There is gunfire in the distance. Stiles feels each round in his chest like a second heartbeat, angry and erratic, eclipsing the weak thumps of his fragile human heart.
It’s hard walking in heels on the cobblestone streets. He hadn’t understood why Harris had insisted he take the long walk to the brothel dressed like this, but as heads turn in his direction he finally gets it. Humiliation paints his cheeks so red he might have been wearing the blush he’d refused only hours earlier.
A hundred people will see him before he reaches his destination, and Stiles will see himself reflected in their knowing stares. That’s what Harris wants, for Stiles to be broken long before he takes his first customer.
A wolf-whistle sounds from somewhere in the crowd and Stiles hunches over as if he could hide the fishnets and miniskirt and corset-top. His parents had drilled into his head for as long as he could remember that being an omega didn’t mean he was a woman. There was no need for him to wear a skirt or a top that accentuated those tiny buds on his chest. He had a body that was equipped to bear children, that was all.
But all omegas who end up in the prostitution trade have to dress like this, and listen as foul-mouthed customers mockingly call them princess or pretty girl. In this mean world, there’s nothing that makes men harder than humiliation.
Harris is waiting for him. “Took you long enough,” he says, reaching out to pull him over the threshold.
“Maybe you should have given me regular heels instead of these stilts. It was hard to walk.”
“Good thing you won’t be doing much of that.” Harris looks over him critically. “Where’s your lipstick, babydoll?”
Stiles’s teeth automatically clamp down on his lower lip. He’d agreed to minimal makeup, but when he’d applied mascara his terrified eyes had suddenly seemed to dominate his face. He’d bolted for the bathroom and gagged over the toilet for a full five minutes, and after that even the thought of more makeup had sickened him.
Harris grips him by the waist, thumb teasing at his chest— breast; he has to remember now to call them his breasts, since that’s what his customers will want to hear—until he sees the outline of a nipple. “I only put out perfect products, Stiles,” he says quietly. “When I tell you to wear your makeup, you wear it. Understand?”
“Good girl.” The expression makes Stiles jerk, but it’s the loose, floppy reaction of an animal who has already been shot, receiving one more unnecessary blow. Harris raises an eyebrow at him. “Something wrong?”
Stiles shakes his head.
“Let’s go over the rules.” Harris takes his arm and leads him into the brothel. “Your first customer will be paying for your virginity, so it’s all right to cry if he hurts you, but after that I only expect to hear that you were smiling and begging for it like a good whore. Between each customer you’ll clean yourself up with the wet naps I’ve provided.”
“So generous,” Stiles mutters.
“What was that?” Harris’s grip turns painful.
“They’ll pay for the services they want, and whoever brings them to your door will relay their orders to you. If they want more when they’re in the room, that’s fine, but make sure the runner knows when they come back so the client pays me for it before he leaves. There’s lube in the room, but do your best to produce slick, because the lube comes out of your paycheck. You’re currently listed as available for any service. If you’ve changed your mind and want to make some things off-limits, your pay will be docked accordingly. It is unacceptable to refuse a client anything he wants. In here.” He pushes Stiles into a small side room.
There’s a bed, but Harris shoves Stiles down onto a seat in front of a cracked mirror. There are a few tubes and bottles strewn around and Harris grabs one. It’s lipstick, bubblegum pink. The room smells like cheap powder and cheaper sex.
Harris’s touch is rough as he applies the makeup. Stiles stares at himself in the mirror, watching the familiar disappear as Harris keeps talking. “The most important lesson, babydoll, is that you belong to me. I’ll sell you a hundred times over before we’re through. I know people whose appetites have them barred from every brothel in this country, and if I have to sell you to them to make you a worthwhile investment, I’ll do it without a second thought. You understand me?”
“Say it with a smile.”
“Yes, sir.” The whore in the mirror smiles prettily.
