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The walls are soundproofed enough that Derek feels like he has cotton in his ears. The silence weighs on him, pressing against him as much as the frigid air does. It’s quiet, and he’s very very alone, and the irony of it is so thick and bitter that Derek would rip something to pieces if he had the use of his hands. Before, he would have given anything to be alone somewhere quiet. Now, he’d give anything for a voice, even if it’s just Stiles again, checking in, trying to get some information that will help out the pack.

Have They given you any, you know, idea where you are? Stiles’ voice echoes in Derek’s head like the ringing of a clear golden bell.

Stiles always has the most terrible perfect timing.

I’ve given up trying. Derek answers.

What? Why? Dude, rescue mission. There are only so many failed tracking spells we can do on our end, you’ve got to give us a clue.

Derek looks around himself. There are four white walls, a ceiling, a roof, a door. No windows, no furniture. Chains, grit, cement. The usual suspects. It’s been days, Stiles. There’s nothing new I’ll just happen to notice now. I’ve been staring at these walls for a long time.

He feels a disorienting rush of sympathy for himself. The connection is leaky that way, little tendrils of Stiles’ over-emotional psyche trickling through the cracks in Derek’s head.

Just hang in there. We’ll get you out.

Derek shifts one of his wrists in its manacle. He is literally hanging, toes barely skimming the ground. Stiles knew this, but probably forgot.

Whoops, insensitive, Stiles’ shaky voice half-chuckles. Hang in there. Oh my god, I’m such an ass. I should have just not said anything.

It’s alright.

I mean, I can go, Stiles offers, really I’m just badgering you because I think you might want company, but, you know, what do I know?

Don’t be an idiot, Derek retorts. Stiles hasn’t voluntarily left yet, he’d better not now.

Okay. I’ll stick around.

And there’s relief gushing through the connection. Derek wonders what for. Or if it’s even really relief, he sort of forgets what that feels like. His hands are purple above him from blood loss. Just when they’re properly numb and Derek can fantasize about them just falling off, They come in and unlock him, push him to his knees, palms to the floor, and the blood rushes back in, the return just as painful as when the blood left.

Well, if they’re having a conversation now: Talk about something, I don’t care what, Derek directs. He’s familiar enough with suffering to know that the best relief comes in distraction. Stiles is nothing if not distracting.

Did I ever finish that story about summer camp, back in eighth grade?

Is this your ‘one time at band camp, my cabinmate and I...’ story?

Haha, we have a funnywolf here. Thinks he’s a wise guy. And come on, if I had a ‘one time at band camp’ story, I’d be so excited you don’t even know. Why is there never any action for the Stilinator?

Derek honestly doesn’t have an answer for that. It’s always seemed nonsensical to him. Then again, he’s no better at understanding teenagers now than he was when he was one himself.

Oh yeah, so, because we were a bunch of asshole thirteen year olds, we thought the best way to get the girls to notice us would be by raiding their cabin. Which, you know, would be cool if it were the fifties or one of those other handy pre-feminism decades, but whoopsie, the camp counsellor in the girls’ cabin had been teaching them all self defense. So we run in at 2 AM with an airhorn and water balloons, and they all start blowing their rape whistles and kicking us in the nuts. Even when they figured out that we were just the assholes from Redwood Cabin! Josie Marcus took way too much pleasure in relocating my testicles, let me tell you.

They’re coming in again. Derek screws his eyes shut and listens to Stiles, still blithely chattering away.

So finally, we’re all herded into the main cabin and given an hour long lecture about respect and following the rules. I mean, I guess it was a good message to send, but we were all cold, bruised, embarrassed, tired and in our pajamas. I think that taught us more of a lesson than any lecture.

They break Derek’s leg again. It’s not like he would be able to walk anywhere anyway, but the renewed jabs of pain sting, even as he starts to heal. It’s a mixed blessing. He won’t die unless They really work at it, but They don’t need to hold back in order to preserve their source of information.

They ask the usual string of questions and Derek keeps his mouth shut. They eventually get fed up and break his jaw.

Like, I don’t know, what thirteen year old idiot is going to actually listen when he gets a lecture? Like, you just want the teacher or whoever to stop yelling, you don’t actually pay attention to what they’re yelling, you know?

He can’t formulate words to answer Their questions anymore, so when they take out the knife, it’s just for fun.

Stiles seems to realize something and suddenly pipes up, Derek? Why no replies? Oh my god, Derek?

Mustering up what concentration he has, Derek replies, I’m here.

Okay. Okay. I’d never forgive myself if you died and I didn’t even notice. What’s going on over there?

There go his hamstrings.

Ow! Holy god, I felt that! Derek... Derek are They there right now?

Yes, Derek tells him, although it might just come through as a garbled sense of affirmation. He isn’t sure how much comes out as words for Stiles.

Oh my god, are you- well you’re not okay, obviously. Just, just, I’m here, alright? We’re going to come get you, and Isaac will finally calm down, and Scott might even give you a hug. This too shall pass, okay.

Derek desperately wants to believe in Stiles. In that miraculous dream he’s spinning.

They leave, at some point. It passed.

But They’ll be back.

 

 

We had a sub last week with an eyepatch. Swear to god. Not even one of those flesh colored sticky bandages over his eye, a black one with a string. All it needed was a skull and crossbones, and we’d have a pirate on our hands. And he was a retired professor of meteorology, can you believe that?

Derek would chuckle if his ribs didn’t hurt at the very thought of it. Did he try to teach you? Derek had never been a fan of those subs. He’d enough trouble with the regular teachers, always talking down to him.

Yes! It was so weird, he was subbing for an English class, but he managed to turn it into a talk about La Nina and La Nino. El Nino? Whatever. Seriously though, who’s even listening to that? We just wanted to know why he had an eyepatch.

Didn’t you once write an economics paper about circumcision? That’s just as off topic.

Yeaahhh, Stiles hedges, and Derek can just picture the look of false innocence that goes with it. The one where Stiles smiles widely and his eyes flick into the distance, remembering dozens of little mischiefs. But only Finstock had to suffer through that. Professor Tattlebaum though -yes that is his name- had an audience of thirty suffering high schoolers. We were literally a captive audience.

Derek suspects the skin is peeling off of his back. He can’t see, but there’s a whispery feeling behind him, and if the stirrings of air were caused by something alive, he’d hear a heartbeat. Come to think of it, where’s his heartbeat?

