Working as a janitor at Argent Marine Laboratories is actually a pretty sweet job. Sure the sweeping up and cleaning the toilets bit of the job isn’t great, but he essentially works in a private aquarium, and getting to see all the cool, weird fish and stuff more than makes up for the manual labor.
It also pays pretty well, which is good because Stiles pretty much relies on the income from it to eat. The pay probably has something to do with the terrifyingly long and detailed secrecy agreement he had to sign before they hired him. It’s almost certainly standard paperwork for a research lab, but he likes to imagine that they’re actually doing top secret research. Probably evil research, and then one day when he’s at work James Bond will drop in through the roof to fight genetically modified laser sharks. And then Stiles will get to sweep up all the broken glass afterwards.
He’s never seen a single shark here, except for one of those tiny ones which are basically glorified catfish. He’s a little disappointed. He was hoping for weaponized stingrays at the very least.
There is one tank which looks like it was designed to hold a shark, in the main aquarium bit. He’s only ever seen it hold an injured Dolphin which was on its way back to the wild after getting caught in a net, but he’s pretty sure if he works here long enough, eventually there’ll be a proper shark. Or a giant octopus. Something super-villain-y.
Actually, the big tank kind of freaks him out. It doesn’t get used much, so they don’t bother cleaning it and the murky water reminds him a little too strongly of when he was eight and spent an entire summer watching knockoff Jaws movies he was way too young for.
All the same, he doesn’t freak out too much when he catches movement in it out of the corner of his eye while he’s mopping the floors. He’s only seen it used once, but it’s not like anyone bothers telling the janitor about new arrivals, so it’s pretty common for him to arrive and find some entirely new creature in one of the tanks.
He watches while he mops, waiting for whatever the new creature is living in there to make an appearance. Personally, he’s hoping for a manatee.
When it eventually comes close enough that he can see more than distant movement, it’s pretty clear straight away that it’s not a manatee. Whatever it is is long and lean, paler patches on a dark skin like an orca, but with what look weirdly like arms.
He can’t resist dropping his mop and getting close to the glass for a better look, trying to make sense of the silhouette he just can make out.
The tail is definitely some kind of fish, or maybe a dolphin, but the head end is all wrong, too small and long, with something that looks weirdly like a primate head, like someone glued half a human to half a fish.
“Maybe it’s a mermaid,” he says to himself, then snickers at his own stupidity. Probably whatever it is, is just a normal dolphin or something, its appearance distorted by the water.
He puts his hand on the glass and leans in, as though that will suddenly make his vision magically better, and it must make a noise, or a vibration, or something, because the creature turns and begins swimming slowly towards him.
It’s nearly at the glass before he believes what he’s seeing. It looks like a fucking merman. Its face is nearly human but not quite, with a long serpentine body that trails off behind it into the darkness. It’s got fins of some kind where its elbows should be, and its eyes are solid black from edge to edge, no whites or visible pupils.
Stiles closes his eyes and counts to ten. When he opens them the thing is still there, watching him with its strange dark eyes.
It must be divine punishment, he decides, for those two, gay, supernatural erotica books he shoplifted from the bookstore when he was twelve. He always knew that was going to come back to bite him in the end. Maybe his whole life up till now has been a lie, just exposition, and he’s actually trapped in one of those novels. He really fucking hopes not. He doesn’t want his first time to be with a fish man, especially not a creepy killer whale, fish man. (Marine-mammal man his brain chatters, resorting to pedantry to cope with the fear and confusion.)
He moves slightly, to check the thing is actually looking at him, and the dark eyes track him with the intensity of a born predator.
‘It’s okay’, he reminds himself. ‘It’s in the water. It can’t touch you.’
Very gingerly, he reaches out a hand and presses his palm to the glass. After a moment, the creature does the same, webbed fingers mirroring his own.
‘Okay’, Stiles thinks, a little hysterically. ‘I’m communicating with a merman, and I’ve signed a contract which means I can’t ever tell anyone about it. I can’t even get a psychiatrist to check if I’ve gone mad.’
After another moment of intense staring, the creature moves its hand and begins tracing something onto the glass, a pattern of straight and curved lines. Stiles is a little ashamed of how long he takes to realize it’s letters.
He taps on the glass, making the merman flinch. “Start again,” he says, trying to enunciate the words clearly in the hope the creature will be able to lip read.
The merman seems to understand, whether his words or his expression he’s not sure, and Stiles concentrates, muttering to himself as he puts the letters together.
H is pretty obvious, then something he doesn’t catch, L, D or P, M and then E. HLD ME?
“Help Me?” he whispers. He says it again, enunciating clearly and meeting the merman’s eyes. “Help Me?” The merman nods with an expression of obvious relief.
Holy shit, Stiles really is in a supernatural romance novel. He should probably be wearing nicer clothes.
Out of the water, crossed arms resting on the edge of the tank, the merman is both more and less terrifying.
His face, (and unless gender signifiers are entirely different with merpeople, which is entirely possible, it’s definitely a he) is much more human than it had looked under water, tanned and handsome with dark hair and stubble that’s threatening to turn into a beard.
