters and supes with the tendency of expanding or shifting past their clothing capacity.

And the Hale in front of Jennifer, dodging past plumes of fire and hurling rocks, was already shifting—pants bursting, shirt shredding. It let out a haunting roar Kali felt down to her very bones. The red sheen of its eyes was dulled by a darkness Kali did not understand.

It was an alpha, but it was somehow wrong. Twisted. Broken.

And powerful, more powerful than even an alpha should be, because it let Jennifer keep hitting it, keep injuring it. And it did not falter.

It didn’t even pause when it picked Jennifer up and smashed her back over its knee. Jennifer’s strangled yell couldn’t drown out the audible crack of her back breaking. She crumpled to the floor where the alpha dropped and whispered nonsensically, blood bubbling out of her mouth, “You’re the black pit.”

Terrified and desperate to save Jennifer, Kali hurled herself at the alpha, jumping on its back and digging her claws—all of them—deep into its fur. But that didn’t faze it at all. It grabbed one of her arms and yanked her off, seemingly indifferent to the shredded wounds this left behind. The alpha slammed her once into the floor, cracking ribs, then hurled her through the trees.

As soon as she found her feet again, Kali scrambled back to Jennifer as fast as she could, horror and fear closing up her throat.

But, just as she reached them, a twisted alpha werewolf and a crumpled human woman on the floor, a massive clawed hand swung down, ending everything.

-

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

Stiles was awake and gasping. He was also hanging half over a muscled forearm. The world was dizzily spinning under him. He was about ready to puke. His head lolled around.

Somewhere close to him, Derek was speaking, but Stiles hardly recognized his voice. It was dark and glacial. “Are you trying to pick a fight? He’s just a human!”

Heart and mind racing, Stiles reached up to the back of his neck. His hand came away bloody.

You’re the black pit,” Jennifer whispered in his ear. Despite that, the world settled slightly around him, starting to make more sense. His stomach stopped rebelling.

“Your complacency will kill you, Derek Hale,” Kali fired back with equal distaste. “You must remain vigilant. He understands that. Why don’t you?”

Stiles lifted his head, swallowing and blinking up into the sky. Derek immediately turned him, leaning him up against a wall. Stiles clinged to it gratefully, barely seeing anything yet. He kept blinking. “What was that?” He reached for his neck again. “It was like-”

Derek’s face, a blurry vision right in front of him, sharpened slightly, showing details. Eyes. Frowns. Even concern. “She forced her memories on you.” But even as his vision sharpened, it abruptly narrowed, swamped with gray and black.

You’re the black pit.

“Are you okay?” Derek asked, hushed. There was a distinct buzzing in his ears, a hollowness he didn’t understand.

You’re the black pit.

Stiles’ eyes rolled to the back of his head and the world closed in around him.

-

Derek fussed over him annoyingly, draining pain when he thought Stiles wouldn’t notice.

Stiles swatted at him. “I’m fine,” he whined.

They were back at the Hill Valley hotel. The owner took one look at the angry alpha werewolf under Stiles’ arm and immediately cleared out a room on the ground floor they could use. From the look of it, it was more conference room than sleeping quarters, but no one came in.

Which just left Stiles feeling stupid, propped up on a couch like some pregnant lady about to deliver babies. And pregnant ladies deserved the fussing and the pampering. Stiles, on the other hand, did not.

“And I want to keep you that way,” Derek said earnestly. Stiles rolled his eyes, scowling when Derek took one of his hands in his. “You’re not sick anymore. Do you know how good it is to hear you breathe this strongly?”

That left Stiles feeling defensive. “I’m not going to apologize for being human,” he retorted, feeling itchy and ready to fight.

“You never should,” Derek replied, disarming him. Stiles sunk down in the couch and stopped pulling on his hand so much. He felt abruptly childish in the face of all that genuine concern. For all intents and purposes, Derek pulled him out of that situation to save him, not to be an inconvenience. Stiles couldn’t even argue that he had everything under control, especially since it was only now that he knew that sometimes shifter claws can transfer memories as well as pain.

“Sorry,” Stiles mumbled, sinking deeper.

“Me too,” Derek said but didn’t clarify. He was still frowning. “Where did you go today?”

Stiles’ mind went blank. “I-” He paused. Then he said uncertainly, “I needed fresh air.”

Derek stilled. Then he stood up, dropping Stiles’ hand. “Of all the things to lie about…”

“Derek!” Stiles snapped at his retreating back, thinking of stolen evidence and the LIU. “It has nothing to do with you.” He wasn’t going to allow his nosy nature to implicate Derek in anything, even as just an accessory.

Derek turned, glaring down at him. “But it does have something to do with you, right?” When Stiles didn’t reply, Derek looked away, his jaw tensing. “I’m going to Laura. I’ll make sure Marin knows where you are. Let me know when you want me involved in your life.”

Stiles’ mouth opened in protest, but Derek was already out of the door. He settled back into the couch, discontent. After knocking himself back into it a few times, trying to get comfortable, he sighed irritably and got to his feet.

“I’m going back to my room,” he explained to the owner. “Tell them not to bother with medical treatment. I’m fine.”

It wasn’t his health that was the problem. It was the way he effortlessly managed to screw everything up.

-

Stiles woke up to the sound of shoes clattering on tiles. He shot up, squinting into his surroundings. His whole room was carpeted. Where did that sound come from?

His bathroom door opened suddenly, letting in the low light of an afternoon sun from an open window.

Marin Morrell walked through the threshold, adjusting her clothes. Her face was faintly flushed.

“Did you just-“ Stiles was baffled. “Did you just scale a wall to get into my room?“

“Everyone else in the hotel was cleared out, except for you,” Morrell said, ignoring him. She took off her gloves. “I find that suspicious.”

“S-suspicious?” Stiles echoed, incredulous. “You want to know what I find suspicious? A freaking stranger breaking into my room!”

“I’m an emissary, Mr. Stilinski,” Morrell said coolly. Emissary—that wasn’t a new word to Stiles. He’d heard it whispered about Deaton when he was younger, whispered like a curse. He’d eagerly looked it up, always on the lookout for new words to add to his insult repertoire, but the definition was disappointedly bland.

“I thought shifters hated emissaries.”

An enigmatic smile crossed her face. “Quite the opposite, little brother.” She suddenly looked grave. “Talia Hale, on the other hand, is a different matter.”

Morrell suddenly turned around, walking back to the bathroom.

Stiles scrambled out of his bed, tripping after her. “Wait! Why are you leaving?” He stopped just behind her.

She turned, looking up at him. Her eyes were narrow and—he would realize later—scared. “Didn’t you hear me?” She pressed her hand into his chest, leaning in close. She never blinked. “Talia. Hale.” She turned to leave this time and Stiles didn’t stop her. Under his watch, she climbed on top of the counter and vaulted out of the window.

It took Stiles way too long to register it as the warning that it was. By that time, he’d barely had time to drag on his clothes and his jacket again before his hotel room door suddenly burst open.

Seated on the bed, Stiles watched Talia enter and kept tying his shoes. He’d run out of time.

Talia Hale came in by herself. She was dressed in professional wear—black slacks and an understated but crisp white blouse. Her shoes, flat with a hard bottom, pointed towards Stiles on the bed. He found it easier to stare at them than up at the face they belonged to.

“What did you learn.” There was no request for information. It wasn’t even really a demand, nor a question. She had an inquiry that she would answer, with or without Stiles’ cooperation. And, while Stiles had perfected the art of dodging and evading teachers and other dome authority figures in his lifeline, he had no frame of reference for this. He was teetering on treason, and he knew it.

Stall, stall, stall…

“Not much,” Stiles blustered, meeting her gaze. “Jibber jabber of a freaking druid, am I right? Besides, who writes things on paper anymore?”

Talia gazed at him steadily. “I was informed you had memories from Kali Monroe, not that you touched evidence in the LIU.”

“Oh.” Oops.

But wait. No. That didn’t make sense. She was here for Kali? Really? Why? Surely, if she needed Kali’s memories for something, she would go directly to the source?

But that got Stiles thinking about memories and witnesses, and how, in old detective stories and media, they could make or break a case. A witness at the scene of the crime was an important element as they could identify who the killer or robber or criminal was. Such things didn’t matter much anymore, what with supes and their scents, witches and their magic.

Stiles straightened up, letting his foot fall to the floor. There was inky black and hulking alpha werewolf in Kali’s memories. It stood tall—eight feet, maybe more—with a white mask around its eyes. But if it was Peter, it was wrong, wrong, wrong.

Peter was smaller and had tawny fur. The other alphas didn’t match either. Deucalion could no longer shift and Cora was too young. Laura was that big, but she had dark brown fur and no mask. Only Derek had black fur like the creature, but he didn’t have a mask. He also had white patterns across his front and down his spine, even when he was a four legged wolf.

The only alpha that looked like that creature was standing right in front of him.

Heart racing, Stiles lifted his eyes up to Talia Hale. She stared back at him patiently. Her eyes were black, not brown, two aching holes of void. There was damage around her eyes, like the cracked lines of a broken cup, damage that showed up in no picture and in no feed, and only when Stiles looked at her at a certain angle.

He’d seen it once, briefly, months ago, when they stood like this in Adrian Harris’ office.

You’re the black pit,” Jennifer whispered in his head. She hadn’t known the word for her enemy. Stolen power only went so far.

Stiles leaned back slightly, feeling faint. Oh god. He hoped he was wrong. Please let him be wrong.

Talia saw some of his thoughts in his face and ghosted forward, head tilting in interest. She stopped a little ways away. Then her hand shot forward suddenly, catching his jaw. She yanked him up and forward by the grip. Stiles stumbled and bit the inside of his cheek. Copper flooded his mouth.

Talia was close—too close. Stiles could feel her breath on his face and could do nothing about it. “What,” she asked softly, “is the word hesitating on the tip of your tongue, Stiles?”

A cold chill went down his spine. “N-nothing,” he lied. When claws sprang from previously blunt fingernails, digging into his cheeks, he blurted out, “Nogitsune! Nogitsune.”

Talia stilled. Then, in stages, her face went through a peculiar transformation. A blank cold expression slid into a slow, lingering smile. Stiles’ heart dropped because, for all it had been hiding, for all it had been trying to avoid being caught, it was pleased to finally be recognized for what it was—a blight, a pest, sentient chaos.

The nogitsune’s smile grew teeth. Oh, this was bad. This was very, very bad.

“That explains a few things,” a voice rumbled from the door. Talia cocked her head slightly, looking over her shoulder.

Kali was behind her, half-shifted, her eyes a solid beta blue. Her nails clicking across the floor as she entered the room, hands shoved deep in her pockets. “I had a thought in the back of my mind that I dared not entertain. Even when I turned against Talia Hale, I was still loyal to her.” Her voice was tight, accusing. “I still looked up to her. I was still in awe of her.” Kali stopped about a foot away, stance wide. “Peter and Talia may have been siblings, but their scents couldn’t be more different.” Her teeth lengthened past the cage of her mouth as she snapped, bitter, “You’re the one that came that night.”

Talia looked her up and down. Then, faintly amused, she said, “I’m surprised you’re still alive.”

-

Everything from that moment on happened very quickly. Talia released Stiles. Talia went for Kali. Kali yanked an iron fixture off the wall and slammed it over Talia’s head. Talia hit the floor, but only barely.

Meanwhile, Stiles went through the only escape path he could see, but made the fatal mistake of pausing, of looking behind him.

Kali growled in her throat and grabbed him by the collar. “Czesław, run!” She practically hurled him through the door.

When Stiles found his feet again and looked back at her, Talia was behind Kali, standing tall, not even the barest hint of an injury on her. Kali was yanked back brutally. The door slammed shut by no physical hand. All Stiles heard behind it was thuds and shouting.

Stiles ran then.

He raced down hallways. Skidded around corners. Rebounded off of walls only to charge down steps. The ground floor met him quickly, almost face to face, then he was tearing out the front door.

The entire area was like a wasteland. Not a single person was in sight as Stiles took the stairs down to the street in twos. Once at the bottom, he hesitated before deciding to run down the alley next to the hotel and break out into the next street. He hadn’t taken one step before something large was tossed down from the balcony above him. It landed with a wet, meaty noise.

Stiles recognized the jacket and scrambled back, heart in his throat.

Kali was dead.

Something landed behind him then. He whipped around, meeting it.

And it defied explanation. His first instinct said werewolf alpha form, but even that didn’t explain it. It was a halfway creature, bristling with wet fur and bare patches of skin—not quite wolf, not quite fox, but all wrong. When it stood up from its crouch, the twisted alpha form faded away into something all too familiar.

“Stiles Stilinski,” Talia said formally. Her limbs were dripping with blood. Her smile was eerie, out of place. “You are being formally charged with the murder of Kali Monroe, former first lieutenant under Laura Hale.”

Stiles spared a look at Kali’s shredded and bitten form and sputtered, “What? I didn’t-“

Talia closed the space between them, trapping him against the bannister of the hotel stairs. She was smaller, slighter, but still no less dangerous. She leaned in, eyes glittering, looking like she was inviting him in on the joke. “That’s the best part, isn’t it? Who in the world would believe you over me?”

Before Stiles could even comprehend the amount of trouble he was in, Talia slammed his face into the stone bannister, knocking him out cold.

-

Stiles’ nose was broken. He was in his old hotel room, but not really. The bedspread was shredded and tainted red with blood. The light that came from his windows was a solid black. He felt hot and achy, but his breath kept coming out in a foggy cloud.

Something wasn’t right.

Stiles gingerly dropped from the bed to the floor, keeping his back against the mattress and his eyes on his surroundings. There was a low hum coming from somewhere, but the more he tried to pinpoint it, the more it seemed to fade.

Then it went silent. All Stiles could hear was his heartbeat and his own hitching breaths.

“Hi,” someone whispered in his ear.

Stiles jerked and scrambled away from the bed on all fours. He slipped and turned over, eyes jumping to the figure on his bed.

It took him a moment to identify the woman curled up in the white, whispery cloak. “Jennifer?”

There was gray in her face and in her eyes. There was nothing lively about her at all, not even in the former red of her mouth. But the expression she gave him, sheepish and awkward, was familiar.

“Yeah,” she said lingeringly, playing with the edge of her shirt. “I’ve never been very good at this… spirit projection thing, especially across the veil.”

Stiles’ anxiety twisted up, heightening and becoming terror. She was dead. She was dead and talking. After a beat, he shot and lunged for the door.

“Don’t run!” she called out behind him. Sighing, she muttered, “That’s just a - a waste of time.”

The door flung open and he sailed through it. But instead of a hallway, there was… his hotel room. The bed was empty, but the sheets were still shredded. His windows were blocked, hidden away by red brick. He spun, incredulous, and his mind abuzz with white noise. He went for the bathroom then, climbing up to the one free window. Burning air met him as he gulped and let himself hang from the edge.

When he let go, he didn’t land on the fire escape. He landed, instead, on his hotel room floor.

The room was empty. The windows were free again, letting in a gray light. He pressed himself flat against the wall, heart racing.

“Death isn’t pretty and it may kill you,” Jennifer said. Her voice seemed to come from everywhere. Then, behind him, a voice whispered, “It will definitely scare you.”

Stiles flew away from the wall, stumbling, but there was nothing there. Then a firm hand on his shoulder turned him around.

“But there are worse things than that,” Jennifer said, eyes blazing. “And, unlike me, you know the name of it.”

