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The text message on Stiles’ phone burned against his eyes, but he couldn’t stop swiping the screen every time it went dark.  Where are you, Derek?  You said you’d be here soon.  That was forever ago.

Forever was relative.  The part of Stiles’ brain that kept up with his surroundings and catalogued everything for later had a helpful snapshot of the time, and it had only been about twenty minutes since he’d called Derek in a panic.  They’d been on the phone for at least five minutes before Derek managed to calm him down enough to listen to reason.  Reason.  Right, like I’m really going to just sit here and do nothing.  Things had stopped being reasonable a few weeks back. 

The screen on his phone darkened, and Stiles pressed his finger against the phone again, lighting it up and contributing to his battery drain.  The number the message had come from was unlisted, but the text made it clear who it had come from.  The Alpha pack.  More specifically, one of the sadistic bit players who’d taken great pains in toying with the Beacon Hills humans.

Come to the high school, or he comes home in pieces.

Attached was a picture of Stiles’ father.  Stiles’ bloody, unconscious father.  The Sheriff was supposed to be on duty tonight, but clearly things had changed.  The Alpha had gone after his dad. Reason wasn’t part of the equation anymore.

The sadistic shit-head had messed with them plenty before – but until now, the attacks had always been centered around them. He’d cut the brake line in Lydia’s new car, and it was only because Jackson was driving and got them both out that she walked away unharmed.  He’d done something they still didn’t fully understand to Allison’s crossbow, and caused a phosphorescent explosion the moment she released an arrow, that had left her face reddened with burns and her eyesight hazy for almost a week.  And just last week, Stiles had left school to find his beloved Jeep desiccated in the parking lot: missing doors, radio, wheels, the emergency kit of weapons and wolfsbane in the trunk.

But the worst part was the photographs that had been left on each of the seats.  Taken in the middle of the night through a night vision lens, one showed Stiles sound asleep from just a few feet away.  And the other had showed his father.  The son of a bitch had been in the Stilinski’s house.  While they slept.  And no one had even known.  None of Stiles’ friends had even smelled anything out of the ordinary. It was like being haunted by the ghost of stalker Matt or something.

Stiles had thought he’d gotten off as the lightest of the three.  He’d been threatened, but they hadn’t tried to kill him the way they had Lydia, and hadn’t been hurt the way they’d hurt Allison.  But he’d been walking cautious ever since.  And now they had his father.  They hadn’t let him off easy at all.  They’d been saving him for last.

The same clenching fear that had been curling in his belly since last spring reared up again, infecting his body like a parasite, claiming each individual part of him into one giant nerve of terror.  If anything happens to him…

If anything happens to him…

But he couldn’t finish the thought.  He couldn’t even begin to plan for a world where John Stilinski wouldn’t be there the next morning over Heart Smart waffles and complaining about the new officers transferred in to the police department.

The Alpha pack had poked around a bit during the summer, but they hadn’t become a full force of vengeance until the fall.  Until school started back up.  They’d become the latest in a long line of threats, and the worst part is that they were smart about it.  They never attacked the same way twice – they never challenged the Beacon Hills pack until they were divided.  Never sought the kill, only the wound.

It was test after test.  But it was more than that.  Each of the Alphas was unique, possessing their own particular skillset and subheading in the DSM-IV.  Some were brute force physical dominators, some were sly and cunning, and some were smart and strategic.  They still didn’t even know how many Alphas there were.  They kept to the shadows.  Even when they’d been torturing Erica and Boyd, they’d limited their numbers.  Even months after they’d finished playing with them, the werewolf pair still couldn’t say with certainty whether the trio that came in to torture them daily was a steady three, or a rotating cast of monsters.

We’re the mice, and they’re the cats just toying with us, Stiles figured.  It had been going on for months, and everyone was on edge ever since the bloody and beaten bodies of Erica and Boyd had been deposited right on the front steps of the Beacon Hills police department.  They’d kept them for the whole summer, mixing up the days of physical torture with the occasional mental challenge, and some days nothing at all.  It was like they were being tested.  Stiles still couldn’t say for certainty if they’d passed or failed. 