Oh. There. He tries not to feel disappointed.

Derek? You okay?

Yes, fine. It’s a regular exchange now, Stiles making sure that Derek hasn’t slipped away while he wasn’t paying attention.

So calm, dude, Stiles observes disbelievingly.

It’s quiet. And if They do come, there’s nothing I can do to stop it, so no reason to panic right now.

Oh, dude, that’s... we’re tearing apart every abandoned building within thirty miles. We’ll get to you.

I know, Stiles.

I can tell you’re lying.

It’s much more irritating when someone else does it to him. Who would have thought?

You caught me.

Fine, you don’t have to believe me, just have a little hope, okay?

Derek thinks about the period of time when he and Laura were certain that Peter would wake up from his coma in a matter of days. Their favorite uncle, alive and well, able to take care of them much better than Laura, twenty and terrified, ever could. Every time there was a brief spike in his EEG, they’d get excited, but he would only be dreaming. A blip in a straight line. Derek replies, Hope would be worse.

Than just accepting that They’re going to come in and beat the shit out of you on a regular basis? You can’t be okay with that, Derek, I won’t let you.

Always with the challenges. Try to stop me.

If you don’t care, it’s like you’re dead al-

Stiles tries to cut off the “already,” but the connection doesn’t really work like that. Derek gets the word anyway, and soon after, a sense of deep sorrow that isn’t his.

I didn’t know you cared, Stilinski. He tries to sound dry, but when the words are translated straight from his head, it comes out more sincere than he planned.

Yeah, well, just believe that we’re coming. Because we will. It’s not like we’ll forget or decide it’s not worth it, not as long as I have you on the line and we all know you’re alive.

Okay.

Good.

Derek gives it a try. Hope. He pictures the manacles breaking, and the door opening for him, and finding his way through whatever lies outside it until he’s outside, and he can feel the moon or the sun on his skin. It just makes him hurt more when They come back in. He’d thought, for the briefest moment, that they wouldn’t.

 

 

How’s Isaac doing? Derek asks at one point. Isaac has always been the most delicate, the one that Derek worries about. He suspects that he’s Isaac’s anchor, for all the sense that makes, and the boy can’t be doing well.

I don’t think he’s been sleeping. He naps at weird times of day when the sleep deprivation is too much, but he isn’t really going to bed at night.

Can’t you make him?

Dude, nobody’s really sleeping. I’m on call 24/7 with you, and it’s not like anybody else is comfortable with running off to get their nine hours while you’re there getting... you know.

You aren’t helping anyone by hurting yourselves.

A flutter of mirth comes through the line. You’re one to talk, Mr. Broody. We just care about you, alright? We’re worried about you, even if you aren’t.

I’m worried. Derek isn’t sure why he said that. Maybe it’s because there’s something freeing about not having to watch Stiles’ face as he speaks. He’s just throwing words out into the void, and if he’s lucky, Stiles answers.

Well slap me silly and call me a mongoose. Here I was thinking you were being all stoic and brave over there.

Derek doesn’t know what to do with that.

When the pause has stretched on for too long for it to be casual, Stiles amends, Ah, um, that was a joke. Like, it’s totally okay to worry. We’ve got a worry extravaganza going on over here.

Imagining an empty void, Derek throws out, I just don’t want to leave the pack alone. I haven’t been a good Alpha, but I managed to maintain some stability. I don’t want them to lose that.

Derek, you know that you’re practically their dad, right? The leather trio’s at least, I don’t think Scott would ever admit it if he looked at you like his dad.

I’m not even ten years older than them.

I know, trust me, I know. Although apparently six years is too much of an age gap for-

Stiles.

Fine. Dropping it. But it’s not an age thing, dude, are you joking right now? You don’t look like anyone’s actual dad: you aren’t balding or paunchy. I guess your sense of humor is just as bad. That’s not the point I’m trying to make. It’s like, like, you look out for them, and you’re all gruff on the outside but understanding underneath. Really, all that does is make them idolize you and crave your approval and want you to take them fishing.

Fishing?

You know, fishing, hunting, throwing a ball around. Dad stuff. The neighbor kids should start calling you Mr. Hale and you’re going to have to pay them to shovel your snow.

We’re in California.

Is that going to stop an enterprising young neighbor boy? No sir. Any source of income in this recession.

Derek’s chuckles sound flat in the room. The four white walls swallow them up before they have a chance to echo back at him.

Did I get a laugh out of you? I have a feeling I did.

Derek doesn’t reply, but of course Stiles knows anyway.

He doesn’t like to admit it, but Stiles has been able to read him like an open book from the first day, when Stiles said he wasn’t scared of Derek. Most people were. Most are. But Stiles knew that Derek didn’t pose a threat to anyone but himself. Derek is an implosion risk, yes, poised to crumble at any moment, yes, but Derek is never going to let anyone he cares about get hurt ever again.

You know, now that I think about it, Stiles muses, I don’t know anybody whose dad took them huntin’ and fishin’ and stuff. I mean, I guess my dad tried to take me to a gun range once, but you look down the barrel of an unloaded gun once, and suddenly it’s all ‘Stiles, you have to respect the weapon,’ ‘Stiles, safety protocol is a serious thing’ and then no more gun range. Like, come on. I knew it wasn’t loaded. Hey, did your dad ever take you out huntin’ and fishin’ and stuff? Because that seems like something a werewolf dad would do.

Let’s not talk about that. Derek doesn’t want to dredge up memories of happiness and make himself feel worse.

Oh, um, alright... how about this weather, huh?

 

 

Derek has been beaten up before, but this is different. Those fights would have a beginning and an end. More often than not, Derek could hit back. The slam bleed smack crack choking feeling was rough, but Derek could soldier on through for as many minutes or hours it would take to find a safe place to lick his wounds.

This is different, and so are They. They are like a force of nature, methodical and precise, certain of their eventual victory. Derek is just one more Alpha for Them, one more wolf to break, like they have broken so many others. It isn’t a question of if, but when he will spill his secrets onto the stained concrete floor like so much vomit.

Their movements are practiced, the routine clearly a familiar one. They follow an algorithm of pain, making him hurt, then letting him heal as much as he can, before making him hurt more than the first time, like giving a fishing line slack before pulling the hapless salmon in and clubbing it over the head. It’s an equation, and the variables are the wolf and his pain, but the solution is always the same: Derek will crack. He is but a cog in the machine built to scrape away his composite parts.