Stiles stared at the cold pale plains of her face and remembered how she died. “I’m sorry.”

She stared at him for a while, still distinct. Then she blinked rapidly, her grip on him gentling. “So am I,” she breathed, her hand falling. “You have something, little brother, and it sees it in you.”

Stiles was frozen it place. “It.” He could barely get the word out between his clenched teeth.

“The thing wearing Talia Hale’s face,” Jennifer replied. “You’re a born emissary, Czesław. It’s that heritage that the void wants to tap into. Only humans are emissaries, and nature abhors a vacuum. That’s why we’re getting stronger and stronger. Fewer and fewer humans to accept the gift.” She reached out, pressing a hand against his cheek—a parody of a concerned friend. “There will be fewer and fewer still, if it wins. If you don’t defeat it, everything either of us have ever loved will die.”

Barely processing this, he yanked himself away from her, feeling his eyes heat up with bitter angry tears. “Did you- did you See this?”

“Yes.”

Stiles didn’t know what to expect from that, but knew he hadn’t expected this strange sense of betrayal. He’d always felt like she’d guided him, somewhat. As creeped out as he was by that one video, he thought she’d hand-selected him to unravel all the crap surrounding her death. He’d had a mistaken sense of pride in that, buried under all the anxiety.

And now he had the knowledge while she had the foresight to leave behind videos to make him ask the questions that would lead him down this path, she hadn’t bothered to warn him about the danger that lurked at the end. “Why didn’t you-”

“I told Kali her fate.” Jennifer’s voice rang out—harsh like a whip. “I told her about a human boy who ran with wolves. I told her that boy would challenge her, then offer her a sympathetic ear. I told her that meeting with him would be the beginning of the end.” Stiles flinched, remembering Kali’s startled, wide eyed look, and the resignation that followed. She too had known his birth name.

Jennifer continued. “I told her she would discover the truth and find my murderer, and then she would die too. And I told her, no matter what she did, she would never be able to escape her fate.” Her voice wobbled slightly, but didn’t reduce in volume. “I put that burden on her because she asked for it. I’ve learned from my mistakes. Knowing what is to come rarely helps the people who want that knowledge the most.”

She’d been right all along. He’d captured the attention of a nogitsune, that dark pit. He was with a nogitsune!

Stiles turned away from her, feeling dizzy. The walls looked like they were closing in on him. “This is not real? No. No, it’s-” He was starting to hyperventilate, breaths coming in short and not enough. He sank to his knees in the middle of the floor, clutching at it. “T-this- this isn’t happening.”

Darkness danced across vision. His ears buzzed. But, through it all, he could still hear her.

“You can’t fight fate, Czesław. You are going to suffer greatly.” A wounded noise rose from below him—no, from him. “But your path isn’t decided yet. You still have time.” There was a pause. And then, regretfully, she murmured, “But not all that much.”

Stiles woke up in a stationary transport a moment later, chained down. He was covered in sweat and his face was caked with blood. His ears were still ringing with Jennifer’s warning.

Stiles ached for Derek, for Scott, but mostly for his dad to come and chase the nightmare away.

The back of the transport opened, letting in natural light that was somehow harsher than the fluorescents inside. When Stiles uncovered his eyes again, squinting, no one stood outside. He scooted, carefully and cautiously, down the bench, gingerly hopping out.

He felt like he was a drowned rat—battered by waves and choking on thick fluid. The blue haze of the barrier above him didn’t help that feeling at all. Breathing heavily through his mouth and around his broken nose, Stiles turned once. Then he turned again. Then he turned a final time, facing an old, burnt out husk of a house.

Dread throbbed deep in his stomach. He didn’t even flinch when his driver—his warden, his tormenter, his enemy—draped a companionable arm around his shoulder suddenly, showing up out of nowhere.

“Welcome back to Beacon Hills.”

-

The creature that took over Talia Hale made time for him between meetings and conferences and dealing with the wounded egos of her territory’s politicians. She messed with him a lot.

They were at the center of Beacon Hills. The sun was almost completely blocked out by the sound proofed internal barrier. It drew power from the faint external one, behaving more like a human’s dome than a supernatural city’s passive defense. No way in, no way out—theoretically, anyway.

There was no one in that abandoned center of town with that sad lonely house. Back when he was nursing his wounded pride and getting to know Derek, he’d approached this deepest part of the city. He hadn’t been stupid enough to try and cross to the space he wasn’t authorized to be in, but he’d been curious nevertheless. He’d seen enough through the haze to recognize what it was—a morbid and half-burnt mausoleum. He’d always assumed no one lived there.

Until now.

Stiles choked on ashy grass, fighting Talia’s grip. She held him face down, hand fisted in his hair. This position brought new agony to his broken nose, but that wasn’t even the worse of it. Four security bands clamped around his flesh, one by one, one for each limb. He scrambled out from under her when his head was freed, spitting up dirt and terrified. He looked down at the row of seven green lights on his wrist, indicating full security authorization, then looked back up at her, confused and dreading the moment he understood her game.

Talia was smiling. She tapped her mouth with a security wand, eyeing her handiwork. Her eyes crinkled with a smile. “Take this as a teachable moment, Stiles.” She pushed a button.

The bands beeped simultaneously. One green light—access to the outermost ring of the city—faded. A moment later, there was another beep. Another light faded.

Suddenly getting it, Stiles bolted for the gate that blocked off access to the house.

Beep.

He slammed up against the gate.

Beep.

His hands scraped and bled, trying to find a hand hold or a foot hold.

Beep.

The gate budged, opening an inch.

Beep.

He shoved his shoulder into it, forcing it open just a little more.

Beep.

Seventh beep, he realized. His hair stood straight up. He shoved himself in through the gate harder, tensing up in preparation for the shock.

It came just as he fell through the opening, then again as he breathlessly tried to stand. Then, in the dark gate house, illuminated by only the barrier folded over the only way out, all four security bands clamped tight on him.

Tight. And tighter. And tighter.

Talia entered the gate house, laughing softly at his panic, at his pained scramble across the floor. Bruises bloomed. Bones grinded together.

Stiles was screaming, shredding his throat with the force of it. His voice echoed back at him.

And then, finally, the pain stopped, because a security wand just tapped his head. He trembled in place, his whole body matted with sweat. When he dared to look at the loosening bands again, he saw that not only was nothing cut off, his bands had changed. They each had a row of six red lights—and one solid green one.

Talia crouched down next to him. “I think you understand the point of this, don’t you?”

He was allowed access to the highest security place in Beacon Hills. But nowhere else.

Stiles pressed his face into the dirt smeared over the gate house floor. Then he nodded silently. He only had access at her whim. If he lost it, he’d lose his hands and his feet too. There was no way he’d be able to escape a near-inescapable dome, no way he’d be able to sprint to the edge of the city in time. He’d bleed out and die in the end.

But only if she let him. And that, he thought, was the scariest part.

-

The creature that took over Talia Hale sat with him sometimes. Stiles disliked this intensely.

But she was gone more often than not. He was give free reign of the house, even when she was present, but he wasn’t dumb enough to think of that as free. He was allowed to even order things, provided that they were written and reviewed by Talia.

(The first review made him sweat bullets. She pursued the lists with the contentment that came from having all the time in the world. Stiles stood silently in front of her, knowing many plans—from assassination to escape—could be pieced together from those orders.

And she’d see through every single one of them.

Finally, Talia laughed at him, tucking it into her jacket pocket. “There’s nothing on any of these lists that will stop me from owning you.” She leaned forward and tapped his nose, making him flinch. “But I invite you to try.”

His fright intensified.)

He’d initially chosen a room on the first floor in the interest of escape. Now that he’d had his little object lesson with the security bands, he knew escape wasn’t an option. He was considering a room on another floor. A room harder to get to.

All because of mornings like this.

Sometimes, he’d wake up and Talia would be in the room. She’d be at the door, silent, staring with black eyes. After the first time, he kept his back to her, feeling the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

That morning, Talia abandoned the doorway. She sat next to him and started playing with his hair. He laid there, stiff and barely breathing.

“There’s something about you that I find…” Talia paused. “Deeply disturbing.”

Stiles’ mouth trembled. Then, slowly, he croaked, “It can’t be my fashion sense.”

Talia hummed in amusement. “I’ve been watching you. You, who is so clever. You, who is so inclined towards chaos.”

Unable to stand her behind him one second more, Stiles pushed up on his arm, facing her. “Remind you of someone?” he bit out.

“Yes. Me.” Talia smiled at him. It hurt to look at her. He didn’t see the black eyes on her now, just the brown ones from the photos. There was something sinister slinking under her skin, but her expression looked like it would be home on a friend’s face, a mother’s face. “You are it. The host I’ve been looking for. The permanent home for my soul.” She leaned in, expression tender—and a terrible, terrible lie. “You are going to let me in, Stiles.”

Not if he could help it.

-

The creature that took over Talia Hale chased him occasionally. If she reserved the morning for creepy lurking, then she reserved the nights for her monstrous behavior.

She chased him all throughout the empty halls of the old Hale home. She rarely didn’t catch him. Stiles’ scream of pain would echo, reaching the ears of no one, save for someone in the past, Seeing into the future.

Stiles would find himself where she dropped him later, cuts shallow, bites festering—injured and terrorized, but not dead. She played with him the same way cats played with their prey.

“You are going to suffer greatly,” Jennifer told him. She hadn’t been lying.

-

One occasion stood out from the rest. He’d crossed a line, pushed too far. Talia liked resistance, liked overwhelming it and proving its futility. She liked his fear. She liked his anger. But the nogitsune did not like his contempt.

And contempt was an overwhelming emotion for Stiles, even with fear and anger muddying up the mix.

Stiles slammed a door behind him, chest aching from the run. He whirled around and found a dresser. He set his shoulder into it and shoved, immediately abandoning it once it was in place. He looked for a weapon—anything to even the odds. All he could find was a sliver of glass from a broken mirror.

It was nighttime and something horrifying—half wolf, half fox, complete nightmare—was on the other side of the door.

He flung himself back when the dresser crashed against the opposite wall. He gripped the shard tightly, ignoring where it bit into his palm.

Talia slunk into the room. “Let me in, Stiles,” she murmured. She wasn’t in her twisted alpha form, but she was almost there, lacking only the fur and the height.

Stiles put his back to the corner. “I-I don’t know.” He hid the glass shard behind his leg. “I think the home you’re in right now is pretty useful.”

Talia clicked her tongue, flicking a strand of hair over her shoulder in contempt. “This rotting, empty husk. Yes, very useful.” She examined herself like the body she was tainting—a strong, willful, and, by all accounts, compassionate Alpha Prime—was something lesser and gross.

Stiles was struck by the futility of everything. “Why are you doing this?” he whispered. His legs were shaking. “Just kill me now!”

Talia looked away from her claws. There was a black sheen over her red eyes. “Oh, but I’m having so much fun.”

“What, torturing people?” Stiles spat. His hand reflexively tightened on the shard when Talia approached him. He backed up but there was nowhere else to go.

Talia smiled at him with white and flat human teeth. “The torture comes not in the act, Stiles, but rather in the waiting and anticipation.” She stopped a foot away from him, considering him with a cocked head. She was very still for a moment, which only made Stiles’ anxiety shoot through the roof.

Then she swung, claws extended.

Stiles’ weapon hit home first.

-

“You are being charged with the assassination of the Alpha Prime,” Deaton said tonelessly.

Stiles screamed that it wasn’t her, wasn’t her. It was the nogitsune. But his mouth had been bound with a metal bit. It was secured tightly behind his head. There was no defense in a treason case.

There was a metal collar around his neck and a short chain connecting him to the floor. He still had those stupid security bands on, but they seemed to have grown loops at the end, rings of metal just big enough for a rope to fit through. There was one attached to each band, going nowhere.

“As designated per our laws, assassination being the highest crime, you will be drawn and quartered,” Deaton finished, eyes cold.

What?

By the time Stiles understood what he said, four long legged wolves walked in. Stiles curled up on himself, gaze rocketing around wildly. He knew each of the werewolves instantly. There was tawny Peter with his long face, dark brown Laura with her stocky build. Cora was all paws—just a puppy. And Derek-

Derek picked up the knotted rope in his mouth, just as the other three did. He never looked at Stiles, not even once.

Following some invisible cue, the wolves suddenly sprinted, all in different directions.

In seconds, Stiles was yanked from his crouch, spread eagled. There was horrible tension, several pops, and then-

Stiles woke up screaming.

-

Talia pulled her bloody claws out of his neck. Stiles fell away from her, gasping. His useless weapon scattered to the floor, breaking further.

“Aw. Did you think you went somewhere?”

Stiles shuddered on the floor. He wheezed, hand clamped over the wound. How much was induced hallucination, how much was his own mind, how much was even real? He couldn’t begin to answer.

Then his memory started snapping back in his place. The glass embedding in Talia’s arm instead of her neck. She’d laughed and back handed him. When he tried to find his feet, she jabbed him with her claws.

Stiles’ hands clenched into fists against the floor. She’d messed with him again. She messed with his head. The bile in his mouth tasted bitter. If she could create such a vivid image in his head, why didn’t she just take over? Why did she have to drag this out?

Understanding suddenly shot through him. He pushed up slowly, getting to his knees. Misdirection was tactic of someone who didn’t want to make the brute force attack, the frontal assault. Someone who didn’t want to… or couldn’t.

When it occurred to him why she kept telling him he was going to let her in, why she kept putting that ball in his court, a hideous noise escaped his mouth involuntarily. It hurt his chest and made heat rise to his eyes.

In a different setting, it would have been a laugh.

“Oh my god, how weak are you?”

Talia stilled. Her face went blank as stone.

Stiles stood, rubbing the back of his hand over his face. He filled the silence with his voice. “I’ve heard about you. You feed off of fear and chaos. That’s why you’re pushing this war.” Stiles scoffed, his lungs hitching with that awful laugh again. “But war! War is so orderly, isn’t it? Strategies and chains of command and supply lines… And fear?”

Talia’s eyes were hollow and narrow, showing, for once, the gaze of some hateful soulless thing.

“Where’s the fear?” Stiles spat. “Everyone feels so strongly about their pet issues, their conflicting ideologies.” He thought of Braeden and Laura, Jennifer and Kali, both pairs standing off, toe to toe. “They’re not scared, they’re angry!”

A cold wind blew through the room through some burnt hole. Stiles felt it briefly on the surface of his skin, but no deeper.

“You ancient, short sighted idiot,” Stiles hissed viciously, shaking. “You must be starving.”

-

The chases took hours out of his sleeping schedule, hours he usually made up during the day. But after their confrontation that night? Talia never let him sleep again.

-

Stiles slammed against the wall, then landed on the ground. His vision spun woozily. His hip ached with a new bite, but that was quickly numbing, as were the new scratches on his legs and the gouged mark on the back of his neck.

Scott was in front of him suddenly, grabbing both of his hands. “Hey,” he whispered, the word choked. Fear danced in his gold eyes. He paused, yanking his jacket off his shoulders to lay it over Stiles’ trembling body. Stiles could only accept it in confusion.

Talia and her monstrous alpha form was no longer in sight but… Scott. Scott was here. Scott was in front of him. Scott was in danger.

Stiles found his feet faster then, helped by both Scott and his fear. Stiles clamped his hands on Scott’s shoulder, using his best friend’s form as a base as his eyes scoured all around them for threats. He jerked on Scott’s warm jacket, too cold to not accept the gift.