So the Alphas had abandoned the werewolves to the Beacon Hills PD, but all that anyone else knew was that two runaways had returned, beaten so badly they couldn’t even stand.  The department had gone on red alert that night.

A department his father hadn’t even finished staffing, after the events with the kanima, Matt, and Gerard.  From what Derek had said, it was only blind, dumb luck that Sheriff Stilinski didn’t learn about werewolves that night.  There had been a half hour window where Boyd and Erica had been able to control their features, refusing to shift. 

“Stiles.”  And just like that, he’s there.  Derek. But right behind him, pushing him out of the way in his rush to get to Stiles, is Scott.  His best friend, who’d become so much more in the last year.  More confident, more secure.  Gone was the boy who’d been obsessed with a girl.  Scott had very nearly become an Alpha all on his own.  Scott put his hand on Stiles’ shoulder and squeezed.

 “They really have him?” Scott asked, and there was a naïve hope in his voice that made Stiles flinch.  Like it was all a big misunderstanding, and Stiles was freaking out over nothing.  Scott had become a lot of things in the last year, but he still saw too much good in the world.  He still thought that the heroes always won.  That good always won out over evil. 

“They really have him.”  Stiles could hear how dead his voice sounded, but he couldn’t force himself to care. 

Derek stepped into the light then, red eyes glowing with a fierceness that looked odd on his features.  Not for the first time, a separate, terrifying surge hit Stiles right in the gut.  It had been happening more and more lately.  Things with Derek were…confusing.  Derek was confusing.  Stiles didn’t understand the pressure in his chest when Derek looked at him sometimes.  He knew it meant something, but he actively avoided it.  There were Alphas to worry about, plural, and Stiles would have all the time in the world for an identity crisis once they were dealt with. 

“We’ll get him back,” Derek promised, even though Derek didn’t have any business promising anything. 

The only good thing to come out of the Alpha Pack’s arrival was that it had forced the werewolves and associated hangers on to band together.  There weren’t two packs roaming around at half strength anymore, they were all in this together because the Alpha pack didn’t discriminate.  They were all targets.  The Alphas had managed to do what Derek hadn’t been able to do on his own.  What Derek still felt he wasn’t completely capable of doing .  Bringing the pack together.

He saw glimmers of it sometimes.  The leader that Derek could be.  But there was years of damage and trauma layered like scar tissue across the broad side of his personality, and though Stiles thought he understood him most of the time, others had trouble seeing what he saw.  Especially Scott.  But even before Allison had been hurt – an Allison who still kept a distance from all her former friends, though now it was shame and not grief that motivated her – Scott had fallen in line behind Derek.  They’d reached an understanding.

Stiles had the feeling he’d been a major point of contention between the two of them.

“They said to come alone,” Stiles offered, even though he’d already told Derek this several times.  At first on the phone, he’d tried to hold back the meeting place, but Derek kept pushing at him, kept yelling.  Yelling was safe.  It was familiar.  They always yelled at each other.

“They’ll say anything to get you away from the rest of us. They know we’re not going to let anything happen to you,” Scott said.  Scott was still clueless about many things, but something had given him a unique perspective on the Alpha pack over the last few months.  He seemed to grasp at some of their motives and tactics – the reasons why they struck the way they did.  Stiles wasn’t sure if it was all the time working at the clinic with all those animals – witnessing their behavior and seeing something he recognized – or if it had more to do with Doctor Deaton, the veterinarian who was still keeping far too many secrets.

“They might expect you to go on without me,” Stiles pointed out.  Derek was looking at him again, and it made him want to squirm.  “He proved he could get into my house without being noticed, y’know?  I tried to tell Dad we needed to put the house on the market, but he wasn’t having any of it.  I even pulled out the numbers, but he doesn’t care that the housing market is starting to settle and now’s a great time to buy.”