Derek! Derek, are you there? Are you alr- no, don’t answer that, They’re there, aren’t they?

Derek can’t manage the energy to answer, but Stiles gets an idea.

Okay, okay, breathe deeply for me.

It hurts when Derek tries, but it’s the thought that counts. He focuses on Stiles’ frantic noises, so much more urgent than his own grim understanding of inevitability.

It’s funny, you know there are all these studies saying that your anxiety doesn’t go down just because there’s more oxygen in the brain? Like, for panic attacks it works, because hyperventilation is part of the package, but getting nervous for a test and shit? Breathing isn’t going to help you. Uh, oh wait, that’s not really- I mean, you can breathe deeply if you want to, oh crap.

It’s fine. It’s strange how his internal voice doesn’t sound as strained as his physical one surely would. They’re leaving. I think They work with the assumption that the waiting is just as much torture as the actual...

Is it?

Derek smirks. It stays a secret between the room and him. I have company.

That’s what I’m here for. I’m your ace in the hole, baby, I’m your link to reality.

I’m doomed, Derek replies wryly.

Yeah, yeah, you’re very witty. Let’s make fun of Stiles’ sanity, it’ll be so original.

Now Derek just feels mean. It’s uncanny, he can be nasty, mean and caustic in every social interaction, but only with Stiles does he really feel bad about it. Stiles is such an optimist, Derek feels like he’s crushing Stiles’ dreams whenever he sneers and bites.

That doesn’t stop him though. Derek still isn’t nice. He just kicks himself about it more around Stiles.

Sorry. I... thanks. For being here.

Dude, don’t even worry about it.

No time like the present to change.

 

 

Derek can hear Them outside the door. They’re taking longer than usual, and he doesn’t know if it’s meant to psych him out or if it’s because They have something particular in mind for this round.

There’s a thud, the rasping of chains, then a metallic clatter, like iron bugs crawling over each other.

Hey, Stiles, Derek calls into the netherworld they’ve built between them. He’s going to be needing company soon.

What’s up?

Someone laughs outside, the sort of laugh that explodes with such sudden sharpness that everyone nearby flinches as surely as if they’d been cut with a knife.

It has to be Derek’s turn to talk at this point. Even if it isn’t, he sort of wants to tell Stiles a story. Did I ever tell you about the story with the wolf and the moon?

Isn’t that basically every werewolf story ever?

Wiseass. And yes. But this is an actual story called ‘The Wolf and The Moon.’ My mom would tell it to Laura and me.

That’s adorable. There are werewolf bedtime stories. Go on, what’s your point here?

The unmistakeable sound of a whip’s crack echoes outside, and Derek does flinch.

Stiles feels it, and says hesitantly, or is this one of your distractions?

The door opens, and Derek hurriedly sends back a yes.

Don’t let me stop you. What happened in the wolf moon story?

Once upon a time...

Really?

Fine. My mom didn’t start it that way anyway. She was Irish, so she’d start stories with “This is how it was:”

Derek can feel Stiles brimming with questions, but Stiles doesn’t cut in.

So this is how it was: There was once a wolf. Fur black as the pupil of a bandit’s eye. He was all alone in the wide woods. Alone from the ancient blue light of dawn to the fox-red skies of sunset. No pack. Derek can feel the familiar sentences coming back to him, almost picture himself sitting on his bed, fingers twisting the fabric of his farm animal themed pajamas. It’s like an old song, long forgotten, but the words are still imprinted somewhere in his brain.

But during the nights, he wasn’t lonely. For on the first night he realized he was alone, he raised his head to the sky and howled his despair, and the moon howled back. For the moon was alone too. There was only one. So while the wolf spent his days hunting on his own, his nights were spent on the highest rock he could find, conversing with the moon. They spoke of stardust and the odd behavior of the humans they both saw from a distance. They spoke of the whispering noises the trees made and the burning-too-bright light of the morning sun.

The wolf and the moon fell in love. But it was not to be, for they were separated by distance and form. There could be no curling up together in a den like the wolf desired, or soaring through the cosmos caught in each other’s gravity like the moon longed for. Saddened by this, the wolf turned away from the moon when he could, for it hurt to keep looking. He joined the people of the village nearby, learned to walk on two legs and grow a human face. He became a wise man of the village, well-loved by all who lived there. When his death came, he was surrounded by all who had considered him Father, though he had fathered none. The wolf exhaled one last time, then took Death’s hand, expecting to be taken to the After, but Death shook his head, and pointed one bony hand to the sky. The wolf had done well, and would get the one wish he had never been granted in life. He became moon dust, finally able to travel with the moon, and soar through the cosmos in each other’s gravity.

That’s actually really sweet, Stiles marvels when it's clear that Derek is done. Better than the creepy-ass Little Mermaid story where she dies and becomes sea foam.

They’ve left. Derek is now missing four toes. They bleed sluggishly as the healing factor rouses itself for the umpteenth time.

I thought it was tragic when I was younger. Laura loved it. I just thought it was stupid that the wolf never got to be with the moon while he was alive. Now, I don’t know, it just seems unlikely.

Well yeah, it’s a story about an anthropomorphized moon and a wolf that could grow a human face.

Besides that. The idea that the wolf just walked off and became a perfect person and eventually had all of his dreams come true. It’s too easy.

Isn’t that the point of fairytales? They’re easy. Simplified. They take five minutes to tell and are filled with plot holes, but it’s not like anybody cares. Love is true, magic is real... well okay maybe those aren’t the best examples because we’ve actually seen that happen in real life. Wait, wait Derek holy shit are we living in a fairytale? Because there are some pretty similar themes going on here.

Fairytales aren’t real, Stiles.

Spoilsport, Stiles huffs.

Derek’s toes are healed stumps now. There are still streaks of blood painted across the floor in parallel lines, and he knows that the toes They cut off are still scattered across the floor, because he can smell them. It will get worse when the days roll on and they grow as rancid on the outside as Derek is on the inside.

Everything seems like a metaphor when you’re marching the final few yards to your death.

Derek? You’re feeling pretty grim, what’s up?

Derek is so tired. Tell me a story.

