When Stiles comes back from a year abroad, he’s different. He and his dad are talking and laughing the whole walk up to the house and he sounds the same, but when the front door opens and everybody shouts “Surprise!” the word barely makes it out of their mouths before they’re a group of gaping idiots. Derek can’t even say he’s not one of them. Nearly a whole head taller than his father, Stiles towers in the doorway.
“Holy shit, dude,” Scott mutters none too softly, eyes wide.
Stiles laughs, loud and vibrant, and rushes in ahead of his dad and it’s as though all his body was waiting for was that last, uncannily late, growth spurt. There’s a grace in his movements that wasn’t there when he left, unrefined even after years of fighting the supernatural and taking up fighting as a legitimate hobby. Still lithe and narrow, it’s the only thing that keeps him from being an imposing figure up in Scott’s space, wrapping his arms around is best friend. “Dude. I missed you!”
The initial shock wears off fast enough, but everybody is still watching with intent interest as he goes around the room exchanging hugs and words. Derek’s not sure how he feels when he has to look up, just the barest bit, to meet Stiles’ shining eyes. “Derek,” is a bright, warm breath of a word, and Stiles arms are tight around him, hard flexing muscle, “I missed you.”
Stiles has been training for years, but he feels harder, more solid, when Derek reaches up and returns the hug. He feels different, and it’s distracting enough that they’re pulling away from each other by the time he says, “You were missed.”
Time passes and sitting around the living room, Stiles sprawled in the middle of the couch, Scott on his left and Derek on his right, the Sheriff in one of the plush chairs, Lydia in the other. Kira’s on the edge of the couch by Scott’s elbow, and Terry and Yasmine are on the floor, propping each other up. Food litters the coffee table and Stiles is telling a story about some hole in the wall bar in middle-of-nowhere Ireland he stumbled into just a few weeks before he was going to be leaving, and Derek finally realizes what’s bothering him. Stiles’ clothes smell like they’re new: straight off the rack new. It irks, though he can’t decisively say why and he’s not about to interrupt the reunion to say anything, but he files it away.
Night has long since rolled in by the time everyone disperses, leaving Derek as he helps clear the living room and wash dishes. The Sheriff hadn’t tried to send him home, just gave his son a hug and headed out for the night shift. He’d sent a look Derek’s way though, before he walked out the door, and Derek’s been washing the dishes wondering if the man senses it too: something being off with his son.
“New clothes?” he asks, ears perked, Stiles’ heartbeat loud in his ears, even over the slosh of water and popping of soap bubbles.
“Yup. Didn’t really fit into any of the old stuff,” Stiles provides, taking the next wet dish and drying it off with quick efficiency who is used to the job—someone who hasn’t had the luxury of a dishwasher in a long time.
“No, I mean-”
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” he interrupts. “Most of my stuff kind of got wrecked and I had to replace a bunch of it right before I headed out.”
Derek hums understanding in the back of his throat, not sure what else to do. He doesn’t even know what exactly it is that’s bothering him. There’s the barest itch under his skin and the general sensation of having gotten up, metaphorically, on the wrong side of the bed. Maybe he’s just thrown by Stiles’ new height. His gaze flickers to him. He hadn’t been expecting it. Always thought there was the potential, but when Stiles’ freshman, sophomore, and junior years of college had come and gone he was sure that was it. “You kept up with your training,” he says, to have something to say.
Stiles shrugs and answers with a plain, “Habit.”
“You add to it?”
“Running better now,” Stiles provides.
Derek snorts. Stiles has always been a good runner, has had to be.
“Took up some wrestling and other stuff. Tried to keep myself on my toes, ready for whatever,” he continues, ignoring the sound. “Dangerous world out there.”
A chill licks up Derek’s spine. “Anything happen?” Over the past year he’s talked to Stiles a lot. In fact, Stiles created a pretty efficient and regimented calling routine. Derek’s call always came every other Wednesday between seven a.m. and one p.m., which seemed like a big window, but Stiles’ schedule had been rigorous. Occasionally other calls would come in, Stiles just looking to chat, but over twelve months Stiles had never said anything about the supernatural, had only ever missed a call twice, both during finals weeks, but the way he’d said it just now. ‘Dangerous world out there.’
“Here and there. Nothing worth calling home about. It’s not like creatures of the night are saving their blood-thirst for Beacon Hills.”
There’s no indication of the danger he’d been in. Hyper aware of Stiles’ heart, Derek thinks maybe he understands what’s unsettling him. It’s steady, an unnatural kind of steadiness, unnatural for Stiles, at least. Stiles, who is always so animated and pumped, washing in and out of control and never static. Stiles, who can barely talk about what he had for lunch without his heart palpitating like he’s doing jumping jacks and talking at the same time. He mentions danger, blood-thirsty creatures, and his heart thuds in a steady rhythm. The mellow tempo of a steady drum. “You could have called,” is what he says, instead of all the things he’s thinking. He can barely convince himself he’s not imagining it, he’s not going to be putting it to voice any time soon.