“He’s right,” Derek said to Scott, completely ignoring Stiles’ babble.  “Check the house and then meet me there.”  His eyes swung towards the only human in the room.  “Stay here.  I know you want to help, but the Alpha pack isn’t messing around.  We’ve been lucky none of you have been hurt yet.”

“Allison was hurt,” Scott growled, as if any of them had forgotten.

Permanently hurt,” Derek stressed.  “Allison recovered.  They knew she would.”

“Then you don’t know that they’re going to hurt me, either,” Stiles pointed out, even though it was the last thing he should be doing right now.  They wouldn’t notice anything about his heart rate, because his heart rate should be insane right now.  Endorphins were running rampant through his body, and on a chemical level he was quite possibly schizophrenic right now.  His systems were all out of whack.

“Really?  With that picture of your dad on your phone? You could have fooled me.”

Stiles looked over Derek’s black on black dress code, and snapped without any heat, “Primary colors fool you.”  Sarcasm was his only shield sometimes, but at a time like this, it just fell flat.

“I’m going to check with you,” Derek said suddenly, looking away from Stiles, as if the faint attempt at sarcasm was somehow too much to deal with right now.  The two of them started up the stairs, and Stiles exhaled.  This was going to be a lot easier than he’d expected.  He was out the front door before either of the werewolves could react.  It was pure dumb luck that they hadn’t noticed the almost finished circle of ash around the house.  Stiles hadn’t spent the fifteen minutes waiting on them just sitting on his hands. 

The message had said to come alone, and he was going alone.  One way or another.

It was a funny thing about mountain ash.  He’d used it to trap people inside a building before, but until the circle was complete, it was just dirt on the ground as far as the supernatural set was concerned.  But the minute that link was made, the whole thing lit up like the world’s best cage.

There was a snarl and a roar from the upstairs that said Derek had realized what Stiles had done but it was already too late.  He leaped the stairs, tucking and rolling until he came to the edge of the threshold, panting and snarling, his face wolfed out.

“Stiles!” he growled.  Scott bounded down after him, but he actually used the stairs like a normal person.  “Stiles, what are you doing?” Scott demanded.

“They have my dad.”  It was four words.  Four words that made all the difference.

“We’ll get him back.”  Scott held out a hand, like that was all it would take.  Like it was really that easy.

“Stiles…”  Derek’s growl was a low rumble in his chest.  “Don’t do this.”

Stiles had no delusions about what was going to happen tonight.  They weren’t luring him out to the high school to gain the advantage on some silly prank war.  They weren’t even luring him out to send some kind of message.  They could have done that any time.  There was a reason that they’d kidnapped his dad.  That they were using him as leverage.

Stiles had a healthy fear of the Alpha pack, but he also had a healthy respect for them.  And he knew that there was more to this move than just knocking a piece off the board.  They wanted him to come alone, to make sure.  They had to know that Derek and Scott would just get in the way, and Stiles would have no choice but to lock them down.  This was what they’d been after all along.

“Tell my dad—“  But there were no words that Stiles could come up with.  No proper goodbye that would make sense.  If his father even survived at all.  They might just kill them both. 

“No!” Derek’s features shifted back, though the fierceness and the rage were still just as striking.  “You’re not doing this.  You’re not using us to cheat yourself a final moment.”

“Dude, back off,” Scott said.

“Back off?  He’s walking into a trap.  Look at him, Scott.  He knows it.  That’s why he called.”  Derek’s eyes narrowed to dark little slits.  “When I get out of here, I’m going to tear your throat out with my teeth.”

“If I even have a throat left,” Stiles muttered humorously. 

A moment of silence passed between the three of them.  It was like they all knew that this had to come to an end, and maybe sooner was better.

Stiles gave up on any last words, but not one last request.  “If he makes it out, keep him safe?”