Um, once upon a time... or wait no, this is how it was:

 

 

Derek hasn’t been sleeping much. He didn’t before They took him either, back when he could at least be horizontal, but now he has not only the endless rustling of his thoughts sweeping ceaselessly around the back of his head, he has the wrenching in his arms and the undead sensations from his bloodless hands and the twinging of his phantom toes and the fear that They will come in when he sleeps, and then Stiles will be calling out into an empty space, because the person on the other line is gone. Derek can imagine Stiles’ initial frenetic rush to put the pieces together, then the encroaching dread, then the grim understanding of what must have happened.

Will they try to find his body? It wouldn’t be worth it, a body is just a bag of meat after all, but he could see the pack of emotional, irrational teenagers trying to hunt down his corpse because they think it will bring them closure. There’s never closure. Derek has seen bodies, and he hasn’t seen them, he’s had them buried and he’s had them cremated, and there’s never closure. It’s never so easy, never a switch that can be flicked that declares that everything is alright again.

He will not let them try to find his body. Derek isn’t keeping his mouth shut, against all odds, just to have the pack waltz right into Their hands. It would defeat the purpose of all that time keeping his jaw grimly shut, biting back cries and grunts for fear that one noise will lead to him spilling his guts, first figuratively, then literally.

The bars of fluorescent lights above his head flicker, and the shadows change. Derek thinks he sees a rat, and prepares to snarl at it, before he realizes it’s nothing. He’s seeing more and more out of the corners of his eyes. Insomnia and pain can be as effective as any psychosis.

Hey, Stiles.

Yeah?

When I die-

If.

-don’t try to come after my body. Don’t let the pack get hurt by Them.

Stiles pauses for a very long time. Derek expects protestations and declarations that Derek’s being stupid, that come on, it’ll be fine, but Stiles only says okay.

Huh. Even Stiles’ optimism can only go so far.

If you... go, Stiles begins hesitantly, the pack isn’t going to take it well. And before you brush it off and say we’ll get over it, you’ve gotta understand, Derek, we’ll be wrecked. Nothing will ever be the same again.

Derek understands. God does he understand what it means for nothing being the same as it was.

So just hold on. Stiles orders. If nothing else, I don’t want you to go.

If Derek were a different person, he’d have told Stiles the feeling was mutual. Instead, he just thinks it, and, watching the shadows shimmer out of the corner of his eye, tells Stiles, I’m missing some toes.

Oh shit. Wait, can they grow back, like you’re a lizard or something? Except then you’d be a kanima, and that’s not right, because you’re the Alpha now and all that. Big growly werewolf man don’t need to grow back no toes, he has angry faces and claws to protect him!

That’s cute. My toes are still missing. Derek retorts.

Ugh. Yeah. Sorry. I use humor as a defense mechanism.

You don’t say.

Shut up. At least I’m a big boy who can admit that he’s defensive.

I can admit I’m defensive, Derek replies, miffed. I’m defensive. I don’t talk about my feelings and I’m reclusive so I can’t get hurt.

That cut a little closer to the truth than Derek had intended. He always does this, gets caught up in arguments with Stiles and ends up revealing too much.

Nothing I didn’t know before, Der-Der. But hey, admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery.

Derek can feel the tickles of mirth floating down through the connection. It feels nice, sort of like carbonated water. You little shit.

Being a little shit is one of my charms. Ha. You hear that? Humor.

 

 

They give him water. Derek is suspicious, but there are limits to how much he can dehydrate, so he drinks it when They hold it to his lips. He can taste whatever extra they put into it, but he drinks it anyway, because once the cool water hits his tongue, he can’t stop.

They bring in a cart of tools, and Derek starts calling Stiles! Stiiiiles! because if whatever they gave him was meant to make him talk, maybe he can direct his words at Stiles instead of them. The truth would be damaging either way, but more so if he tells it to Them.

What was in that water Derek? I swear I’m getting a contact high.

Dunno. But it’s... the good stuff. Except bad. Verry bad. I just wanna... don’t even care, could taaalk and taaalk. S’like you. ‘Cept I can’t talk to Theem, ‘cuz then you’re all dead.

Der-Der, did you call me up just to chat? So sweet.

Stiles is funny. Like, really funny. Like a rabbit, or a fox. Furry and squishy and warm. Good for hugging.

You’d be good for hugging, I think. I think you’d give really good hugs.

Dude, my hugs are epic, Stiles replies, nonplussed.

It’s been so long since Derek had a good hug. He hurts and his Momma is dead and he wants somebody to hold onto him. Stiles I really want you to hug me, s’that weird? S’not weird, I don’t know why I don’t do so many hugs, they’re warm and comfortable. Like a bed of arms or something.

Man, if I were there, I’d hug the shit out of you, okay? I’d cuddle you so hard. Stiles’ voice is quiet, and he feels sad. Derek can sense it, limp and blue, coming from wherever Stiles is.

Don’t be saaad, Stiles. You’re th’one who’s there to be happy when nobody else remembers they should be. I never remember to try anyway.

I... alright Derek.

Whooo, They’re mad at me ‘cuz I’m not talking like I’m supposed to. Oh, ow.

Derek?!

S’okay, nothing new, really. Y’know what sucks?

What sucks?

I can heal, right, but everything still hurts. Just means I can hurt more and for longer.

... god Derek.

Don’t be saad Stiles. You’re th’one who’s there to be happy when nobody else remembers they should. I never remember to try anyway.

You already said that.

I say what I waant, I’m drugged. I can act like you. Derek grumbles back.

Okay, so setting aside that apparently I act like a high person all the time, I’m just going to say right now that I’m going to wrap you up in a big downy comforter and give you hot chocolate when you come home, Stiles says matter-of-factly.

And a hug.

And a hug, Stiles acquiesces.

They’re laughing at him. Apparently, he’d been crying.

 

 

You sober yet?

Stiles has been asking periodically every few minutes? Hours? Days? But this time, Derek finally feels like the substance has been flushed from his system.

Yes.

Ah, monosyllabic wolfman returns. I’d missed him.

I wasn’t that bad, Derek protests.

You were kind of sweet, actually. Hey, I was wondering, is cuddling a werewolf necessity? Because sometimes the pack gets really touchy-feely on movie nights and I sort of wonder what’s up, because Boyd for one doesn’t seem like the type.

We don’t need it to live. It’s just nice.