“I didn’t need to,” Stiles says, still pulling dishes, still drying. “Besides, it just would have made everyone here worry.” He smiles down at the plate he’s drying at that, small and dry. Derek doesn’t know what to think of that smile. “What’s the point of all that training if I can’t take care of myself anyway?”
It’s a valid question, but it doesn’t help to calm Derek’s unease. He grunts agreement because he can’t make the words form.
After dishes, Derek follows Stiles upstairs, not knowing what else to do. Stiles carries his suitcase up, doesn’t grunt when he picks it up, doesn’t fumble up the stairs, doesn’t nearly trip at the top like he does ninety percent of the time, doesn’t fall through the door of his bedroom, doesn’t drop the suitcase like he can’t bare to carry it anymore. He tosses it up onto his bed with fluid ease, muscles shifting in his arms as he bends down and unzips it. Derek watches from his seat at Stiles’ desk.
A plastic shimmer catches his eye, the first thing in the suitcase, right on top. “What’s that?”
Stiles puffs as he pulls the bag out and starts unwrapping it. In moments Derek recognizes it as the heavy canvas jacket he’d given Stiles as a high school graduation gift. He’d considered getting him a leather one, but the canvas hunting jacket had more pockets for all the odds and ends Stiles carries with him when they go hunting after the dangers of Beacon Hills. More pockets to hide what Stiles needs and still thick enough to give him more protection than cotton and human skin does.
“Why the plastic?”
Smiling, Stiles tosses the crumbled bag into the trash. Straight in, doesn’t hit the rim, and Derek is mildly impressed. “Keeping it safe,” Stiles says as he lifts the jacket to his face and takes a deep breath. “The smell of pack started wearing off after the first month and I didn’t want it to go away completely.” There’s no embarrassment on him when he says it, just clear factual statement followed by another heavy inhale.
Derek’s torn. On the one side, he’s pleased to his core knowing Stiles missed them so much, that, even with his human senses, he wanted to be able to comfort himself with the smell of them. On the other, he’s facing another glaring indication of the wrongness of this new Stiles. The Stiles who left last August would never have been able to say something so raw, no matter how factual, without his cheeks flushing and the sweet-sour scent of embarrassment.
Derek blinks, startled to find out he’s been staring into the space between Stiles’ shoulders without paying attention. Except it’s not the space between his shoulders anymore, because Stiles has turned around and now Derek is staring at his chest. “What?”
Lips quirking into a smile that is so familiar Derek starts to feel silly for his concerns, Stiles repeats himself. “Would you mind taking this home, putting it in your closet for awhile? I want to get the smell back.”
When Derek shifts his attention to meet Stiles’ steady gaze, the unease comes back with a heavy push to his gut. “What happened to you?” is out of his mouth before he can think better not to say it, but Stiles is talking like… like a wolf, and Derek’s concern is starting to turn into fear. He scents the man in front of him, a subtle inhale through his nose, but he no sooner starts breathing than Stiles presents his open palm, inches under Derek’s nose.
“I’m not wolf,” Stiles says, his heart nor his scent lie. He’s human.
“You’re different,” Derek says. He doesn’t need to explain himself, but he needs an explanation for Stiles.
“I am,” Stiles agrees. “I was gone for a year. People don’t stay the same.”
“You’re different,” Derek stresses, not fooled by Stiles’ answer. Somewhere in the past year Stiles has learned how to talk. Not the way he has his whole life, but to werewolves. He talks, he answers questions, he doesn’t lie, he doesn’t trip up, he doesn’t hesitate. Somewhere in the past year Stiles learned to merge his quick wit and sharp mind into one and he’s coming up with answers so fast the conversation feels normal but it’s taken Derek hours to realize Stiles is calculating every word that comes out of his mouth.
“I learned a lot.”
“You’re lying to me.” Except…
“No I’m not. You want me to lie to you?” Stiles bends down to eye level, grabs Derek’s hand and presses it to his heart. There’s a smile twisting his lips, which Derek doesn’t understand until Stiles says, “I’m a purple elf with six legs and a desire to eat children.”
It’s like a punch to the gut. Nothing about Stiles indicates that he’s lying and the smile seems to mock him. His teeth clench as he frowns and pulls his hand from Stiles’ chest, except Stiles’ fingers are clenched around Derek’s hand, keeping it there, and he’s strong. The smile dissolves. “Sorry, I was trying to lessen the bite. I guess it didn’t work.”
“No,” Derek snaps, wrenching at his hand again, putting some of his wolf strength into it, and no matter how strong Stiles is he can’t stop Derek from taking his hand back. “When- Where-” he doesn’t know where to start, is too confused and surprised, barely knows what to think.
With a sigh, Stiles takes a seat at the foot of his bed, canvas jacket clutched in his hands. He’s worrying one of the sleeve cuffs and Derek notices the edge Stiles’ long fingers is working at is worn down, exposing bare threads. It wasn’t like that when Stiles left, but apparently Stiles has picked up more than a few new habits while he’s been gone. “Some wolf came up to me the second day after I got to school,” he says, his heart hitches the barest amount at that and it settles something in Derek’s stomach. Stiles smiles, as though he can tell.