He grabbed Scott’s hand. Together, they took off down a hallway, falling into step with each other as they had for most of their lives.

“What are you doing here, you idiot?” he hissed, eyes jumping from shadow to shadow.

“Saving you, you double idiot,” Scott snapped back, voice equally low. “How the hell do you even swing pissing off an Alpha Prime? Or killing a beta like Kali Monroe?”

Feeling the weight of eyes on them, Stiles pushed Scott in front of him, forcing him to take a few steps forward as they slowed down. “It’s… complicated. Just- shut up, go back the way you came.” He looked over his shoulder, trying to see where the nogitsune went. “Maybe I can distract it.”

Stiles swung his gaze back to Scott.

Scott, who’d just stepped through a doorway. “Distract what?”

Then a massive furred limb came from the left, jerking Scott out of sight. The door slammed shut a second later.

Panicking, Stiles flew at the door knob, jerking it around until it released, allowing him to stumble and trip into the new hallway. Fists clenching, Stiles charged forward before he could really even see what was going on in that dim darkness.

Scott was tossed to the floor. He landed limply on his back. Claw marks dug across his chest and blood was pouring out of his mouth. He had enough time to look over at Stiles, gold-red eyes hazy with pain.

Then the nogitsune stomped on his head once, twice, three times. There was an audible crack that Stiles felt down to his soul. That was the moment when a little part of Stiles died.

Then, like Scott was nothing more than a dirty unwanted doll, Talia was throwing Scott’s broken body through the window at the end of the hall. The glass shattered, and the man that was Stiles’ best friend disappeared from sight.

This breathed bitter life back into Stiles. He screamed in anger and agony, launched himself forward in some futile attempt to grab his friend, save him that final fall. He hurled his body past the nogitsune, hand outstretched-

-only to run right into an unbroken window. He pulled up short, gasping, not understanding his wide eyed and pale reflection. What?

A low chuckle met his ears and, beyond the window, the sun was rising. The chase was over. Talia slunk away, letting Stiles put the puzzle together.

Stiles stayed there, frozen. After a beat, his gaze dropped down to his hand, where Scott’s had been just minutes before. He wasn’t wearing Scott’s jacket and there was no figure on the ground below, and yet, he could feel the ghost of Scott’s touch on him still.

And none of it—none at all—was real. His hand slowly clenched into a fist. The injury on his neck—that must have been when it started. Stiles couldn’t have nightmares anymore. So Talia made her own.

Furious, Stiles took the closest thing to the window—a chair—and lifted it, slamming it against the glass. The first blow did nothing but rattle it. The second sparked cracks and weaknesses. The third blow, the one that Stiles, teeth gritted tight, put all his strength into, shattered the window to pieces.

Stiles let the chair drop from his loose grip then. He felt devastated and weak limbed, and all he could do was stare at the worthless destruction at his feet.

Exhausted and overwrought, Stiles finally hid his face in his hands and wept.

-

It took eight days for his mind to start to fracture. Eight days of escalation. Eight days of sleep deprivation. Eight days of brief bursts of terror followed by long hours of anticipation.

The nogitsune’s viciousness increased, but strangely so did her absence. Not that Stiles was able to sneak some shut eye while she was out, no. She honored her promise.

She brought in guards to make sure he didn’t sleep. They were told he was working off a crime and that he was a human separatist. He didn’t correct them. They didn’t give him a chance to. They ranged from pushy and rough to distant and almost always half the house away—that is, until he put his head down. Stiles was given all sorts of menial tasks to do. Clean this, wash that, move this, now move this back.

They all treated him like something they’d scraped off their shoes, except for one. The Monday boy—well, technically the Monday, Thursday, and Saturday boy, but Monday was the first day Stiles met him.

Stiles liked the Monday boy. The Monday boy reminded him a lot of Jackson—pushy and with arrogant but fragile beauty. He’d stared as one of the distant ones, always patrolling around and looking busy. He always gave the easiest jobs, like he hadn’t planned ahead or rubbed his hands together at the thought of taking petty revenge against the closest human separatist.

The Monday boy only hit him once, a sharp tap against Stiles’ ribs with the toe of his shoe. It was more impact than injury, more startling than painful. It jerked Stiles out of the involuntary nap he’d taken up against the corner of the wall in the courtyard. It also jerked him out of the vivid dream he was having—lying trapped in a pit while a fox chewed through his feet.

When Stiles successfully calmed down his heartbeat, he looked around and at the glare of the remaining sun. He’d managed a few hours of sleep that day. The Monday boy caught him, sure, but only woke him up when he had the nightmare.

The Monday boy squinted down at him, arms folded defensively over his guard uniform—a velcro vest with many straps. It had a Hale symbol etched over his left chest pocket. The black contrasted sharply with his sandy brown hair and piercing pale eyes.

Stiles stared at the triskelion, watching it spin. Then he wet his lips. “What’s your name?”

The Monday boy shifted uncomfortably, blue eyes scanning left and right before he dropped down to his haunches. He seemed to hesitate, eyes lingering on the deep gouge in Stiles’ right forearm, which had started to ooze a blackish gray fluid. He was so young.

“Liam,” he said finally. His eyes jumped up to Stiles’. “What’s yours?”

-

Talia threw a shovel at him, eyes cold chips of void. “Dig,” she commanded. At her words, a cold wind picked up, slicing deep into Stiles’ very bones.

Stiles got three more hours of sleep that day, but only through trickery, subterfuge, and a planted scent trail that took his handlers everywhere, but the cabinet he’d squeezed himself into to get some shut-eye. He would have thought the nogitsune would be pleased.

She was not. As it turned out, the thing she liked less than contempt was rule breaking, especially when she was the one who set up the parameters of the game.

Stiles flailed wildly as he was dragged out of the cabinet, ankle first. Behind Talia, his handler of the day, a thickly muscled beta named Kincaid, watched Stiles spill out. The man’s face was blank, but his forehead glistened with sweat and there was a minute tremble in his upper lip.

Kincaid dragged Stiles to his feet and, through a combination of shoving and grabbing, manhandled him outside and around the burnt out house. Talia followed at a sedate pace, pausing only by the side wall. Meanwhile, Stiles turned around forcibly to face her, not twenty feet from the house.

Stiles knocked Kincaid’s hands off his shoulders. That’s when she threw the shovel at him and delivered her order.

“You…” Feeling the finality of this, and made desperate for it, Stiles gripped the wood in both palms. His mind raced. “You need me.”

“I said dig,” Talia intoned, eyes glinting red. She stood with a stillness that would have given away her nature, had someone known what to look for. Kincaid stepped away from Stiles, clearly edgy and ill at ease. There was no hope for aid from that sector.

There was no hope for aid at all, and Talia knew it.

Throat thick with hate and terror, Stiles eased the tip of the shovel in soil, pulling up his first clump of dirt—his first inch of the last place he’d rest his head.

-

Stiles dug for hours, alternating between sweats and chills. Soreness came from the unfamiliar activity, then aching from the sustained motion. In, scoop, toss. In, scoop, toss. Pain radiated from his shoulder down his back by the time the sun hit the horizon, and still he’d only gotten so far.

Talia’s only contribution was comments on where he could improve.

“Wider. You must fit in this, after all.”

“Much, much deeper. I don’t want to smell you once this is all over.”

His anxiety mounted sharply with each moment until, in the dark, he dropped the shovel on his foot. Instead of seeking it out, he hunched over, immediately hyperventilating, the inevitable end of this act somehow sharper and realer with the new pain. The walls of the pit he’d made barely rose to his hips, but they seemed to close in on him nevertheless.

At some signal from Talia, Kincaid dragged him out, depositing him on the dirt next to her feet. When he bent down, grabbing the shovel, Talia said, “You. Finish the job.”

Stiles clung to the ground, watching the beta hesitate for the smallest of seconds before picking up where Stiles left off. Huge piles of dirt rapidly accumulated by the sides of the hole, almost as if Kincaid was trying to prove his own worth after losing track of his one human charge.

Once the pit was deep enough—more than five feet, Stiles noted—Talia dismissed Kincaid. Relieved, he escaped at a fast clip.

Stiles felt the weight of Talia’s gaze on the back of his head. Slowly, he pulled himself up to his knees, swallowing harshly. After a beat, he looked up at her, breath shallow.

Talia was shadowed by the darkness that came with the night, but both the filtered moon and the faint haze of the internal barrier gave her face some definition, highlighting her nose and her cheeks. Red-black eyes gleamed out at him from those dark pits.

“Get in,” she said coolly, eyes narrow. When Stiles hesitated, waiting for a miracle, she grabbed his head and shoved him towards the hole. Stiles could do nothing but brace himself for the fall.

The bottom of the hole was surprisingly soft, cushioned with loose dirt from the walls. Stiles shoved down against it, palms sliding and sliding, trying to push himself to his feet before he started getting buried. He got up, stumbling wildly, heart pounding like a drum in his head.

And when he turned around, Talia was kneeling by the grave. She was smiling—softly, quietly, and with victory—and Stiles found his stomach dropping for a reason other than being buried alive. Death was an end. The nogitsune was not.

He’d been tricked. Again.

Talia covered her mouth with her hand, eyes glittering above it. “Do not be mistaken, Stiles,” she said, a laugh in her voice. “You are my favorite.” Her expression sobered, darkening. Her hand suddenly shot out, tightening in his hair.

Stiles was dragged from his end of the hole to hers, his scalp burning. She dragged him close, so close he could feel the anger rolling off her, the ancient potency of her rag. “But there is more than one emissary in this world,” she whispered. “There is nothing about you that isn’t disposable. Replaceable.” Threat delivered, she leaned over and pressed a tender kiss against his temple. “Think about that next time you cross me.”

Then she left him, alone and in the cold, standing in what could have been his grave.

-

Stiles didn’t make it out of the grave that night. While it was shorter than he was, he was still weakened by the unusual exercise. His aching arms could barely rise, let alone pull his weight enough to get him out. And when he tried to power through it anyway, soft dirt crumbled under his hand, erasing his holds before they could even be used.

He tried briefly and morbidly to curl up at the bottom of his grave and get more sleep. That didn’t work either. While Kincaid ignored his cries for help, he was right there was a bucket of water when Stiles started to drift off. Kincaid walked off as Stiles sputtered and tried not drown—now stuck in a muddy hole rather than a soft one.

Relief didn’t come until his Monday boy showed up for his shift.

Liam dragged him out of the grave, hand clamped hard on Stiles’ forearm. Stiles couldn’t stand. He landed, instead, on his knees just beside his grave, head hanging low. Liam let Stiles pant and breathe, still clinging on his arm. When Stiles had the energy to lift his head, he saw Liam’s inner wrist was crisscrossed by black veins from where he was trying to drain Stiles’ pain.

Liam dropped to his knee in front of Stiles, his pale eyes very wide. “Talia Hale has never been one to terrorize people,” he said with force, “Not even her enemies. What’s really going on?” His claws were digging bloodlessly into Stiles’ skin.

But Stiles couldn’t answer. His jaw tightened. His teeth grinded together. He shook his head, pained at the way his mouth clamped shut but too scared to summon up the courage to speak.

Gradually, Liam’s grip gentled. He swallowed audibly. “Stiles, I’m going to get you help. Listen to me.” He shook Stiles once, yet hard enough to capture his gaze. “I’m going to get you help. Just-“ Liam’s voice cracked. “Just hold on. Hold on for a little while longer.”

Stiles nodded a moment later, trying to trust the fragile hope blooming in his heart.

-

Talia allowed him to order a single Lupa Shot. Stiles jumped on it, thinking she’d made a mistake. The second he pulled it out of the delivery box, he jammed against his skin. The Class X Lupa Shot roared through him like the creature it took its blood from.

He felt better. He felt great. Even the pull of sleep deprivation seemed lighter, more manageable.

But, no matter how long he watched, the wounds Talia gave him never healed. The skin around them pinked and turned stronger, and some minor wounds even shrank, but not a single of them stopped leaking that black-gray fluid.

The only upside was that they never hurt—not in the traditional sense, anyway. Instead, it felt like a chunk had been taken out of him and all that remained was cold emptiness. He hoped Liam’s help came with a doctor. He had a feeling that what Talia was doing to him was very, very bad, especially if the strongest Lupa Shot could barely make a dent in it.

In the end, though, Talia didn’t make a mistake. She’d known exactly what would happen, and that knowledge was written all over her face—something like self-satisfaction and faux-pity.

“Oh, and by the way,” Talia commented as she was leaving, “Don’t make friends.”

The soft command was delivered before the thrown object had the chance to land. Eyes still tracking Talia’s passing, Stiles caught the bag clumsily, holding it to him. It was not the Monday boy’s day, so he was dusting, reaching high and low and getting all sorts of sores and backaches.

He had half an eye on the guards watching him and half an eye on the boxes with his orders. Things were going missing at an alarming rate, but he didn’t dare speak up about it. Thieving guards or Talia herself, it didn’t matter. In fact, it was probably better in the long run not to rely on any one thing.

His strategy so far was to have no strategy. A nogitsune, no matter how old, couldn’t outmaneuver a strategy that hadn’t formed yet. Right?

Once Talia was gone, Stiles unfolded the bundle to see what she had tossed. Barely registering more than warmth, blue eyes, and light hair, Stiles dropped it and jerked away, half-plastered against a wall. He clamped his palm over his neck, expecting to find blood.

He regretted his arrogance and wondered if the no strategy plan was merely a step towards giving up, giving in.

The head rolled away.

-

Later that day, he spied on a blond patrolling on the other side of the courtyard. He ran to catch up.

He fell short. Stiles stood there, trembling and sweating. He no longer had any idea what was real or not real.

The nogitsune chased him that night, scoring a mark into his back that he would carry for the rest of his life.

-

Stiles was knee deep in the courtyard, painfully narrowing dry eyes at the weeds he was pulling up. The days and hours were melting together. Everything was achy and tight. He felt sick and tremble-y, and the black-gray gore from his last injury was making his back itchy.

So he was in the absolute worse state of mind to have a hand shoot up out of the dirt and grab his wrist.

He panicked, arms wheeling, and rolled away. By the time he looked back, the hand had morphed into a root. Stiles whipped sweat away from his eyes, hand pressed over his galloping heartbeat.

Then, hearing something, he straightened up, still on his knees. His eyes went to the gnarled withered tree in the center of the courtyard. Talia called it a nemeton and gazed at it with a mix of alien interest and disappointment. Stiles, on the other hand, called it a dead boring tree, and yet…

Jennifer was standing under it. She was wearing that wispy white cloak still, eyes dark and narrow.

Stiles blinked exaggeratedly, rubbing at his eyes. But when he looked up, he was still seeing the Darach. He dropped on all fours, thinking wearily that it hadn’t taken him all that long to completely lose it, and, the second his palm hit the earth, the hand grabbed his wrist again.

Stiles immediately looked away, breath hard and shallow. He watched Jennifer, gulping. Then, when she cocked her head, he let out a shaky breath and let himself be pulled by the hand.

He crawled on his knees following it, eyes clenched shut and heart hammering against his chest. When it released him, he sat down on his heels, daring to look. But there was no hand, no roots—just dirt. Just his palm pressed against loose tan dirt.