So, like humans.

We’re mostly human. The wolf part just distracts people.

Stiles drawls, amused, so the desire to cuddle is all on you.

Derek sighs, and the movement of his shoulders tugs on his hands, makes the manacles cut into the ridge of bone below his thumb. It’s another red line to join the myriad of others already there, parallel gashes on his skin that remain while the healing factor patches up the more pressing wounds on his torso.

He’s so tired, and what is he trying to protect himself from? Stiles isn’t going to hurt him any more than he already has been.

Yeah, Stiles. I want to cuddle. I want to give somebody a goddamn hug and have hot chocolate and all of that other shit you were talking about.

See, I can’t really tell if you’re being sarcastic since I can’t see your face.

I’m not being sarcastic.

...Really?

No. I’m not, Derek retorts, I’m missing toes, I can’t tell which of my bones are broken anymore, and I’m not making it out of here alive, so yes. I want you to give me one of your epic hugs and I want to crawl under the covers and not come out for months.

We’re getting you out of there Derek.

You know Stiles, Derek sighs, if someone can sigh when their mental voice has no breath, I admire that optimism. I don’t think you’re right, and you’re setting yourself up for disappointment, but I admire the optimism.

Dude, Stiles almost sounds affronted, I’m not optimistic.

Of course you are. You think I’ll make it out.

That’s not optimism Derek, that’s fact.

Then you’re delusional, Derek retorts.

Okay, Stiles says, sounding ticked off, can I just say, this defeatist, self-loathing attitude you’ve got? Not cool. It’s like you think I’ll be offended or something if you have a single fucking ounce of self-worth.

I’m not like this to be humble, Derek shoots back, I think I have a right to hate myself. I killed my family, in case you forgot.

A wave of exasperation comes through the connection.

For the love of god, Derek, how many times have I got to say that it wasn’t your fault? Kate’s a bitch: you know this, I know this, she’s the one that lit the fucking match! Ask any fucking court, she’s the one who goes to jail. But no, you’ve got to point the blame at yourself, and crack the whip on your own back like that creepy albino from the Da Vinci Code, and think you aren’t worthy of any love-

We aren’t talking about that, Stiles, Derek cuts in hurriedly. That’s a can of worms he sealed shut months ago, when he pulled Stiles off of him, then sent his drunk ass home. So Derek’s burned that bridge; he isn’t allowed back over it.

Yeah, I know, Stiles replies sullenly, we’re never talking about that. Even if apparently we’ve decided to bring up everything else and hash it out over a psychic bond while you’re... in intense physical pain right now, Jesus I’m such an asshole.

It’s fine, Derek says, because that’s what you say. When you could go at any time, you can’t leave behind hurt feelings; you have to sweep up behind you.

Stiles sighs, which sounds odd over the connection. A rush of warmth like a gust of air, but not. I suck at this sincerity thing. See, this is why I stick to humor.

This is why I don’t talk about feelings, Derek commiserates.

Exactly! Like, it’s so dangerous to just put yourself out there. But if you’re joking all the time, then people can’t make fun of you, because you’re already making fun of yourself. And I guess if you just don’t communicate, people don’t get the chance. But then, it also totally sucks because then you’re all alone. Aha! If I didn’t use the lone wolf metaphor with you before, I totally am now. I mean, it can’t be more perfect.

Perfect isn’t the word Derek would use, but it is accurate. But I don’t have a moon to howl at.

No, you- oh, I see what you did there. Made an allusion. Clever.

What?

The wolf and the moon story.

Oh, Derek realizes. It is pretty appropriate, now that he thinks about it. I just don’t get to run off to a village and make everything perfect.

Hey, I mean, the village could be, you know, a symbol? I don’t know, I suck at English. For what it’s worth, Stiles offers, I don’t think you’ve actually been doing that bad. I mean, you aren’t a werewolf wise man, because you’re kind of an idiot -which I mean in the nicest of ways, oh Alpha my Alpha- but I think you’ve got to have karma on your side by now.

Karma is a fickle mistress, Derek thinks as the door swings open again, casting a gush of cold air against his feverish skin. If this is karma on his side, he doesn’t want to be on karma’s bad side.

 

 

The full moon hits with the suddenness of a sledgehammer to the back of his head. There are no windows, but when Derek suddenly feels more cooped in than before, like his skin is shrinking and his bones are growing, and his gums ache and his hands try and fail to grow claws despite the lack of blood in his fingers, he knows what time it is.

Derek gives in as much as he can, and lets himself shift. He can’t run or leap or slash like he wants to, but he can let his fangs grow and his face shift. The smells in the room intensify as he goes as far wolf as he can, and Derek almost chokes. He hasn’t washed in weeks probably, and blood has always been a pungent scent.

He breathes in the red copper tint to the air and growls, shaking against his chains. It makes him want to hunt, feel the crackling detritus under his feet as he rushes between trees, breathing in the wind and keeping one eye on the wide white moon at all times. During moonlight hunts, there is nothing but the thudthudthud of feet and hearts, there is simplicity. Like a fairy tale, Stiles said once. Simple. Only run, chase, eat, drink, touch, warm, fuck, Stiles.

Responding to his name, Stiles’ dozing presence in the back of his mind stirs and asks, What?

Stiles’ voice is muzzy with sleep, and Derek can picture him, so warm, just woken, cheeks flushed and blooming, young and untouched, like a newly ripened fruit hanging from a branch, so sweet-

Whoa, Derek, what is going on with you? Because you know that I can feel that, right? How are you even horny- oh, moon. Right. Wait, why are you even horny?

There’s a boy who cares. Stiles makes a good pack member, would be even better if they could run together, if Derek could put Stiles in his den, bring him back the best meat.

Meat? Is that a euphemism? Stiles sputters, Do you have like, no filter right now? Is that a full moon thing? Because this is going to be awkward, like drunk texts. You are sooo going to regret this in the morning.

Derek and regret are close friends, but he rarely regrets Stiles. Stiles is always there to be steady when nothing else is, for his cotton-grass smell to bring Derek home.

Except Stiles is never in Derek’s home, and that is wrong, why did he never see that before? Stiles is for Derek, Stiles should be with Derek, Stiles should be safe and sound in Derek’s house, and why did he send Stiles home? Why did he send Stiles and his cotton-grass smell and hug-wrapping arms and dancing feet home, away, far away? Why did Derek push Stiles away when he came close, finally came close and smacked a tequila kiss on the corner of Derek’s mouth and said “give it a shot?”