“Can you… control that?”
“I can build the walls up,” Stiles provides. “I have to do it actively, so…” he takes another deep breath and shakes himself out. “Sorry, I’ve gotten really used to it. It might take awhile to stop, even if it’s with you.” He pauses a moment before continuing, “Don’t tell Scott about this stuff, alright?”
Derek’s eyes narrow, feels the unease creeping back. “Why not?”
“Because he’ll worry. Everybody will worry. I wasn’t planning on telling you either, but you won’t trust me if I don’t, but I don’t think the others will notice.”
The words feel like a pressure against his chest, crushing in on his heart. Waking up this morning there wasn’t anything Stiles could do to make Derek not trust him, and now… It hurts to know Stiles doesn’t just think he’s telling the truth, but is right. He nods, jerkily. “Alright.” He’ll agree to anything if Stiles will tell him what made him into the pod person sitting in the Sheriff’s house.
After a moment, Stiles nods, lifts the sleeve of the jacket to take a breath, and then starts over again, still worrying at the cuff. “So a wolf approached me, said I smelled like another pack. It was… not a comfortable experience. Instead of being in class I found myself surrounded by the local pack and they weren’t nice about it. They didn’t much care that I was human, didn’t seem to think it made me any less threatening.” He pauses, huffs a breath, and stands, turning his back on Derek.
“What are you doing?”
“Clearing off the bed so we can sit down and I can pet your head, or whatever you need me to do so you aren’t growling like a creep through this whole story,” Stiles says, closing up the suitcase and placing it on the floor in front of his closet before situating the pillows and toeing off his shoes and sitting down. He pats the space next to him and Derek walks over without hesitation. He’s doesn’t need Stiles to pet him, but if Stiles wants Derek sitting next to him while he talks, then Derek will sit next to him.
They’re shoulder to shoulder, but Stiles doesn’t start back up again yet. He takes a few breaths, seems to be considering, and then lays his hand congenially on Derek’s leg. His fingers are hot through the denim of his jeans. “I got roughed up a bit,” he admits, fingernails scratching his jeans roughly.
Derek’s confused by how well Stiles manipulates his attention, caught between the feel of Stiles’ heavy scratching and the words he just heard. He takes a deep breath and tries to settle himself. Stiles is here, back in Beacon Hills, his story is a year old, and right now he is safe and healthy and still scents at a jacket that smells like pack, even if it’s just in him mind. The jacket doesn’t smell like anything but Stiles anymore.
“Gretchen wasn’t pleased when she arrived. Ah- Alpha Gretchen,” he corrects himself. “We had a decent discussion after that. She offered to leave me alone, said that her pack wouldn’t do anything. I was… me,” he chuckles. “I wasn’t much of a threat to anyone and an open book to anything with senses like the wolves.” He’s not scratching anymore, hand just resting. “I asked if I could hang around. I wanted to learn. I was… I was used to having you and Scott and everybody around and I didn’t want to be on my own. It was more natural meeting them than anyone in my abroad program. She agreed and I spent most of my time outside of school with them.”
“That was dangerous,” Derek says, because it’s the only thing going through his mind. Packs aren’t run the same way, every one as different as every person in the world. He’s trying not to think about how lucky he is that Stiles didn’t come back wolf, that Stiles has come back at all.
He feels Stiles’ arm move in a shrug, rubbing against his own. “Yeah, I realize that. A lot more now than then, but it worked out alright. I mean, I got involved in some trouble,” he scratches roughly at Derek’s leg again, nails catching on the denim and making loud scraping sounds. “Or, more like, I helped them solve some trouble. The same kind of stuff we do here. I learned a lot.”
“They taught you about…” Derek waves the hand not pressed against Stiles in his general direction.
“Some of it,” Stiles says. His hand slides off Derek’s leg and when he takes his next breath his heart gives a series of heavy thuds, the bitter-sourness of anxiety leaking from him—the barest of wafts. Derek’s not sure he’d notice it if he weren’t pressed against Stiles like he is and he understands a little more clearly why Stiles wants them sitting like this.
“What’s the rest?”
“You’re not going to like it,” Stiles says, his heart thudding heart again and then going calm with a steady breath.
“Don’t do that.” Derek tries not to growl and doesn’t succeed that well.
“I need to,” Stiles says, voice low, “Trust me.” He takes another breath, and another, and Derek listens, scents, turns his head to watch as Stiles pulls himself together. There’s no outside change, but it’s as though all the little pieces of him get tucked away, deep inside. What’s left is the Stiles who came through with his dad from the airport hours ago.
By now Derek’s getting used to the queasy feeling of unease, but it’s stronger now, comes with a sharp anxiety and concern. Stiles is about to share something, and to do that he’s shutting himself down. Stiles lied to him. He did need to call home. Badly.