His eyes, on the other hand, actually manage to be creepier. They’re not black as Stiles had thought, but a vivid, pale blue, so bright they almost glow, the color solid from edge to edge, disconcertingly inhuman. The skin around them is puffy and red, like a healing wound, and it gives the merman a slight squint, which is pretty much the only reason Stiles hasn’t pissed himself yet, because it’s more than a little comical.
“Are you a mermaid?” Stiles asks, before he can stop himself. “Or, merman, I guess?”
The merman (or not, as the case may be) shakes his head, then pauses, thinking, and shrugs.
“You… don’t know?”
“Can you speak?”
The merman gestures to his own throat with one webbed hand, to the long, raised scar that runs down his throat, and Stiles feels sick. Someone took this creature’s voice, silenced him to stop him calling for help.
“Did… did someone do that to you?”
Stiles might actually be working for supervillains.
“But you can read and write English?”
Sharper nod, like maybe his merman is getting annoyed with all the questions.
“Sorry, it’s just, I have an idea. Wait here?”
He turns to go, and then jerks to a halt when a cool, wet hand catches his arm. He turns to see the merman leaning half out of the tank to reach him, his blue eyes wide and terrified.
Holy shit, Stiles is so unprepared for this. Why didn’t anyone ever warn him he’d one day need to be an expert at comforting mute, traumatized mermen?
“It’s okay, it’s cool, I’m not leaving. I’m just going over to those lockers over there, you see them? I won’t be out of your sight for a moment, okay? I just need to get something from the lockers. It’ll help.”
The merman gives him a long searching look, like he’s trying to read Stiles’ mind, and then very slowly, nods.
Gently as he can, Stiles disentangles himself from the webbed hand still clutching his arm (his sleeve is soaking now, but that’s hardly important). “I’ll keep talking to you, okay? So you know I’m not going anywhere. And I’ll be right back, alright?”
The nod is quicker this time, a little less nervous, but Stiles is still terrified, half convinced something dreadful will happen to the strange, vulnerable creature if he lets him out of his sight for more than a minute.
“I’m just going to get one of the mini whiteboards, the divers use,” he says, fighting to keep his tone light and conversational even as he mentally freaks the fuck out. “That way you can just write, instead of me having to guess, and play twenty questions. I’m kind of shit at twenty questions anyway, ask my dad. Haven’t got the attention span for it. I mean, I never really got it as a game. It’s just not that fun. It’s like eye-spy – someone clearly designed it specifically to pass the time in hospital waiting rooms. I spent like half my life in hospital waiting rooms, I swear they are the most boring places on earth.”
He’s reached the lockers now, and they’re all closed, but Stiles went through this three month phase when he was fourteen of being really into escapology. He couldn’t manage anything complicated but he’s pretty sure he’ll be able to pick these simple locks.
He fishes a paperclip out of his pocket (he always carries one, just in case he gets accused of a crime he didn’t commit and has to go on the run, or in case a kinky sex experiment goes horribly wrong. The former is more likely, but he holds out hope for the latter) and unfolds it.
“I have ADHD,” he says while he works, shoving his debit card into the space between the locker door and the side and jiggling it as he works the lock. “It took the doctors a while to decide that was what’s wrong with me, so I spent a lot of time waiting to see consultants. And then my mom got really sick, and sometimes if there wasn’t anyone to watch me, I’d go with her to her appointments, so that was even more waiting around. At this point I am like the world expert on stupid boring games you play to keep kids amused.” He doesn’t dare look round, not wanting to know if the merman is still panicking, or laughing at him, or whether this is all a fucked up hallucination and he’s just gone.
He sighs with relief when the locker door swings open, and there’s one of the tiny whiteboards and the special pens that write underwater. He grabs them both and turns back to the tank.
“Oh, hey, you’re still there!” he says, sounding a little too surprised. The merman gives him an unimpressed look. “No, I know, you’re trapped, it’s just, I was kind of beginning to think I’d imagined you, you know? I mean, a merman? This is like the beginning of every bad supernatural erotica story ever. Not that I read that stuff!” he adds, a little too defensively. “Just, you know, the handsome merman and the inexperienced young… not that I’m inexperienced, what me? No, I totally…”
He’s reached the edge of the pool, and with a scowl the merman reaches out and grabs the pen and whiteboard.
“You Talk Too Much” he writes, in big untidy letters.
“Yeah, sorry about that. I talk when I’m nervous. It’s a failing. So, you got a name?”
“Derek,” the merman writes quickly. Stiles has to bite his cheek to keep from laughing.
“Derek? Really? I mean, Derek the mermaid? Really?!”
“Wasn’t always like this.” Derek writes, holding it up for Stiles to see and then erasing it to make room for more words. “Someone did this to me.”
Stiles stills. “I… What? Someone, someone sewed a, what is that, a killer whale? A killer whale body to you?”
“I was dead.” Derek writes, his face as unemotional as if he’s commenting on the weather rather than outing himself as a zombie. “Then I woke up in a tank like this.” He gestures impatiently to the Orca tail flicking sharply backwards and forwards in the water, keeping him steady.