Harris kisses him on his freshly painted cheek. “That reminds me…I think I’ll tell your clients you want to call them Daddy.” His eyes twinkle maliciously when Stiles’s head shoots up, teeth bared in automatic fury. “After all, you’re doing this for Daddy, aren’t you, sweetheart?”
Stiles wants to kill him. He wants to stab a high heel into his eye, choke him with the fishnet stockings, smash the cracked mirror over his head. “Don’t talk about my father,” he snarls.
Harris laughs at him, reaching out to caress his cheek. “Wouldn’t he be so proud if he could see you now?”
Stiles shuts his eyes. Over the past few years, when all they had was each other, his father would sometimes grab him up in a sudden, fierce hug. “Thanks for staying you,” he would say, eyes moist, or “Just don’t lose your spark, Stiles,” as everything else they loved was carved away. So Stiles stayed the same wisecracking goofball his dad loved, even when it felt like a thousand strong winds were trying to blow his spark out.
Now he might as well be taking that spark out into a rainstorm.
But he has to do this. There’s just no other way.
Harris sees the defeated slump of his shoulders and leans in, brushing away a clump of mascara. “There,” he says softly. “You’re ready. Now, tell me. Who’s my good girl?”
Stiles’s eyes are dry and blank when he meets the gaze of his pimp. “I’m your good girl, sir.”
He suffers another kiss. “On the bed,” Harris says, and Stiles obeys. Harris slaps his ass and leaves without another word.
Stiles squeezes his eyes shut and tries to breathe. He doesn’t know how long it will be before he gets his first customer, the one who will pay extra to take his virginity. Not long, he imagines. There might very well be a bidding war over it.
He is a product now. Something to be bought— no, rented. Used and discarded.
His breath shortens and strains in his throat.
How did he get here?
Five years ago, before the war, he never would have imagined this for himself. Then his mom was alive and his dad was free, and the only werewolf in his life was his best friend, who was more like a sweet puppy than the feral monsters described in the anti-werewolf war propaganda. He’d just been a sarcastic, too-smart-for-his-own-good kid, blissfully happy in his safe little life.
The werewolves and humans had always been segregated, separated by the ocean and prosperity. Luponia, the werewolves’ country, was the land of the wealthy and free. Ideria, where the humans lived, was decidedly less utopic. Years and years ago Luponia had offered its assistance and sent over werewolf families to live as emissaries, offering their advanced skills in the hopes of helping Ideria prosper.
One of those werewolves had been Stiles’s best friend, Scott. Stiles hadn’t minded coexisting with werewolves; he’d thought it was cool. He hadn’t understood that there were humans who didn’t like the idea of werewolves invading a country that was supposed to be free of such monsters.
Anti-werewolf groups started attacking embassies. Burning down homes, blowing up hospitals Luponian missionaries had set up in the poorest areas of Ideria, and, in what would prove to be the last straw, hijacking a military jet and attempting an act of terrorism on Luponia’s capitol. The bomb they’d planned on dropping had instead detonated midair over a small Luponian town, causing dozens of civilian deaths.
War had been declared, and the world might as well have ended right then.
The Ideria government— always erring on the side of tyrannical— became downright despotic. Prisons were stuffed full of anyone who might be accused of harboring werewolf sympathies, and taxes were raised so high to support the war effort that a week’s salary paid for maybe a loaf of bread and some broth.
His city was occupied by werewolves within weeks, and the soldiers the government sent couldn’t fight the enemy back. They’d lost the war before they ever started, but they went on fighting it, unwilling to surrender so soon.
It was a pointless war, and a painful war, and the Iderian citizens knew that the sooner the werewolves won the sooner their lives would go back to normal. Everyone with a modicum of sense privately longed for the day their country declared surrender. Stiles’s friend Danny had gone so far as to work as a spy for Luponian forces. He’d been caught and scheduled for execution, but the werewolves had smuggled him out of the country in time. Rumor had it that the werewolves continued to employ humans, keeping it well-hidden so the civilians wouldn’t face political retribution.
Werewolves looked after their own, and humans didn’t. Stiles had learned that lesson early.