Derek was clenching his jaw so hard the bone was probably about to shatter.  All Stiles got for his trouble was a sharp nod, just one, but Derek wouldn’t look away.  The feeling in Stiles’ chest seized up again, and he knew if he let himself stand here, that it would win out over everything else he was feeling. 

“Stiles, it’s not too late, you can change your mind,” Scott pleaded.

Stiles made it to the rental car he’d been driving ever since the Jeep was trashed, and didn’t look even once.  He pretended that the snarling wolf howl he heard coming from his house was coming from Derek.

He made it in record time, and rushed through the front doors of the high school, a place he’d left only ten hours ago.  Normal kids were home asleep right now.  They weren’t hoping against hope that their only surviving parent was still, in fact, surviving and not bleeding out on the nasty linoleum flooring.

He didn’t have far to go. The front hallway lights were on, the only lights in the whole school in fact.  And leaning against the window sill, having watched him come in, was a teenager.  Probably about Stiles height, they were probably even the same age.  So not all of the Alphas are older.  That had been Peter’s theory, that the Alpha Pack was older, ranging from Derek’s age to Peter’s.  But if some of them were teenagers, it might explain a few things.  Like why the bastards went after his car.  Why they’d even care to touch his baby like that.

“Stilinski,” the Alpha teenager said, drawing out the sound of his name.  Stiles shifted, the panic making another surge for his brain.  The fight or flight response has been around for almost forty-thousand years.  Forty-thousand years of sizing up a moment of adversity and making a choice.  Offense, or defense.  It caused 1400 different physiological or  chemical changes in the body. Stiles imagined he could feel the surge of electricity running from the hypothalamus to his adrenal glands, prompting a surge of adrenaline through his system.

The hallway was empty aside from the two of them.  No sign of his father.  Then it’ll have to be fight, Stiles thought, even though he knew there was no choice at all.  There never had been.

“You’re the smart one, aren’t you?  The brains behind this little operation.  I like smart.”  The Alpha smiled.  On the surface, he looked like any other athlete that would have been on the lacrosse team.  “Smart’s gotten you pretty far.”

Tall, lanky, but the Alpha moved with a swagger that even the werewolves Stiles knew couldn’t match.  Even Derek held himself a bit in reserve.  Derek watched sometimes, waited.  He didn’t walk into a room like he was the biggest predator. 

This Alpha did.  He inclined his head, eyes narrowed slightly.  “How did you get rid of Hale and McCall?  And a sidebar, if I may?”  Stiles inclined his arm, as if giving permission, and the Alpha continued.  “Why Hale first?  You could have called Scott.  He’s simple, but he would have answered.  Why not Jackson?  Smarter for sure, and if I do say so myself, more than a bit devious.”

“You said to come alone.”  Stiles pressed down on his lips before he could say anything else.  It was his nature to ramble, to speak so fast that he could barely keep up with the stream of thoughts that slipped out past his tongue like the part of him that was Stiles, and the part that was Stiles’ voice were two separate creatures, always at odds. 

“And do you always follow directions?”

“Almost never,” Stiles said automatically, almost wincing but unable to stop himself now that he started.  “Just ask my dad.  You can do that, since you beat the crap out of him, y’know.  He’d tell you I’m the most disobedient kid he’s ever raised.  He’s also probably going to try to pistol whip the shit out of you when he wakes up.  No offense. “

“There it is,” the Alpha said, crouching down in front of him, a slow smile starting to spread across his face.  Stiles had the bad feeling that he’d just stepped into something he couldn’t step out of.  The fight-or-flight response was nearly screaming in his ears it had gotten so loud. “The mouth.  The only defense that a ‘one hundred and forty-seven pound boy with pale skin  and fragile bones’ has, yes?”  The smile widened as the terror in Stiles chest nearly tore a heart-shaped hole on its way out of him.  “Oh yes, Stiles, we’ve been watching all of you for a very long time.”