Stiles scowled at the sight and idly pushed the dirt back and forth. There was nothing there. He pushed harder, but all that did was displace more dirt, highlighting still a whole lot of nothing. Frustrated, he started digging with both hands, first slow, then frantic and quick, like a dog.

About four inches in, he hit something. It hurt, actually, forcing one of his nails to go in a direction it wasn’t built to withstand. Stiles swore and stuck it in his mouth without thinking. Then, in a haze of confusion and fear and sleep deprivation, he looked at what he’d found—a wooden cylindrical container.

Stiles pulled it out slowly with his free hand. Then, irritably ripping the rest of the broken nail off, he put two hands on it, forcing it to open.

Half of him expected emptiness. Maybe a time capsule, like people used to do according to the old media. Or even hidden jewels.

He wasn’t expecting a plant. He wasn’t expecting vibrant purple flowers. He wasn’t expecting a living specimen of something he’d only seen in information databases and educational resources—organic wolfsbane, extinct for forty years.

He touched the flowers, caressed the stem, and squinted down at the layer of soil at the bottom of the container. Then he scraped his thumbnail across the container speculatively, his eyes rising to the nemeton.

He didn’t see Jennifer, but Noshiko was in front of him instead, face shadowed by the darkness of the night. “You can force it out of its host by destroying the host or by changing it. After that, you have a very small window of time to catch it. It will manifest as something else—usually small and unnoticeable. You must catch it in and seal it in a container.”

“What kind of container,” he’d asked, nosy.

“Any, though one made out of the wood of a nemeton would be best. I used glass. That’s why it’s free now.”

He blinked and then Ken’s voice floated into his left ear. “Spirits are both… greatly empowered and greatly limited by their hosts. The host's strengths become their own, but so do their many weaknesses, including the mortal ones.”

He’d been creeped out by the thought at the time. But he didn’t fail to absorb Ken’s kind hearted takeaway message.

“There’s never not any hope,” Stiles said hollowly. He hugged the wooden cylinder to his chest.

For the first time in days, he started thinking about a concrete exit strategy.

-STARTSTART
“Okay, I give up,” Stiles announced up the rotting wooden stairs. “Have at me, you mangy fox.”

It had been three days since he found the wolfsbane. Playing up his exhaustion, he leaned on the wooden bannister, all too aware of the nemeton container slung behind him in a bag.

“Have at you?” Talia echoed from the top of the stairs. She was wearing black, her usual color of choice, in everything—her slacks, her jacket, her pointed shoes—except for her collared shirt. That was a deep green, bringing out her eyes. Her grace reminded him something out of an old world movie—back when they were black and white and every man was brooding and mysterious and every woman either his complicated but perfect soul mate or a straight up femme fatale.

Talia made her way down in slow measured steps. “For someone waving a white flag, that seems rather”—her mouth quirked in a smile—“spunky.” And she seemed rather accepting of the fact that he’d interrupted her on her way to work, much like the way a hungry snake would accept a gerbil over a mouse, if that gerbil was just a little easier to catch.

“I do have demands, of course,” Stiles replied hollowly, watching her. His head was pounding, throbbing with old pain and the rapid kick of his heartbeat.

“Of course,” she mocked him, reaching the bottom step. She folded her hands in front of her, exaggerating a look of interest. “Go ahead.”

Stiles swallowed, wetting his dry mouth. His mind went blank. What did he want? “Ten hours of sleep.” Duh. “And a really damn good meal, and with a good ratio of veggies to fruit to meat.” Talia dipped her head, smiling. “And a promise you’ll leave your kids alone.”

She raised an eyebrow. “My kids?”

Stiles grimaced, waving a hand at her. “Her kids. You know what I mean.”

Talia looked up at the ceiling, seeming to consider that. Then her eyes swept down, falling back on Stiles.

He stilled at her contemplative gaze, swallowing harshly. He needed to catch her off guard somehow. He needed her to lower her defenses, if only for a brief moment. And what better way to do that than give her exactly what she wanted?

“Oh Stiles,” Talia said fondly, closing the space between them. She took his shoulders into her hands, looking at him from arm’s length. “What are you doing?” Her eyes narrowed, expression cooling. The smile didn’t quiet fade. “What are you planning?”

Stiles blinked at her, not following. “I’m, I’m ending this,” he said, sounding uncertain even to his own ears. “On my own terms. Not yours.”

“Liar, liar,” she sang, eyes drifting up and down his form, as if she could pick out the trick just by looking at him. She leaned in, smirking. “Nice try. But you want to know what gave it away?” She tipped forward, her words dancing in his ears. “There is still hope in your eyes. And I will not stop until the last ember of it is snuffed out.”

Stiles jerked away from her and her wide smile.

They were interrupted by a loud buzzing crash. It was all around them—outside and above too. Then all the electricity in the house fizzled out. The semi-darknesss that swooped down around them only highlighted the fact that the sunlight coming through the windows was bright and unfiltered, lacking even the smallest shred of blue.

The dome was gone.

Then there was crack—close and in the room—then each of Stiles’ security bands opened up and fell from him, landing on the floor like heavy metal beads.

Stiles lifted his gaze from the bands slowly, meeting Talia’s as she did the same. They eyed each other for a long time and then-

Stiles bolted for the front door.

-

He actually made it outside. But, of course, he immediately ran into a solid wall of pliable warm flesh. He rocked back on his heels, sucking in a gasp when he saw who it was.

So deep did that execution image settle in him that the first reaction he had to Derek’s presence wasn’t relief, but rather fear. By the time he sorted out his confused response, he was already stepping back, his stomach dropping.

He knew what this was. Dear darling Derek was in front of him, just like Scott had been—yet another hallucinated pawn in the tug of war that was his mind. Stiles clapped a hand over the back of his neck. When did she cut him there? When he ran? When they were talking? Before that?

Had he really been outmaneuvered already?

Derek seemed oblivious to Stiles’ thoughts. He grabbed Stiles’ arm, dragging him away from the door. “You have to go,” he said urgently. “All the security systems are down—the shields, the bands, everything. Go through the gate house and take the road. Get to the outer ring.”

Mute, Stiles stared back at him, betrayed. Scott had been bad enough. Now she was using Derek?

His inertia infuriated Derek. “Are you deaf? Stiles, run!”

“He won’t,” Talia said from behind Stiles, lingering by the door. “I’ve trained him too well.”

Derek’s eyes jerked over Stiles’ shoulder, widening with shock and horror.

-

Stiles was shoved out of the way. He tipped over the railing and hit the dirt hard enough to knock some of the cobwebs in his mind free.

Even so, his mind continued to buzz, blocking out the sounds of force and grunts and growling. He rolled over his back and looked up at the sky—the beautiful unblocked sky. Someone had broken through the security system. Someone had brought down the inner dome. Someone had let Derek get this close.

Someone was… Someone was saving him?

Stiles flinched, curling protectively around himself as he was showered with wood splinters as a body broken through the front railing. Twenty feet away, Derek got back up, rubbing blood away from his eyes. He looked panicky and conflicted. There was white all around his red shifted eyes.

Then something came out of the house that was very clearly not Talia Hale.

Stiles scooted back on his hands reflexively. It was one thing to be chased by her twisted alpha form in the middle of the night. It was quite another to see it in the broad daylight, to know that he would never be able to brush off those chases as simple nightmares.

Saliva dripped from bared teeth, oozing past pulled back lips. The muzzle was wrong for a werewolf—too thin, too long—but it wasn’t a werewolf in the end. Large massive hands, edged with wicked black claws, curled around the bottom of the porch. Two blood red eyes, faintly covered by a haze of black film, shifted from Derek to the sky to Derek again. And then they cut brutally to Stiles himself.

You’re next, those eyes promised. Then it snapped its attention back to Derek and lunged.

-

Stiles slammed himself back against the wall on the other side of the house. He fisted his hair tightly, pinning his forearms to his head.

Derek told him to run. But Derek could be fake. Derek broke the dome. But Scott broke the window too, and that was a lie.

Stiles banged his head against the wall. What was he supposed to do? A mantra took up inside of his head, pushing out all other thoughts—real or not real, real or not real-

There was a huge thud from the other side, then a cry wrenched from a voice he knew all too well.

Stiles let out a sob, wrecked by all this—but also suddenly clear minded.

He didn’t care if it was real or not, not at this moment. And, fake or not, he’d just left Derek alone with the nogitsune.

“Dammit,” Stiles gasped out, whirling around. He grabbed the closest weapon.

-

When Stiles rounded the corner again, not a minute after his first cowardly retreat, Derek had already earned him several claw marks. They went across the right side of his face, starting up his hair line and dragging down to his chin.

The front window shattered under the tossed nogitsune’s weight, but, with a raised hand, all the new little shards flew up at Derek, imbedded into him and his folded up arms in the hundreds.

In seconds, that massive monstrous form flew across the space between them. It picked Derek up and off his feet, then slammed him back into the wall. It jumped at him, no grace, full force, then started slashing away at his torso, shredding his clothes, shredding the skin and muscle below.

Derek let out a noise more animal that human, but managed to catch the nogitsune’s wrists. He wrenched them away. But his muscles strained visibly under the pressure.

The nogitsune only laughed, a rolling mess of a noise from a throat not made for such things. Clearly delighted, it pressed down on Derek further. It was obvious that it, whatever it was, had more strength than even an alpha werewolf—and had a stronger tendency towards trickery than even a darach.

It ducked its head, sinking teeth deep into the meat of Derek’s arm. Arms buckling, Derek let out a strangled yell, releasing the other wrist to punch the nogitsune’s long muzzle.

This was a mistake—the bite itself, a misdirection. The nogitsune threw itself into Derek again, wrapping both hands around his exposed throat. Derek sucked in a labored breath, already starting to turn purple. He clawed and ripped at the arms near him, and kicked and punched at what he could. But the nogitsune was will and force and power, fixated on chaos. It didn’t budge.

It would kill Derek in the end, and it knew it. It was going to take his head, just like it did Liam’s. And there was nothing anyone could do to stop it.

At an unexpected whistle, the nogitsune looked up from its new prey, blood dripping from its nightmare mouth.

Stiles slammed the shovel in its malformed face—one, twice, three times. The nogitsune’s twisted alpha form was three times Stiles’ size, but there were few creatures who could withstand the pain of getting clobbered in the face without trying to at least escape it.

Finally, the handle of the shovel just up and snapped, leaving Stiles with just a foot of wood and wildly trembling hands.

Derek was a bloody mess. He wheezed in deep, tortured breaths, falling to his knees next to the wall. His pale green eyes wavered before focusing on Stiles. He muttered Stiles’ name, a note of alarm rising towards the end.

Being tackled by the nogitsune felt like being hit by a train.

-

Stiles skidded across the dirt. That twisted alpha landed on top of him, chasing the breath right out of his lungs. He let out a strangled yell when the nogitsune stabbed its claws into his sides, hooking them into him as if to hold him still.

"You foul little boy," the nogitsune hissed. “How long has he been in here? How long did you keep this from me?” When Stiles didn’t answer—couldn’t answer—it picked him up half a foot before slamming him back down to the floor, roaring in his face, “How long have you known how to get past security?!

Stiles choked out a sound that was half-desperation, half-hilarity. He’d honestly had no plan outside the one that had been fed to him beyond the grave. But the nogitsune clearly didn’t believe that. It was swinging wildly between gleeful retaliation and bone deep rage, and shaking with it.

Then the thing threw its head back, letting a noise like a yip, but also like a hysterical laugh. “But it doesn’t matter, does it?” it crowed with elation. It leaned in until all Stiles could feel was its hot, rancid breath on his face. “Did you really think you could win?”

All Stiles could do was try to exist around the knives stabbing into his chest. “N-no," he admitted, tears springing to his eyes.

Its muzzle split open in a wide grin.

Disgusted, Stiles turned his head away. He had about an inch of breath still left in his lungs. Desperately, he squeezed his hands between them. One laid flat against the massive torso, ineffectively pushing at it, trying to get it higher and away from him.

The other dove into his pocket.
"When will you learn," it spat in his face. "I am your better. I am your fate. There is no escape from me. There is no negotiation either. There is only you, broken, and me coming in through that wide open front door."

"When will you l-learn, brother?" Stiles fired back, voice choked. The nogitsune cocked its head in confusion. "We're related, don't you know? You’re no more better than us than any other supe.” Heart twisting in hatred, he spat, “You came from us. Not the other way around!"

"Lies and fairy tales from an irrelevant species," it hissed, pointed teeth snapping close to his chin. “Shut. Up.”

Stiles ignored him. "B-but we are, and you know it! That's why you want me," he said in a rush, gasping. “That why you can possess us-”

Silence!” the nogitsune roared at him, claws digging deeper.

White hot pain shot through him, momentarily scrambling his thoughts. He found them again, mind sharpening with resolve. "We're related, we're all related, even y-you and me.” Stiles licked his lips, tasting blood and bitterness. “And you know what? There's another thing we have in common besides ancestry."

"Yeah?" the nogitsune taunted. "And what is that?"

Even though it hurt, Stiles leaned up, never breaking eye contact. "Stupidity.”

Stiles slammed an old Lupa Shot syringe right in the center of the nogitsune’s chest.

-

The unfiltered sun was so bright. Stiles had almost forgotten that—almost forgotten the burn and the afterimage it left on your eyes when you looked too long.

“One, fresh organic aconite, courtesy of the Darach. It’s bothering the wolf whose form you stole.”

A nemeton container rolled over the ground, free from its bag. Too tired to stand, Stiles reached out, spinning it back to him with the tips of his fingers.

“Two, fresh naga venom. Highly corrosive. It’s eating at your muscle tissues right now.”

A flannel shirt was ripped into pieces—some large squares, some long strips. Hooded green eyes watched him clamp these this things against fresh wound with a familiar flair.

“And, three,” Stiles said, finishing off the list of poisons rushing through Talia, “fresh kanima venom as well. Because if you’re going to suffer, you might as well be paralyzed for it too.” His voice was bitter.

Stiles ordered a lot of stuff over the last month of being a prisoner. During the last one, he just threw a bunch of advertisements at the guards and told them to order “everything that had pictures”. One of the advertisements was from a local merchant who specialized in what they called “supe castoffs”.

Everything from that was just addition—what plus what equals what?

It was the nogitsune’s fault for not taking away everything he could have used as a weapon. That was its own brand of stupidity, Stiles thought, exhausted. He pressed the ratty plaid material tighter over his chest.

The nogitsune, now wearing Talia’s face again, scoffed at him. “You can’t kill me, so you’re going to torture me instead? Bad move.” Strong words from someone plastered and paralyzed on the floor, Stiles figured.

“Not torture,” Stiles replied. “Just mess up your host a bit.” At that, Stiles paused, looking up at Derek.

All three of them were on the ground, covered with blood and dirt. They made a triangle, with the limp nogitsune as the point. She changed back after Stiles had wiggled out from under her twisted alpha bulk—likely for the shock value alone, as they were bound to have company sooner or later.

At that, Derek’d stumbled over. He stopped above her, avoiding her stolen eyes. Then he peeled his jacket off and set it tenderly and reverently over the nogitsune’s form. She had mocked him for it, but Derek ignored her, settling down in the dirt across from Stiles when he was done.

Seeing that gentle offering reminded him that this body was not just a vessel for chaos. It was a mother once too. A leader who, by all accounts, had been a fair one. Who knew? Maybe everything Stiles hated about Talia was all nogitsune. Surely the woman who had pushed past a mountain ash barrier to save her family was one Stiles could respect, even if their viewpoints put them on opposite sides of the war.