His mom had gotten sick, and since most doctors had been recruited to the war effort, there was nobody to treat her. By the time they cobbled together enough money to get her to a specialist, her disease had advanced far enough that only a werewolf bite could have saved her, and werewolf healing was banned now.
She died the same week school had been shut down, only weeks away from his high-school graduation. If he hadn’t been an omega he would have been drafted to the war effort like all his friends. Except Scott, of course.
Scott. Stiles really can’t think about Scott, because if it hadn’t been for Scott his father would never have been arrested, and Stiles wouldn’t be here right now. He curls his hand into a fist around the scratchy white sheets on the bed and tries to breathe.
There’s a knock at the door and a girl leans her head in. “It’s time,” she says.
He jerks out a nod and the door pushes open. A soldier, wearing his rank on his coat, waltzes in, the button of his pants already undone and a holstered pistol at his side. “Look at you,” he slurs. “A virgin whore.”
“That’s me,” Stiles says almost soundlessly.
The guy sits heavily on the bed. “Take off my coat.”
Stiles does, letting his hands run over the man’s arms as the heavy jacket falls to the floor.
Stiles stands and reaches down to fumble off the heels, then shimmies the miniskirt down his legs. His fingers are stiff as he unlaces the corset.
“Look at those little titties,” the man leers. Even his gaze feels dirty. “Come here so Daddy can get them all worked up.”
Stiles freezes with his hands at the waistband of his fishnets. The way the man said Daddy…
“I said come to Daddy.”
A memory surfaces: being shoved away from John; a cruel voice laughing: “Look at him, crying for his daddy...”
He knows this man.
This is one of the soldiers who arrested his father.
He takes a step backwards and hears himself say the one word he’s been forbidden: “No.”
Before he can regret it the man grabs him and throws him down, grinding his face into the bed. “I was going to make this nice for you,” the man growls. “But now you’ve gotten me pissed off.” His fingernails scrape over Stiles’s ass as he tugs at the fishnets. “Better get wet now, virgin, because I’m going to fuck you dry.”
Panic rises, and when the man lets up on him Stiles kicks out. The soldier stumbles backwards with a howl, scrambling for his gun.
Stiles dives forward, just trying to stop the man from shooting, but instead he ends up wrestling the gun away. He points it blindly, not quite realizing what he’s done until he sees the man’s eyes widen.
Holy shit. He just stole a soldier’s gun.
He is so royally, incredibly, completely fucked, and now he just has to run.
He grabs the soldier’s coat off the floor and puts it on, keeping the gun trained between his would-be john’s eyes. “Don’t worry,” he says as he edges towards the door. “I’m sure you’ll get a refund.”
The man spits blood. “I’ll kill you, you stupid whore.”
“I’m not a whore,” he says, and then he shoves open the door and bolts, catching a glimpse of Harris as he bursts out the brothel’s doors. He stuffs the gun into one of the pockets of the coat but keeps his hand on it, just in case. The guns they’d kept at home for protection had all been confiscated when his dad was arrested, but he still remembers how to shoot.
Harris is chasing him, shouting at him to stop. Stiles’s feet burn from their unprotected contact with the cobblestones and he ducks into an alley, hoping to lose his pursuer.
It doesn’t work.
Harris catches him halfway down the alley and slams him up against the brick. “You stupid bitch.”
“You attacked a soldier. That’s treason. Won’t the police just love to hear that? Your daddy will hang for it tomorrow.”
Stiles’s eyes widen with horror and he tries desperately to beg.
“You know what they do to omegas who break the law? They send them to the front lines to service soldiers. You’ll live out the rest of your days doing exactly what you just ran from.” Harris leans in until he’s all Stiles can see, smell, feel. “But you won’t be getting paid for it.”
“Hey!” Stiles turns to see two figures striding towards them. It’s too dark for him to make out faces but their steps are purposeful and their stances broad. “What do you think you’re doing?” the taller one asks, a scowl in his voice.