“You might wolf out,” Stiles says after a series of long, steady heartbeats pass. “You might try and hurt me,” he continues, and keeps on before Derek can say anything, “and if you do, that’s alright. The likelihood that you’ll hurt me is small, so it’s alright. I’m telling you this because I want you to know that I know the danger, and I’m still going to tell you. It’s not that I trust you not to get mad, and it’s not that I trust you not to try to break me, but I don’t want you feeling bad about yourself if you try, and you shouldn’t feel bad about yourself if you succeed.
“It’s also okay if you run, even if you have to break through the window, or rip the door off the hinges, on your way out. I’ll tell you the rest whenever you come back.” There’s the barest of pauses. “If you come back.”
“Jesus, Stiles.” Derek doesn’t know what Stiles is going to tell him, what could be bad enough for Stiles to think he’ll react like that, but until a few minutes ago he didn’t think it was physically possible for Stiles, or any human, to lie to him. Maybe in a few minutes he’ll be thinking about how he didn’t think anything could make him hurt Stiles either.
“Just, you know, want to tell you that it’s okay.”
Derek has a sudden impulse to reach over and grab Stiles’ hand, but he doesn’t think Stiles will accept the gesture right now. So instead he takes a breath and gives a short nod. “Alright.”
“I wasn’t with Gretchen and her pack the whole time. We didn’t have any control over our second quarter placements and I was sent to France,” Stiles starts. He pauses for a heartbeat, and when Derek doesn’t respond he continues. “I started school and decided to try to find Chris and Isaac.”
Derek’s muscles start tensing under their own volition. Very suddenly he doesn’t want to be listening to this story anymore, he wants to be very away from this room and Stiles. He wants to be home. He wants to be sleeping in his own bed and hearing nothing but the night and owls and the rustle of nocturnal animals in the woods outside his family’s rebuilt home.
“I fell in with Argents,” Stiles says, and Derek is on his feet before he’s thought about being on them, out the window before he remembers opening the latch, is on the ground and running.
It’s him and the warm mid-summer air, the forest and the dirt, the owls and the creatures of the night. He runs, desperate for a clear mind, to not hear Stiles’ voice repeating over and over and over in his head, so he rips off his shirt, trips out of his shoes, sheds his pants, and tears into his alpha form. The night around him comes alive as his human senses dull, Stiles’ voice muting in the back of his mind. Scenting the air, filling his lungs with forest and dirt and fresh air, he strokes his wolf to life and lets his human side fade to just the boundary: no harm to humans.
When Derek wakes up he’s on the back porch of his house, curled under the swinging bench. He doesn’t remember getting back, his muscles ache and he still feels exhausted. The sun is high, blinding, and he slips out from under the bench before shifting and walking inside. Stiles’ voice has barely faded. It follows him into the shower, and not even the pounding of water on his skull makes it fade. It stays with him to the kitchen, and it repeats over the sound of sizzling bacon and frying eggs. It echoes as he texts Yasmine and tells her he’s taking the day off, to take care of the bookstore on her own and call in someone else if she needs the help—he’ll give them time and a half for the late notice. It haunts him throughout the day, as he tries lose himself watching TV and then finds himself wondering if he shouldn’t have just gone into work anyway.
The Sheriff texts, asking if he found anything out.
Derek doesn’t have an answer. He has part of a story, just part, because he ran out on the rest. He shudders by himself on the couch as he realizes everything Stiles warned him about was justified, that Stiles is lucky Derek was too surprised to do anything but run. Hurting Stiles last night would have been easy. Stiles was right to warn him, but it didn’t prepare him.
He texts the Sheriff back, telling him a simple ‘no’ and nothing else. If he wants the rest of the story he’s going to have to talk to Stiles, and he’s not sure he can do that, mainly because he’s not sure he wants to hear the rest of it.
He agonizes, boring holes in the wall with his glare, surprised the house is still standing around him by the time the light fades from the windows and he’s left sitting in the too-bright glare of the TV. Stiles’ words are ratting around his skull, have been all day, and he’s been trying to puzzle it out on his own, what was going to come next, what Stiles’ story is. Gone for a year—a lot happens in a year. Stiles learned to lie in a year. He wonders what else Stiles learned in a year.
Dinner gets made because he’s famished. He eats a sandwich and thinks about sitting next to Stiles, feeling the heat of his arm next to him, watching him, listening to him, smelling him as he shuts himself down. The voice in his head changes:
‘I need to. Trust me.’
Sitting arm-to-arm and Stiles shut himself down, and Derek realizes it wasn’t so he could just tell Derek he worked with Argents. There’s more to Stiles’ story, something that he can only face when he isn’t feeling anything at all. Derek was surprised, hurt, and he ran. He ran and left Stiles alone in his dark room with his heart beating steadily, breathing an even rhythm, scent disturbingly blank.
Stiles’ window is open, and Derek’s not sure if it’s been touched since he fled yesterday. He slips through with ease, even though he hasn’t used Stiles’ bedroom window to enter this house in almost six years. The room is dark and Stiles should be asleep, Derek’s been listening to his heartbeat for the past fifteen minutes, but he’s sitting at the head of his bed. It almost looks like he hasn’t moved, but the suitcase is gone, isn’t laying in front of the closet anymore, and Stiles is wearing different clothes. They smell new, like the other ones.