“Dead. As in dead? Are you sure?”
Derek scowls and hauls himself up a little further above the edge of the tank, muscles straining under his own weight.
On his chest is a neat three pronged scar, two red lines running in a v down from his collar bones to meet the third which runs from his belly button to his sternum. An autopsy scar.
“Okay, so you were dead. That’s a thing. And someone, someone here, used your corpse to make a Frankenstein merman! Why?!”
Derek shrugs. He doesn’t look like he’s especially interested. Stiles supposes that right now escape is probably a little higher on his agenda.
“And you want me to get you out?”
“Me and the others,” Derek writes quickly, shaking the board in Stiles’ face as though to emphasize what he’s written.
“Others? What others?!” Stiles stares suspiciously at the murky waters of the tank, as though it might be hiding a whole… pod? Herd? A whole lot more zombie mermaids.
“In the lab. Where I was made.” Derek writes. “I broke the tank, they moved me. But there was a girl like me. Maybe more.”
“Holy shit,” Stiles says weakly. “Right. So I’m organizing a zombie mermaid prison break. That’s a thing, right? I am so getting fired over this!”
Leaving Derek is one of the hardest things Stiles has ever had to do. The guy is so alone, and so terrified, and Stiles genuinely doesn’t know if he’ll ever see him again, but there’s nothing he can do.
“Maybe if I went to Chris Argent,” he’d suggested, without much conviction. “He’s the one who hired me, and he seems pretty nice. Or, well, he doesn’t seem out and out evil anyway. Maybe he’d help?”
“No!!!” Derek had written, shaking the board in Stiles’ face for emphasis. “They’ll kill you.”
“And if I don’t do something, they might kill you!” Stiles had argued.
“Already dead,” Derek had written, with this horrible crooked little smile that made Stiles just want to gather him up into a hug.
“What about the authorities. Doing this kind of thing has got be illegal.”
“I would be destroyed. Illegal lab experiment.”
Stiles had felt sick. “They’d really…? But you’re alive! You’re a person! Surely they can’t…”
“I know the law,” Derek had written gloomily. “I would be destroyed.”
“Alright, okay, so getting the authorities involved is out. But dude, I can’t get you out of here by myself. You probably weigh like ten times what I do, and you said there’s more of you guys somewhere. I’m going to need help.”
“Trust no one,” Derek had replied, scowling fiercely at him.
Stiles had laughed. “You’re literally entrusting your life to me, and you only met me what, half an hour ago? I could be anyone. I could be a spy for the scientist who made you for all you know!”
Derek had looked so alarmed, Stiles felt genuinely guilty. “Dude, no, I’m not saying I am a spy, just that, you know, I could have been. You’re just lucky you got good old reliable Stiles, instead of Dr McEvil.”
Derek had given him an unimpressed look. For someone who could speak until only three months ago (they’d estimated Derek’s approximate dates of death and rebirth based on his memories and how many meals he’d been given since he woke up), he’s really got the hang of non-verbal communication. Mostly what he communicates is a mixture of completely understandable terror, and equally understandable exasperation that he’s got Stiles of all people as his knight in shining armor.
(He feels bad about that, Derek deserves a way better hero than him, but no one else is volunteering so he’s just going to have to make do.)
They’d agreed that, since it was going to take time to figure out how they were getting Derek and the mysterious others out of here, it was important that Stiles keep doing his actual job. Him getting fired wouldn’t help anyone.
It’s still horrible, leaving to do things like dusting and sweeping knowing Derek’s going to be all alone in that dirty tank.
Before he goes, Stiles has a moment of genius (rare, but they do happen) and gets Derek to explain the location of the lab he came from as best he can. It’s vague, but Stiles knows the layout of the place pretty well by now, and he’s able to figure out that he’s talking about Dr Kate’s lab. (It’s a family business, and with so many Dr Argents around, Stiles finds it easier to just refer to them by their first names.)
“I know where that is. I don’t have a key though. She doesn’t let anyone in there, not even to clean.” Kate Argent is vivacious, charming and gives the impression that she could kill you with her pinky. She’s also incredibly secretive. Stiles had assumed it was just eccentricity, you don’t get to be a world expert in marine genetics without being a little odd, but apparently it’s also to keep people from finding out about the illegal Frankenstein experiments she’s been doing.
“Magic?” Derek writes, looking hopeful. It seems likely he’ll be moved back to the lab as soon as possible, and he doesn’t want to lose this chance of rescue.
Stiles shakes his head. “I don’t know any. My friend Scott’s learning, but I don’t think he’ll know anything helpful. I’ll go and have a look at the door though. Maybe I can write a program that will bypass the locks. A lot of the more modern security systems are centrally controlled, and if you can get access… Sorry. I’m talking shop. I’ll think of something though, don’t you worry.”
“If they catch you, you will die,” Derek wrote.