The words were familiar, but they’d happened long before they’d even known there was such a thing as an Alpha pack. 

“I’m smart, too,” the Alpha confided.  “You see, I know when to press the advantage, and when to wait for the right moment.”  He swiped his hands against his thighs, and the light caught just  right for Stiles to see the dried discoloration running along his nail beds.

Fight, indeed, he thought, while rushing forward, the knife he’d stuck in his back pocket instantly in his hand.  Not that it mattered.  Adderall and adrenaline were no match for Alpha moves.  Stiles was thrown back, slammed into a row of lockers, hitting them so hard he could feel the doors behind him caving in a little. 

“It was a surprise to find Deaton here,” the Alpha added, red eyes amused.  “But like I said, I’m smart.  I know better than doing something he could easily undo.  Deaton knows a lot about the world ,but he doesn’t know everything.”

Stiles struggled, God, how he struggled.  Sparks of light flickered at the edge of his vision, and the darkness started to seep in as the pressure on his throat wouldn’t release.  He was losing oxygen, desperately.  Quickly.  He’d never get to see his dad again.  He’d never get to say he was sorry.  His mom’s death had broken the man once before, and Stiles’ parting shot was going to break him all over again.  Scott wouldn’t know what to do.  And Derek.  God, Derek.  As if he needed another broken body on his conscience.

“Mountain ash isn’t the only herb out there with interesting effects,” the Alpha whispered in his ear.  He knew how I kept them away all along, Stiles realized.  He’d probably been watched since the moment the text message arrived.  Maybe even before that.

“Please,” he managed to gasp, before the pressure on his throat intensified and speech was all but impossible.  He begged for so many things.  Please don’t kill my father.  Please make it quick.  Please don’t make Derek find my body.  Please don’t hurt him. 

Please.

The pressure eased up on his throat, and Stiles didn’t care.  Couldn’t care.  He sucked in oxygen like it was the only thing in the world that mattered.  Like he couldn’t ever get enough.

“You can drop the Sheriff off now,” the Alpha said into a cell phone, “I have what I need.”  It was a bit galling that Stiles’ was so easily handled that the Alpha could do it with literally only one hand. 

“Normally, I like a mouth.  I appreciate humor.  I like to laugh.  What can I say, I’m only human.”  The grip around his trachea intensifies again, and the steady chug of oxygen dries up.  “But our priorities have shifted, and we need to make sure the Hales have more than enough to deal with while we’re gone.  Because we’re going to come back, Stiles.  But in the meantime, I’ve got something special in mind for you.”

The next thing Stiles knew, there was something being waved in front of his face.  The last thing he saw was the Alpha’s grinning face.  “I believe you said something about pistol whipping?  How about we start there.”

Stiles was unconscious before the assault began.  He never felt a thing.

 

******

 

He didn’t  awaken all at once.  It was like the seven layer burrito dip that was officially forbidden at Casa Stilinski after his father’s last checkup, it came in stages.  First there was the silence wrapped in consciousness, a feeling of knowing that the emptiness that was all around him was as quiet as his mind the day they buried his mom.  A quiet so profound that it tugged at the edges of Stiles’ mind, and though it reached for the thousands of inane facts that were armor against moments like this, today his mind reached for comfort, and found only emptiness.  Silence.

The pain was next, and it was a thick layer, hot like sticks of fire that had traced paths against his skin.  It was a reminder that he even had skin, and a body, and that it had become nothing more than a receptacle for the pain.

And then smells.  Hospital bleach, a smell that still haunted his nightmares and yet brought him closer to memories of his mother than ever before.  The cheap cologne that the Sheriff wore when he was on duty, because he’d never waste the stuff that Stiles gave him every year for Christmas.  He only ever wore that when they did things together, or there was something important going on.  Special occasions.    

Like funerals.