Rattling his chains until they sing like screaming metal, sounds swallowed by the soundproof white walls, Derek howls for the moon he cannot see.

 

 

Feeling hung over in the worst way, Derek comes back to himself while They’re dunking his feet into freezing cold water. When did They come in?

Realizing that Derek is mostly back in his mind, Stiles pipes up, So. You, uh, regretting those drunken texts yet?

The funny thing is, Derek doesn’t. Sometimes his wolf knows more than he does, and sometimes his feet are being deadened by frostbite and he doesn’t want to play around anymore.

I don’t regret them.

Really... Because, you know, they seemed kind of contradictory to some previous statements you made. Or are we still not talking about that? Because, you know, denial’s cool. We’ve sort of been rocking it for a while now.

I don’t want to deny it.

Derek can feel Stiles’ shock like a burst of chill water. Not the aching stuff biting at his calves right now, but the clear blue water that comes out of mountains and splashes over your head right when you’re about to overheat.

Really? We doing this? Stiles replies dubiously.

Derek wants to shrug, but They might start asking different, more probing questions.

Yes.

Cool, Stiles chirps, Derek Hale wants to jump my bones. Let me tell you, I never thought I’d see the day.

You know it’s a bit more than that.

When Stiles replies, his voice is serious. Let me pretend this is frivolous, okay? It would be so much easier, like, less painful, if this were just a sex thing.

And Derek, because he’s learned that Stiles can put up just as many walls as he can, lets it go. They’ve always had the worst timing, he and Stiles, it figures that once they got over themselves, it would be too late to do anything.

They start getting frustrated again. It’s happening with more and more frequency as the days weeks months forever drags on. One of Them kicks over the tub of ice water, and a lake grows across the floor of the room, soaking up the dirt and blood as it goes. Derek gets hit, an action that has happened so many times now it’s lost all meaning, then one of Them stalks out of the room. They return with a half gallon jug of water and a vial of something off-blue, which They dump into the jug.

So he’s going to be drugged again.

 

 

Stiiiiles, no, listen, no, you’re always listening, but no, see, look, there’s a rat in the corner, ‘cept it’s a big rat, runsround, runsround, all shadows and teeth. You know, teeth, teeth Stiles. Like my teeth but bigger and longer, my dad had teeth like that, he was a bigger Alpha than me or Peter ever were and you know I don’t mean in a metaphor way, I mean in a he was really really large sort of way, like teeth the size of your arm. I miss him and I miiiiss your arms they were so spindly, like trees in winter when they get all spiky like Jackson’s hair or spikes or something.

Stiles feels nervous, all wound up and jumpy, like a clockwork monkey seizing up, broken springs and cogs. I’m just going to nod my head at that and move along, even though Jesus that’s weird. Just keep talking to me Derek, me and not them.

S’like, s’like you’re a little dancing toy, all with the brightness and the springing updown updown. Sorrow crashes into Derek in an unexpected wave, and he doesn’t know if it’s his or Stiles’. I killed them, you know. I know, I know I didn’t, I know you said that I’m not gonna go to jail for it but there’s a jail in the world and then there’s a jail in my head, and I feel a lot like I’m in a head-jail. Been for a while for a long while. See, cause, see, because, what I’m saying, what I’m saying! Stiles, is that you’re like this dancing toy, and nothing gets you down because you’re steady when th’world is a-rocking, and you hold everything else down, all steady and flat, and when you’re there, like, maybe I don’ have to be in a jail.

You know how much I want that, Stiles? Because I wan’ it a lot. A lotta lotta lot. Wanna be in th’world you are in, with the forgiveness and the happy, so happy, not always happy because sometimes you’re sad, but then the sadness goes away and that’s you, and you and you.

Could I find that happy? I wanna find that happy, I wanna be like a wolf that gets a human face and makes a happy, like, on his own, builds it with his claws and with his teeth the size of your arm. Long and white and ivory-like with the glinting of the moon coming off and blinding you, see, light blinding you, did you know that the lights never go out in this room? They’re white, the lights, all fluor- fluor- you know, with the wiggly bulbs, and see, the walls are white too, ‘cept where they’re red, and so it’s just all bright and so I can’t stop seeing, can’t stop watching, so hard to sleep, so hard to sleep, so hard to sleep, probably why there’s a rat in the corner made of shadows, because I just want to see a shadow so bad.

The overhead lamps are so white hot burning, searing his retinas, leaving after-images that flash and flicker when he blinks.

You know, after the fire, he never has to say which one, I saw the flames for so long after. There was a before and an after, and after, I couldn’t stop seeing flames and her smile. Y’know, Her. She doesn’t even need a name anymore. She’s just a Her, and I was a stupid Him. Stupid stupid Him who couldn’t see past her pretty yellow hair until there were pretty yellow flames all over every little everything.

He can see Her, wicked smile and all, blazing down at him from the ceiling. You grew up so pretty Derek, so pretty and all covered in blood.

See, that’s why I can’t find the happy, because I had it then I burned it all up, or She did, but what’s the difference? Because differences don’t really mean much of anything. Like, I’m alive, but I’m dead, you know I am-

You aren’t, Derek. Oh my god, stop with the beating yourself up-

I mean I’m on my way to dead. On a train with one stop a rollercoaster that only goes down, baby.

Derek starts laughing, and it hurts, he’s shaking and shuddering on the floor. When did they take him down? He’s lying on his side, half-submerged in the lake on the floor. He can see Her reflection in the water, laughing too. It doesn’t hurt for her. She always walked away unharmed.

He’s drowning, and he wonders if They’ve noticed. Derek rolls lethargically onto his back, feeling the icy water soak into his hair, tamping down the sweat-hardened spikes. They aren’t there, but Laura’s looking down at him, hello little brother, I’m in one piece again, no thanks to you, never any thanks to you. Momma too, wide open arms and that little smile on her little features, always a china doll, even after she turned when Derek was eight.

He never stopped calling her Momma, even when he was too old to pull “Momma” off.

I’m underwater, Stiles. Have you ever been underwater, no, stupid, stupid, I know you have, came down in the blue blue blue pulled me out. You’re pulling me out now, you know. Just not with your hands, but you’re pulling me out of the water.