“Okay, well, that’s really making me feel positive about this whole thing. Seriously, I feel so much better about it now.” Derek does something with his mouth that looks like a smile would look if it got mugged on the way to his face, and Stiles can’t help smiling back. “It’ll be fine dude, this is hardly the first time I’ve broken into somewhere. Admittedly, this is a bit higher security than my dad’s police station, but the principles the same, right? Anyway, I’d better go. I am so far behind schedule, and I need to scope out Dr Kate’s lab as well as clean this place up, because if I get fired I’m going to have to break in here to see you, and I’m pretty sure they have guard dogs. Big angry guard dogs. Also I need to be able to buy food, that’s pretty important. Can’t rescue you if I waste away. Sorry.”
Derek smiles again, a little brighter this time, and writes, “Go.”
Stiles goes, but he doesn’t feel good about it.
“Hey Boyd? How would you go about breaking into a lab with biometric scanners, voice print ID and a numerical code which triggers a laser grid if you get it wrong? Theoretically, I mean.”
“I wouldn’t,” Boyd says, not looking up from his soldering. “And I’m not bailing your ass out of jail if you get caught.”
“No, that’s okay, if I get caught I’ll either get chopped up by the lasers, Resident Evil style, or get eaten by the guard dogs.”
“Well good. Just keep me out of it.” Boyd looks like he wants to say something, probably to point out that security lasers are really just boring light beams and couldn’t cut anything, but he stays silent. It’s okay, Stiles will wear him down in the end.
“You’re the worst roommate ever, you know that?”
“Hey, I just want to graduate with a clean criminal record and all my limbs,” Boyd says. “I don’t think that’s too much to ask. And helping you break into whatever high tech scifi vault you’ve got your eye on is not going to help me achieve that.”
“It’s not a vault,” Stiles says stubbornly. “There is no vault. This is all theoretical. A thought exercise. Come on man, you’re great at this shit. Bypassing systems is practically your middle name. Boyd Bypassing Systems Boyd.”
“You do know Boyd isn’t my first name, right?” Boyd asks, amused. Stiles mentally applauds himself. If Boyd’s grinning like that, then Stiles is winning.
“Your name isn’t important! What’s important is how, theoretically, I would get into this totally theoretical room guarded with biometric scanners, voice print ID and a numerical code which triggers a laser grid if you get it wrong.”
Boyd sighs and sets down his torch. “What kind of scanners?” he asks, sounding resigned.
“Fingerprint, and also you’re the best roommate ever.”
“Yeah yeah. What kind of hardware are we talking here?”
Stiles gets to work early on Thursday, to ensure he has enough time to actually clean up as well as talk to Derek. His first stop when he gets in is the big tank in the main aquarium. To his disappointment it’s empty, no sign that Derek had ever been there, but at least there’s no blood or floating corpses. He’s been having nightmares that he’d arrive to find Kate had decided to destroy the evidence by killing Derek before Stiles could help him.
He’d thought about the experiment a lot during his day off, and the thing he kept coming back to was that, ultimately, it has no benefit. Yeah, reanimating dead tissue could be an enormous breakthrough, and the fact that Derek is still alive after three months suggests that she’s also found a way to deal with any rejection problems, which could potentially revolutionize organ transplant surgeries, but those are things she could have tested a thousand different ways, most of them legal. Stiles suspects that the scientific breakthroughs she’s made have been side effects of her determination to make zombie mermaids, rather than the driving motivation, and that suggests she’s stark staring bonkers, which is terrifying. There’s no telling how she’ll react when she discovers her creations gone. Stiles has been revising his high school Spanish, in case he has to flee over the border.
He forces himself to sweep the main aquarium, and clean the outside of the tanks, before he goes in search of Derek. He wants to be sure no one’s going to interrupt him. He knows everyone’s routines by now, and it’s rare for anyone to be there when he arrives, but he doesn’t want to take any risks.
Eventually (earlier than he’d planned, but the tension was becoming unbearable) he shoulders his broom, picks up the laptop containing his code, and goes in search of the building servers.
He finds them in a tiny cupboard just off from reception. It’s hellishly small, and he bumps his head so many times getting his laptop wired in that he almost stops feeling it by the time he’s done.
Hacking always looks much cooler in the movies. In reality, he plugs in his laptop, and runs a pre-made program. He completes like twelve levels of flappy bird while he waits.
When the programme’s finished, a little popup appears on the screen that says “grats on committing your first crime.” It’s pretty funny, but Stiles is kind of offended that Boyd thinks this is his first crime. Just because he doesn't know how to hack state of the art biometric security systems doesn’t mean he doesn’t know how to use an RFDI cloner.
Taking the time to drop his laptop off in a spare staff locker that he’d ‘borrowed’ (see, he’s totally capable of committing crimes!) is almost physically painful, but he doesn’t want to take it with him and no way is he leaving it unattended.
He lets out a sigh of relief so deep it’s almost a groan when the lab door clicks open for him without a single alarm going off or attack dog being released.
The lab beyond is pitch black, no windows or lights breaking up the darkness. He blinks, surprised by the sudden darkness, and gropes blindly for a lightswitch.
“On the wall to your left,” a young female voice he doesn’t know says.