The room is full of Derek’s breathing and Stiles’ steady heartbeat. So, painfully steady, and Derek is confused because, on a closer listen, it’s not a sleeping rhythm. Stepping forward he murmurs, “Stiles,” barely above a whisper and can’t quite help the way he freezes when Stiles’ eyes snap open, pupils large in the dark, zeroing in on Derek.
“Are you alright?” is the first thing out of Stiles’ mouth.
His heartbeat hasn’t changed pace and Derek breathes, “You were meditating.”
Stiles nods. “Are you alright?” he repeats, no more urgently than the first time.
“I was surprised,” Derek says, taking another few steps forward. He’s halfway to the bed and unsure what he’s going to do.
Derek frowns. “Why are you…” he waves his hand at Stiles, doesn’t know how to put this state into words, and settles with, “shut down?”
“It’s easier to deal with stressful situations when I’m in control,” Stiles explains. “And it makes meditating easier.”
“Why the meditating?” Derek wonders, finding himself at the side of the bed. There’s plenty of room for him, but he’s still not sure whether or not he wants to commit.
Stiles cocks his head as he looks up, as though trying to decide whether or not to tell the truth. He says, “I don’t sleep, if I can avoid it,” which isn’t much of an answer of any kind.
Derek finds himself nodding as though he understands, and sits. When his arm presses against Stiles’, his skin crawls and he takes a breath to try to bring himself under control. The crawling fades away and all that’s left is the heat and pressure of Stiles. “Continue,” isn’t a question.
“I went to find Chris and Isaac,” Stiles repeats as though it hasn’t been twenty-four hours since he started this particular story. “I ran across an Argent during my search, a man named Luc. We got to talking and he invited me to meet a few others of the family, told me he would be able to tell me about Chris.” He pauses, takes a breath, and there’s a soft thud as his head tilts back and hits the wall. He stares up at the ceiling, unseeing.
“The Argent family home is a mansion in the country. It’s large and ancient with only a few permanent residents. Luc directed me to a room for our discussion. The walls were covered in pelts, he pointed to one and told me to bring it to him. I did what I was told, I picked a pelt off the wall and brought it into the hall—he hadn’t entered the room. When I walked through the door it changed. I was holding Isaac’s skin.”
Derek’s stomach roils, his throat burns with the need to vomit, and when he turns to glance at Stiles he sees a featureless expression staring at the ceiling and hears a steady heartbeat resounding in his ears. No wonder Stiles doesn’t want to be himself for this. On instinct, he reaches over and lays his hand on Stiles’ leg.
Brow furrowing, Stiles picks his head off the wall to look down at his leg and Derek’s hand. He doesn’t look at Derek or touch the hand, but drops his head back and resumes staring at the ceiling. “Chris is dead—some French John Doe after being ditched in a gutter somewhere seedy. The French Argents are more Gerard and Kate than Chris or Allison. I was in France for a quarter and they made sure I stayed with them the whole time, did a lot of things that I shouldn’t have, but the goal was getting back home, so I didn’t think about it too hard and went through the motions.”
“Stiles,” comes out in a choked breath. He’s squeezing Stiles’ leg hard enough that he’s going to leave bruises and he has to force himself to loosen his grip. “You-”
“They gave me a phone, kept in contact, kept an eye on me, were always close. I’m surprised they let me call home at all, but I think it was because it was such a routine. I told them my… hunting group at home would be concerned. They wanted confirmation, I don’t know how I got away with it.”
Derek’s breathing is ragged. His heart aches, a physical pain in his chest that he doesn’t know what to do with—doesn’t know what Stiles wants him to do. He murmurs, “Fuck,” and nearly jumps out of his skin when Stiles’ hand lands on his and doesn’t move.
“I went back to Ireland, wanted to get new clothes, shower, get it off me. One of Gretchen’s pack, Riley, was waiting to pick me up outside the airport. We got halfway to school before he pulled the car over on a rural side road and told me he’d give me a five minute head start.”
Derek’s throat is closing up. It’s hard to breath.
“Sorry, I’m getting a little caught up,” Stiles breaths a chuckle that sounds genuine, and Derek works at swallowing to keep himself from growling at the sound.
“What happened?” His voice is a dry scrape. He doesn’t want to know, but he needs to. Needs to know what happened, what Stiles went through, what his pack member went through because he was alone and without support, without his alpha.
Stiles’ hand slips off Derek’s and for a moment he think’s Stiles is going to push him away. Instead, Stiles shifts forward on the bed, then sighs and stands up completely. “Hold on, I’m answering your question, I swear,” he stipulates, because his heartbeat is so rock steady he could tell Derek he’s going to sprout wings and his heart would be telling the truth.
There are no wings, of course. Stiles grabs the bottom of his shirt and rips it off in one fluid motion.