Okay, man. If you say so. I feel so useless, I can only tell you to breathe and hang in there so many times, Stiles groans over the connection.

Wait.

Wait wait wait.

How long has it been? How long has he been drinking the water? How long have the realities and the unrealities been mixing into a marbled goop clamoring across the floor and swallowing him up?

Has it been the whole time?

You aren’t real, Derek cracks out. He can see the fractures forming on his arms, black and scraggling, following the lines of his veins. You aren’t real, aren’t real, aren’t real. It was too good, too easy. I’ve been babbling to nothing, nothing, and They must have been watching with all of their eyes in the walls I didn’t think were listening.

What? No, Derek, I’m real. I’m looking at the spellwork right now, I’m sitting, um, on your bed at home actually, talking to you right now, using that telepathy technique I told you about last month.

No, it’s a no, a million no’s. Can’t be because it would be too easy, I don’t get easy and I don’t get reality, I have wishes, barren wishes, useless wishes, and I been wishing and drugged and drugged and wishing.

Can’t-Be-Stiles rushes out, Derek, no, okay, you, um, you haven’t been drugged this whole time, remember? Um, and, uh, would the Stiles in your head say that he’s barely left your room since They took you? Because I don’t think you’ve ever really understood the depth of my creepiness.

Yes, yes he would, of course he would because I want Stiles in my bed all the time, with his smell and his arms and legs and the parts in between I’ve been drugged and wishing, of course Stiles would say that. Of course, of course, Real Stiles would never b’able to do the spell. Needs close personal bond thing, never had one of those. Never, never had one of those.

Derek never had that with Stiles. Now that he knows, he can watch the dribble drabbles of blood mix with the water on the floor, and shiver, and sob in the cold, all-seeing white light. He hasn’t had clothes for a while now, so every inch of his skin is wet, covered in goosebumps.

Everything is cold wet blood alone moonless broken missing all of the important parts.

Laura shakes her head slowly, and she is Erica, covered in gashes like the Alpha pack left on her, then Jackson, in matching lines of dripping red.

I miss them so much, he tells Can’t Be Stiles. I want to leave their memories be, but I can’t, they’re glued inside my head like glue.

Jackson smacks him across the face, and Stiles would have yelled at Jackson for that, but it’s too late, because now the white is dark and there isn’t a floor underneath Derek anymore.

 

The forest is quiet, dark and deep, and Derek just wants to sleep.

 

His pupils contract as the vivid white moon expands before him, dusty, cratered and beautiful.

The moon was Derek’s nightlight for a long time. For a creature of the night, he was awfully afraid of the dark as a child, but Momma would open his curtains wide, point at the softly glowing orb above their heads, and he would be able to go to sleep. It’s nice to see now, like an old friend after years apart.

Derek looks to either side of himself. He’s in the forest outside of his house. They must have managed to rescue him. Derek should have known better than to doubt Stiles, he has an annoying habit of being right.

Moving through the trees towards his house, Derek marvels at their size. He could spend days trying to walk the circumference of one of their green-mottled trunks. It’s good to be back, weaving in between the pines, occasionally running a hand over one of their rough surfaces just to get a feel for the bark again.

He can hear the whispering of millions of pine needles rubbing against each other like cricket wings. There are massive cumulous clouds far above him, gray cotton against open blackness, that rumble like sleepy giants as they float past.

To his right, there’s a cracking noise, and Derek’s head jerks up.

Stiles is perched high up in one of the pines, clinging for dear life to the closest branch.

“Give me a hand?” He calls down to Derek.

Derek does, immediately climbing a hundred or so feet into the air, wrapping Stiles around his back, then climbing back down. It’s easier than it should be, it feels like the warm air around him is pushing on him with helpful hands.

They reach the ground, and Stiles sets his feet on the ground, but Derek quickly wraps him up in a hug. It’s like finally being able to breathe in.

“Hey buddy,” Stiles chuckles, squeezing around Derek’s neck. He says more softly, “good to have you back,” and burrows his head into Derek’s shoulder.

Derek can feel Stiles’ ribs expanding and contracting underneath his hands. It’s glorious.

“You saved me,” Derek whispers, “thank you.”

“Thanks for coming back,” Stiles replies. “Hey, do I feel real now?”

“Much better.”

“Good,” Stiles squeezes harder around Derek’s neck, and it should be uncomfortable, but it isn’t. “Can’t have you thinking I’m not real. It would kind of defeat the purpose of this.”

He kisses Derek lightly on the lips. It feels like benediction, and Derek presses his forehead against Stiles’.

“Where are we?” he whispers.

Stiles shrugs.

It doesn’t matter anyway. He has Stiles’ shifting muscles in his arms and soft loam underneath both of his intact feet.

Stiles tugs a blanket around Derek’s shoulders, pillowy and already warm. Derek recognizes it from Janet’s quilting days. His younger sister was always handy with fabric. She spent one entire summer holed up with her sewing machine, and three months later, Janet came out with a stack of patchwork art pieces, one for each bedroom.

The one wrapped around him and Stiles right now is the baby blue one with the fleece lining that was always Derek’s favorite.

Pulling them down to the ground, which is soft and made of cushions, Stiles murmurs, “I did make a promise. I’m going to cuddle you so hard, Derek Hale.”

Stiles makes good on his promise, wrapping himself and Derek up like a burrito in the ocean of blankets, and making sure that each of Derek’s ten toes are covered, (“Because dude, it’s so annoying when there’s like, a little corner of your body that isn’t under the covers, but you don’t want to thrash around and fix it,”) before scooting himself underneath Derek’s head and shoulders so that Derek can use Stiles’ chest as a pillow.

An eternity passes while Derek melts into Stiles’ hold, lets him run long fingers up and down his arm, ruffle his hair, press the occasional kiss to his face like punctuation. There’s no sound besides the faint creaking of their bones and the rustle of the blankets and pillows.

Stiles eventually produces a mug of hot chocolate from somewhere, and Derek doesn’t even remember when Stiles promised hot chocolate, but he’s not going to say no when he can have the buttery warm drink running down his throat and Stiles sitting in between his legs, leaning against Derek’s chest and refusing to come out from their blanket cocoon; even if it’s hard for Derek to drink his hot chocolate with Stiles’ head in the way.