Stiles runs his hand along the wall until his fingers find the dimmer switch, and he twists it, the lighting coming up slowly.
The first thing he sees is a girl plucked straight out of his adolescent fantasies. A waterfall of flame red hair and full lips quirked into a half smile that’s more a threat than an expression of pleasure. She looks so much like someone took the perfect girlfriend of his teenage daydreams and made her flesh that it takes him a moment to register that she’s watching him from a tank of water.
She’s less scared than Derek, has no autopsy marks and her throat is intact. Her eyes are still her own, sky blue and bitingly intelligent. His eyes drift down, blushing when he realizes she’s wearing only a bikini top which is doing a poor job of containing her full breasts. A fine tracery of jagged scars mark one side of her, presumably left over from her death. Her… death. Christ, Stiles is eying up a zombie, and nineteen is too old to be able to excuse that.
She has more of her torso intact than Derek, human to below her hip bones, but instead of legs she has a sleek golden-red seal-tail. She looks like everything a mermaid should be, and completely capable of luring sailors to their deaths.
“I, er, I was looking for Derek?” Stiles says, concentrating on keeping his eyes on her face.
“Dark hair, bad attitude and abs you could grate cheese on?” she asks, raising one sculpted eyebrow. Stiles wonders if she plucks them, or if they just grow that perfect.
He voice is light and well-spoken, and Stiles breathes out a sigh of relief that she can talk. Apparently Derek is the only one Dr Kate wanted mute.
“Orca from the waist down?” he says. “That’s him. Is he here?”
“He’s in the tank over there,” she says, gesturing towards the back of the room. “I think you’ll find him even less chatty than usual though.”
Stiles considers pointing out just how tasteless that joke is, but the girl probably knows, and Derek is higher on his priorities.
“What’s wrong with him?”
“He’s still out cold.”
Stiles blood freezes. “What did she do to him?!”
“Oh relax. It’s just a sedative. He was struggling too much for her to be able to move him otherwise. He’ll wake up soon.”
“Okay. Thanks,” Stiles says, and goes in search of Derek’s tank.
It’s near the back of the lab, smaller than the one he’d been in when Stiles first met him, but bigger than the girl’s. He’s resting in a sort of sling arrangement, suspended just in the water, an oxygen mask covering his face. He looks pale, and worn, but at least he’s breathing.
Stiles presses a hand against the glass, as though that will offer any kind of comfort to either of them, then goes back to Lydia. The join between human and marine mammal is less clean on her than it is on Derek, and Stiles takes that to mean she’s an earlier experiment.
Hopefully she’ll know something that might be of use.
“I’m Stiles,” he says to her. “I’m the janitor here.”
“Lydia. I’m a horrific experiment. How do you know Derek?”
“I don’t. Not really. But I met him when he was in the big tank. He, er…” he pauses, glancing round the room. He can’t see any cameras, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there.
“The room isn’t bugged,” Lydia says, seeing his expression. “Well, it is, but the bugs have been disabled for weeks now, and Kate hasn’t noticed.”
“Did you disable them?”
“No, not me. But you were saying you met Derek after he smashed his tank.”
Stiles wants to press, find out who did disable the bugs if it wasn’t Lydia, but he doesn’t want to push too much when he barely knows her. “That’s why he was out there?! Wow, the glass on those things is thick. But yeah, they put him in the main tank while they fixed the damage or whatever. I was cleaning up. He asked me to help him.”
Lydia laughs bitterly. “And what exactly does he expect you to do? Carry us out of here one by one?”
“How many of you are there?”
“Just me, him and Peter, as far as I know.”
“The final member of this happy little family,” a voice drawled from behind a screen set a little way from Lydia’s tank.
Stiles looked to Lydia, for permission or reassurance he wasn’t sure which, and then ducked around the screen.
The tank on the other side housed a man who Stiles suspected had looked like a shark, even before Kate had got her hands on him.
His join between fish and man is even less neat than on Lydia, a knotted snarl of scar tissue looped around his torso, making Stiles suspect he was one of Kate’s earliest experiments. He’d been in early middle age when he died, light brown hair just beginning to be touched with grey, and he’d clearly once been extremely handsome. Those good looks were somewhat spoiled by another of Kate’s experiments, silver shark eyes with huge black pupils staring out of the human face.
He looked like something from a nightmare, and Stiles wasn’t sure if it was that or the smugness of his expression that made him instantly distrust him.
“Well hello,” Peter drawled, lounging against the side of his tank like he was leaning on a bar in a fancy club. “Visitors, how exciting.”
“I’m Stiles,” Stiles says, because the guy looks like he’s probably a mega-creep, but his mum and dad raised him to be polite.
“Yes, you said,” Peter says. He hasn’t blinked once, since Stiles first looked at him, and it’s really starting to creep Stiles out. “And you’re here to rescue us, are you?”
He sounds so disbelieving that Stiles bristles. He doesn’t really believe he’ll be of any help, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t going to try. “If I can.”
“And when you inevitably fail, what exactly do you think Kate is going to do to you? Let you off with a stern warning?”