“This doesn’t concern you,” Harris says, fingers tightening around Stiles’s throat.
“You’re hurting him.” The man takes another step closer, walking into the light, and Stiles’s eyes widen.
Harris sees it at the same time and lets Stiles crumple into a heap on the ground. “I’m a civilian,” Harris whines, hands up. “You can’t hurt me.”
“This city is filled with thieves and murderers. If your body is found here, a werewolf soldier is the last person anyone would suspect.” The man is speaking to Harris, but he doesn’t take his eyes off Stiles.
“This omega is the thief. I—”
“You’re going to run along now,” the werewolf interrupts. “And keep in mind that I never forget a face. If I see you again, you’d better be a law-abiding citizen, or I won’t be nearly so nice.”
Harris darts back down the alley and the werewolf drops to his knee in front of Stiles. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah,” Stiles croaks. He’s not sure why the soldiers had stepped in to help him, but he’s not going to look a gift wolf in the mouth. Still, his heart is pounding. He hasn’t been this close to a werewolf since Scott, and this guy is everything Stiles has been taught to fear— tall, well-built, so beautiful Stiles could stare at him forever. The perfect predator.
The werewolf gives him his hand and helps him to his feet. His companion, a female, watches warily. “I didn’t realize they were letting omegas into your army,” she says.
“What?” Stiles glances down at his coat and grimaces. “Oh— I’m not a solider. I just…borrowed this.”
The male’s eyebrow cocks and he nods at the gun dangling from Stiles’s pocket. “That’s a soldier’s weapon. Did you borrow that, too?”
Stiles thinks back to the frantic fight in the brothel. “Uh. This I stole.”
That earns him a snort. “From that man?”
“No. That man was…just someone I know.” Stiles doesn’t want to tell them who Harris is; what Stiles had almost become, but he sees the man look down at his fishnets and put two and two together.
A whore beaten by his pimp. A story these two have probably seen played out in this sin-soaked city a hundred times before.
“Will you be safe from that man if we leave you alone?” the werewolf asks.
Alone. He’s been alone for weeks. Now that he’s blown his one chance at freeing his father, he’ll be alone forever. “Probably not,” he admits, wincing as the true horror of his situation sinks in. “I’m… kind of on my own right now. He knows where I live.”
Maybe if he’s lucky the werewolf will take pity and put him out of his misery right here.
The man is quiet for a second. “Derek,” his companion mutters. “No more strays.”
“I can give you a place to stay,” the man says, his scowl the only sign he heard her. “In the werewolf camp. We have some humans there who work for us, all under the table. Nothing combat-related, either, so it’s not like you’d be helping us fight against your countrymen. You can stay there until you feel like that man won’t be looking for you anymore.”
Stiles gapes at him. “Are you serious?”
“Yes. You’ll be safe. No humans are allowed past the boundary lines without our permission.” The soldier must see Stiles’s doubt, because his expression softens. “You’ll be under my protection,” he says quietly. “As my guest.”
And then Stiles gets it. He clutches the coat around his naked body, face red. “Look, I know what this looks like, but I…I won’t do that. You’ve got the wrong guy.”
“Oh, boy,” the woman says, putting her hand over her mouth to cover a laugh. The man just stares at Stiles, confused. “Do what?” he asks.
“I’m not a prostitute,” Stiles says, more forcefully.
“He thinks you want him for a concubine, Derek,” the woman supplies.
The soldier— Derek— looks horrified. “That wasn’t what I meant. I wouldn’t… nobody will touch you, myself included. I promise.”
“Then why are you helping me?”
“Because I’m sick of seeing innocents die. Every day I watch human civilians get beaten and shot and left for dead by other humans, and half the time, when I help them, they only end up dying in jail as a traitor.” Derek is scowling again. “Look, it’s up to you, but if we can’t waste any more time. Do you want to come with us?”