Stiles’ jaw tightened with determination. “It sucks, doesn’t it,” Stiles said softly, mockingly. “Riding a subpar being?” Derek looked up at him, all wounded eyes, picking at the glass in his arm. His throat was still a vivid and violent purple ring of bruises.

I’m sorry, Stiles thought to him. I’m sorry, he thought to her, the real Alpha Prime. But he hunkered down closer to the nogitsune. “Don’t you wish you could just… pop out somehow?”

Talia glared at him suspiciously. “You want me to possess you?”

“Nah, you’re too weak to. Otherwise you would have done it already.” Stiles reached out, scooping up the container. “I have something else for you.” He brought it into her line of sight, shaking it twice. “How do you like your new digs?”

She stilled. Then something savage and vicious crossed her face. “When I escape—and I will escape, Stiles,” she said, her voice thickening with the foul promise. “I will make the last few weeks seem like paradise in comparison to the hell I will show you.” She made as if to say something more, something darkly poetic and menacing, but Derek suddenly reached over, balling the last of Stiles’ flannel shirt and cramming it into her mouth.

“Nah,” Stiles said tiredly. “I’m thinking… eternity in a hole. How about you?” He pushed himself up, staggering slightly as the world spun around him. One hand was pressed against his wounds, the other around the nemeton container. His fingers were tacky with the blood that had already bled through.

“Once I catch it,” he said, eyes on Derek. “You gotta get the antidotes. The kanima thing will wear off, but the naga venom will not, and it’s potent. Even for a werewolf.” Fresh and new anxiety made his voice wobble. “I made the wolfsbane one already. It’s in my room. You just need to get it.”

Derek was frowning up at him. “Stiles…” The word trailed off as Derek stood, squinting at him in tired confusion.

Stiles made a ‘wait’ gesture with his hand, though it was obscured by the container. “It’s very important for you do this. Your mom will be able to heal, but we need to flush the poisons ASAP.”

Derek sighed, face falling. “Stiles,” he said, attention swinging back to the nogitsune at their feet.

Stiles followed his face—then recoiled. Talia’s eyes were crinkled with something like amusement, foul delight brightening up her eyes. Stiles scowled. The nogitsune was going to be a bastard and stay in as long as it could, wasn’t it?

“Stiles,” Derek said again, voice harder. He took a step towards Stiles, hand extended towards him. Stiles flinched at the gesture, which evolved into a full recoil when Derek just stopped there, frozen in place, his familiar face equal parts frustrated and sad.

Suddenly angry, Stiles snapped, “Don’t argue with me! Just listen for once in your life. I know what I gave-“

“Stiles!” This time, his name came from behind him.

Stiles whipped around, eyes jumping to the open gate house. Laura was there, hair loose and swirling in the wind. Her sister was at her shoulder, panting softly. If Stiles didn’t know better, he’d say that there were old tear tracks on the youngest Hale’s face.

A moment later, Scott barreled into the space, followed quickly by Noshiko. Rounding out the group was, surprisingly, Deaton, whose eyes widened in shock when he took in the scene.

“What are you all doing here?” Stiles demanded aggressively, gripping the container like it was a shield.

Laura exchanged a look with Noshiko. Deaton’s eyebrows winged up. Cora glared, hostility racketing up in seconds.

But only Scott spoke up. “We’re here for you.”

-

“You’re late,” Derek said hoarsely. At this, the other Hale siblings pulled away from the group, honing in on their brother.

“Well, we’re not the one who bolted when Talia failed to show up for her morning meeting,” Deaton commented, tone mild as usual.

“There was a plan, Derek,” Cora bit out, glaring up at him from an inch away. Derek just gazed back down at her, shoulders loose but low, green gaze soft but unapologetic.

Stiles was so distracted by them that he didn’t notice Noshiko until she was at his elbow. “Stiles, I overheard what you told the nogitsune,” she said quietly. Finally, he thought, exasperated. “It was a good idea. But it’s not going to work.”

Stiles flinched, stumbling around to face her. “No, you don’t understand-”

Why did no one understand? This wasn’t difficult stuff here!

Noshiko shook her head. “I do, I really do-”

Frustrated with her, he thrust the nemeton container at her. “See? See, I can get it out. I can trap it. I can save her. I can-” He barely noticed his meltdown was attracting attention.

Noshiko didn’t take the container. “Stiles, what did I tell you about a nogitsune?”

Stiles blinked rapidly, trying to think. It was so hard to string things together. “That it, that it goes for isolated creatures. That humans are the best hosts.”

Noshiko nodded encouragingly. “And shifters—werewolves—are the worst,” she said. “They’re too connected to each other. The resistance is so, so strong and…” She trailed off. There was something quiet in her face, like regret. Like grief.

Stiles looked up at the rest, focus lingering on the raw, torn open expressions on Cora and Derek’s faces, gaze jerking up and away from the sight of Laura’s tensing jawline.

Stiles looked back at Noshiko. “What are you saying?” he breathed.

“A nogitsune cannot inhabit a shifter body unless the shifter is already dead.”

And there it was, Stiles realized slowly. The source of the nogitsune’s amusement, the reason for its smirk, even now.

This was the nogitsune’s final trick.

-

“He’s been poisoned.” Deaton didn’t touch him. Stiles had to give him credit for that. “The best I can tell, it left an echo of itself behind—the start of an open door. It’s manifesting as this infection in his injuries.”

They talked him into moving away from the body. He ended up sitting on the ground, watching uselessly as the naga venom tore through Talia’s body unchecked, burning gaping holes through muscle. Eventually, the damage reached a point where the nogitsune knew it had to go.

It turned into a fly and beelined furiously for Stiles. Laura almost didn’t catch it.

“I’ll be able to purify it,” Deaton said confidently. “The psychological damage, however-”

“Give me the container,” Stiles interrupted.

Laura looked up from where she was white knuckling it. “What? No.”

“It’s my container,” Stiles argued, anger flaring up out of nowhere. He hated her suddenly. And Cora too. And he hated Scott and Derek most of all. “I found it, I dug it up-”

“And there’s a centuries old creature inside that-”

“-tortured me for a month. I know. Where the hell were you?” His bellow echoed off the walls.

Silence fell suddenly with all the weight of an anvil.

“Just give it to him,” Derek said with finality, a growl in his voice. He had eyes only for his mother.

Just like that, all feeling besides regret, fled from him. Stiles stared at his knees, not looking up, not even when the container was gently deposited into his lap. He was such an asshole sometimes.

Hugging the container to him, Stiles sat up. His attention, like everyone else’s, was turned to the former Alpha Prime. His hands flexed on the container, twisting slightly with anxiety.

“She must have been possessed the moment she died,” Noshiko commented, circling the body slowly. “I suspect you can smell the decomposition process now that the nogitsune isn’t hiding it.”

Laura’s shoulders rounded faintly, as if that comment was a blow.

“Yeah,” Derek said quietly. He kneeled and brushed her mother’s eyes closed.

The container on Stiles’ lap suddenly twisted open with an audible pop.

-

“Stiles,” Scott growled, eyes very wide.

“Relax,” Stiles groused, faking calm. He’d almost given himself a heart attack too. But he was quick to flip the container over and show that, even in his state, he thought ahead and pressed the top of the compartment to the ground between his legs—a little bit of extra security for the fragile and paranoid mind.

What he hadn’t anticipated, though, was that there was a separate compartment on the bottom, the seams of which were completely naked to the human eye.

He passively allowed Deaton to yank the container out of his hand—yeah, he earned that one—then paused, realizing a handwritten letter had fallen to the floor.

Stiles opened it, eyes darting over the text. He recognized the pretty, curling penmanship almost immediately.

Alpha,

You and I will never see eye to eye. Not because the Event will never be resolved, nor because talks of peace are worthless. No, you and I will never see eye to eye because we will both be struck down by something that should have belonged to you, should have been loyal to you.
Because we will never meet in peace, allow me to say something that will not be said otherwise:

I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what I’ve done. I’m sorry for what I will do. I’m sorry for the chaos and suffering in this world. And, most of all, I’m sorry for my contributions to it.

Talia, if you have ever respected a druid's power, then please heed my request:

Bury this beneath the husk of the nemeton that withered when you forsook the guidance of the emissary Deaton. Bury it fifteen paces from the door and four inches deep. Please, I beg this of you, for the one who needs it is not you or I, but will act for us--not in vengeance, my Alpha Prime, but in salvation, for both of us have already lost.

There is no escaping our fate.

The letter was signed with Jennifer’s name. Stiles stared down at the signature blankly. Fifteen paces from the door and only four inches deep. Just where Stiles needed to find it. Talia Hale believed in the power of the druid after all.

Stiles blinked rapidly. Then, seeing the shadow of stark black ink through the paper, he flipped it over. Different writing—narrow, sharp, and concise—met his eyes.

If you’re reading this, I’m so sorry.

Talia Hale

Somewhere in the space of him finding the letter and reading it, he’d been surrounded by Hales. When she saw her mother’s writing, Laura let out a wounded noise and swiped it out of his hands. Derek and Laura stood quietly, reading it together.

And that was that.

In the confusion and curiosity that followed, Stiles stood and quietly left. He went up the stairs. He turned some corners. He opened a door. Then, finally, he was back in his room.

He sat on the cold floor and waited for Jennifer to appear.

“I wanted-” Stiles swallowed harshly, blinking up at the ceiling. “I wanted to save her.” He shifted silently, waiting for her response.

He waited. And waited and waited.

But the dead did not come.

-

“Hey, dude.”

Stiles barely blinked at Scott’s intrusion into his space. Somewhere in the numbness that was his mind, he resented the tragic eyes that kept flashing at different features of the room. It must have been a feast of the senses, he realized slowly. His blood was here from when she’d stabbed him with her claws. Possibly Liam’s was here too, if that wasn’t a hallucination.

Old blood, sweat, and fear—no wonder Scott looked scared.

When Stiles didn’t respond, Scott shoved his hands in his pockets and started to talk. “We found out you were taken almost immediately. Laura tried to figure out why and heard the charges. They tried to swing it like you were a human separatist trying to get back at Kali. It didn’t make sense.” Scott rubbed his hair with hand, creeping closer. “So Braeden brought in some actual human separatists to testify to the fact that one, Kali was on their side, and two, you were no human separatist. Meanwhile, Laura demanded to see Kali’s body, saying that any wolf with a nose would be able to scent out the true murderer.”

Scott slowly sat on the floor next to him, giving Stiles enough time to move away, if he wanted. “That’s when the assassins came. You should have seen it, Stiles. Everyone rallied around Laura, even Braeden’s people. We fought back every single one, but it was a siege, and a rough one. After we knocked them all back, Danny hacked into the system and started following the money. At the same time, the human separatist army intercepted the transport with Kali’s body and brought it back to Laura.”

It sounded fantastic and epic and something Stiles would have totally loved to be a part of, once upon a time. Now though, it was just empty words to him.

“Laura and Derek swore up and down that their mother would never try to kill them, never try to frame a human for a murder. So we figured it had to be a fake. Or a possession or something. Even Noshiko wasn’t sure what Talia was possessed with. That is, until we got into the internal barrier and she heard it talk. That’s when she told us Talia was dead…”

Stiles drifted in and out.

Scott talked a little longer, but eventually ran out of conversation points. He hesitated, hands clenching into fists on his thighs. Then, quickly, he said, “We’re going to get Peter out. What he did is not treason, so…” Stiles’ attention focused a little at that. There was hurt in Scott’s voice, boyish hurt. The kind that came out when people discovered that the world wasn’t fair or just.

Treason was a huge crime. Biting someone without their consent? That got a slap on the wrist.

Scott sucked in a breath. He reached for Stiles reflexively, then stopped, fingers curling away. “Stiles, I need you.” The plea was sharp, like a blade, or maybe like hook, one that kept on pulling even after you tried to yank it away.

After a minute of nothing, Scott nodded. He smiled kindly, though with pain. “It’s okay,” he reassured Stiles. “It’s okay.”

But it wasn’t. Not really. Because Scott was leaving.

Then Scott was pausing, lingering by that door.

All because Stiles stood and picked up his clawed coat.

-

“How can you tell?” Peter demanded. He was being held in the bottom level of the rehabilitation center where no one was ever held, not even a feral alpha.

Stiles looked away, distracted. His wrists and ankles were free of security bands, but he could still feel the weight of them. The walk out of the old Hale house and into the next ring of the city was horrifying and daunting. When they started walking on familiar grounds, everything spun off into a surreal haze.

Word got around, apparently. When Boyd saw Stiles, he straightened up, tracking his progression to the center with narrow, concerned eyes. Parrish stood behind him, frowning, arms crossed over his chest and a towel tossed over his shoulder. Neither one of them approached and he couldn’t help but feel glad for that.

Peter’s face was serious. Blank. Cold. He released the bars of the door when Laura slid her key card through it, but he didn’t walk through it when it swung open.

Laura looked like this was the last thing she wanted to talk about. Cora bailed on this task, staying with their mother, and even Derek was only there because she begged him. Stiles was there for Scott, who watched the proceedings with a frown and crossed arms.

But Peter only had eyes for Laura.

Finally, Laura relented. “The scent. Once it left, the scent-” She cleared her throat. “She’s- it was over a year. Maybe over two.”

Peter blinked once. Then he nodded, taking a step back. He reached out, closing the gate, locking himself back inside.

Laura was baffled. “Peter, what are you-“

“Three years, two months, and twenty-four days,” he interrupted softly.

Derek’s eyes narrowed. He shared at look with Scott. “How do you know that?”

“I know that because I’m the one who killed her.”

Stiles’ ears buzzed. He felt faint and woozy all of a sudden.

“I didn’t- I didn’t mean to,” Peter said quickly, looking tormented. “Yes, I challenged her, her power and her right to hold the title of Alpha Prime. Yes, I did it on purpose. I was just- I was just so angry.” His voice hardened. “She was undermining me in all my attempts to see Phase 3 actualized. I snapped and…” His voice faded. He shook his head. “I knew I hurt her. I knew I hurt her bad, but after she beat me, she got up and walked away. And the next day, it was like nothing happened. She never talked about it. I thought she was being merciful. And I… I was so glad she was still alive. I regretted…” Then, softly, he said, “It seemed like a miracle.”

No one said anything for a long moment. Then Derek let out a harsh breath, eyes red. “It was you,” he spat, advancing on the cell. “It was all your-”

Stiles reached out without thinking, grabbing his arm. His hands were immediately knocked off, but the touch seemed to register anyway. Derek settled in place, trembling slightly. Stiles reached out again, brushing his knuckles against Derek’s forearm.

“Knock it off, Derek,” Laura said hollowly, three seconds too late.

Derek vibrated in place, then stepped back. Instead of standing back in his place, he moved towards Stiles, standing shoulder to shoulder with him. Stiles’ mouth pressed tight, his heart hurting for Derek—for Laura, for all of them.

Peter looked pained. He crept closer to the bars, staring at the floor for a moment. Then his eyes swept up to Laura. “You know what you have to do now,” he said, coaching her gently.

Laura let out a shaky breath. Then she nodded sharply.

Stiles reached out again and skated his knuckles down Derek’s arm and to his wrist. When Derek’s hand loosened, Stiles took his chance, dipping and linked Derek’s fingers with his own. They squeezed once, on the wrong side of too tight.