Stiles shrugs. “Probably kill me, but then death doesn’t seem as permanent around here as it used to.”
Peter laughs, soft and mocking and so comically evil it’s almost funny. “Well as long as you’re prepared to face the consequences.”
“Hey, I happen to think I’d make a very attractive zombie merman. Maybe some kind of dolphin. What do you think?”
There’s a loud thump from behind him, and he turns to see Derek, the crumpled remains of the gasmask held in one hand, glaring fiercely at him. It takes Stiles’ brain a minute sometimes to catch up to current events, so instead of asking how Derek is, he says, “Not a dolphin then. Sea lion?”
Peter gives a snort of laughter, not at all how Stiles had expected him to laugh (but then he’d been expecting some kind of sinister villainous chuckle) and Derek rolls his eyes exaggeratedly.
“How are you feeling?” Stiles asks, coming over to the edge of Derek’s tank and forcing himself not to reach for him. He’s still in the sling, and he looks to vulnerable even with the abs and the glaring, and Stiles really wants to hug him.
Derek gestures irritably to the lab, the remains of the mask, the sling, and oddly, Peter, in what’s clearly meant to be a demonstration of all the ways in which his situation is not okay.
“Okay, stupid question. But at least you’re awake. And I can get into the lab now. Or, well, I got into the lab. I don’t actually know if this will work again.”
He frowns. He’d been so focussed on getting to see Derek that he’d forgotten that he needs a long term solution, not a quick fix.
“Peter, give Stiles one of Kate’s ID cards,” Lydia says, imperiously, then adds to Stiles, “He steals them when she’s not looking. He thinks I don’t know.”
“I have learnt never to assume that there’s anything you don’t know,” Peter drawls. He dives down to the bottom of his tank for a moment, and then reappears holding a handful of plastic pass cards.
“Why do you take these?” Stiles asks, holding out a hand for them. They’re wet, and just a little slimy. “It’s not like you can use them to leave.”
“No,” Peter agrees with a grin. “But it annoys Kate enormously. She can’t work out what keeps happening to them.”
“They’re deactivated right now,” Lydia says. “They take the old ones off the system every time she gets a new one, but it should be possible to reactivate them relatively easily, right?”
Stiles nods, even though he doesn’t actually know. It’s got to be possible, and beyond that, he doesn’t care. He’ll forgo sleep for the next month to work on it if need be. He’s not leaving these guys alone again. Even Peter doesn’t deserve this, and Stiles already kinda hates the guy after only knowing him for five minutes.
“Whatever it takes guys, I’m getting you out of here,” he says firmly.
Lydia smiles at him, a little sad like she doesn’t believe him but wishes she did. Derek scowls, because scowling seems to be his default expression, and Peter just grins, showing off his inhumanly long, pointed teeth.
Sorry for missing last week! My muse was not cooperating.
Stiles has Fridays off and he can’t think of an excuse to go into work on his one day off a week, so he spends it holed up in his dorm room trying to come up with rescue plans and determinedly not thinking about the fact that the zombie mermaids he knows are the most pointlessly attractive zombie mermaids ever. Seriously. No reanimated corpses should look that good. Lydia is pretty much the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen, and Derek looks like one of Stiles’ teenage sex dreams was given independent life. Even Peter’s attractive, in a completely terrifying ‘rip your throat out with my teeth’ kind of a way.
He ends up spending nearly the whole day lying on his back on his bed, staring at the ceiling, with an endless stream of prison break movies playing in the background for inspiration. (Since they can’t tunnel out, and he doesn’t own a motorbike, neither the Count of Monte-Cristo or the Great Escape provide him with any useful ideas.
By the end of the day, his plans are:
Option 1: somehow acquire massive amounts of money, hire some mercenary types, sneak in and carry the zombie merpeople out of there
Option 2: as above but don’t bother with the sneaky bit and just go in guns blazing
Option 3: find a way to blackmail Kate that won’t end up with him in a tank next to Derek
Option 4: alert the authorities but make such a heartfelt plea that they let the merpeople go instead of killing them to cover up the weirdness going on at what turns out, after some research, to be a government funded lab.
None of the options are looking all that appealing. If he knew how to suddenly acquire massive amounts of money, he wouldn’t be mopping floors for a living. He’s not stupid enough to think that confronting Kate would end any way other than badly. The woman’s completely insane, extremely wealthy and a genius to boot, he can’t compete with that. And when it gets right down to it, he doesn’t trust the government. For all he knows, they’re the ones sponsoring Kate’s insane experiments.
Which leaves him with a grand total of nothing. And even if he could get them out, where would they go afterwards? They can’t live on land as they are now, and there probably isn’t a surgeon in the world good enough to fix them. They need tanks, somewhere discreet, the kind of facilities that would cost more money than Stiles will ever have in his life.
He knows all of two people with that kind of money, and one of them is Kate Argent’s father.
The other though…
He taps a pen against his lip, considering the idea that’s slowly forming in his mind.
See, Stiles has a best friend. He’s called Scott, and he’s training to be a magizoologist, which is a fancy way of saying he cleans out animal cages and can do a miniscule amount of healing magic.