But awareness was next, and with it, a realization that there could be no funeral if there was no body, and all at once Stiles remembers that his name was still on the lease, and this body was still his.  And his first thought, his very first real, conscious thought, rode on a wave of relief that crashed through his body and made the pain forgotten.  Even for a moment.  His father doesn’t have to grieve for him after all.  Stiles is not dead. 

“What do we say to the god of death,” Stiles would have intoned, if he were awake, and also completely alone.  Scott had no appreciation for the finer things in life, and the finer things in this case being Game of Thrones.

“Not today,” he tried to say, but his mouth was filled with glue and brimstone, and something that tasted an awful lot like the protein shakes that Jackson always drank before weight training.

There were noises and sounds, squawks and screams, and in a rush the next layer slammed into place, and it was too much.  A cacophony of noise that brought tears to his unopened eyes, and Stiles couldn’t take this.  Screaming, crying, noises, braying, guttural groans and sibilant shrieks.  All too much and not enough, like frequencies out of tune.

Movement and feeling came next, the displacement of air against his skin.  That was movement.  Things around him were moving.  He opened his eyes, and it was such an easy thing but until this very moment, he hadn’t even remembered how to open them again.  And then all at once it was like the easiest thing he’d ever done.

The lights were bright.  Too bright.  Stiles winced, squinting up at the ceiling.  There was an increase in noises around him, sounds of panic and anger and fear, and the next thing he knew, the lights were more tolerable.  Dimmer, his mind said, explaining the difference.  The lights weren’t more tolerable.  They were dimmer.

A chattering of angry squirrels drew his attention away, and Stiles looked down to see his dad next to the bed, standing behind a doctor and nurse, who are both watching him intently.  The Sheriff has a fist in front of his mouth, the thumb and index finger pinched against his lips.  Relief and worry and an indomitable anger cross his face at random, and it’s disturbing.  His dad is almost always in control, always knows what he’s feeling, only now it’s like he can’t decide.

Suddenly there was a bright, burning light in his eyes, one of those pen things that doctors like to pull out, and Stiles snarled and flinched away.  “What the hell, I’m fine.” he said.

Stiles stopped.  That had been what he’d meant to say.  But that hadn’t…he hadn’t….it had sounded like…

The doctor clicked the pen off, and leaned forward.  Gibberish poured out of his mouth.  Stiles could hear cadences to the sounds, like a made up language that no one else could have understood.

This was some kind of prank.  His dad was getting him back for scaring the crap out of him.  “Ha ha,” he tried to say, but that wasn’t right.  “Zin ef la di ecks pa? Vend eroo jen ra. Ven ra?  Ven ra!”

The doctor kept talking, but Stiles’ panic had consumed him.  Something was wrong.  Something was very wrong.  This wasn’t a prank.  The doctor continued to talk, but the words were nonsense.  Crazy talk.  Babble.  And every time Stiles opened his mouth, more of the same.  In a panic, his eyes met his dad, and the fear he saw there made him start to shake.

Something’s wrong.  Oh god, there’s something really wrong with me.  Oh god, oh god.  What am I going to do?

He flailed, and shouted some more, but nothing made any sense.  His words, his father’s words, none of it was real.  Everything was scrambled.  Or maybe Stiles was scrambled.  His head was throbbing, and the part of him that was always cataloguing his surroundings was pointing to the curling fog at the edges of his consciousness, the feeling of apathetic awareness.  The drugs they’d pumped into him.

Someone put paper and pen in front of him.  Earnest faces stared.  But when Stiles picked up the pen, intending to write What’s wrong with me? the only thing that came out was scribbles and lines that he knew weren’t really letters.

Tears pinpricked his eyes, and frustration choked at him.  Something was wrong with his brain.  Something was wrong with him.  He was broken.  But even broken, he could still piece together the slivers of his old life.  Of what had happened that had landed him in the hospital in the first place.

“You’re the one who likes to talk,” the Alpha had said, right before Stiles lost consciousness.  “Let’s see what we can do about that.”