“Peter Hale, you are being charged with the murder of Talia Hale, and all applicable charges attached…” Laura continued to list out the charges, Peter tenderly feeding her the ones she missed.

Derek held his hand through the whole proceedings.

-

“It’s a lie,” Noshiko said tightly when they met her back by the elevator. Although she wanted to give them privacy, you couldn’t just turn off super hearing, apparently. They entered the compartment, shuffling into the tight space.

“Sometimes a lie is necessary to get the ball rolling,” Laura quoted darkly. She leaned against the elevator wall, rubbing tension out of her forehead.

There was a long pause. Then Noshiko faced Laura completely, dipping her head slightly. “You should charge me as well. I am the one who summoned the nogitsune. I am at fault for that thing disrespecting your mother’s body.”

Laura looked up at that. Her eyes were red rimmed and her face was drawn in, every line showing her exhaustion. But, when she spoke, her voice rang with strength. “No, I’m not going to charge you,” she said. “I understand you feel guilty, but punishing you for something like that… I can’t do it. Mom wouldn’t want me to.” Laura blinked, as if a thought occurred to her. Her eyes sharpened. “But if you do want to do something, then become my non-shifter liaison.”

Scott and Stiles shared a look. “Non-shifter liaison?” Scott echoed, scratching his neck.

“Yes. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this miserable affair, it’s how unbelievably out of touch we are. This wouldn’t have gone on so long if we weren’t so ignorant. People like the Darach, like Gerard Argent, like the nogitsune wouldn’t have emerged like they did if we were more aware. If we’d handled things with more finesse. If we had listened just a bit better.”

“I think we all could do with a little more of that,” Stiles croaked, saying his first words in three hours. Laura’s eyes jumped to him. She gifted him a gentle smile. After a beat, he mirrored it. Scott reached around and hugged Stiles to his side.

“I like that,” Derek said, throwing in his two cents. Laura’s smile widened.

Noshiko settled in next to her, nodding thoughtfully. “Yes,” she said. “I can see how this will work.”

Out of all the crap, something hopeful emerged. Stiles hoped they wouldn’t wreck it.

Chapter Text

“And then you came back.”

Stiles’ head was fuzzy, buzzing. His dad was sitting next to him, a companionable hand on the back of Stiles’ neck. They were outside, sitting on the steps overlooking the farms. Sunlight trickled through the blue haze of the barrier over their heads. The light was dying slowly. This was a familiar scene, but somehow not.

“I’m where I’m meant to be,” Stiles remarked, thinking about that fork in the road he’d faced while tracking down Scott. He could have gone straight to the dome then, and maybe he should have. In his darkest moments, he thought Scott would have been better off if he hadn’t tracked him down.

But that didn’t matter anymore. What mattered was this—Stiles and his dad and the dome. He had all the tools he needed to jumpstart his life again.

But that wasn’t quite right either, was it?

“That’s one heck of a story, son.”

“Yeah, I know,” Stiles said, already exhausted with the topic. “I’m just glad to be back home.”

The grip on the back of his neck turned from comfortably tight to actively painful. Stiles grimaced, hand shooting up to grab his dad’s wrist. “Ow, Dad, that’s-“

“Oh I’m sorry,” his dad said with false concern. Stiles stared at him from an inch away, horrified to see cracked damage around his eyes and pits where his soul used to be. “Did you think you went somewhere?”

-

Stiles woke up screaming. He cut it off almost immediately, recognizing the ceiling, the bedspread, the agonized feeling his chest of being chased by something that was no longer there.

But this time, a growling wolf plowed through his borrowed bedroom door. Stiles sat up quickly at the intrusion, tracking the creature. It was dark with white tufts of fur across its back and chest. Its eyes glinted a dark blood red.

Unfortunately, this wolf was not used to four legs. It—he—skidded on the tile floor, legs kicking wildly as he knocked right into a bookshelves. He was buried under an avalanche of books and knickknacks and even the shelf itself at one point.

After a beat, he poked his head up out of the pile, looking disgruntled, one ear bent over.

There was a hideous feeling in Stiles’ chest, a painful one but in a good way. It grew and it grew until Stiles could no longer keep it in him.

In the end, what came out of his mouth could only be described as a cackle.

Once the floodgates opened, he couldn’t stop laughing. He laughed and he laughed and he laughed until he could barely breathe anymore. Then one laugh turned into a hiccup and then a gasp, and then…

And then he was crying. Stiles clamped his hands over his face, mortified and unable to stop.

“Don’t go,” he gasped out between his fingers, shaking. “Don’t go don’t go don’t-“

Warm human hands settled on his shoulders, nudging him gently back into a supine position. Stiles uncovered his face, looking up at the shadows and dips of the naked form standing over him. Warm and sad green eyes met his own.

Derek tucked him in, then climbed up on the bed, on top of the comforter. When he was there, he turned, reached out, and pulled Stiles to him. Stiles’ nose was mashed into Derek’s throat, but he couldn’t help but cling, couldn’t help trying to get even closer.

Derek hugged him tightly until consciousness held him no more.

-

Stiles got better—slowly and painfully, yes, but he did. He told anyone who would listen that the sleep deprivation and that icky void infection goo was the worst of it. Once that was gone, he was back to normal, one hundred percent. The people who knew him best didn’t believe him and, honestly, they had good reason not to.

Stiles couldn’t stand people behind him—not any more. He was okay with touching, but not entirely with claws. The sound of shifter nails on the floor could send him running on even the best day, sometimes only a few steps, sometimes all the way around a corner—and once, memorably, up a pair of curtains. Those were some sturdy curtains.

Certain stenches—like that of aconite—made him sick. He hated it when people touched his hair. And sometimes he’d flashback so severely that, when he snapped back, he was unable to tell which was a fact of reality and which was a figment of his imagination.

But between Deaton and his friends and all the medical and psychological resources Laura could throw at him. Stiles was getting better. He was. He was learning how to deal with everything, and constructively too.

It just cut that he could never go back to normal. All the pardons in the world couldn’t take away the month he’d spent alone with a dark trickster spirit as his only company.

-

Scott was incorporated as part of the global council in charge of monitoring the world’s recovery. He looked distinctly ill at the prospect but was unsurprisingly good at wading into the mess and putting his foot down when he disagreed with them about something.

One thing the global council wanted to do was to control how information about the Nemeton Cure was disseminated across the masses. The cure and the inevitable exodus from the domes would severely upset status quo, no matter how much of their society’s resources were geared to making that exodus a reality someday.

They argued over this for three solid days over a video conference call. Scott made it clear early on that it wasn’t their choice. It was humanity’s.

“And I don’t particularly care what your opinion on the matter is,” Scott said on that third day, voice rising. Stiles watched from where he was tucked in the corner, equal parts proud and cautious. “If you block this information from reaching your people, we will go around you.”

This seemed to ruffle some feathers—literally, in the case of the griffon. “Alpha Prime,” she said, gaze swinging to Laura. “Surely you have a better understanding of this situation than this child.”

“Don’t look at me. I’m behind him. One hundred percent.” She looked at Scott. Scott looked back at her. Then Laura smiled, gaze going back to the camera. “Besides, our people already know.”

Rituals were already being done across the continent. Guardians of sacred spaces—emissaries and other people of similar powers—had already got in contact with Braeden about the particulars. Anyone who sought to add their sacred space or tree to the Darach’s network got the Alpha Prime of the American West’s full cooperation. The Alpha Prime of the American East was quick to jump on board as well.

Non-dome human fatality dropped by fifty percent practically overnight, and more nemetons and sacred spaces kept joining the network. The rope, the article of sameness that connected them, amplified the strength of ritual, just as Jennifer predicted it would. There were a few places in the west that were still unprotected, but Laura said she was working on that.

In other news, Peter was being charged for killing Talia. Everything about the report was true, except for the timeline, which said he’d killed Talia the day they pulled the nogitsune from her body. No one wanted the truth to get out there, not even Peter. He was sentenced to the same space he’d occupied for treason, but his execution was waived by Laura.

This was something she and Derek argued about a lot.

Even so, a lot seemed to improve quickly. Mortality rates were down in all sectors—even the supernatural ones. Derek seemed closer with his sisters. Braeden’s people were settling into a town several hours south of them, no longer on the run. Scott was growing into the man Stiles had seen in him ever since they first became friends.

Even Stiles was having fewer nightmares and fewer flashbacks. Hell, if this kept up, Stiles might start believing in things like happy endings.

-

Laura and Scott had to give live press releases regarding life moving forward. Unlike the previous conferences, these were going out to their people—supes and humans alike. While Scott lived to challenge stubborn authority figures, he was practically bursting with nerves at the thought of talking to real people.

He spent a good solid minute hopping up and down in the hall outside the recording room, pale with anxiety. Stiles sent Laura his way but, instead of talking him through it, Laura seemed to absorb it.

Soon both Scott and Derek’s sister were bouncing in the hallway, panicking and pale like they were told they had to do a lengthy school presentation that neither one of them had prepared for. When Derek saw them, he turned tail and ran, the jerk.

No one knew what the hell they were doing. And it was… it was great. Surprisingly great.

Stiles hung out in a soundproofed room, watching Scott talk to a camera. When the door opened behind him, he turned down the volume on the machine in front of him, glancing over his shoulder.

Derek had returned. “Hey, that face. I’ve missed that face.” Stiles’ attention went back to Scott. “You’ve been hiding from me.”

Derek stepped up next to him. “Wasn’t sure you’d want to see me.” His eyes flicked back to Stiles, wary.

“I always want to see you,” Stiles said, too honest. He watched Derek’s faint reflection in the glass.

He didn’t realize his fists were clenched until Derek’s fingers slid over the back of his hand. Stiles hesitated, then consciously unclenched. He’d fisted them so long, blood had left the tissues. He shook out his hands, wincing as feeling bled back into them. Derek traced over his knuckles and along his thumb.

“I blame myself,” Derek whispered. “I left you alone. I should have stayed. I could have-“

Stiles was glad suddenly that Derek had avoided him so much. If he had said something like this even a day before, Stiles would have jumped down his throat. Now, he had the patience and the distance to be kind.

“Derek, if you were there, she would have gone through you, just like she did Kali,” Stiles said evenly. “Then your sisters would be mourning the loss of two family members. And I wouldn’t have you.”

The Derek in the reflection blinked rapidly, pressing into a thin line. Stiles sighed at him. He was stupidly attractive, even when he was playing the self-blame game.

“And I just want to put this out there so you all know,” Scott said firmly. Stiles turned up the volume with his free hand. “Phase 3 is never gonna happen. Not on our watch.”

-

When Laura finally confirmed that she had stepped into the role of Alpha Prime of the West, hundreds of celebration parties were thrown, even in the domes. Danny hadn’t been kidding when he said she was a role model.

In less happy news, people were already plotting how to pit the True Alpha and the Alpha Prime against each other. But, in better news, neither Laura nor Scott were terribly concerned about this.

They had their own celebration set up. It was a small affair—just the three Hale siblings, Scott, and Stiles. They ordered food in to celebrate and did nothing to make it fancy. They piled up pillows and blankets on the floor of Laura’s personal bedroom, cramming cups and plates between them, exclaiming exaggeratedly when someone accidentally put their foot in someone else’s dish or knocked over a hiding beverage.

Twenty minutes in, their group swelled slightly with the addition of Marin Morrell and Alan Deaton.

“They’re sucking up to me so much,” Laura drawled, faintly flushed. “They’re letting me get away with anything right now. What do you guys want? A golden toilet seat? Automatic back scratcher?”

The Hale siblings dealt with grief in different ways. Derek dealt by being quiet, trapping himself in his own head. Cora dealt by being moody, snapping at anyone who looked at her too long. Laura dealt by being aggressively helpful and friendly.

The benefit of this was that Laura, whether she meant to or not, actually brought up everyone’s spirits, even her younger sister’s. Cora was smiling faintly around the lip of her cup. Derek was rolling his eyes and huffing. Scott was scooting closer on his pillow, throwing out outrageous ideas.

“I want to learn how to be a rehabilitator,” Stiles said. Conversation stopped at the only serious request in the bunch. He cleared his throat, sitting up straight and staring at his crossed legs. “Only shifters can join that track, though.”

Stiles held his shoulders up and high, ready to argue about the bite. He didn’t want it. Not now, not ever.

“That’s not necessarily true,” Morrell said. She was lounging on a pillow. “How about we train you to be an emissary?”

Stiles was confused. He looked at Deaton and Scott, and then back at her. “I thought I was already one of those.”

Next to him, Scott was smiling gently, a sharp contradiction to Derek’s sudden suspicious scowl.

“Yes and no,” Deaton said, stealing some food off of his sister’s plate. “You’re a born emissary, but you have neither the training nor the official title.”

At a loss, Stiles looked at Cora questioningly, who was right across from him. She shrugged, downing the rest of her drink in one swallow.

“The role of emissary,” Deaton continued, “includes all aspects of all fields of work incorporated within it, including rehabilitation.” Well. That sounded promising, what with his attention span. “You’d be able to move freely. Guide and advise. Lead and follow. Emissaries, once officially recognized, are generally assigned to a major task or major alpha figure. I am assigned to the Hales, Alpha Prime in particular.” He blinked once, voice dropping. “Or, at least, I was.”

“You are,” Laura corrected him quietly. “Mom shouldn’t have taken Kate out on you.”

“She was right to. I recommended her.” Deaton leaned back, sighing. He looked at Laura. “I’ve never blamed my friend for the choices she made in her grief. And I never will.”

Stiles was briefly distracted by the sight of Derek’s retreating back disappearing through Laura’s door.

“I, on the other hand,” Morrell said quietly, drawing their attention away from the pair, “am assigned to the younger Hales.” That explained a little why a human would be stationed at a supe war camp.

Stiles’ heart started beating faster. “Who would I be assigned to?”

Scott grinned brightly, raising his hand like they were in class. It annoyed Stiles that maybe this was a conversation that Scott already had and with someone who was clearly not Stiles himself.

“Ugh, that guy? Pass.”

Scott swatted his shoulder. “Jackass.”

Laura watched him, eyebrows low and mouth pulled down. “Is this something you want to do?” She looked very serious.

Stiles let go of the smile he’d been suppressing. “I’ve chased Scott around my entire life. What makes this any different?” A thought occurred to him. He looked at Scott. “Wait, what are we doing?”

Scott bounced over to him, excited. “You’re going to love this...”

-

Stiles pushed up against the hands that stroked down his back. He was face first in his pillow, half suffocating and loving it. He wriggled hopefully until Derek settled firm hands on the back of his thighs, squeezing gently.

Stiles wasn’t quite sure how they got here. He knew how it started—a surprise kiss outside his room. It had only been twenty minutes since Scott and Stiles’ travel plans were officially announced. Stiles remembered being impressed with how fast Derek made his move.

Derek had been faintly embarrassed by the whole thing, like he’d had a plan and that plan broke. “I’m happy for you,” he said stiltedly. And then, more honestly, “Come back. Please. When you can.”

With entirely too much honesty, Stiles said, “Of course I’m coming back. I’m not nearly close to being done with you.” Then he kissed Derek fiercely and dragged him into his room.

And now Stiles was on his stomach, naked, feeling the full force of Derek’s attention. Derek, who was content to keep touching him like this until the end of time. Well, not on Stiles’ watch.