In a breath Derek’s sitting on the side of the bed, hands on Stiles’ chest, fingers pressing against the puckered scarring wrapping around Stiles’ left side. There are other scars, ones he’s familiar with, and there are new ones, but these… these are different than any of the others. Jaws: tearing teeth marks, and a four-fingered slash starts in thick, gouging marks at his heart and rip halfway down his chest. He whispers, “Stiles,” because he doesn’t know what else to say. Stiles should be dead. It’s not an exaggeration. He’s seen enough over these years to know when the human body is at its limits, when it quits.
Then the other question pops to mind. “You’re human,” is a whoosh of awe. Stiles doesn’t have Lydia’s immunity. Stiles should be dead or wolf, but he’s neither.
Brushing at Derek’s hands with gentle insistently, Stiles waits until he’s free before he turns around and presents his back and Derek grunts. Stiles’ back is a black stain of tattoos. The shapes ancient and looping, to Derek’s untrained eye some look Celtic, a lot Native American. He moves to touch, and then Stiles steps away from him. Four steps and then he stops, and Derek’s focus shifts.
It’s a moon, a moon of ancient designs he doesn’t recognize or know, and in the middle, quite plainly is a wolf staring straight back at him, eyes too alive to be a tattoo.
“Part of it is Gretchen’s knowledge, some of it is what I picked up while I was studying outside of school, and a big part is shit I made up on the spot because I didn’t want to die and I didn’t want to be wolf, so I just put it somewhere else.”
The tattoo blinks at him, cocks its head in consideration, and then turns away. In the middle of its jail of runes and designs, it curls up and settles. Derek’s chest hurts, and it’s not until Stiles is facing him again, running his fingers through his hair and whispering, “It’s alright. Just breathe,” that he realizes he isn’t.
He takes gasping breaths and looks up at Stiles who is smiling down, whose heart is still too rhythmic and steady. Shaken, he turns back to Stiles’ chest, puts his hands back on the scars. “Jesus, Stiles.”
“I’m fine,” is the truth, but Derek can’t trust Stiles’ truth right now.
“Stop doing this thing,” Derek says, moving a hand to Stiles’ too steady heart. He wants Stiles, the real Stiles, back. He needs to know Stiles is alright: the Stiles without this new ability, the Stiles who left a year ago.
Looking down at him, Stiles says, “I’m not finished.”
Derek wants to whimper at the idea, but instead he shakes his head and takes a breath to put force behind, “For tonight you are.”
Silence settles in the room, but nothing changes. Stiles’ heartbeat stays steady, breathing smooth. “Stiles, stop,” Derek says again, grip tightening on the man in front of him.
“You don’t want me to,” Stiles says, voice as unwavering as his heart.
“I do,” Derek insists. “This isn’t healthy for you.”
It take a moment, and then Stiles says, “I can’t.”
A frown pulls at his lips. “Can’t, or won’t.”
Stiles rolls his eyes—rolls his eyes, as though they’re having a bicker over Dorito crumbs on Derek’s cough. “I can’t here,” Stiles clarifies. “My dad’s asleep next door, and nothing good’s going to come of it.”
There’s been a nagging at the back of his mind this whole time, and Derek releases a shuddered breath at the evidence of Stiles’ disassociation. Pushing Stiles back, he stands and is disappointed in himself at the fact that he still manages to find himself irked at having to look up to meet the other’s eyes. “Then you’re coming home with me.”
Lips twisting into a smirk, Stiles raises an eyebrow. When Derek doesn’t back down, his features go blank again. “This is a bad idea.”
“You’re coming,” Derek growls, letting his eyes glow red in the dark.
With a sigh, Stiles shrugs, grabs his canvas jacket and keys. He leaves a note on the kitchen table for his dad and Derek walks him to the Camaro out front.
The drive is silent, Derek doesn’t want to hear anything else tonight, doesn’t want Stiles to dredge up any more than he already has. It’s too much already, he should have stopped Stiles earlier, but he’d been caught up in the story, in the puzzle, in finding out the truth. He let it go on, lulled by that steadfast heartbeat and calm scent of unperturbed Stiles.
“Where do you want to go to do this?” Derek asks once he follows behind Stiles into the house.
Stiles stands in the dark living room, unmoving, and says, “I don’t want to do this anywhere.”
Derek’s not having any of that though. He may not fully understand what Stiles is doing to himself, but he knows it can’t be good. In the past, he remembers having done something similar, maybe, after the fire. It had been far easier to live life when all he was, was an observer of his life and not a participant. Whether that’s what Stiles is doing, he’s not sure, but what he is sure of is that this isn’t Stiles. What he’s afraid of, is losing his Stiles to this one that’s able to deal with the trauma of his life with a quirk of his lips and a roll of his eyes.
Setting his hand on Stiles’ shoulder, he says, “You’re doing it.”
“My room, I guess. If it’s still here.”
Derek swallows a snort. “Of course it’s here.”