Derek is so used to his interactions with Stiles being about a push and pull: a constant battle of wits and witty comebacks. It’s odd to think that once there’s no use in keeping up their respective defenses, they can fall into this tranquil bubble where hands are cupped around shoulders and Derek can brush his cheek against Stiles’ without a thought. Derek may rarely regret Stiles, but he does regret that they hadn’t started this sooner.

But soon enough, Derek realizes that not only did they come together late, they came together too late.

Derek was idly kissing along Stiles’ bare shoulder, enjoying the feeling of the taut skin under his lips, when he realized that there was no cotton-grass smell underneath his nose.

He sighs deeply, and Stiles shifts in his arms to face him. “What?”

Derek replies resignedly, “I’m dreaming.” It barely has an impact at this point, what’s one more letdown?

Stiles’ eyes widen in realization. “That makes a lot of sense. I was starting to wonder where we were.”

They’re nestled in a bed that goes on for miles in either direction, filled with blankets and pillows in soft watercolor tones. The sky above them is salted liberally with stars that surround a moon which easily takes up half the sky. What really convinces Derek that he’s dreaming is his matter-of-fact reaction to it all. He’s rarely startled in dreams.

Derek tucks one of their blankets up over Stiles’ shoulder, and the rustle it makes sounds like the crash of a wave. “So you still aren’t real.”

“Hey now,” Stiles protests, “for me, this seems like my dream. I’m betting that when you started dreaming, the telepathic link pulled me in with you.”

“You could just be saying that.”

“Right back at you, Mr. Negativity.” Stiles twists in Derek’s arms so that he’s facing him. “But I’m thinking it doesn’t matter either way. You can think I’m not real if you want, I guess, but either way I’m here, and I’m saying the same stuff either way. Actually,” Stiles raises a finger in excitement, pointing at the imaginary light bulb above his head, “that reminds me of something. You said, somewhere in your delirious rambling phase, that I couldn’t be talking to you in your head because we didn’t have the necessary ‘emotional bond’ or whatever. And I call bullshit on that. You know, thought I’d mention it, since we were pointing things out.”

Stiles’ eyes are bright and impish, like always, and his smile is quirked up at the edges, half-shy and half-challenging. It’s so gloriously Stiles, real or not, that Derek matches Stiles’ half smile and breathes, “what happened to saying that this was just sexual?”

Winking, Stiles replies, “I feel like carpe-dieming it up while you’re still dreaming. What do you say?”

Derek says yes. Heartily. With lips and tongue and wandering hands that are only outmatched by Stiles’ own.

 

 

After, when Derek is still tingling with the feel of Stiles pressed up against him, whispering you are loved you are loved you are loved into his skin, Derek looks down at his chest, near where one of Stiles’ hands is resting, and sees spidery black lines crawling out from a small red dot near his heart.

Naturally, he chooses this moment to start feeling panic, and he jostles Stiles awake, or at least awake in the dream. Stiles looks at Derek’s chest and shudders.

“Well fuck,” Stiles’ voice shakes, “I think they injected you with wolfsbane. I- oh god- it’s happening, it’s really happening, right now, oh shit. Oh shit.”

Derek crushes Stiles closer to his chest in an effort to calm both of their pounding hearts. “We knew it was coming. At least I can’t feel it.”

“Small miracles,” Stiles says hysterically, crushing himself closer in. “Um, okay, um, so. If you’re going, really, going, right now, crap, crap, okay, I have to ask: what did you tell Them?”

“What?”

“They’ve been interrogating you, right? What did you let slip?” Stiles asks apologetically. “We won’t hold it against you or anything, god, of course not, we just need to know what They’ve got on us.”

Derek shakes his head slowly. “I didn’t tell them anything.”

“Wait, nothing? Really?” Stiles’ face twists in disbelief, “Peter said that They’re experts, they know how to get information. Listen, Derek, whatever you said, it’s fine, we just have to be prepared, you know?”

“Stiles, I didn’t tell them anything. Not a word,” Derek protests.

“Derek,” Stiles places his hands carefully on either side of Derek’s face and eyeing him solemnly, “we forgive you, you get that? I forgive you. Whatever you did, whatever you said, it doesn’t matter, okay? You’re still a good person, the pack will still love you, I’ll still... listen, if they have our location, or they know about our alliance with the Argents, it’s cool, that wasn’t going to stay quiet for very long anyway-”

“I didn’t say anything!” Derek cuts in, because time is short and he’d rather not spend it doing this. “I was busy talking to you.”

Stiles’ train of thought switches tracks . “Really? Really really?”

Repressing the urge to roll his eyes, Derek replies, “yes really really.”

Stiles bowls Derek over, twisting them up further in the blankets as he kisses Derek silly, leaving little spots of sweetness all over his face. “You-” Stiles pants, “are so goddamn loyal, you know that? And protective, and sweet, and jesus, really hot,” he emphasizes that statement with another kiss, “we’re safe, you get that? You kept the pack safe. Man, you are so going to go be moon dust when you- I just, um. You’ve done good. You know that?”

A flood of warm emotion comes through the connection, as comforting and all encompassing as their blankets, and, caught up in it, Derek doesn’t feel like pushing Stiles’ words away as empty consolations, or misguided compliments anymore. If Stiles thinks he is worthy, then he is worthy. Derek knows to trust Stiles’ judgement by now.

Being moon dust... Derek hadn’t put serious thought into that since he was five. But here, on his deathbed, Derek can think about what it would be like, sharing someone’s gravity. Flying. But there’s only one person with whom Derek would want to share gravity with in the afterlife, and he’s thankfully very much alive.

The wolfsbane lines are spreading up his neck. Once they reach his brainstem, Derek will be gone. It’s now or never.

“I’m supposed to want to curl up in my den with the moon,” Derek chokes out, the blackness strangling his vocal cords, “I’ve only ever wanted to do that with you.”

Stiles’ breath hitches, and Derek realizes that they’re both crying. “Then I guess you’ll have to wait for me, huh wolf boy?” Stiles sniffs loudly, “I’ll catch up with you eventually.”

And then they will fly. No longer separated by miles and miles, they will fly through the cosmos, breathing starlight.

Stiles nuzzles into Derek’s neck, hot tears smearing across both of their skin. Derek holds him in place there, and watches the moon, so beautiful, expand and expand until everything is white.