Scott has a girlfriend call Kira, who is beautiful, funny and sweeter than anyone else Stiles knows apart from Scott. She’s also the daughter of the most terrifying woman Stiles has ever met. He’s like, 90% sure Mrs Yukimura is a mob boss, and he’d be thoroughly confused as to how such an intimidating woman could have such a lovely daughter if he hadn’t once watched Kira beat a man twice her size unconscious for hitting his dog. She might be nine tenths puppies and sunshine, but the other ten percent is pure steel.
The point though, is that as well as probably being Yakuza or whatever, Kira’s family are fabulously wealthy philanthropists, who’ve spent millions endowing facilities for animals, from the vets surgery Scott works at, to one of the biggest marine conservation centres in America.
The odds of them being able to actually help are pretty high. He doesn’t trust them, and he’s 100% sure Mrs Yakimura has killed people, probably a lot of people, but they might be his best hope. They might be Derek’s best hope.
It doesn’t solve the question of how to get Derek and the others out of there unharmed, (not unless Mrs Yakimura can provide him with the mercenaries needed for plan A) but if he can get the merpeople to agree to it, it at least gives them somewhere to go once he’s worked out a decent plan.
By the time the last of the AML employees has signed out on Monday night, Stiles is nearly dead on his feet with exhaustion. He’d barely slept the night before, lying awake thinking about all the terrible things that could be happening to the merpeople at that very moment. And when he finally dozed off, his dreams had been full of blood and surgical tools and Kate Argent’s laughing face.
He wakes up in a cold sweat five minutes before the start of his first lecture. He spills coffee over his hellishly expensive copyright law text-book, manages to fall up a flight of stairs in the computing building nearly knocking himself unconscious and then when he gets back to his room to change for work, there’s a sock on the door handle and noises that can only mean Boyd’s girlfriend Erica is visiting.
He arrives at work half an hour early, tired, bruised and smelly, and even though he desperately wants to check on the mer-people, to make sure they’re unhurt and still exist (even after meeting Derek twice, he’s still not 100% certain he’s not imagining them), it’s only the memory of his dreams that keeps him from just going home when he’s finished cleaning the public areas.
At least reactivating one of Peter’s slightly mouldy fish-smelling ID cards is easy. He’s got access to the systems now, and thanks to Peter, Kate replaces her card so often that one more isn’t going to be noticed. He has to register a new card, since the one he’s got is water damaged, but that just makes the whole thing more plausible. People drop things in the tanks all the time, especially swipe cards.
He remembers to pick up one of the whiteboards and some pens from the lockers for Derek as well. The guy’s very expressive when he wants to be, eyebrows and hand gestures conveying what he means nearly as well as words, but it’s not the same. When he gets him out of there, Stiles is going to sign them both up for sign language classes.
(Okay that’s probably a bit forward of him. He doesn’t even know if Derek will ever want to see him again once he isn’t the only person he trusts to save his life, but it’s the first happy thought Stiles has had all day, so he doesn’t let himself think too much about the likelihood of it. He just enjoys the fantasy of these people actually becoming his friends.)
“Honey, I’m home,” he calls, as he pushes open the door to the lab, and then freezes, his whole body rigid, when he realizes there’s someone there. Someone alive and with legs, that is.
The stranger has her back to him, so all he can see of her is long brown hair and a pretty floral dress. And a compound bow strung at her back.
“Stiles,” Lydia calls, bright and happy, and Stiles relaxes a little when she doesn’t sound like she’s afraid for her life. “Come and meet Allison.”
The girl turns, her face perfectly reflecting his own feelings of mistrust, and Stiles realizes he already knows her.
“Allison Argent, right? I’m roommates with Isaac’s friend Boyd.”
Isaac is an adorable puppy of a person, with some kind of horribly dark backstory that Stiles hasn’t been able to discover and Boyd’s best friend. He spends at least one night a week camped out on the floor of their room, or sprawled out over Boyd like a human blanket and at least 50% of his conversation is about how he’s in love with Allison Argent. They take French together and apparently once shared a slightly tipsy night of passion which, to Isaac’s eternal disappointment, never went anywhere.
“Oh, hey!” Allison says, her suspicious expression replaced by a wide smile that makes her cheeks dimple adorably. “He’s told me about you. You’re the one who plays D&D, right?”
Stiles blushes at being exposed as such a nerd in front of Derek and Lydia. “Yeah, that’s me. You realized you’ve just completely ruined my street cred, right?”
“What class do you play?” Lydia asks, sounding genuinely interested.
“A dragon-mage. You play D&D?!”
“I used to DM in middle school. I stopped in high school because I didn’t want people to think I was a nerd. We should have a game some time, if we survive.”
“You would be the most epically cruel DM in history, and I would totally love to play with you,” Stiles says earnestly.
“How sweet,” Peter’s voice drawls from behind his screen. “Are you going to braid each other’s hair as well?”
“I haven’t got any hair to braid,” Stiles retorts, even though he’d totally grow it out for a chance to touch Lydia’s beautiful flaming locks.