He follows Stiles upstairs and down the hall to the guest room that belongs to Stiles: a corner room with plenty of windows and a bed bigger than the one at his dad’s house, a dresser with a few emergency clothes, an almost empty closet. All the guest rooms are like this. As Stiles pushes through the door he toes off his shoes, kicking them into a far corner with deadly accuracy, tosses his jacket and wallet onto the dresser, and bee-lines it to the bed.
Derek doesn’t know what to expect, just follows Stiles’ lead, takes off his shoes, his jacket, sits next to him at the foot of the bed. “Alright?”
“Will you be alright?” he adjusts.
“No,” Stiles says, not looking at him. He takes a breath and another, each less controlled than the last. He rubs a hand over his face, and then both hands. Hands covering his face, Derek hears the moment Stiles’ heart stutters and starts jackhammering like a chased rabbit, it’s startling, but not nearly as much as the blood-curdling scream that rips through the room, the hands over Stiles’ face doing nothing to muffle it. Slumping forward, curling in on himself, Stiles keeps his hands over his face and screams again as Derek takes a breath and lays a hand on his back.
If Stiles recognizes being touched, he doesn’t indicate it, he continues screaming, one after another. As soon as one stops and he inhales a shattering breath he’s screaming again. His heartbeat is frantic, getting more out of control with every scream. Derek’s ears are full of screaming, nerves itching with it, and suddenly he’s afraid of Stiles passing out.
Stiles screams over him, can’t even take a full breath as he gasps and screams again.
“Stiles,” he repeats, pulling at Stiles’ wrists. “You’re going to make yourself pass out.”
Hearing him or not, Stiles takes another half breath and screams again.
Derek wrenches Stiles’ hands away from his face. “Come on, back on the bed,” he urges, voice low. He pulls at Stiles’ shoulders, but the man doesn’t budge. He’s screaming again. Jaw clenched, Derek’s frozen, doesn’t know what to do. Beside him, the screaming chokes off into short, hitched breathes, the sound of Stiles’ throat closing up and he’s wheezing, starting to shake under Derek’s hand. “Shit,” is a low mutter because he’s over his head, thinks maybe he should have listened to Stiles about not doing this.
He tries rubbing a hand up and down Stiles’ shaking back, leans in to press his forehead to Stiles’ skull and murmur, “Stiles,” directly into his ear. “Breathe. Come on. I’m right here. Just breathe.”
Time looses meaning in the dark of the room. Derek keeps murmuring, one hand on Stiles’ back and the other clenching his knee, trying to steady him. Eventually Stiles starts breathing more normally, taking in deep, gasping, sobbing breaths. At some point he melts, muscles unclenching, leaving him weak and puddled in Derek’s grasp as he pants and breathes heavily. “Okay,” Derek murmurs, “up on the bed now.” He doesn’t expect anything on Stiles’ part, and picks him up, getting him under the blankets. Stiles is taller now, denser, more muscled, but Derek’s still a werewolf and Stiles will always be a spry little thing with that in mind.
“Derek.” Stiles’ voice is a raw croak after the screaming, his fingers a surprisingly strong fist in the front of Derek’s shirt. “Don’t fucking leave.” Despite the curse the words are soft and high, Stiles’ tear-glazed eyes not quite focused on him.
“Alright,” comes out automatically. He wasn’t planning on leaving anyway, but now Stiles is clutching him and he can’t walk over to the other side of the bed so he shoves Stiles further onto the mattress and climbs in next to him.
Stiles’ hair is damp with sweat when Derek cards his fingers through it. He’s still shuddering, though it comes in waves and isn’t nearly as bad during the attack. It comes with soft, distressed noises and he wonders if they’re not caused more from whatever Stiles is thinking about than involuntary reactions to his psychological pain. He finds himself saying things like, “It’s alright now,” and “You’re safe.” He repeats that last one often because he doesn’t know what else to say, because it’s true, because it has to be true.
He doesn’t sleep much, if at all. At some point Stiles drifts off and, despite the screaming, despite the hoarseness of his voice, he screams more in his sleep. They’re wrecked, torn, murderous things that rip out of Stiles like a demon, shocking himself awake and Derek out of his semi-stupors. Sometimes there’s a build-up: shaking, muttering, a cold sweat that flares hot and startles Derek to movement, rubbing his hands and cooing gentle words. The touching and the words don’t help. Or, if they do, he can’t tell.
In the early hours of the morning Stiles appears to settle, his back pressed against Derek’s chest, long fingers clutched into white-knuckled fists, panting breaths through his mouth in sleep. Listening, Derek hears his heart, barely keeping the slow tempo of sleep, and he tries to think of a reason to not let Stiles to slip back into his shell as soon as he wakes. He lays for hours, as the darkness begins to lighten, as the sun comes up and fills the room with bright yellow light. When Stiles begins to stir he hasn’t thought of a single reason and he feels nauseous.
“Derek?” Stiles voice is worse than last night, a scratchy whisper of words.
“Here,” Derek says, tightening his arms around Stiles’ chest, pulling him closer, even though that’s not possible.
“I don’t want to talk about the rest.”