He pushed up abruptly on his hands and knees, dislodging Derek. By the time everything settled, Derek was on his back, hands palming the thighs that straddled him. Stiles panted at him triumphantly, unrepentant even in the face of Derek’s raised eyebrow. Even when Derek was cooperative, he was still heavy as all hell.

Stiles sat up, setting a balancing hand on Derek’s bare chest. “Is your yay still a yay?” He’d asked Derek earlier if he wanted this, if he wanted to do what Stiles wanted to do. Derek, being a contrary person, would give him neither a ‘yay’ nor a ‘nay’.

“My yay was a yes, if you remember,” Derek said, still teasing. Stiles scowled at him, remembering the near heart attack he’d had when Derek scoffed, swearing he’d never let the word ‘yay’ come out of his mouth. Sobering, Derek lifted his hips a little—and Stiles, yikes—as Stiles attempted to pull his pants and underwear off at the same time. “And yes. Still.” Softer, he said, “Always.”

Stiles looked away from the pants problem just long enough to shoot Derek a beaming smile. Then he went back to looking over his shoulder, futilely tugging on Derek’s waistbands, all while never turning around. What? He didn’t want to move.

He reached back with both hands, pushing at the loosened material. It got stuck half way around Derek’s thighs.

Physics doesn’t work this way, a voice in his head chastised him. It sounded annoyingly like Derek.

Then the real Derek was saying, dubiously, “Do you know what you’re doing?”

Stiles snorted, affronted by this lack of trust. His arms ached from the awkward position. “Do you?”

“No.” Derek moved again, shifting his legs. He sat up part of the way, reaching down. Between him and Stiles, they got Derek’s pants and his underwear to his knees. After this, Derek kicked them off. “That’s why I asked.”

Stiles was flailing, awkward, all too aware of Derek’s calm gaze. Who was the one with more experience here? Him, right. They were doomed.

“Well, then,” Stiles blustered with more confidence. Derek’s knuckles were stroking distractingly against the inside of his thigh. “First, I need, uh… ugh. Give me a sec…”

Stiles leaned forward. He started rooting around in the pillows under Derek, hands grasping and finding nothing. “Uh,” he said, stalling. “So, first. There’s stretching involved?”

Derek palmed his ass with one hand. “I get the mechanics, Stiles,” he said, disgruntled.

Stiles freed one hand to press a finger against Derek’s lips. “Hush, little wolfie, hush. Let the far more experienced human help you here, you poor poor thing.” Derek scowled at him.

Stiles scooted up Derek’s stomach, trying to see if it went under the sheet. “And second, there’s. Um.” His mind went blank, overwhelmed by a growing sense of anxiety—not because of the impending sex, but rather because he couldn’t find his lube.

They hadn’t had lube the first time they did this. All they did in Hill Valley was kiss and touch all over. While that in itself was glorious, they hadn’t done anything remotely penetrate-y, and Stiles really, really wanted to right now. And so did Derek! Even if the “yay” part of his consent was a boring old yes.

Stiles froze. Something hard and plastic poked in his sternum. He slowly pulled back. Derek gazed up at him, one eyebrow raised. Stiles looked down at the thing Derek was brandishing. Heat immediately flushed all over his body.

The rather over large bottle of lube triggered a level of embarrassment Stiles didn’t think he could sink to anymore. And while it was one thing to find it himself (and maybe sort of hide it behind a pillow), it was quite another for Derek to get it first and display it as smugly as Derek was displaying.

“I have no idea where that’s from,” he lied badly, stupidly.

Derek’s eyes flicked down briefly. A smile quirked the corners of his mouth. Then he sat up, shifting Stiles into the cradle of his lap with firm hands. Stiles blinked at him from inches away, mesmerized by the heated look in Derek’s eyes.

“You don’t think I hear you at night?” Derek whispered. He dipped his head, hot breath brushing over Stiles’ throat. His low rumbling voice was like a caress over raw sensitized nerves. “All frustrated and frantic, all alone and by yourself. I’ve dreamed about coming in and putting my mouth on you instead.”

Stiles was breathless. All blood in his head had relocated to his cock, which stood up, straining and sensitive between them. Mindless, he rocked up, toes curling as Derek’s mouth tested the dips of his collarbone. His skin broke out in goose bumps.

Still shuddering over his words, Stiles shook his head. “I, uh.” He cleared his throat. “I just remembered. That lube is mine. That’s so funny. Ha… ha.”

“Is it.” Derek pulled away, amused. “Well then. I believe the far more experienced human was going to help the little wolfie with something?” Stiles panted at him, trembling. Derek’s mouth was moving and making sounds, but he couldn’t make sense of any of it. “That’s what I thought.”

Derek threaded the fingers of his left hand with Stiles’ own, bringing his hands to the—now that he thought about it—appropriately sized bottle of lube, good job, Stiles. After that, he brought their hands behind Stiles. His right palm planted into the small of Stiles’ back, forcing him to kneel instead of sit.

Derek’s eyes were dancing, even as a lubed finger circled contemplatively around his rim, testing his receptiveness. “I always wondered what you’d be like, like this.” He pressed harder. Stiles groaned, dropped his head low and clenching his eyes shut. His own lubed up hand was clenched around Derek’s wrist, not so much as a complaint or a deterrent, but rather as an anchor.

“I thought you’d be louder. I thought you’d be bossy and tell me what to do.” Derek leaned in, eyes bright with wonder. “But you’re speechless.”

He followed that up with a hard kiss, pairing it with a new finger. Stiles groaned against Derek’s mouth and rocked down in his palm.

“Shut up,” he said finally, gulping in air. Speechless, yeah right. Stiles was gonna talk his ear off just for that comment! “It’s been a while. Besides, you’re still not doing it right.” He was bluffing and Derek knew it.

“Then show me how.”

Letting go of Derek’s wrist, Stiles did just that.

What followed was a lot of bickering.

(“I need more than that, you cheap skate-“ Stiles groused, dragging the lube away from Derek.

“Do you want my help or not?”

Stiles’ head shot up. He let out an impressive, if human, growl. “If you take your fingers away, so help me god-“)

What followed was a lot of teasing too.

(Stiles shot him wide, innocent eyes. “What?”

“I said. Stop. Squirming. Now.” Derek looked pained, but also covetous, like he’d like to drag Stiles down and finish what he started. “Or else this will be over before it begins.”

“Before what begins?” Stiles meanly wiggled against the hard-on beneath him. “Were we doing something? I forgot.”)

But, mostly, what followed was a lot whispering soft, reassuring things.

“It’s okay?” Derek panted against Stiles’ sweaty forehead. His shoulders heaved slightly under Stiles’ grip, but not enough to shake his hands off.

Stiles arched his back, grimacing. “It’s-” With an aching gasp, he lifted up, almost off Derek’s cock. Then, with a sigh, he sank all the way back down. “It’s so-”

He did it again. Then again. “It’s so good,” he finally got out. The teasing slide of Derek’s cock hit him in all the right places. Derek has his hand loosely circled around Stiles between them, giving nothing to rock into, but that was fine. Stiles was sure he could get off like this.

He rocked down again, hard this time. Derek let out a choked noise, which distracted Stiles enough to lean back and look at him.

“You okay there?” Stiles said, biting down on his smile. He rolled his hips slightly, unable to sit still. “Need a breather? The far more experienced human wear you out?”

Derek’s glare could scorch paint off a wall. “Watch it. Little wolfie has teeth.”

Stiles let out a loud, delighted laugh, hugging Derek to him. After a moment, he freed one arm, knocking the pillows to the floor before pushing Derek down to the bed. Derek grumbled, but moved where Stiles wanted him to, hands wandering everywhere from Stiles’ thighs to his stomach.

Stiles rewarded him with a blistering kiss, chuckling when Derek tried to follow his retreat. He started again, circling his lips and smirking. Derek let out a shuddering sigh, thumbed his hip bones and holding on. He was a jerk, but a sweet one. It shouldn’t have worked for Stiles, but it did. Derek, in all of his moods, was unbelievably and irrevocably his type.

Stiles sped up after that, distracted by the tightening feeling growing inside of him, sensing the last roundabout in their slow race to the finish line. He chased it, his smile widening. After a moment, he opened his eyes and looked down.

Derek was staring up at him like a blind man seeing for the first time.

Slowing down, Stiles pried one of the hands off his hips and flattened it over his chest. “Still not done with you,” he said hoarsely, pressing Derek’s palm tight against his chest—so that he could feel the truth as well as hear it. “I will never be done with you. That’s my promise.”

Derek shuddered. His eyes closed and he nodded tightly. Tender hearted, Stiles picked up Derek’s hand and pressed a kiss against his fingers. His mouth lingered as he closed his eyes, trying to deal with the thoughts he’d been ignoring for a while now.

Stiles, with his bare bones and recent emissary training, was going to go spread the Nemeton Cure in the parts of the continent that hadn’t received it yet. He was going to help talk to people about leaving the dome life forever, and all of Laura and Scott’s tentative plans said they were going to be gone for a long, long time.

He was going to miss Derek a lot. Comm. units were one thing, but physical presence was something else entirely.

Maybe they’d talk a little. Maybe they’d talk every single night. But they wouldn’t be able to touch each other, kiss each other, or even lean into each other’s shoulders, which was a luxury Stiles had taken advantage of a lot these last few days.

It wasn’t fair. Stiles didn’t just want to talk to him through an impersonal and cold screen. Stiles wanted to wake up with Derek. He wanted to explore with him. He even wanted to bicker with him, and on a daily basis too. He wanted so many things from this—an actual relationship—but there was no way they could-

Wait. Stiles froze—stilling completely. Wait a minute. Had he even offered?

Derek grabbed his wrists from here he was half perched on Derek’s abs. “What are you doing?” he demanded, concerned.

Stiles looked down, remembering him. “Hey. Hey.” He dropped down to his elbows, getting right up in Derek’s surprised face. “Like, what if you came with us instead?” When Derek just stared at him, he blurted out, “I mean, if you want to. I think it would be great. The world needs you too, Derek.”

-

Laura announced to the group of them that Deucalion was missing. Stiles wasn’t sure what that meant, if it meant anything at all. He hung behind everyone else, answering her questions about the former alpha distractedly. Yes, he’d worked with the guy, but he didn’t know him all that well, and certainly not well enough to know why he’d leave. He spent most of the time just thumbing the stubble burn Derek gave him with an enthusiastic kiss—the one that immediately followed Stiles asking him to drop his whole life for him.

Laura eyed him knowingly the whole time. Finally, she told him to go away.

He did so obediently, rubbing his naked wrists. When Laura found out what the nogitsune did to Stiles, she abruptly put a nail into the whole security band process. Guards, she argued, had done the task the bands did for hundreds of years, and without as much of a risk of injuring an innocent. Some grumbled at this, but others rejoiced. Her regression created about a hundred and eleven jobs.

Realizing he had only a few days to get his affairs in order, Stiles purposely went to his old haunts, greeting the people he’d been avoiding since he stepped out of that dark nightmarish center of the city.

He went to Parrish first. He crept uncomfortably into the kitchens, ready to be yelled at. He needn’t have worried. As soon as he saw Stiles, Parrish dropped a giant spoon and barreled into him, swung him around in a gigantic hug.

“Idiot,” he spat, squeezing the breath out of Stiles.

“Yeah,” Stiles agreed with a laugh.

He ended up spending the night there, needing all that time to unpack all the crap. He shared only the sanitized official version of the story, but it still left Parrish reeling.

They sat in Parrish’s room together, swapping a wine bottle. “Wow,” Parrish said finally, blinking. “Just. Wow.”

Yeah, Stiles could hardly believe it either.

-

“You’re a trouble magnet,” Boyd said the next morning after everything had been explained. Stiles had just bitten the bullet and rolled the meal carts to the rehabilitation center for breakfast. Many familiar rehabilitators were pleasantly surprised to see him. Boyd, the only one he’d bothered getting to know, just shook his head, listening patiently to Stiles’ babbled out story.

Then he took Stiles through a tour of the center. Stiles was surprised by the hit of nostalgia—and also by the lack of familiar faces in the cells.

“Hey, this system might be a bit broken,” Boyd commented. “But it still works.”

“Sometimes,” Stiles said, eyeing the one werewolf who looked familiar.

“Sometimes,” Boyd agreed, following his gaze.

Matt was still being rehabilitated. The people who worked with him were now wondering if his problems stemmed simply from control or rather some sort of personality issue. Stiles leaned towards the latter.

-

He had lunch with Parrish and Boyd and a few other rehabilitators. No one asked him about anything. They already knew—his escape, why he escaped, his involvement in the war, and even his imprisonment. Some of the scars peeked out around Stiles’ clothes, but no one drew attention to them either. Peter had been blamed for all things nogitsune, even that.

Stiles gradually relaxed, realizing he wasn’t about to be interrogated. Only one thing tugged at him still—Mr. Lahey.

He asked around after him, tentatively and carefully. No one told him exactly what happened, but he got the impression the man hadn’t lasted long in a city with a free Derek Hale. Even so, Isaac waved at him cheerfully just the day before. He looked good—cleaner, somehow. Eyes brighter.

Everything about the city was so surreal. Stiles was kind of glad he was leaving.

-

“What are we doing?” Scott slipped half a foot down the rocky shore, grimacing.

“Making good on a promise,” Stiles replied, hooking a thumb under the strap of his shoulder bag. They trekked down a little further, emerging next to the water.

Stiles stopped by the edge of it, letting small waves lap at his feet. He flattened a hand over his eyes. The bright noon sun made the lake glitter and dance. Not only was it pretty, it also neatly obscured any hint of those that lurked under the water.

He didn’t have to wait long.

“You lived!” The shout was accompanied by a huge splash, then Heather sailed clean over a tall rock set deep into the lake—showing off, Stiles imagined. Her tail was as massive as Stiles remembered, and as pretty.

“Whoa, merpeople,” Scott muttered appreciatively, suitably awed.

Stiles laughed and waded into the lake, meeting Heather half-way when she surfaced. Heather’s equally forceful show of enthusiasm knocked him under the water, breathless and winded from the impact.

He was dragged up by sharp fingers in his shirt. He sputtered at her, coughing up water. Heather just shook her head at him, wet strands of blondish hair whipping back and forth.

“Still drowning Stiles? That’s really sad. You’re only three feet deep.”

“You hush,” he told her, finding his feet. He reached for his drenched bag. “I came bearing gifts.”

Heather—or whatever her or his or their real name was—accepted the bag with an air of deep suspicion. After eyeing him and eyeing the bag, her hands went for the clasp, opening it up. She peeked inside.

The inhuman noise she made when she saw an agua tablet, brand spanking new, nearly made Stiles’ ears bleed.

-

They stayed at the lake for a few hours, trading names and stories. Heather couldn’t stop smiling. The expression should have been terrifying, what with her many rows of teeth, but the way she kept rolling around helped with that impression. She was awfully cute.

Scott warmed up to her immediately. He sat down with her in an inch of water, helping her set up the device. Stiles didn’t think merpeople wagged their tails like puppies when they were excited, but he was wrong. The whole encounter left both Scott and Stiles soaking wet.

Stiles sat with them after a moment, only an arm’s length away. Heather reached out to him once, a pointed finger gently tracing around the bite scar on his arm. Most of the injuries healed up okay, except for the one on his back. The one she touched barely puckered his skin. It was pink and shiny at this point, most of the identifying features gone. But it was very clearly a bite, and a deep one.