Allison laughs. “She does do great braids,” Allison says, reaching out to run her fingers though Lydia’s fiery locks.
The gesture was unconsciously intimate, and Stiles could feel a blush rising up the back of his neck as he realised what he’d interrupted.
“NicetomeetyouAllisonI’mgoingovertherenow,” he said, all in one breath, and stumbled over to Derek’s tank fast enough that it was probably rude.
Derek scowled at him, but Stiles didn’t take it personally. He’d only met the guy twice but he was coming to learn that scowling was Derek’s resting expression.
“I brought you a present,” Stiles says, rummaging in his bag and producing a whiteboard and pens.
Derek takes them, immediately bending over it to scribble out a message.
“You’re very awkward,” Stiles reads aloud. “Gee thanks dude. You know, you’re very rude. If you’re not careful, I might change my mind about rescuing you!”
Derek bent over his board, writing furiously. When he held it up, Stiles saw he had written ‘I’m sorry, it was a joke’ in hurried untidy letters. He watched Stiles read it with wide worried eyes and Stiles feels like a total asshole.
“Dude, no, I didn’t mean it! It was just a joke. A really really bad joke. I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. There’s basically nothing on earth that could stop me trying to help you guys. You’re stuck with me now.”
‘Sorry’ Derek writes.‘I over reacted.’
“Totally my fault,” Stiles says. “I’m sorry, that wasn’t funny. I make jokes when I’m nervous, and they’re never any good.”
‘Why are you nervous?’
“Well, a) I just broke into a top secret lab owned by a legit psychopath, b) I just flirted with Lydia, in front of Lydia’s girlfriend, and c) you’re ridiculously handsome, and I get kinda awkward around attractive people.”
‘That would explain why you’re awkward all the time’, Derek writes, with a grin. It’s the first real smile Stiles has seen on his face, and it lights him up in a way Stiles was totally unprepared for. He’s pretty sure he shouldn’t be this attracted to traumatized zombie merpeople, but he’s always had terrible taste in men. And women. And people in general. He once spent an entire summer crushing on Jackson Whitmore, the biggest douchebag in his entire school.
“Dude, did you try and flirt with me? You know you don’t have to butter me up right? I mean, I’m still going to try and rescue you, even if you’re a complete dick to me.”
‘Never hurts to be sure’, Derek writes in his small neat handwriting.
“Oh just kiss already,” Peter drawls. He’s leaning on the edge of his tank arms crossed and watching them with interest. He’s wearing the smug little grin, like he knows something they don’t, and Stiles kind of wants to hit him.
‘Fuck off Peter!’ Derek writes, holding his board up so Peter can see it, and waggling it a little for emphasis.
“Now, nephew mine,” Peter drawls again, “is that anyway to speak to your favourite uncle?”
Derek bends over his board, furiously scribbling, and Stiles gets to share a lovely awkward moment with Peter while they wait to see what Derek is going to say.
Derek holds up his board. “You’re my only uncle,” Stiles reads aloud, “and you’re still not my favourite.”
“Oooo, burn,” Stiles says delighted. “But wait, you guys are related? Is Lydia related to you as well? What the hell did your family do to Kate Argent?”
“The delightful Miss Martin is, unfortunately, not one of the family,” Peter says with a nasty smile. “At least, not yet.”
“Not if you are the last man on earth, Peter Hale,” Lydia shouts from her tank.
“I’ll win her over eventually,” Peter says. “As to your other questions, Derek is the son of my esteemed sister. Was, I should say, since we are all dead now and so far I haven’t seen Talia swimming around in here. And I’ve always suspected, that Kate’s particular dislike for us had something to do with the fact that Derek refused to ask her to prom.”
‘I was 16,’ Derek writes, the letters wobbly, like maybe his hands are shaking. ‘And she was a teacher. How exactly was I supposed to ask her to prom? Anyway, you know she was only interested in me because she thought it might get her access to Mom’s research. It was never about me.’
“Wow,” Stiles says, shoving his hands in his pockets. “That is really messed up! Just when I thought Kate Argent couldn’t get any creepier! What the fuck is wrong with her?”
“Clearly you’ve never met my grandfather, or you wouldn’t need to ask that question,” Allison says. “I was lucky, Dad left home when he was 16 and he was never that close to him anyway. Kate’s his favourite. She never had a chance.”
“Your family is all kinds of messed-up,” Stiles says, almost impressed. “If you want a new one, just say the word. My dad’s always wanted a daughter.”
Allison laughs softly, and takes hold of Lydia’s hand. “Thanks for the offer, but I’m already making myself a new one.”
“Okay, well the offer stands for you as well, Derek. I mean, thanksgiving dinner might be awkward, since we don’t have a pond, but if you feel like not being related to that asshole anymore,” Stiles says gesturing to Peter, “I’m sure we could work something out.”
“It’s a good thing sharks have tough skin,” Peter drawled, his mouth open in what was probably supposed to be a smile, but showed far, far too many sharp, white teeth, “otherwise, I might be offended!”