Closing his eyes, Derek presses his face against Stiles’ neck, trying to feel relieved and frustrated that he can’t. Everything in him says to help Stiles, to make him whole and real and himself again. He can’t do that unless he knows what happened, but the thought of forcing it out seems so much worse.
“You should call Gretchen,” Stiles says after long moments. “She can tell you. Answer whatever questions you have.”
Derek nods against Stiles, breathes, “Alright. I’ll call Gretchen,” even though his heart clenches at the idea of having to reach out to another alpha to learn about his own pack.
“Can I stay for awhile?” Stiles sounds small. Derek’s never heard him sound this small, not even when he was a freshman in high school dealing with werewolves and the supernatural and seeing people drop into graves all around him.
“Of course,” Derek murmurs, not releasing his grip. He’ll call Gretchen, but not now. Now he’ll make sure Stiles is calm and steady and safe and present.
Eventually he gets up though, Stiles falling into a roughly calm sleep that isn’t deep, but it’s rest, and Derek will take anything at this point. Sliding away from Stiles is a careful project that takes long minutes, it’s almost as arduous as searching Stiles down and finding his phone in his back pocket. At least it’s easy to pull out, and thanks to pack habits, the password is the same as everybody else’s.
She’s listed as “Gretchen, Alpha” in his contacts list and Derek swallows back a growl at that. This call is too important to fuck up.
He ducks downstairs to grab a box of dry cereal and a chair and sets up shop in the hall outside Stiles’ room, door open a few inches, even though he doesn’t technically need it. It’s more for seeing than hearing. Taking a deep breath, he thumbs the number and calls.
She picks up on the third ring.
“No,” Derek says.
A low, strong, rumbling snarl bursts through the line before he can get another word in. “Where’s Stiles?”
“Back home,” Derek answers, taking slow, deep breaths, free hand gripping his knee tight enough to be painful. “This is Derek.”
The growl cuts off immediately. “Hale?”
“The alpha,” is not a question.
“Stiles’ alpha,” he repeats, clarifying, and feeling stupid for doing it.
There’s a pause before she responds. “Why are you calling?”
Taking a breath, he says, “I need to know what happened to him. After…” he glances through the crack in the door to the figure on the bed. He’s murmuring, but Derek doesn’t think it’s indicative of waking up. “After he came back from France. Maybe- If you know anything about France.”
More silence, and after awhile Derek wonders if he’s been hung up on. “Have you talked to Stiles?”
“He can’t-” Derek’s throat tightens, the screams echoing in his ears. “He won’t say anything else. He asked that I talk to you.”
A heavy breath whooshes over the line. “You got him to come back,” she says, and the relief is evident in her tone.
“Yes,” is his unhappy answer.
“Good. I was afraid-” she stops, takes a breath. “He didn’t come back from France quite the same. I was afraid he might have been broken. And we didn’t make it any better,” she admits, voice low.
His voice is rough when he says, “Tell me,” because he doesn’t want to know, but he has to.
“I had been out—I have a day job,” she starts, “when I cam back Riley had him at the house. It was… it was bad. He needed an ambulance long before I got there, and I got him one, though I didn’t expect him to survive. In the hospital he was delirious when he came to. I thought it was ramblings, but he was desperate, said he didn’t want to be a wolf, didn’t want to change. So I found someone. I-” she stops, takes a breath, and Derek hears her shift on the other end of the line. “I didn’t think any of it would work. I barely remember what we did. I remember screaming. Lots of screaming.”
They breathe together for a few moments, before she continues. “I taught him everything I could about fighting wolves after that. He was different and I took advantage of that. I taught him how to control himself, and the way he was, he took to it easily. I honed his skills.” She stops, and though her breathing is steady, Derek senses a heavy discomfort leaking through the line. “I took advantage of his knowledge from the Argents, his new talents. I bread them better. I let him kill Riley.” Her voice is cold for her deceased pack member, but there’s an anguish in it, a terrible weight meant for Stiles. “I told him he would never have to go through it again, with people like the Argents, or wolves like Riley. He won’t,” she finishes, with a steel edge of pride in her voice.
Derek doesn’t know what to say. His elbows are on his knees, his head hanging low. “What about France?” he asks, so long later he’s surprised the line hasn’t gone dead.
“He killed. A lot. He never gave me many specifics, but he smelled like blood when he landed, that’s what Riley said. You trained him well, I honed his skills, and the Argents turned him into a killer.”
It’s hard to breath around the tightness in his chest, the way his heart pounds against his ribs. He manages a strangled, “Thanks,” but doesn’t get the chance to hang up right away.
“If he came back to himself,” Gretchen says slowly. “If he came back to himself, he might be okay. I hope he’ll be okay,” and her voice is so soft, so genuine, that Derek feels his anger wash away. His pack member was across the world and with another alpha who cared and taught and worried for him. He can’t be angry with that. He can’t be angry at someone for stepping in to fill the shoes he couldn’t. He can’t be angry with someone trying to protect Stiles.
“Thanks,” he repeats, and they hang up.