Heather just looked at it for a moment. She was propped up on her stomach, holding herself up on an elbow. Black shiny eyes, utterly inhuman but starkly different than the nogitsune’s, shifted up to him, holding his gaze. After a beat, she leaned on him for support, rubbing her forehead against his sleeve before pulling away.

Then she went back to talking to Scott about tablet games. Scott beamed at her and jumped on the subject. Their very own True Alpha needed the day out more than anyone, and this had been the only way Stiles could think of to trick him into it.

At the sound of a low, but discordant splash, Stiles turned to the water. He smiled broadly at the person he saw watching—then wickedly at her raised eyebrow.

“Hey, I survived,” Stiles gloated.

“Shock and awe,” Danielle said flatly, but with a smile. She left after a minute, likely to oversee other matters. Stiles paused, considering the oddity of that—secretive merpeople allowing outsiders alone with one of their youngsters.

Then again, maybe it wasn’t weird. Emissaries were supposed to be emissaries to all species. Werewolves just howled the loudest.

Eventually, Scott and Stiles had to leave. Heather was sad to see them go. The three of them swapped contact information, promising to keep in touch.

-

Allison, Lydia, and Kira finally made it up from Hill Valley, Stiles learned quickly. Scott had barely squeezed the last of the water out of his shirt when he found himself on the ground, Kira’s pouncing instinct having gotten away from her. A rush of mortified apologies petered off into quiet flushing on both of their parts. Staring at each other from an inch away, they shyly said hi to each other.

Everyone else took their reunion elsewhere. Stiles led them to his old haunts, needing the familiar surroundings. They ducked into the kitchen before he turned to properly greet them.

Allison seemed wistful, but not sad at the new developments in her friend and former boyfriend’s love life. Her embrace was as hard as ever. A little part of Stiles that was still discontented settled and calmed down. Of all them, Allison brushed closest with death, but survived the encounter.

“Apparently I’m a ‘non-vital human species’,” Lydia groused into his shoulder before pulling away. “That’s why I never got sick like you two.”

Stiles shot her a dopey smile. “I always knew you were a goddess.”

“Banshee, actually.” Lydia poked her cheek with her tongue. “Still not sure how to feel about it.” Her words were a lie. Her face said she was feeling pretty peeved.

“It changes nothing,” Allison said firmly. She elbowed him. “Tell her, Stiles.”

Lydia waved her hand dismissively. “Forget all that. I’d rather you introduced me to Hotty McHotstuff by the oven.”

A pair of broad shoulders tensed. The only worker currently in the kitchen chopped harder at his cutting board.

“Hotty McHotstuff can hear you,” Parrish grumbled. At Lydia’s delighted laugh, he turned, scowl up on full force.

Parrish stilled, eyes widening. All that grumpiness was for nothing. Parrish couldn’t even say anything. Instead, he looked like he got kicked in the stomach by the sheer presence of one Miss Lydia Martin—a true object lesson in what it looked like when one fell in love at first sight.

Yeah, Stiles could relate to that.

-

His nightmares died down a lot around this time, and he thought he might know why. It was because of all the people. His people, to be specific.

When he was growing up, his focus had been so narrowed on his father and Scott that he often failed to see the other around him. Even now, he failed to see how much they meant to him and vice versa until their feelings and affections bombarded him after his kidnapping.

For the first time in his life, Stiles was feeling very well loved. If the nogitsune knew that was its legacy, well… Stiles had a feeling it wouldn’t be very happy.

Too bad.

-

Stiles had wondered briefly what Lydia was going to do. She wasn’t coming back with them—not that Stiles didn’t attempt to recruit her. But she had something else in mind. Stiles found out what it was soon enough.

Lydia was elbow deep in the dome exit strategy, just as they were, but amongst the supernatural population instead. She had dragged Allison, Chris, and, yes, even Parrish along for the ride. They were already in action well before Stiles and Scott took off. The whole campaign showcased her intimidating intelligence, the one that got her pegged as the future leader of the dome by the time she was six, and the same intelligence she tried to hide when Danny got bit.

Chris was an uncomfortable public speaker, but unsurprisingly passionate about the topic of human reintegration. He did conference interviews and led meetings and rounded up his surviving neighbors. His scruffy face became the icon of successful human and supe integration, and his friends, both supe and not, were only too eager to help him out.

Allison moved on the ground floor of these events, talking to people individually about dome life verses domeless life, and how supes would benefit from the latter too. She used no political slight of hand and no emotional manipulation, but supes post-Allison were convinced and halfway to smitten with her.

And Parrish? Well, Stiles wasn’t quite sure what Parrish did besides float after Lydia. The guy was so disaffected and jaded by everything in all the time Stiles knew him, so it was sort of hilarious to see the guy head over heels in love. That said, the way he looked at Lydia had definitely changed. The brightness in his gaze was still there, but mindless awe had shifted into knowledgeable appreciation. His obvious, dorky affection had been tempered by deep, deep respect.

Stiles couldn’t help but approve of that.

In any case, they all had their own banner to fly. They didn’t need to fly his.

-

Their travel plans moved up. Suddenly, it was day of their departure, and Stiles felt no more ready than he had a month ago.

Derek was still being assessed by Deaton, but he would be meeting up with them by the time they moved to GreaterSanFran Dome. That was two months from now, a whole sixty days apart, but Stiles had never seen him so pleased to have a purpose. He was making plans already, and thoughtful ones too. He was already in contact with Kira’s dad about getting them in touch with his family.

Soon enough, Stiles started to get what Derek wanted out of all this. If Scott’s goal was to help the bitten and the human transition to their new lives, if Stiles’ goal was to spread the Nemeton Cure with Scott, then Derek’s was getting separated families—human and supe—back together.

For a big grumpy alpha werewolf, Derek was such a sweetheart.

But before all that, they were going to Beacon Dome. Stiles wondered how they all would react to the knowledge Scott was an alpha. Only Deaton had known early on what he was—did anyone else connect the dots?

A born alpha could, with great difficulty, force temporary obedience in a bitten beta by appealing to their wolf. A born beta could barely hope to appeal to them at all.

On the other hand, humans, with slightly less difficulty, could encourage peace and calm in a bitten beta by appealing to their humanity. But Scott brought a whole new level to that, apparently. The bitten of Beacon Dome had been drawn to Scott before he’d even changed, and maybe that was what Peter was reacting to all along.

Only a bitten alpha—a True Alpha—could inspire bitten betas to keep and hold on to their control for themselves.

Scott claimed the Nemeton Cure invalidated the need for him—and that he even liked it that way. But, no matter what he said, he was the one with the hard job. There was power in what he was, whether he liked it or not. People were going to challenge him. Other people were going to try and use him.

Stiles, on the other hand, had the easy job. All he had to do was go to the right place on the map, tie a string around something, light a candle, and think really hard about connectivity and cleanliness and filtering out the evils in the world—and the Nemeton Cure did the rest. It worked. Even on the withered one in Beacon Hills.

That said, the tree in Beacon Hills was a proper nemeton. The tree near the dome was more of a sacred sapling instead of a sacred tree. And the one near the GreaterSanFran dome? It was a rock.

He doubted himself a lot, most often in the wee hours of the morning where there was no one awake to tell him to knock it off. He went to Laura twice, talking around his idea that he might not be the best person for this job. Finally, Deaton took him aside.

He told Stiles not to underestimate these things. As long as people thought something was important, it would gain power—one way or another. It didn’t matter what it was.

“In fact, the Alpha Prime of East America reported that the most effective sacred place in his area was a sacred bench.”

“A bench?”

“A bench,” Deaton echoed, putting emphasis on the end of it.

Deaton also told him not to underestimate his power either. But he did. In fact, he didn’t appreciate the amount of power that allowed for him to will the Event away until he caused a fire the other day. All he’d been trying to do was light a candle. Instead, he burned down half of his room. He was promptly banned from experimenting alone.

Shaken up, Stiles could only agree. This kind of power was scary. He didn’t want it.

But with fewer humans came fewer emissaries, fewer vessels of the shared power. Stiles was looking forward to the day where there were too many humans for him to do more than light a candle. And he couldn’t help but think that, despite all she had done to augment her power, Jennifer did too.

But now they were traveling on the train. Stiles looked out the window, rubbing his cheek idly. The scenery passed by in a blur of green and brown. Only Scott was with him in the compartment, and he was asleep, slouching in his seat and of no entertainment value at all.

Stiles rested his head against the glass, both dreading—and craving—the return home.

-

They were going through a check point between the train stop and the dome. Once he passed inspection, Stiles begged off for a moment, saying he needed air. He didn’t go far and not even out of sight of Scott, whose inspection process took longer. But he went far enough that he felt freer to let himself breathe the way he wanted—quick and shallow and all too anxious.

Before that could escalate too far, though, he was distracted by the reflection of blue on the white tiles of the floor. He followed the light to a window.

And there it was—Beacon Dome, gleamed a bright blue.

Strangely, the sight seemed to calm him down.

The dome was going to stay up for another year, if only to give people time to transition out. But the dome, for all intentions and purposes, was open—or would be, once Stiles did the ritual. Anyone would be able to enter. Anyone would be able to leave.

There was going to be a big talk that night, and Scott and Stiles were going to lead it. All the residents of the dome were going to be there—some happy, some scared, some extremely angry. But that didn’t bother him. Presentations rarely did.

Stiles squinted up at the dome, sliding his hands in his pockets. He was struck by the appropriateness of this. In some ways, he’d started the journey here with a presentation attacking the necessity of the dome and the people who put them there. Now, he was ending it the same way, but not as an attack—as an invitation into their brave new world.

Stiles didn’t feel any wiser or smarter than the day he’d stupidly challenged the Alpha Prime in a classroom of his peers, but he thought it was better that way. He was going to make mistakes. He was going to fail. He was going to fall. The important thing was to get back up again, he knew that, but he really didn’t want to hit the ground. Not now. Not here.

Tapping a jittery beat into the floor, he gave up, jammed his fingers around a metal square in his pocket. He pulled it out, cradling it in his palm.

The thin and nearly transparent rectangle was the latest model comm. unit, a gift from Laura. It was given without any knowledge of just how many of these Stiles had broken over the years and why he ultimately never had one, but he appreciated the gesture nonetheless.

He typed out a quick text: I miss your face. It was awkward, ill stated, but Stiles didn’t expect more from himself. He’d been feeling uncomfortable and wrong edged for the last few hours.

He got a text back quickly. In a meeting.

Stiles scowled down at that dismissal. Miss your faaaaace. He briefly considered a rude emoji, but didn’t think Derek would get the reference.

Five minutes later, his comm. unit beeped with a notification. Derek hadn’t responded with words. Instead, he sent a picture: his own face, mouth pulled into a deep frown and eyes alpha red.

The snicker that escaped surprised even Stiles. He grinned down at it, some childish part of him meanly happy that Derek, wherever he was, felt as irritable and annoyed as he did. That same part of him smirked and kicked his heels gleefully in his head as he registered the smaller details of the image—the nice clothes, the groomed hair, the tips of a business chair looming just behind his shoulders. Derek was definitely in a meeting.

Well. There was no way Stiles was not going to respond now.

Stiles’ fingers flew over the projected keyboard. Aw, there’s the grumpy guy I know and love.

As soon as Stiles clicked send, as soon as his brain caught up with his fingers, he choked on his laughter. He wheezed so pitifully, he had to bang his own chest to catch a breath again. This drew many stares. Stiles spun away from them, staring down at the comm. unit with a look of abject betrayal.

They may have come up with the cure for the Event, they may have upgraded cameras to compensate for the supe eye flash, but they had yet to come up with the ability to snatch back a text after it had been shot into the ether.

The comm. unit beeped twice. Stiles fumbled with it, almost breaking it.

One was from, surprisingly, the Alpha Prime herself. You broke my brother. He was mid-speech.

Cora was quick on her heels. We’re in a meeting, doofus. What did you say???

A third beep heralded a response from Derek. No words, just another picture of his face.

Derek’s mouth was pulled in a big beautiful smile, one too genuine to have been posed. The red was chased away from his eyes, leaving only warmth. Stiles laughed softly when he realized Cora was standing on her tip toes, scowling at the camera over Derek’s shoulder suspiciously. Stiles realized after a beat that it wasn’t a picture, but a short five second video.

When he pressed play, Derek blinked once, mouth quirking slightly with fondness. Then he mouthed four words.

It started with ‘I’ and ended with ‘too’.

Stiles may have hunched over it for a while, playing it over and over and over again obsessively. But that was between him and his comm. unit. And maybe Scott, who interrupted him with a hand on his shoulder.

“Ready to go?” he asked, amused. The blue reflection of the dome highlighted some plains of his face—his cheek bones, his chin, his strong nose—while obscuring others. It also made his dark eyes darker, which would have made Stiles pause only a few weeks ago. But he’d long stopped looking for the nogitsune in the eyes of every person he met.

Stiles rolled his eyes. “Ready to go, he says. Like I haven’t been waiting here for the better part of a century…”

“You look good for your age!” Scott replied easily, shooting Stiles a sunshine smile.

“Oh shut up,” Stiles said, annoyed. He was too flustered—and giddy—to come up with anything better. “What are we doing now?”

He glanced down at his comm. unit. Derek had deciphered the meaning of his first two texts. You’re going to do fine. Trust me.

Yeah. Derek was- Derek was right. Stiles would do fine, wouldn’t he?

In front of him, Scott had sobered. “Well,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest, “they said they were sending someone from the dome to greet us here and get the run down on what’s ahead and-”

“Scott?”

It was a good thing Scott couldn’t get whiplash anymore. His head turned so fast, Stiles’ neck ached in sympathy. Then he followed Scott’s gaze and stilled, mind going quiet.

In the doorway stood Scott’s mom and Stiles’ dad.

Melissa looked good, as always. There were tears in her eyes, but she was smiling. Scott let out something between a whine and a gibberish word, stumbling forward a step.

But Stiles only eyes for his dad, who looked older and tired. He hadn’t lost any of the strength he’d carried in his body but his hair had taken on a faint sheen of gray—of age. And he was staring at Stiles with a vulnerable fragile sort of hope and pain that cut Stiles to the quick.

Stiles hesitated. His dad did too.

Scott didn’t. He ran to his mom, ten years old all over again. Stiles pushed forward, moving his stone feet. He was a little less obvious than Scott, who was spinning his laughing mom around in a circle, but his dad’s eyes brightened never the less. If Scott had a tail, it would be wagging a mile a minute.

Stiles stopped a foot away from his dad, eyes skittering around him. His heart was pounding. He felt almost shy, which was stupid.

His dad cleared his throat. “So.” Even his voice sounded so good to Stiles, like a forgotten but beloved song. “Word on the street is my son has the cure for the Event.”

Stiles was thankful for a lot of things, least of which was his dad knowing him well enough to give him room to bullshit and brag. “Well, I always did say I was going to grow up to be an awesome adult.” And then, honesty trickling in, he whispered, “Did you ever doubt it?”

His dad stared at him for a long moment. Then, slowly, he let go of that infamous megawatt Stilinski grin. It hadn’t seen the light of day on his face in over ten years. “Not for a second.” He went in and scooped Stiles up in a big bear hug, burying Stiles’ face into his shoulder. Stiles hugged him back just as tightly, heat blooming behind his eyes.

He was finally home.