It’s probably the stupidest thing he could do, but Stiles knows full well that Harris will be waiting for him back at the little squat Stiles has been staying in ever since he was thrown out of his house. And the werewolves have money— Stiles could work for them until he’s made enough to get his father out.
“Yeah,” he says softly. “I’ll go with you.”
Maybe it’s his imagination, but Derek looks relieved. A werewolf with a hero complex; who could have imagined it? “Good. Walk in-between us, so we can hide you from onlookers. It’s not far.”
“I’m Braeden, by the way,” the woman says as Stiles steps close to his new protectors.
“And I’m Derek.” The man shakes Stiles’s hand. It’s warm, and solid, and the first kind touch Stiles has felt since they took his father. “You’re shaking,” he says. “Here.” He shrugs off his own coat. “It’s thicker than the one you have on.”
Stiles hesitates, thinking of the way the john had stared greedily at his chest. “Can you turn around? Not to be a prude, but…I don’t have anything on under this.”
They both turn obligingly, Derek blushing again. Stiles strips off the john’s coat, pausing only to wipe off his makeup onto it. Derek’s coat is much warmer, probably thanks to his elevated body temperature, and it’s lined with fur. Stiles has to bite back an orgasm-style moan at the feel of it.
“I’m ready,” he says. The werewolves turn back around and flank him, closing in so he feels safer than he has since the war started. “Gerard’s not going to like this,” he hears Braeden say softly.
“I don’t care. It’s done.” Derek looks down at Stiles. “Do you have a name?”
He considers giving a fake one, but for some reason he trusts this enemy soldier already. “Stiles,” he says, pressing a little closer into Derek’s side. “Nice to meet you.”
“Stiles,” Derek hears himself say as he wakes up. His room is pitch black and he bares his teeth and growls at the threat that had just been in his dreams.
The body in bed next to him shifts and a hand rests against his shoulder. “What’s wrong?”
Still half-submerged in his dream, Derek almost turns to seek comfort in his mate. He wants to cuddle Stiles close and breathe in the smell of him until he’s sure Stiles is safe. He hates when Stiles rolls out of his embrace as they sleep; with gunfire always sounding just outside he needs his mate close. If the enemy finds a way inside—
Then he inhales, and the dream dissipates, and he remembers:
The war is over.
He isn’t in Ideria anymore.
And Stiles is dead.
“Nothing,” he says shortly, pulling away from Kate’s touch. “Go back to sleep.”
She hesitates, but after a moment she turns away from him again. Derek puts his head back on his pillow and stares into the night.
Halfway around the world, Stiles is awake. He hasn’t really slept in three months, just sagged a little into a gray half-doze as the hours stretch by. Real sleep is too dangerous. He has to be alert.
When the sound he’s waiting for finally comes he snaps to attention and fumbles on the bed. “Shh,” he whispers. His shirt is already off; there isn’t a moment to spare. “No, baby, shh. Here you go, sweetheart.”
The cries stop almost immediately as the baby feeds. Stiles closes his eyes, petting the back of her head. He thinks they’re safe, but he listens carefully for a voice or creaking door. He’s always afraid that her cries might wake his neighbors. He’s hidden her existence from the world so far, but one mistake and it’s all over.
When she’s finished he raises her to his shoulder and pats her back. “That’s my sweet girl,” he murmurs. She likes it when he talks to her, he thinks. “Back to sleep now. We’re all right. We’re nice and safe.”
Her eyes flash at him in the darkness, a reminder of why he has to keep her hidden away. She’s too young to control her werewolf impulses, but if anyone saw, they would know right away what she is.
And they would kill her.
He shudders at the thought. “I love you, Clara,” he whispers, placing her back on the bed. She drops right off to sleep and Stiles curls around her, lost in her peaceful face.
She has Derek’s eyes in every way.
Someday he’ll make sure that Derek sees them.
That’s the promise he makes each day: that he will escape this place with her and get her back to her people. He will put her in her papa’s arms. Somehow, someway, he will save his daughter’s life.
No matter what it takes, he will find Derek again.